The Loneliest Road and surprises

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Wednesday May 31, 2013 The Loneliest Road and surprises

I’m sitting on my folding armchair by a crispy-hot fire with my laptop open on my knees, the smell of cypress and pine all round and the sound of a rushing stream in the background, now that the birds have gone to bed. We’re in a campground in Great Basin National Park, a little-known gem on our way back to California. Mike is gone to do his star shoot, tonight he’s excited to get something over the top of the highest mountain here in the park, telling me “these are some of the darkest skies in the United States” and I’m proud I know he means there’s no ‘light pollution,’ because there are no cities for such a very long way.

I am utterly content at the moment, a wonderful dinner of ribs, corn on the cob, salad and a mango for dessert full in my tummy, with the seasoning only camping can give a good meal. When Mike and I were dating and he first fixed me dinner and his kitchen skills were so much better than mine, I thought, “I’m going to eat good if I marry this man.” And so I have—dieting is a constant in my life!

Today was another travel day, one taken up by miles of varied landscape driving as we moved from the desert in Moab to mountains still capped in snow here in Nevada. It was also taken up by the drama of The Rash.

The rash is not better today. In fact, it’s worse and has spread to my other hand, burning and stabbing like hot needles. I was intent on packing, finishing my blog post, and checking out of the Moab hotel and it wasn’t until we were wolfing down a late breakfast at Denny’s (steak and eggs for Mike, the ‘Lite’n Fit’ veggie platter for me) that I showed him both hands. “I think the rash is worse.”

“Well, what do you want to do about it?”

“I think it’s time to go to a doctor.” I’d taken double Benadryl the night before and put on cortisone cream twice in the night, only to have it spreading and more painful than ever.

We googled Urgent Care and there was one in Moab, and an emergency room too, but it didn’t open for another two hours. “Let’s get on the road,” Mike said. “There are a lot of towns between here and Great Basin. Someone will have an urgent care.”

We drove some hours, a bit scratchy with each other about the severity of the crisis, across barren plains and across an unexpected mountain range and at the next hamlet Mike used the GPS to look for doctor’s offices, dismayed to find that the one in Moab was the only major one for about 300 miles in any direction. In Salina, another hamlet, we found one—and inside the lobby, a sign on the door: “Dr. On Vacation”

At the nearby pharmacy, a woman directed us into the next town and we pulled up at another doctor’s office, only to find the door locked even though it was the right business hours. We persisted to find something and finally, two towns later in the booming metropolis of Delta, Utah, we found a family clinic that would take me as a walk-in.

Two hours later I had a new prescription and a totally different diagnosis and a culture pending, so I felt a little better that I’d been doing all I could to deal with it and hopeful it would be better soon. We got on the road for our final 2-3 hours of driving, and after awhile on the unspeakably beautiful and empty Route 50 we’ve chosen to go, we began to get our groove back.

I wrote word impressions in my battered spiral notebook as we followed a ruler-straight highway that seemed to go into infinity, with BB King’s blues keeping us company.

Passage across the Great Basin on the Loneliest Road

They call highway 50 the loneliest road, but I think it’s the loveliest. It’s raining off to the north and heaven’s trailing a bridal veil over the plain. Cobalt clefts lie among dusty mustard velvet tea-napkin hills fringed by a border of silky tasseled grass tossing in the wind of .our passage.

Salt flats gleam the glossy bone-white of the moon, set off by the smudged turquoise of an inland lake. Cloud shadows race across the open land, ephemeral dance of light and dark. Ahead, the next range of mountains glow Prussian blue and violet, beacons of snow on their peaks.

The road is so straight that oncoming cars manifest gradually, shimmering into being from miles away, mirages drawing substance into form as they coalesce. A cop light miles ahead, some poor soul getting a ticket, is a visually strident strobing; a discordant note in a country of muted golds, greens and blue, reminding us to set the cruise control at 65.

A peregrine falcon keeps up awhile beside us on cushioned wings, white and innocent underneath, stroking the air silently and dropping a bolt of death on the meadow. The wraith-column of a dust devil whirls and falls, spent haunting. A coyote trots away from roadkill, coat rough and sides lean from winter.

There’s a carmine shiver as wind ripples the firegrass alongside the gray asphalt, and as we ascend a mountain the clouds are close enough to pluck like silver cotton candy and eat with a taste of rain. The ridgeline mounts beside, frozen waves of olive dark lashing the lapis sky, and we pass the crumpled glove of a dead squirrel rolled aside by careless wheels moving much too fast.

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Thursday May 30, 2013 Great Basin’s surprise

Great Basin National Park is full of unexpected features, so the word I’m giving it is surprise. We were, first of all, surprised to have one of the worst nights of the trip in terms of cold camping—both of us (wearing multiple layers including boots) tossed, turned and shivered in an endless frigid night. Perhaps the elevation at 7500 feet and the nearby patches of snow should have clued us in, but the late evening had been warm and pleasant.

Exhausted, stiff and cranky as only cold and a sleepless night can make me, I crawled out of the tent when Mike called that coffee was ready (see why I love this man? He’d got the fire going, too) I staggered over to the fire, put my frozen boots up on the metal rim of the pit and wrapped bloodless hands around the hot mug.

“What a night from hell,” I muttered.

“That was miserable. I was hoping you were a little warmer than I was, I don’t think I ever really slept.”

“No,” was all I could manage through shivering lips until the coffee began to thaw me out.

Once the sun came out, though, the park seemed to proliferate into the glories of spring with singing birds of all sorts, industrious woodpeckers pounding away, the rippling chuckle of the nearby trout stream, wild turkeys doing mating dances and does and fawns wandering into camp.

We decided to go up to the alpine lakes at the top of the mountain as things warmed up, and we took a short hike in the chilly blue-dark pine forest leading to the glacier (surprise! A glacier?) and then turned back when we read a sign that said there were no fish in the lakes.

Mike had gone out for a sunrise shoot and found a mountainside covered with daisies, and he drove me down below our campsite to see them. It was an incredible surprise—acre after acre of bright yellow daisies covering a hill, studded with silvery granite boulders, punctuated by juniper and fir, and the moon still up, smiling in the sky above.

I shot several pictures, shaking my head at my inability to convey the utter magic of the scene, and when Mike tromped away toward the stream in pursuit of several interesting-looking songbirds, I sat down on one of the boulders in the sea of daisies and wished my Mom could see it. She loves daisies, and the whole place was like something out of a Disney film. Overcome with tiredness, hormones, homesickness and a surfeit of beauty, I lay flat on the boulder and had a good cry. (I had also begun my monthly during that miserable night—surprise!)

I eventually mopped my streaming eyes with my none-to-clean shirt from yesterday, and then just sat there, soaking it in until Mike came back. I pointed to a nearby sign. “Marmot crossing. What’s a marmot, exactly?”

“Some kind of woodchuck, I think.” Mike stowed his camera and got in.

“What’s a woodchuck?” Neither of us were sure of that and cellphone/internet was No Service. We’d heard there were also some very intricate underground caves to explore (surprise!) and we’d decided to go to the visitor center and see about breakfast and one of the ranger-led tours of the caves. Mike turned on the Jeep and we pulled forward, only to see a large brown blotch in the sand-graveled road. “Marmot! Crossing!” I exclaimed, pointing.

We looked at each other and busted up, even as Mike reached back to grab his camera and stalk the beast. It looked like a giant guinea pig in buff and brown with a brushy whisk of a tail. The marmot let him get about 50 away before it ducked into a hole. We were both delighted and continued on, only to spot marmots two more times, either lying in the road sunbathing or spread like a fat fur rug over a boulder.

I just looked up Marmot on my phone, (there’s cell service for a moment as we drive) because, even having met them personally now I’m not sure what they are—and it turns out we just met a Great Basin yellow-bellied marmot, a subspecies of ground squirrel of which there are 35 varieties. And people, these are not small animals—they were at least twenty to thirty pounds of ripply big-ass guinea pig with a tail. (surprise!)

The caves were also a surprise. Eighty feet down, two miles long, dense with stalactites, stalagmites, popcorn and “shield” formations, the famous Lehman Caves kept us craning our necks photographing this accessible and interesting phenomena located just behind the visitor center. I loved the cool damp environment, the smell like mushrooms and lemon water, though not the absolute pitch darkness that happened when we all turned out our lights.

We broke camp, said goodbye to Great Basin National Park and got on Highway 50, the “Loneliest Road” by 1:30 pm, with another long drive toward our goal, Carson City, Nevada ahead at 387 miles.

Mike’s driving as I’m finishing this, typing with my laptop on my knees after driving for three hours. We just  spotted a band of wild horses on the ridge beside with a black stallion watching over the herd from a knoll, majestic head held high.

Mike pulled the car around so we could try to get a picture of the horses, but the stallion was having none of it once he spotted us. He whistled up the herd, racing down to join them, and we were treated to the sight of the band galloping away, the mares clustered around long-legged foals, raising a cloud of dust over the arid scrub.

The stallion brought up the rear, turning as soon as we stopped the car to eye us down, his tail raised and mane flying like something out of a movie, stomping one foot. We pulled back onto the road, getting the message and still watching the stallion.

He watched us, guarding his family until we were far out of sight.

We saw these things on the Loneliest Road, but we couldn’t get a picture of them. My words will have to do.

6 Responses to “The Loneliest Road and surprises”

  1. Donn W. Anderson

    Words fail me at the descriptive power of your words, Toby. Diane and I traveled The Loneliest Road in America (do they still have the Highway 50 passport?) going eastbound way back in 1986, covering many of the same places and parks you have visited. We, too, were really surprised by Great Basin National Park and we, too, descended into Lehman Cave. This blog brought it all vividly back to mind. Mahalo!

  2. Jeanine Villanueva

    Loving all of your travel descriptions, Toby! Agreed – camping in frigid temps is no fun – but it builds character, right? That’s what we always said in Boy Scouts! HaHa! As for your rash, I suggest covering it with Caladryl to reduce the discomfort – not Calamine, as Caladryl contains Benedryl. Hopefully, it’s still available. Actually, as long as you keep it covered with any kind of lotion/ointment, the itching should subside as long as the air isn’t hitting it. I find the same with sunburn. It’s always something, right? Thanks for allowing us to glimpse your wonderful trip! Aloha!

    • toby

      Great suggestion, Jeanine, the rash is very very slowly improving…or so I’m telling myself? Thanks for joining us!

  3. Holly Robinson

    Oh, Toby, I think this was my favorite travel post yet! You really have captured here all of the joy, stress, and beauty of being on the road and in rural areas. I was so tense reading the passage about your poor hands that I nearly had to pick up the phone and call to make sure you were all right–so scary! And then your descriptions of the landscape nearly brought me to my knees with admiration. Wow! Your description of the marmot made me laugh at the end; I remember camping outside of Banff in the Canadian Rockies, and waking up one morning to find our tent surrounded by whistling marmots standing on their hind legs all around us like miniature soldiers, making that shriek that guinea pigs make–so hysterical and brave at the same time! I know you’re going to stir all of these wonderful ingredients into your next novels. Bravo!