Friday, May 26, 2017

Central Nevada Road Trip - 6. Diana's Punchbowl and Stonehouse Stage Station

Central Nevada Journal for Friday, 5/12/17 - In which we further explore Monitor Valley, Diana's Punchbowl, an old stage station, and are brought to our knees by some little bits of gravel.

Note that you can single click a photo for a full-screen slideshow view.

Diana's Punch Bowl, Monitor Valley, and the Toquima Rangh
Neither I, nor Eric (thank God) are early risers. But I do like my quiet time with coffee and my journal in the morning. Today I barely disturbed Eric’s deep breathing as I climbed out at 7, stealthily crafted my coffee, (AeroPress) and took it back to bed to scribble a few more pages in my 7 X 10 Canson Sketch Book. The focus and the flow of real ink from a fountain pen (Lamy) are like a meditation, the recording of the previous day’s events almost secondary. As I told Eric, while discussing the comparative benefits of digital vs. hand writing, just seeing my bottle of Noodler’s moves me a step into the meditative state. No lie.

The approach to a late 1800's stage station, the two-story structure of native stone
dwarfed beneath the 12,000 foot peaks of the Toquima Range within the
immensity of Monitor Valley
Soon we sat with our breakfast, instant McCann’s Rolled Oats, in our blue folding chairs in the sunny spot with the view of Ralston Valley, planning the day. The sun felt good, as it was a crisp and breezy morning. The plan was to further explore the vast Monitor Valley. Monitor Valley is 10 to 20 miles wide and 70 miles from north to south. It is huge, providing clear vistas across the sagebrush terrain of the snow-capped peaks of the Toquima Range on the west, which reaches elevations of over 10,000 feet. Similar elevations are reached by the peaks to the east, and the valley itself is at nearly 7,000 feet elevation. So we bundled up a bit, and enjoyed being buffeted by the wind when we stopped to check out a playa. Our objective was an old stage station called Stone House, Diana’s Punchbowl, and the wonders, finally, of White Rock.

Stone House was built in 1869 as a station on the Belmont-Austin stage line
Stone House was one of the places I remembered well from my time here in the late 1960’s. Although it is an impressive two-story structure of local stone, it is nearly lost visually in the vastness of Monitor Valley. According to Shawn Hall in Preserving the Glory Days of Ghost Towns and Mining Towns of Nye County, Nevada, it was built as a station on the Belmont-Austin stage line in 1869 and operated for thirty years, also serving as a gathering place with dances held in the ballroom which occupied the second floor. While the folks of Belmont have done a heroic job of rescuing the fine old courthouse there, energy and resources are just spread too thinly over this sparsely-populated landscape to protect all of the old buildings, and we found that Stone House has collapsed considerably over the 49 years since I had last seen it. 

Stone House in 1968
Nevertheless, it is still an imposing and photogenic structure, made even more interested by the several wattle and daub outbuildings. According to Shawn West, after no longer being used as a stage station, a native American family named Hooper bought the station in the 1880’s and operated it as a cattle ranch, adding several additional structures. It may be that the wattle and daub construction of several outbuildings at the site represents a traditional Native American solution to building construction in the desert, where lumber must come from distant mountain ranges. They have weathered the desert storms and are in better condition than the stone building. I found their texture made for fine photographic subject matter. 

An interesting wattle and daub structure behind the main building at Stonehouse was probably added  by a native American family who owned the facility following its use as a stage station in the 1880's. These 140-year-old structures are worthy of consideration for preservation as possible representatives of traditional native American construction solutions to building where lumber is difficult to obtain.

Further north up the valley we turned east on the mile or so long side road that approached Diana's Punchbowl. Over the past several thousand years, this mineral-laden hot spring, energized by the fading volcanic forces that created the layer upon layer of extrusive volcanic rocks now exposed in the tilted fault block mountains, has built a deposit of travertine nearly one quarter of a mile wide and rising 60 to 75 feet above the valley floor. A circular, 60-foot-diameter crater-like opening tops the mound, with a pool of steaming water 15 or 20 feet below the rim. 

The approach to Diana's Punchbowl, a 60 to 75 foot high deposit of travertine nearly a quarter of a mile in diameter.

Nearly 60 mile-an-hour winds off of snow-capped peaks, driven by a passing front be darned - we enjoyed our bath immensely.
To build the mound, the spring must have spilled over its top in ages past, creating a deep blue infinity pool of hot water. Now the spring seeps out around the sides of the mound, with part of the flow collected in a dug canal. Here the water temperature has decreased to "just right", and despite the high wind we stripped down, dipped our aluminum washpan into the flow, and repeatedly dump it over our bodies delighting in the warm water and the chance to scrub off a bit of accumulated grime. 

Back at the truck our feeling of cleanliness and refreshment quickly evaporated as we crawled around in the dust replacing a leaky tire. Now we were about 40 miles from Belmont, and another 50 from real auto service in Tonopah without a spare. The gravel roads were looking increasingly treacherous to us, so drove at a sedate pace. It was about 5 or 6 PM as we approached Belmont, having given up for another day our search for the real White Rock because of the late hour and lack of a spare. After our second failed tire in three days, we had gained real respect for desert travel, the possible hazards now welling up into our awareness. Besides, dark clouds and distant virga threatened a shower. We were thinking about the cozy bar as we approached the lone brick smoke stack of the mill about a mile and a half from Belmont when there was a thump and swishing sound as if we had run over a tumbleweed. Except that there was no tumbleweed. Eric said, “We’ve had a blowout”. Sure enough, the right rear had a big, unrepairable rip in it. Thinking there might be enough air in the slow-leak tire we’d removed at Dianna’s Punchbowl to limp into town, we put it on. No go. As Eric pointed out, driving on it would likely destroy it, "It's our only ticket back into Tonopah."

So we dragged by ourselves on foot up over the low pass. At over 7,000 feet Eric patiently held his pace to match that of low-lander Pops. Cruising downhill into town our spirits picked up a bit, but it was still with our tails between our legs that we pushed open the door to the Belmont bar. We were immediately welcomed by Puggie, and directed to the pot luck buffet. When we explained our situation she introduced us to her husband, Jason, a slender cowboy and contractor who thought they might be able to scare up a tire for us, and plug the slow leak. He conferred with his father-in-law, Ray, a tall and slender man in jeans and long-sleeved shirt, the costume generally topped with a straw hat from Michoacán adopted by the local cattle ranchers. We heard Ray say, “We can do that!”, accepting helping out a couple of tourists not as a begrudged but necessary task, but just another job for the day, like greasing up a trailer hitch, or driving over to another valley to deliver some stray cows. We immediately felt the concern and worry drop away as we dug into the very welcome supper and a couple of beers. The Friday night crowd was a large one, and included Puggie’s two grandchildren, Conner, about 8 or 9, and his sister, about 10 or 11, sitting at the table playing cribbage. An assortment of dogs completed the cozy and comfortably friendly group.

As the group broke up, we went out to Puggie’s and Jason’s place next door where Jason and Ray prepared for our rescue by filling a couple of air tanks and loading up the compressor itself into Jason’s truck. We all piled in and drove back to my forlorn Ford, where the low tire was pressured up and we drove back into town. There Ray lay in the dirt under the truck plying his craft of tire plugging, which we watched with interest, where previously it would have been met with a yawn. We learned that the gravel roads are treacherous, especially at this time of year when they are freshly graded and while without washboarding, the gravel has been popped up to lie exposed on the surface, ready to get forced into tires. Later in the year they would get driven into the road base, but now they were such a threat that locals use 10-ply, rather than the normal 4-ply, carry a plug kit and some sort of compressor, and often a second spare.

With four firm tires on the ground, Ray said he thought he would have a tire over at his place in Big Smoky Valley that would match, so we left the bad one there. He would work on that the next day after they rounded up branded some cows up at Pine Creek Ranch in Monitor Valley between Dianna’s Punchbowl and Stone House. Perhaps we would like to come and watch? Hell, yeah! Jason even offered to let us use one of his trucks, as we were without a spare for now, but I felt uncomfortable about that, and besides felt too lazy to transfer all of our gear. We chalked that offer up as another plus for these fine people, drove carefully to our campsite for another fine night’s sleep after fun talk and celebration of our “good luck, bad luck” encounter, i.e., the series of incidents that had lead to meeting Puggie, Jason, Ray, Buddy, Henry, John, Bertie, and more, including Buddy’s dog, Cassie.

Another of the wattle and daub structures at Stone House

Corral at Stone House

Stone House

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