Tales from the Trail: The Nevada Trek

The following story first appeared in Jim’s newsletter, Wild Wind.

In 1986 Jim walked home to Montana from Arizona, wandering through the western part of the Grand Canyon, up the eastern edge of Nevada, across central Idaho and back to the Yellowstone  country. On that trip, he fell in love with the vast desert valleys and snowy, rugged mountains of Nevada, often walking for days without seeing another soul. The space and the place inspired him, and songs flowed from his old, trailworn guitar, Stella. He’d always wanted to go back, so in 1995 Jim walked 400 miles through central Nevada, experiencing one of his most unique, memorable trips. He wrote this piece for the Fall ‘95 issue of his Wild Wind newsletter.

Waking to the cry of a Clark’s nutcracker, I roll over and sit up in my sleeping bag. I’m not using a tent this summer. Sleeping under the stars is the way to go in these Nevada mountains. Last night I bedded down in a tiny clearing surrounded by a healthy stand of aspen. Now I’m shivering in the crisp  morning air at 10,000 feet.

     From the comfort of my sleeping bag I put some water on for a hot breakfast. While the water heats up on the tiny woodburning campstove, I lay back against my pack and survey the canyon around me.

     This is Moore’s Creek in the Toquima Range. I’m in an area known as the Alta Toquima Wilderness. It is relatively small as wilderness areas go, but unique in ways I am about to find out. Yesterday I tried to follow an old trail, but ended up making my own way into this high, beautiful basin. Stands of large aspens, and even bigger limber pines, dot the rocky landscape. Water cascades down the steep canyon walls from dense snowfields still hugging the upper reaches. Things look green and alive; certainly not the typical image most folks have of Nevada.

     After breakfast I’m heading up the slope in the direction I think the trail would go if it still actually existed. The steepness has me stopping every 50 feet, gasping for breath. But I keep at it and am soon climbing out of the shade and into the sun. Here, on the steepest and rockiest part of the slope, I find an intact section of the old trail.

      Starting up the switchbacks I’m startled to see a footprint. Not just any footprint, but that of a vibram sole; another hiker. It’s an old track, pressed into now rockhard mud, but its presence surprises me. I’m going into my third week of the six week trek and have not seen any other backpackers. The last time I saw any people at all, was 6 days ago. It’s reassuring for me to think that there are some other folks who occasionally travel this country on foot. I don’t feel quite as alone with that old track lying there. My link with my fellow humans is rekindled.

     A bit further, as I near the edge of the cliff dropping back into Moore’s Canyon, I decide to stop for a photo opportunity waiting at the precipice. A little flat spot looks like a good place to set the pack down. I lower it to the ground and prop it upright with my walking stick. In the process, I realize that this bare bit of ground has a reason for being that way. Rocks are piled up on one side of the spot, forming a shelter from the  wind; also a blind for anyone hunting the cliffs in that direction. This is an ancient hunting shelter.

     With the realization of where I’m standing strikes me, I’m easily transported back a few thousand years. A glance over to the cliff edge shows a large flat boulder, a perfect place for a hunter to sit and watch for game, or to chip away at a piece of rock that will soon become a spear’s point or arrowhead.

     Leaping upon the perfect lookout point, I scan the cliffs sheering off from just below me a thousand feet to the open canyon floor. Closer, on a foot wide ledge just below my perch, a piece of red chert catches my eye. Right where the hunter dropped it all those years ago, a point lies waiting. It looks fresh, as if the flakes of rock were but recently chipped from it’s sides. The years have been kind.

     This spot holds me for some time. I hold the point in my hand, feeling each cut with my fingers, smooth and clean. I walk from the rock wall to the boulder several times and again look over the edge. What are the chances that no one has seen this before? Sitting on the lookout rock, I study the mountains, the canyon below, the shoulder of the ridge I rest upon. How different was this scene when the hunter sat here and dropped his point?

     Much later I retrieve the pack and finish the hike up to the broad summit plateau of Mount Jefferson. The vastness of the view draws me to a halt and I plop the pack down again. This high ridge is nearly eight miles long and a couple miles wide; all over 11,000 feet of elevation. Too high for trees, the ground is littered with rocks, patches of snow, and flowers. A nice combination.

     The rocks are coated with lichen. The color leaps out in outrageous neon greens and oranges. Blacks to browns and grays, too. The flowers are violet asters and white phlox, with an occasional stunted cactus, perfectly round and low to the ground.

     Before me to the west is the broad Big Smokey Valley. It looks more sinister and foreboding than it did when I was sweating across it several days ago. The Toiyabe Range looms across the valley and range upon range of mountains for as far as I can see.

     Amid all this space and vastness I stand alone in the middle of the wilderness and look down at my feet. Another arrowhead lies next to a clump of phlox. As I walk the high plateau, weaving back and forth along the rim without the confines of a trail, I find point after point. This has been a hunting ground for at least seven thousand years. There is much evidence of it today.

     Most of my hiking day is spent not walking, but wandering; drifting here and there as the whim strikes me, stopping often to gaze across hundreds of square miles. The day is clear. Utah is visible to the east; California in the west.

     Near the Middle Summit I find a pool of snowmelt and decide I should camp up high tonight. On that Summit, in the jumble of rocks, I find a ledge just big enough for my sleeping pad and slightly protected from the endless wind. This will do just fine. The rock outcropping becomes my home for the rest of the day. I find more points, watch a herd of 30 desert bighorn sheep, and later sing the sun down over the Toiyabe Range.

     The alpine glow on the surrounding mountains is golden, then pink, rushing to a dark blue.  Without the sun a piercing cold creeps over the plateau, stalking the high country like a big cat. From the comfort of my sleeping bag I can look out over the miles to the dark silhouette of the Toiyabe Range with a faint halo of light highlighting each peak and saddle. My last thought as I dose off is, “I’ve walked those mountains way over there.” And with that thought is a great contentment and satisfaction. I know them now, and it feels good.

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