Up at 7:00 AM, for a breakfast of oatmeal and tea. My knee feels fine, so we decided to try to go to Johnson Lake from the Snake Creek Trailhead (the same trailhead where we started up the Shoshone Trail to the bristlecones on our first day), and go cross-country along the ridge to the bristlecone forest we enjoyed so much on Tuesday. We didn’t have any topographical maps of the area, but only the map on the park brochure. It showed a little dotted-line route— not a trail—along the ridge.
All the way to Johnson Lake, my knee felt fine. The trail wound through aspen groves and across sage-filled meadows and steep forests of spruce and pine up through Johnson Mill, an old tungsten mill that was active from 1908 to 1950. It boomed during World War One, and then barely survived after that, when the price of tungsten went down. Ruins of old log buildings and rusted metal machinery were scattered about, and the forest was actively reclaiming the area.
At Johnson Lake, the trail went up steeply to a pass. After resting my legs in the freezing cold water for a bit, we started up. The top was gorgeous, with views of the backside of Wheeler Peak, Jeff Davis Peak, and Pyramid Peak looming right above us. We took off along the ridge, but at a particularly narrow place, I was stricken with a bout of vertigo. I had to sit down and close my eyes to let the jitters pass. I have experienced a healthy fear of heights all my life, but in recent years I really thought I had pretty-much overcome it, as long as my feet were on solid ground. But this just came on so strong, and I decided I couldn’t/shouldn’t go on. Plus, it began to look like it was much farther than we had anticipated, with scree slopes and drops of many thousands of feet to the basin floor on both sides. I hadn’t felt this kind of fear of heights since I was a kid, and occasionally since then (once on a very steep tram up a mountain in Switzerland: I had to exit the tram at the half-way stop and walk back down—which was actually really beautiful and just great). As we descended back down to the pass, we saw a lone hiker, who waved and then sat down to wait for us. Having not seen another soul all day so far, it was a pleasure to sit and talk. Even more so, since he turned out to be the superintendent of Death Valley National Park, off on a little vacation. Barbara mentioned how nice all the amenities at Great Basin are, and how we had imagined that it was the pork barrel project of some Congressperson. The Ranger, of course, knew all about it. We have former Senator Harry Reid to thank, though the web of water interests, Mormon cronies, Nevada and Utah ranchers, and hydrologists is an immensely tangled one. This talk with the ranger led me to read a long, three-part article from 2008 in the Las Vegas Sun newspaper, which is really informative. Read it here. It sounds like “Chinatown” and the draining of the Owens Valley all over again. Meanwhile, I had made up my mind that if Ranger Mike had wanted to hike over to the bristlecones along the ridge, I would follow him. I was disappointed when he chose to go another direction.
As our Ranger acquaintance left, a couple we had met yesterday at Kerouac’s showed up and we chatted with them awhile. Our solitary day suddenly became very social, sitting in the rocky saddle between the peaks without a tree in sight. Then the long steep downhill back to the trailhead. Stunningly beautiful weather—just warm enough, with clear blue skies and a light breeze. Perfect hiking weather. My knee did well, until the last couple of miles, and even then it was okay. I just had to be careful about how and where I placed my feet, and use my right leg for any big steps down.
One of the drawbacks of this place is that the water is so cold, and there aren’t any places to get into to swim, anyway. B and I are both missing the refreshing dips of the Sierra, and are feeling really grubby most of the time. So we stopped at a campsite along Snake Creek for a good private rinse in the water. Bracing and restorative. We put on clean clothes (it’s a different experience to have a van full of extra things, rather than a backpack full of only the essentials), and went to Kerouac’s for dinner again. Sorry, no food photos today…
I tried to convince Barbara that we should stay over another day, but duty was calling from California, and I resigned myself to the fact that tomorrow we would pack up and drive 10 hours back to the hell which is California now. My poor beautiful state!
13.4 miles, 237 flights of stairs climbed today. I am so thankful, in spite of my knee and other mishaps, for this opportunity to explore this magical place. I will come back, and I will find a way to hike along that damn ridge from the bristlecones to the Johnson Lake trail. And I am going to order a topographical map of the area. Gotta visit before Las Vegas drains all the groundwater, kills off the greasewood, and makes it a dustbowl up here.