A View from Sierra County

Small town life and politics, lots of knitting, and travels with and without my five burros

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Location: In the Sierra Nevadas, United States

I blog about rural living and social issues, and the creativity that comes from knitting, as well as post random pictures of the Sierras and my burros. "In order to be an artist, one must be deeply rooted in the society" - Simone de Beauvoir


Thursday, April 20, 2006

A Spring Sojourn

Some of you might have noticed my absence the past few days, and some might not have... Monday morning we headed east in spite of the snow that was finishing up and stayed in Reno a few days. Glenn's brother, Dave has a house there, even though he is currently living and working in the Salt Lake City area, so we took advantage of having a convenient place to hang our hats while we explored some of our favorite desert country.

Reno is just on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevadas, and the mountains tower over the city, providing breathtaking views, when the vista isn't clogged by rapidly expanding suburbia. Dave's house is about a quarter mile from the Truckee River, which wends it's way through downtown Reno and westward to end in Lake Tahoe (I learned this trip that the worldwide collegiate kayaking competition takes place on the river in Reno, as part of the Reno River Festival next month). It might be my favorite city, as I really don't like cities as a whole, and Reno is a scale that you could walk away from in a day (this is important to me, for some bizarre reason). Spring has definitely arrived there, as the storms that have kept us down on the west side of the mountains are diminished in force by the time they cross over the mountain peaks, and lots more sun has led to lots more bloom: daffodils, flowering trees, green grass, I was almost overwhelmed with delight.

This dove is basking in spring's glow on the roof of Dave's house.

I took a vacation from the computer, the phone, work, household chores (our dear friends, Dale and Lois, who manage Sierra Skies RV Park in summer and spend winters with us, looked out after the donkeys for us), and almost even knitting! I brought along the felted vest for DH, and made slight progress in the evenings, but we spent the days being outside and exploring. I walked, did yoga, and even sat around the nearby coffee shop in the morning reading the paper; I felt very lucky to have a break.

Tuesday morning, we headed over to Virginia City, where the streets were empty when we arrived but filled with visitors by midday.

Virginia City is one of our favorite "old west" towns to visit; although there is significant commercialization to keep business afloat, what they are promoting is the history of the famous Comstock Lode silver mines, which boosted the economy during the Civil War so much that Nevada became a state and the Union could continue to finance the war.

There are many examples of brick commercial buildings, mansions built by silver tycoons, and more modest Victorian homes. I doubt there are many other little towns with such a concentration of "museums", some of which are large and extensive, and others which are merely novelties. Over the years we have been through most of the museums; the Comstock Firemen's Museum is highly enlightening (the museum lent an antique engine to the San Franciso Earthquake Centennial events last weekend) and so is the Julia Bulette Red Light museum (Julia was a well-loved prostitute, who made the local fire department her favorite charity; she was murdered for her jewels, and in tribute for her contributions to the community, was given one of the largest funerals in the town's history - we are talking Old West history here).

This visit, we spent an hour or more touring the St. Marys of the Mountains Catholic Church and museum, which is very cared for and provides a glimpse into the social structure and culture of the early days of Virginia City, as well as continues to preserve an amazing Gothic church, a landmark in the cityscape. Other great places to tour, which we have visited in the past, include the Mackey Mansion and the Fourth Ward School, which Glenn's grandma attended as a girl!

We enjoy walking up and down the streets admiring the architecture, checking the progress on the restoration of Piper's Opera House, and poking through our favorite bookstore there, Mark Twain Books. Virginia City is one of the places that can legitimately say "Mark Twain slept (and wrote) here!", and the bookstore features a huge collection of new and used western books, Mark Twain's works, and even both reprinted and modern-day maps and tourbooks of the overland western emigration routes. We have traveled over parts of the routes in Nevada, and pored over some of the books, hoping to take a four-wheel expedition one day of the Oregon Trail and/or the California route; it's much safer and more comfortable these days than back in 1849!

After lunch at one of the local restaurants, we did a little four-wheeling of our own, taking a back route out of Virginia City into the Virginia Highlands. This area has been subdivided into very private desert homes, and we thought we would drive north and see if we could find an alternate route back to Reno... this type of thinking has led us into some of our greatest adventures and Tuesday was no exception. The road was a little rough but no big deal, so we pressed on.

This desert oasis of year-round spring, cottonwood trees, and willows, hasn't leafed out yet, allowing us to catch a glimpse of a band of four Virginia Range wild horses, including the darling baby nursing. We had pulled into this area because the archaeologist husband just knew that there would be signs of prehistoric visitation; there were plenty, including flakes of obsidian, three kinds of chert, and basalt. I spotted mother and baby when we first exited the car, and shushed him long enough for the pair to remain alert, but not bolt right away, so was able to get many pictures of this band.

The lush grass and readily available water makes this spot a heavily-visited area, and even when the group decided they were uncomfortable with our presence, they only moved a few hundred yards off, not wanting to give up the yummy grass.

The Virginia Range horses live on private and non-BLM Nevada public lands to the east of Reno, and are not protected in the same way that BLM wild horses are; they have been in this area for a century or more, since the decline in the silver mines, but in recent years development has encroached seriously on their home range, putting them in conflict with humans. The link above will take you to the Virginia Range Wildlife Protection Association, based in Virginia City, and enlighten you further. If you have ever considered adopting a wild horse, please think of these animals, as they lack the concerted efforts towards adoption that the BLM program has built up, and the pressure is only increasing on their habitat. Currently, the nearby Carson City state prison manages a training program to gentle captured Comstock horses and train them so that they will be more adoptable.

Now, I have searched for wild horses and burros several times in recent years, with limited success. However, this time, without even thinking about the possibility until we came upon the first band of eight horses, prior to stopping at the oasis, I hit paydirt. Over the course of the afternoon, we observed 50 horses and 4 foals! As in the two occasions in recent years when I went out at night to watch for spectacular shows of shooting stars, started counting and saw over 300 each time, I felt like I was particularly blest to have the good fortune to observe these animals in the wild. It crossed my mind that most people will never have this chance and that I should take lots of photos and share them with all of you.

The stallion is in the foreground in this photo, looking a little pissed off and had already signaled to the two mares to head away from us.

A closer view shows his tense posture, particularly in the neck.

A close-up of mom and baby, taken a bit further downstream

It became obvious that it takes extra work to find these extra-special backcountry features; as we would our way north, the road got progressively worse. Luckily, DH drives off-road for a living, working for the U.S. Forest Service, and we have spent lots of time 4 wheeling over the years. This is a drop-off that he could feel confident in, but one of the few spots that really gave me pause. The green Jeep Cherokee below contains a father/son duo we met up with; the son is a Planning Commissioner for Storey County, and had been on the back roads in the past, but not on this stretch. We were following his maps and teamed up in the late afternoon to safely travel out of the backcountry as the road got more extreme. The front of our truck is perched above the drop-off that was the steepest creek crossing. I will not bore you with the gory details, but do want to mention that we passed through Lagomarsino Canyon, part of which contains a huge field of petroglyphs. If you ever have the opportunity to spend some time around Reno, contact me for more information about these extraordinary features just a few miles away from the bright lights and casinos.

The highlight of Wednesday was spending three hours at the National Auto Museum, which was built originally to house Bill Harrah's extensive private collection, and has since expanded into a highly professional and impressive museum. We headed home in the late afternoon, thankful for a break in the daily routine and our first taste of spring. Life is good.


Blogger Sara said...

Wow, great trip! That drop off would give me pause too, although it's not much different than some streets in SF (my favorite city)! I love Reno's art museum, and there's a fabulous bead store in Carson City (everyone has their own destinations). The Truckee River flows east, though, *from* Tahoe to Pyramid Lake. One of those Continental Divide anomalies.

7:02 AM  
Blogger KnitNana said...

That's just amazing! What great photos of the horses....I'm glad you got the chance to "get away" doing something you so obviously love...and thank you for sharing it with us! (and yes, you were missed)

7:14 AM  
Blogger margene said...

That drop off is frightening from that vantage point, anyway. I would rather slide down on my butt than be in the car! LOL
It sounds like a lovely break. Just the type of thing we like to do, too. The morning doves are prevelant around our place and I love their cooing in the mornings. You were missed, btw!

8:46 AM  
Blogger Life at Star's Rest said...

Hi Birdsong! I had forgotten you had a blog and your photos are lovely. I'm going to add it to my favorites before I can forget again!
Carmon Deyo

8:59 AM  
Anonymous Imbrium said...

Lovely pictures...thank you for sharing them with us. I'd love the opportunity to see horses in the wild!

9:14 AM  
Blogger Birdsong said...

Sara is right! The Truckee River flows east, as technically it is over the crest of the Sierras the entire length.. nice to hear I was missed:)

11:10 AM  
Blogger trek said...

I love pictures of baby mammals and horses are my faves!

12:46 PM  
Blogger Kathy said...


The photos and comments are wonderful. Really. What is the pretty soft looking green/silver stuff all around? Is that sage? I am really showing my midwest brain here! Happy Anniv. POST!

7:01 PM  
Blogger Janis said...

Incredible photos of wild mustang foals! You must have been in heaven during your visit - thank you for sharing!

4:40 AM  

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