April 2-3: Flagstaff to Mono Mills

Max is dwarfed by the towering pines at Mono Mills in early April.

Nov. 24 – I drove to Carson City on Saturday night to visit Trader Joe’s. On the return trip, a gibbous moon on the rise threw its spectral light on the brawny peaks of the Sierra Nevada to the west.
We’re leaving Minden today. The last time we left, we were heading north on our return trip to Washington. This time we’ll be heading south, going back the way we came in early April. Those moonlit peaks took me right back to our last advance on Minden.
We’d left Flagstaff, Ariz., early in the day. We wasted time in Kingman, but with Becky at the wheel, we started putting some serious miles behind us. She blew past Hoover Dam, Las Vegas and ate up the desert netherworld that divides Las Vegas from the Carson Valley.
She finally gave in to fatigue, and I took over around 3 in the morning. It was now Tuesday, April 3, and I drove under piercing, starry skies. Next thing I knew, the road was alive with jackrabbits, emerging from the high desert brush and darting crazily across the spooky roadway.
I was jumpy now. Desperate to make it through the serpentine with a clean slate, I jammed on the brakes more than once and sent contents shifting all over the behemoth and causing Becky to open her eyes and murmur, “Are you OK?”
I was a little freaked out. It’s goddamn eerie plodding up mountain switchbacks under moonlight and dodging rabbits with death wishes.
I glanced to my left and was startled by a white monolith that rose from the earth  as if it had just been created by a mischievous god. Boundary Peak, at 13,147 feet, is the highest summit in Nevada. It stayed there, looming off my left shoulder, until we left U.S. 6 for California 120 at Benton.
Four miles later, after Benton Hot Springs, we started climbing again. In precipitous fashion.
We climbed slowly at first, then more slowly. I noted a sign warning of a tight curve ahead with a speed limit of 40 mph. I looked at the speedometer.
We were at 26 and falling.
Tell you one thing: It was pretty easy to miss the goddamn rabbits at that speed.
We picked up speed in reverse: 19, 18, 17 … I didn’t care about speed. Nobody was on the road but us and those infernal rabbits. I just hoped like hell the behemoth would continue forward, whatever the speed.
It did, god bless it, and we finally crested 8.139-foot Sagehen Summit. I uttered an audible sigh of relief. SOL!* Nobody else could hear it, though. I was the only one awake.
Not much later, we turned off 120 at Mono Mills historic site. They say Mono Mills is a ghost town, but that’s a bit of an exaggeration.
It is an absolute apparition. There’s nothing here at all, save towering pines and a few historical markers delineating the brief arc of Mono Mills.
Mono Mills bolted to life about 1880, a hastily built lumber camp created to supply firewood to the gold-mining boom town of Bodie on the north side of Mono Lake. In 1881, a 32-mile narrow-gauge rail line was built on the west side of Mono Lake to sustain Bodie, where people were freezing to death on an exposed plateau 8,400 feet above sea level.
It was a beautiful, harrowing drive, and we found peaceful repose among the ghosts of Mono Mills.

Max frolics on the shore of Mono Lake with the tufa towers at his back.

It was still Wednesday morning when we awoke, made breakfast and resumed our trek to Minden. In a few miles we turned off 120 to check out South Tufa recreation area. We refreshed our minds with a mid-morning stroll among the strange limestone towers on the south shore of Mono Lake.
Calcium-rich underwater springs mixed with the abundant carbonate salts in Mono Lake to form the quirky limestone outcroppings. Most of the tufa remained hidden until 1941, when Los Angeles began diverting water from the streams to the south that fed Mono Lake with fresh water to meet the city’s burgeoning water needs.
Almost overnight, the volume of Mono Lake, which is more than 750,000 years old, was cut in half. Its ecosystem teetered on the brink of collapse as the lake’s saline content doubled. Habitats disappeared, and millions of migratory birds that feed off the lake’s population of brine shrimp were imperiled.
The Mono Lake Committee came together in the late 1970s, and has fought, with some success, to force Los Angeles to reduce its water intake from the streams. Nonetheless, by 1982 the lake had lost nearly a third of its 1941 surface area.
On the other hand, it is possible Mono Lake wouldn’t have nearly so high a profile if Los Angeles’ insatiable lust for water hadn’t inadvertently exposed its mystical tufa towers. Mark Twain, for one, thought Mono Lake less than inspiring, dismissing it as a “lifeless, treeless, hideous desert” and branding it “the loneliest place on earth.”
Then again, is is likely Twain never broke bread with the Kucadikadi, the band of Northern Paiutes who traditionally called Mono Lake home. The Kucadikadi derived their sustenance from the larvae of the lake’s prosperous community of alkaline flies. The Kucadikadi, at least according to the unimpeachable source that is Wikipedia, translates as “eaters of the brine fly pupae.”
Mmmm …

*Sigh out loud

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