Sea Anemones Go to War… Harris Beach State Park

It’s the first day of spring here in the Applegate River Valley, and behaving like it. I watched two male flickers (woodpeckers) strutting their stuff this morning for a female while she studiously ignored them by pecking at the ground. One very pregnant doe was busy chasing off her twins from last year. She’ll soon have a new fawn— or fawns— to take care of. And, the swallows have arrived back in our neighborhood. Their aerial performances are truly amazing. Before long, they will start checking out our oak trees and bird houses for possible nesting sites. 

The first of our daffodils have burst into bright yellow blooms, shooting stars are covering the hillsides, and irises are popping up everywhere. Peggy and her sister Jane dug up our iris bed last year to separate the bulbs that were crowding each other out. Peggy discovered that there were more than she could possibly plant, so she started stuffing the extras into gopher holes and covering them— like you might sweep dirt under a rug. Well, that’s what I thought. The gophers will have a feast. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Each hole is now proudly sporting its own iris and Peggy is giving me an “I told you so” look.

And what else happened this morning? There was snow, rain and sunshine. Sometimes simultaneously. Spring has arrived for sure.

Meanwhile, I have a nasty cold. “We don’t likes it,” as Gollum of Hobbit fame would say. I have a box of Kleenex on one side and a paper bag on the other. I feel like I am an essential part of an assembly line for creating dirty tissues. Pull a Kleenex out of the box, sneeze into it, and stuff it in the bag. Repeat. I filled two bags yesterday. I’d be worried in this age of Covid, but my sniffer is working fine, I don’t have a fever, and Peggy and I had our second dose of Moderna in February. 

I was totally out of it yesterday and the day before. Instead of writing, I read a 400-page fantasy novel about a reluctant hero, a kick-ass princess, a unicorn without a horn, and a dragon that collected butterflies instead of virgins and gold. It was just what the doctor ordered. I’m almost human today, which is why I am back to blogging. Today I am returning to the tide pools of Harris Beach for a look at sea anemones.

The sea anemones at Harris Beach come in a variety of shapes and sizes. This was one of the larger ones we found, a giant, green sea anemone or Anthopleura xanthogrammica, if you want to be scientifically correct.
A more typical view. The tentacles are covered in stinging cells that the anemone throws into small prey like a harpoon. Once the poison has done its job, the anemone then uses its tentacles to work its prey into the gaping mouth seen in the center. When the feast is over it jets the leftovers out its mouth that has conveniently become an anus. I wonder if the anemone then gargles with sea water. The anemones stinging cells are more or less harmless to humans. How do I know this? I petted a few in my youth. The anemones don’t seem to like it; they immediately close up shop, like the anemones below.
A few of the big guys hanging out together at low tide. Anemones close up when exposed to air as a way to protect their tentacles. A small, dark fish is lurking in the remaining water. Some small fish seem to have a symbiotic relationship with anemones and swim among the tentacles, free of worry. Predators beware.
I found this interesting. A number to the anemones were covered in brightly colored pieces of rocks and shells. Scientists speculate that this serves as a natural sunblock when the anemone is exposed to air at low tide. I was curious about how they go about gathering and affixing their collection but couldn’t find anything about it.
Some smaller sea anemones live in colonies as seen here. These are clones of each other except they differentiate into scouts, warriors and moms. When two colonies meet, they go to war. It’s the scouts job to find new territory for the colony as it expands. When they come on another colony, the warriors take over by whaling away at each other with their tentacles. The ‘moms’ stay in the middle out of harm’s way. Next Friday, I’ll cover the other sealife we found in the tide pools.


Monday’s Blog-a-Book Post… “It’s 4 AM and a Bear Is Standing on Top of Me”: I move outside to commune with nature in the summer but the ghosts continue to haunt our backyard. I hire the family pets for protection. They charge a high fee.

The Starfish of Harris Beach State Park, Oregon

We saw this colorful starfish from a distance and came over for a closer look. It’s scientific name is Henricia leviuscula. It common name is Pacific blood star.
I decided a slight shift in perspective would create a twirling ballet dancer! Or is it a whirling dervish?

We were lucky to find any starfish at all. The population up and down the Pacific coast came close to being wiped out in 2013. A rather nasty virus that melted these attractive creatures from the inside killed millions. Legs would fall off and go crawling away. It sounded like the plot to a Grade B horror flick. Fortunately, evolution came to the rescue. A small portion of the population seemed immune to the virus. Maybe some of the legs got lucky. They came back with a vengeance. We did find a few that were obviously dead. I touched one. It was mushy. Melting.

Everywhere we looked we saw starfish. Sometime in bunches. These purple and orange star fish belong to the same family, Pisaster ochraceus. Scientists don’t know why they come in two colors.

Here are some fun facts:

  • These rather amazing five-legged creatures have seawater for blood. It serves the same purpose, delivering nutrients to cells. 
  • Starfish can regenerate an arm lost to a predator. But what if the arm loses its starfish? It can regenerate a new starfish, an exact replica. Pretty cool, huh.
  • They have very small mouths but like large, tasty morsels, like mussels. Not a problem. They have big stomachs. They send them out through their mouths and wrap them around what they want to eat. They digest their dinner and then suck the nutrients back into their mouths, along with the wandering stomachs. 
  • They move around on tiny little feet that are found on their arms. They fill these little feet with water and mimic walking. They travel slowly, at least I have never seen one move quickly. 
  • The feet also serve another purpose; they work as suction cups. The starfish will wrap itself around a closed mussel, attach their little feet, and pull the shells apart. Not an easy task.
  • One more thing about their arms, each one comes with eyes. Not eyes like you and I have but photo receptors that allow them to distinguish between light and dark and move around in search of food, or to avoid becoming food. 

Following are more of our photos:

At first, I thought that the ugly guy above the starfish was seaweed. But looking at it more closely, I decided that it wasn’t something I wanted to meet up with on a dark night.
I’ll conclude with this edgy fellow.


As you read this post, Peggy and I are on our way to Pt. Reyes National Seashore north of San Francisco. When she asked what I wanted to do for my birthday week, it popped up. The National Sea Shore is one of my all-time favorite places and I have been escaping there for 50 years. So, beyond responding to comments, I will be taking a break from blogging and reading blogs this coming week. Translate: Vacation! I’ll be back to work on March 8. See you then. –Curt

Why I Love Deserts: Nevada’s Highway 95 Is an Example

While many people think of the desert as a wasteland to travel through at 70 MPH plus, there is great beauty.

Peggy and I have made numerous trips up and down Nevada’s Highway 95. Most of our journeys to the Southwest start with that route. We never tire of the beauty along the way. Our frequent trips up and down the highway mean that I have done several posts on it over the years. The photos I am posting today were taken near the Town of Tonopah. There’s a good chance that you will have seen some of them. But they are worth looking at again. At least I think so…

I always think these lonely power poles add to the photo.
Black and white works as well. I think it adds drama.
A distant shot may classify as a close-up in the desert.
Another example.
I’ll conclude with what a distant shot looks like in the desert.

Peggy and I have now wrapped up our visit to Brookings on the Oregon Coast. Next Friday I’ll begin posting photos of what we saw. Naturally there will be sea stacks that the coast is famous for. We also captured a spectacular sunset. No surprise there. The tide pools provided a different perspective, however. We hung out with starfish, and anemones, and seaweed, and hermit crabs, and limpets. Oh my!


Monday’s Blog-a-Book from “It’s 4 AM and a Bear Is Standing on Top of Me” : I kick off the second section of my book— Growing Up in a Graveyard— with the story of how I was kicked out of the first grade for a poorly done forgery and began my wandering ways.

Wednesday’s Blog-a-Book from “The Bush Devil Ate Sam” : I am put in the hospital for my Republican political views, as a fourth grader, and make a left turn from the right lane in community college preparing myself for the 60s, Berkeley, and the Peace Corps.

Here Kitty, Kitty: Lyman State Park, AZ… The Backroad Series— Highway 191

Here kitty, kitty, kitty. I was amused by this petroglyph of what appears to be a cougar running at Lyman State Park in Arizona. Other petroglyphs of cougars that Peggy and I have seen in the Southwest often have their tails over their backs.

We had started our backroad exploration of Highway 191 at Arches National Park in Utah and would wrap it up at Lyman State Park in Arizona. The two parks made nice bookends. I’d been by the park twice and considered stopping both times but thoughts of the Rocky Mountains looming ahead had kept me moving. The first time I was on my bicycle and planned to do a hundred mile trip across the range the next day. This time it was getting late and Peggy and I were tired from a long day of driving. We were lucky to get a space.

We went out for a walk as the sun was setting. The comic-appearing rock face on the left caught my attention. The nose was hard to ignore!

Our evening walk had taken us past a sign announcing a petroglyph trail, a happy surprise. Peggy and I have visited a number of petroglyph sites throughout the Southwest, many of which I have blogged about. We hadn’t realized that Lyman State Park also features the ancient rock art. We made a quick trip up the trail and vowed to return in the morning. Both the Anasazi and the Hopi had made their homes along the Little Colorado River, which was now damned up forming Lyman Lake. The petroglyphs were found in the rocks above the river. The Hopi believe they entered this world from another world near where the Little Colorado enters the Colorado River.

A sign placed by the park interpreted this rock art. The wiggly line represents the Water Serpent the Hopi would ask for water when water was scarce. Obviously they found it in the Little Colorado, which meant they could settle in the area. The guy on the right is jumping up and down holding corn they were able to grow. Or maybe he’s excited about his companion having a baby. You can see it hanging down. The umbilical cord hasn’t been cut yet. I’d be jumping up and down too. The wildlife looking on may symbolize the availability of game for hunting.
Behold the turtle who only makes progress when it sticks its neck out. At least, I think it’s a turtle. I also admired the lichen on the right.
A pair of very long snakes? Or at least their trail. Have you ever seen a snake trail crossing a dirt road?
There was also an interpretation sign for this. The thick line in the middle was apparently a migration route. Off to the left are snakes. The guy on the right may be dead since that is how death is sometimes shown in petroglyphs. I wonder if the snakes got him. Or Kitty, which was just to the left.
Land use planning? A sign suggested that this was a map that showed the various farms or settlements along the Little Colorado.
Another example of a petroglyph map.
Who knows?
My interpretation here is of a bear print with lots of sharp claws…

There’s much more to Lyman State Park than petroglyphs. For one, the lake is apparently a popular boating lake. None were there at the time, which pleased us given the likely noise. We wandered around and took in the sights

What the…? How’d you like to come home to this?
Hungry swallow chicks. 🙂
Who lives here? It’s a spider. I didn’t shove my finger down the hole.
Peggy made her way along the Petroglyph Trail.
Which overlooked the lake.
And featured this tree…
And more rocks.
I’ll conclude with this attractive peninsula jutting out onto the lake.


Blog-a-Book Monday: It’s 4 AM and a Bear Is Standing on Top of Me… I conclude the Sierra Trek story with the greatest surprise of all.

Blog-a-Book Wednesday: The Bush Devil Ate Sam… I contemplate the wandering ways of my ancestors as a factor in my decision to join the Peace Corps. I’ve often been jealous of these early mountain men who travelled with the likes of Daniel Boone. But not Uncle Bill. He had his head cut off by a tomahawk and rolled down a hill…

Highway 191: National Parks and Navajos… The Backroad Series

Our first stop on Highway 191 was only a few miles south of I-70; Arches National Park. I’ve already posted on our visit, but here’s a photo from the park.

There are some backroads in America that we immediately recognize. Route 66 is one. Highway 1 along the California coast is another.  Last summer, Peggy and I went on a road trip in our van exploring several other America’s backroads which aren’t quite so familiar, at least to me. 

Highway 191 was one. This highway starts at the Canadian Border in Montana and ends in Arizona on the Mexican Border. I’ve driven much of it over the years. I’ve even bicycled several hundred miles on the highway. But I confess that if someone had asked me what I knew about Highway 191 before our trip last summer, I would have asked where it was. 

Highway 191 travels from the border of Canada to the border of Mexico.

Peggy and I picked it up off of I-70 in Utah and followed it south into Arizona where we cut off on Highway 180 crossing the southern Rockies toward Silver City in New Mexico. Along the way we visited Arches National Park, made our way through Navajo country, passed by Canyon de Chelly and spent a delightful night at Lyman State Park in Arizona. I’ll feature some pictures that Peggy and I took along the road but will save Lyman Lake for next week’s post.

One more Arches photo. Peggy caught this photo of me checking out Balanced Rock.
There are, of course, impressive arches outside of Arches National Park. Wilson Arch is found along Highway 191 south of the National Park.
Further south along Highway 191, Peggy and I came on this interesting sandstone monument known as Church Rock. BTW, the road into Canyonlands National Park is near here.
Views along 191 included badlands…
These trees…
And the San Juan River.
As we entered the Navajo nation, the concern over Covid 19 was immediately apparent. This dinosaur was wearing a mask at a service station.
I love this sign that shows a sense of humor in the Navajo Nation about social distancing. Very few people were out and about in comparison to 9 months earlier when we had visited Canyon de Chelly. We saw perhaps a half dozen outside of Chinle, gateway to the National Monument.
Two Navajo Sheep. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
A view looking down into Canyon de Chelly from our previous visit. Tourism and tourist dollars came to a dramatic halt with Covid-19 ravaging the Navajo Nation.
People like Alan Ba, from whom we bought this artwork, would have an important source of income eliminated.
As we neared I-40 on Highway 191, there was one more grim reminder of the problems facing the world, a massive forest fire brought on partially by global warming.
Traveling south of I-40 we found more badlands, not all that far from the Painted Desert.
Shortly after arriving at Arizona’s Lyman State Park, we were treated to a sunset over the lake. It had been a long day.


Blog-a-book Monday: Just when I thought we were out of trouble, the Sheriff pays the Sierra Trek a visit and dynamite threatens to rain rocks down on us.

Blog-a-book Wednesday: I start the book on my African Peace Corps adventure with asking the question: Why?

Travel Blog Friday: We explore the unique early American rock art of Lyman Lake, discover some birds that are more mouth than body, and appreciate the beauty of the area.

Utah’s Scenic Highway 24 Features the Stunning Capitol Reef NP… The Backroads Series

Utah’s scenic Highway 24 is worth traveling over on its own, but Capitol Reef National Park makes it special.

Peggy and I said goodbye to Highway 50 in the small Utah town of Sigurd with Capitol Reef National Park as our destination. We had been to the Park before and were eager to return. Our previous trip covered only a small section of Highway 24, however. This time we were determined to drive the whole road as part of our backroads adventure and were pleased to discover it, too, was quite scenic. I’ll start with photos we took before and after Capitol Reef NP and then focus in on the Park. These photos were taken by both Peggy and me.

Three photos from along Highway 24 west of Capitol Reef National Park:

Three photos from along Highway 24 east of Capitol Reef National Park:

Most people familiar with the national parks of the Southwest will quickly recognize the Grand Canyon, Arches and Bryce. Maybe not so much Capitol Reef. That’s too bad; it’s quite stunning. Like the other parks of the Southwest, it is made up primarily of sedimentary rocks that were laid down over a period of 200 million years in ancient rivers, swamps, Sahara-size deserts and shallow oceans. Unlike the rocks in the other parks, which have a layered cake look— like the rocks east of the park shone above— Capitol Reef resembles a 100-mile warp in the earth. It’s a monocline known as the Waterpocket Fold. Sixty to seventy million years ago, an ancient fault in the area was re-activated and the layers of rock on the west side of the fold were lifted some 7000 feet higher than the layers on the east side. Erosion has since created the fantastic rock forms found in the Park today. Following are a few of the photos that Peggy and I took in the park:

And a final view. If you find yourself in Utah, Peggy and I highly recommend a visit to Capitol Reef National Park.


Blog a Book Tuesday: Steve and I split up the Sierra Trek route for a review, each covering 40 miles in 3 days. Steve claims he is chased by a hawk, comes across migrating rattlesnakes, and has to pee around his camp to scare off the bears. I wonder what he has been smoking. As for me, I begin to comprehend how crazy the idea is but come off the trip on an absolute high. My plan is to finish the final 20 miles the following weekend…

Continuing along “America’s Loneliest Road”… Travel Blog Thursday

Highway 50 continued to be a lonely road with distant horizons through eastern Nevada and western Utah. The terrain did change somewhat, moving from sagebrush to grass in the valleys.

On leaving the Hickison Petroglyph Recreation Area, Peggy and I continued our exploration of America’s backroads following Highway 50 across Nevada and into Utah. Towns and fences were few and far between.

We did, however, discover an opera house in the small town of Eureka, Nevada. (Eureka, BTW, means “I found it!” and is often used in relation to gold and silver mining.) While it may seem strange that a rough and tumble mining town would have an opera house, it wasn’t all that unusual. A number of the wealthier boomtowns built them to demonstrate that there was more to their communities than bars, gambling halls and brothels. Fine examples can be found in Nevada City, California, Silver City, Nevada, and even in Death Valley!

The Eureka Opera House had recently been renovated. Originally built in the 1880s it served as the town’s social center, hosting operas, dances, concerts and other social events. Silent movies were introduced in 1915 followed by ‘talkies.’ The last movie was shown there in the late 1950s.

The Eureka, Nevada Opera House as it looks today.
Several other buildings in town have also been renovated. This one seems to be waiting for its turn.

Today’s post will mainly be photos of our continuing journey along Highway 50. We invite you to sit back and enjoy the scenery.

And what do you do when you meet a truck like this along the highway? Peggy and I decided that get out of the way was the correct answer. Actually, Nevada State Troopers had already provided the answer.
Any idea what this is all about? The huge mound of colorful dirt had Peggy and me wondering. The buildings provide perspective on size. Turns out it is one of the world’s largest pit mining operations, the Robinson Mine. The copper ore dug up here is shipped off to China.
Looking up toward the Great Basin National Park from highway 50. We had been there twice before and didn’t stop on this trip.
Impressive mountains continued to represent the range part of the Basin and Range complex.
Between ranges, America’s Loneliest Highway carried us into basins.
If you need any antlers to decorate your house or yard, Horns-a-Plenty is the place to go.
A close up with elk antlers on top.
Another view looking up toward Great Basin National Park, which sits close to the Utah border.
Highway 50 took us directly into Utah…..
Where we were greeted by a Utah sign featuring Red Rock country. The following photos show some of the scenery we saw along Highway 50 in the state.
My final view of Highway 50. Lonely, as it should be. We left 50 for another backroad, Utah’s Highway 24.


Tuesday’s Blog-a-Book Day: It’s recruitment time for our 100-mile backpack trek. What do you do with a 250 pound, ex-ice hockey player who once defused bombs in South American was dodging the IRS when he signed up.

Thursday’s Travel Blog Day: Peggy and I pick up Utah’s Highway 24 for a visit to Capitol Reef National Park.

Hickison Petroglyphs: Strange Glyphs and Stranger Rocks… America’s Backroads

One thing that Peggy and I have noticed over our years of checking out petroglyph sites is that they are often located in very scenic areas or on unusual rock formations. The rocks found at Hickison Petroglyph State Recreation Area definitely qualify.

As we continued our backroads’ journey along Highway 50 through Nevada on America’s Loneliest Road, we passed over Hickison Pass, dropped down into another valley, and arrived at our campground for the night: Hickison Petroglyph Recreation Area. Peggy and I had stopped off here on another journey and been fascinated by both the rocks and petroglyphs.

The rocks are composed of volcanic tuff, ash that has been ejected from an erupting volcano and then solidified into rock. It erodes easily in comparison to harder rocks, which is what has created the interesting rock forms at Hickison. It is also easily carved into petroglyphs. Like the Grimes petroglyphs that I featured on last Thursday’s travel blog, these are ancient, dating back thousands of years. But, as you will see from the following photos, they represent a different style.

The campground lacks water and electricity but we found it quite scenic. When we arrived, large, colorful bugs that resembled giant grasshoppers or crickets occupied our campsite. They are common in sagebrush country and go by the name of Mormon crickets. Actually they are shield-backed katydids.

One of dozens of shield-backed katydids or Mormon crickets that occupied our campsite.
Quivera, our small RV, cosily tucked away among the junipers and pinyon pines. Pinyon pine nuts were an important source of food for ancient peoples and Native Americans.
A view from the campground looking out on Monitor Valley.
I found the cloud formation interesting.
Clouds from an evening walk.
As I mentioned above, prominent landmarks were frequently chosen by early peoples and Native Americans to create their rock art.
This is the panel featured on the above rock.
I won’t pretend to have a clue here…
Counting isn’t unusual in petroglyphs. For example, they might relate to the length of a journey. A woman blogger who counted the short and long marks here noted that there were 28 short marks and 6 long marks, possibly representing the menstrual cycle. Numerous vulviforms (representations of female genitalia) located at the site would tend to support this. There is some speculation that the area was used for girls’ puberty rites.
Early pioneers thought these might represent horses hooves. Nope.
Another example. BTW, for those of you who are Tom Robbins fans, he writes in his book, “Wild Ducks Flying Backwards” of a visit he made to another site along Highway 50 that is so full of these petroglyphs that it is known as the Canyon of Vaginas.

But back to the rocks.

I’ll conclude with this handsome fellow.

As you read this, Peggy and I are off celebrating Thanksgiving and our Anniversary at a favorite campsite on the Oregon Coast. We will catch up on comments and blogs when we return next week. In the meantime, we hope you are having/had a great Thanksgiving.

NEXT BLOGS: Tuesday is Blog a Book day where I will introduce you to the cast of characters that decided to hike a hundred miles across the Sierras with me. On Thursday’s Travel Blog we will finish up our trip across Nevada on Highway 50 and on into Utah, where it is also lonely.

The Loneliest Road in the US was Lonelier in 7,000 BCE… Petroglyphs of Grime’s Point

I took this photo while standing at Grime’s Point Archeological Area just off Highway 50 about five miles east of Fallon, Nevada on an earlier trip. The terraces above the basalt boulders were cut into the side of the ridge by the ancient Pleistocene Lake Lahontan as it rose and fell. Had I been here 10,000 years ago I would have been under 700 feet of water. Traveling over today’s Highway 50 route would have required a submarine.
Turning around from where I was standing was more basalt and a view of Highway 50. A pickup pulling a trailer makes its way over ‘The Loneliest Road in America.” Looking across the valley you can see ranges fading into the distance that are part of the Basin and Range complex of Nevada, which is part of the Great Basin of the Western US.
Had you arrived on the scene much later, say around 5,000 BCE or 7,000 years ago, you would have discovered that Lake Lahontan was much shallower as glaciers receded to the north and warmer temperatures prevailed. The area would have been marshy and filled with abundant wildlife. Ancient peoples had arrived on the scene and were pecking away at the rocks, creating some of the earliest petroglyphs in Nevada and North America. Grime’s Point features these petroglyphs. A copy of one of the petroglyphs is on the left.
The pit and groove petroglyphs here are among the oldest petroglyphs found in Nevada.
As to what they mean is anyone’s guess. One thought is that they were used in hunting rituals by shaman to assure success.
This basalt boulder was covered with pit petroglyphs. Ancient peoples and later Native Americans would use rocks to peck away the desert varnish that covers rocks to show the lighter rocks underneath. One way of measuring the age of petroglyphs is to see how much desert varnish has since re-covered the rock petroglyphs. The color of these pit and groove petroglyphs has returned to the original varnish color. Translate old.
In contrast, this is a much more recent petroglyph, probably carved in the last 500 years. To me, it appears to be a big horn sheep. But then again…
Most of the petroglyphs fall somewhere in age between the ‘sheep’ petroglyph above and the pit and groove style of petroglyphs. I like the almost-polished look of this basalt boulder. If you look carefully, you can see petroglyphs stretching down and out on both sides of the rock. Following are several examples of the petroglyphs I found wandering around among the boulders. It’s like a treasure hunt. Fun.
I’ll conclude with a final view of the landscape at Grime’s Point Archeological Area. Remains of what may have been a rock fence used to drive deer and antelope to the dinner table is found up near the top of the ridge.

BLOG-A-BOOK TUESDAY: Join me on the first 100-mile backpack trek I ever organized. Leading 61 people aged 11-71 across the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range, I was lucky to escape with my life and career in tact.

TRAVEL BLOG THURSDAY: Peggy and I continue our Back Roads of America Series by stopping off at another petroglyph site along The Loneliest Road in America: The Hickison Petroglyph Area. This time we will be featuring some out-of-this-world rocks and, uh, puberty rites.

The Loneliest Road in America: Highway 50 across Nevada… The Backroads’ Series

Today marks the beginning of my Backroad Series where I will feature highways that Peggy and I traveled over this past summer on our 8,000 mile journey around the US in our small RV.

Almost every photo I took while driving across Nevada emphasized Highway 50’s claim to being the loneliest road in America. This is desert country where mountain ranges are inevitably followed by basins. The desert is courtesy of a rain shadow created by the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The basins and ranges are courtesy of plate tectonics.

In 1986, Life Magazine declared that the section of Highway 50 that stretches across the Nevada desert was The Loneliest Road in America. It wasn’t meant as a compliment. It was more like, “Why would anyone in their right mind choose to drive this road?” But Nevadans saw it differently. They knew an opportunity when they saw it. After all, the state got its kick-start when silver and gold were discovered in abundance. And then it built Las Vegas. 

Who wouldn’t want to drive The Loneliest Road in America, the folks in Carson City, Nevada’s capitol, reasoned? Adventuresome souls would immediately add it to their bucket list! Signs were made and publicity was cranked out. Maybe the road wouldn’t be so lonely…

Signs declaring Highway 50 across Nevada to be ‘The Loneliest Road in America’ were created for publicity and photo ops.

It worked for me. I’ve driven the highway three times since. My last time was this past summer when Peggy and I went out in search of backroads across America. Highway 50 definitely qualifies— and it is still one of the loneliest roads in America.  It wasn’t always that way. Once upon a time in the 60’s, that’s the 1860s, it served as the premier route for people making their way West. The Overland Stage Coach Company, the Pony Express, and the country’s first national telegraph all made use of it. In 1913 it became part of the Lincoln Highway, America’s first transcontinental road.

I know a bit about the road. I was raised in the small town of Diamond Springs, which is located in the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range, three miles from Placerville, AKA Hangtown. If you walked out my front door and hiked a block east on Highway 49 past Fitzgerald’s house and the jungle-like graveyard that backed up to our property, you came to Missouri Flat Road. Turning left there took you to Highway 50, a mere mile away. My brother Marshall and I often made that hike in the summer when we were on our way to one of our favorite swimming holes, the 20-foot-deep Tub on Weber Creek. 

I was vaguely aware at the time that if you climbed on the road and drove east for a long time, you could reach the Atlantic Ocean. I also knew about the Pony Express connection. The parents of one of my close friends in Diamond Springs owned a small café in a historic building that had once served as a Pony Express stop. That was about it except for the annual Wagon Train that made its way from Lake Tahoe to Placerville on Highway 50 to celebrate the ‘good old days.’ The town would close Main Street to traffic and everyone would party. As I remember, the men would grow beards for the event, have fast-draw contests, and get drunk. Luckily, their six shooters were filled with blanks. 

Later, when I was in college, I had a laundry route in the summer that ran from Placerville up to South Lake Tahoe over Highway 50. The beautiful 120-mile round trip across the mountains paid for my college education. That section of Highway 50 was far from lonely, however. On Fridays and Saturdays, it could resemble a parking lot as people made their way up from the Bay Area and Sacramento to play at Lake Tahoe and gamble.

To avoid the possibility of the crowded highway this past summer, Peggy and I climbed on Interstate 80 in Sacramento and zoomed over the Sierras through Reno to the small town of Fernley, where we left the freeway behind and drove southeast to pick up 50 as it passed through Fallon, Nevada. That’s where lonely begins. (BTW: Had we gone north from Fernley for 60 miles, we would have ended up in the Black Rock Desert, the site where Burning Man takes place.)

I am going to do three posts on Highway 50 through Nevada. Later, I will do a couple of posts on 50 in West Virginia and Ohio as part of my backroad series. I took the photos in this post between Fallon and the Hickison Petroglyph Recreation Area in the center of the state.

Once you leave Fallon, Highway 50 seems to go on forever. Except for a few towns (three), ranches, and mining operations, the population drops close to zero.
Twenty miles outside of Fallon, first time drivers of Highway 50 are surprised to come on Sand Mountain, a large sand dune that is two miles long and 600 feet high. Locals say it ‘sings’ to you. The sand came from ancient (and very large) Lake Lahonton, a product of the glacial age. It dried up 9,000 years ago as the climate grew warmer and glaciers retreated north.
While many people think of the desert as desolate, I’ve always found it to have its own unique type of beauty. This is sagebrush country!
Mountains climb up to over 10,000 feet along Highway 50 through Nevada. Passes range between 6,000 and 7,500 feet.
I like the contrast here between the blue sky, dark mountains and buff colored desert floor. The geologist Clarence Dutton described the narrow parallel mountain ranges that define the topography of the Basin and Range like an “army of caterpillars marching toward Mexico.”

About half way between Fallon and Austin, Nevada, we came upon a small, historical marker site that featured the Overland Stagecoach, the Pony Express and America’s first cross country telegraph. All three were inspired by the North’s need to maintain communication with the West during the Civil War. Both the Pony Express and the Overland Stage Company had stations here. Three illustrations (early photos?) at the site captured our attention.

The Pony Express ran its historic route from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California— a distance of 1966 miles— in ten days. Each rider would normally cover between 75 and 100 miles at top speed. Stations along the way had saddled horses ready to go when the rider arrived. It took approximately two minutes to make the change. While the Pony Express has reached legendary status, its run, so to speak, was a short 18 months from April of 1860 to October of 1861 when the transcontinental telegraph was created.
The Civil War and the need for rapid communication between the East and West inspired Congress to push and pay for the building of the telegraph. The creation of the Pony Express was seen as a stopgap effort while it was being built. My dad worked as a lineman in the 30s. His job was to climb up poles like these as power lines were stretched across Northern California and Oregon.
The Overland Stage Company began its run over the route at about the same time the telegraph was completed. Serving as the primary mode of passenger transport between Missouri and California, it had originally operated a more southern route. The coming of the Civil War forced it to move north to the central Nevada route. A young Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) would use it to get to Nevada. When the transcontinental railroad across America was completed in 1969, the route was discontinued.

Rumor is that a Pony Express horse kicked over a rock that showed silver and the rush was on. Whether this is true or not, the presence of silver led to a silver rush and suddenly the town of Fallon was born. Soon it boasted a population of over 10,000 and even had a castle! Now it is best described as sleepy and historic.

When we drove through Austin, major work was being done on the road and it wasn’t conducive to stopping, but I did snap a few photos.The barely visible sign on the building says Stage Coach Inn.
Another photo of downtown. I was aiming my camera a bit high to avoid all of the roadwork. One of several churches built in Fallon during the heyday of silver mining looms in the background.
Austin’s best known landmark is Stoke’s Castle. It was built by an eccentric millionaire from the eastern US who only occupied it for a few months during the silver rush. While small in terms of what we think of as castles, it reminds me of the castles built between Scotland and England for protection against raiding (and possibly as a base for raiding) in the 13th and 14th Centuries. Some of my ancestors reportedly came from the region. I suspect that they were outlaws.
We wrapped up our first day of backroad travel by climbing up Highway 50 into the Humbolt-Toiyabe National Forest and over Hickison pass. We were pleased to see green! Next Thursday I will feature the Hickison Petroglyph area as well as the Grime’s petroglyph site that served as bookends for our first day of travel.

NEXT POST: On Tuesday, I will feature the second part of my introduction to the book I am blogging, “It’s 4 AM and a Bear Is Standing on Top of Me.” I answer the question about why I would undertake a 700 mile plus backpacking journey down the PCT at 75. Will a plea of insanity work?