Current Location: Lee Vining, CA cloudy and 67 degrees F
In crazy love. Remember that feeling? Somehow that crazy feeling of youth has been replaced with a crazy ecstasy at what the Earth can do. I have spent the last few days catching my breath in wonder at the view around the bend, the next flower I never knew before this week.
I am completely enamored, entranced, and fascinated with the Great Basin, the entire thing. Although describing the “entire thing” takes a bit of learning. At the moment, I think I am most in love with the brilliant scarlet firecracker penstemon that lines the roads along Snake Creek in the Great Basin NP. This flower was completely new to me on this trip, as well as the incredibly fragrant pale pink scented penstemon.
Traveling is so great, there is always something new out there, and the Great Basin visitor center in Baker finally showed with elegant visual displays what the term “Great Basin” actually meant. I had an idea, but the boundaries were sketchy in my mind. I learned why.
The term was first coined by John C Fremont in the mid 1800’s for the vast sink of the American West between the Sierra Nevada Range of California to the west, the Wasatch Range of Utah to the east, the Mojave Desert to the south, and the Snake River Plain of Idaho to the north.
I know it is hard to see in these photos I took of maps in the visitor center, but in person, these maps and descriptions helped me to at last understood the Great Basin that I knew from John McPhee’s great book, “Basin and Range”.
I learned that this vague thing called the Great Basin, has a few different boundaries, depending on which aspect of the landscape one is viewing.
There is the hydrographic view, based on water, and the boundary where all water within the basin stays in the basin, with none escaping to any ocean. The rivers grow and die quietly in the desert, in the giant sink.
There is the Great Basin as defined by the plant and animal communities, being the largest of the four great American Deserts. Bounded on the south by the Mojave, the Great Basin desert has been called “the sagebrush ocean”.
This last definition of the Great Basin is based on the geomorphology and landscape itself, defined by the folding and faulting that created between 150 to 300 mountain ranges (depending on how you define a separate mountain range) that lie within the great sink, high above the desert basins below.
If you look closely at this map, you will see that my home in Klamath Falls, at Rocky Point, is at the western and northern edge of this great basin of the west. This close up view also shows the northeast/southwest alignment of the great ranges, like stretch marks in the skin of the earth, created from the extension of continental plates.
No matter how it is defined, no matter where you might draw an arbitrary boundary, the Great Basin is a great American treasure. More than 2,000 individual species of flowering plants occur within this often dry and barren landscape, and the elevation includes some of the highest peaks in the country, rivaled only by the “fourteener’s” in Colorado and California on the eastern and western edges of the basin.
I don’t believe there is another part of our country that is as isolated, as empty, as vast. At first glance, it seems so empty, so daunting. But a few days in one of the magnificent island arc mountain ranges high above the desert changes everything. I love the vistas, the ups and the downs, the mountains and the desert, and the way you can see one from the other.
The geology of the place alone is enough to create endless searches into what exactly happened here? Great seas of sediments converted to limestone, uplifted and folded, and then covered with every form of volcanic activity, and a few meteor craters thrown in for interest. Then there are the hot creeks, the hot springs, the cold springs, the rivers that flow underground and emerge somewhere else.
There are two ways to view this land, it goes forever, it can be daunting to cross the hundreds of miles between towns and civilization. The better way is to take the time to delve into its secrets, to explore the hidden places, to go slowly enough to find the treasures. We didn’t really go as slow as I might have liked, but then we can always go back for more. I am sure that we will.
Next: Lehman Caves and a Full Moon Hike to Stella Lake