Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Basin and Range

I've never done this before, but I have my laptop with me on vacation, so I'm going to blog it "live" from time to time. We'll see how this works. I'm writing from the Crystal Inn in Brigham City, Utah, on our way to Yellowstone.

We've spent the last 2 days
on I-80, crossing Nevada and Utah - the great Basin and Range country written up by John McPhee in his book of that name. If you've never driven across this country you can't imagine how hostile it is to life; I can't conceive walking across it behind an ox cart, or even riding a horse. It wasn't especially hot, rather somewhat chilly, mostly overcast, and very windy. The roads are straight and empty; no buildings line them, no trees shade them, and they stretch out before you to a vanishing point on the horizon. Sometimes they turn, and you can see the curve laid out before you for miles in advance. Between the occasional towns there is nothing. You regularly pass named freeway exits marked "no services" - Jim thinks these are isolated ranches or mines, but they have freeway access. The wind was constant, and strong enough to jolt the car sideways on the freeway now and then. It's very hard to stay awake at the wheel because it's boring - the view changes very, very slowly, and you watch the same sights for a long time. Apart from the dust devils, almost nothing moves. You're driving at 70 or 75 miles an hour (the speed limit is 75), but so is any other traffic; there was very little, just an occasional semi hauling freight. The relative motion of the vehicles is very slow, within 5 or 10 miles per hour; this gives you the odd feeling that you and the other traffic are standing still, and the empty, silent landscape is very slowly revolving past you.

When we first passed Reno and Sparks, it was different - the road follows the Truckee River valley until Fernley, the hills are right near the road, and the river bottom is lush and green. Up the hill a few feet, though, is warning of things to come: sparse sagebrush scrub on dusty brown dirt. After Fernley, the river turns north and the road continues east through great acres of salt pan, partly obscured as we drove by blowing dust in the steady wind. There's still sagebrush, but less, and it's odd to see plants next to, or in, obvious crusts of salt on the ground; huge expanses have no plants at all, just salt and dirt. These are the Humboldt Sink and part of the Forty Mile Desert, obstacles on the Emigrant Trail, which Interstate 80 more or less follows. The regular ranges of mountains are dry and treeless, their shapes rounded by the wind. This continues for around 60 miles, until you reach Lovelock.

The farther east you go, the higher (gradually) the ground rises, and the wetter (very slowly) things get, even at the bottom of the basins. After Lovelock you see occasional cattle grazing. By Elko, there are irrigated pastures and more grazing herds. But the trees are still few and stunted.

We chased a rainstorm, and vice versa, most of the way from Lovelock to Elko. In the last stretch, we drove along the edge of the rain, with black clouds to our left and the late afternoon sun to our right; we were escorted by a full arch rainbow for several miles, sliding along the desert to our left. I've never seen such a thing before.


  1. Anonymous12:16 PM

    Glad you decided to blog on the road.

    Anonymous David

  2. Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time; and I was astounded at the number of places that now provide free wi-fi hot spots (including a state of Washington freeway rest stop!). But we spent the majority of our vacation in two places with no connectivity at all: Yellowstone Lake Hotel, and Many Glaciers Lodge. Neither of these places even provides television, much less wi-fi. People play cards, and do jigsaw puzzles.

    The other fact I hadn't considered is that vacationing with my husband is not a relaxing experience. He doesn't do inactivity at all well; he likes to be Doing Things, so we have very full days, and when the evening comes I mostly just want to sit and read detective stories...

    But we had a wonderful (if very cold) time, and I'll be blogging in retrospect.

  3. Anonymous6:46 PM

    I'll take it any way I can get it. I thoroughly enjoy your travelogues.

    Anonymous David