Sand, burned forests, and butterflies
Bernadette Logue calls our life here on earth a soul odyssey, an epic adventure, saying we came to learn, heal, grow, and contribute, but neither my hubby nor I had our souls’ odysseys in mind when we left Lehman Caves and caught Highway 50, heading west. We merely felt curious about the wonders we would discover that day.
Highway 50, an often-lonely, two-lane highway, runs all the way from Maryland to California. In 1986 an AAA writer for Life magazine christened it the “Loneliest Road in America” and added, “We warn all motorists not to drive there unless they’re confident of their survival skills.”
Several years ago, we’d driven on Highway 50 during a frigid winter. We hadn’t seen any other vehicles or for that matter signs of human life for many, many miles when, all of a sudden, a hitchhiker stepped onto the pavement and put up both hands to stop us. Ted pulled over, climbed out of the pickup, and went around to open our camper shell where the stranger could ride comfortably until we arrived back in civilization. However, before he could turn around, the young man had clambered into our backseat with his duffle bag, sitting on our jumble of luggage. He was traveling, he told us as Ted climbed back in, on the way to South America. During the longest ride of our lives, with his constant chatter sounding certifiably crazy, I prepared to bash him with Ted’s big camera, but he made no move to harm us. We deposited him safely at Delta’s McDonalds, our survival skills untested.
This year, with our survival skills still untested, we drove Highway 50 on a hot August day, journeying toward Fallon, Nevada. We took our time, stopping to look at Pony Express stations, a stage coach stop, and a tree completely covered with shoes. Twenty-five miles east of Fallon, we saw a sign announcing the Sand Mountain Recreation Area, so we turned down the long lane, not knowing what to expect. Admittance that day was free, and as we pulled around the empty entrance booth, a huge mountain of sand, 600 feet tall, a mile wide, and over three miles long stood before us. Strangely—eerily—no one else was there. Later, as I researched the area, I found that 50,000 to 70,000 people visit it annually, and since it’s advertised as “one of the best competition hills in the U.S.,” it’s a premier destination for OHV adventurers, motorcyclists, sandboarders, sand sailors, and hikers, but that Tuesday, we had it all to ourselves. I felt we had somehow stumbled onto a portal to the Sahara Desert.
Where did all the sand come from? Thousands of years ago, Lake Lahontan filled much of the Great Basin, covering 8,500 square miles. After a climate change accelerated the evaporation rate, the lake mostly dried up although remnants of the ancient waterway still exist. Sand Mountain came from Lake Lahontan.
After reading the BLM’s explanatory and warning signs, Ted, Kenidee, and I started up the side of the hill. Clouds covered the sun, so the temperature was bearable, but traipsing through the sand was difficult. We couldn’t see any evidence that other humans had ever walked or driven on the mountain, and I knew our own footprints would soon be covered by windblown sand. At the time, however, I didn’t realize we were hiking up a singing mountain, a rare effect occurring when the wind blows across the grains of sand. We didn’t hear it sing that day, which was fortunate because it was uncanny enough being there all alone.
Since we had other places to explore, we didn’t hike far that day. I was eager to arrive at the ocean with its cooler temperature and mist-filled air, so we returned to our 4 Runner and headed back to Highway 50. That day and the next, on our way to the ocean, we visited Grimes Point Petroglyphs, the Stillwater Refuge, and Lassen Volcanic National Park, passing mile after mile of burned forests. We’d heard about California’s fires, of course. I’d even read a harrowing personal account of a husband and wife barely escaping by car with only the clothes on their backs and wallets, and in May, I met a young man who had lost everything, including, he told me, his beloved goats, but to see the devastation in person made it all too real.
According to CALFIRE, the largest wildfire in California’s history occurred in 2020, starting from a series of lightning strikes across the northern part of the state and burning over one million acres. More fires continued to devastate the area. Where homes and beautiful forests once existed, only charred trunks and blackened earth remained, a trial of epic proportions.
However, our trials have a purpose, Bernadette Logue explains, and when we integrate our “life lessons,” we undergo an inner transformation, a transcendence from our little self to our “soulful self,” filled with gratitude, love, and compassion.
As we walked through one of the burned forests, I couldn’t help thinking about the young man on his long journey to South America, about beloved family members and friends facing seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and about the on-going, life-changing natural disasters. Then, Ted pointed to dozens of orange California tortoiseshell butterflies supping on flowers that had recarpeted the burned forest floor, and I realized for all of us, for humanity, and for the earth herself, transcendence is possible.