#12 Nevada & Onto Death Valley, California (November 2012)

Domestic Culture Shock
"It's so weird, so bizarre, so creepy…it's like being at the end of the road at the end of the world…." were our comments as we shook our heads in disbelief after settling into our rig in the casino's parking lot RV slot in Tonopah, Nevada. The contrasts between California and Nevada were once again as shocking as when moving between some European countries as cyclotourists. The differences between our experience of these 2 states reminded me of those that we felt upon returning to Austria after a month in the villages of the Czech Republic in late 2001.

In those smaller Czech communities, the land, the infrastructure, and the psyche of the people were still deeply scarred by the burden of having been an Eastern Bloc country for decades. Immediately upon crossing the border into Austria, the prosperous villages and cheery people reflected their former heyday as the hub of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as well as having continuously been a player in the modern world. The disparities between these 2 countries were everywhere we looked, even down to the partially blackened and rubbery carrots in some Czech markets versus the abundant, gleaming produce in any Austrian village store.

Fortunately the long-standing excellent distribution system in the US had shielded Nevadan's from the grocery store disparities we experienced between Czech and Austria, but the "have/have not" contrasts were nonetheless highly visible in the border communities of these 2 states.

We'd just spent 2 weeks in Yosemite National Park in northeastern California living a somewhat spartan lifestyle in our nice but tiny camper without access to hook-ups. We had our daily challenges but were surrounded by stunning natural beauty within a highly intentional infrastructure choreographed by the Park Service. Our next and last community in California before entering Nevada was Mammoth Lakes, a recently bankrupted city. The only evidence of their financial woes was noticing a sign at the overpriced RV park that the city had imposed a 13% tax on RV'ers with dogs, a seemingly futile and slightly bizarre tactic. But this snow-bum town was pulsing with "waiting for more snow" energy, not despair. We chuckled at having transitioned from Yosemite, the climber's Mecca, to Mammoth Lakes, a skier's Mecca, both with blatantly indulgent, laid-back lifestyles of the young and the young-at-heart that could only exist on the back's of the prosperity of others.

Ten miles beyond Mammoth Lakes we stopped for a 2 hour hike along a rushing creek at the bottom of a stunning canyon with lovely fall colors and snow dusted peaks, very different scenery than Yosemite's big granite walls but equally grand. Returning to our rig in long shadows punctuated with a now-chilling wind, we resigned ourselves to the 3 hour drive to Tonopah, mostly in the dark. But unexpectedly the long, low light of the autumn sun on the high desert landscape was as captivating as the eyefuls of nature on the hike. During the drive to the Nevada border, jagged mountains and peaks transitioned to massive, rounded boulders; pine trees and golden aspens disappeared and hummock-like scrub strove to cover the dusty soil; and the increasingly spare landscape became even more dramatic as the last light crested the distant peaks with shades of pink.

The blackness of night finally blanketed the now barren terrain shortly after we crossed into Nevada and was only occasionally penetrated by the headlights of big-rigs blasting by us until we saw the city lights of Tonopah in the distance. It was our second visit so we knew what it was like, but we were preoccupied with recalling the peculiar protocols at "Tonopah Station," such as parking in any open RV space and then going in to register. Lucky us, we got the last open slot for the night in a place that doesn't take reservations.

Minutes after getting our rig leveled and our electricity connected, we were shaking our heads at the weirdness of it all and the contrast with northern California, even though we'd experienced the transition once before. The early modern history of both Nevada and California were defined by boom and bust cycles of exploiting natural resources like gold and sliver but California, like Austria, had moved on, whereas Nevada seemingly was still gripped by the legacy of the past, like Czech.

A view from Tonopah's main street.
Our last major stops in California at Yosemite and Mammoth Lakes were punctuated by the "Get out in nature and go for it" energy of hikers, climbers, skiers, and lean, long distance cyclists and runners. In contrast, our first glimpses of the locals in Tonopah seemed like 3rd generation down-and-out'ers for whom even the 20 year-olds looked like life had always been hard. An equally shocked Canadian neighbor I spoke with the next day described the scene as "below subsistence living."

Pressing the Tonopah Station registration woman as to why this barebones, little RV "park" in less-than-enchanting Tonopah was full on a Monday evening in November, I heard the stories of boom and bust in the distinctively local vernacular. It was currently the "stay-overs"; everywhere else they are "long term" but in Tonopah, they are "stay-overs." I was told "An Irishman came over and struck oil so now they are pumping oil; they are finding gold everywhere; and then there are the construction workers" that were all stay-overs filling the RV slots. She could have been talking about the 1860's except that these construction workers were building a solar field. These stories that echoed the themes of yesteryear seemed a perfect fit as I exited through the casino filled with stale cigarette smoke, a casino probably decorated in the 1950's to look like it was when silver was discovered in Tonopah in 1900. It seemed that the folks in this Nevada town were stuck in a time warp and didn't know that there was a bigger world out there, something I think the small-town Czech's will discover long before the small-town Nevadan's do.

A reconstructed mining town in the foreground; modern Tonopah in the background.
Tonopah, Nevada (toe-no-paw)
Tonopah was a place name that I grew up with, like Timbuktu or Paris: I'd nod knowingly without really knowing anything other than the name when it was mentioned. But the name came up during conversations between adults, such as in "We drove as far as Tonopah and from there the road was closed due to snow" or "When you're heading towards Tonopah, you turn……" But for a name aggrandized by so much mention in my childhood, it was a shock to actually arrive in Tonopah and especially to end up staying the night there a second time like many others do, further perpetuating its shallow claim to fame.

Modern Tonopah only has about 2,500 residents and most of the town flanks the highway. Like many towns in Nevada, Tonopah's origins date back to the gold and sliver boom days that began in the region in the 1860's. Nevada was granted statehood in 1864 because of this boom-times wealth even though it didn't meet the population requirements of the day. Before then Nevada was considered by the European immigrants to be too harsh and too desolate for settlements but the search for the next Great Lode changed their minds. Towards the end of the 19th century when the California Gold Rush had become too crowded and the Comstock Lode at Virginia City had played out, Tonopah became the place to be for miners, immigrants, and prostitutes when silver was discovered.

Looking at the map suggests that what spared Tonopah from becoming yet another mining-boom ghost town was its 'trade route' location about half way between Reno and Las Vegas. The current 2 lane highway between the 2 largest cities in the state runs down the middle of Tonopah and Hwy 6 that is the east-west route through southern Nevada intersects with the main highway in the middle of town as well.

In addition, the isolated, desolate nature of the region that so many detested was a draw for the US military during WWII and prompted moving the secret testing of the first Smart bomb to the Tonopah area in 1944. The nearby Nellis Air Force Base continues to be an underpinning of the local economy. (Nellis occupies a huge piece of real estate and represents part of the 86% of the state's land owned by the federal government.)

Like us, most travelers know Tonopah for its modern trade-route quality: it's on the main road; it's a mid-point between 2 major cities; and it's a place you can just pull-over and stop for the night because it is loaded with inexpensive motels. The clerk at our hotel/RV park/casino said very few of their hotel guests made reservations, instead they just impulsively stopped for the night on their way through town. We were however slightly different: we actually planned on staying there for the night to keep our driving days short.

Another jarring juxtaposition in Beatty, NV.
Nevadan's Different Priorities
Our successive visits to National Forest Service exhibits in the SW over the last year had heightened our sensitivity to soil crusts, which are primarily formed by microscopic cyanobacteria and are often present in desert regions. We learned that these little guys in soil crusts play a huge role in building soil where there is none or little, the importance of staying on established trails to avoid damaging these fragile crusts, and how long it can take a damaged area to recover. On the day we left Tonopah I was looking out our dinette window after carefully selecting a roadside pullout for the view of the distant mountains during lunch and looked down to see the ground immediately before us strewn with discarded tires, bottles, and plastic bottles. I sarcastically commented to Bill that we probably didn't have to worry about disrupting the soil crusts while hiking in Nevada. Looking around at the land between our trashed area and the mountains, we assumed that it wasn't being treated gently either.

These different priorities, this different sensitivity, this different relationship to the land that we experienced on the border lands of California and Nevada was underscored in my casual reading of the RV park laundry room literature at Pahrump, Nevada near Death Valley. The back of the "Off-Road Trail Guide, Nevada Silver Trails" brochure read "There's a certain kind of person who loves Nevada-style off roading. The kind of person who takes pleasure in the smell of wild sage--mixed with exhaust. The kind of person who enjoys the way the sounds of an engine cuts through the quiet of nature." Hmmmm…. once again I didn't feel like I was in sync with the Nevadan way of life as we continued on towards our next refuge, Death Valley National Park.

Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge (adjacent to Death Valley)
An unwelcome dip in the jet stream ushered in a 30º drop in the day time highs and strong winds over the course of a few days in much of the west, so we were in no hurry to get into Death Valley and risk our second dust storm there for 2012. A little detour to explore Ash Meadows Wildlife Refuge was a good fit with our foot-dragging pace--a place we'd only used for a picnic stop before.

Once there we learned that Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge is the site of the largest oases in the Mojave Desert. Its 30 different seeps and springs of 87º water are sourced by snowmelt from the nearby mountains. Rather than the water being surface runoff, it has percolated down through the mountains, being heated by the friction from traveling under pressure. The water continues moving underground when it reaches the valley floor and a few miles away from the mountains it breaks the surface of the ground to form the oases. Termed "ancient water," it will have traveled for thousands of years by the time it makes its way above ground again.

An ancient oasis in the Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge.
The Refuge land was wrestled away from ranchers and cotton and alfalfa farmers when the area was on the brink of becoming a housing development with golf courses and swimming pools. In a case sponsored by the Desert Fish Council to protect the nearby Devil's Hole pupfish and heard before the US Supreme Court in 1976, the relatively new Endangered Species Act rescued the area. It was basically a water rights issue with the ruling restricting use of much of the ancient water aquifer to private household consumption. It's debated as to whether enough land was included in the ruling to preserve the aquifer given that farming still goes on in the valley today.

The Refuge itself was established in 1984 and reclaiming the aquifer water diverted for agriculture in the 1960's has allowed the the pupfish and 25 other endemic species to recover from near-extinction. Ash Meadows now has the US's second greatest concentration of endemic species and hosts over 270 species of birds, 7 "only here" plants, and a couple of species of endemic pupfish. The story of the Refuge reminded me again of my experience of Nevada: the tug of war between the "use it and abuse it" vs the "appreciate the uniqueness" mentalities. With the help of the fed's, the tread-softly approach won this time.

More so than other places we travel, the ebb and flow of the winners and losers is often evident in Nevada. Ghost towns, abandoned mines, strewn garbage from the last 150 years, and 4-wheeler's tracks across the landscape speak to the often prevailing attitude that "Nature is here to be dominated by Man"and literal refuges like Ash Meadows and figurative ones like displays about not trampling the biological crusts speak to the 'live in harmony' strategy.

Death Valley National Park, California
Water, Water Everywhere--Or At Least Signs of It
Our "Geology of Death Valley National Park" book cites a string of reasons for it being an exceptional site, including the aridity that exposes the highly diverse bedrock that spans an unusually long time and because its formations display almost all of the principal geologic events that shaped North America. But on this our 3rd visit to Death Valley in the last 13 months, it was the contradiction of highly visible effects of water in the hottest and one of the driest places in the world that astounded me. Unlike Ash Meadows with its slow moving ancient water, part of Death Valley's water imprint seems to be from transient, fast moving water.

The handsome rounded hills behind our campground.
Our first Death Valley walk during our fall 2012 visit was an aimless ramble into the hills backing our RV site at the Texas Springs Campground. The mix of yellow and green powdery grit upon which we walked was flanked by a brown crust as lumpy and spongy as a field of tightly packed little mushrooms. It was a complex texture that I'd normally attribute to a freeze-thaw cycle but here it was surely a wet-dry cycle that had caused convolutions in the crust.

We quickly hit the steep grades we so often seek and Bill immediately labeled the hills underfoot as "mud dunes." I hadn't ever seen the term but embraced it as an accurate description of all of the towering formations under and around us, formations that resembled melted wax because of their rounded shapes. The mud dunes must have been some sort of mud stone or very soft sandstone that readily eroded and smoothly sloughed with the few annual rains. Our footsteps created an eery, echo-like sound as though the mounds we were traversing were hollow. (A fellow hiker later reported falling waist deep into a cavern on a similar sounding trail.)

Farther on, we noticed our feet sinking an inch or so with each step into what seemed to be another variant on dry mud--mud that was almost like mousse. Bill surmised that when actually as soggy as it behaved that it might be a form of quick sand because of its loft. Bill's theory gained support a few days later upon hearing that a 5 year old neighbor temporarily lost her shoes as she sunk into quick sand along a nearby creek.

Once on a firmer knoll, we picked a relatively flat spot atop a mud dune for lunch and looked out at the sides of a series of huge, now static, alluvial fans that actively cascade from the nearby mountains when it rains. Normally we are looking up from the valley floor road at the bottoms of the fans rather than having a crosswise view as we had on this hike. Before us were numerous brown or yellow grit formations separated by flat rocky washes which were in turn cut by deep rivulets that were now dry, each level having been shaped by distinctly different depths of water. After ogling the multiple manifestations of long-gone moving water in the fans, we looked more closely at the dispersed gravel where we were sitting when we arose and noticed miniature mushroom-like formations. There were dozens of 1/2" and smaller rocks that were actually caps to 1/2" columns of dirt: perhaps the last hard rains had washed away much of the upper dirt layer leaving behind the dirt capped by a stone.

As we wandered higher towards the mountains, some expanses of small superficial rocks were coated with the characteristic dark 'desert varnish' or patina, a coating that requires moisture, often in the form of morning dew, to be produced--yet another example of the profound effect the scarce water has on Death Valley.

Closing the loop on our meander, we jumped across a series of miniature ravines that further revealed the force of the occasional downpour. Some of the cuts were barely a foot wide but were 4-5' deep, others were wide but shallow. A few channels had water flowing through them though we couldn't see it because of the dense growth of mesquite and cat tails flourishing in them.

The dried silt looked like leather.
Back down near the campground where the silt had settled in pools and then dried, there were peeling layers of leather-like dried mud. Some of the 'puddles' glistened as though they still contained water even though they were dry to the touch. Here and there between the dried pools and off in the distance in the valley that was once an ancient lake, we could see the gleam of white salt and borax crystals left behind as inflowing, mineral-laden water evaporated.

From the smallest details seen around our feet to the grand silhouettes of the impressive hills, practically everything we saw our on first day's walk in Death Valley revealed the dramatic effects of the 2.5" of annual rainfall in the Valley. The contradiction of so much visible impact from water in a place with so little rain still makes my head spin when I think of the strong images from visiting the notoriously arid Death Valley.

Rarely a Rain Cloud
And despite being dazzled by the effects of water in Death Valley, the main reason we keep returning to it is its lack of water. Our larger travel goal is to happily exercise outdoors almost everyday and the absence of rain in Death Valley makes that infinitely more achievable than any of the options closer to home in the fall, winter, and spring. The Park is certainly short on stellar hiking venues but even if the temperature drops 30º and the winds pick up as they did just before we arrived, the big blue skies and low, low humidity make it easier to get going than the more familiar damp, gray overcast in our Pacific NW. Even sunrise exercises were bearable in the chilly overnight temperatures before the winds began stirring because of the lack of dampness and promise of sunlight.

We did challenge ourselves with a little dry fall climbing in a slot canyon.
The brightness of the desert dawn light was delightfully energizing but as we did our stretches and a little strength work on our big mat spread out in the grit, our drive slowly dissipated each day. Once the sun cleared the hill tops the heat of the direct rays began to penetrate our heavy clothes and then our bodies. That little bit of warming was enough to dramatically increase the time spent gazing off into the distance and soon the frequency of saying "Isn't this wonderful?" went up. We would stall a little longer by remembering a now suddenly-urgent, previously forgotten stretch or 2, and then finally pack it up after more than an hour on our mud dune. Back at the camper we'd make our hot cereal breakfast which we layered with fresh pears and thawed berries and then headed out to our campground picnic table to eat. More long stares off in a new direction while eating and the motivation for the day was further sapped. The tranquility of the desert under the low-angled, bright light of late autumn was as lusciously immobilizing as a big blanket on a cold night.

Given that we were on our mat doing exercises before sunrise each day, we got a ridiculously late start on our hikes but we did manage to prevail. And on this our 3rd visit to the Park, we finally felt that we had learned how to best use its features to feel contented with our stay. We abandoned our expectations of long, steep trails on which to get our hearts pounding because they just aren't there. We no longer wasted time driving to distant trail heads that didn't deliver. Instead we made 3 long visits to the Mesquite Sand Dunes to challenge our foot and leg muscles by walking barefoot for hours; we settled for several meandering hikes in the 'mud dunes' behind the Texas Springs Campground; and we made peace with repeating familiar, nearby hikes vs always trying to find something new to do. We felt like we'd finally gotten the hang of being in Death Valley.

Heading North
Death Valley National Park would be the most southern point on our 2 month fall search for sunny hiking destinations. After a 2 week stay there, we would zigzag in a northernly direction, first stopping in at Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada and then discovering the charms of Snow Canyon State Park in Utah. From there it was on to nearby Zion National Park and then we made a little more focused effort to drive home for Christmas with my 96 year old mother.