Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Loneliest Highway in America: Highway 50

‘There are no points of interest. We don’t recommend it.’
The 287-mile stretch of U.S. 50 running from Ely to
Fernley, Nev., passes nine towns, two abandoned
mining camps, a few gas pumps and the occasional coyote.
‘We warn all motorists not to drive there,’ says the AAA rep,
‘unless they’re confident of their survival skills.’

-Quote from Life Magazine, as printed in the "Highway 50 Survival Guide"

Welcome to "The Loneliest Highway in America"
How Highway 50 got its name     

     Its called, "The Loneliest Highway in America" and it sure does live up to its reputation. It has all the thrills of Route 66; scenery, little towns build for the highway, and just an all around great ride. Highway 50 itself crosses the country, beginning in Ocean City, Maryland and ending in my quaint little hometown of Sacramento, California. It is a unique ride. Unlike Interstates 80, 90, 10 and other cross country routes, it is designed to be scenic, not necessarily the easiest and most direct route. While I've driven interstates 80, 40, 10 and others significantly, Highway 50 is a much more interesting route, especially through Nevada.

      "The Loneliest Highway in America" refers specifically to the section of Highway 50 that cuts straight across the great desert of Central Nevada. It gets this name from an article produced in Life Magazine that portrayed this highway as a rugged one which penetrates the most uncivilized parts of the country. Originally, it was meant as a serious warning to the wayfaring motorist but it since has attracted the attention of many road tripping adventure seekers. This is how I was able to drive it and why I recommend you do the same!

The Grand Tour 

      I drove Highway 50 in the spring of this year and loved every minute of it. I will give you the tour, from west to east. I drove it the other way but "traditionally" it is traveled in an easterly direction. Starting in beautiful Lake Tahoe, Highway 50 winds its way down from the pine forests of the Sierra Nevada into the incredibly different high desert of the Great Basin. In a matter of miles you will instantly see the effect of the Sierra Nevada's rain shadow on Nevada's desert.

      Carson City, the capital of The Silver State, marks the last real city you will see on the route. I actually had an extra two gallons of gas with me just in case; there are parts of the highway that go 100 miles or more without gas. Carson City itself is an interesting city; it somewhat feels like an old western town, but there are better things to see on the highway.

      Leaving Carson City, you start getting deeper into the Great Basin and notice a marked difference in trees and shrubs. Despite the colder temperatures, it is a desert and rarely rains or snows. It isn't a stereotypical cactus filled desert but those who are environmentally inclined will appreciate the rugged beauty of this area. Plants have adapted to desert conditions while also adapting to extreme cold temperatures and wild winds that make the area such a harsh place to grow.

A real open road!
      As you head eastwards, you will pass through several very small mining towns. These are mostly remnants of the Mining boom of Nevada and are now just road stops on Highway 50. Most of Nevada is grazing land these days and you may see some wild horses that still inhabit the vast stretches of government owned open land. A couple points of interest on the first section is "Sand Mountain", a large sand dune off the road which has since become a major spot for strange adventure sports... like "sandboarding". Also, you will certainly pass by the famous "Shoe Tree"! It is a massive cottonwood tree with perhaps 10,000 pairs of shoes tossed upon its boughs. Its quite the sight to see; here, in the middle of the desert, is a massive tree covered in shoes. There also an interesting history to the tree which I will certainly post about later.
"Shoe Tree"
"Sky Islands"

      As you move through the middle of the state, you begin to realize Nevada's rather unique topography. See, Nevada has the most number individual mountain ranges in the United States. This makes the ride like an old time wooden roller coaster. One moment you're climbing up an 10,000ft mountain pass, the next you're in a deep valley and the whole thing starts over again. Each mountain range is like a "sky island". Due to their height, these ranges attract the little moisture that moves through the area. Therefore, there is an abundance of life in the higher regions of the mountain, which is rather ironic compared to most other mountains. What's even more interesting is that each valley is essentially a barrier to life migrating between ranges. So, life in each range is literally isolated although they may only be 30-40 miles apart.

"Sky Islands" attract the little moisture of the desert
      Austin, Nevada is near the center of the state and is actually a mountain biking destination. If I ever do this drive again, I will remember to bring a mountain bike and hit one of the many trails that lie just outside of town.

     Towards the eastern part of the state, you will drive through the town of Ely, Nevada and then come to my absolute favorite site- Great Basin National Park. Yes, there is a national park all the way out here and it is perhaps the most isolated park outside of Alaska. Great Basin National Park is another "sky island" and one of the state's highest points. Wheeler Peak is 13,026ft tall and it is a very rugged mountain to climb, even in the summer. I did a winter ascent of this mountain and was proud to say that I had the entire 77,000 acres of the park all to myself. I don't believe I have ever been to a more remote location.

Great Basin National Park
      Beyond viewing the wild environment of the Great Basin, the national park also has the Lehman Caves. This is a massive limestone cave and is very accessible. The Lehman caves have some rather alien-like structures and has some that are found nowhere else on Earth. Tours are offered by the park for very reasonable prices. Great Basin National Park is perhaps the highlight of Highway 50

The Lehman Caves
Final Thoughts

     Road Tripping is certainly one of America's favorite pastimes. Seeing large areas of the country all in one trip helps develop an appreciation for the diverse environments of our country. I certainly hope that you make the wildest road trip you can and drive "The Loneliest Highway in America"

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Grand Canyon Grand Backpacking Trip

First time seeing the Grand Canyon

You might not expect it, but before this last weekend, I had never been to the Grand Canyon before. I've seen a lot  of the country, but somehow managed to never make it down to this part of Arizona. So, for my birthday, I decided to go backpacking with a friend in the Grand Canyon and it certainly lived up to its reputation.
The Grand Canyon lives up to its well-earned reputation
I was in an interesting position to be visiting the Grand Canyon for the first time. See, I've visited so many places with an abundance of natural beauty that I almost expected the Grand Canyon to just be another trip. I've also done a fair bit of traveling and adventuring in Southern Utah which is a very similar environment to the Grand Canyon. Needless to say, I am conditioned to seeing places that are incredibly picturesque. Having said that, I was still as amazed by the Grand Canyon as someone who is not as well traveled.

The Trip
     The Grand Canyon is (only) an 8 hour drive from Southern California so me and a backpacking friend hit the road at around 2PM Southern California time. Although we were mostly driving across the desert at night, the anticipation was terrible. We finally got there around 11 at night and promptly slept at the rim.

The next day we awoke as early as possible to begin trekking down the canyon. Backcountry permits are often difficult to obtain, even in November, so we showed up as soon as the visitor center opened and luckily snagged two backcountry permits. Anticipation continued to grow as we hopped on the Park's free bus system to take us to the trail. We were doing the South Kaibab Trail-Bright Angel Trail loop, which is a classic backpacking trip and I highly recommend it for anyone's first time to the GC. After picking up final supplies at the local store, we finally caught a glimmer of the canyon while riding the bus before dipping back into the forest. I practically blasted out of the bus when we finally reached our destination.
First Look!
First Look!
     People often use the phrase "it took my breath away" too liberally and for things that don't actually take your breath away. However, seeing the Grand Canyon and all of its glory for the first time literally took my breath away. Again, I've seen some "grand" canyons before, but this one took the cake. I couldn't stop saying "WOW!" Of course, my camera was constantly on, taking pictures.

We started descending into the canyon via the South Kaibab trail and it was the best; the trail is blasted into a ridgeline that goes straight down into the canyon so you really do get the best views. I confess I was very slow on the going down because I couldn't keep my eyes on the trail. One of the things that surprised me about the Grand Canyon is that it very much resembles a staircase. You hike a thousand vertical feet downwards, level off for a bit, hike another thousand feet downwards and continue like that to the mighty Colorado River. It seemed like every turn and every section offered a completely different angle for viewing the canyon.

After several hours of pure descent, we reached the Colorado River and crossed it using a suspension bridge build for hikers and mules. It seemed too easy, early pioneers had incredible difficulty navigating this area and we were able to get to the bottom and cross in a matter of a half a day.
A simple crossing for a mighty river
The campsite at the bottom was in a magnificent little place. It was nice to be in the company of other brave hikers who had decided to enjoy the canyon despite the impeding storm. That is when DISASTER struck! A 50 mile an hour gust completely knocked over an expensive bottle of whiskey that I brought all the way down the canyon. I confess, despite the surrounding natural beauty, I really lost it. Oh well, we headed off to Phantom Ranch to check out the campground. I never knew this, but Phantom Ranch, at the bottom of the canyon, has such incredible luxuries such as running water, flushing toilets, and beer. Dinner was amazing as well, the best I've ever eaten in the backcountry; we made noodles and curry tuna. Well played.

It rained all night but both of us managed to stay dry. I slept in my ever so durable bivy sack and my friend slept in a very reliable rei half dome. I was pleasantly surprised to awake to a light drizzle and discover that the bivy sack fared so well that not a drop of water had seeped through.

Rain on the Colorado River
The Hike Out
     The hike out was every bit as enjoyable as the hike in. What's really so wonderful about the Grand Canyon is that it has hiking that is not destination-based; there are great views everywhere. So, despite the light rain, cold temperatures, and wind, there was nothing bad about the trip. In fact, as we hiked higher and higher, the views were even more glorious with the clouds and rain. We even had the privilege of seeing a full double rainbow over the canyon. I was just aghast at the many people we encountered who were downright miserable. There was absolutely nothing bad about hiking up 4,000ft in rain and wind; every part of the trip was enjoyable.

There's no such thing as bad weather!
Its a funny thing hiking out of the Grand Canyon; most people are accustomed to thinking that you start out hiking up and then end by hiking down. Everything is reversed in the Grand Canyon- you hike DOWN first and hike UP to get out. This is why the Grand Canyon Search and Rescue Motto is "Down is optional, Up is Mandatory!" Funny... sometimes I adopt the same mentality when mountain climbing... oh well.

One of several rainbows encountered on the hike out
We eventually reached the top of the rim again and unfortunately had to leave this enchanting place. Leaving the Grand Canyon is like leaving Disneyland; its saddening and all you think about is how soon you can make it back. Hiking it in the offseason, November, was even better than the summer. The temperatures were relatively comforable with the right clothing and there were not too many tourists bumbling around. So, I highly recommend you make it out to this gorgeous place and backpack it; you will see every side of the canyon and gain a better appreciation for such and incredible natural wonder.

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

"127 Hours" and other Strangely Ironic Tales of Success

      It seemed like it was only a matter of time before the legendary story of Aron Ralston was made into a film. Although the story is now quite well known, Aron Ralston was made famous by his incredible story of survival from a canyoneering accident near Moab, Utah. While climbing alone, a large boulder fell on his arm, pinning him inside a tight canyon with no way of getting out. In an incredible demonstration of the power of will, Ralston cut off his own arm with a small pocketknife, somehow repelled out of the canyon and hiked several miles before finding help. The book and movie are destined to become classics and have already received great reviews.

      Its strangely and beautifully ironic, isn't it? I do not mean to appear insensitive or sadistic by this, only to point out the final results of such an ordeal. A man has a ghastly and gruesome encounter with death, is forced to do the unthinkable, and comes out a successful motivational speaker, climber and businessman. Not only that, but many other survivors of harrowing experiences have had similar success as writers, motivational speakers and businessmen.

      Take for example, the story of Joe Simpson, who's story is every bit as unimaginable as Ralston's. Joe Simpson was the "Aron Ralston" of the 80's. For sake of time, the simplified account of his story is this; Joe and his climbing partner Simon Yates summit the previously unclimbed west route of Siula Grande, a 20,000ft mountain in the Andes. After just barely starting their descent Simpson breaks his leg, which, with the route and elevation, is a death sentence. Both Simpson and Yates continue at a snail's pace until another disaster happens. Essentially, Yates lowers Simpson to the end of the rope, leaving him stranded mid-air over a deep crevasse. Yates is forced to cut the rope sending Simpson plunging deep into this crevasse. Not only does he survive this fall, Simpson is able to climb out of the crevasse and crawl his way down the technical route without any water or food. He was quite literally dying when he reached base camp.
      After such a harrowing experience, Simpson wrote a famous book, Touching the Void, which became one of the greatest mountaineering books ever written. It was subsequently turned into a documentary and Simpson is now a famous motivational speaker. He recounts the irony of the situation in a true and humorous manner. "Almost dying on Siula Grande... has made me a successful businessman, which I find odd". The list goes on. The Worst Journey in the World, Alive, Into Thin Air, and many of our favorite stories of the power of human will all seem to have propelled the writer into timeless stardom.

     I hope that I do not appear as if I believe these amazing and factual stories do not deserve attention. On the contrary, I truly enjoy them and have the highest respect for those who have survived the most unthinkable situations. If anything, they provide more support to ideas that we consider cliche or take for granted: the importance of optimism, the power of attitude and how even the worst of situations can turn out for the better. Perhaps the real question I would ask our survival heroes is, "Knowing how it would all turn out, would you still have stopped yourself from going on what would become a terrifying survival experience?"

     In conclusion, in order to get my little blog to take off, I am considering putting myself through an incredible near death experience.

(just kidding)

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Geologic Wonder of the World: John Day Fossil Beds

John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, Oregon

Waaaaay out in Eastern Oregon lies a number of wondrous places that are unknown to anyone outside the world of adventure. Eastern Oregon? Its one of the blank spots on the map; strictly grazing and farming land. However, within this part of the country are natural treasures such as the deepest canyon in the United States, spectacular fossil beds, and endless amounts of rock climbing areas. I would like to highlight the John Day Fossil Beds as a place you should sometime visit however far you may be.

The appropriately named "Painted Hills" unit of the Park.
      The John Day Fossil Beds are well protected by the US National Park service and contain sites where active archeology is underway. Its an incredibly rich site for plant and animal specimens of the Cenezoic Era. While the scientific discoveries of the site may bore some, the sites themselves look artistic and designed. Perhaps that is why the monuments most famous site is known as the "Painted Hills"

(not) Photoshopped
     The Painted Hills are hills that comprised of unique color stratifications that are hardly ever seen in nature. While these delicate shades of red, purple, orange and yellow correspond to geological eras and the events that happened within each, they are simply beautiful. Personally, it was amazing to see all these completely natural colors all gathered into one landscape. It was like a painter's pallet; in one scene, I could clearly see every shade of purple, blue, green, orange, red, yellow, brown and white. How often does that naturally occur? Despite its obscurity and remoteness, it is a location I highly recommend getting to some day 
The full spectrum of Color in a single landscape
     If you are scientifically-inclined, the monument also has a museum and a few active sites where you can see real fossils. In the same "Painted Hills Unit" is a spot known as "Leaf Hill" which literally contains thousands of fossilized leaves of ancient trees. Many are still there too; I managed to spot 10-12 in a short hike around it. The Thomas Condon Paleontology Center is part of the park and contains exhibits and fossils that have been found in the monument. It is a great place to learn about prehistoric America.
Color Stratification
     So, the John Day Fossil Beds are about as far away from anything as you can get. Bend, Oregon is the closest city to the monument and its still a haul. I won't post the full rundown of directions, but basically you head north from Bend, Oregon to Redmond via Highway 97. From there you take highway 126 all the way to highway 26 and continue to the small town of Mitchell. From there, its about 9 miles further on highway 26. Again, if you need more specific directions, feel free to message me.

Read. Plan. Get Out There!