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Tucson Weekly American Outback

The first in an infrequent series of desert classics.

By Gregory McNamee

The Sagebrush Ocean, by Stephen Trimble (University of Nevada Press, 1993). Paper, $24.95.

DECEMBER 22, 1997:  THE GREAT BASIN desert is so little explored, so little inhabited, that an Australian journalist, a man who had spent much time in the outback, could deem one of the region's main roadways, U.S. 50, to be "the loneliest highway in America"--and, he went on to say, one of the loneliest in the world.

The vast arid expanse, swallowing up portions of Utah, Nevada, Oregon, California and Idaho, has never enjoyed the cachet of the Sonoran Desert, chronicled by writers like Ed Abbey and Joseph Wood Krutch. It hasn't been celebrated in the popular imagination in the manner of the Sahara or the Gobi. With a few exceptions, it hasn't sprouted the endless golf courses and plush resorts of Arizona, or been overrun like California--although that time is coming. Instead, for many Americans the Great Basin is just a healthy chunk of what bi-coastal types contemptuously call "flyover country," where sophisticates fear to tread.

The little-chronicled Great Basin has found a redoubtable champion in Stephen Trimble, who's been writing about it for a couple of decades now, mostly by way of pamphlets and small books for national parks and monuments. His Sagebrush Ocean is far more ambitious, attempting as it does to distill the complex and varied natural history of the Basin's ecosystems in a mere 250 oversized pages. It's also a fine addition to the library of any desert rat.

Deserts, the naturalist David Quammen once observed, are defined by negatives, by absences--like, to take Quammen's examples, virginity and sans-serif typefaces. Trimble tries to provide a more positive account of just what constitutes the Great Basin: "At the heart of the West, between the cordilleras, the Great Basin...is a desert full of mountains. Its summers are parched, its winters frigid."

Focusing on unique flora and fauna in addition to noting the standard definition of the Great Basin as a series of watersheds that do not reach an ocean, he limns a territory that begins somewhat north of Las Vegas and ends a hair south of Pocatello, taking in Salt Lake City to the east and Lake Tahoe to the west.

Many know these margins, which are easy to get to. The interior, much more difficult to reach, is what interests Trimble. Having defined to his satisfaction the area of study--while noting as well that "there are not just four Great Basins," but an infinite number of them, made up of tiny and discrete ecological communities--Trimble travels from salt playas (a single one of which occupies a full nine percent of the state of Utah) to tundric mountain islands, from creosote-bush valleys to aspen glens. It's a fine tour, enjoyable from first to last page, and worth studying before undertaking a voyage to the interior of your own.

As he travels, Trimble instructs his readers in difficult matters of geology and climatology, the understanding of which is central to being at home in any arid land. He also introduces his readers to a few favorite animals and plants, memorably the bristlecone pine, some specimens of which are 3,000 or more years old. Trimble's photographs of these Methuselean beings, perched precariously and improbably on wind-beaten mountain slopes, are extraordinary.

All is not well in America's outback, Trimble remarks. The Great Basin has long been overgrazed, and the millions of alien cattle quartered there have destroyed countless natural communities and habitats. Introduced species like Russian thistle, cheatgrass, and tamarisk have displaced indigenous plants, and burgeoning cities like Las Vegas and St. George are taking their toll, large and small, on the land. Yet Trimble is no cynic, and certainly no pessimist. He takes equal care to point out that deserts are dynamic places, constantly in flux:

The Great Basin has been a desert for only a few thousand years. Before that a lake covered much of (it), forest the rest. Still earlier, this land was grassland, jungle, ocean...The future of this sagebrush ocean is bound to bring change. Time, climate, life, and history have not culminated here. They never will.

Despite the recent creation of a readily accessible national park on the eastern edge of Nevada and so many other attendant marvels within its borders, too few people--even dedicated desert rats--know the Great Basin well. Trimble does, and his book, first published in 1989, has attained the status of a minor classic of the region.

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