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Know the West

Rants from the Hill: A prospect from the singing mountain


"Rants from the Hill" are Michael Branch's monthly musings on life in the high country of Nevada's western Great Basin desert, published the first Monday of each month.

Damned ancient Mayans. In anticipation of the end of the world on December 21, I put off my Christmas shopping, blew off my deadline for this Rant, told a few folks what I actually think of them, and ran up a huge whiskey bill on my credit card. But as we enter the new year it has become obvious that prophecies about the apocalypse belong with weather reports, fiscal cliff predictions, and football bets. You know you’re part of a cosmic crapshoot when even the end of the world turns out to be a disappointment. Now we’ll just have to hang tough until the Earth’s impending collision with the planet Nibiru. At least I’ll have ample sour mash and rye while I wait around for a real cataclysm.

Once it became clear that the world hadn’t ended, our young daughters asked if we could have a family afternoon out in the desert. That seemed pretty reasonable, given the Mayan apocalypse debacle, so we piled into the truck and headed east from the Ranting Hill through boulder choked mountain passes and across vast sage basins on our way to a remarkable place called Sand Mountain, where we arrived in the chill of a late December afternoon.Sand Mountain is a single, winding sand dune, three miles long and a mile wide. This megadune rises among rocky desert mountains that are so much darker in color and so geologically dissimilar as to make this dramatic, white dune look absolutely surreal. Unlike a beach dune, which obviously belongs organically to its home landscape, Sand Mountain is so unique as to seem alien.

To appreciate Sand Mountain requires leaps of imagination. Fifteen thousand years ago the Sierra Nevada range 100 miles east of here was heavily glaciated, but a subsequent warming trend began to melt the glaciers, dumping enough water down the eastern Sierra to fill immense expanses of the Great Basin with massive inland lakes. Ancient Lake Lahontan, which extended across much of present-day northern Nevada, once covered 8,500 square miles of now desiccated high desert and was up to 800 feet deep. Toward the end of the Pleistocene the giant lake began to dry up, and by 4,000 years ago it had contracted so far as to expose the spot where Sand Mountain now rises. And here is the story of the birth of Sand Mountain, which is still being born. As the massive, retreating glaciers scoured the Sierra Nevada, they ground off flakes and pebbles of granite, which were further degraded as they tumbled down rivers and were borne out into the Great Basin. At the delta of the Walker River near Shurz, Nevada (pop. 658)—where the Ghost Dance prophet Wovoka lies buried in the Paiute graveyard—this granitic sand accumulates in a place that is made special by wind. For here the prevailing Southwesterlies swoop down and gather up this mountain-blasted and river-trundled sand, lifting it high into the air and carrying it across the open desert more than thirty miles, where the flanks of the Stillwater Mountains at last slow the winds, causing them to drop their payload of Sierra sand in this magical spot. Over time this weird, lovely pile of sand has grown to 600 feet, making Sand Mountain one of the tallest dunes in North America.

And Sand Mountain is one of only 35 dunes on the planet that knows how to sing. A “singing dune” consists of what is called singing, whistling, or even barking sand—sand that is capable of making a roaring or booming sound that has also been described as an eerie, hollow rustle. Although scientists still debate precisely how the sound is created, it is associated with the rate of collision in the shear band where avalanching sand on a steep face makes contact with static sand below. Only dunes in warm, dry climates are qualified to sing, and even then they remain silent unless consisting of perfectly clean sand with silica-based grains of a specific and nearly uniform size and shape. When Sand Mountain sings, it produces a unique note between 60 and 105 hertz. Northern Paiute and Western Shoshone people have long honored this distinctive song, which they attribute to their ancient tribal benefactor Kwansee, who lies buried beneath the dune and who sings for his lost love.

When Eryn and the girls and I arrived out at Sand Mountain, the sun was setting into the horizon clouds and dropping for home. Although it was cold and windy the snow held off, so we decided to take the girls and try for the summit ridge of the dune before dark, clambering first up the flank of the mountain and then along one of its winding knife ridges straight up into the sky.

Each step pushed a small avalanche of sand behind us, making the climb challenging, so eventually we adopted the technique the girls had instinctively known to use from the start, scrambling upwards on all fours.At last we reached the summit, which turned out to be a single ridge so incredibly narrow that we all straddled it as if riding horseback, in order to keep from sliding down the even more precipitous incline on the far side. From this precarious position we had a sweeping view along the dragon-backed ridge of the giant dune, down to the expansive playa below, and then out to the rippling basin and range beyond.

From our perch we discerned no life apart from ourselves, but I am aware of one secret life that is lived here, and here alone. The Sand Mountain Blue Butterfly (Euphilotes pallescens arenamontana) is a lovely little sister in the family Lycaenidae, the gossamer-winged butterflies. It lives nowhere on earth save for this one barren, incredible place. The little blue’s existence is restricted to Sand Mountain because it depends entirely on Kearney Buckwheat (Eriogonum nummulare), a local plant that is the sole food source for its larvae. The Sand Mountain Blue spends its entire life within 200 feet of its host plant, and that life consists of only a single, beautiful week.

Prospect, a word that only became associated with mining in the 1840s, has been used since the early fifteenth century to describe “the act of looking into the distance.” By the early sixteenth century the word also connoted an “extensive view of the landscape,” and since the early seventeenth century its meaning has expanded to reference a psychological outlook, a “mental view or survey.” At its Latin root, prospect implies a vantage from which to look ahead of oneself into both space and time (“pro” means “forward”). To experience a prospect is to have a view of the land, of oneself, and also of what is yet to come. And what was the prospect from the windy, knife-ridge summit of Sand Mountain? Night descending on endless salt flats. The Great Basin rolling out to forever. My smiling daughters sitting on top of the world. The old year dying, already mid-burial in these shifting sands. I can’t quite see the future from here, but there is no apocalypse in sight.

The desert darkness began its long fall, and the time had come to descend Sand Mountain. We agreed with the girls that we should all head downhill in the most exciting and dramatic way possible: by rolling. We lay down laterally along the ridge, pulled our hats down firmly, tucked our arms in tightly against our bodies, and then held our breath and let gravity take over. The pitch was surprisingly steep, and we gained speed so quickly that we were soon blasted out of rolling position and into a wild tumble down the face of the dune. The sand cascaded away before us as the world spun and spun, and we fell into the new year, the mountain falling gently with us. When we reached bottom, six-year-old Caroline, her face and hair completely covered in sand, pumped her fists above her head and shouted “That was magnifulous!” It was enough to make you glad the Mayans were wrong.

Now back home on the Ranting Hill, I am imagining through this moonless desert darkness a 600-foot-tall mountain of white sand that was brought to its place one grain at a time over the winding course of four millennia. It is a graceful heap of the powdered bones of the Sierra, ground by glaciers, tumbled in rivers, lifted by wind, carried aloft to a new home. Like its little blue butterfly, this mountain can exist in only one place, where the conditions necessary for its existence conspire to make its unreal beauty not only possible, but inevitable and necessary. And yet the mountain changes shape every year, and every hour. It flows, like a current of wind or water. Like an advancing or retreating glacier. Like time, which can move mountains.  My dream is to be as endemic as Sand Mountain and its petite blue, but the shifting sands that turn these years remind me that we are constantly resculpted by movement and change. Because even mountains flow, I am simply too old not to roll down them with my children. Tempus Fugit. Carpe diem. Auld lang syne. Happy New Year.

Michael P. Branch is Professor of Literature and Environment at the University of Nevada, Reno, where he teaches American literature and environmental studies. He has published five books and many articles on environmental literature, and his creative nonfiction has appeared in Utne Reader, Orion, Ecotone, Isotope, Hawk and Handsaw, Whole Terrain, and other magazines. He lives with his wife and two young daughters at 6,000 feet in the western Great Basin desert of Nevada.

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Essays in the Range blog are not written by the High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Images of sand dunes courtesy the author.

Image of Sand Mountain Blue Butterfly courtesy Richard C Tracy, University of Nevada, Reno