We left Nevada Route 722 and took the Elkhorn Road (022) up and over a spur of the Shoshone Range and down into the Reese River Valley. Turning south we quickly came to a road sign listing San Juan and Washington Creeks (016) and we took that for about six miles to a primitive camp site in section 29 at the foot of the Toiyabe Range. It was a dusty and forbidding place, deep in a canyon, so mornings were cold until the sun could pop out from behind the high ridges. Afternoons were unusually hot but with the shadows forming early and the sun disappearing as well the evening temperatures dropped precipitously. All of us were constantly adding and shedding layers. The campsite was flat and luckily large enough for our party of eight. It had one table and an outhouse which proved to be handy as the thin, rocky soil wasn’t conducive to digging a latrine. We spent our days exploring the creeks and hiking up into the higher reaches. Several parties of deer hunters passed by each day, we encountered a couple on horseback in the high country and others passed the campsite in pickups and on ATVs, none looked successful. We saw little sign of their prey, I imagine the drought forced the poor creatures into even higher and more inaccessible spots. Signs of cattle were everywhere though we only bumped into a few cows on the trails. Their droppings were all over, some dry and flaky like cardboard after a few years in the arid climate. Others were fresh. A little bit of livestock goes a long way. The acreage they have to roam to get enough grass must be enormous.
The relatively sparse vegetation and numerous outcrops of jagged, weathered rock on the hillsides gave the place the feel of a ghost town. In those old mining camps nothing is rebuilt and everything eventually decays but slowly due to the lack of moisture. You don’t get a sense in these mountains that geologic activity is happening. It just seems like the landscape is there and that it will eventually erode and fade away. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Basin and Range is quite active and even youthful by geologic standards. There’s just something about the emptiness and lack of obvious activity that makes you think the place is static. Everything of course is dynamic, moving through time and space continuously and subject to the vagaries of entropy. The Basin and Range is no exception and when you add in the roiling and furious energies from the mantle, far beneath the crustal layer, and think in terms of eons and not mere human decades you suddenly see a chaotic, vibrant, and even violent terrain. In geology, “terrain” is the visible countryside with all its features. To include what’s underneath, what creates and shapes the terrain, you use the word “terrane.” The terrane becomes manifest in the terrain if you see with the eyes of a geologist.
Imagine a half-inflated balloon. Now smear chunky peanut butter on it, a nice uniform layer. Inflate the balloon fully. The crust of peanut butter, forced outward and upward by the exapnsion, cracks and splits and separates. The ranges are the strips of peanut butter, the gaps between them the basins. The outward spreading of the crust due to the mysterious tectonic forces in the mantle below created the basin-and-range topography. The mountains eroded to fill the basins but the orogenic processes continued (and continue to this day) and more material was uplifted to be eroded again. At the bases of the mountains you see evidence of erosion in the broad alluvial fans and outwashes. It’s hard to think in terms of mountain-building as these things happen on a time scale too big for our feeble mammalian brains which can handle perhaps a few human generations in either direction, but you have to do it to see the big picture. What you can actually see in country are faults where the big blocks of crust were thrust upward so they could later tilt and topple. And you can also see actual real-time evidence of magmatic heat in the form of thermal waters and hot springs. These pieces of the puzzle tell us that Nevada is a hot place, busy with subterranean rumblings and ready to rumble and shake and upthrust massive hunks of earth just like in earlier epochs.
We spent four nights at the campsite along the creek. Then half the party headed home and four of us spent an extra night retracing our route back to Nevada 722 and into an adjacent, parallel valley to the west, that of Smith Creek. Seven or eight miles north along the road beside Campbell Creek takes you to a hot springs area. Along the edge of the dry lake bed were several hot springs, one had been piped into a large circular cattle trough. Coming out of the pipe the water was too hot to touch, but the filled metal tank cooled to around 90 or 95 degrees Fahrenheit, good enough for a relaxing soak, but not quite hot enough for the therapeutic effects. We camped in the open country in the sparse desert grass that had magnificent vistas of the many ranges near us. One nice thing about the desert regions are the lack of annoying insects. Very few flies and no mosquitoes to pester us while hanging out. The cool fall weather played a part, too. A coyote wandered around while we stayed, mostly keeping his distance and acting like he couldn’t see us. He looked well-fed and had a rich, tawny coat and sported a thick, bushy tail. Ranchers aren’t keen on these characters but we thought he was beautiful. Flocks of horned larks buzzed about regularly and killdeer greeted us in the morning with their distinctive whistling calls. I saw a prairie falcon circle our camp in low ovals, spooking the little guys for a bit, but he cruised off in search of better hunting after few minutes.
After five days of camping we decided to hit the road and parted from our friends while a dust storm gathered over the playa. We cruised back north on 722 to Austin for lunch, and then hopped on Nevada 305 for the long drive along the Reese River to Battle Mountain, and thence on I-80 to Winnemucca. I’ll cover that part of the trip in my next post.