We got up later than planned (and isn’t that how all our trips begin, getting up later than we had planned?), and immediately gave up on the idea of driving to Seattle in one day. Carol researched places for us to stay while I drove through the unpleasantness that is Bay Area traffic. We were glad to get off Interstate 80 and head north, away from the sprawling tentacles of the growing San Jose – San Francisco – Sacramento megalopolis.
I’ve been reading Roadside Geology of Northern and Central California, and when Carol started driving after lunch, I read to her from the section on driving Interstate 5 up through the Central Valley: it’s all Quarternary alluvial deposits, for miles and miles, with the one exception of the Sutter Buttes, a group of craggy hills that thrust up seemingly out of nowhere, a volcanic intrusion that seems incongruous.
The geology along the road got really interesting a couple of hours further north, but by that time we had moved on to other things. We sang some Sacred Harp songs, to get us ready for the Sacred Harp convention we’re going to this weekend, and then we sang some other songs — old standards like Moon River, Close to You, Ring of Fire — until I got the hiccups and had to stop.
We drove up, up, up over the Siskiyous, where there was some snow on the side of the road once we got above 4,000 feet, and then down, down, down into Ashland where we stopped for dinner. We saw a lot of street people in Ashland. Two of them accosted us as we walked towards a restaurant. “Hi, how are you?” the young white man said. “Good, how are you?” I said. “Poor and hungry. Can you give us a dollar?” he said. “We’ll stop on the way back,” Carol promised, and we did, but they were gone: it had gotten pretty chilly by then.
As we approached Eugene, we talked about Steve who had lived in Eugene. Steve was someone we had hung out with at the Alaska Sacred Harp Convention in October, and he had died suddenly and unexpectedly in California last month at the age of 60. He was not someone you would expect to die suddenly, and we keep talking about it, trying to make sense out of his death.
And then we were at the motel, where they were showing Olympic ski jumping competitions on a big TV. I talked to one of the young men staffing the desk while Carol checked in. “What they have on right now is figure skating or ski jumping,” he said apologetically. “I don’t need to see figure skating,” I said. He grinned. We talked about all the sports they never seem to show. “Like curling,” I said, “ho come they never show curling?” “It’s pretty boring,” he said, “it’s like people who weren’t good enough to play hockey had to invent a sport they could play.” It turned out that he enjoyed shooting, and shot both pistols and rifles; we both agreed that we would like to see the Olymplic biatholon competition, where you have to ski a certain distance, then shoot. We both looked up at the big screen as another ski jumper twisted through the air in slow motion, then landed wrong and tumbled down the hillside.
These lichens were growing on reddish soil exposed by a road cut, in the redwood forest above Camp Meeker, California. The lichens in both photos are approximately the same size; in the first photo, the edge of a nickel appears at lower left to provide a sense of scale.
As to identification, these lichens are in the genus Cladonia: the primary thallus consists of whitish-green squamules (the little leaf-like things at the bottom of the organism); and arising from the squamules is the podetium, an upright structure characteristic of the genus Cladonia. But to determine which species of Cladonia, I would have had to collect some samples and carefully examined them. In Lichens of California, Mason E. Hale Jr. and Mariette Cole state that “Cladonia is one of the first lichens collected by amateurs; since I am a rank amateur when it comes to lichens, it is thus no surprise that I paid so much attention to these showy and fascinating lichens.
Carol and I have decided that it’s easier to move a thousand or more miles away, as we have done four times now, than it is to move two miles away, as we are doing right now. When you are contemplating a long distance move, you know you have to plan everything well in advance. When you’re moving two miles up the street, you think it’s going to be easier, so you relax.
But a move of two miles is not much easier than a move of two thousand miles. Friday, while we were in the middle of schlepping boxes, Carol looked at me and said, “This is traumatic.” OK, maybe “traumatic” is too strong a word; it certainly is extremely unpleasant.
Carol and I are here in Alaska to participate in the Alaska Sacred Harp Convention, and we have been singing every day, and we attended a “singing school,” pretty much as you’d expect. But our gracious host Kari also arranged for those attending the convention to go on a whale watch trip. Over the course of an hour and three quarters on the water, we saw more than twenty humpback whales — and the scenery was spectacular as well. I particularly enjoyed looking at Mt. Edgecumbe, a long-extinct volcano. At this season Mt. Edgecumbe is snow-clad from it summit about halfway down to the sea, making it look like something out of a classic Japanese woodblock print, only more dramatic.
This year, I set aside a day of vacation to unpack the car, do laundry, and ready to go back to work. Those tasks left me a few hours to begin dealing with the papers and photos I had brought back with me; I had sorted through most of Dad’s papers and photos while in Massachusetts, but I still had a couple of boxes to sort through, scanning those that were worth saving.
I started with the easiest task. While in Massachusetts, I had divided Dad’s photos up among his three children; if a photo featured one of us prominently, I gave it to that child; and the other photos I divided randomly and evenly among us. The easiest task was this: take my share of the photos, sort them in chronological order, and put them into a photo album. That took me a couple of hours, and I showed Carol the photo album, and then I looked through it again on my own. When I had done all this, I was pretty sad — the worst part was looking at the photos of my mother the year before she died; I had forgotten how bad she looked — but I was nevertheless glad I had done it. I realized, too, that most of these photos just sat in boxes for years and years, for decades even, and we never looked at them. Now even if I don’t want to look through that photo album ever again, at least I have the option to do so, and that feels like a minor accomplishment.
And that, I guess, is the real end to this summer’s road trip.
Winnemucca lies at about 4,200 feet above sea level, has a desert climate with about eight inches of precipitation a year, is the only incorporated city in Humboldt County, and has itself a population of only about 7,400 people; as a result, the air is clean and fresh. I felt groggy when I awoke — too many days of driving this week, and too many hours of dealing with Dad’s papers last week have taken their toll — but I got up to go get a cup of coffee, and as soon as I had taken a few breaths of that cool, clean desert air, before I had even had any caffeine, I felt alive and awake and ready to go.
I headed west on Interstate 80, then south on U.S. 95. Just after I had made the turn onto U.S. 95, a two-lane highway with a 70 mile an hour speed limit, I saw a little sign that read “California Trail / Auto Tour Route / Truckee Route,” and I could see a rough track running west through the desert. I found a place to turn around, and walked out along the track into the desert.
Maybe this track followed the route of the original California Trail turn-off to Truckee, the route the Donner Party followed to its cannibalistic end in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, but the tracks that were visible were those of twenty-first century off-road vehicles. The temperature was now up to about ninety degrees, but the air was still fresh and dry, and I walked briskly along for for a mile or so until my car was a speck in the distance. It must have rained yesterday, for the whitish soil was still damp, and my feet crunched pleasantly on a dry crust that had formed on top of the moist soil. Black, red, and buff-colored igneous rocks were scattered on the surface of the soil, many of them with air bubbles in the rock.
As I drove away from where I had parked, I saw that just south of where I had got out and walked, the highway crossed over a small ditch with open water in it. Perhaps this was why Truckee Route followed this particular path across the desert, following that dry wash that sometimes had water in it.
I stopped at Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge east of Fallon, Nevada, and it was just as I remembered it: a stunning oasis of open water and green wetlands. The difference this time was that Stillwater Reservoir had water in it; when I was here a couple of years ago, the reservoir had been dry. The open water, the green tule rushes and cattails, and the loud calls of a myriad of birds — squawking White-faced Ibis, grunting and hooting American Coots, booming American Bittern, quacking Blue-winged Teal and Cinnamon Teal, screaming Red-winged Blackbirds — contrasted bizarrely with the quiet of the reddish desert mountains in the distance and the serene blue sky overhead.
On my way through Fallon, I stopped at the bookstore in town, Third Space Books, and had a long talk with one of the owners, who turned out to be an early childhood educator who was worked with troubled adolescents during the summer. She was pursuing her doctorate of education online, and I asked about her online program and how she liked it. Aside from the obvious point that it obviously made more sense for her to get her degree online than driving an hour each way to study at the University of Nevada in Reno while holding down a full-time job in education, she also preferred online learning.
From Fallon, I drove up over the Sierra Nevadas towards home. As usual, I stopped at the Donner Pass rest area, and took the trail from the rest area towards the Pacific Crest Trail, where I ran into a long-haul trucker who was taking a break from driving. He said that while he had stopped at that rest area many times, it had always been at night, and this was the first time he had seen it during the daylight. “Where does that trail go?” he asked, and I said, “Pretty soon it meets another trail, and if you turn left you can walk to Canada, and if you turn right you can walk to Mexico.” His eyes widened, and he clearly thought I was putting him on, so I added, “I’m not making this up,” and explained to him about the Pacific Crest Trail. He said he’d like to return sometime with his thirteen year old son, who sometimes came with him on these trips. On the other hand, he also said that he didn’t like driving through Nevada because there were casinos and slot machines everywhere, and he had lost too much money gambling earlier in the day, and he was thinking of asking his boss to only send him along the southern route, via Interstate 40.
We said goodbye, and he walked abck to his truck while I walked out into the alpine forest that is slowly. What struck me most were the many tall white skeletons of dead pine trees which stand out among the remaining green trees. The Sierras have been ravaged by bark beetles, a native species that can kill trees that are stressed by drought. According to a March 28, 2015, article in the San Francisco Chronicle, “The beetle population is normally kept in check by the winter cold, but three years of above-average temperatures and lack of snowfall have given the growing bug hordes free rein to search and destroy.” This is yet another effect of global climate change. This past winter was cold and snowy, providing a respite for the trees this summer; but the trend of global climate change means that the bark beetle problem will soon return. I stood there and made a sketch: a few bleached trees standing out from trees and undergrowth that are bright green for now.
I briefly fantasized about continuing to walk along the Pacific Crest Trail, heading for Canada. But instead, I turned around and headed back to my car.
Note: Written on 8/2 from my notes.
When I got up, the air felt cool, clean, thin, and bracing. The temperature this morning was in the low sixties; Evanston lies far from any major city or industry or source of heavy air pollution; the city is some 6,750 feet above sea level, so the air is much thinner than the sea level air I’m used to; and the combined effect made me feel cheerful, alert, and a little light-headed. I decided to take a walk in Evanston before I started the day’s long drive; Bear River State Park was just minutes from my motel, and soon I was walking along the Bear River. I left my binoculars in the car, because I needed to walk, not stand and look at birds; and of course there were many birds in the marshes and willows and green grassy fields around the river, and I soon wished I had brought the binoculars, but I managed to walk briskly for an hour without them.
As I drove down the highway towards Salt Lake City, I couldn’t decide which route to take. About an hour from Evanston, I stopped at a rest area that had Utah tourist information. There was a brochure for Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge — a different Bear River from the one I walked beside in Evanston, this was a Bear River in Utah that empties into Great Salt Lake. So instead of going through Salt Lake City and then driving west across the salt flats, I went north towards Idaho, got off the highway at Brigham City, Utah, and headed west to the auto tour route of the Bear River Refuge.
I generally dislike auto tour routes; I don’t like sitting in my car to look for birds, I prefer to get out and walk around. But this auto tour route proved to be exceptionally beautiful: driving on dikes through the Bear River delta, the flatness of Great Salt Lake to the south, the dry flat plain gradually rising up from the Lake to the north and east, towering mountains appearing at a distance in all directions, bright sun coming down through the dry, incredibly clear desert air; and all around the dike on which I drove was the incongruous sight of water in the middle of the desert.
I spent two hours driving along the auto tour route, getting out frequently to to look at birds, or admire the landscape, or for no real reason at all. Had I had all day to spend, I would have liked to have walked all twelve miles of the auto tour route. But as it was, my average speed was just six miles an hour: plenty of time to see adult Western Grebes swimming with their fuzzy babies, and Cliff Swallow nests, and half a dozen American White Pelicans soaring in formation over the open water of the marsh.
From the refuge, I drove north on Utah Highway 82, past the turnoff for Promontory Point, past Orbital ATK with its exhibit of a huge NASA rocket, drove on the interstate for a few miles, then headed west on Utah Highway 30. A sign informed me that there were no services for the next 100 miles. There was very little to see but vast plains, sudden steep hills, mountains in the distance, and the slowly gathering clouds in the sky overhead. I drove through the village of Park Valley, where the Overland Trail Motel had once sold gas but was now closed, and saw two children riding horses up and down a large mound of dirt. More plains and cattle and carefully irrigated hayfields, then the hamlet of Rosette with a tiny post office. The road turned south towards the north edge of the great salt flats, and I stopped to stretch my legs — it had been a long time since I had left Bear River Refuge — and looked out over the salt flats in the distance. The plain I stood on tilted downhill, but when it met the perfectly level salt flats I had the impression that the salt flats were tilting up and away from me. Then the salt flats are so vast that you become aware of the curvature of the earth’s surface. I guessed I could see for a hundred miles or more. I am not used to seeing that far on land, and I found it disconcerting.
I kept driving across the open landscape, resentful if I saw another car — which was not often — feeling very much at peace. I realized that I had not wanted to drive through Salt Lake City, so even though this route was longer and slower, I was very glad I had come this way. At last I rejoined the interstate highway in Oasis, Nevada, and though there weren’t many vehicles on it, it felt busy and crowded. I am not looking forward to plunging back into the bustle of city life when I return home tomorrow.
At Pequop Summit, I pulled over to stretch my legs again. It started raining. It wasn’t a heavy rain, or a hard rain, but it was a steady light rain. The sage brush smelled strongly in the rain. I had to try to photograph rain in the middle of the Nevada desert, though you can’t see any evidence of rain in the photo — the air was so dry the pavement didn’t get wet — all you can see is dark clouds. There was a roll of thunder, and I got back in my car and continued driving west.
If I ever return to the area north of the salt flats, I’d like to go see Nancy Holt’s huge environmental artwork “Sun Tunnels,” about ten miles south of Utah highway 30.
I ate dinner at a Chinese restaurant in Elko, Nev., and the fortune inside the fortune cookie read: “You desire to discover new frontiers. It’s time to travel.” — an ironic fortune to receive when I’m about to end my travels and return to work.