I haven’t been able to get my mind off of a recent long weekend trip we made to Great Basin National Park in eastern Nevada. Haven’t heard of it? You’re not alone. It’s one of the least-visited parks in the country, mainly because it is so incredibly remote. The people who work at the park or at the few small service stops outside the park entrance must drive almost 70 miles just to visit a grocery store. The 85-mile drive from Delta, Utah to the park was completely devoid of civilization – not a gas station, farm, or rural shack in sight. Joseph and I both remarked that we had probably never been anywhere so remote in our lives.
Which is why we panicked a little bit when we arrived at the park and all the campgrounds were full. We had driven 4 hours to get there – where to go? Sleep in the car? Pitch a tent on the side of the road? Our hopes of breathing cool mountain air in the evenings were dashed. We were ornery from being stuck in the car, hungry, and in a hurry to find a place to settle down so we could make it to our reserved tour of Lehman Cave.
We found our way back down to the desert valley to investigate a private campground we had heard about. It was dusty and hot, there was no fire ring, we were sleeping next to a lot filled with metal scraps and rubble. But at least we had a place to sleep. On the up side, the campground had showers, and the small administrative building had a place to buy ice and beer, and even had a little bar with draft beer.
We went off, with considerably more peace of mind, to attend our tour of Lehman Cave. It was an incredibly cool experience, led by a charming park ranger from eastern Tennessee. It was the first real cave I had ever experienced, and it was well worth the visit.
When we returned to the campground, we found some stones and built ourselves a fire ring right on the dusty ground. We set up our tent and prepared our meal for the night – a delicious chili verde cooked in our Dutch oven using actual wood coals. We had a couple of beers, begrudgingly agreeing that this wasn’t so bad. We decided to check out the little bar at the campground and be a little sociable.
You can probably imagine the sort of colorful characters a place like this might attract. The locals – what sort of person decides to live in a tiny village of 58 people, 70 miles from a grocery store? The out-of-town adventurers who make it to a place like this are also interesting – a mountain climber, a single woman off on her own hiking adventure. So many interesting conversations, and probably one too many beers. When we finally made our way back to the campsite, we were happy as clams, and noted the incredible starscape. This area is known to have the best stargazing in the lower 48 states – the Milky Way was painted across the sky.
The next day, we went hiking up at the park’s main attraction, Wheeler Peak. Great Basin National Park was designated as such because it is considered a “superb example of a desert mountain island.” Down at the base, life is harsh, dry, and hot. As you climb in elevation, though, life is cooler, it rains more, and a great abundance of life can survive. We drove straight up to about 10,000 feet, a climb of over 5,000 feet from our campsite, to begin our hiking. We saw beautiful alpine lakes, a unique rock glacier, and a grove of bristlecone pines containing some of the oldest living organisms in the world – over 4000 years old. I also gained some confidence – at a breath-stealing altitude of almost 11,000 feet, I could climb steep hills and technical terrain without feeling wiped out. We hiked about 7 miles that day.
We returned to our dusty little campsite, exhausted and happy. We planned a simple meal of roasted hot dogs and went to visit our bartender friend for one beer. He was a nice guy, exiled from his home of Las Vegas to this tiny village for the summer. He did everything -tended bar, registered campers, cleaned the showers, solved problems. While we sat at the bar drinking our well-earned beer, chatting with our new friend, I watched the hummingbirds fight over the feeders right outside the window, mountains in the background.
I guess the reason I can’t stop thinking about this trip is because everything about it was so unexpected. We were astonished at how remote it was. Despite my best efforts at planning, we were stuck without a campsite in the park. We thought our experience at the dusty campground would be mediocre and disappointing; instead, it was downright pleasurable and beautiful in its own way. And I surprised myself with my own strength and endurance, and got to see remote natural beauty that many people will never find.