Toquima Range and Big Smoky Valley in a dust storm.
There are stories, and then there are stories. There are the stories already written, filed away in computer drives and manilla folders, and there are the stories that come to me out of the blue while I’m driving down some road, often Highway 50 where I seem to do most of my on-pavement travel these days. When I look north and south from Highway 50, down the great basins like Big Smoky Valley or along the great mountain ranges like the Toiyabe Range, I see memories as far as I can see—sometimes farther than I can see—often all the way to the next major east-west highway like I-80 to the north and Route 6 to the south. I'm not sure if all those memories should count as belonging to Highway 50 in particular, but some of them clearly do.
It starts this way, whether driving or riding in the passenger seat: I'll spot some familiar canyon or notice a particular bend in a dirt road, ahead of me or way off in the distance, and suddenly I'm part way up that canyon or around that bend, seeing the place the way I saw it the first time. And as I drive by these places—many of them tens of miles from pavement, some of them nearly a hundred, all of them hazy with the time and distance, many of them not quite visible through mountains or over the curvature of the earth—the times and places begin to overlap, and I can see all the times for a particular place and see all the places for some particular time.
Toquima Range and Big Smoky Valley on a clear day.
I've thought of writing up these memories of Highway 50: it’s the highway with the widest reach across my past and across central Nevada, and I've been thinking about this during at least the last four trips. I could start at one end of the state and work my way to the other end—either end being possibly less rich in memories than the middle—or I could start somewhere in time, like the first time, working my way forward into the present, or at least into the 1980s when travel down that road became less and less frequent, until travel became more frequent again sometime after the 1990s.
Having to start somewhere, I’ll start with my first trip on Highway 50, a geology field trip taken with a required graduate class entitiled Geology of Nevada, a semester-long class with three weekend (or weekend plus) field trips. This was our first trip, and for some of us—for non-Nevadans like me—it was our first real foray into Nevada. What do I remember most about Highway 50 and environs from that trip?
Shadows on mountains in central Nevada.
First off, I remember the breathtaking vastness and the unexpected clarity of the views across central Nevada’s basins and ranges. It was fall, and the light was low on the horizon, the shadows were deep, the clouds came and went, casting shadows of their own, changing and adding to the deep browns and bluish purple hues of late September, or was it early October?
I remember looking for graptolites in the brown-weathering shales of the Ordovician Vinini Formation, finding them on moderately steep slopes under a thin piñon and juniper canopy in the early morning of the second day. Did we have breakfast? Or beer the night before? I don’t remember the food or drink; I remember the graptolites and the cool morning, I remember the sun rising and heating up the hills slowly, rising and finally hitting our fossiliferous field stop.
Petes Summit Road, heading toward the pass, passing Spencer Hot Spring.
Petes Summit it was, a low pass over the Monitor Range just east of Spencer Hot Springs, on a dirt road that I’ve since passed over countless times. We had camped there the first night, after a stop at Bob Scott Summit east of Austin. I know we stopped at Bob Scott, though I don’t remember why, but the summit names Austin, Bob Scott, and Pete’s were forever mapped into the topography of my mind.
At the time, I knew nothing about Nevada's cool fall nights, and had bought a mummy bag to replace the thin, rectangular bag I had brought with me from the east coast, where summer nights were often warmer than wanted, usually muggy and humid, maybe cooling if you stayed up late enough. I had sought out a down sleeping bag at the local Army surplus store on 4th Street, as other grad students had recommended. The guy there sold me a clean, used, fluffy bag that was supposed to be "good to 20 degrees," which seemed unfathomably cold to me, surely good enough to for my field trip needs.
It wasn't. I found out later that I had purchased a sleeping bag filled with feathers, not down. No wonder it was so cold that first night under the stars and trees on Pete’s Summit. Weather Underground puts the lows in nearby Austin, NV at 39 to 40 F in late September, down below freezing in early October, and as low as 17 F in late October. I’m not sure what the date was—it was probably late September, but even with the temps just down to 40 F or so, I shivered all night. I bought a space blanket shortly thereafter, and upgraded to real down within a couple years.
Diamond Mountains on the eastern horizon, as seen from near Lone Mountain.
Other memories from that trip come harder, but are also within the range of my views from Highway 50: the old mills at Cortez (at the time, pronounced COR-tehz by the locals, run that last syllable quickly), my first view of Gold Acres across the valley from Cortez, and the triangular facets in Crescent Valley (the latter being closer to I-80 than to Highway 50, but around a viewable corner, visible from a Highway 50 field trip).
Oh, and then there was the spectacular arm waving from a hill just outside Eureka, with arms waving toward and beyond the Diamond Mountains, then back toward the Roberts Creek Mountains, then back to Diamond Peak: waving at and pointing out the overlap terrane of Mississippian Diamond Peak Formation reportedly sitting on both the eastern and western assemblages of the nearly unimaginably huge Roberts Mountains Thrust. Can you see it? Just over there?
Lone Mountain north of Highway 50, near Eureka, NV.
And Lone Mountain. I took a picture of it from the dirt road heading south into Antelope Valley, one of the better viewing spots for the mountain and for the Eureka Quartzite on its west side. I later drew the formations, Op through Srm through Dd, on one of the printed photos I glued into the field trip report I wrote for class. I think of that first time at Lone Mountain anytime I stop to take a picture, anytime I look deeply into the Eureka Quartzite while driving by.
Yes, those are my first memories of Highway 50: late September or early October, 1975.