Monday, July 4, 2022

Pandemic Diaries - Year 3, Month 3 - The Trek North, The Highlights - The Oregon Trail

4 July 2022


Happy Fourth of July!  Yes, we've been back in Washington state for six weeks - it has been busy with our usual summer sorts of events.


But blog-wise, we just left snowy Nevada, and were heading northwestward.  So, that's where I'll pick up, as we drove along the Oregon Trail.  


We did drive through Idaho, but that was just a drive-through.  We stopped for lunch somewhere, and probably one or two rest areas, but that was about it.   We just cut through the southwest corner of the state, and spent one night in Ontario, Oregon, just past the Idaho state line.

We spent two nights in La Grande, and as I said previously, it was a nice little college town.  Pretty location, some nice older buildings, and interesting places to eat.  We didn't do much exploring, because by then we were ready to get to Washington.

We did, however, stop at two interesting rest areas.  Partly because we like to break up the drives each day.  And partly because the places had such odd names, especially since they really were along the old Oregon trail, part of that westward expansion after the Civil War.

The first was Rattlesnake Springs.  Really, doesn't that just make you want to stop there and fill up on water?  I really would prefer my water without the rattlesnake, thank you.  (This is not to be confused with Rattlesnake Springs, New Mexico.)  

I can't find much information about Rattlesnake Springs, Oregon.  But the Oregon Trail went through Rattlesnake Pass in modern-day Wyoming, and there was a Rattlesnake Station for the stage coach service in Idaho.  Also a Rattlesnake Creek in Oregon, along this route.  So our best guess is that someone found natural springs here in the high desert of the Oregon Territory, and named them Rattlesnake Springs.


We also found evidence of the snowstorm that held us up in Jackpot, NV.  The highest hills and distant Blue Mountain range were all covered with snow, even in mid May.  We guessed the storm blew through here, and on down into northern Nevada.


So, just in case stopping at Rattlesnake Springs hadn't been enough of a thrill, we somehow ended up at a rest area called Deadman's Pass.  No, the man didn't die of a rattlesnake bite, though that would be a reasonable guess.  No, between the US Cavalry riding through and forcing the Native Americans into specified areas, the drivers hauling freight to the west, and the various groups of settlers moving in or just passing through, there were a number of fights and skirmishes along this pass, as well as wagon accidents.  With each death of an individual, the name Deadman's Pass was reinforced as a moniker that this was a dangerous and hazardous route.

Of course, we just drove through.  Roads were clear, no one was fighting, and we descendants of the settlers have made peace with the Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla nations of this region.  Or at least we've learned to live as neighbors.

We followed Lewis and Clark's route and headed north into Washington the next day, crossing the mighty Columbia River and heading to Yakima, and then north to Bellingham.   Nothing major along that route, so our next blog will begin our adventures in Bellingham and Ferndale!

Monday, June 13, 2022

Pandemic Diaries - Year 3, Month 3 - The Trek North, The Highlights - Nevada Part II

 13 June 2022


We had four stops in Nevada, because we travelled north almost the entire length of the state, driving along Highway 93.  We were in the region referred to as The Great Basin, which is one of those strange geographic phemonena that have different definition depending on who you speak to about it.  It sounds more ominous than it really is.

Purely geographically, the Great Basin is a huge flat valley between several north-south mountain ranges.  (The Great Basin is really a series of neighboring smaller basins, but because they're so close together, they've all been lumped together as The Great Basin.)


Next, the Great Basin is a huge region where all the water within it drains internally.  The rivers come and go within this area, and don't become tributaries to any rivers outside the area.  Same thing with the lakes, ponds, streams, creeks, and so forth.  All water stays within this basin, because, as we all know, water doesn't run uphill.  Those north-south mountain ranges help keep the water within the area.

The Great Basin is also in the rain shadow of mountain ranges to the west, the Cascade Mountains and the Sierra Nevadas.  This has created a huge desert environment encompassing most of Nevada, much of Utah, parts of eastern Oregon, northeast California, southeast Idaho, southwest Wyoming.  The flora and fauna of these regions are all similar, because this is essentially one huge desert - another aspect of the Great Basin.

All of this is to say that yeah, it isn't the most scenic drive.  It's a dry and dusty scrub-filled landscape, with lots of sagebrush and tumbleweed.  Small dry trees, some hills, and some distant mountains.  And not much else.

Given that kind of landscape, there also aren't very many towns.  I mean, really, how many of us want to live in that kind of place?  Hot in the spring, scorching in the summer, snowy and windy and frigid in the winter.  And not enough trees to be colorful in autumn.

So our drive consisted of long days of driving through rather redundant views.  Our map shows where we stopped - first in Boulder City (previous blog), next in Caliente, then Ely, and finally Jackpot.  Here we are with Nevada, Part II.


Caliente is the ONLY incorporated community in the entire county (Lincoln County) - that gives you an idea of how unpopulated this area really is.  One town in the entire county.  It's a very pretty little town, originally named Culverwell after the owners of the ranch land on which it was built.  This picturesque town still some old buildings dating back to the 1800s, when two rival railroad companies vied for the rights to build rails through the narrow canyon.  The Union Pacific line eventually won the rights (shotguns were fired by one of the original Culverwells, but the two sides eventually reconciled), and the town was renamed Caliente for the hot springs on the north side of town.


The first train station burned to the ground, but the rebuilt train station still stands, one hundred years later.  The rails still run through the town, with tourists like us crisscrossing the tracks every time we drive off to find an eating spot, or a gas station, or a place to sleep.


The Meadow Valley Wash runs through the region, making this a green and shady spot in the midst of all that desert.  Caliente really was a cute little town, and it turned out to be a great spot to spend the night.  We both really liked The Side Track Café as a spot for takeaway dinner as well as breakfast the next morning.


Our hotel also offered free ear plugs, because there are several night trains that rumbled through the town, with their lonely whistles blowing.  I'm a light sleeper, but I didn't notice the train noise at all.


So, we stayed heading north on Highway 93, which really is an interstate since it runs from Arizona, through Nevada, to Idaho.  But much of the way it's more like a rural or state highway, with one lane in each direction.


There are occasional state parks as well as rest areas along the way, much needed for some of the long stretches between any kind of civilization.  Really, we could go nearly 100 miles without seeing a place to grab lunch.

We spent two nights in Ely, a larger town but not large enough to pretend to be a city.  It was nice, there were a number of hotels with casinos, and we found a laundromat.  People were friendly, the food was decent, and we enjoyed not driving for one day.

Then off again, for the very long drive north to Jackpot.  But along the way, near the former Fort Schellbourne, now a ghost town, we found a rest area that featured the history of the region, especially the involvement of the Pony Express.  The wind was quite chilly and fierce, letting us know we were at a higher elevation.  It really was an interesting stop, especially with the artwork portraying young Pony Express riders on their horses.


There were large information signs, talking about the original people here, the Goshute Nation.  As more and more settlers arrived during the 1800s, tensions grew - and after many years, two regions of tribal land were set aside, one for the Skull Valley Goshute, the other for the Deep Creek Goshute.


As the various settlements grew, the Pony Express was established to bring mail from east of the Mississippi River to all the regions to the west.  Most individual riders didn't ride more than 75 miles (or more than a 24 hour journey), so mail was exchanged from one rider to another.  The exchange posts were dubbed swing stations and home stations - at a swing station, every 10 to 15 miles, a rider could jump off his tired horse, have a drink of water, and jump on a new horse to continue onward.  Home stations were where a rider might spend a night.

This particular rest area marked the Schell Creek Station, or Pony Express Station #128.  Westbound riders leaving from St. Louis, MO, would arrive at this station about seven or eight days into their trip to Sacramento, CA.


The riders were mostly brave and adventurous young men, willing to fight the weather, the environment, and possibly even robbers along their route.  Yes, we've totally romanticized the Pony Express riders, but it definitely was not an easy job.  But we were driving the same route, in an air-conditioned car, driving at about 70 miles an hour.  We thought that was tiring!  Ha!  Those Pony Express riders really do deserve a great deal of credit for their work.

When we left Ely, we decided we just had to spend a night in Jackpot, Nevada.  With a name like that, it was a must.  It turned out that the town is technically an unincorporated area established as a casino center.  They have their own schools, police, and such, but the main business seems to be centered around tourists from neighboring states (such as Idaho and Wyoming), and support services such as hotels, eateries, and gas stations.

We booked one night at the Four Jacks Inn and Casino, which was comfortable and decorated in a quaintly old-fashioned way.  They have an in-house café (with really tasty breakfasts as well as very good chicken fajitas for lunch or dinner!), as well as a small casino.


And then it snowed.  And snowed.  And snowed some more.  Here it was, early May, we're in a giant desert, and it snows!  It snowed lightly off and on throughout the night, but by morning it was snowing in earnest, with a forecast of snow for most of the day.  Quite heavy snow, with big thick clumps of snowflakes.


Well, what could we do?  We booked a second night.  We were comfortable and warm, we both had things we could do in our room, we could play in the casino, and there was a café for meals - all without having to go out into the snow.


Of course, Richard went outside to smoke, and I had to go outside to take photos of the snow.  We both had to go through our larger pieces of tightly packed luggage to pull out warm sweaters, down jackets, hats, gloves, scarves, thick socks, and closed shoes.


One of the oddest thing was seeing the hanging pots of flowers, with snow drifting in and piling up on the flowers.  Lovely bright pink, or mottled purple and white petunias, with lots of greenery - and an inch of two of snow!  So odd and incongruous!


Apparently there was some kind of incident or accident on Highway 93, because for much of the morning the traffic was just stopped - in both directions.  It was a very good thing we decided to stay put.  Discretion being the better part of valor, and all that. 


Our hotel's café had several gorgeous mosaics in the floor - I had to take photos, they were so intricate with shading created by tiny bits of tile working together to make a very realistic and dimensional image.  I talked to the café owner, who is leasing the space - he wasn't sure who the artist was, but the previous café owner hired her to put in these mosaics.  The current owner said he was very happy to lease such a decorated space.


So there isn't a story about the mosaics.  Just photos.  I'll end here.  And the next blog post will continue with our trip north - through Idaho and Oregon.


Thursday, June 9, 2022

Pandemic Diaries - Year 3, Month 3 - The Trek North, The Highlights - Nevada Part I

9 June 2022


I mentioned in the last post that the highlight of Nevada was at our first stop, Boulder City, right near Lake Mead and Hoover Dam.  Not that we visited the lake, which is very low.  Nor did we visit the dam, a wonder of engineering.  No, we enjoyed staying at the Hoover Dam Lodge, where we played a bit in their casino, and the very delicious food at their café.  


The café is named the Bighorn Café, decorated with photos of bighorn sheep.  So of course we asked our friendly waitstaff about the bighorns, who

explained that the sheep come out of the mountainsand hang out in a park in town, nibbling the grass and ignoring the tourists who come to watch the sheep.


How could we not?  We got directions to Hemenway Park, which was quite easy to find.  There, on the grass right by the parking lot, were maybe ten to fifteen bighorns, munching away and yes, ignoring the people who were watching them.


I started taking photos, and suddenly these big sheep stopped eating and turned as one, like boats in a shifting tide, facing the large rocky hill on one side of the park.  A huge horde of smaller bighorns, possibly the females, followed by all the cute little baby bighorns, came thundering down from the larger hill across the street, stampeded across the road, and came running along a path at the base of the hill!!!  Seriously, maybe thirty or more sheep in this crowd!  They certainly got the attention of the tourists as well as the large sheep in the park, most likely males, stood at attention and watch this wave of bighorns come running in!


SO exciting!  They were running so fast I couldn't get a decent photo, they were blurs, so I gave up and just enjoyed this sight!  Wow!


And the rest of the time we just wandered around, watching the bighorn sheep (who really look more like goats with giant croissant-like horns curling down around their faces).  They ignored us, we kept our distance, they walked nearby as they continued looking for the best patches of grass, and I took photos.  A few even used the park benches as scratching posts!


That took about an hour, because I kept trying to get a sheep to look straight into the camera.  Yeah, they don't listen to requests.  Maybe they don't speak English.  Or they don't like to be photographed.  Who knows, it took a while to get a few portraits of bighorns.


But that was about it.  An amazing and unexpected sight, to see normally elusive wild animals just strolling around the town's park, to be within three feet of these incredible sheep.  


The gorgeous backdrop became secondary - Lake Mead, shining blue and bright in the distance.  Rocky craggy hills all around us.  Purple mountains in the far distance.  It really was a special place, and an experience to treasure.


And you know me - lots of photos.  But I promise, these are the best photos!