U.S. route 395 is a geologic master class disguised as a road. It runs north from the arid outskirts of Los Angeles, carrying travelers up to Reno along the eastern flank of the Sierra Nevada. On the way, they pass the black cinder cones of Coso Volcanic Field and the eroded scars of a mighty 19th-century earthquake near Lone Pine. In winter, drivers might see steam rising from Hot Creek, where water boils up from an active supervolcano deep underground. About an hour from the Nevada border, Mono Lake appears, with its bulbous and surreal mineral formations known as tufa towers. Even for someone with no particular interest in rocks, these are captivating, otherworldly sights. But for James Faulds, Nevada’s state geologist, they are something more—clues to a great tectonic mystery unfolding in the American West. If he’s right, all of this, from the wastes of the Mojave Desert to the night-lit casinos of Reno, will someday be beachfront property.
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