WanderlustBy Sam Lepore

Subject: WanderRockies 2 - Ely, Nevada
Date: Mon, 17 Jul 2000 22:21:20 -0700

    Cool breezes bring the song of a mountain jay, and a spectacular vista of Mono Lake with the tufa towers off in the distance lies outside the window. Not a bad way to start the day. Lee Vining is scenic, but otherwise sparse. It is a transient town of motels at a crossroads. That the crossroad is the entrance to Yosemite makes it an Expensive town. But location is everything.
    I kept trying to figure the name of the town, thinking it had something to do with vines in the lee of the mountains? Two locals I asked said they didn't know. Then I found the E. Clampus Vitus plaque explaining how Leroy Vining started the town after an Indian battle nearby. E. Clampus Vitus is actually a more interesting story. It is a very loose organization that likes to drink, likes to put into plaques local history stories (whether they are true or not), and likes to drink. The Clampers are all over California. So are their plaques. I'll drink to that.
    One more interesting thing about Lee Vining, the town. Being at 7,000 feet and on the dry side of the Sierra, reading a newspaper here has the same effect on the paper as being in an airplane. By the time you finish, it is wrinkled and brittle from the low oxygen and very very dry air.

    CA 120 east traverses the shore of Mono Lake and glides past the Mono Craters, volcanic vents from long ago that spewed almost crystalline gravel. Entire hillsides are absent vegetation from the layers of pumice and gravel. It is otherworldly. Then suddenly a pine forest jumps out of nowhere and the road squiggles between the trees. Add to this the whoop-de-do dips as the road follows the natural cant of the alluvial fan erosion plain, and you have a most memorable road. I highly recommend it. Fill up before, though, because there is no gas until Tonopah, 150 miles away. I remembered a casino and station near the Coaldale junction from my last passage a few years ago. No more.

    Nevada, land of the mindless miles. See the desert. See the sage. See the greasewood. You've seen it all, and there are still hours to go. One can only scan the empty horizon so many times before the scanners turn off due to lack of stimulus. Then you are left again with whatever is in your head. This is a place to think. There are not even the distractions of curves. Straight roads seem to beget straight thoughts. I review myself and decide I've done "ok" for my slice of humanity's time. Playing on the words of the old Geritol commercial, 'my life, I think I'll keep it'.

    The only real fun comes after a construction road stop. Although you rarely ever see another vehicle while on the road, when traffic is stopped a surprisingly long line forms. We are behind 7 cars, 1 bus, and 1 truck when the convoy clears the work zone. Then one by one we pick off each 70 mph snail ahead of us. High speed in the open desert just doesn't seem fast.

    After lunch in Tonopah, we said we'll stop for a rest "somewhere" about an hour down the road. Well we did stop. But that somewhere was nowhere, just a pullout. Another town has disappeared. Currant is definitely non-current. 165 miles to Ely with only one store in between (Blackrock Station).
    In an earlier trip I wondered why anyone would live in any such remote area, and whether it was by choice or chance. Jerry McCumby read my questions and recommended a book by Dayton Duncan - Miles From Nowhere: Tales From America's Contemporary Frontier (Penguin Books 1993 ISBN 0-670-83195-6 ). I read it and found it fascinating although it really doesn't answer the question. It is a series of observations based on interviews with residents of some of the 132 US counties where the population density is below the "almost uninhabited" level of 2 people per square mile. This part of Nevada is one of those. If you like to travel through 'the middle of nowhere', like I do, you may enjoy this book.

    Not long after The Extraterrestrial Highway peals off toward Rachel, US6 rises through the Pancake Range in eastern Nevada and suddenly the terrain changes. It becomes pine and cedar forest over watercut canyon rocks and it follows twisty ridges incongruous with the scene of the last hours. Ely itself is nestled in one of these tight valleys and is in the right place for a restful night before the great basin of Utah. My favorite place to stay is the quaint and kitschy Nevada Hotel, a 1929 boom-just-before-the-bust building refurbished in the 1990s. Many rooms have memorabilia of some famous person who may have stayed in the hotel. (And the Wayne Newton suite is really where he stayed when he got his start performing at this very hotel.) We are ensconced in the Tennessee Ernie Ford room.

    Agh. We may travel well together, but I see we have an impasse. It takes a couple hours to layout and refine these little stories. That is time during which I can not also be sociable. In order words, I am not much fun if I am going to write. I'm sure we'll find a way to resolve this, but it may cost a day between these segments.

    Rebecca's observations for the day: CA120 was almost mystical and the ride was eerily quiet with nothing but the sound of the wind. She could not even hear her motor, just the wind. Even the mind radio that is usually playing songs in her head was turned off. (She found the peace of disassociation I often try to describe on rides like this.)
    Her own experience with deceiving distances came as we approached Tonopah. She said you could see the town out there on the hill right in front of you. Then the miles kept clicking away, and half an hour later you look up and the hill is still apparently just as far as it was. The miles stack up but the distance doesn't change!

304 miles (but they seemed longer)
Lee Vining US395 CA120 US6 Ely
Sam Lepore, San Francisco

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