During the past two days, my family and I made the long drive from St. Louis, Missouri to Lake Tahoe, California to enjoy a week of skiing (both alpine and cross-country), snow-shoeing, hiking (at lower elevations), and decompression. At 1,990 miles, it’s not a drive for the pampered or easily bored (and for those with children, thank goodness for in-car DVD players). Yet, for those willing to explore the little seen wonders of a landscape that most people see only from 30,000 feet, driving cross-country can be a richly rewarding experience. I have traveled through many parts of the U.S., but this was my first time experiencing the “northern route” between Missouri and California along I-80. Along the way, I saw:
- Massive flocks of snow geese roosting in wetlands along the Platte River Valley, rising up at morning’s light in swirling clouds and stringing across the sky in vast, intersecting “V”s as they begin another day on their journey northward.
- Sandhill cranes in the Nebraska Sand Hills, dropping down from the sky like miniature parachutes as they congregated in fallow corn fields to feed amongst the stubble.
- The vast, high, arid, lonely expanses of the Wyoming Basin, transitioning from mixed-grass prairie in the east to sagebrush steppe in the west.
- The stunningly spectacular descent down the western escarpment of the Wasatch Range, where the eastern edge of the Great Basin laps against the western edge of the Rocky Mountains. (Nightfall unfortunately deprived me of my chance to see the vast Great Salt Lake and the even more expansive stretches of its associated salt flats.)
- The magnificent Great Basin landscape and its alternating basin and range theme – its broad basins of salt lakes, marshes and mud flats interrupted at regular intervals by craggy, north to south mountain ranges formed as a result of strike-slip faulting during the past 30-50 million years as the thin Basin crust continues to crack and stretch even thinner.
- The dramatic eastern face of the Sierra Nevada Range, its snow-capped peaks rising massively as a single granite block at the western edge of the Great Basin, and the equally dramatic, tortuous climb up to Spooner Pass at 7,200′ elevation before the 1,000′ drop down into the majestic Lake Tahoe Basin.
Driving across such a vast expanse of North America, especially in the west with its endless vistas and majestic landscapes, invites contemplation about earth and time. Starting out in the foothills of my beloved Ozark Highlands – born before life itself and weathered for a billion and a half years, driving through the upstart Rocky Mountains – mere babies at only 50-100 million years of age, and finally arriving at the truly young Lake Tahoe – whose mere few million years of age make it a mere infant in geological time, I realized that the vastness of these landscapes, and of the countless tectonic, erosional and sedimentary episodes that shaped them, is surpassed only by the vastness of the time it took to create them. For those willing to make the investment, driving through these landscapes is more than a trip across the country – it is a journey through time.
Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2009