“Nevada is the one western state without any mentionable rivers at all, and perhaps the closest approximation of how things could have remained if the landscape had suffered no improvement: its settlements a hundred miles apart, its economy rooted, for lack of a better alternative, in what used to be called sin, its ghost towns as numerous as those that managed to survive.”
-Marc Reisner, Cadillac Desert (1986)
It is difficult to gaze out onto the northern Nevadan landscape in midsummer and not have the word “desolation” spring to mind. Everywhere the eye is greeted with hues of aridity: brown, red, greenish-gray, taupe, ochre, ecru. White-hot playas and shrubby hills stretch on for unseemly distances, broken at length by sere, jagged peaks that shimmer in the heat, conspicuously absent of trees save for a scrim of stunted juniper near the top. A forceful, convective wind whips up dust devils and flattens fields of cheatgrass, buffeting ears and blow-drying skin to a crisp. At midday, life is stultified by the heat; only the ants and locusts seem able to move about, and then only sparingly.
But all is not barren and severe in this desert. True, its beauty is stark, in the sense that one can see, without too much trouble, how such a place might’ve come to be, and what likely brought it to that point. Geologic conditions shaped the land, climate weathered it; humankind subjugated the result and yet its majority lies largely untrammeled. Its manifold inhabitants, hardy and adaptable in the extreme, prove that a desert needn’t be an utterly deserted environment.
Nevada is, by and large, a very dry place. About nine and a half inches of precipitation fall on the Silver State each year, making it the driest in the country. Almost the entire state lies within a region known as the Great Basin, bordered to the west by the Sierra Nevada and to the east by the Wasatch Mountains, characterized by parallel north-south ranges interspersed with long, broad troughs of desert. Clouds blown eastward off the Pacific have most of their moisture wrung out by the Sierras, so that by the time they reach Nevada they’re little more than fluffy, benign shoals of cumulus.
As geologist Bill Fiero has noted, the Great Basin “resembles an upside-down, cracked bowl,” in which the highest portion lies at the center; the four hundred or so named ranges form the fissures across its convexity. Their peaks reach up to 13,000 feet, soaring up from valley floors that lie, on average, 4,000 feet above sea level.
Nearly every drop of the scant moisture that falls in the basin evaporates there; all of its major rivers—such as the Humboldt, Carson, and Truckee—begin and end within its boundaries. (Interestingly, the Truckee—which flows from Tahoe to Pyramid Lake—is one of the world’s few so-called “lacustrine” rivers, meaning that it both starts and terminates in lakes.) The lakes of Nevada are relicts of a cooler, wetter, bygone era, and many of them are now shrinking. Things weren’t always so high and dry, though.
Two hundred fifty million years ago, Nevada was covered by a shallow sea awash with plesiosaurs, ammonites and ichthyosaurs thriving in a then-equatorial climate. These conditions prevailed for another 200 million years, until sometime in the Miocene, about 17 million years ago, when a section of the northwesterly-moving Pacific Plate ground into the North American continent. A chunk of crust roughly 1,000 miles long and 300 to 600 miles wide was uplifted, birthing the basin from the sea and setting a grand stage for further tectonic upheaval. (This is a rather cursory geologic overview; more detail in a later post.)