In the years immediately following World War II, my parents did a lot of what they called car camping -- a simple procedure that involved throwing a couple of sleeping bags, a grate, a coffeepot and a box of assorted pans in the old Ford, and spending a few weeks rattling around on axle-busting roads in the great Western outback, blowing tires, mashing oil pans, and generally having a whale of a time. People don't appear to do this much anymore.
We are intimidated by notions of trespass, even on the public lands. We mistrust the oddballs, nuts, cranks and churlish ranchers often found in unsettled places. Some of us have even assumed an environmental pose and regard the internal combustion engine with fear and loathing.
It seems that half of the touring world now hikes, treks, climbs, rafts, canoes or kayaks; the other half owns an RV of some description and does its camping beside the interstate, or in one of the overcrowded, overorganized, overdeveloped, over-orchestrated, over-regulated resorts mistakenly called national parks.
We are descending from the eastern boundary of one such disgrace, freed at last from a 50-mile traffic jam that began at the El Portal entrance to Yosemite and ended, finally, at the Tioga Pass exit above Mono Lake. I have assured my wife that once we have turned east from Mono Lake we can leisurely spend the next five or six days crossing three states (four, if you count the first 50 miles of the trip in California) through some of the most spectacular and enchanting country in the inter-mountain West -- 1,000 miles of unqualified and unequaled scenery between the Sierra Nevada and the Continental Divide, and that we can do it without passing another car or traveling on anything wider than a two-lane road. She accuses me of hyperbole, but agrees to go along for the ride so long as she shares the driving.
In the far distance lies the hazy expanse of basin and range that comprises almost all of the state of Nevada; below, the lunar shores of Mono Lake, 60 square miles of ice age water that is three times saltier than the sea, 80 times more alkaline, and so dense with chlorides and sulfates that it is often referred to as "dead."
It is anything but dead. It supports as many as 50,000 brine shrimp to the cubic yard, and although the menu is limited, these tasty little invertebrates attract just about every species of grebe, duck and shorebird in North America to Mono's shores.
Humanity is another matter. People just zip by here on their way to the park, where they fight it out for a few square yards of hard-packed dirt and a smoggy rendition of vistas better perused in a collection of Ansel Adams photographs.
We head in the opposite direction, following Highway 120 east for a few miles, then picking a faint track leading off into the desert and following it to an impromptu camp, where Lynn unpacks the Coleman stove and starts supper. I stretch out on my Paco pad under a juniper and tell her to be sure to let me know if I can be useful.
AH A great expanse
All around us is a great expanse of pumice, sage and volcanic cinder cones. The sheer, unimaginable wall of the Sierra is at our backs, the knobby spires of calcium carbonate (tufa) that line the broken shores of the lake spread out below. Fire and ice. Overpowering silence. I snooze in the pearly twilight as Western gulls wheel around and around over their nesting grounds on Mono's Negit Island.
In the morning we continue east on Highway 120, a narrow, empty road over the northeasternmost spur of the White Mountains that eventually terminates at the foot of the highest point in Nevada, Boundary Peak, elevation 13,140 feet.
Pumice and volcanic sand give way to ponderosa forest and tiny purple flowers; then to open, sage-covered hills. Snow still marks the deeper crevasses on the surrounding mountains.
In the past 75 miles we have crossed paths with less than a dozen cars (gleefully pointed out by my wife), and all of them since we joined Highway 6 on its way to Tonopah, Warm Springs and Ely. At Warm Springs, population zip, we turn south on Highway 375, another two-lane blacktop even more empty and remote than the ones we have already traveled. If total isolation has proved to be a mild exaggeration on my part, Lynn is about to see how close I can really come.
Because none of this, of course, is a part of the West that people come to see, or even know enough about to want to see.
Roadside attractions are not labeled, there are no services, one brings one's own lunch. It is a part of that region generally defined (and dismissed) as the Great Basin, although this designation says nothing about its incredible variation and beauty.