“And with Nevada these high, discrete, austere new ranges begin to come in waves, range after range after north-south range, consistently in rhythm with wide flat valleys: basin, range; basin, range; a mile of height between basin and range.” – John McPhee
Article by Bill Huggins
We drive north from Las Vegas, twelve people and two dogs in two cars, neither the most fuel-efficient brand on the market, but roomy enough for us and our gear: tents, sleeping bags, backpacks, maps and books, coolers, camp chairs, the odds and ends for a weekend in the wild. Tires thrum. The city fades behind us and the dry basin opens up ahead, vast brown valleys and peaks, widening like arms.
Splitting from the 15 and heading north up the 93 we enter the real space, the real Nevada. So many come to try their luck in the neon tunnel that defines the southern part of this state—so few venture forth into what makes this place truly amazing. Only Alaska has more mountain ranges than Nevada, a statistic even the most devout of outdoorspeople might find hard to acknowledge. A hundred miles to the east the campsites, parks, and valleys of Utah are crammed full of nature seekers, when what they should really be looking for is right here, on a mostly empty highway heading north.
Every time I drive up here, several times a year, the basin simply sucks me in, like being devoured by landscape. A few miles up the 93 the mountain ranges start to slide open, doors that reveal a beauty and value better than anything hiding behind panels on any game show, and more valuable. This is public land, our American heritage. To our right the Mormon Mountains slowly fade as Arrow Canyon takes their place, to be filled later by the Meadow Valley and Delamar ranges, while on the left the Sheep Range paces us for over sixty miles, beautiful rounded peaks sheathed in dark foliage and trees as they rise.
The road climbs until we plateau alongside the stunning Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge, upper and lower lakes fed by the ancient White River. The refuge serves as a flyway for many species of birds as they make their seasonal migrations. The lakes leap out like blue jewels in the surrounding dryness. Having visited several times, I’ve never been disappointed by my experiences. Over 240 species of birds call the refuge home at various parts of the year. Once I got buzzed by a pair of honking Canada geese.
We drive past the refuge, enjoying its beauty but not lingering—we press on north, to a wilder place.
We stop at the village of Alamo to top off the fuel tanks and stretch, grab a snack. I always make a point to support the local towns along the way as part of standing up for the argument that tourist dollars support public lands designation. If we are going to work against extractive uses for public lands, like fracking and mining, we need to give these communities economic incentives to promote public lands protections. Making sure to visit and spend money in these local businesses is the best way to build that trust.
Just north of Alamo the 93 heads east. We turn left onto the 318 and briefly head north. The remains of the White River stand apparent in some green lushness in the valley bottom along both sides of the road. We pass the picnic area at Crystal Springs and two little lakes to our right side. Ranching families have worked this area for generations and are vital to the local economy.
Just past the lakes and ranch, we slow and turn left onto Logan Road. I hop out and open the stock gate and let the cars through, then close it behind us, waving away the dust raised by our move from pavement to dirt.
The peak ahead and to our right is protected Wilderness now, Congress’ highest designation for pristine public wildlands. But so much of what we protect is high and majestic. The lowlands have value, as well, as connectors of the basins between the ranges. Much more work should be done to keep these entire ecosystems intact as much as possible. Life doesn’t just sit in a convenient place because legislators created a specific designation for it—it moves, wanders, mixes with other life, as it should. Allowing our ideas of wilderness to turn from the high and mighty to the lower places would signal a recognition of the rising comprehension of ecology through our sciences as well as the larger culture. Everything is interconnected, even this long sweep of grassland we pass through. We should consider it just as important as the peak we’ll climb tomorrow.
Dust trails us as we move slowly down the rough road, rising slightly as we creep toward the foothills. Some miles in we pause between a group of rocks taller than our vehicles. We step out, stretch as we did in Alamo, then gather with cameras and look at the petroglyphs carved into the rocks here. Beautiful, austere—communications from a culture far different and simpler than ours. I feel deeply connected in the presence of the old as I always do when confronted by it, the deep time of our human ancestry, our occupancy of this world and all its beauty. A tougher time for our species, clearly, when disease held greater threat and food scarcity was a major concern. Yet we survived to evolve into the same bipeds who travel the same land, just in different ways. Those cultures seemed to hold the land in higher regard, but then they really had no choice in the matter. Respect for the land and its creatures seems endemic to all societies and cultures, regardless of their place in space or time—except perhaps for us. Our mobility makes our culture mobile and temporary, as well. Looking at these pictures, I think that’s what we’ve come to reconsider and reacquaint ourselves with: our relationship with the land, what wilderness designation really means.
From the petroglyphs the road rises in bends and turns. We climb steadily. The road narrows and gets bumpier in spots, stunted trees pressing in on both sides. Several old mines remain down the Silver Canyon turnoffs, but we continue past those roads. Plenty of turnouts exist, and we move off to the right on one that fits both cars away from the main road. Not that we’re worried about running into anyone else out here—we’re not. These roads are rarely traveled by anyone, one of the benefits of traveling through wild Nevada, but also a deficit: as these lands belong to all Americans, it would benefit them and the communities that lie close to see more travelers like us.
The sun dipped below the ridgeline above us already. Shadows of the Ponderosa pines enclose the camp. We unload quickly, humans and dogs marking territory in their various ways. The sky’s clear and cloudless, no need for tents. I roll out my sleeping bag in a declivity between trees, a perfect spot to fall asleep watching the stars play out overhead. Coolers are opened with beers close behind—the long workweek behind us, we settle into camp chairs for food and conversation as the night slips around us, slowly quieting as darkness encroaches. Birdsong quiets and the rustlings in the brush ceases. Soon the only sounds are voices and the crashing of dogs in the undergrowth, chasing night sounds through patches of deepening darkness.
It’s been a long week and we don’t linger. Bottles and plates are collected and set aside, goodnights are said. We fall away into our various beds. I call my Jack Russell and he squirrels into the sleeping bag, down by my feet, and circles until he’s comfortable. As I wanted, I watch the play of stars across a clear expanse—no light pollution here, just thousands of crystals polished as if for my own viewing—until I drift into sleep.
I wake twice during the night, get up once to pee. The silence overwhelms me, the deep calm of the wild. Waking on first nights always shocks me because to open your eyes and see that blazing starscape truly has to be experienced to be understood. I still can’t believe so few people take the time to get away from what we know as civilization and experience the sight of the multiverse of which we’re a part. I get ambitious when I see the Nevada night sky, all those stars, all those worlds—so much more to protect.
I wake refreshed. Breathe deeply from a night of wilderness sleep and the pine fills your nose and lungs like a tonic. The body knows these places intuitively, responds to the wild stimuli. I’m convinced of that. It’s great to have a hot shower at your disposal, sleep in a warm, clean bed—but a morning waking on the ground, with a dog stirring at your feet and slowly working his way up the bag to lick your face…ah, the joy of stretching a body and seeing the blaze of happiness in a dog’s eye as the world wakes around you. No city morning can compare to that.
We’re up first, the dog and I. I set water to boil for tea and coffee as he treks into the pines to take care of business of his own. He trots back a few minutes later and I set down his food bowl and he munches contentedly, eyes bright, tail wagging. He drinks some water and sets off again to explore.
I suck down two mugs of dark Irish breakfast tea and eat oatmeal while the camp slowly rises around me. Our other canine companion, a reddish Lab mixed with a few other things, shows his face, hits the water dish like a force of nature. He joins the Jack and together they move through the camp to a chorus of groans and laughter. Coffee and tea move through mugs and mouths and the group’s mood rises with the sun.
Conversation: most of us came to do the peak, but a few want to explore the mines we drove past yesterday, and one just wants to sit in camp with a book. We break into our little groups, six of us heading up, and grab our gear for the day: backpacks, water bottles, snacks, sunscreen, the usual. I always feel better with a pack on my shoulders. Boots knotted tight, Jack at my side, we leave camp and start up the road.
It’s hardly two miles to Logan Pass, where we’ll split north to climb the ridge to the summit. It’s mid-September and the morning warms as we climb the fairly easy grade, some steady pushes with a gentle turn or two. In less than an hour we’re at the pass. We stop to take in the view to the west, and I wonder if McPhee hasn’t stood here for inspiration, for what we see is a scene from one of his books: basin and range, peaks and valleys spilling to the west, beautiful in the rise and fall motion that just goes on and on, not a human in sight but for us.
The ridge blocked the wind for us below, that warm southern breath that’s almost always coming from the Mojave, so we catch a bit of it as we climb. Here the going’s a lot tougher. Once we hike past the empty car turnouts and primitive campsites, we’re in tough limestone country, hard on boots and dogs’ paws. I lift the Jack through a few passes where it’s too challenging for him to jump or climb. There’s no trail to follow, just pressing through the talus and brush to the high point ahead. And the views from the top pummel the ones from the road below: sweeping vistas in all directions, like a rumpled bedspread, wild Nevada, home.
We’ve come to climb and hike and sleep under the stars, yes—but we’ve also come to sign testaments of our passion for this place. So we snack and drink, then make our way back to the road and camp. In the shade of the Ponderosas, we pass around pen and paper. Silence descends on the camp as we take time to tell our Congressional representatives how we feel about this place. Hands move pens across pages and the words grow with the shadows as the sun swings west.
We finish, collect the pages, then prepare for dinner. The dust of the day washes away as beer and water moves through the group again. Someone’s brought gin and tonic. The fire grows in the twilight, pasta and bread and red sauce get passed around on plates, people dodging woodsmoke between bites. The day’s stories get told, dogs beg for bites—so much tastier than their food—and ear rubs. The fire drops, people file away, stillness descends on the camp and the woods again.
I sit by the coals and breathe in the fullness of it all, and for the thousandth time, probably, just feel so lucky to live here, to have all this wildness around me. I wish I could get out more often but jobs and responsibilities take up so much time. I know we all share those things that keep us from these places, but it’s not too hard to simplify some of what occupies us to make time for these soul breaks. If the wild and all things that call it home are essential, then so is making the time to visit as often as we can. Sitting in a camp chair in the heart of wild Nevada, with the embers of a fire cooling beside you, looking into a sky like the one our ancestors saw every evening, catching a glimpse of the smoky trail of the Milky Way with the naked eye—trust me, it’s a much deeper connection than anything contrived by modern society’s digital fakery.
I fall asleep to the thought that by protecting these places we keep the potential open for someone, someday, to sleep on this same ground and understand exactly what I mean.
In the morning we rise and breakfast again, break camp, pack the vehicles. We’re subdued—another day would have been nice. But we fire up our carbon monsters nonetheless, breaking the stillness with their engines, and roll down the hill toward fuel at Alamo, then Vegas.
I can’t speak for everyone, but I will be back—as often as time and fate allow me.