Friday, July 22, 2011

July 2011 Road Trip I: Walnut Creek to Winnemucca


I’m on a short anticlockwise road trip from the Bay Area through SE Oregon, then onto Portland, Eugene, and south to home. This comes in the two week lapse between ending my work at JFKU and beginning a new job at The Wilderness Society. I needed some desert time with rocks to look at and close and far scenery to photograph.
Transition: Walnut Creek to Winnemucca

Eastward over the Sierra Nevada, a mid-morning departure tempered by a cascade of last instant tasks: desuckering the pomegranate tree, pulling the inevitable weeds, cleaning the kitchen sink. Finally the road, freeway time on Interstate 80, the familiar route out of the Bay Area into the Central Valley: over Carquinez Straits, then Green Valley, Fairfield, Dixon, Davis, and Sacramento. Beginning the climb; Rocklin, Auburn, and Colfax. 1000 feet, 2000 feet, 3000 feet. Road cuts appear, a vaguely familiar sequence of foothill metamorphic rocks (platy greens, browns, and blacks), trending uphill into white quartzose stream gravels and the core salt and pepper granites of the Sierra. Exchanging abundant oaks for conifers. Higher, above 5000 feet, approaching Donner Lake, breaking out near treeline, with broad views over the range crest; luscious barren granite, still plenty of snow. Descent towards Truckee, then chasing the river down, quickly falling towards Reno.

Entering a different land. The Sierran rainshadow; no trees, welcome to the semidesert. I’ve left the plate boundary-dominated California Coast – lots of NNW-SEE trending hills – for the Basin and Range, the swath of alternating sharp mountains and dry lakes that runs northern Mexico to Oregon and east as far as Montana, Utah and Texas. I’ve made this translation before. It’s abrupt, whether I’m on the ground or flying high overhead.

But Reno dominates Nevada first, the casino towers demanding attention. I need a break; the Nevada Museum of Art seems right. With some searching (the directions from the NMA website were not quite right) I arrive with time for a good hour visit. The parking lot is surprisingly full. Oh, there’s an Egyptian exhibit, lots of families are there. No fear, I am here to see the several small galleries: Ansel Adams, Chris Jordan, David Farnsworth. I’m glazed from the road. I stare at paintings, photographs, and other media, and it takes a while for any perception to occur. An Americano and blondie break at the café help. This is a really good small museum. Presently I come to an Adams photograph that gets through; not one I remember, but a geometry of clouds and mountains that reminds me of one of the main reasons why I’m here, not at home.

Satisfied, I travel the sprawl in search of fuel. Once the car is fed, it’s further east on the interstate. I like Nevada’s version better than California’s: wider lane paint, rumble strips on the verge for when I get distracted by the geology. For east of Sparks I am into what passes for undeveloped America. I am never out of site of a side road, building, gas station, industrial facility, or small town, but the urban world is thankfully gone for a few days.

Back to the Basin and Range desert. I move along at 70 mph plus, dropping down between the Trinity and Humboldt Ranges along the edge of Carson Sink – the last real dry lake. A dirty white expanse to the east, punctuated by small lakes and pools. I wonder if these are spring-fed or remnant evidence of the wet winter. Sparse grasses and shrubs densely dot the rubbly soil. Each range is different. I’m commuting too fast to do much identification, but I can pick out hills of recent volcanic rock (red and black, relatively flat-lying layers), jagged cliffs of older sedimentary rock (the distinctive grays of desert limestones), occasional veneers of recent lake sediments from the last glacial period. It’s satisfying enough. The regional geology here is so complex that I don’t need to fully get my head around it. A far cry from Australia.

The road turns northeast, now between the Eugene and East Ranges. I’m tired, dried out, and stiff. Winnemucca better come into sight promptly. Eventually, a curve to the east, and Exit 176. I find the Quality Inn were I’d booked a first night-long drive room. Buggerall, it’s masquerading as the Model T Casino and Resort. Well, the room seems OK, I can’t hear the casino, and there’s a grocery store across the street. The place is full of buzz cut guys wearing baseball caps, many with attendant women, both heavily tattooed. I ask at the desk: they are part of a 44 hour baseball tournament.

Shopping, dinner at a local barbeque joint, and time to write.

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