Days of Nights

in search of dark skies

Month: August 2017 (Page 2 of 2)

Hello Nevada

Ruby Mtns. Ruby Lake

I decided to follow the Pony Express Trail to get to Elko NV. I traveled it from the Nevada state line to Salt Lake City in 2013. I have made frequent use of it in my visits to Simpson Springs. On my visit to Elko in 2012, I noted the Trail at the southern end of the Ruby Mountains. I thought one day it would be interesting to arrive this way. As I was planning my trip I needed information about the actual route in Nevada. There are a number of websites that relate the history and identify the stations. But there was only one source I found that mapped out the markers and the roads. Someone had pinned a Google Map and included descriptions. There were some parts of it that seemed incomplete. There were others where it seemed wiser to take a higher quality road close by and reconnect a ways further on. I had a general idea of where I was going and felt confident that I would find my way.

My first stop after leaving Salt Lake City was Simpson Springs. No problem here. When I came out here in June I tried using the campsite I had used with my little truck and a tent. It turned out to be not very level and to say the least presented a lot of problems. The site above this was actually a loop and turned out to be quite level. It had a good view and I was able to get in some good stargazing after the moon went down.

The next stop was near Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge. There is no camping on the site but I anticipated finding a suitable location not too far away on a side road. That side road was Sand Pass Road. There is nothing but hard-packed white clay and salt-tolerant shrubbery with no turnouts or previously used campsites. I drove for miles until I decided I would just have make a camp somewhere, in less than ideal conditions. The site was suitable with a nice view of the mountains to the west. But the heat, the wind, and the flies were significantly challenging. The moon and clouds prevented any stargazing, though there was a fantastic sunset and even better sunrise. On my was back to Fish Springs I stopped to check out the Overland Stage marker I had noticed on my out. There was a sink hole with a section of an abandoned road behind it which would have made a fine campsite. Many miles less than I had traveled. It is important to investigate sites that are of particular interest or somewhat unusual for potential camping. Paying attention to details becomes very important.

My next destination was to be somewhere near the Deep Creek Mountain Range near the Nevada state line. I had noted an attractive site in the Overland Canyon on the 2013 road trip. The Deep Creeks are pretty awesome and worth coming back to spend more time exploring. As attractive as the canyon is, there are no turnouts or previously used campsites. So I kept driving up to the summit pass. There I found an ideal site at the top of an open hill with a decent access road and a much-used and level campsite. Again, the moon and clouds denied me any decent stargazing, until just before daybreak, when a portion of the eastern sky opened up.

The next day I knew was going to be a long one, full of a number of unknowns. I had less than a half a tank of gas. Even after I added the five I had in the storage container. Ibapah is a very small town, and there is no gas available here. The next option, which I was prepared to make, was to drive to Wendover, a distance of 55 miles. And fill up. I used a quarter of the full tank just to get back to Ibapah to begin my westward journey again. I missed the turnoff for the Trail, even though there is a street sign that says “Pony Express Rd.” and I ended up dead-ending in the middle of Goshute Tribal Lands. I returned to Ibapah and corrected myself. The Pony Express Trail travels for some distance through Tribal Lands. There are signs warning against trespassing and hunting. The Trail continues on through Antelope Valley. There are road signs for Highway 93, but I didn’t encounter any signage for the Pony Express Trail until I was about 2/3 the way through the valley. The road that branched off looked sketchy, so I decided to stay on the better road. I knew as long as I ended up on Highway 93 near Schellbourne Station I was going to be alright. It is a good road climbing over a juniper covered mountain pass and going through a green valley at the north end of which the Pony Express Trail road enters from the east. From this end the road looks decent. No big deal. A few miles extra, and going with what looked like better conditions. The road then climbed over the Schell Mountains. Very pretty forested in pinyon. No suitable camping along this way. Coming down the west slope It began to rain. There was Highway 93. Schellbourne Station used to be a tourist stop. The store and the motel are now abandoned. On the other side is a spacious and elaborate roadside rest area with large pull-through parking, maps and descriptive panels. Rest rooms I assume also. The signs for the Pony Express Trail point west from this intersection. Again based on what I gleaned from the Google Map I felt more confident going up through Cherry Creek and picking up the Trail west of there. There looked on the map like there wasn’t even a through road. The good road heading west out of Cherry Creek climbed through the mountains then turned north as the forest cleared. I needed to be heading west across Butte Valley. I back-tracked to find a poorer road forking off to the southwest, following it down to the valley floor. With no signs indicating any junction with the Pony Express Trail. Many of the roads on Google Maps are labeled with County Road numbers. No such identification exists in the field. At the junction of the north-south road there was a sign to the north which said “Rough Road.” I figured I was still north of the Pony Express Trail map-wise, so I headed south. I drove far too long looking for a road west across the valley. I began to get concerned about running low on fuel and not being able to get where I wanted to be, or detouring again either to Ely or to Wells. Running out of fuel in the middle of nowhere was not an option. Map-wise I was not very far from Ruby Lake. I decided to turn back north and look for that elusive road west. I passed the “Rough Road” sign, which was of little consequence and within a mile spotted a BLM “XP Trail” marker. So I actually crossed the Trail without even knowing it. Then I looked to the west. Two deep ruts carved through the sagebrush. Under other circumstances I would not have considered towing a trailer through that. But I had no choice. This was the Pony Express Trail and this was my way across Butte Valley to Ruby Lake. I expected the road to get better.

It did not. About halfway across the valley was a road sign indicating Long Valley was 10 miles ahead; Ruby Lake 29. Close enough as I had thought. I at least had enough gas to go the distance and then some. Indeed the driving was horrendous. Deep ruts, washouts, and gullies. I was trying as well as I could to be gentle on my trailer. The truck could handle anything. But the trailer was not built for this rough and tumble. In the midst of all this anguish a most beautiful and inspiring experience. On my right a light colored wild horse galloping at full speed crossed the road ahead of me, mane and tail flying, the whole body working with power and determination. To my left I noticed four other horses also galloping along at full speed. The horse on the left joined up with the other four, and after a moment of interaction, led them away on my left. With the light colored horse in the lead, they crossed the road ahead of me and headed for a small hill wooded with junipers. They paused to check me out, then ran away into cover. I would have three more encounters with small groups of wild horses, each very similar to this one; galloping along the side of the road and disappearing into the forest. I wondered if they were intimidated by motor vehicles simply because they encounter them often, or if they have had bad experiences with motor vehicles and flee for their safety. It has been a much different experience with the horses in Utah. I have passed large groups of them right by the road and they seem not at all concerned. Even found them wandering through the campground one morning. Such beauty and such power. Enough to take my mind off my immediate concerns for a few moments. Crossing over the two mountain ranges was a positive part of the trip as well. The forested landscape much more attractive than endless sagebrush. And the road was generally better. There were several Overland Stage markers along this stretch: one at Butte Station, and another at Mountain Springs. There may have been others but I don’t remember. In the middle of Long Valley there was another road sign indicating Ruby Lake was still another 17 miles distant. That was a long 12 miles. There was another road hazard—sand. Coming down into Long Valley I hit a patch and nearly lost control of the truck. It’s like unexpectedly running into 8 inches of snow. The tires felt weird, like I had a flat or something, but everything checked out. It’s hard to see it coming so best drive cautiously and keep a firm grip on the wheel.

I finally entered Ruby Valley. I had visited this area back in 2012 so I knew where I was and where I wanted to be. There was just a lot of difficult sand to get through. I had to switch to 4WD a couple of times, and once I got absolutely stuck. Even had some difficulty getting out of that in 4L. I emerged on the main county road running up through Ruby Valley and noted the Pony Express Trail sign at the intersection. In 2012 I had no idea that rough looking double track was actually the Trail, not this well-maintained two lane packed gravel highway I was looking at. Up toward Overland Pass I found an actual pull-through campsite right off the road. So I had made my destination. I suffered some damage to the trailer. Wires for the electric brakes had become disconnected to one of the wheels. I had been dragging the harness for who knows how long. It looked like a simple splice and tape job in the morning to at least get me into Elko. It probably caught on one of those deep ruts I plunked down into. I expected the interior of the trailer to be a scrambled mess, with things broken even. But I found no damage. My odometer showed I had driven nearly 300 miles that day in about 10 hours. Wow. I was tired. The last night on the road. Tomorrow I would be parking myself in the trailer park.

The road into Elko was an easy one to follow. I separated from the Pony Express Trail as it descended into Huntington Valley and picked up Hastings’ Cutoff for a few miles before it joined the Hamilton-Elko Stage Road. In Jiggs the road became a two-lane blacktop with a speed of 65. The first thing I did when I reached Elko was fill up on gasoline. The next thing I did was take the truck and the trailer through the car wash. I will be spending the next two months in the trailer park east of Elko. Enjoying full-hookups, some rest, and relaxation, and getting into my retirement life. I will of course be taking some trips out to explore the surrounding areas. And I will be taking the time to plan out the course of my future travels in October.

On Interstate 80 is a mileage marker reading “Salt Lake City 230 miles.” Hah! I could have driven here on the Interstate in 4 hours! Instead I took 5 days and drove 600 miles. But I got to see all those things and have all those experiences, for better or worse, that I would not have gotten on the freeway.

Farewell Utah

Deep Creek Mtns. from Goshute Tribal Lands

A lot of my Utah experience was Salt Lake City. The jobs I had there. And everything else that went with daily life in the city. Over the last 10 years or so I began exploring.  Camping for 2 or 3 nights, primarily looking for places where I could observe dark nighttime skies. I began to embrace the concept experiencing the landscape of the former Lake Bonneville, to plan my getaways and to connect my outdoor adventures. I started visiting Simpson Springs on the Pony Express Trail about 90 miles west of Salt Lake City. It is a primitive BLM campground with a reconstructed Pony Express Station. It is easily accessible from the city and one is able to see the Milky Way on moonless nights. Camping and road trips in the beginning was done in a 1978 Cadillac Sedan deVille, which I was constantly repairing. It got me where I needed to go. I only got stranded once, not too far away from home. I was grateful for my AAA membership which provided a tow. I explored as much as I could of the Simpson Mountains that I could get to in the Cadillac and hiked in from different directions. I came to appreciate the West Desert environment, especially in the mountains and their canyons. One would not expect such a varied ecosystem from the desert floor. Many of the canyons have running water that support cottonwoods, willows, and a wide variety of flowering plants. The slopes of the mountains are dominated by sagebrush and juniper, and further west, pinyon. The growths of juniper are open which makes hiking very easy. I had a goal over successive visits to the Simpsons of attaining the highest summit, Indian Peaks. The several approaches I tried failed because of intervening ridges and/or lack of suitable access. Everything changed when I purchased a 1991 Toyota pickup in 2010. That is a story in itself. More of the back roads became accessible and I was able to plan a hike that would enable me to get to the top. Which I did in 2013. There is another story here about a friend of mine who spent a fair amount of time with a wilderness group in the Simpsons who repaired the radio transmitter on the summit of Indian Peaks and got back to her truck just before a strong snowstorm stranded her for the night. We never went out there together. Another attraction for Simpson Springs are the wild horses. I have had several up close and personal experiences with large groups of them. They are quite beautiful and interesting to observe their social dynamics. You never know where they might be or if you are going to see any at all. So it is a special treat if you happen to be lucky. And then there are the dark skies. I have related my academic interest in Cultural Astronomy with direct observation of the night skies. I have no telescope. My intent has been to recreate the experience of our ancestors. Taking in the big picture. Observing the changing sky through the night, at different times of the year. Summer of course. But it is awfully hot out there in the daytime. Spring and Fall. And even a couple of trips in the Winter. When I froze my toes. I have come to appreciate solitude, silence, and darkness. I believe they are qualities we need to incorporate more into our modern lives.

Other Utah experiences include frequent visits to Antelope Island in the middle of the Great Salt Lake. A road trip I took in the Cadillac to follow the Bear River, camping out in Idaho for two nights and spending a day at Bear Lake. A road trip also in the Cadillac for three days around Green River UT. Visited three rock art sites and took a hike in the red rocks near Moab. I took a 3-day trip to Delta in January exploring the area around there, and returned a while later for a four-day camping trip in the House Range. And when I wasn’t able to get away I took numerous day hikes in the Wasatch, concentrating on the variety of perspectives around the City Creek watershed. I finally reached the summit of Grandview, after similar obstacles with Indian Peaks, also in 2013. In preparation for life on the road in a trailer, I took a four-day road trip into northwestern Utah, northeastern Nevada, and south central Idaho, to test my navigational skills, the condition of backroads, and what kind of campsites I might find along the way. Well worth it.

So I bid farewell to Utah. I would say the variety of experiences I have had over the last 14 years have prepared me for where I am today and what I am doing. My travels are going to take me throughout the United States and Canada. And I don’t know when I will be back in Utah again.

Farewell Salt Lake City

Farewell Salt Lake City. This has been my home for over 24 years. I came here from California in 1993 with a number of expectations, and I leave in 2017 with a whole new plan and equally high expectations. What I thought I could develop here to move my life forward did not materialize. All of those trains ran off the tracks. Instead I stayed working at the University for nearly 15 years. I succeeded in obtaining two Bachelor’s degrees in 2015. I developed a keen interest in Cultural Astronomy and I embraced the environment of the former Lake Bonneville. I move out tomorrow, departing from what has been so familiar for such a significant part of my life, and move into a much broader landscape in which I can do my thing on my terms. Or rather I can move into a landscape that will allow me to live in harmony with it. For one reason or another the ties that I may have here are not hard to loosen, though I promise there will be attachments no matter how far I roam or how long I am out there. What is going to be different is that I have no home to return to. In one sense my home will always be with me. In a broader sense, wherever I find dark skies I will be home.

Photograph: Salt Lake City from Antelope Island. November 2013

End. Beginning

Today was the last day of my working life. The first day of my life in retirement.  I say farewell to 3 years at the Huntsman Cancer Hospital, 7 years at the University Hospital mailroom, and a total of nearly 15 years at the University of Utah. I have been punching a time clock since I was 16 years old and it is now time to not be doing that anymore, to be living on my own schedule, and not meeting other peoples’ expectations. It has been a long road, and often not very pleasant.  But I have persevered. And now I have realized the accomplishment of setting realistic goals and methodically working my way towards them. It is a good feeling. I wouldn’t have imagined that I would even be doing this 10 years ago. There have been a lot of setbacks, disappointments, and adjustments throughout my life. And this is what I have ended up with. And it doesn’t look half bad.

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