Botanical Exploration with Jerry Theim

The first real botanical adventure I experienced was in the Calico Mountains Wilderness on an expidition lead by Jerry Theim. Few people would think to place botany and adventure next to each other. But in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, where the terrain is a product of a unique geologic history and as rugged and rocky as anything, searching for rare species is anything but boring.

We met Jerry for the first time at a fork in the road, and as we climbed into his truck we made our acquaintances quickly. Being a very talkative man, he dove into explaining what we would be doing with him that week. His plan was to spend the next four days hiking through out the wilderness, checking various points of interest he had scoped the day before.

As we drove he pointed out the vast geologic expanses, telling us names of the rare species that live there. Steam boat mountain, where Caulanthus barnedbyii was recently found, and the Jackson range, where he spent a week during the last field season searching for a rare Pentstemon species. It was clear that he knew the area well. We pulled onto a 2 mile an hour road and drove up to the base of a canyon that was carved out by a long dried up water flow. “Let’s go botanize!” He exclaimed and we got together our gear for a day of hiking.

Being from Massachusetts, I had never seen anything like the range we were about to venture into. The Calico Mountain wilderness is a vast expanse of multi-colored slopes, most of them very steep and covered in tallus. We set out trailblazing through the canyon, and we approached a dark and ominous slope covered in tallus. I had never even heard of tallus before, let alone climbed on it. I was quite surprised as we began our ascent up the 60% slope of sharp, loose, MINERAL? that slipped and slid as we scrambled our way to the top.

We were headed for an ash deposit a the top of one of the smaller peaks of the bizarrely pigmented mountains. This one was splotched with green from oxidized copper, and brown and pink from other minerals. The ash deposit at the summit was bright white and is a unique soil type endemic to the Black Rock Desert-High Rock Canyon Emigrant Trails National Conservation Area.

Jerry was a pro climber. I learned that day, among many other things about Jerry, that he is a native of Nevada and an avid outdoorsmen. Unsurprisingly he found his way to the top with ease. He is a modest man, and it was not until our last day out that Jerry told us of his botanical accomplishments. Apparently he was something of a local celebrity in the Great Basin plant community. In his exploration of Nevada he had found an abundance of species new to science, many of which now share his name.

During our climbs he told us stories of Arthur Cronquist and his time collecting for herbarium collections in NYC and Cambridge. He was also responsible for many of the collections that made possible the publication of Intermountain Flora, one of the best dichotomous keys for the Great Basin area. He even shared with us what he did when he was not botanizing- limosene driving for the casinos in Reno and carpentry.

He trained us in the methods he used for botanizing rare species, and gave us heaps of plant names common to the area. It was hard to take it all in, and our field books had many new pages filled with species lists. He also shared with us tips for navigating the area, and gave us valuable advice on survival in the desert.

On the way back from the trip, I was struck with an overwhelming sense of gratitude for having been given the opportunity to botanize with Jerry. His training served us well in later inventories for rare species of the area. I will always be thankful for participating in the CLM internship for this reason, and many others.

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