East into the vastness

Leaving San Francisco we head east not knowing where we will sleep. After a long day of driving we  settle down at the Wilson Canyon Rest Area in Smith Valley, Nevada. At sunset an unknown artist paints the sky in flaming colors.

Sunset Smith Valley, Nevada

The next day we travel along Highway 50, a major west-east U.S. route system known in Nevada as “The Loneliest Highway”. Long stretches of stark desolate landscape roll by mile after mile. We see few vehicles and few billboards in the vast 360-degree horizon of scrub and low-lying hills. Much of the roadway parallels the overland Pony Express Trail – the original postal service prior to the telegraph. During 1860 and 1861 young men on horseback delivered the mail riding from California to Missouri braving the scarcity of water, a blaring sun and possible attacks by Indians and robbers.

Later we pick up Highway 95 in Nevada and stop at Fort Churchill State Historic Park. Originally Buckland’s Ranch Station, the park was a stop for overland emigrants. The fort was built in 1860 on part of the ranch to protect the emigrants, stagecoaches and the Pony Express.

Pony Express sign

Driving into the park grounds we see the remains of the original fort and an old cemetery surrounded by a white picket fence. I read the headstones – several mark the graves of young children, including an eight-month-old baby. Without the modern conveniences of water bottles, rubber tires and AC, the emigrant trail was a severe testing ground for optimistic sojourners venturing forth to the wild wild west.

Fort Churchill cemetery

At lunch-time we drive up a dirt road in Austin, Nevada and eat at a picnic table next to Stokes Castle – a three-story stone tower made of hand-hewn native granite, the remains of a summer home built in 1896-1897 by Anson Phelps, a railroad magnate, banker and mine developer. The sweeping panorama surrounding the tower looks out over a vast sage-filled valley. I pluck a few sprigs of sage and place it inside the van. It smells of prairie and lemony sky spice.

Stokes Castle

Continuing east we see horses running free and windmills against a darkening sky.

Horses and sagebrush

Sky windmills

We conclude the day at Great Basin National Park, and listen to Ranger Rob (former journalist and sales person) give a comedic geological presentation. Ranger Rob explains that five hundred and fifty million years ago the basin was full of water. Forty million years ago (a mere blink in geological time)  a single volcanic eruption called a super volcano spewed out four to five thousand square miles of ash, covering the basin in six thousand feet of ashy powder.

The next morning we tour an underground cave in the park full of stalactite and stalagmite formations, a haunting vision of underground processes at work. Chris is handed a flashlight by our perky tour-guide Carolyn and asked to take up the rear of our twelve person group. We meander through a maze of a pixie’s calcite wonderland, duck our heads and squeeze through tight spaces. Water droplets hang in suspension off the tips of some of the stalactites.

Lehman cave wall

Emerging from the cave into the sunlight again we drive away from Great Basin. Two days later we arrive in Fort Collins, Colorado with a short stop to visit Chris’s brother.

A wild beast in Fort Collins, Colorado


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