“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
Blog post by Bill Huggins
If Frost thought his farm in New England remote, he could never conceive of an area like the White River Narrows in central Nevada. Granted, it’s no woody enclave set apart from people, but Highway 318 cutting north-south through the heart of the wildest state in the lower 48 is about as remote as one can get in the contiguous USA. It’s a road you’ll be glad you traveled if you ever get to take it.
Under the brilliant azure of the Great Basin sky, the Narrows jumps at you when you’re least prepared. Driving north through the open basin, the stunning beauty of the Mt. Irish Range to the west, the Hiko Range to the east, the Narrows comes on suddenly and literally takes your breath away. Almost a hundred miles south of Ely, the closest thing we might call civilization, the broad basin around the 318 contracts and you find yourself caught in the snug embrace of stone.
The Narrows force you to slow down, not just your car but yourself, as well. Through its tight bends you’ll find seven petroglyph areas, rock art of the kind you’d usually find in a National Park. Yet here it sits, in this dry, ancient riverbed, testament to a time far different and older than what we know.
Taking any choice turnout, shut down the car and step into the morning or afternoon. The first thing that strikes you is the deep silence of the basin. Even on a state highway there’s surprisingly little traffic. A few steps from the car into the tall grasses waving in the slight breeze, you’ll almost forget how you got here, transported backward in time.
The Great Basin rattlesnake calls this place home so best to stay on the dirt tracks, eyes and ears open. Less traveled paths and then some—be prepared not to see another person the whole time you spend out here. Clean air might restore a sense of balance you’ve lost while driving. CDs, MP3s, radio news—all slip away like anything inessential as the real world, the world we generally forget exists, takes precedence in our senses. Wild places always have that effect, calling us home.
The Narrows made the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. But it’s so remote the designation might as well not exist. The last time I visited I spent two hours wandering the canyon and saw no one else. Three cars passed, two going north, one south. Silence pervaded all. It was November and chill with scattered clouds and a strong cool wind from the north, so I could wander at will and not worry about the snakes. I find it hard to believe that any other place on the NRHP gets fewer visitors, but I suppose I could be wrong.
Feel free to try to prove it to me.
The glyphs are carved into columnar rhyolite, good carving stone. Climbers have actually been active in the canyon recently, though many on climbing sites worry about being caught in such a magical place—though that doesn’t stop them. The cracks are good for strong fingers and feet, test leg strength, solid grips. Rhyolite faces are no friend to climbers, however, so the area hasn’t really caught on—though no doubt that has a lot to do with the fact that the area is so far away from anywhere, a major factor in its preservation.
It’s the greatest plus and minus about living in Nevada, this magical wild wonderland: we have all these amazing areas that no one visits because they’re so remote from everywhere, which helps keep them protected because they’re rarely visited, but also makes it challenging to convince people how special these places are because so few people go there.
I call it the Nevada Paradox and I’m okay with it, because I live here and can get out there as often as possible. But it would be great for more people to discover these places because it would be a huge benefit for our smaller, rural Nevada communities.
Take the Narrows, for example. Here’s a beautiful space, a great place to spend an afternoon walking, catching fresh air, letting the dogs run free, photographing rock art that has few equals anywhere—and I’ve got it to myself. So many places like this in Nevada would qualify for National Park or National Monument status if there were more people here. But we’re protected by our remoteness.
The ancient peoples who used to live here didn’t consider it remote. This was home to them, as evinced by the art. One of the biggest panels shows a game drive, animals being herded into an enclosure of some sort, a long large woven fence or something of the like as a trap. Standing before this panel you become part of the community, part of the hunt. You can sense the strength of the individuals involved, becoming something more than individuals as they participate in an event that will strengthen them all, making them more than they would be alone. You can imagine the happiness that went along with the activities, the songs, the laughter, the razzing, the tales the young men would tell the older and how the old men would wave their hands and say that was nothing, when they were young they did everything much better, and the women telling the men that they were all full of crap. The rock art exists in a continuum between space and time, carrying the wisdom from the past to the present.
A kind of wisdom we truly need now, in my opinion. Our ancestral forbears didn’t need to protect the wealth of the earth from themselves. Unfortunately, it seems we do.
Protection of such a place might seem unnecessary, but at least one of the panels belies this hope. Perhaps intending to improve upon what already exists here, two fools added their names. They stand emblazoned in ignorance, perhaps doing good in doing harm—showcasing their idiocy for all to see. Who among us would think that adding his or her name to what was carved here generations ago could make it better? Only someone who misses the entire point of setting places like this aside, protecting these areas from the worst of our impulses.
Carved above the images in Great Basin Abstract in the Curvilinear and Rectilinear style, the Anglicized and Romanized names of white fools stand in stark contrast to what should and will outlive them, and speak volumes about the meaning and nature of respect for land and culture.
The panels slide by, beautiful in their configuration if not modern names: North Entrance, Single Rock, Shoshone Frog, Amphitheatre. More descriptive of place than of setting or tone. My favorite, basically halfway through, Martian Home, never fails to disappoint. So weird, so confusing, so wild—as wild as the landscape that surrounds us. The images crawl like aliens or bugs or some other form of life unknown to us, spilling across the rock in mad profusion. I have been lucky enough to get out to some areas and hear from archaeologists the meaning of various glyphs—but of this one I want to know as little as possible. It fires my imagination, the many possibilities of its creation, its meanings.
Some things, I think, are better left unknown.
Once the White River moved through this area, making it warmer, wetter, fecund. Some of the petroglyphs give off that sense: water, riparian habitat, figures almost swimming through the space of the rock upon which they’re carved. There’s a flow to them that comes from deep time and the pure linkage of practice and intent. The people who created these images knew this area intimately: they lived, ate and slept here, made love and gave birth here, married, sang, performed, played, hunted, and carved their stories and exploits into the rhyolite. It was home. They had a sense of place we can only imagine in our wayward wanderings, but getting out of our four-wheeled sensory deprivation chambers is good for us for this reason among many others. With the touch of wind on our skin, the bite of sand or dust blown into our mouths by an errant gust, we can touch for a moment the world in which our ancestors lived.
And maybe we can grasp the importance of saving places like these. For though maybe we will wander to and fro, drive by car and walk on feet, what makes us human will always stay within us—and respecting that ancestry by protecting the spaces in which we’ve left marks of that humanity improves the lot of us all, even if we rarely see some of those examples.
It’s like the White River, I think. It starts in the White Pine Range far north of here, fed by various springs and winter snowfall and brief seasonal showers, moving between the Grant Range and the Egan Range. Once, yes, it moved through the Narrows here, but no longer. It’s underground, surfacing many miles south, rising and sinking into the lakes that form the essential bird habitat of the Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge. You can’t always see it, but the river never really goes away.
It’s there, like us—a liquid culture that springs up when you least expect it. Part of our history, part of the life that carried us to this point. It’s one of the wonders of our history, truly—and in preserving it we preserve a part of our ancient essence, preserving the things that last, unlike whatever we’ll hear on our radio when we get back into our car.
Preserving the things that matter most, those lessons so important that they are etched in stone for us to remember, not even knowing we’d forgotten those lessons, when we found the time to make our way to them again, and saw the old lessons with new eyes on the only roads we’ve ever needed to walk.