Sweetwater Butte

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SWEETWATER CO., WY—This is a page out of my Moleskine notebook. The rock formations along I-80 can reasonably be ranked up there in the quintessential aspects of the West. Not quite sure what the name of this butte is, but it’s just east of Tollgate Rock, south of the interstate. I used a topo map app but this particular peak was unnamed.

Quick History: Oregon and California Trails; Transcontinental Railroad; Lincoln Highway

Sigma Micron .02 ink pen on small Moleskine Cahir Journal

 

 

Wyoming State Highway 59 Buttes

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Thrusting above the rolling hills around them, short buttes attract one's attention (if given over to topographical sorts of things) and break up the uniform landscape. Nothing at all like their iconic counterpart, Devils Tower, these small geological sites are worthy of attention nonetheless.

Navajo Country: Notes on Fry Bread, Stew, and Home

Agathla Peak

Red earth country surrounded by a panorama of blue sky and wispy cumulus clouds filled the view from the cab of my Peterbilt. The view hung like a painting framed in my windshield. I was on the Navajo Nation—eleven hours away from home, north of Flagstaff, south of Monument Valley, east of the Grand Canyon and west of Four Corners. I was immersed in the reckless wandering feeling one gets while traveling in remote locations, especially in such an iconic region as northwest Arizona.

Along highway 89, north from Flagstaff, the typography turns from the Ponderosa pine-covered terrain of the San Francisco Peaks to the grassy plateau of mesas, buttes, spires, washes and canyons. I had a load of D10 dozer parts going to Black Mesa, south of Kayenta. Navajo vendors took shelter from the heat in the shade of wood framed stalls along the road side, where painted plywood fold-up signs advertised Navajo-made jewelry and woven blankets, with foods such as mutton stew, grilled meats, and Navajo tacos ( a delicious concoction of fry bread with taco fixings) also for sale for the hungry traveler.

Stew and Fry Bread

I am a meat and potatoes guy. Check that, I am a meat, potatoes, and then-some guy. I am happy with foods that haven’t been served to French kings, but I am not generally picky. In fact, since I am giving food a central focus of this post, I will mention the above foods are not exotic. My wife makes fry bread (and Indian tacos), lamb, mutton, or beef stew, as well as other ethnic-specific foods, and I take joy in devouring her blessed cookery. In life, simplicity is a virtue often overlooked, in finding delight in panoramic vistas as well is in culinary choices.

I have much to write about staying overnight in the Navajo Nation. I have an aching feeling, attached with all kinds of emotions, from seeing Monument Valley from afar, seeing the tops of the buttes and pillars but not being able to roam and appropriately take in their grandeur. Passing by small homesteads, with pinion pine corrals and stucco hogans with t.v. dishes mounted on the exteriors, I took in every mesa and eroded sandstone formation I could, and enjoyed seeing how and where other people live. Seeing others’ homes placed a greater yearning for my own home. The sound of tires humming over asphalt is a lonely one. Travel is inherent to the makeup of man’s soul. Bob Dylan said in It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding), “he not busy being born is busy dying.” With no intention of taking that lyric out of the context of the song, there’s a lot of road in between.

Road Eats: Dutch Apple Pie in Missoula, Montana

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RIVER CITY GRILL, MISSOULA| Drove from Elko, Nevada up to Twin Falls then east to Pocatello.  North, from there, to Butte then west through Deer Lodge and along the Clark Fork river, settling at a Pilot truck stop for the night.

Trying to be true to the budget, I still wanted to try something from the red brick diner. Boasting homemade pies and other fancies, I settled with an apple pie (a good standby). Trying out different takes on universally loved foods is something which speaks to my own sensibilities. It’s always interesting.

Despite the fact that my job gets me out on the road often, rarely are there opportunities to try a food that isn’t a mass produced commodity. I sat down at the bar and the waitress handed me a glass of ice water and the menu. I passed on ordering a meal and ordered a piece of pie instead. After taking my menu, she opened the glass case behind the counter and cut a piece and put it on a plate to warm up in the back. Minutes later, I sunk into the dessert, enjoying the crumbling conglomeration of crust, sugar and cinnamon layered over thinly sliced apples within. Not even close to the quality of my wife’s pie, but a pleasant change from a preservative-laden pastry in a plastic wrapper. Actually, it wasn’t half-bad.

Arrows in the Desert: Rediscovering the Pony Express of the Sky

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A course arrow on the old Transcontinental Airmail Route from the 1920s. This particular arrow rests just off the interstate, overlooked by travelers who are completely unaware of its existence.

Recently, I have become completely enamored with finding navigational remnants of the U.S. Transcontinental Airmail System: dilapidated concrete arrows, and sometimes 50′ tall iron beacon towers from the 1920s and 30s. Sharing history and geography with the California Emigrant Trail as well as the first Transcontinental Railroad, the airmail system adds another bit of rich history to an already unique corridor in America.

Just sixty years after the Pony Express ended, the airmail route stretched from New York to California, at a time when modern navigation systems were but a twinkle in a compass’ eye. Pilots traversed the sky in open cockpits in all sorts of weather, aided, initially, by rudimentary maps, landmarks, and seventy-foot long concrete arrows. At first, flights were only done during the day because navigation was mostly done by sight before adequate radio infrastructure was established. To make the airmail system efficient and much faster than rail transport, the Department of Commerce invested in lighted beacons to point the way at night and inclement weather.

My family and I have been enjoying finding the arrows in various locations in Northern Nevada, making short day trips to the coordinates I’ve found using info from various sites online as well as taking to Google Maps and scouring over areas like an armchair spy plane pilot from our kitchen table.

More to come, I’m sure, in the future. This piece of history is shedding its obscurity more and more as many historians, history buffs, bloggers, and local newspapers shed more light on the “mysterious giant arrows” dotting the high desert, mountain ranges, and increasingly urbanized areas.

Trucking Vistas: New Mexico and Texas

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Windshield horizon (with a low resolution camera phone).

Drove from Little Water, New Mexico to Wichita Falls, Texas today. I’m taking a lift arm section off a LeTourneau L-2350 wheel loader (I’m geeking out here, but if you care, it’s basically a gargantuan earth mover used in the mining industry) to Longview, Texas from Elko, Nevada. This makes my first trip to Texas in eleven years, and my first time below the panhandle of the state.

Commercial driving (aka: trucking) offers unique opportunities to a person who experiences wanderlust: you get to see a stupidly vast amount of country and almost never get to enjoy it to the fullest. The quandary is you are getting paid by someone to transport goods from A to B; you’re not getting paid to stop off at a Navajo fireworks stand and stock up on dirt cheap M-1000s which may or may not go off in the packaging. OK, that could be justified as part of one’s mandatory half-hour break, but the point has been made.

The sweeping landscapes in New Mexico and Texas feel like they were ripped out of coffee table art book or a cinematic masterpiece. The ache I felt just watching it all go by could easily have been accompanied by a John Williams orchestral piece. In fact, I often have an imaginary, revolving soundtrack going on for everyday life. I’m driving along and on a sunny day, and (BAM!) suddenly Tom Petty’s “Learning to Fly” becomes part of a completely fabricated montage sequence.

I’m rambling towards the point of incoherency so I shall wrap this post up, crawl into the sleeper and drift to sleep to the sound of the CAT diesel engine, torrents of rain and the flash of lightning.

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The obligatory food shot!

Nevada Series: Backroads and the West End of Hastings Cutoff

We made our way to the end of the dirt road, where we came to a knob overlooking the South Fork of the Humboldt River.
We made our way to the end of the dirt road, where we came to a knob overlooking the South Fork of the Humboldt River.

Apps have their place, but I had to buy a print version of a Nevada road atlas.

And so we headed out to our local C-A-L Ranch store . I parked our eight-passenger family wagon, went in and went over to the sporting goods department. I snagged one of Benchmark’s Nevada atlases off the rack and two Crunch bars at the register as a precursor to our latest family adventure.  I had been wanting to check out the West End of Hasting’s Cut-Off, a “shortcut” on the California Trail used first by Lansford Hastings and James Hudspeth in 1846, who guided wagon trains from Fort Bridger, Wyoming. It was deemed successful enough that the Reed-Donner Party would later use the route for their infamous and tragic westward expedition.

In 1850, Hastings Cutoff was deemed too dangerous. But we weren’t worrying about greasing wagon axles, rationing food and water, getting ambushed, or emigrating to California. We weren’t even heading out of Elko very far, which was the beauty of this afternoon outing. We headed west out of Elko; pavement turned to dirt pretty quickly at the get-go, and the fun began. Our kids enjoyed the washboard roads, making funny noises, which kind of gave them “shook up robot” voices, as the road narrowed, dipped and banked sharply.

After consulting our new Benchmark map and realizing our low-clearance vehicle shouldn’t go certain places lest we strand ourselves, we decided which route we would take off the main dirt road. The main dirt road was relatively maintained, but as soon as we turned off it, the two-track soon proved a bit rough, filled with two foot deep wash outs, jutted out rocks and weathered juniper roots. I carefully made it to a plateaued area and parked our car. We would all hike a quarter mile farther where the road ended on a hill top.

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Along the way, our kids began rockhounding, collecting a pretty good array of unidentified rocks, which they loaded up in their little pockets, weighing themselves down like ships with disproportionate ballasts. They still hoofed it like pros.  My oldest boy found some spent rifle casings and stowed those treasures away too. These outings are never about how much we do, wearing cool hiking gear, or testing the limits of the human spirit. It’s all about the time and memories made—unidentified rocks, spent rife casings, historical trails and kids out on the lam.

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Heading back out towards pavement. A sea of almost endless junipers awaits.

Petroglyphs & Lonely Road Rambling

Photo: M.V.
Photo: M.V.

 I have been writing a series of posts about rambling and roving in Nevada. It’s a big state. Not as big as Alaska or Texas or California, but bigger than American Samoa, which is not a state, but you get the drift. It’s fairly big. So there’s plenty to write about in theory. At any rate, this is the third installment.


Depending on where you you live in the state of Nevada, most cool and worthwhile excursions are usually three to four hours away.

If you get out to north central Nevada, get out and ramble down highway 50, “The Loneliest Road in America.” You’ll find it is sparsely populated, and full of open space. There are things to do and things to see.  Make a pit stop between the towns of Austin and Eureka at Hickison Petroglyph Area. Resting between the Toquima and Simpson Park Mountains, Hickison provides a convenient opportunity to stop and stretch and see a few etchings made by pre-Columbian inhabitants. Two groups of petroglyphs are near the outhouses and parking area, while a another batch of rock art lies up a trail loop the more ambitious can hike.

A couple weeks ago my family and I got restless. After brainstorming about where to go, we at last decided to make the three hour drive out to see this particular petroglyph site. Depending on where you you live in the state of Nevada, most cool and worthwhile excursions are usually three to four hours away. It’s just how it is here in the Silver State, and pretty much in most rural, middle-of-nowhere places out West.

We had a grand time getting out and seeing the highways and byways of the Nevada Outback on this trip. The unseasonably warm weather had the sage and rabbit brush  greening up. We saw one lone pronghorn (or antelope) buck stray close to the highway, though we didn’t spot any others. Occasionally, there are wild horses and burros spotted on this stretch of road as well. Once we arrived at Hickison, we were more than eager to just plod out and begin our self-guided tour. First, however, we had to bust out the jackets, hats and mittens and dress our small children in winter wear because, despite the sunny weather, the wind chill was still probably close to freezing that day (as the snow on the ground reveals).

Setting off! (Photo: A.V.)
Setting off! (Photo: A.V.)

With our village of children dressed for war, we were finally ready to begin our half a mile hike, making our own small “discoveries” along the way.

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Photo: A.V. One of the ‘glyphs at Hickison. My wife and I debated on what this one is depicting . Some beast, dinosaur, or something for cryptologists to figure out?

  Interpreting the Hickison Petroglyphs: Hoof Prints or Vaginas?

I did a quick search on the ol’ interweb and found some interesting things about Hickison. There are at least two ways of interpreting this petroglyph site according to Online Nevada Encyclopedia , “[Hickison] was interpreted as a hunting locality… because the most common motif at the site was thought to represent ‘hoof prints.'” Alright, so far I’m tracking with this. The way the topography lays, sort of like a canyon, with ample natural rock obstructions, I can totally see how it would have made a great locale to corner pronghorn or deer. But wait, there’s more.

The article, which is brought to us by the Nevada Humanities, goes on to say, “An alternate interpretation identifies the marks as vulviforms (representations of female genitalia)…” Wait, What? “…[P]ossibly indicating that the site was the location of girls’ puberty rituals or the locale for a female cult of affliction centered on reproductive disorders.” Well, OK then. I suppose it’s how you look at the ‘glyphs because when we were out there snapping hundreds of photos with our small children in front of these things, my wife and I weren’t excitedly telling each other, “Hey isn’t this great to get out and take pictures of tons of ancient vaginas with our kids?”

I tend to interpret this as modern culture over-sexualizing things in the past. The same article further states, “There is no historic ethnographic record, however, of girls producing rock art as a part of their puberty ritual.” TRANSLATION: Basically, we made this crap up.

Moving on…

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I’m going with hoof prints… (Photo: A.V.)

So, as I try to salvage the rest of this post, it’s sufficient to say that it was a fun day with my family outside and seeing places where the ancients once stood and carved on rocks. Whatever the objects might be. As I’ve said before, Nevada has a treasure trove of things to explore, history to discover right off the highway, and above all, it is a fantastic catalyst for making memories.

Epic shot with the distance in the background (Photo: L.B.)
Epic shot with me and four out of five of our children with the Toiyabe Range in the background (Photo: L.B.)

Nevada Series: Fossil Hunting

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After a unloading a set of D8 dozer tracks in Carlin this morning, I met my family back in Elko for some off time. It was grocery day, that was all we had in mind. So I suggested we go fossil gathering, a great activity to bust out of the winter mode of operation.

We headed out of town, and not too far north, there’s a well-known and popular spot for collecting fossilized invertebrates (sadly, no mammoths or ichthyosaurs). The Great Basin is basically a giant outdoor self-guided museum, with many artifacts available to collect and some simply known as “leverites” (as in, “Leave ‘er right where you found it”). These particular fossils require no permit to collect, providing one only takes up to twenty-five pounds per year. That was hard for our young children to grasp as they tried to haul off small boulders with embedded brachiopods.

In the future, I believe we will use the Nevada Fossil Sites section of CollectingFossils.org when we plan on hitting the trail again. Plenty of obscure as well as highly visited sites are available to anyone wanting to get out and discover for themselves wonders by the wayside. I’m fortunate to have both a wife and village of children who are enthusiastic about exploring where we live.

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Youngest son getting exposed to geology

Nevada has many more “exhibits” to discover and enjoy. It’s a grand time just to get out and be nomadic with my family. We are a clan of people filled with curiosity and wanderlust. Seeking things out satisfies that thirst, and it’s how we desire to raise our children. Being a Christian doesn’t inherently make one indifferent to the mechanics of natural science and the realm of creation; in reality, having this thirst for exploring is only heightened when grace has been experienced. The God who gave me what I did not deserve also made a world filled with wonder, and so rambling within His world must be worth the trip.

Wyoming Pen Scratching: Green River Palisades and Tollgate Rock

Eastbound on Interstate 80
Eastbound on Interstate 80, looking at Tollgate Rock on the right.

Every now and again my job brings me through Wyoming. As I said in a previous pen scratching post, stationary, inanimate objects are easy and rewarding to hammer out with some free time. My sketching is the Moleskine equivalent of drawing on a napkin or, perhaps, on a high quality sheet of toilet paper (such as acid-free, archival toilet paper, which I am making up but is probably a thing).

The landscapes of the high desert are monotonous to the cynical observer but will yield plenty of discoveries for the those who cast a second glance.

Green River rests in the southwest region of the Equality State, where sage, rolling hills, alkali and weathered rock edifices mix. There is a quiet uniqueness found in this region. The landscapes of the high desert are monotonous to the cynical observer but will yield plenty of discoveries for the those who cast a second glance. Traveling through this country, the hours which pass while driving in a car are nothing to the weeks and months it took in a wagon pulled by oxen on the old emigrant trails.

While our pioneering predecessors were much more agrarian than we generally are today, I’m sure they still paused at times to take in the beauty found in the land upon which they slowly but steadily traveled. Yes, I’m sure they took in the beauty, sighed, and prepared to throw out of the wagon what remaining heavy belongings they had which may have encumbered their beasts of burden on the next steep hill.