Silver State Reflections
Track straight the powdered sagebrush seas / Up rise Night’s wild ululations / As Day’s undulations surcease
Wilderness trekking is also known as backpacking, although that term has for many people around the world become conflated with simply trekking, connoting something done by urban-rural travelers who do not always stay in hostels or even under a roof. At any rate, most activities involved with wilderness trekking are common to all who venture it. Yet it is in the alluring nature of the beast that it encompasses a broad range of motivations and approaches and a unique and often evolving set thereof for everyone who participates.
The 2006 Silver State Expedition party was made up of individuals whose backgrounds bridged two different and substantial parts of my life: that of my previous time as, among other things, an Easterner and that of my last 13 years as a pilgrim in the West. Seven of the eight of us — excepting my wife, Iselda Acosta (see my Gypsy Journal entry about her childhood hometown, Terlingua, and the Big Bend country of the Chihuahuan Desert) — hang or have hung our hats in the vicinity of the Mason-Dixon line in Pennsylvania and/or Maryland. The honchos, Big Dog (Keith) Tondrick and his sweep man, Brad Johnson, had transplanted themselves west decades before I did and were the initial points of contact and support for my eventual move to Boise, the most remote metropolitan area in the Lower 48. Keith and Brad have since moved Back East to be closer to and to help out family, yet still, as in this case, they make annual summertime western pilgrimages.
My experiences with this group, the largest I have ever spent a week in wilderness with, provided the opportunity to clarify various dimensions of — as stated by my late hiking partner Lee Mercer (see my Gypsy Journal entry about our memorial trip to the Greybull-Wind River country of Wyoming) — a burning passion for remote wilderness.
Because it is a fairly simple rhetorical device, I am going to use dichotomy to structure this writing assignment. Dichotomy is a process for organizing contrastable things into two groups. But this would be polarizing and boring without dialectic, i.e., systematic exposition that juxtaposes A and B and seeks to resolve tension between them. My purpose in side-by-side comparison of, say, approach A and approach B is to discern trade-offs, complements, and enrichments.
Enough abstraction, time to make the leap, across three months of the work-a-day world, back to high summer in the sagebrush sea.
Dichotomy I: One can choose a destination A) by taking recommendations (write-ups, tall tales, etc.), and/or B) by eyeballing the area. Keith chose to make it a Silver State Expedition primarily because he had Nevada images burnt into his brain. Brad, during the previous summer, had made a foray (a potentially fatal one as it turned out) into the Arc Dome Wilderness, which composes the southern end of the Toiyabe Range. And I years before, round tripping Boise and Death Valley, made notes and drew stars on my road atlases during and after driving the 100-mile length of the Big Smoky Valley, the quintessential basin-and-range stretch of hard-top, which separates the Toiyabe and Alta Toquima ranges that rise 6000 feet above the high-desert playa. Supplementing our previous on-the-ground experiences was Keith’s academic geography. The proximity of designated wildernesses within those two adjacent fault-blocks as well as within the Monitor Range immediately to the east was not lost on him. Through bibliographic and cartographic research, Keith refined the logistics and provided us the biggest bang for the buck.
Wilderness is generally expected to be remote and pristine. These qualities are, of course, relative. Dichotomy II: Designated wildernesses can be A) far away and untouched, or B) simply unpopular and/or trammeled. Reno, Vegas, Salt Lake, in that order, are the cities closest to the trio of central Nevada wildernesses visited on the Silver State Expedition. The Sierra Nevada and the White Mountains, which include Boundary Mountain, Nevada’s highest, wall this area off from the West Coast metropolitan areas. The closest urban roundtrip being 400+ miles limits weekenders accessing, for example, the Toiyabe crest. As an indication of central Nevada’s star quality, the 2006 Falcon Guide Hiking Nevada provides two pages of text on the 61-mile Toiyabe Crest National Recreation Trail, and that trail runs just the southern half of the range.
When on a wilderness trip, I do not mind running into, among others: 1) no one, 2) solo hikers, 3) bow hunters, 4) NOLS or Outward Bound type of groups, 5) hard-core horse-packing hunters. The Silver State Expedition happened to overlap the opening of mule deer bow season, and we saw a few of those folks; one party kindly provided us a cold drink of water at the tail end of a long day when we still had a nearly 1000-foot drop to a trickling creek in the willows. We saw no one in the Alta Toquima and Table Rock wildernesses. The most prevalent evidence of the hand of man was Basque sheepherders’ aspen bark inscriptions from as long as 75 years ago and stumps from selective mule/horse limber pine logging for the timbers of hard-rock mines built in the 1800s.
The most frequent visitors to Nevada mountain wildernesses in general are domesticated bovine. They come in from ranches on the alluvial fans. As alluded to earlier, a physiographical feature overlapping the basin-and-range is high desert, referred to in some old schoolbooks as the Great American Desert. Trekking even through the relatively more humid sky-island wildernesses in this region typically involves end-of-day camping at the first available water, whether hiking up a canyon or descending from a ridge. Watered campsites are limited and fairly hard to come by, and on them all are cow pies varying only in the level of stench and slime. Even the few decent tent spots within those sites are likely to be shat upon. I refer you to grazing watchdogs like Katie Fite, a world-class wilderness advocate in Boise, for information on the ecological impact (on things like red-band trout) of allowing cows or sheep to decimate native vegetation and concentrate, as they will, around the miniscule fraction of desert acreage comprising riparian areas.
Routing a trek depends on what one wants to accomplish. Dichotomy III: Goals for a wilderness trip can include A) thru hiking with optional peak bagging and/or B) exploration of trail-less areas with optional, or necessary, peak bagging. For Big Dog, who got his handle while burning through a summer from Brasstown Bald, Georgia, to Mount Kahtadin, Maine, the 45-mile straight run of the Toiyabe crest trail was a must-do, as was topping out Mount Jefferson in the Alta Toquima and Table Mountain in the Monitor Range. In the Toiyabe and Alta Toquima, the two trip segments that Iselda and I had time for, we followed him up 25,000 vertical feet over eight straight days, and in the latter location saw, for two days while crossing a 12,000-foot plateau, the largest desert big horn herd that I might ever see. We got our money’s worth and I, alas temporarily, dropped 25 points off my systolic. I especially liked that we were on vague or no trail for a good part of those eight days.
Nevada was the spawning ground of the county-based sagebrush rebellion against government interference with the ranch-and-range way of life. The two largest counties in America are Elko County and Nye County, county seat Tonopah, a Terlingua look-a-like that served as our rendezvous. Regulation, of course, would ruffle feathers in Nevada because, paraphrasing Brad, compared to California the only rule in Nevada seems to be “don’t hurt anyone who doesn’t ask for it,” an atmosphere that I, for one, can live with. Until tourism became more important recently, “wilderness” was strictly a dirty word uttered by environmentalists (all evil) and their jack-booted lackeys in the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. Currently only 4% of the very lightly populated interior of Nevada — the Tibet of America — is set aside as federally designated wilderness. The Arc Dome Wilderness is the largest in the state and as such the best bet for putting some distance from the hum and whine of motors. It is a complex of ridges with interior canyons and impressive escarpments and domes, the titular one having felt John Muir’s boots. I would feel more comfortable exploring it off trail now that I have experienced, in large part on it own terms, the neighboring ground.
As always, on the 2006 trip we scoped and discussed possible future spin-off trips, and a couple that ranked high are 1) coming back to the Arc Dome Wilderness, which we just touched as we headed into the Toiyabe and turned north, and 2) then shuttling to the terminus of our 2006 hike and hiking cross-country through the Toiyabe’s northern section. In the Arc Dome, our time would be spent just getting into and out of various, somewhat arbitrary, as-remote-as-possible spots just to taste what wild is left. In the northern Toiyabe, we would cover the ground using the crest and each day sample an upper drainage, a traverse similar to our 2006 course on the so-called crest trail between the North Twin River and Kingston Canyon, the biggest in the range.
Dichotomy IV: The clock one goes by when living large can be A) the one that governs society or B) the rotating, revolving, and tilting Earth. As mentioned earlier, the first two legs of the expedition used eight days, moving camp everyday. A couple of those days included possibly the most hours I have ever put in under pack, in one case 10.5 hours (9-plus minus breaks). One of the benefits to hiking the American West in mid-August is that there are 12 to 13 hours of daylight to work with.
One fact of not having rest days is that recovery has to happen between each day’s five-or-more-hour bout of strenuous work. Of course, there is still work — much of it, if you will, stoop labor — to be done after dropping pack for the day, just as there is similar work to be done the next day before putting the pack back on. Another fact of life, a cruelty, is that once past prime the older one gets the more time it takes to recover; every bit of dark and several warming, limbering hours of the morning is about what it takes me.
One of the key time-management reality checks in trip planning is a careful assessment of the distance, elevation gain, terrain, and conditions that need to be negotiated between one camp and the next. Even making that call as carefully as possible, a large part of the thrill of the boonies is the unknown, even feeling lost. For route finding and managing travel from waypoint to waypoint, you have got your map, binoculars, compass, and your watch. (I am not qualified to discuss GPS but recognize that it would be useful in ground truthing the estimates of mileage I make on my map table with dental floss, ruler, calculator, and rough correction factor.)
Of course, one could also use their watch as a tool for calling reveille, lunchtime, and quitting time. For me, however, those events all smack of the old 9-to-5, which right out of the chute I consciously leave behind and after a week or so is out of my system altogether. (I am just beginning to understand and come to terms with the, to say the least, imperfect process of getting the 9-to-5 back into my system. Having diametrically opposed avocations is an existential crux.) My backcountry mode is to get up and go when I am ready, munch as I go, and camp when I get where I am going — either at a predetermined destination or as the spirit moves me. Not to be glib, but I always seem to get there. In the summer, my approach to taking breaks is to wait until I need to do something — e.g., lower my core temperature — and then stop, pull out my soaked shirttail, do whatever I have to do, stretch a bit, retuck, and roll. Just before my first long-weekend solo, nearly 30 years ago, an Army Ranger told me they take 5 every 55, and all these years later I have finally realized what a good rule of thumb that is for covering ground.
All said, on the 2006 Silver State Expedition, regardless of the elapsed time on the trail or time of day of start or stop, everyday everybody seemed basically ready to quit when we quit, if not sooner.
The A’s and B’s of Dichotomy V are person-animal, secular-sacred, image-essence, attractive-obscene, maintain-revert. About a day and a half into most wilderness treks, I have built up, primarily by copious applications of my own sunscreen compound, on the exposed areas of my skin a healthy and obvious mantle of, loosely speaking, wax and dirt. My clothes, including the most broad-brimmed hat practical, become by most standards hideously discolored and besmirched with stains of various intensity, permanency and, vis-à-vis the likeness of Christ on the back of my shirt, significance.
The salt, however, comes out easily and occasionally with my usual method of a triple rinse-and-wring, and odor is controlled with the inside seams of my quick-drying silk-weight top and nylon pants — and armpits and groin — briefly exposed to the breeze and the sun’s microbicidal ultraviolet radiation. At night, a sheer balaclava helps keep the hood area of my sleeping bag clean. Finally, a pretty much daily floss and brush completes my hygiene and grooming regimen. Keeping it simple, like limiting my cooking to boiling water once or twice a day, is my toilet policy. As might an unfortunately constituted/deconstituted mongrel, my looks have indeed produced amusement, which I am happy to do, but have never, I am happy to report, elicited overt reprobation.
Dichotomy VI: This is a mixed bag, but on the gear spectrum, most fall somewhere closer to A) techy, than B) old-school. I aspire to neither one-blanket, 40-miles-a-day Muirian minimalism nor tump-lining 100-plus-pound pack(s) into thin air on the chance of spending weeks cheek to cheek with people I do not even like and who could get me killed should the fickle finger of fate not accomplish that first. Thanks to continuous development on the equipment front, typically the higher or more minimal you go the more technical you get. On the other hand, the older you get the more likely it is that your kit will be constituted of trusty, fondly held, antique items, perhaps even, if you have a good one, the pack itself. That having been said, the older you get the more likely you will have finally succumbed to the lure of the ultralight — yet hopefully having been sufficiently humbled not to let it get you into dire straights.
Dichotomy VII has to do with not getting maimed or killed while adventuring toward the limits of one’s KSA (knowledge, skill, ability), experience, and self-control — that is, tending toward A) the comfort zone, or B) the danger zone. As suggested above, homey don’t play the death zone, but even below sea level I have faced the challenges and the even mortal risks that are axiomatic of the wild life. This dichotomy blends into that of leader or follower, in terms both of leadership responsibility towards companions as well as team-member commitment to the itinerary. A corollary is that one of the costs of leadership is the effort of scouting and one of the costs of membership is the focus on pacing and persistence.
Dichotomy VIII is about the difference between going A) solo, or B) with other(s). Unsupported, extended, off-trail, solo wilderness trekking is the thing I do best and possibly the best thing I do. There is a lot of self in solo. I have seldom kept a journal. I do not take pictures. Kindred spirits are few. It is not necessarily true that there is advantage and/or pleasure in company, but camaraderie is invaluable, and largely inscrutable.
An element of my outdoor avocation is self-expression, to no greater degree than herein. One of the best inherent benefits of deeply experiencing wilderness is the sublime self-care it provides; should this essay encourage others’ likewise avid and regular dosing, I did some good. However, if as a result of its application, good reader, you should feel a connection back to the source, you will have thereby created value of the highest sort for your self and, thus, for your world.
Robert Beal, Eugene, OR