Sunday, February 10, 2013

A Day of Contrasts

 Whenever I have to do errands in Reno I am torn between getting there quickly enough to have time to do all the errands and stopping for photos.  If I yielded to the latter impulse, I'd never get to Reno.  Highway 70, from Quincy to Hellelujah Junction is an amazing route through a transition zone from the Ponderosa Pine or Transition Zone typical of the west slope of the Sierra to the Sagebrush Dominated high desert of the Great Basin.  On yesterday's drive, I resisted the photo urge until I crossed over Beckwourth Pass and descended into the Long Valley.  Up until that point, I contented myself with identifying the peaks along the way and dreaming about forthcoming summer hikes.  As I left Quincy, I said good-bye to the wall of peaks toward the North: Mt. Hough, Grizzly Peak, and Argentine Peak, where I do a lot of hiking and photography as soon as enough snow melts and throughout the summer and fall. After passing by Williams Loop and through Spring Garden, I was on the lookout for another set of peaks that are dear to me.  On the right (to the South) is Nelson Ridge where we hiked some years ago on our backpacking trip from Johnsville to LaPorte. On the left, after rounding a certain curve near Cromberg, Mt. Tomba looms over the highway.  Denuded by a forest fire some years ago, it is nevertheless intriguing as I imagine the great views possible from the top.  Then there was Penman Peak on the left, and the three peaks that dominate Plumas-Eureka State Park on my right: Eureka Peak, Mt. Washington, and Mt. Elwell.  Then Mills Peak on the right followed by Smith Peak on the left.  These latter two are topped by fire lookouts which makes them all the more interesting to visit, that is, if you like to see humans on your mountains.
When I drive through Portola, I'm sorry to say, I don't really look at Portola.  No fault of Portola's.  I just can't keep my eyes off the river or Beckworth Peak.  Also, despite the small town infrastructure and buildings, it is also apparent that I'm passing through an ecotone, leaving the large Ponderosa Pines of the West Slope and seeing more Sagebrush, smaller Jefferey Pines, and am nearing the edge of the Sierra Valley, a nice entryway to the Great Basin just over Beckworth Pass.  Driving through Sierra Valley is a kind of challenge for one with wandering eyes.  It seems the safe speed is 75, unless you want to get read-ended or feel guilty about tempting someone to pass you in an unsafe manner.  Yesterday there was practically no traffic there, so I had the luxury of reviewing the peaks all around me, especially contemplating my special attachment ot Dixie Mountain, Ina Coolbrith and the distant Babbitt Peak which I visited last summer.  There are many places along 70 in Sierra Valley where I like to stop, but I resisted.  Lunch in Reno beckons, plus the list of errands.
When I got close to Hallelujah Junction, I couldn't resist.  I had to park by the side of the road and explore the Sagebrush for a while.  I loved the 360-degree panoramas.  The cold, dry air was refreshing, and the silence.  The incredible silence reminded me of certain caves I've explored which are so silent that it feels like my ears are reaching out to grab sound just as my eyes are reaching out to grab some light.  The solitude was very relaxing.  My reverie was disturbed only by my awareness that there was a barbaric coyote killing contest going on a few hours north.  Ah, yes.  The joy of killing.  Hopefully, our species is still evolving and that vestigial trait will disappear altogether.  Not in my lifetime, I'm sure.
I was enthralled by the close up look at the Sagebrush, Bitterbrush, and Rabbitbrush which collectively gave the entire scene a blue-gray look.  These shrubs tend to be fairly evenly spaced as an adaptation to the lack of moisture, so it is easy to walk through Sagebrush without getting scratched.  It's especially nice in winter when you don't have to worry about rattlesnakes hiding in the shade.  In summer, I like to come here specifically to see rattlesnakes, but that requires an entirely different kind of careful.
My day dreaming was interrupted by my spotting a yellow-green clump of shrub some hundred yards off the road.  I decided to check it out.  AT first I thought it might be a dead or dying juniper.  On my way there, I found a discarded political sign for the man I voted for but who lost.  I was well aware that I was walking through country where his politics do not hold sway.  I wondered how the sign got here.  Maybe like the seeds of grass, it was carried by the wind.
Upon close inspection, the mystery plant turned out to be Ephedra.  When I first discovered this plant it was introduced to me as Squaw Tea.  I didn't like that name, but I didn't object.  I remembered "There's no law west of the Pecos."  I learned that line in college when I visited Judge Roy Bean's outpost where the Pecos joins the Rio Grande in Texas.  I've since heard it called Mormon Tea, Brigham Tea, Cowboy Tea, Canyon Tea, and Whorehouse Tea.  When I got home, I did some internet
research on this intriguing plant, and uncovered all sorts of facts and stories.  I think I'll save my Ephedra story for another post.
Meanwhile, I was impressed how any object of a dark color or projecting above the sandy surface absorbed heat.  While the air temperature hovered around freezing, the trunks of Sagebrush were warm, as were the various boards, sticks, and dark rocks strewn about.  I had a hunch that this warmth might be  supporting some animal activity.
Sure enough, under the first rotten board I picked up was a very active centipede.
I playing with it for a little while, took some photos, then let him go back into hiding.
I crammed a lot of thoughts and experiences into my 20-minutes visit to the Sagebrush, but had to put the camera away and head for Reno and NOISE!
I'll save my readers from any detailed description of my time in Reno.  I'm a naturalist, and I didn't really see anything natural there.  I was happy to be driving into the sunset a few hours later and seeing all those familiar mountains in reverse order and re-entering the zone of really big trees.  We also saw lots of deer during that last 20 miles into Quincy.


  1. Very nice post Joe, I love the Sierra Valley, one of the more understated locations in all the Sierra. I agree with your brief assessment of Reno, noise and people. Excellent story and photos!



  2. I enjoyed the reading! I live in Greenville and have traveled the same journey to Reno or Chico stopping for a moment to get lost in nature and my camera before the busyness of the city. Very nice blog! Thank you.