The monastery of pure landscape

by Peter Shelton

Years ago, I overheard some German motorists talking in the visitor center in Moab: "Yah, zis is ze first time ve are traveling in pure landscape!"

Because I'd been to Germany as a high school student, I knew what they meant -- no manicured fields and forests, few fences, human settlements few and far between, and hardly any green. Just the rocky bones of a geologist's desiccated dream.

These days, my own pure landscape is the drive we take each year across the Great Basin to California's Central Sierra for a gathering with members of my mother's family. The destination is a little lake called Pinecrest on the west side of Sonora Pass, just north of Yosemite National Park. More than the reunion, the drive itself is the vacation's great balm.

My wife calls Pinecrest "a people's park," and it sure is that. There are hundreds of tent-and-rubber-ducky-strewn campsites cheek-by-jowl at the lake's west end. And thousands of parboiled denizens of the Central Valley make the drive up on weekends to escape the heat. The lake is manmade. Pacific Gas & Electric built the dam around the turn of the 20th century, to control flows on the South Fork of the Stanislaus River and provide irrigation water to those hyper-productive fields below.

An around-the-lake trail, which runs just yards in front of our family cabin, teems with a motley assortment of walkers. There are Boy Scouts sweating under huge packs, fishermen carrying stringers of identical stocked rainbows, Mennonite girls rustling in full dresses and head doilies, steely athletes running the 4.5 rocky miles, and overweight families in flip-flops who probably have no business wandering a hundred yards from their coolers.

We are the lucky ones. My mother's mother bought the cabin -- one of several dozen scattered around -- in 1950, and the Forest Service, which owns the land, has so far refrained from terminating our lease. My mother and her siblings spent summer vacations on the lake throughout the Depression. I made my first splashes in the clear, cold, snowmelt water at just a couple of months old. My kids have slept out on the porch under the big cedars and sugar pines since they were little. And now my grandchildren are doing the same. It feels like the place is in our DNA.

It's not a wilderness experience. There's a general store that charges double for everything, just like in the 1849 Gold Rush days. There's an outdoor theater in the pines that's so close you can hear the blockbusters' soundtracks echo across the water. (Part of the fun of driving over Sonora Pass from the Nevada side is seeing again the pink granite cliffs where Ingrid Bergman and Gary Cooper fought in the Spanish Civil War in the movie For Whom The Bell Tolls.)

Seeing family is great. It is also, by definition, fraught. And so the drive home across some of the emptiest country on the continent serves to sort out my layers of worry and regret. Highway 50, the old Pony Express route, was dubbed the "Loneliest Road in America" by Life Magazine.  But I'll bet our U.S. 6, from Benton, Calif., to Ely, Nev., where 6 and 50 join, is its match for lonesomeness. This is landscape driving at its best. The road is a tiny, two-lane sinew across the naked earth. Nothing is hidden. When a sign near Black Rock Summit points to a spring 17 miles thataway, you can see where it is, 17 dirt-road miles across the basin. Driving the 169 miles from Tonapah to Ely on a Friday morning, I saw exactly six cars. I was counting.

We counted straight lines, too. There are places on U.S. 6, spanning the basins between the ranges, where the road runs ruler-straight for miles. We started playing a game with the girls years ago, seeing who could guess their length. There is a good road east of Baker, Nev., that starts in Utah and goes for 14 miles as you approach Wheeler Peak and Great Basin National Park. There are others in the 13-to-15-mile range, and one 18-miler across the White River Valley between Ely and Currant.

Then there's the granddaddy of them all, a 21-mile-long pencil line connecting Warm Springs to Sandy Summit, Nev., with no sign of humans at either place. The road is like a sagging string, and from the middle, the blacktop pinches down to vanishing points in either direction. By the time we're approaching civilization again somewhere around I-70 at Salina, Utah, I'm revived. It's like we've had a restful couple of days at the monastery of pure landscape.

Peter Shelton is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a writer in Montrose, Colorado.

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