Back through Nevada and into Idaho
Mon 28 May 2012 - Tue 29 May 2012 75 °F
When we woke up at the America's Best Value Inn the day after climbing Half Dome, our first concern, apart from the unbearable pain in our legs, was the flat tire from Tunnel View. There was no way we would drive over the Sierra Nevada Mountains on a donut tire; as the German tourist so helpfully informed us, it was only rated to 40mph. As luck would have it, the concierge at the motel was married to a mechanic and, knowing all of the car shops in the area, directed us to Fast Tire down the road.
They were fast, holy crap! When we pulled up into their empty parking lot at ten in the morning on Memorial Day, four or five guys poured out of the garage, jacked up the car, and had the tire off before I had even had a chance to exit the vehicle. The tire was patched in record time, and the final bill came to ten dollars. Ten dollars! We were so impressed we gave them twenty (which still seems cheap to me).
Since the tire had taken us off our planned route, we decided not to travel over the Sierras via Ebbett's Pass, as originally planned, instead taking the quickest route back through Yellowstone (including driving at the highest altitude of the trip, 9890 feet) and Mono Lake. I'm so glad we did. At the adjacent town of Lee Vining, we stopped into Nicely's Restaurant and Laundromat, where you can get a nice hot diner meal while your clothes spin. Out the window, we could see the eerie and beautiful (I keep saying things are beautiful, but they are, dammit) Mono Lake, with its strange limestone formations, and a shape belying its volcanic origin. This was to be the beginning of a volcanic theme that lasted for the next five days as we crossed the country through Idaho, Wyoming and South Dakota.
We saw a few strange things driving back through the northern part of Nevada. The "town" of Middlegate was essentially a restaurant at a crossroads which looked like a movie set, complete with a cowboy sweeping the porch as we pulled up.
While speeding down a highway at night, Matt suddenly shouted at me to get the camera so I could take the following picture:
Yes: Dunphy, Nevada. We actually came to a complete stop on the highway in front of the sign so the picture wouldn't blur. There was not a single other car on the road. Matt is pretty sure that this is only the second time he's ever come to a complete stop on a non-congested highway (the other instance being when an emergency helicopter landed on the highway in front of him in Harrisburg once).
We spent the night at a truck stop town called Wells that consisted only of motels, gas stations, and desperately seedy casinos. I sort of wish we'd had the balls and the energy to go into one of those casinos, just to see, but frankly, our legs were too sore to do anything other than creak towards a bed.
The next day: Idaho.
If you'd asked me what I knew about Idaho before this trip, I would have said, uh, they grow potatoes there, and, uh, there's a city called Boise, but I don't know anything about it. I would not have said atomic power and volcanoes. This is what we discovered Idaho to be about in our drive across it. First stop: Craters of the Moon National Monument.
How could we go past something called Craters of the Moon without stopping in? I had initially omitted it from our route because I worried that we would be rushed, but we decided to make time by rejiggering our schedule. Instead of racing to see Grand Teton before nightfall and arrive at Yellowstone that evening to camp, we'd take our time, stay the night in Idaho Falls, and hit the Tetons and the supervolcano first thing in the morning. In the meantime: VOLCANOS!
As you have probably guessed, Craters of the Moon is a very alien looking landscape, but this is not due to anything lunar or the presence of craters. Thousands of years ago, nearby cinder cones spewed large amounts of lava and debris over a wide area, causing the ground to be covered in tortured black pumice fragments, boulders, and crags. Authorities apparently called it Craters of the Moon to stimulate tourism, back before we figured out that lunar craters are caused by meteors and not volcanic activity. It seems kind of a stupid name. The moon is clearly white, not black. I don't really get it.
Ten points for it looking like something not of this world, though.
Next stop: EBR-1, the first ever atomic power plant in the United States. It's been out of commission for decades, but back in the day, it was used to provide the energy needs of the nearby town of Arco:
Matt describes EBR-1 as "the creepiest place I have ever been." When we pulled into the parking lot, it was empty except for a lone motocycle. Two rusting turbines as large as houses lay to our left; to our right, a dusty desert plain was interrupted only by a road to a restricted atomic facility of some kind in the distance. In front of us, the EBR-1 building looked as deserted as the set for a movie about the apocalypse or the rise of zombies, an association that was greatly enhanced by a whistling and moaning wind that sounded like a horror foley cliche. Tumbleweeds blew around us. Actual tumbleweeds. The cheerfulness of the fifties-era signs only made the scene more ominous, especially when contrasted with the decidedly uncheerful warning signs about radioactive materials and hantavirus.
Inside, the place is more like a museum, with displays about nuclear energy, the fisrt successful test, and the process of running a nuclear power plant. Much of it was put together after the tsunami in Japan and the aftermath at the Fukushima nuclear plant, and so read like a pro-nuclear public relations exercise, emphasizing the relative safety and cleanness of nuclear energy. I enjoyed walking around the facility, though Matt grew increasingly creeped out the longer we stayed. It's true that the place had a Alcatraz-type ambience, but it's so well preserved, I could imagine being one of the scientists involved in the first production of electricity by a nuclear reactor. Those guys were pretty badass. And many of them are still alive, and contributed contemporary oral histories to the displays, so it didn't feel too awash with ghosts.
For miles around EBR-1, the landscape is defined by cone-shaped buttes that, as their shape suggests, are volcanic in origin, although the exact geological mechanism varies. Aside from Mount Ranier, which we visited in 2003, this was as close as we'd ever been to a volcano, although the next day, we entered Yellowstone National Park and eclipsed that record by actually walking all over the crater of a supervolcano. Geology is pretty awesome. In the days that followed (and especially after our time in Thermopolis, which I'll talk about in a future blog entry), we discussed maybe one day going back to school for geology. For fun. We could attend classes together at night school and get matching Bachelors of Science. It would be the nerdiest and cutest thing ever.
It was really nice to pull into Idaho Falls before sundown, with no further sightseeing plans. We ate dinner at an awesome Mexican restaurant called Morenita's right around the corner from our motel, forced our stiff legs down the stairs to our room with much groaning, and fell asleep.