A Day Trip to Mono Lake

Hawthorne, Nevada &
Mono Lake Tufa National Reserve, California
November 18-20, 2017

Yesterday we drove over 500 miles from the cool, wet, dark forests of the California Coast redwood groves, over the snow covered Sierra Nevadas through Donner’s Pass, and into the rugged, stark, vastness of western Nevada.  We paid $6 to sleep next to a large and lovely lake, where the lights of a small town called Hawthorne reflected on the water in the distance.

Hawthorne is home to the world’s largest military ammo depot, which I am somewhat confused about, but from talking to a few locals it seems that this once-military-base-now-privately-owned land where miles and miles of desert are dotted with army-style monochromatic buildings is where all of the US military ammunition goes when it is no longer needed.  It is death row for bombs.  They are stored underground in the desert until it is their turn to be driven 20 miles out into the desert and detonated.  At a gas station, an old man with long, gray hair told me that he was born and raised in this area, and that after the gold and silver mines in the hills dried up and the railroad quit coming though the area on its way from Reno to Las Vegas, the military base and local casino became the main catalysts of the economy.  He also said when they detonate the explosives 20 miles away it rattles the windows in his house.  This little place nestled at the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas sits as a bizarre testament to the way humans interact with the earth.

We drove out of town, past the old mines, past the bomb detonation facility, on long straight roads at 80 mph where we didn’t see another car pass for over an hour.  Signs along the road warned me to watch for deer, big horn sheep, horses, open range cows, but all I saw were miles of desert outstretched in every direction and terrain dotted with sagebrush in a mesmerizing pattern that all at once seemed drab and so alive.  After about 40 miles we had our first curve in the road which took us up and through some of the foothills to our west, past some of the only trees we saw all day, and along a section of roadway dotted with fallen rocks from slopes above, warning of the potential for man-made endeavors to be gobbled back up into wilderness at a moment’s notice.  A road sign at the top of this small pass told us we were at 7,600 feet, which we found difficult to believe at first.

After we passed the summit and came around one final curve, a giant horizontal stretch of enormous snow-covered mountains came suddenly into view, with a blanket of moving clouds laying at their feet.  We continued our drive with our jaws hanging open at this awe-inspiring view of the Sierras, getting closer and closer to the wall of white on the ground, bowing down to their majesty.  Once we drove into the wall of water the earth around us got darker and darker, and when we got into the thickest part of it a few miles in, the air in the truck turned suddenly cold and there was frost on all of the bushes and shrubs along the highway.  We were in the fog for at least 10 miles before we climbed a small hill where we could see sunlight beaming at the top, and when we reached that point the mountains were revealed again and we could finally see Mono Lake to the south of us.

Visiting Mono Lake felt like a visit to the moon, and not just because diesel in the town of Lee Vining was $4.49/gallon.  Hot springs that bubble up from under the water of this lake mix underground minerals with the calcium brought into the lake by the mountain streams, and the result is these underwater towers called tufas.  There is no outlet from this lake, so the water gets increasingly salty.  It’s so salty that no fish can survive in the water, but it’s a breeding ground for algae which feeds the trillions of brine shrimp which attract the thousands of migratory birds.  About 40 years ago, the city of LA started diverting some of the mountain streams above the lake for their water supply, which shrunk the lake to about half of it’s size.  Coupled with an immense amount of water that continues to be lost to the air through evaporation in the desert climate each year, the LA water pipelines have caused the lake’s saltiness to double.  The receding water has exposed many of these tufas, which now stand as a naked testament to the amazing feats of a natural world that is still being created, and the effect that humans can quickly have on a very interconnected ecosystem.


As we drove home from this place, I had time to think about this day, and this week, and this year.  I was thinking about how much more a part of the universe I have felt this year by exploring this tiny slice of the world.  I feel like an expansivness within me has opened up to feel more a part of things than I ever have, and also so insignificant.  Powerful and powerless.  I was thinking about how badly sometimes I wish that I could just bring so many more people along with me on this journey.  I picture having my mom next to me or my brother or some of my best friends.  I wish that they could experience these vistas with me, these feelings, these ideas.  Whether it is being dwarfed by the enormous, towering redwoods or driving toward a point in front of you at 80mph for 30 minutes before you reach it or standing at the edge of the Pacfic Ocean in the dark, hearing but not seeing the crashing roar of the earth’s life blood being churned and stirred and pulled by an orbiting rock, I have felt small and moved and filled with wonder this year. I feel grateful to be witnessing this creation, it’s seasons, it’s evolution, it’s chaos and birth.  And there is more.  There is more.  There is so much more!  I have barely seen any of this whole world, but I am blown away by these entire worlds that exist even just within our one single country.   I feel insignificant, but also relevant.  I feel more empowered and grateful than I have ever felt.  But I have also seen darkness on this journey – anger and rudeness and selfishness.  Most of the time it has been from within myself.  But I am learning new ways to step back into the flow of what is right and good and in step with the continuation of creation…this amazing but fragile system that we have the power to change, and which we depend upon completely to survive.  It just didn’t all look like this to me before, and I hope that even after our time on this adventure is over, that it never goes back to looking the old way ever again.

And I wish you could experience it with me.

I feel like my attempts to share these experiences can range from dry to silly to dramatic to monotonous to cheesy, but that is pretty much what it feels like to live through these events, too.  We all have different opportunities to engage with the universe.  I know that for the majority of people, the full-time travel lifestyle is not an option. But wherever you are and however you can, I hope that you can find new ways to explore and to listen.

4 Comment

  1. Rosie Magnotti says: Reply

    Dearest Sarah, You have brought me along on your journey with your beautiful writing, experiencing all the vistas, feelings and ideas! I love all the sillyness to the dramatic. Your words have brought me to tears several times, but in a good way. Love to all xoxoxoxo Rosie

  2. Jeannie says: Reply

    Thank you Sarah. You have an amazing way of drawing me into the story that God is writing in and through you and your family. I really appreciate your heart and your honesty. Love you!

  3. Barbara says: Reply

    I’m listening……and I feel like I’m there through your writings and photos. Inspiring, all of you!

  4. Marie Scanlon says: Reply

    i am amazed at your ability to enjoy the journey. i often imagine myself right there with you because your descriptions and accounts are so vivid and real. I love how much you know and find out about everything you see. i would have just thought those were just some nice rocks in a lake…but the story has so much more depth and impact on how I see the world. thank you for sharing with us!!

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