Water, water, art

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The braided hump in the lower left of the photo appears to be one of the Nature of Art installations that Renee and I volunteered on in 2015. At least I want it to be! 

We went out and walked along the Truckee River from the western end of McCarran Ranch yesterday to soak in a little bit of the water that is flowing into the heart of the Great Basin, and will maybe recharge our aquifers and build our water tables (I’m not expert, this is just what I hope will happen), and refresh our hearts.

 

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Volunteering with artists Mary O’Brien and Daniel McCormick in 2015 (they are the people on the left). The photo above was taken from somewhere near the cottonwoods in the distance. 

McCarran Ranch has been the site of extensive, well, first landscape restructuring to straighten the river, and then, more recently, landscape restructuring to restore the river’s natural flow patterns, part of which mean diffusing the water out and slowing it down at times of high water flow. A part of this landscape work involved the Nature of Art, which Renee and volunteered for and I’ve written about before here and more briefly here.

 

The first impression of walking into the western end of the McCarran Ranch is that the work they have done is paying off. From the quick channel dropping water straight into the preserve, it almost immediately becomes diffused and spread out across the whole floodplain. While this is certainly no scientific observation, it seemed pretty clear that the work was doing what it was intended to do (we were also all the way across the plain from the main channel, so again this is just anecdotal).

Then walking along we saw an elongated hump out on across one of the slower moving channels. With the high water it was hard to say for sure, but we were fairly convinced that it was one of the Nature of Art installations, the first one that we volunteered on helping making willow wattles (written about in the post linked above). Whether it really was or not, it made us feel so good to see that and believe it. To believe in the power of people coming together to make a difference in our world, and in the power to revision a world in a different way that combines beauty and respect, and to see WATER!!!

Dreaming about a day on our bikes in the South Egans

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The first lighting of the South Egans and Shingle Peak, which would be our companion for most of the day.

August 23, 2015. Camped in the shadow of an old windmill. Long day today, but beautiful and high spirits.

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Our Kirch camp. Where we had spent Renee’s birthday the day before.

Started pretty early. The storms pushed out the smoke and when we awoke before sunrise all of the mountains around were crystal clear. It didn’t take long for the haze to make its way back though.

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This is how you begin a day!

First thing detour to the Hot Creek pool where we bathed alone in the soft light. Tremendous and now when I am trying to sleep among all of the things from today it is what I want to remember.

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Renee feeling her oats at the start of the Shingle Pass climb.

The morning ride out to the highway and to the rest area was silky smooth, mostly. A nice trucker at the rest area was very curious about us and offered us water bottles. The first of only two people we interacted with all day. Then a few miles up a rather corrugated highway and we were on Shingle Pass Road. There was a guy with an ATV there, interaction number 2, we asked him about the road, which he was right about, it’s been great, but he also said there was “lots” of water in Cave Valley, this bit of knowledge certainly hasn’t gushed forth haha so we have a dry camp, due to a mishap I’ll share in due time.

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Shingle Peak.

From the turn of Shingle Pass up to the mountains a bright steep line of gravel road daunting although Renee says it didn’t bother her too much. She did spook a cow through the fence, in all fairness to the side it looked it should have been on in the first place. Otherwise just pedaling, steady, in low gear straight up; our only marks of progress noted by looking back or watching the looming cliffed mass of Shingle Peak grow nearer like a castle protecting the pass from marauding giants or dragons, but now haunted and fallen into ruins. It dominated the skyline for the majority of the day.

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A grand day and a grand place and a grand girl. Life is good!

So up and up, eating here, resting in the shade there. My shoes still hurting tried adjusting more often but nothing does the trick so finally switched to sneakers, which also hurt but nothing so bad. Finally crested Shingle Pass and after some lunch started whoopty-doing the way down over these tremendous shining white rolling hills into the Cave Valley. The mountains beyond striking cliff faces glowing white and gray.

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Hijinks descending into Cave Lake Valley.

In the bottom a nice ranch, but, on the last up and down pinched a tire. Stopped to fix it and found out that the big dromedary, which had been inside the dry bag, was leaking from its lid. We lost maybe a third of its water and so that’s why we’re on water rations although we’re only about 20 miles to Ward Charcoal Ovens where there should be water. Put a spin of excitement and through combination of dehydration and power of suggestion I feel thirsty.

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The places we find ourselves and where we want to be.

Walked up hill behind the camp and sat in juniper shade for a while looking at our tiny camp below. Ate cold mini bagels and then dived into bed. Our plan to get to Ward early. Goodnight.

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Our dry camp from the hill above.

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Good night from the Egans.

NOTE: It’s a tired, cold night here in Reno and I feel like daydreaming about some places and adventures, so I’ve taken my journal entry from the day and added pictures. I’ve started a new category for memory lane trips I want to share, Day Dreaming. Just a couple of notes about the route: We passed Whipple Caves. It was just a ways off the road, but given that you need to know what in the heck you are doing and have special equipment in order to access, and that it apparently doesn’t show much just from the top, we passed. But this account of a visit is well worth reading. And we went near and along the Far South Egan Range Wilderness.

Down in the Sink

On the Humboldt Sink, where the water comes to an end. Here it either rises into the sky or seeps into the earth. 

View of the Humboldt Sink from the southeast. Courtesy of photographer Famartin via Wikipedia Commons

Water has been the theme of life lately. More specifically, lots of it! In various forms too: rain, snow, frozen rain, floodwater, ice. Not to complain, I am loving this winter’s latest explosions. Any inconvenience is more than made up for by the good it does for all of us and the world we share with so many other living things. Tonight though, I’m thinking about a place where the water ends. Specifically, the Humboldt Sink. It has always been a place to rush by, the part of I-80 from Lovelock until you crest the hill and start arrive at the Fallon cut-off. A sort of blip in the map. But as I start to learn more about the Great Basin it occurs to me that sinks, even more so than mountain peaks or lush meadows, are the defining features of our part of the world.

A sink is a distinctive geographic feature; a basin from which no water escapes. Rather than flowing into some other basin (like an ocean), the water that flows into a sink does not flow out. It only leaves by evaporation or penetration (i.e., sinking into the groundwater). The Humboldt Sink is the end of the Humboldt River.

One Saturday we set out to explore the Humboldt Sink a bit, along with Lovelock Cave. The cave is an amazing piece of the human record of the Great Basin, a place that was occupied for over 4,000 years! After the cave we drove down the road and just walked out toward the sink. While we didn’t make it as far as the actual playa bed, just walking among the greasewood-dotted sand dunes,  swales and salt grass flats was striking.

This was also the beginning of the dreaded Forty Mile Desert, perhaps the most terror-inspiring and horrific place on the California Trail. Travelers were no fan of the place,

“In place of a great rent in the earth, into which the waters of the rivers plunged with a terrible roar (as pictured in our imagination), there was found a mud lake ten miles long and four or five miles wide, a veritable sea of slime, a ‘slough of despond,’ an ocean of ooze, a bottomless bed of alkaline poison, which emitted a nauseous odor and presented the appearance of utter desolation. ” —Reuben Cole Shaw, 1849

“Even the very wagons seem to know that we are off today for the great adventure—in sand, volcanic ash, alkali, furnace heat, and the stench of putrid flesh—We crossed along the edge of an immense baked plain with the fetid stinking slough for a guide, although the wreckage along the way almost paved our route…. It must have been here that one emigrant said he counted a dead animal every 106 feet.”

It was also an important place for Native Americans, and as such they often came into contact with and conflict with the newcomers. I highly recommend reading Across Nevada, a pamphlet put out in 2012 by the National Park Service from which the top quote is taken. It’s definitely gone into the library. The bottom, unacknowledged, one is from The WPA Guide to Nevada (already in the library).

It is a sink, and walking along in its sand dunes we often started to disappear a bit, giving us an even deeper feeling of walking into a place older somehow than everything around it. A place where more has disappeared than has remained. And, as described by John McPhee in Basin and Range, where a new ocean will one day appear:

“Death Valley. Walker Lake. Carson Sink.” An Exxon map of the western United States is spread open on the seat between us. He runs his finger from Death Valley to Carson Sink and on northward to cross the interstate at Lovelock. “The ocean will open here,” he repeats. “Or in the Bonneville Basin. I think here.” (p. 138 of his collected Annals of the Former World)

I don’t know if this is the most current geology, but this was what most caught my imagination when I read this fascinating book and remains for me a striking image, a metaphor even for the ability of reality to be transformed by the passage of time. That the place that I had driven by hundreds of times, where I walked with Renee and Coco on a calm and cool early spring day, where emigrants had cursed and fought, where Native Americans had seen the beginning of the end of their life ways with the arrival of bands of newcomers with terrible weapons and new diseases, that this place will become an ocean. We come across a perfectly molted snake skin and stop to examine its contours. One day it will open and where we are will be swallowed by a vast expanse of cresting ocean. We walk on, it’s easy to lose yourself in the vast plain until you lift your eyes to the ringing mountains.

The Rises and Falls of the Truckee

The Truckee at flood stage West of Reno.


We had a very exciting night in Reno and Sparks last night and into today with the Truckee rising to flood level with heavy rain high in the mountains on top of snow. It’s a weather phenomenon that brings pretty regular floods to the Truckee Meadows and other similar mountain and basin landscapes in our region. We stayed pretty close to home yesterday, our location is rather near the flood plain as it extends south from the where the Truckee enters the canyon south across the UNR farms. 

Our feeder road, Rio Poco, became Rio Mucho last night. Here during a brief lull in the rain.


There was some flooding on our main feeder road, especially early in the day when I’m guessing a culvert must have been blocked. We walked out in the evening and it is extradordinarily stunning to see the power of water, especially when we’ve been in a drought for a few years now. 

The periodic rises and falls of the Truckee are something I’ve always known about, but I thought I’d do a little more digging on them and share any tidbits I found. The most interesting article I found was at a Tahoe-based site stormking.com, with an article “Floods in the Driest State.” In the winter of 1889-1890, a chinook melted snow and flooded the Carson River Valley with debris. Ranchers had to dynamite ice near Gardnerville to open the waterways. The winter of 1906-1907 was particularly active in both northern and southern Nevada. Las Vegas was for a time completely cut off and running low on food supplies. Meanwhile in northern Nevada there was chicanery, shotguns, and a flood surge that carried away bridges and entire houses. One rancher left his house, but wasn’t able to take along his dog. He returned in a canoe to find his home flooded but his pup safe and sound, atop the family piano! There are many more stories such as this at the above mentioned site which is well worth the read. 

Of course, famously, the flood of 1997 “created” the Sparks Marina, which had previously been a gravel pit (and superfund site). 

Well as the waters recede we look toward the next rise and fall of the Truckee. 

Rhyolite 1907, Where Are We Now?

This sculpture, in Rhyolite, Nevada, represents very well for me the tension between presence and absence that happens in Western ghost towns.

On our drive south for Christmas, Renee and I stopped at Rhyolite, a ghost town nearby Beatty right off the main highway to Death Valley. Despite going by many times I’d never been there before and it was a stunning ethereal experience of standing in what had clearly been an important place for many people now tumbled into ruins among vivid colored cliffs, only tempered by a threatening overcast extending all the way along the line of Nevada. We stopped and parked along the old railway station and walked down the entrance road, which had most likely been the main street, now just tortured facades reminiscent of photos of bombed buildings. The emptied building dominates the skyline.

Ruin dominates the skyline. Other than the mountains, of course, which always dominate the real skyline in most Western cities.

It’s an idea that has interested me for a while. We are, well, future dwellers, at least it has always been a persistent feeling I’ve had—and the pace of human development, of the development of human population and technology leads to the idea of our being on the crest of a wave. But being in a place like Rhyolite begs you to consider that, in the midst of all of this population growth and networks of communication, culture, industry, et al., why do those of us who want to explore out in the reaches of the West find ourselves in a much less  populated planet than anyone would have experienced at the turn of the century? Where there were thousands of people there is now no one.

The old train depot, sadly, was swathed in chain link.

Rhyolite existed more or less from 1904 to 1909 (if you’re interested in details of the history, based on my fairly cursory research and just based on the quality, read the wikipedia article on Rhyolite, in addition to telling you all you want to know about the town, it is, in my opinion, a really great example of a Wikipedia entry). In those five years of existence it came to boast a train station, a bank with Italian marble and stained glass, two railroads, a building made of emptied bottles, thousands of people, a school and then another school, concrete sidewalks, maybe some more pools (based on this ghost towns’ site, by the way the as far as I could see uncited, but clearly  best text on this site’s entry begins “one of the most interesting stories”).

Thinking about Rhyolite and how it represents the conundrum of the West in modernity, where even with the explosion of outdoor recreation we are still just a shadow of past use, I got curious about ghost town. Its specific naming seems pretty obvious, but I wondered, when did that term come into use? It had to have been in some way cultural, there had to have been a moment when “empty” or “abandoned” town became “ghost town” and based on my quick search, the date is 1931. The term seems to have been in use before this, based on a footnote appearing in Western Places, American Mythology: How We Think about the West by Gary Hausladen (which I found randomly, and is published by the UNP, and is now on my must-read list!), but based on a search of “ghost town” and 1931, that date is most likely the result of photographer Paul Strand and his striking photos. I don’t know anything beyond this, nor even if this is correct etymology, but it is really striking to come from 1931, when the West went for the first time from untapped area for exploration, to closed, to Dust Bowl and “nowhere.”

The famous bottle house. With a miniature bottle replica of the town. 

After walking the main street, we stopped at the Goldwell Open Air Art Museum, where Belgian artist Albert Szukalski created The Last Supper and, even more pertinently for me, the Ghost Biker. They capture really perfectly the idea of absence in presence that overwhelms me in Western ghost towns.

Going Home to the Library 

We recently visited the Nevada Room at Winnemucca Library. This place ignited my lifelong love of libraries.


On a recent Saturday we went up to Winnemucca and had the opportunity to visit the Winnemucca branch of the Humboldt County Library in order to look up some information from a history of Nevada for another post. 

The library was a special place for me as a child. On our trips to town from the ranch my mother would just leave me there and I would spend hours perusing the aisles of books. Magical to me. 

The library staff all knew me and I’d get stern talking to about my invariably late returned books and smiles and laughter and kindness. I don’t have a lot of childhood memories, but the library is the keeper of many of those there are. 

Thanks library and here’s to you serving to ignite the love of knowledge of countless more generations of young Nevadans!

Read Land, Write Walk: Northern Virginia Range, Nevada

This image from the Lagomarsino trailhead on Long Valley Creek well illustrates the role of perspective in evaluating landscapes, if facing the other direction, rather than this pretty scene, we would be looking at the entrance to the Washington Hill quarry.

Walking in the foothills east of Reno recently, I thought about what my first write-walk should be after the end of NaNoWriMo. Sometime last year I wrote a post about a day out that Renee and I shared in Reno on our bikes. It was, among other things, National Indie Bookstore Day, so our day started off with a stop at Sundance Bookstore. There I found a fascinating book called How to Read the American West: A Field Guide by William Wyckoff. Casting about for topics, and wanting to really focus on this blog, I remembered that post and thought what a better thing to write-walk than a landscape. And what a better place to read landscape than these tortured, volcanic, long and deeply used hills.

Hills are mountains that will be hills again.

I pulled up the list that Wyckoff had created giving tips for reading landscapes. While there are many more to focus on than these, the ones that I want to focus on today are, “Appreciate the role of time,” “Recognize the importance of scale,” and “Remember that what you see depends on the experiences you bring with you, the questions you pose, and the details you emphasize.”

Time

These hills east of Reno are the remains of volcanic activity that predates the rise of the Sierra Nevada, and the landscape would have then resembled the Cascades more than the current Virginia Range (more in my post on The Old Mother Who Sleeps and Wants to Be Left Alone ). The dominant plant and animal species came in waves: some “real” pine trees, the juniper and sagebrush, wild horses, later invasive species: cheat grass and mustard weed most notably. While I am walking across their slopes many jet planes, some obviously commercial, others more likely military, use the airspace above me to approach the Reno airport. There is day-long activity at the quarry that is Washington Hill. And there is much evidence of past heavy use: the remains of a stone house I see in the canyon bottom, a wide old road now an OHV path. At places I can almost see over to the Tesla Gigafactory. I crest over a hill and see in the canyon of the Truckee below me a place that was an important life source for native people. Then transformed into a major thoroughfare for the West: gold-seeking emigrant parties, the first transcontinental railroad, the first interstate all have used this narrow funnel into the Golden Land of California.

Volcanic deposits and pine trees in the Virginia Range, or the Mountains that Built Modernity.

Scale

The scale of the landscape is dominated by the massive undertaking that scraped off the top of Washington Hill and that continues to haul it away for our purposes. A massive scale that is mirrored in the vistas of the river, of the sierra to the west, Clark Mountain to the east. Nearby rock formations, splashes of multicolored rock, pines spaced parklike in otherwise grassless volcanic parks all seem to be muted against the vastness of all else, and yet these are just little trackless mountains, blinks of the eyes on the interstates. Places to go through to get somewhere else. The juxtaposition is powerful.

Washington Hill dominates the local landscape.

Seeing Your Own Experience

I set out in the morning along a jeep trail that climbs along the side of the Washington Hill Quarry. There are numerous shooting sites here and the landscape, while still brilliantly volcanically colored, is tortured and adorned with litter and the trappings of modern gun culture: hundreds of shells, metal and plastic twisted by bullet holes, the remains of several destroyed pumpkins from recent Halloween. In the canyon bottom I notice a large piece of cardboard on which someone has scrawled cartoons of a man grasping his penis and a naked woman alongside. The crude drawings are labeled “DICK HEAD” and “SKANK” and are peppered with bullet holes. Something I hope was just the release of steam and not the prelude to tragedy. Beyond there someone has planted 2 trees, surrounded by stones as though they are meant to mark something. The place makes me nervous and I hurry past. Deeper in the canyon there is still evidence of people. I follow tracks, but the litter is less and I start to appreciate the presence of the volcanic parks dotted with not-juniper pines. Climbing out of the canyon I am struck by the vastness of the city basin from Mount Rose up to Peavine. The modest silhouette of Clark Mountain belying in the distance its grandness, the utility of Washington Hill. Walking back along the ridge line it is the Truckee and colorful volcanic outcroppings.

The remains of the gun range.

I think part of the reason I am so attracted by this landscape, by exploring in this area, is just this. It is a place in complete transit, unconsidered by many and used hard by others. It doesn’t reveal itself easily. And yet when it comes into focus its story is incredibly rich and is a microcosm for how Nevada has always been seen by people. While there is a growing sense of pride in place in Nevada, it still remains for many a place to use and go through. Real understanding of the landscape goes much deeper than that.