Having been to Germany as a high school student I know what they meant: no manicured fields and forests, few fences, human settlements few and far between. Hardly any green, just the rocky bones of a geologist’s desiccated dream.
Our own pure landscape is the drive we take annually across the Great Basin to California’s central Sierra for a gathering with members of my mother’s family. The destination is a little lake called Pinecrest on the west side of Sonora Pass just north of Yosemite National Park. More than the reunion, the drive itself is the vacation’s great balm.
Ellen calls Pinecrest “a people’s park.” And it is that. There are hundreds of tent-and-rubber-ducky strewn campsites cheek-by-jowl at the lake’s west end. And thousands of par-boiled denizens of the Great Central Valley make the drive up on weekends to escape the heat. The lake is man-made. Pacific Gas & Electric built the dam around the turn of the 20th century to control flows on the South Fork of the Stanislaus and provide irrigation water to those sweltering, hyper-productive fields below. The around-the-lake trail, which runs just yards in front of our family cabin, teems with a most motley assortment: Boy Scouts sweating under huge packs, fishermen carrying stringers of identical, stocked rainbows, Mennonite girls rustling in full dresses and head doilies, steely über athletes running the 4.5 rocky miles around, overweight families in flip-flops who have no business wandering a hundred yards from their coolers.
We are the lucky aristocracy. My mother’s mother bought the cabin – there are several dozen scattered around – in 1950, and the Forest Service, which owns the land, has so far refrained from terminating our leases. My mother and her siblings spent summer vacations on the lake through the Depression. I made my first splashes in the clear, cold, snowmelt water at just a couple of months old. My kids have slept out on the porch under the big cedars and sugar pines since they were little. And now my grandchildren are doing the same. It’s in our DNA.
It’s also not a wilderness experience. There’s a general store that charges double for everything, just like in the 1849 gold rush days. There’s an outdoor theater in the pines just close enough you can hear the booms and groans of summer blockbuster soundtracks echo across the water. (Part of the fun of driving over Sonora Pass from the Nevada side is seeing again the pink granite cliffs where Ingrid Bergman and Gary Cooper fought the Spanish Civil War in For Whom The Bell Tolls.)
Seeing family is great. It is also, by definition, fraught. And so the drive home across some of the emptiest country on the continent serves to sort out my layers of worry and regret.
Highway 50, the old Pony Express route, was dubbed (by LIFE magazine) the Loneliest Road in America. But I’ll bet our U.S. 6, from Benton to Ely (where 6 and 50 join), is its match for lonesome. This is landscape driving at its best. The road is a tiny, two-lane sinew across the naked earth. Nothing is hidden. When a sign near Black Rock Summit points to a spring 27 miles thataway, you can see where it is 27 dirt-road miles across the basin, at the foot of the Hot Creek Range. On the 169 miles from Tonapah to Ely on a Friday morning, I saw exactly six cars. I was counting.
We count straight lines, too. There are places on U.S. 6, spanning the basins between the ranges, where the road runs ruler straight for miles. We started playing a game with the girls years ago, seeing who could guess the length of the notable straight stretches. There is a good one east of Baker, Nev., that starts in Utah and goes for 14 miles as you approach Wheeler Peak and Great Basin National Park. There are others in the 13-15 mile range, one 18-miler across the White River Valley between Ely and Currant. And the granddaddy of them all – a 21-mile pencil line connecting Warm Springs with Sandy Summit. (There are no signs of human habitation at either place.)
The road is like a sagging string, or loosely held reins. From the middle, the blacktop pinches down to vanishing points in either direction.
By the time we’re approaching civilization again, somewhere around I-70 at Salina, Ut., I’m revived. It’s like we’ve had a restful couple of days at the Monastery of Pure Landscape.