Sean and I departed Chicago for Great Basin National Park on Wednesday, August 16, 2017. The night before we had celebrated our second wedding anniversary with a lovely evening of tapas and paella. After a strategic planning call on Wednesday afternoon, I shouldered my large pack, which I’d brought with me to my office in the Loop, and headed for the Blue Line El to O’Hare Airport. Unfortunately, there was a severe delay, so Sean and I changed plans. We met at the corner of Dearborn and Randolph and were driven to O’Hare by a Lyft driver named Juan. Juan’s youngest son was studying business at the University of Illinois-Urbana/Champaign. After school, Juan’s son planned to learn the legal marijuana business in Colorado before returning home once it was legalized in Illinois. I guess it sounded like the kid had a good head on his shoulders.
We made great time to O’Hare. After saying goodbye to Juan, we breezed through security and grabbed dinner at Tortas Frontera, as per tradition.
It started to rain, which caused our flight to be delayed for an hour.
Soon enough, thought, we were chasing the sun across the continent before descending into the Mohave Desert over Lake Mead and into the heart of downtown Las Vegas.
Baggage claim at McCarran Airport is something, what with the slot machines, digital billboards, Britney Spears. Sean was transfixed, but I was annoyed.
Our original plan had been to do our on-the-ground gear shopping at REI (dehydrated meals, fuel canisters) that evening, and I’d purposely chosen a hotel in Henderson, Nevada for its proximity to REI. But the hour’s delay and a drawn-out rental car pickup had killed that option. We’d have to do it in the morning. Instead, we went to Target for a few items and then circled back to an In-N-Out that afforded a lit-up view of the Las Vegas valley.
Next morning, Thursday, August 17, we had the breakfast buffet at our Springhill Suites. Sean noticed an indentation on the notepad in our room. It revealed an address. It was very Murder She Wrote.
(I have here in my notes “Trying to ignore news.” I don’t know what news it was that day that we were trying to ignore. But in the past year, it could have been one of hundreds of idiotic things.)
We checked out of the hotel and went to Whole Foods nearby for some fresh food supplies. Since it was a weekday morning, the store was fairly empty, but while we were paying for our items, the Real Housewives-type woman in line in front of us noticed we were buying kefir and felt the need to warn us against it. Her reasoning was that it had given her a yeast infection. It had to be the kefir, she said, since she was a very healthy person and never put anything in her body that could have given her the yeast infection except kefir. We thanked her for her concern and went ahead and bought our kefir.
The salesperson who checked us out at REI across the street was gay. He and his husband had not been to Great Basin yet, but we traded stories of Zion National Park. Hooray for gays in the Parks!
We finally got on the road at about a quarter to eleven, and Sean got a glimpse of the Las Vegas strip as we headed out of town on I-15 for the five-hour drive to Baker, Nevada.
We left I-15 at US-93, the Great Basin Highway, heading north.
Sean turned on Dan Deacon’s “America” as we drove along. It was an atmospheric listen against the landscape. We skirted Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge and continued through the transition zone between the Mojave Desert and the Great Basin Desert.
North of Caliente, we pulled over to have a look at a Joshua Tree Forest before we rose finally out of the the Mojave.
We stopped for gas in Pioche, a little town perched on the side of a mountain range overlooking a broad basin. We had arrived in the Great Basin. We listened to “Unqualified with Anna Faris” and “My Dad Wrote a Porno” as we drove along.
After a while, it became clear that we had entered Spring Valley, west of the Snake Range and Great Basin National Park. I pulled over, Sean woke up, and I snapped some images of a distant range, which I suspected was the Snake Range. I assumed, rightly, that the high peak out in the blue distance was Wheeler Peak, the roof of the Park.
Near a massive wind farm, we reached US-50, the famous “loneliest road in America.” We turned northeast and headed over Sacramento Pass through the Snake Range from Spring Valley to Snake Valley.
Descending into Snake Valley, we saw a young man pushing a cart up the shoulder of the road. A sign on the cart indicated that he was “walking America.” I regret not turning back to talk to him.
We reached Baker, Nevada, the gateway town for Great Basin National Park, at 4:30pm. Our first stop was the Visitor Center in town where we were greeted by Ranger Kevin. I mentioned that I knew Edith and Tom Auchter, who run the astronomy program in the summers. Ranger Kevin said that he had been partying with them the previous night as they said goodbye for the season. The Auchters had left that morning to travel to Wyoming for the eclipse before continuing on home to Illinois.
Ranger Kevin said that they’d seen a lot of visitors arrive that day and that if we wanted to snag a camping spot at Wheeler Peak Campground, the highest in the Park, we should get going. We thanked him and headed out.
Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive is the main road in Great Basin National Park. It was developed by the Forest Service in reaction to the push in the 1950s to create a National Park in the Snake Range. The National Park proposal had called for a less-obtrusive road, but in the classic Forest Service-Park Service rivalry of the mid-twentieth century, the Forest Service had freaked out and developed campgrounds and other visitor services to ward off transfer to the Park Service. The result was a steep, dramatic road that rises some 4,000 feet on an 8% grade in twelve twisting, turning miles.
I am mildly acrophobic, particularly in moving vehicles, so my hands were clammy on the steering wheel as we made our way up the scenic drive for the first time.
Wheeler Peak Campground is set in an aspen and pine forest 10,000 feet up the slopes of Wheeler Peak.
Ranger Kevin was right. The campground was quite full, and we were able to nab the very last available site, #21. It wasn’t ideal in that it was located in the center of a cul-de-sac and near some bathrooms. But it at least boasted a view of the high peaks, Jeff Davis and Wheeler. We set up camp, including our brand new tent for the first time.
Yes, Jeff Davis Peak is named for that Jefferson Davis. It was named in 1855 by Lieutenant Colonel Edward Steptoe, U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers, for then Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis. Currently, the US Geological Survey is considering a proposal to rename the peak for former slave Robert Smalls who fought in the Union Army and was later elected to Congress from South Carolina.
We made dinner, but did not start a campfire because we intended to go to that evening’s astronomy program down at the Lehman Caves Visitor Center.
As dusk lengthened the shadows, we drove back down Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive, dodging suicidal Jackrabbits with clammy hands on the steering wheel. We descended all the way back down to Baker in search of firewood. Hand-written signs led us in a circle until we found some for sale on the honor system.
After getting the wood, we headed back into the Park to Lehman Caves Visitor Center. We were a few minutes late for the Ranger’s presentation on light pollution and the dark skies movement. We carefully made our way to the edge of the group and set up our camp chairs. Ranger Annie did a first-rate job with her presentation (projected onto the side of trailer). In addition to situating the Park within one of the darkest stretches of sky in the lower forty-eight, she pointed out the Visitor Center’s light pollution reduction features and called our attention to the bats fluttering above us.
After the presentation, we lined up for some views through the Park’s high-powered telescopes. That evening we got to see Bode’s Galaxy and, thrillingly, the rings of Saturn.
Then it was back up the scenic drive, which was decidedly less frightening for me in the dark, although we took our time. We stopped at Mather Point, two-thirds of the way up, to take in the Milky Way over Wheeler Peak.
Back in camp, I made a hot water bottle, and we climbed into our tent and went to sleep.