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Great Basin

In Search of the Lost Plateau

Monday, November 7th, 2016: 2016 Trips, Great Basin, Regions, Road Trips.


The Mystery Begins

Many years ago, while idly researching the mountains of Nevada online, I stumbled upon someone’s article about an alpine plateau featuring unusual lakes. The lakes had been given a pretty name, and the plateau was described as an idyllic and seldom visited place, a little-known jewel of Nevada wilderness.

I mentally filed this away, but somehow instead of fading from my memory, it became a mystery that beckoned to me over the years. I’d had a terrible summer this year, unable to hike and enduring a lot of pain due to complications from hip surgery, and while spending hours each day working hard on therapy to recover, I dreamed of a camping trip in the fall which would be my reward for all the hard work.

But when I searched online for information about the plateau and the lakes, I could find hardly anything. The original article had apparently been taken down. Google Maps confirmed the existence of the plateau and one of the lakes, but satellite imagery didn’t actually show anything up there. The most I could find was that these mountains were supposed to be covered with nearly impenetrable thickets; there were no informative photos available.

People interested in ghost towns and old mines claimed to have visited the foothills below the plateau; their photos just showed a few shacks and shafts situated in low, barren, scrub-covered hills that could have been anywhere in the desert.

Going through my ethnographic library on the Nuwuvi – the tribe I’ve become most familiar with – I found that these mountains seemed to be on the northwestern border of their territory, where they mixed with the Western Shoshone. This made me even more curious to find out what kind of place it was, what kind of a home it would have been, and whether there remained any sign of their presence. Did they use the plateau and the lakes, or even camp up there?

Nuwuvi Country

Just getting to the mountains themselves – let alone to the plateau – turned out to be a challenge in itself. The first day was a long drive, ending dramatically in sunset thunderstorms over the Colorado River Valley. Along the way, I picked up a GPS message device that had been recommended by one of my wildlife biologist friends. Both friends and family had worried for years about my solo trips into remote areas, and as much as I resent satellite technology, with my mother’s birthday coming up, I thought she might appreciate the gift of knowing where I was, and that I was okay.

The second day began in the rain-soaked Mojave Desert basins along the Colorado River, through fresh air saturated with the wonderful tang of creosote bush, under a blue sky with unusual pillows of cloud floating only a few hundred feet above the ground, followed by a reluctant plunge into urban sprawl to grab lunch and shop for provisions. Finally, in early afternoon I found myself heading up the storied Pahranagat Valley, a lush oasis where the Nuwuvi had farmed, hunted mountain sheep, and preyed on the thousands of migratory waterfowl that use the beautiful Pahranagat Lakes. Now, the lakes are part of a federal game preserve managed in cooperation with the tribe. I had passed them 25 years ago but had never stopped, so I pulled over to watch the birds, and took a short detour to check out the visitor center.

There, the first thing I discovered is that the local Paiutes claim that the abstract style of petroglyphs common across the Mojave was created by their ancestors. This contradicted what my friend, a desert archaeologist, had told me earlier this year. He maintained unequivocally that the nomadic Nuwuvi were only capable of faint, chaotic scratches here and there, and that the more iconic, patterned rock art had been made by the more “advanced” Patayan, ancestors of the settled Yuman Indians of the lower Colorado River Valley, a radically different culture. Who do you believe? I respect my archaeologist friends, but I’ve always thought it preposterous that we white people should be the ones to write everyone else’s history.

By the time I’d driven the length of the valley, the sun was setting behind the mountains to the west. I clearly wasn’t going to reach my destination today. After a night in an over-priced motel, I was looking forward to camping, and I knew that mountain passes in the BLM-managed desert often have side roads where you can find a secluded, informal campsite. That’s the attraction of BLM country – you can camp anywhere, unlike in Forest Service jurisdiction where you’re likely to end up in a campground crowded with RVs and growling with the noise of generators.

Sure enough, after a half hour of scouting, I located a dirt road that meandered back through the slopes, and ended up two miles away from the highway, in a gully with a couple of small junipers for a windbreak and a small level patch for my sleeping bag. It also had a nice view of wild, open country and distant mountains to the northeast.

I started a cooking fire with twigs that would make just enough coals to grill the lamb sausages I’d picked up along the way, and watched the stars come out. With nothing to do after dinner, I went to bed early and slept like a log.

In the morning the entire landscape, including my truck and my gear, was covered with one of the heaviest dews I’d ever seen. The temperature was just above freezing as I made breakfast, rubbing my hands together to warm them up. When the sun rose above the hills and its light reached my campsite, I spread my sleeping bag and tarp over the nearby sagebrush to dry, but I had to wait another hour for everything to dry out enough to pack away for the drive to the mountains.

Lost Canyon

It was all beautiful country, with its endless flat basins, dazzling dry lakes, and rugged mountain ranges, each dramatically different, but my destination turned out to be even more remote than I’d expected. It was noon by the time I turned off the highway and headed back toward the mountains on a dirt ranch road. I could see that the ghost town people had been totally off – nothing in this landscape looked anything like their photos, so who knows where they really went. I was heading into a beautiful, intimate basin of multi-colored, semi-forested small peaks, with the pinnacles and rimrock of the heavily-forested main range rising steep and dark behind. There was no sign of a ghost town, or for that matter any human structure at all, not even a fence or corral. And farther back, I could just barely glimpse some higher, barer slopes, apparently above treeline – the lost plateau?

My only map that showed this region in detail was a 40-year-old USGS map which showed a maze of old mine roads crisscrossing this basin. The map turned out to be mostly incorrect, but after trying some abandoned side roads that quickly became impassable, I finally connected with a freshly-graded gravel road that climbed and twisted back toward the massif. Suddenly, cresting a rise, I saw light dazzling off the windows and metal roof of some kind of fancy chalet, perched on a peak at the entrance of the easternmost canyon, to my left. The canyon I hoped to follow to the plateau was to my right, and the road trended between them.

After another mile I ended up faced with a locked gate, behind which I glimpsed a cleared pasture and a big lodge-style ranchhouse only partly visible through the trees. So someone had their own private Shangri-La all the way back here, at the mouth of a spectacular canyon! I turned around and found an ungraded side track that seemed to head toward the canyon I was more interested in, and sure enough, within a half mile I came to another locked gate, beyond which the road seemed to lead into my canyon. There was no “No Trespassing” sign here, and when I got out for a closer look, I could see that no one had driven through this gate for many years, and the fence to either side of it was untended and decrepit.

I backed my truck into the trees beside the road, made myself a quick lunch, and packed my rucksack for one or two nights of trekking. On the map, it looked like an easy hike: about four miles to the plateau, with about 2,000′ of elevation gain. It was 2 pm, and I expected to easily reach the plateau and set up camp well before sunset.

The first mile or so did turn out to be easy – just following the abandoned dirt road as it meandered into the canyon, back and forth across the dry creekbed, and up through the low forest, to where the floodplain narrowed and vanished. Tall thickets of coyote willow glittered golden in their fall foliage, surrounded by stands of rabbitbrush, some still blooming yellow. There were no structures, no trash, so sign of humans at all except for the eroded dirt road, and the remains of an ancient wooden water pipe coming down from some source up canyon. And there was no sign that cattle had ever been back here; the fence had probably been built to keep them out, not to keep them in. But beginning at the mouth of the canyon, the ground was covered with signs of wildlife: abundant tracks of deer or bighorn sheep and small mammals, and scatterings of their scat everywhere.

Thickets and Mazes

The challenge began when the road ended and the canyon proper began. By choice, I do my wilderness explorations in areas with no man-made trails, areas where I have to scout and choose my own path, and I never carry a compass, since I normally hike in open desert and navigate by sun and topographical landmarks. But the old USGS map wasn’t detailed enough to show the landmarks in this completely unfamiliar place, and contrary to the few photos I’d seen online, this range turned out to be heavily forested. I’d just have to stick to the main canyon and pay close attention, reading and memorizing the landscape along the way.

Only a few yards beyond the end of the road, I hit my first impasse. The canyon bottom was only a few yards wide, and choked with solid thickets of tall, golden-leaved coyote willow. And the steep slopes of the canyon sides were forested all the way down to the bottom with pinyon and juniper trees whose low branches were interwoven. The only openings in this blanket of forest were blocked by deadfall logs, also bristling with tightly-spaced limbs. I tried backtracking and climbing higher up the slope, where I was able to make some headway before running into the same kinds of barriers. This was starting to look sketchy.

But I was fresh – I’d had a good night’s sleep, and the two days of driving had made me desperate for a good hike. So I accepted the challenge and continued the process of scouting a way through the maze, hitting a barrier, backtracking and climbing down or up to look for a way around, advancing another fifty or a hundred feet before meeting another blockage of limbs or deadfall. Rarely, I would notice sunlight on a wider spot in the canyon bottom where the willow thickets thinned out, and edge downwards to see if a path might open up there. This canyon was filled with birds and their songs; I often saw the black, white, and red flash of woodpeckers, and reaching a bend in the canyon, I looked up to see a pair of golden eagles smoothly cruising from one ridge to the other.

But where the willow thickets briefly vacated the canyon bottom, they were usually replaced by stands of wild rose which could become just as impenetrable. All the backtracking, climbing, and searching was hard work, and my pack was feeling heavier the farther I went.

According to the map, there was a falls up ahead, a thousand feet above the canyon mouth, halfway to the plateau, which had been part of the attraction of this route. And not far past the end of the road, I had begun to hear a stream tricking deep within the willow thickets. Eventually I came to a spot where the willows thinned, and I could get close enough to glimpse a ribbon of black water running through a deep hollow. This meant I could stay as long as my food held out, without having to rely on carried water – I had brought only enough for one day.

I sampled some wild rose hips – they were shriveled but still mouth-wateringly sweet. And after having constantly crossed sheep-or-deerlike tracks and scat, I came upon some unfamiliar, much larger pellets – elk? They certainly weren’t horse or burro.

The sun seemed to perch at the head of the canyon, noticeably lower than at my more southerly home, and creating a strong glare that made it hard for me to scout ahead. But eventually I caught a glimpse of tall, sheer cliffs rising up there, creating a narrows that was choked with trees, willows or brush. I guessed the falls must be in there, and I would have to climb around it.

Night Above the Falls

I fought my way up to the first level of cliffs, where I found a majestic old juniper sheltering a little ledge, then carefully ventured out to the edge. I could hear the falls, a hundred feet below – in this season, only a trickle – but all I could glimpse down there was thickets of golden willows and wild rose.

I continued climbing and fighting my way through the mazelike forest and loose rocky slope above successive levels of cliffs, and finally emerged fifty feet above the second, higher part of the canyon. Now I had a better view of the bare “treeline” slopes far ahead and high above, which I assumed led to the plateau, but the sun was setting, the canyon sides seemed steeper and the vegetation even more congested up here, and I realized with a sinking heart that I wasn’t going to be camping on the plateau tonight.

My pack was really weighing me down, and I was exhausted after only three hours of hiking. This expedition was looking like a bust. Maybe these mountains really were impenetrable – a place for animals but not for people.

With virtually no level ground, dense thickets along the creek, and low branches and deadfall in the forest, finding a campsite for the night was daunting. After 20 minutes of fruitless scouting, I finally settled for a tiny, fairly level spot between a fallen pinyon log and a thicket of mountain mahogany, just big enough for my sleeping bag. As the dark descended, I gathered up pinyon duff in my old army-surplus poncho and built up a reasonably comfortable 6-inch-thick pile to sleep on. While gathering, I became aware that the ground was dotted with this season’s green cones, open to reveal a bumper crop of pine nuts. Fortunately there was little wind. I ate a meager cold meal of jerky, nuts and sesame sticks, and went to bed as it became full dark, listening to the occasional rhythmic hooting of some unknown bird.

But I couldn’t get to sleep that night at all. I was physically comfortable, but mentally restless. What would I do in the morning? Would I really give up and turn back, after all these years of dreaming of that plateau and those lakes? Finally I decided I would leave my overnight gear here by the stream, and try the rest of the climb as a day hike, with a lightened pack. I would start by heading straight up to the ridge above the canyon, and follow that to the summit. That couldn’t be any harder than fighting through the canyon bottom, and it might even turn out to be easier.

Final Climb

After a long night of tossing and turning, and sporadic hooting from the unknown bird, I started noticing the sky getting lighter. Disgusted with myself, I got up, had a quick breakfast of dry granola, packed for a day hike, and rolled everything else up in my poncho to stash nearby in the crook of a pinyon. I tried to memorize the location by orienting in relation to the plunging ridgeline across the canyon. Hopefully it wouldn’t be too hard to find on the way back down. As sunlight crept into the canyon bottom, a spotted towhee, a bird I know well from home, flitted into some nearby brush and began rummaging around. It seemed a little bigger, with slightly different coloration than what I was used to.

But my plan to climb the ridge turned into a fiasco. After climbing several hundred vertical feet, and threading a maze of branches across a small plateau, I came to its edge and found myself looking across a deep gap to an even higher ridge looming above me in shadow and curving around toward the “treeline” crest in the far distance. I had climbed in vain and would need to drop hundreds of feet back into the canyon. There, more willow thickets awaited me, and ahead, the canyon sides seemed even steeper than before. Was this worth it? Even if I managed to eventually fight my way to the plateau, I would then have to fight my way back down. Should I admit defeat, and cut my losses?

Still undecided, I descended to the canyon bottom again, eyeing the opposite slope for the first time as a possible alternative. It seemed a little less densely forested, although even rockier. I found a place where I could force my way across, with only minor damage from rose thorns. But only a few yards into the forest on the other side, I ran into completely impenetrable thickets of mountain mahogany. This was madness. I turned and started back across the streambed.

But I’d never forgive myself for giving up. I’d never experienced such a mental and physical battle – repeatedly giving up, then trying again. I tried another way up the opposite slope, and came upon a narrow game trail. Within fifty feet it ended and my way was blocked again. I tried climbing higher and found another game trail. This one led for several hundred feet before ending – the easiest route I’d found yet. I fought my way downslope and encountered another game trail that led a little farther. And so I realized that even if one ended, another one could usually be found, and they all seemed to lead upward. It wasn’t perfect, but I would keep trying.

Eventually I came to a rock outcrop that forced me back across the canyon bottom. Here there was a pool fed by a tiny waterfall, where I refilled my water bottle. This was some of the sweetest water I’d ever tasted, and probably didn’t even need treatment – there were clearly no livestock in this drainage, and the road in had shown no evidence of human visitors for many years. Not far above that, the stream was covered with a thin crust of ice from the night before. I looked up. While I’d been occupied at ground level, heavy clouds had drifted over the canyon, and wind had picked up. It started to look like I might be in for some weather – not good conditions for exploring an exposed alpine plateau.

But it was still early, and at this point, I could actually see an open slope up above. Just a little more forest to penetrate! Sagebrush had been appearing all the way up this canyon, in small clumps in clearings between deadfall, but now I could see that the bare-looking “treeline” slopes at the head of the canyon actually consisted of pure stands of big sagebrush. And as the forest thinned out, game trails began appearing everywhere, leading upwards through the rocks and brush, copiously littered with what looked like mountain sheep scat, both new and old. Leaving the canyon bottom, I cut diagonally up the opposite slope and finally emerged from the forest. The game trails were steep, and there was loose rock everywhere, but the view above, seeming to be the head of the canyon, beckoned me on.

Of course, the first horizon you see is never the summit. Following, losing, and rediscovering game trails, I climbed and climbed through the lichen-encrusted rocks and sagebrush. A strong, cold wind blew up here, and clouds still massed darkly, blocking the sun. I approached another stretch of forest, this time stunted pinyon, mountain mahogany, and the occasional limber pine with its smooth, pale bark. The wind was full of the sweetest, most pungent herbal aroma I’d ever smelled in nature. It must have been the sagebrush, but it seemed almost too overwhelming to be real. The stunted trees with their interwoven branches became too dense to penetrate, so I had to climb higher until I found a break in the forest. Still the summit rose higher ahead of me. I emerged into another stretch of sagebrush-lined canyon, with no end in sight.

The Lion and the Stallion

But after following game trails around another shoulder of ridge, I suddenly found myself looking down onto the promised land: across a broad hollow appeared the edge of the plateau, where I could see the streambed literally spilling over the edge, between boulders, into the actual head of the canyon, like the spout of a jug. Behind it, I could see a grassy meadow, a beautiful golden color. All I had to do was carefully hike down a few hundred rocky feet and I’d be there.

This plateau is unique because it’s on the summit of the range, at 9,000′ elevation, like a table in the sky. The actual peak of the range is only a little bump past the south edge of the plateau, seldom even visible when you’re up there. As I walked out onto the plateau, between stands of big sagebrush and through golden grasses, I really felt like I was on top of the world. It felt like steppe country. The level meadows are cradled between rolling arms of low upland only a few yards high, but you can’t see beyond them to other parts of the plateau. The ridge I’d entered over continues as a rocky rampart across the north edge of the plateau, and the dry streambed cuts across the plateau as a ditch a yard deep. Following this ditch upstream, I came upon more pronounced game trails, trampled in the grass on either side.

As I followed one of these trails toward a narrow pass though the cradling upland, grass gave way to tall stands of sagebrush, and approaching a bend, I suddenly glimpsed the back of a big tawny animal leaping out of the trail ahead, into the sagebrush. I stopped and waited for it to emerge from the other side of the thicket and flee up the low slope fifty feet back of the trail. But it didn’t. It stopped in the sagebrush, hidden just off the trail.

That immediately puzzled me. What could it be? A deer or antelope would’ve continued fleeing. I continued walking to the spot where I’d seen it last, and made some coyote howls, facing where it had disappeared into the brush. Suddenly I realized that it couldn’t have been either deer or antelope. If it had been male, with horns, I would’ve noticed. And if it were female, it wouldn’t have been alone, and wouldn’t have stopped to hide in the brush. Nor would a coyote – and this animal had been bigger than that anyway. It had to have been a mountain lion, and now it was hiding in there, waiting to see what I would do.

The epic struggle to get up here had put me in a determined, or maybe even a desperate, frame of mind. Retreating would send the wrong message – I felt the only thing I could do was keep going. Once through the little narrows, the meadow opened out again, into a big basin of cropped grass. Here, I found bleached bones, probably from deer or antelope, scattered everywhere. With its stands of sagebrush for cover, this place must be paradise for a mountain lion! I walked out into the center of the meadow, and suddenly came upon a huge pile of horse shit. Wild horses! I’d never seen anything like this. Why would they all shit in a pile? It was only later, after searching online, that I learned that wild stallions leave these “stud piles” to mark their territory.

Across the meadow, I saw another narrow pass into another basin, in the direction where I might expect to find one of the mysterious lakes. A dark, rugged cliff loomed in the distance. Following horse trails, I finally came into a new basin and reached the ultimate goal of my trip: the first of the lakes. Far from the idyllic alpine lake the internet article had described, this was just a shallow dry depression lined with cracked white clay and studded with small dried shrubs, with a rampart of stone rising dramatically behind it. It was really just what is technically called a vernal pool, but this plateau was such a strange, extreme place that it seemed okay to glorify it with the name of lake. I wasn’t disappointed – I could imagine it in springtime, filled with snowmelt, reflecting the sky.

But thoughts of the mountain lion kept me on edge. This plateau was no place to linger. A windswept place on top of the world, frequented by wild horses with territorial stallions, strewn with the bones of deer and antelope killed by a resident mountain lion, a lion who was waiting to see what I would do. I wasn’t really scared, because I figured this cat had little or no contact with humans and was probably as mystified as I was. And I was wearing a big hat and a pack, so my neck didn’t present an easy target. But on my way back across the big meadow I grabbed the heaviest bone I could find, and brandished it as I passed the narrows where the lion had gone into hiding. Occasionally halting for a look over my shoulder, I left the strange, fertile yet stark plateau, managing, despite the forest cover, to somehow retrace my steps down to the anonymous spot above the falls where I’d left my overnight gear.

The Mystery Deepens

I spread my poncho over the mattress of pine duff, took off my shoes and socks, and laid down to rest a while. But within minutes I was swarmed by flies. It was 3 in the afternoon and I had worked hard since early morning. I had no way to keep the flies off if I stayed here another night, but if I were going to hike out, I needed to leave right away, in order to get to the truck early enough to have some dusk light to spot landmarks and easily find my way out of the mountains. And then, where would I spend the night? I was really in the middle of nowhere. I was filthy and exhausted from two days without sleep, but after I made it out to the highway, the nearest motel would still be two hours away.

The relentlessly greedy flies made up my mind for me. I repacked my rucksack and struggled through mazes and thickets back down the canyon, to the old dirt road and its abandoned wooden water pipe, out onto the rabbitbrush-lined floodplain and all the way to the gate and my parked truck, with just enough dusk left to drive across the beautiful northern basin and out to the ranch road, as the entire landscape painted itself in infinite shades of blue.

After this adventure, and the late-night ordeal of finding a place to sleep, it took me a couple of days in a motel to rest and recover, but I still didn’t get a chance to process what I’d done, because I was a long way from home, spending money without a further plan, and I needed to figure out what to do next.

It’s only now, while telling the story, that I can begin to uncover what I was up to out there, and what that search for the plateau teaches me, how it changes me.

It clearly wasn’t a “reward” for the months I’d spent in pain and lonely, thankless, time-consuming therapy. It turned out to be more of a challenge to myself – an unconscious way of proving to myself that the surgery, and the recovery, had made me more capable than ever. In fact, this solo backpack into unknown, trackless wilderness was something that nobody I know would attempt to do, not even my younger friends who are clearly in better shape and could certainly manage it better than me.

Spending days traveling to the northwest corner of Nuwuvi territory, visiting their sacred lakes and learning about their rock art, struggling up to a high plateau below which they lived in several, documented seasonal camps – did it all fit together somehow in my lifelong quest for knowledge and wisdom, and to enrich my own art? I wasn’t sure yet. But I knew my quest wasn’t over. At the Pahranagat Visitor Center, a ranger had given me brochures and maps to prehistoric rock art sites all over eastern Nevada…

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