Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Central Nevada Road Trip - Part 3. Into the Desert

Mono Lake at dawn
(Note that clicking any image will open up a larger version and allow clicking through all of the images in sequence. Of course, you will want to do that only after you have enjoyed my engaging prose below)

Journal for Wednesday, 5/10/17

The western sky glimpsed thru the trailer window as I rolled over cozy at 4:30AM was a gentle orange merging up into deep blue - a nudge of a reminder that night was soon to become day, and that we had risked eviction to camp near the lake for the opportunity to photograph the tufa towers at first light. Maybe, maybe not, I semi-decide as I roll over for more delightful snoozing. But soon my 77-year-old urinary tract has me up again. With a wistful glance at the still-warm, tossed-back bedding I find myself dressing, grabbing tripod and Sony bag, and heading out into the day. Eric, awakened by my rustling, is already out, winding through the sagebrush labyrinth toward the lake shore. As I stumble sleepily along in his wake the sun is already touching the peaks of the snow-capped eastern Sierras. Almost sensing the earth's inexorable rotation I pick up my hustle a bit to get to the tufa towers for that special light. At the shore they are silhouettes for a moment against the glowing mountains, then they are lit in turn. Every direction has a stunning scene – the sun winking behind a tower out in the lake, mountains framed between odd shapes that could only be imagined by Antoni Gaudi. I meet up with Eric and we watch an osprey carrying a fish as it swoops and dives, calling all the while as if performing a victory dance before delivering it to a scraggly nest atop one of the towers.

Carson Peak as seen from Silver Lake
Snow is down to the road in places, the mountains dazzling and closing in as we explore the June Lake Loop, a glaciated valley cut into the heart of the eastern Sierra. The view climaxes as we push to the shore of Silver Lake through springy willows just coming into leaf. The impossibly steep and craggy face of Carson Peak reflected in the still water is just one of many such spectacles along the eastern face of the Sierran fault block. The gentle sound of the flow of water around the boulders at the lake’s outlet contrasts with the distant roar of a snowmelt cascade from a high hanging valley.

The Sierras are left behind as we head east into the desert. Their rampart marks the western boundary of the Great Basin, where the trapped rivers never reach the sea.

Heading into the deep desert. Photo by Eric from his aerie atop the jumble of boulders he climbed in search of cell signal

Eric summits a jumble of eroded granitic bedrock
to commune with Instagram followers.
We finally leave the Sierras in our wake as we head off into the desert proper, rolling east on Hwy 120 between the south shore of Mono Lake and the dark basalt of geologically recent volcanic craters and cinder cones. At a photo break among pinon pines and deeply weathered granite cliffs and boulders above Benton I enjoy the textures and resinous desert scents while Eric clambers to the top of a jumble of granite in search of the signal bars that will enable contact with his Instagram followers. I’m happy to sit and breath and feel gratitude for being in this lovely place with my son who shares that appreciation – even if diverted on occasion by his need for an internet hit.

The Great Basin desert is far from a monotonous dune-covered waste. Crustal stretching has created a series of fault-block mountains separated by wide valleys. The White Mountains are one of its highest ranges, with peaks of over 14,000 feet. Most of the range lies within California. The boundary with Nevada passes through the notch at the north end of the range, placing Boundary Peak at the far left in Nevada. At an elevation of 13,147 feet, it is the tallest peak in Nevada.
Onward, circling the north end of the majestic White Mountains, where somewhere up there in that nourishing whiteness exist some of the oldest beings on earth, hopefully out of reach of man’s desire to pave and cut. The approach to Tonopah is slow over long grades and featureless desert. I comment to Eric that Hwy 6, rather than Hwy 50, better deserves the epithet of the state’s loneliest road. Eric points out that there is a lot of competition for that title in Nevada. With the scenic desolation my fears that the trip might turn out to be a huge bore for Eric began to rise again. But of course I should not have feared. In Tonopah’s outdoor mining museum we were both perked up by the photographic possibilities of the old structures, and impressed at the appreciation of the local people for their historical heritage, and the energy they put into preserving it. This impression was to continue into Belmont and its environs.

The Silver Top tipple, May 10, 2017
In my darkroom days of dim lights and trays of chemicals the process of photography was only just beginning once the negatives were dry. Hands and pieces of cardboard on coathanger handles were used to lighten selected areas of an image by holding back the projected enlarging light, or darken areas by giving them a bit more exposure through a hole in cardboard or an opening configured by contorting one’s hands. It was even possible to locally control contrast, as well as exposure. Image processing in the digital world allows even more control, and the fun and artistic expression of taking an image far from its original look. Options include turning a color image into a black and white one with all of the filtering options previously available in the film world, and then some. Perhaps it was the memory of my earlier photos of the Tonopah mining structures, or the textures and contrasts of the subjects themselves that called for a black and white representation, but that’s where I found myself going in the processing stage of the Tonopah photos taken as we wandered through the outdoor Tonopah Mining Museum. 

The Silver Top tipple - 1968
We rambled around and within the old structures and buildings until closing time, then gassed up and headed out Hwy 6 for a bit, then north on 376 and finally attempting to skirt the potholes of 82 to the Belmont campground, pleasantly located among pinon pines, junipers, and warm-colored outcrops of deeply-weathered granite. The campground has no water supply, but does include clean pit toilets and is well maintained by the Belmont community. 

As we set up the trailer where it would be our home for the next three nights Eric pointed out deep sidewall cracks in one of its tires. Discovering that the spare had insufficient pressure, we put our heads together for a moment and came up with the thought that, “Someone in town must have an air compressor”. And so we enjoyed a dinner of delicious Indian curry cooked by Eric, confident in solving our problem, but really having no idea of the degree of kindness and warmth of the Belmont community we would unleash in the coming few days.

Inside the hoist operator's station, Silver Top Mine, Tonopah

Door to the Silver Top Mine hoist

The huge timbers for the Desert Queen hoist works were shipped by rail and freight wagon from Truckee, California,
The hoist drum for the Silver Top Mine is about 7 feet in diameter. Chalk marks in the operator's station say that it was last used in 1944. Contrary to the graffiti and decay I feared to find, these and other remnants of mining history were
obviously appreciated and well cared for by local and county groups. Buildings were even more accessible than when
I had wandered around them in the late 1960's with my camera.

Hoist controls for the Silver Top shaft. The wheel seen through the door on the left is an indicator showing the
operator the level of the man cage or cart elevator. Once raised to the surface the carts were rolled across to
the tipple seen below, where the ore was dumped into railcars for shipment to a mill.

The Silver Top tipple looks much as it did in 1968 when I photographed it with my twin lens Ricoh. The difference is that
it is now safely accessible.

Eric peruses the gazetteer planning the next leg during lunch at the museum parking lot in Tonopah. I've put together our "San Juan Tuna" - a recipe learned on a river trip in southeast Utah. Key ingredients include olives, raisins, chopped nuts, small diced apple - as well as tuna and mayo. One of Orowheat's heartier breads and lettuce wraps it up. Eric planned and prepared all of our dinners, based on curry dishes he had enjoyed in India.

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