Travel Log: October 2018 – The Desert and the Creepiest Sound EVER

(Silverdale, Washington; Aug. 20, 2020) – The year is 2001. I was a 29-year-old Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class in the U.S. Navy assigned to work on reconnaissance cameras and the associated aircraft systems used by the F-14D Tomcats of VF-213, a squadron based out of NAS Oceana in Virginia. We flew to NAS Fallon, Nevada, in March so our aircrew could train at the bombing range for six weeks.

Myself inspecting an F-14D Tomcat intake during out detachment to NAS Fallon, Nevada, on March 22, 2001. Photo by PHAN Alex Kethcart.

One of our guys rented a car and, during one no-fly day, I went with some of my fellow aircraft maintainers on a leisurely drive in the desert. This was the one day in my entire career as a professional photographer (be it as a recon camera maintenance technician or as a photojournalist) that I did not grab a camera. To this day, I still don’t know why I didn’t grab a camera!

We found the ruins of a Pony Express station near Sand Mountain, the biggest sand dune you can imagine. Many of my memories faded over the years, but I never forgot the Pony Express station. When I decided to do Grand Tour USA from 2017 – 2018, Fallon topped my list of Nevada sites. I rolled into Fallon the evening of Oct. 12, 2018, and spent my night searching the area online. Interesting trivia note: by 2017, I had completely forgotten about Sand Mountain! I rediscovered it, found the Pony Express station, and discovered an archaeological site during my research that night.

I returned to the Sand Springs station for the first time in 18 years on Oct. 13, 2018. The ruins are just under 30 miles southeast of Fallon. The Pony Express established Sand Springs in 1860, and the station served for about a year. The Pony Express itself only ran from 1860 – 1862 when the telegraph and railroads rendered it obsolete. Today, Sand Springs is part of the Sand Mountain Recreation Area, but the station’s ruins lay outside the Sand Mountain gate, so you don’t have to pay to visit the site.

The ruins of the Sand Spring station lie in the desert sun near San Mountain, a giant sand due seen in the distance past the station. (Nathanael Miller, Oct. 13, 2018)

The ruined stone walls on this ancient salt flat will show you how the station looked…and how remote it was. There’s not a shade tree for dozens of miles, and potable water sources are frighteningly scarce. This is a desert. Wear sunscreen, have water, look out for snakes…and jackrabbits. A rather large jackrabbit scared the sand dunes right out of me when it bolted after I accidentally startled it. I swear Harvey was six feet tall…

I digress.

Sand Mountain, the center piece for the Sand Mountain Recreation Area, is a “singing” sand dune two miles long. It “sings” when the wind blows just right, creating harmonic sounds across the sand. Sand Mountain is a popular spot for camping, off-roading, and even “sand boarding” down the dune. Bring sunscreen, water, etc., if you plan to stay a spell. You can easily view the mountain from the Sand Springs station if you don’t want to pay the entrance fee into the state park.

Grimes Point was the new discovery I made. Grimes Point is the site of ancient petroglyphs nearly 10,000 years old. Grimes Point used to be on the shore of Lake Lahontan, a giant Pleistocene-era lake that covered nearly half of present-day Nevada. The topography around Grimes Point still resembles a curvaceous lake shore…minus the lake. The site is open year-round, and well-paved trails allow you to tour while staying safely away from the petroglyphs.

Grimes Point was a peninsula long ago when prehistoric Lake Lahontan filled this area. The petroglyphs were left by native peoples over several thousand years. (Nathanael Miller, 13 Oct. 2018)

October 13 was a busy day for me, but I was not done yet. I headed back to Sand Springs that night for some long-exposure photography of the stars. I got some nice shots of Sand Mountain lit up by the off-roaders, but mainly pointed my camera upwards at the endless sky.

I was out there about an hour when I first heard it—the cry of a coyote.

I’ve never heard coyotes in the wild before, only on TV. In the dead, dark of night I had no reference point to know how close the animal was to me. It could have been two feet or 200 feet away; I only know it was somewhere east of me. A few moments later, another coyote answered it from somewhere to the north. Then another voice brayed into the symphony south of me.

Within fifteen minutes the quiet, starry night had been transformed into the eeriest, creepiest, most literal surround-sound concert you can imagine. I don’t know how many animals there were, or how close they were. There was simply no reference point for judging distance, and no coyotes showed up under my flashlight beam when I swept my immediate area.

This was the only second time I was ever stopped dead in my tracks by the sounds of animals. The first time was April 1, 2018, when I heard the amazing harmonies of a symphony of frogs around Fort Donelson National Battlefield Park in Tennessee ( I stood spellbound for, well, it seemed like ages, as I listened to the frogs sing that sunny afternoon. I remember thinking that, if God sings, He sings with that voice.

The experience outside Fallon was 180° from the frogs six months earlier. That was a day of beauty, wonder, peace, and calm. This was a night of beauty, wonder, terror, and awe. The coyote song was eerie, lonely, beautiful, and simply the creepiest sound I have ever heard! The experience was frightening, but also carried just as much divine immanence as the frog song had back in April.

Let me put it this way: if God sings with the voice I heard in the frog song in April 2018, then He speaks with the voice I heard in the coyotes in October 2018.

My own animal instincts kicked in, and I was hard-pressed to not panic and run. The glacially smooth, chortling calls could have been the audio cue for the traditional slasher to pop up in the traditional slasher movie and starting doing his equally traditional slashing. Every fiber of my being was screaming to get out of there!

I stayed. I was not going to miss this experience. My own safety was not actually in question. Coyotes normally don’t go after 6’4” tall, bellicose human beings like me. I was also standing next to my car (in other words, my back was shielded) and could easily have fled at the drop of a coyote paw. Calculated risks are one thing; but always be mindful of safety considerations around wild animals.

Frog song in Tennessee taught me wonder and beauty and magic; coyote song in Nevada taught me wonder and beauty and terror. You can only find this kind of wonder and even magic by getting out and exploring. Challenge yourself to explore somewhere new to the best of your own ability level. Seek out wild places and quiet places, places where you don’t expect to find…well, anything. You never know. You might find something extraordinary. Something extraordinary might find you.

Twice in six months extraordinary beauty found me. I would not have missed it for anything.

Sand Mountain is lit up at night by the lights of all-terrain vehicles. Sand Mountain is a dune two miles long and 600 feet high. It was formed from beach sand left behind by preshistoric Lake Lahontan. It is a “singing” dune in that the the sands set up a resonance when the wind is right. Fallon, Nevada. (Nathanael Miller, 13 Oct. 2018)

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