Saturday, September 17, 2011

Utah State Route 159

Great Basin National Park
From about 11,000 feet, standing on the rock-strewn slopes of Wheeler Peak, the road we would take was too small to see, but other roads, threadlike, rolled out into the basin and disappeared.  Green circles cut into the brown dryness, circles created by the sweep of giant sprinklers, turning like the hands of a clock.  The wisps and strings of rain far off in the distance hung from thick gray clouds.

We came down from the mountain and east into tiny Baker and the improbable and welcome: espresso and veggie burgers.  Four motorcycles were tethered like horses in front of a what once could have been a saloon but really was a storefront and motel.  We cruised briefly west before heading determinedly north, slipping out of Nevada and climbing back in a few hours later somewhere among the Goshute Mountains.

Baker, NV
A faded sign pointed us towards Gandy, Trout Creek, Callao and the ghost town - or so it said on the map - of Gold Hill and shortly thereafter the pavement ended and we bumped onto gravel.  Immediately a plume of mocha-colored dust flared out behind us.  For a few slow seconds a crow kept pace with us and it seemed he might fly with us the whole way.  Behind him bale fortresses of freshly-cut hay rose high in golden-brown squares – evidence of a hard, grassless winter to come.

The road cut between mountain ranges, the valley wide and flat and to the right of us, ribbons of salt flats rippled and shimmered against the base of blue foothills.  Trapped water.  The Great Basin.  The road is also wide and flat and every few miles thick groves of willows hide houses, barns, windmills and tractors.  Patches of cattails and thick-bladed grasses gave clues to the hiding places of cold springs and the persistent trickle of water traveling down from high in the mountains.  Vibrant life amid the dust and salt crust. 

The landscape subtly changed as the road slowly rose and narrowed.  We edged closer to the mountains towards the west.  Hills flattened by distance unfolded into craggy canyons choked with blue-green pines and gray jutting slabs of rock.  Thin trails spindled off in confused lines.  Every sign we passed pointed to towns to the east as if there were nothing ahead, nothing to the west.  Near Callao we stopped at an overgrown picnic area scraped out of the ground by the Civilian Conservation Corps.  Wood tables disappearing among the weeds and grass.  A thin stream cut through the picnic area and then under the road, the water cold and clear.  Gray feathers lay scattered along the banks and a lone beer can bobbed in the rocky shallows. 

CCC picnic area near Callao.
Through another town: a faded house surrounded by junked cars and a rusting yellow bus splashed with the words, “Into the Wild” and then briefly back onto pavement that began and ended at the neat Mormon ward house.

We turned in earnest then towards the mountains, climbing, a sign pointing now towards the west and Ibapah.  Other signs appeared and through binoculars we could make out a gate and an airstrip.  Maybe.  The map told us only: The Utah Test and Training Range.

At last we reached Gold Hill and its broken down buildings, scarred hills and remnants of the mining town it once was.  Not quite a ghost town: a man in a white t-shirt stacked wood in his backyard and stopped to watch as we drove past.   

Gold Hill
A turned over garbage can - a long way from home - identified itself in white spray paint as “Ibapah,” its contents spilling out along the roadside.  For some reason we stopped and got out to look at it.  It marked our turn and the end of the dirt road.  93A.  We turned right onto smooth pavement and bit by bit what we call civilization rose up against the mountains marking the horizon: a billboard, phone service and radio stations, an on ramp, rushing cars, Wendover.

Into Wendover.

As ever, when writing, I am indebted to Cactus Ed.  When I look west, I often do so through his eyes. 
" make the discovery of the self in its proud sufficiency which is not isolation but an irreplaceable part of the mystery of the whole. Come on in. The earth, like the sun, like the air, belongs to everyone - and to no one."  
- Edward Abbey, from The Journey Home

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