Thursday, December 15, 2016

Road Trip USA, Part 3

The Basin and Range, Nevada
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Part 3, Snowmass Colorado to Portland Oregon

In the United States, Labor Day Weekend marks the official end of summer, and nearly 30 million travelers celebrate the three-day weekend with a final road trip. We left Snowmass on the third leg of our cross-country journey on the day after Labor Day. Traffic was gone and children (not that we have anything against them) were safely back in their classrooms. 

The open road stretched before us across Colorado and Utah and into Nevada, where we would be setting up camp at Great Basin National Park. It's about a seven-hour drive, but we took a lot longer because the scenery is so spectacular that we found it impossible to pass by a single viewing spot. At every stop, you gaze out on the splendid effects of hundreds of millions of years of geological history. At the San Rafael Swell in central Utah, we could actually see where the earth's crust has been heaved up and then sculpted by time into jagged cliffs and deep slot canyons. To learn more about the geology of the area, read John McPhee's Basin and Range.  You can read an excerpt here.

An information plaque  told us of a darker history of the area, of a time when Native Americans were captured and sold into slavery. Another contained the lament of a Mormon woman, railing against the "wretched men who have sent us out to colonize this cursed landscape." 

The Great Basin covers parts of five states. The road sign on Route 21 leading west toward the park warned us of "no services" for the next 70 miles. No services turned out to mean no towns, no gas stations, no houses, no people, nothing but endless sage-covered valleys and narrow mountain ranges. Awe-inspiring but also a bit frightening in its isolation, the vista before us made it easy to imagine the dread of that long-ago Mormon woman.

We'd come to the park on the recommendation of our friend Stephanie, who grew up in the house next door to us in Ann Arbor. Her husband, Steve, is the park's superintendent. A glacier-carved marvel, Great Basin's beauty begins underground in its otherworldly limestone and marble Lehman Caves, and ends at the tip of the 13,063 foot high Wheeler Peak.
The ecosystem in between is so diverse that on the Park's 12-mile scenic drive, you traverse the same variety of environments as on a road trip from Nevada to the Yukon. Two things Great Basin doesn't have are bears and mosquitoes, which, in itself, is reason enough to go there. (To read about our earlier encounter with bears, click here to read Travel Oyster's "Bears in the Night.")

We arrived late and pitched our tent in Baker Creek Campground, right next to the babbling brook. After dinner, we sat in a clearing and watched as night descended. Great Basin has some of the darkest night skies in the United States, providing the perfect background for stargazing.  During the summer, there are astronomy programs, but tonight we were alone with the stars, millions of them shining brightly, forming constellations, and tumbling through the endless sky. 

Not nearly as old as the stars, but among the oldest living organisms on earth are the park's 2,000 to 3,000-year-old Bristlecone Pines. Oddly enough, the trees live just at the tree line where conditions are harshest. A paean to the beauty of old age, the time-sculpted trees would nonetheless be perfectly at home in a museum of modern art. We ate a picnic lunch among the pines, and then hiked up to the park's spectacular rock glacier. From its lofty heights, you can see for miles down the mountain to the basin and on to the next range of mountains.

The next day we drove in to Baker, the very small town just outside the Park, where JR gave a math talk to the enthusiastic students in the one-room schoolhouse. That evening Steve and Stephanie brought elk burgers to our campsite and we cooked them over a wood fire. Afterward, Steve treated us to a personal tour of Lehman Caves, a geological wonder  discovered in the 1880s.  

On our last day in the park, we hiked six miles to Baker Lake to do some trout fishing. It's a tough 3,000 foot climb, but we were rewarded with beautiful views, fall colors and a silently flying Goshawk who glided by us practically at eye level. When we arrived at the lake, a Golden Eagle lifted up from the shore and best of all, the lake was alive with feeding trout. The water is so crystal clear that we could see the trout racing each other across the lake to snap up our fly. Dinner that night was fresh grilled fish.  

We left the next day bound via a circuitous route for Portland Oregon. Our first stop was the Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho, a 52-mile stretch of fantastical black lava fields. Remnants of an ocean of volcanic rock that once covered 618 square miles (1600 sq. km), they began forming 15,000 years ago when a long series of eruptions caused lava to well up from the Great Rift.  

We spent the night in a motel (with showers) in Arco, Idaho. It was there in 1951, thanks to the nearby National Reactor Testing Station, that Arco became the first town in the world to be lit by electricity generated entirely by nuclear power. 

Next, we headed in a northern arc through the Sawtooth Mountains. Unfortunately, a huge wildfire had preceded us and burned more than 65,000 acres of national forest. Our sadness at the destruction of the forest was softened by a campground on the Middle Fork of the Payette River, with perfect hot springs where we soaked after breakfast.  

Our last stop was a remote spot in eastern Oregon recommended by our son for its beauty and great trout fishing. Without his detailed instructions, we would never have found this place on the edge of Oregon's Wallowa Mountains. Apparently no one else could find it either. The beautiful, six-site campground was empty so we picked the best campsite and fished for two days under beautiful sunny skies, keeping just enough fish for our evening meals.

Then it was on to Portland for the best part of the whole trip - the birth of our our first grandchild. The other grandparents, who just happen to be our dear friends Gerard and Marcelle, flew in from Paris, making it a special family time.  

(Long-time readers of Travel Oyster may remember Marcelle as my partner in several Travel Oyster adventures, such as Biggest Show in Paris, Paris Under Paris and The Path of the Impressionists, among others.)

To be continued....

To see more photos, click here.


Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor