Ely, Nevada: 368 miles round-trip from the nearest Wal-Mart

Sorry for the prolonged absence. One word: Nevada.

Actually, our last post came from Diamond Lake, OR as we prepared for our visit to Crater Lake. We were just a few minutes’ walk from Diamond Lake, a pristine mountain lake nestled between Diamond Peak and Mt. Thielsen. The day at Crater Lake was sublime. When the weather is right, so they say, the water in Crater Lake is cobalt blue. Ask them why and the rangers will whip out their crinkled posterboard display and tell you all about it. If I may borrow from 1980’s songstress Debbie Gibson (she goes by Deborah now that she’s on Broadway), the water was “electric blue.” I’m usually the type to put away my camera while I hike, but I just couldn’t stop taking pictures of this otherworldly scene. I was convinced that the sun would set or the clouds would shift, causing this rare brand of blue to fade. Alas, from 10:30 until 3:00 with varying cloud cover, Crater Lake’s 2000 ft deep waters (the deepest in the nation) remained an inimitable shade of deep, bright blue. While Ted hiked Garfield Peak, Earl and Barbara visited the lodge and attended a ranger talk. Both yield high marks. And Earl and Barbara are a discerning audience.

Departing Crater Lake, the drive to Klamath Falls was pleasant enough, but we were probably on sensory overload from the lake. The day prior we tottered around Mt St Helens, so we are all about volcanoes now. However, since we lost two days of WiFi access, I’ll spare you my diatribe on why I love volcanoes so much. (Thanks, Julie for warning everyone about my “geology talks.”) I will simply tell you that volcanoes are sneaky little bastards. Pliny the Younger (or Elder, whichever) called Vesuvius long before it buried Pompeii and Herculaneum several meters of ash, but sometimes you just can’t tell what they’re going to do. Mt St Helens caused quite a fuss in the 80’s, but that was predicted a month or two ahead of time, yet 50 some people still perished. Crater Lake, however, was not caused by an eruption, rather a collapse.

Mt. Mazama was a massive (read dozens of miles in diameter) stratovolcano (the nasty kind) that did begin erupting 7000 years ago. Accounts still exist in Native American oral tradition of the event. Several vents formed and the volcano belched and erupted over a long period of time. At some point the volcano evacuated so much of the magma stored below, that the entire mountain collapsed under its own weight. The caldera that remained filled with water, hence Crater Lake. A rover was recently deployed to the depths of the lake where they found beds of moss 20 ft thick and at the very bottom (dun, dun, dun, dun…) a bubbling, broiling hot spring. Sneaky little bastard.

But surely the grandpappy of all sinister volcanoes is Yellowstone. Unleashing cataclysmic eruptions every 600,000 years or so, the last one was 600,000 years ago. Visit the park sooner than later.

Well, after getting our kicks fantasizing about the relative destruction of the Northwest (nothing against you guys up in Washington and Idaho, but it’s just too cool not to contemplate), we headed south into Nevada and the Basin and Range. The Basin and Range is as it is described, a series of mountain ranges alternated with a series of basins. (A basin is a valley whose waters do not reach an ocean, but you can interpret “basin” as “valley.”) The Basin and Range, in form, is no different than the ranges in the U.S. (The Boise crowd can probably recite the MT/ID ranges in order, but among them are the Bitterroot, Sawtooth, etc., all interrupted by river valleys) or the many Appalachian ranges (in central Applachia for example, the Taconics rise up from the Catoctin which rise from the Allegheny, etc.). What makes the Basin and Range unique is the forces that created them.

Typically, a mountain range is formed by compression, that is, the smashing together of the earth’s crust. Wanna make a mountain? Here’s a fun experiment: Hold your hands out so that your fingertips are touching and your palms are facing the ground. Now, with millions of pounds per square inch at the ready, start to push your hands together. Ah, ah, ah! Both fingertips can’t go up. That’s cheating. Instead, push your hands together until your left hand begins to push beneath the other. That hand wins. It’s now a mountain builder. What becomes of the right hand? Does it just slide along the top? Nonsense! Your fingernails probably got in the way. No, the left hand that pushed under the right hand, in the process of doing so, dragged the right hand with it. The fingers of the right hand begin to curl, gnarl, get twisted and bent. But wait! Look at your knuckles! They’re pointing up! Quick name them before some twitchy British explorer gives them a name from his boat far off the shore (I’m looking at you, Vancouver). If you gave names to those little pointy things, then you have just named various peaks in a range of mountains created by a process known as subduction. Oh, and try to come up with something more creative than “One Little Piggy, Two Little Piggy…”

This is how the vast majority of mountains came into being: an oceanic plate (Pacific) subducted under a continental plate (North American plate), and VOILA! In the case of the Himalayas, it was two terrestrial plates (Indian and Asian), but the result was the same.

Now to the Basin and Range. To the best of my recollection (the reading of “Basin and Range” by John McPhee some five or six years ago, so my rendering may in no way reflect modern geologic theory, but hey, I’m sitting in a motorhome in the middle of the desert, so I’ll make it up), the Basin and Range is formed when the terrestrial plate “relaxes.” Now, keep in mind that throughout geologic history, nothing really “stops,” it just puts its energy elsewhere. In the case of the North American Plate, at some point it extended, stretched, probably as a reaction to hundreds of millions of years of being compressed (I think it’s called isostatic or isometric rebound, and it’s akin to what happens when you press down on a couch cushion—it lurches back up). So, when the earth’s crust “stretched,” gaps were formed. Gaps in crust are called faults, and you probably remember from Junior High Physical Science that faults cause mountains (displacement, uplift, however you wish to define it), one part of the crust goes this way, and the other part of the crust goes that way. And you now have a mountain range.

If you were to Google “physiographic map of the US”, you would probably be prompted to a USGS or NOAA site that has physiographic maps (a map that shows differences in elevation). If you were to look to the west, you’d see the following: Pacific coast/Coastal Range/California’s Central Valley/Sierra Mountains. Then, to the east of the Sierras, you would see what looks like a small army of snakes oriented to the northeast, as if they were trying to invade the Snake River Plain in southern Idaho. (funny side note: When our beloved late Wray Monroe visited Marilyn in Boise in the 80’s, he traveled via southern Idaho. According to the story I heard, she opened the door and he said, “This is the ugliest state I’ve ever seen!.” Marilyn challenged him to come back another time and she’d show him northern Idaho. With that, the “Mostly Monroe” adventures had begun.)

Anyway, these snakes slithering through Nevada are, in fact, the alternating ranges and basins of the creatively named Basin and Range. You know what, after I submit this post, I’ll see if I can google it, and if I can find it, I’ll post the map in the slideshow (for those of you new to the blog, there’s a slideshow of pictures to the bottom right. It hasn’t been updated for sometime due to upload restrictions on the WiFi connections at these campgrounds.

Well, Julie, as it turns out I did babble on about geology. Sorry everyone, but I think it was Wallace Stegner who said (and I paraphrase), being surrounded by nature and not learning of its origins is akin to walking through a great museum with all of the paintings facing the wall.*

“Why didn’t you write about what you guys did during the last two days?” you might ask. I did. We drove. The end.

Tomorrow we’re on to Zion National Park, and from there we hit a spate of state and national parks (“spate” is the technical term for more than one public park). Among them are Cedar Breaks, Bryce Canyon, and maybe Capitol Reef NP. Please feel encouraged to post a comment on these parks, as we know very little about them from personal experience.

I will leave you with a trivia question. The first person to post their answer wins the first of many prizes!!


At what site did the Monroetorhome achieve its highest elevation?

a. Glacier National Park

b. A mountain pass in the Idaho Rockies

c. Crater Lake National Park

d. A mountain pass in the Basin and Range

The answer in tomorrow’s post.

*Editorial Note: Fellow Field Geology teacher and resident know-it-all Clark Meyer was good enough to point out that this quote is attributed to Thomas Henry Huxley, not Wallace Stegner. Thanks for keeping me honest.

4 thoughts on “Ely, Nevada: 368 miles round-trip from the nearest Wal-Mart

  1. Weellllll, #3 – because none of your options are terribly specific, all one can do is guess. I’m actually going to go with the one that would surprise me the most: Option D – Elevation 7,607 feet. I WANTED to Say C, because your journey to the Garfield Trail would put the gang close to 8,000 feet (8,060 to be more precise).I think the answer though is a reward for looking at the pictures!!!By the way, plan on a return to Crater…those pictures are something I MUST see myself. Topography and aquatic serenity as beautiful as I imagined!!Keep enjoying your trip…and order your next pizza from Dominoes, okay? (30 Minutes and HOT!!!)-#2

  2. Ted -Are you sure your diploma wasn’t mixed up at graduation? It should have said, “Degree granted in Geology.” Regardless of whatever you are certified to teach, you seem qualified (and enthusiastic!) about lecturing on geology. Charlie and I are enjoying the lectures.

  3. See, everyone? I was right! Just imagine the diatribe had he been through this part of the country BEFORE the reunion! Great entry, Ted. Sounds amazing! All places you must take me someday! 😉

  4. Ummm, that’s not a Stegner quote, it’s from Thomas Henry Huxley, who was an associate and champion of Charles Darwin. As for the “relaxing “in the Basin and Range, another theory (and a cool one) is that the North American plate, in riding over the subducting Pacific plate, now moves over part of the old Pacific mid-oceanic ridge, which is lifting everything from below and thus stretching the crust. Yellowstone’s hotspot and the Capulin, New Mexico, hotspot may simply be the hottest parts of this ridge–in fact, you can think of divergent boundaries in general as just connecting-the-dots of major hotspots.Otherwise, nice job, Mini-Me!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s