The Loneliest Place
Your Wilderness - December 2012
By Matthew Skroch with the Pew Environment Group
As the Nevada sun dips below the horizon and a frigid blast of air buffets my vest, Kirk turns to me and nonchalantly says, “I'm going to follow this other ridge down. I'll meet you at the bottom.” I'm literally standing on top of a mountain—Lone Mountain, that is—gauging three things: how much time remains before I can't see the ground in front of me, how long it's going to take to descend this peak, and how I locate our truck in this expanse of wilderness if Kirk's ridge doesn't meet my canyon route at the bottom. I mumble something to acknowledge his departure and take stock of the 2,500 vertical feet of unknown terrain that I need to descend immediately. No trails here, or anywhere near for that matter, and the granite hoodoos and crags make for challenging route-finding. I better start moving, but not without one last look across the greatest expanse of terra incognita I've experienced in the Lower 48. Wow. The purple afterglow turns the empty valleys to either side of me into a surreal landscape. The notion crosses my mind that this view could easily be the same as 500 years ago. It feels timeless.
I zip the fleece to my chin, smile wryly at the prospect of my descent, and jump off the rock that held me in awe of this mountain for a few minutes longer than it should have. I come to a small, high meadow tucked between granite spires and notice the marbled mounds of bighorn sheep scat that litter the ground. Good habitat, I note: ample mid-elevation browse, protection from predators, and lots of vertical relief that sheep seek. I could have walked into one for all the attention as I was paying to anything not immediately in front of me, though. “Look up, Matt. Check out this amazing place! But hurry down, too. Don't get distracted.” I blunder down the canyon, past ancient pinyons and over orange lichens that pop out of the darkening haze of twilight.
My hiking companion, currently somewhere on the other side of the ridge, is Kirk Peterson, a staffer for Friends of Nevada Wilderness and all-around expert in Nevada geography, wilderness, geology, and, as I come to learn, early 20th-century U.S. immigration policy as well. Kirk is taking me on a whirlwind tour of central Nevada's Battle Mountain District of the Bureau of Land Management. Battle Mountain, also the name of a small town to the north of us, refers to the vast expanse of public lands in central Nevada equal to the size of Vermont and Connecticut combined (about 10.5 million acres). That's where any parallels to the East Coast end, because here you'll find the least populated area in the continental United States. Barely 10,000 people call this part of the state home, with fewer every year as the heyday of gold mining fades into memory. While driving one of the few highways that intersect this void, I counted three other cars in the span of two hours. It goes without saying that for wilderness advocates, Battle Mountain presents a landscape where civilization's imprint is substantially unnoticeable. That means that from places such as the top of Lone Mountain, your mind can wander across epochs as it grapples with the unfinished storyline of geological time so starkly painted upon the mountains, bajadas, and valleys that form an unbroken expanse to the horizon.
Kirk and his outfit see opportunity here. The BLM is revising its management plan for these 10.5 million acres, taking stock of lands with wilderness character and making decisions about how wilderness and other resources should be managed over the next 15 to 20 years.
The Pew Environment Group, which partners with Friends of Nevada Wilderness and other groups across the state, is also interested in the revisions to BLM's Battle Mountain plan because of what's at stake, particularly regarding the conservation of the intact, wild landscapes that still dominate the area. The work is heavy on details, and Kirk and his wilderness inventory crew are up to the task as they embrace the philosophical debate on issues such as what constitutes a road. The goal of our partnership is clear: the administrative protection of intact lands. As the draft Resource Management Plan for Battle Mountain is released for public review over the next several months, citizens across the country as well as Nevadans who visit the area will get the chance to weigh in on the details of how these millions of acres will be managed.
I'm not thinking about Resource Management Plans at the moment, though; I'm focused on getting a visual of the truck before our light disappears. The tight slot canyon taking me downhill narrows, then opens. I sigh with relief that at least I won't get cliffed out. Aside from a couple of simple maneuvers over boulders in the drainage, the descent is smooth and easy. I reach the alluvial fan at the bottom of the valley with a few minutes of light left, and sure enough, there's Kirk making his way over from his ridge descent. I smile, relax, and look back to where I came from. Lone Mountain, you are one incredible piece of Nevada backcountry that deserves to stay just the way you are. Wild.