On a typical Great Basin journey, you cruise a two-lane blacktop nearly forever, across snowy ranges and sunken desert valleys that contain nothing or next to nothing, a country sired upon a vacuum by a void. You pass ranches that raise dust devils and sagebrush, dead lakes that haven't held a drop of water in 10,000 years, towns that consist of a row of gas pumps, a clump of trailers and a single cafe'/saloon/casino/garage that sells everything from a bowl of chili and a shot of rye to the illusion of a $1 million slot-machine jackpot. Signs point away, down rough dusty roads, to even stranger, more obscure places: TE-MOAK INDIAN RESERVATION, RUBY MARSHES, DEADMANS PASS, LUNAR CRATER, THE WALL ... What, for God's sake, lies behind The Wall? By the time you get where you are going, if you ever do, you aren't sure whether you are awake or dreaming, dreaming the whole, superbly weird territory.
If you had to pick a single word to describe the Great Basin -- part of which was dedicated yesterday as America's newest national park -- "wild" would probably be best. This great sunken desert between the Pacific watershed and the Colorado River basin -- primarily in Nevada -- where all the rivers either disappear into the ground or run inland into dead seas and salt lakes, is astonishingly primeval, as unspoiled in its own way as the Alaskan bush.
Basin ranges like the Snake, Pancake, Nightingale, Wah Wah, Funeral, Reveille and Last Chance contain remote peaks and lost valleys that probably don't see 10 visitors in a decade, if that. The wildness is everywhere; in fact, it comes right down onto the road sometimes. On a jackrabbit-heavy summer night there are so many hares in the highway that you lose count from one instant to the next: regiments, armies, hordes of the elastic silver critters, hopping in your beams like popcorn in a skillet, all night long. Field mice skitter across the tarmac like windup King Kong toys. Redtailed hawks, golden eagles and owls of every persuasion rise from the inevitable road kills as you approach, and the occasional coyote trots into the edge of your vision and out again, like a ghost. Desert bighorn sheep and mountain lions are not far away.
There was even a reported sighting of a yeti -- a Desert Bigfoot, an Abominable Dustman or whatever -- a few years back, at a nuclear test site north of Las Vegas. Two guards claim they saw the shaggy semihuman lope across the dirt road in front of their jeep and disappear into the evening shadows, the sagebrush and stone. I'm not saying it happened, but if if did, the Great Basin was the logical place for it.
Human life in the Basin is wildly various too, with a distinctive edge and energy. I've always thought it wonderfully appropriate that the Great Basin's most famous archeological site is a Stone Age hunting-and-gathering camp site called "Danger Cave," near Wendover, Utah. Among the 6,000-year-old artifacts discovered in the cave are carved sticks used for betting in the Bone Game or Hand Game, a ritualized gambling contest still popular among Basin Indian tribes. A delight in risk for risk's sake goes back a long, long time here.
Present-day population centers include everything from Indian reservations, Mormon ranches, Basque sheep camps and turquoise and silver mines to air bases, bombing ranges, casinos, fly-in brothels and eccentric religious communes. If there is an order of the day, it is rugged individualism: No one seems to care what you do, as long as you don't get in anyone else's way doing it.
A certain mining town with a large conservative Mormon population matter-of-factly includes three bordellos on its official printed map of community businesses and services. An ex-cowpoke and former ore truck driver, redneck to the marrow, tells you that the meditating communards over at the "Home Ranch of the School of the Natural Order" are "good people -- I don't know exactly what they do over there, but they're good people." The School of the Natural Order was founded by a forest ranger who had a series of visions back in the early part of the century, was converted to Hinduism by a traveling swami, changed his moniker to "Vitvan" and ended up establishing a retreat in the foothills of the Snake Mountains, near the tiny town of Baker. Maybe it is weird, but in the Basin, no one minds: rather nice, when you think about it.
The best single route for exploring the Great Basin is probably U.S. Rte. 50, from eastern Utah to Ely, Nev., and Highway 6 from there, all the way to the White Mountains of California. After the drowsy Mormon hamlets of Delta, Deseret and Hinckley you leave the irrigated farmlands behind, heading out into classic Great Basin desert country, desolate and unutterably lonesome.
The last time I drove the route, a few months back, the 108-mile stretch directly west of Hinckley didn't have a single gas pump, pay phone or pop machine. You pass Sevier Lake, to the south, a luminous blue sea nearly 20 miles across and hardly as deep as your knee; and then the Wah Wah and Confusion mountains, jagged haunted ranges straight out of Eliot's "Wasteland": Stop your car, shut off the engine, get out, and you can almost hear "voices singing out of empty cisterns and exhausted wells." Spooky land, but spectacular.
Onward: across the Utah-Nevada border, past the Snake Mountains, capped by massive Wheeler Peak, which has an actual glacier tucked away under its North Face. There are alpine meadows, dense forests and cold, clear lakes up there. It is the heart of the range that has been named the Great Basin National Park (the first land set aside as national park land in the contiguous United States in 15 years). Past the sprawling 19th-century mining camp of Osceola, where free-lance prospectors still scratch and scrape away in the bowels of the earth, looking for a strike; through another gloriously empty basin, over the Shell Creek Range and down into yet another basin.
This is a good time to stop, and a good place: Ely, a lovely, friendly former copper mining town, set against a pine-covered mountainside, with a quirky little museum, a couple of very funky casinos and a faded old hotel that serves grand Basque dinners. The night I ate there, the meal consisted of lamb chops, home-baked bread, soup, mountains of potatoes and vegetables, pie a` la mode, red wine, salad and coffee. I shared the long table with a group of geologists and mining engineers who were searching for silver in the hills nearby. Two burly Basques and an even burlier Indian were drinking at the bar up front, and one of the Basques sang a song to the lady bartender in his native tongue, a pretty little song that he said he had learned as a child, in the Pyre'ne'es.
Beyond Ely, traveling on Highway 6, the country becomes even wilder, harsher: dwarf forests of olive-drab conifer; nameless, towering summits; basins of alkali, dust, sagebrush and rabbitbrush. In the old days there were two minuscule towns, Currant and Warm Springs, in the 167 miles between Ely and Tonopah, the next major burg, but when I drove the route last year Warm Srings had expired: The entire town, all half dozen buildings of it, was padlocked and shuttered, gone out of business. Further along, another wasteland or two down the line, my favorite sign in the world stands, pointing south into the emptiness: SILVER ARROW 17 MILES GOLDEN BOW 34 MILES.
A message as pure as a haiku, as powerful as an incantation. I have never followed it, to see what is really out there: It would almost certainly be anticlimactic.
Tonopah, when you finally reach it, is a gaudy, Felliniesque place, full of clanging slots, bright lights, motels, bars and nightclubs. The Stealth fighter-bombers are based outside of Tonopah, locals say: At night, the matte black fuselages whisk through the darkness overhead, practicing for the Third World War.
You could stop in Tonopah, I suppose, but if you spent the night in Ely and drove slowly you should push on now and try to hit Montgomery Pass, at the northern end of the White Mountains, around sunset: Look down from the heights into the long sunken pit of Owens Valley, onto slivers of opal water burning in the barren brown earth and across to the long, long alpenglowing rampart of the Sierra Nevada. As the light dies you can coast on down to Bishop, Calif., a veritable metropolis by Great Basin standards (population 3,333), with motels with swimming pools, Chinese and Mexican restaurants and a sweeping view of the eastern wall of the Sierra.
There are many other good Basin roads and routes, too many to describe. Highway 395, from Olancha, Calif., north through Lone Pine, Bishop and Bridgeport to Topaz Lake, Nev., has unparalleled scenery: 14,494-foot Mount Whitney and a thousand other Sierra summits to the west, the Inyo and White mountains to the east, the convoluted Poverty Hills, the volcanic moonscapes of Mono Craters and Devils Postpile, the alkali-rimmed cauldron of Mono Lake -- "loneliest tenant of the loneliest spot on earth," Mark Twain called it -- with its twin islands and great flocks of migratory birds.
Or take Rte. 190, across Death Valley, the sub-subbasement of the continent: dunes, salt ponds and pans, burnished gorges choked with alluvium, and the palm-tree-lined oasis of Furnace Creek. Or Rte. 50, Fallon to Austin to Ely, paradigm and splendid basin-and-range country. Or Rtes. 93 or 322, wildest roads on the planet, from the Muddy Mountains northeast of Vegas through Alamo and Ash Springs, Caliente, Panaca and Pioche, and then through absolute nada, up along the western flank of the Snake Mountains ... You could go on forever.
The Great Basin is really the last great secret in North America. If I'm not worried about giving it away, it is because most people who read this will already have said to themselves, "Big Empty Desert," and decided to go somewhere, anywhere, else.
Those intrigued by beautiful and eccentric places, who decide to give the Basin a try, will find themselves returning to it again and again, as I have. Every time you go out there, it seems, you encounter something completely new and unforeseen: a sulfurous hot creek hidden away in a deep meadow; a tiny no-name cafe' with $3 16-ounce steaks; a canyon that looks as if it were carved out of several hundred vertical feet of ripple cake batter; bristlecone pines three-, four-, five-thousand years old, twisted like whirling dervishes by centuries of wind and drought; a tale told in a restaurant booth by a 6-foot-tall Vegas showgirl on her way to see her guru in the Black Rock Desert; a herd of wild horses thundering away in a storm of dust, in the roan light just after sunset; eagles; moons, ghost towns and almost-ghost towns, dry lakes, snowmelt streams, dunes ... And, always, the secret roads, rolling away over infinite basin and range.
Rob Schultheis is covering the war in Afghanistan for Time magazine.