Monthly Archives: April 2013

Desert Research Institute

Reno, NV

The weather shifted today. There is a winter storm circling Reno, and big dark clouds hover over the mountains in the direction of Donner Pass. Michele called in the evening to say they would not let anyone drive on the interstate heading West unless they had chains on their tires, so she spent ½ the day getting chains… It is still sunny in Reno, only a few drops of rain. But the temperature dropped 20 degrees.

I decided to stay in the Eldorado hotel for another day or so to get my bearings while I plan my next move. It’s freezing outside! I spent much of the day driving around Reno and figuring out how to get to Lagomarsino Canyon where the petroglyphs are supposed to resemble textile and basket designs. Getting there seems to be a challenge.

When I called the Bureau of Land Management office in Carson City, they directed me to the Stillwater field office where I spoke to one archeologist who tried to discourage me from looking for petroglyphs all together. She said that they are very difficult to find, and that they are often small and corroded, or returned to the original color of the parent rock. When I brought up Whiskey Flats and the book by Robert Heizer, there was a long pause and she urged me to stick to well-marked locations.  Later she said I would get more information from books than actually going on site.  The guy at the tourist office in Virgina City told me to ride my mountain bike into the canyon, which sounded like more fun. Only when I finally found the canyon on a map and saw how long it would take I went to for the 4wd option.

I started looking for maps at the BLM office in Reno, which is located in the Reno flats, near the largest Whole Foods Market I have ever seen. There was also Sierra Trading Post, which had a big sale, and I picked up some long underwear and warm socks for the next days trek. The BLM sent me to the Desert Research institute, which is part of the University of Nevada and set on the side of a mountain.  It was very windy up there but the sun was shining and I could see most of the breathtaking Reno valley.

Some very nice ladies there helped me to locate the canyon on the series of quadrangle topographic maps. Lagomarsino was in the far bottom right corner of a map printed in the 1960’s and is no longer marked on the new maps.  This is common for historically significant archeological sites. They don’t encourage visitors. But one of the women had been to the canyon many years prior. She helped me xerox the maps and figure out the roads I needed to take to get there. They were long and windy and criss-crossed with other unmarked roads. They were patient and helpful but cautioned me that the roads were not maintained and in very bad condition, and insisted that my vehicle have very high clearance. After we had pretty much figured it out, One of the woman agreed to be my “call person”. I was supposed to call her when I got out of the canyon the next evening. This made me feel better about my insane looking plan to 4wd into the middle of nowhere with the storm looming in the mountains.

I drove down the hill to the University to check out a book dedicated to Lagomarsino by Alvin McLane.  But by then, it was pretty late in the day and I didn’t have much patience left for more research. I went through a rigamarole in the library stacks anyhow and looked over McLane’s paper and photographs to get a better sense of the landscape.  Then I called the rental car place and was lucky to get the last 4×4 truck for the next day.  It was freezing, I was exhausted and the sun was beginning to set.  I went back to the hotel and caught the tail end of the Obama/Romney debate.

I like Reno. It is an interesting town. The architecture is mostly brick, but eclectic in style, English Baroque and Victorian.  Frederick Delongchomp, started out as a mining engineer and designed most of the government buildings int he 1880’s.  A minerals town, they have a mining department at the University. Everybody wears car harts and boots, and drives a new truck. They are friendly. There were quite a few hitchhikers walking along the roads—young and old. I saw a few haggard looking veterans-coming down from the mountains to find shelter from the storm.  There is something very wild about this place.

It was also becomong obvious to me that our modern roads overlaying the land here, go to different places than the Indian roads.  One has to go deep into the hills to see these roads, and I am surprised they are still there, but there are many traces of the Piutes, Shoshone and the Washoe and the Numa and Freemonts before them. The towns: Virginia City, Reno, Dayton, Fallon etc. seem completely out of context to the petroglyph sites. (Note: read Lucy Lippards “Overlay.”)The climate has changed, and a modern way of thinking and doing has changed the speed at which we move across the land. Nor do white people don’t think like Indians, our priorities are different. Lagomarsino was the summer camp for the Washoe people. But it is also Piute land…  I am eager to walk off the beaten track, to get a sense of the land. Strong mountains — strong weather, the tension between the clouds and the mountains is palpable, and visible. I feel so alive! The air is unbelievable crisp. This is the storm that shifts the seasons–from hot dry fall to winter.

*Panel recording, (what Archeologists look for):
Aspect, orientation, presence of cracks and other irregularities, condition of the art, condition of the panel generally, (graffiti, mineral build-up), surrounding vegetation (this changes over time but it still seems relevant, especially for dyers) relationship to other glyphs, other proximities…

*Photo: far, middle close, with and w/o scale

Grimes Point, NV


I met Michele at a Ralph’s in Fallon, NV. She drove from Salt Lake City the day before. We planned to meet at Lake Lahontan but it was further than both of us imagined.  She crashed somewhere along the 50, smack in the middle of the Great Basin.  At Grimes we cruised past the entrance/picnic area and the designated petroglyph area agreeing to visit them on the way back. We headed along the road past the caves, again agreeing to visit them on the way back.  We wanted to look for “precious stones” that some lady at a gas station West of Elko had mentioned to Michele. We pulled off the road and walked out onto the flats and looked on the ground for colored rocks. I found a handful of smooth orange-brown and green stones, which turned out to be chert–according the colorblind geologist I asked at UCLA. Michele filled her pockets like I couldn’t believe.  She must have had a couple hundred stones when we finally called it quits and poured out our pockets on the truck floor. Her pile was out of hand! I wish I had taken a photo.

While we were hunting I noticed a caravan of trucks driving up to the cave parking lot. I watched as a group of about 20 people walked along a path, then they disappeared into the hillside. As Michele and I sat at the mouth of the first cave we took a few pictures and caught up on our journeys across the country. I didn’t think much about the disappearing people.  But after a while I began to wonder what happened to them. I suggested that we walk along the path they had taken before they disappeared.  There were beautiful views to the West, as we looked out across what was once the ancient Lake Lahontan. It was mostly flat land, in different shades of brown but very still and peaceful except for a few military jets.. We followed the trail on the side of the hill and came up to a generator, a bench and a small open door.  Michele immediately ducked inside.  I was fussing with my camera equipment when she came out of the cave where the people had disappeared.  “Don’t go in there!” She said. “It smells like stale piss.” She was right. It smelled pretty acrid!

Inside the rather large cave was the group of Archeologists, standing around an archeological digging site. They said that cave was a “cache cave” where the Indians stored food, and used it for only temporary housing.  I wonder if it smelled a bad 4000 years ago?  The archeologists were very nice, and had just finished a conference held in Fallon.  The cave is called Hidden Cave. You can read more about the archeology site here:

The guide was very nice and let me shoot some video in the cave after all the archeologists had gone. When he finally kicked me out, making sure I didn’t hit my head on the low doorway to the outside,  he turned off the generator and locked the door.  Michele and I we were both a little tired from our drive, the sun and a hectic morning discerning a meeting point. But we decided to venture up a little ways along the petroglyph trail.  After all it was the whole reason I had come out here.

We walked along a trail that meandered along a field of boulders that sat on the southern point of the hills. The basalt boulders overlooked the flattened basin. They almost looked as if they were cast in iron.  Many were covered with lichen. The petroglyphs were pecked and scratched onto the darkened surface of the rocks–wavy lines, concentric circles, one beautiful wishbone shape.  I took a few photos but felt distracted and a little overwhelmed by everything: seeing my stepmother for the first time in years, the stench of the cave, and windfall of information that the archeologists imparted, taking in Nevada for the first time.  It was about 3pm, and the weather started to shift. The temperature dropped 10-15 degrees (we went from tank tops to long sleeve shirts) and clouds started to roll in.  The place felt a little eerie suddenly and I didn’t want to be out here when the storm came in, so we hauled back to Fallon to pick up Michele’s car and headed into Reno. I had booked us a room at the Eldorado Hotel and was looking forward to a hot shower and clean sheets.


Lake Lahontan

Lake Lahontan was mostly dried up when I got there, with about 150 blackened cottonwood stumps out in a depression where the water once was. I was a mile or so below the Carson River damn near Silver Springs, NV. The pictures on the Internet showed a serene fisherman by a placid lakeside in 1973, but the campground looked pretty dry and dusty to me. I was disappointed.  Also, there were no hot showers as advertised. This drylake was named after the ancient Lake Lahontan that covered most of North Western Nevada after the Ice age.

I had driven eleven hours from Los Angeles along the snow capped Sierra Nevada’s barely stopping for gas, coffee and a sandwich on the 395 that day.  I arrived in the middle of nowhere just as the sun was going down.  I had just enough time to pitch my tent in the mostly deserted campground. I had not stopped long in Bishop, or Owens Valley, or Yellowstone only because I wanted to be here by nightfall.  But now I was a little skeptical of my impulse to hurry.  Why did I choose the Great Basin for my project in the first place?  My friend Leslie had mentioned that it was monochromatic.  I think she mean it is flat, dry and desolate.  Maybe the name sounded romantic, or just geologic and encompassing and difficult…I like the sort of things I can get lost in. I definitely wanted a reason to get out of LA, and I could not stop thinking about Robert Heizer’s research from the 1960’s. The beautifully drawn images of petroglyphs in his books and the controversy the books caused. Would I find what I was looking for out here?

I had driven through two Paiute reservations in Nevada that day, maybe three. And there was a Shoshone /Paiute Rez outside of Bishop, the town right before the pass that goes through the Sierra’s.  I drove by Yosemite National Park and the Obsidian Dome. The backside of the Dome was visible from the road.  It looked pretty enticing, but I was on a mission to make it to Lahontan by nightfall. I blew past Mono Lake also, incredibly gorgeous, but windy as hell.  It must have been the front moving in.  Then I followed the Walker River into the Nevada on the 208.  It was quieter once I dropped into the Basin. There was no more wind like in Lee Vining. There were a lot of birds along the river, tall grasses and a few fishermen. I was glad to be in the Basin, I had anticipated this trip for two years. I had to admit that it was not as grand as the Ansel Adams wilderness but there was something out here calling my name.

It was Saturday night. I was supposed to meet my stepmother at this campground. She was driving from Salt Lake City, but the sun was going down and I couldn’t imagine anyone finding this place in the dark. I faced the tent towards the East along the edge of the lakebed. A few other campers spread out around the campground.  There was a port-a-potty and a spigot with the mocking birds hanging around it. I watched the stars come up for a while, but was both exhausted and too excited to make my dinner. Then my friend John called.  I guess I was not really in the middle of nowhere!  We spoke for a while and then I tried to figure out my new involometer. I couldn’t make much sense of it in the dark, gave up, and crawled into my sleeping bag feeling a mixture of excitement and terror.

The cottonwoods rustled in the wind all night. And a pack of coyotes came through the camp, probably crossing the lakebed in the wee hours. They were howling and barking and making a ruckus. But I was warm and happy in my new over-priced capilene pullover and the two wool blankets thrown over my sleeping bag. I think there was a meteor shower at 4:30 AM, but I was too tired to pull myself out of the tent in the dark. The air was a lot colder than I thought. I did get up just before sunrise.  And I could feel that shift in the weather that I kept hearing about on the TV every time I stopped for gas.