In the years immediately following World War II, my parents did a lot of what they called car camping -- a simple procedure that involved throwing a couple of sleeping bags, a grate, a coffeepot and a box of assorted pans in the old Ford, and spending a few weeks rattling around on axle-busting roads in the great Western outback, blowing tires, mashing oil pans, and generally having a whale of a time. People don't appear to do this much anymore. We are intimidated by notions of trespass, even on the public lands. We mistrust the oddballs, nuts, cranks and churlish ranchers often found in unsettled places. Some of us have even assumed an environmental pose and regard the internal combustion engine with fear and loathing. It seems that half of the touring world now hikes, treks, climbs, rafts, canoes or kayaks; the other half owns an RV of some description and does its camping beside the interstate, or in one of the overcrowded, overorganized, overdeveloped, over-orchestrated, over-regulated resorts mistakenly called national parks. We are descending from the eastern boundary of one such disgrace, freed at last from a 50-mile traffic jam that began at the El Portal entrance to Yosemite and ended, finally, at the Tioga Pass exit above Mono Lake. I have assured my wife that once we have turned east from Mono Lake we can leisurely spend the next five or six days crossing three states (four, if you count the first 50 miles of the trip in California) through some of the most spectacular and enchanting country in the inter-mountain West -- 1,000 miles of unqualified and unequaled scenery between the Sierra Nevada and the Continental Divide, and that we can do it without passing another car or traveling on anything wider than a two-lane road. She accuses me of hyperbole, but agrees to go along for the ride so long as she shares the driving. In the far distance lies the hazy expanse of basin and range that comprises almost all of the state of Nevada; below, the lunar shores of Mono Lake, 60 square miles of ice age water that is three times saltier than the sea, 80 times more alkaline, and so dense with chlorides and sulfates that it is often referred to as "dead." It is anything but dead. It supports as many as 50,000 brine shrimp to the cubic yard, and although the menu is limited, these tasty little invertebrates attract just about every species of grebe, duck and shorebird in North America to Mono's shores. Humanity is another matter. People just zip by here on their way to the park, where they fight it out for a few square yards of hard-packed dirt and a smoggy rendition of vistas better perused in a collection of Ansel Adams photographs. We head in the opposite direction, following Highway 120 east for a few miles, then picking a faint track leading off into the desert and following it to an impromptu camp, where Lynn unpacks the Coleman stove and starts supper. I stretch out on my Paco pad under a juniper and tell her to be sure to let me know if I can be useful. AH A great expanse All around us is a great expanse of pumice, sage and volcanic cinder cones. The sheer, unimaginable wall of the Sierra is at our backs, the knobby spires of calcium carbonate (tufa) that line the broken shores of the lake spread out below. Fire and ice. Overpowering silence. I snooze in the pearly twilight as Western gulls wheel around and around over their nesting grounds on Mono's Negit Island. In the morning we continue east on Highway 120, a narrow, empty road over the northeasternmost spur of the White Mountains that eventually terminates at the foot of the highest point in Nevada, Boundary Peak, elevation 13,140 feet. Pumice and volcanic sand give way to ponderosa forest and tiny purple flowers; then to open, sage-covered hills. Snow still marks the deeper crevasses on the surrounding mountains. In the past 75 miles we have crossed paths with less than a dozen cars (gleefully pointed out by my wife), and all of them since we joined Highway 6 on its way to Tonopah, Warm Springs and Ely. At Warm Springs, population zip, we turn south on Highway 375, another two-lane blacktop even more empty and remote than the ones we have already traveled. If total isolation has proved to be a mild exaggeration on my part, Lynn is about to see how close I can really come. Because none of this, of course, is a part of the West that people come to see, or even know enough about to want to see. Unmarked attractions Roadside attractions are not labeled, there are no services, one brings one's own lunch. It is a part of that region generally defined (and dismissed) as the Great Basin, although this designation says nothing about its incredible variation and beauty. Highway 375 ends after 100 miles, at which point Highway 93 takes us to Caliente and Panaca before it veers north toward the newly established Great Basin National Park. Nothing much there as yet -- no hotels, swimming pools, golf course, scenic trail rides -- a great opportunity, therefore, for some concessionaire to turn it into a tourist trap. We accelerate in a different direction, east on Highway 319, and start the slow climb out of the Nevada desert into the high plateau country of south-central Utah. Sage and rabbit-brush give way to a sparse carpet of lupine and bright orange globe mallow. Juniper and pinon reappear, and the horizon begins to darken with the elongated smudge of the 10,000-foot Markagunt Plateau. Resting up at Cedar Breaks Hurrying through Cedar City and up the heavily forested Cedar Canyon, we stop occasionally to stare down into the headwater canyons of the Virgin River, out over the Kolob Plateau, out into the blue distance of Zion National Park, then press grudgingly on to our intended camp at Cedar Breaks National Monument. I submit to this collapse of principle because the hour is late and because Cedar Breaks is largely unknown, unloved and unvisited by the touring public. Only during the Fourth of July weekend are the 30 campsites above Long Valley Creek ever full -- something that cannot be said at any time of its nearby geological sister, Bryce. It is my night to cook, but Lynn, taking a qualitative interest in what we eat, excuses me to go for a stroll through the lush alpine meadow spreading out around us. It is wildflower season. Grasslands and woods are sprinkled with larkspur, fleabane, penstemon, columbine. I suffer a momentary impulse to pick a peck of posies for the chef, a fistful of paintbrush and cinquefoil, a wild rose or two, but the telltale green of a Park Service pickup appears on the road above the trail, and I regain my ecological balance. Only to lose it when I follow a short path through the trees and come out suddenly upon infinite space. In front of me is the 400 miles of basin and range country we have just crossed. Below me the earth falls away for 2,000 feet in sheer, castellated cliffs of fantastically eroded sandstones, a great burnished amphitheater of red and yellow and purple rocks that curve away in a west-facing bowl some three miles in diameter. In the morning we descend the Markagunt Plateau to Highway 12, bypass Bryce Canyon National Park and drop down into the valley of the Paria River, then climb the northwesterly end of the Kaiparowits Plateau to Escalante -- a town chiefly memorable for its furious resistance to anything remotely resembling environmental preservation. In this bastion of enlightenment we restock the cooler before disappearing into the heart of the Escalante "primitive area," a term on the map that refers, not to its inhabitants, but to 3 million acres of wrinkled rock between the Aquarius Plateau, the Henry Mountains and the Colorado River. Ah, the delights of car camping. No reservations to call for, no fees to pay, no crowds to dodge, and if you don't like the campground you assign yourself, go find another one. Anyone hassles you, point out you're on public domain. This isn't the privatized East, after all. You own all this. Startling back roads Our route will be east from the little town of Boulder along a dirt road called the Burr Trail -- for my money one of the most startling back roads anywhere in the American West. But from a hogback near the turnoff to Hell's Backbone we stop for lunch and a quiet survey of hundreds of square miles of silent, slick-rock canyons, munching our bread and cheese and listening to the muffled aspiration of Calf Creek Falls drifting up from a labyrinth of warped, domed, cross-bedded and multilayer terraces below. The Aquarius Plateau rises 10,000 feet at our backs. To the south the Straight Cliffs drop abruptly to the floor of the Escalante River Valley, and before us, impeding our stolid march to the Great Divide, lies the triple barrier of the Circle Cliffs, the Waterpocket Fold and the five peaks of the Henry Mountains. No water, hellacious gnats We camp on a mesa near the southern end of the Waterpocket Fold, an enormous welt in the earth's crust that runs for almost 100 miles through Capital Reef National Park. I submit to this collapse of principle again because almost nobody ever comes down here from Park Headquarters, way up to the north on Highway 24. The dirt road is a washboard, there's no water, and the gnats are hellacious. At first light we wind down through an opening in the cliffs to the stupefying contrast of what was once (before the construction of Glen Canyon Dam) the Colorado River. Lake Powell, as this dead, silt-laden reservoir is called, reminds me of some cosmic laboratory specimen swarming with "e hominidae bacilli." All of them propelled by Evenrude or Johnson inboard/outboard engines. "The horror, the horror," we mutter, abandoning our plan to take the ferry from Bullfrog Basin to Halls Crossing and driving instead the 130 miles around Lake Powell -- finally to regain paradise near the Grand Gulch Primitive Area on the eastern side. We cross the Monument Upwarp, a kind of natural rock super-dome some 35 miles wide and 100 miles long that lies between the Colorado River and the Paradox Salt and Blanding basins. Once again we have the road to ourselves. From the summit, 30 miles from Blanding, we look south over Monument Valley to the great loaf of Navajo Mountain, north to the snow-capped Abajos. Sleeping Ute lies dead ahead, the stone profile of his bowed nose pointed peacefully at the sky. He plants an idea in my head. The parking lot at Butler Wash is (as always) empty, and we take today's lunch up the cairn-marked )) trail to the cliff dwellings where we stretch out, heads in the shade of a juniper, backs on the warm rock, to eat and snooze. Ahead, over the border in Colorado, lie the San Juans, the most impressive of the Rocky Mountains, and a region where we can still go where we want and still be free of e hominidae bacilli (provided we avoid Telluride). Beyond the San Juans we'll hit the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Blue Mesa and the Continental Divide -- over which we will take a peek in the direction of the Hudson River before we turn tail and run. A massive pileup of afternoon clouds causes the light to slant sideways across the desert, illuminating a pinnacle here, a cathedral there, bringing a distant butte into sudden, radiant relief. A distant rumble of thunder. When the first fat drops begin to darken the smooth face of the rimrock, shelter is but a parking area away. One of the unspeakable advantages of camping by car. If you go . . . You do not need a truck or a four-wheel drive vehicle to make this journey, but there are long stretches where there are no services whatsoever, so you want to be driving something with decent tires and a reliable engine. Take plenty of water (at least five gallons), and fill your gas tank whenever the opportunity presents itself. A simple tool kit is useful even if you don't know how to use anything in it, because somebody will always come along who does. Make sure your kit has jumper cables and a siphoning hose. A 5-by-7 or an 8-by-10 plastic tarp (available at any hardware store) and a light- to mid-weight sleeping bag are all you really need. If it rains, roll up in the tarp. If you freeze, get in the car. If you want to get fancy, a backpacking tent will not take up much room and will make the difference between misery and comfort. A 60-quart cooler will hold more than enough food and drinks for several days. (Remember that block ice melts a lot more slowly than cubes.) A propane Coleman stove, a frying pan and a coffee pot will get you by in the cooking department, though you can add to the list according to space available and how much stuff you're comfortable smuggling into gas station restrooms to wash. Don't forget a spatula and a large kitchen spoon. Paper plates and cups make clean-up much easier. Almost the entire route described is across public lands and is therefore under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management or the Forest Service. Official campsites are plentiful across southern Utah and southwestern Colorado, both improved and unimproved, and almost any dirt road wandering out across the desert in Nevada will turn up a stopping place for the night. Don't forget the water. Bureau of Land Management or Forest Service regional offices can supply you with maps and information. AAA is also a good source.