It feels like we’re driving to the edge of the world where the water falls off.
Infinity is just ahead. To the right are mountains that arc up from the basement of time. On the left, a dry lakebed now glassed with salt. This is the driest state in the country, not so surprising, but it is also the most mountainous, with some 300 ranges.
If you look at a satellite photo of earth at night one of the brightest pixels is Las Vegas in southern Nevada. But, if you look north, to the bole of the state, you see one of the darkest areas. What is out there? Who is out there? My ignorance is encyclopedic.
With friends Didrik Johnck and Adam Rose-Levy we map out the long way through the backside of Nevada, from Las Vegas to Reno. We could fly this connection in minutes, or take the freeway in a day, but we’re going to take a week scrawling through one of the loneliest passages in the world.
We begin the journey from the Downtown Grand Hotel in Las Vegas, just footsteps from the action of Fremont Street, and a half-block from a celebration of the city’s notorious roots at The Mob Museum. We pack up, head out, freed from the arguments of civilization, and wind around Lake Mead to Boulder City.
Lake Mead looks as shimmering and desolate as it did when I was a river guide in my teens. I used to pilot inflatable rafts down the Colorado through the Grand Canyon, and the take-out then was Temple Bar Marina, about a day’s motor (we used 20 hp Mercs) across a brutally hot and barren channel. Sitting in the back of the 33’-long pontoon raft, the engine droning, the heat searing, I felt for the first time a seam open onto a void whose terrible content is the inevitability of finality, and it raced the blood and evoked feelings of being more alive. It was that kind of place.
We make our first stop at the Nevada State Railroad Museum in Boulder City, which harbors the train that carried the supplies to build the biggest dam in the world at the time: Hoover Dam.
Here I meet John, a retired engineer in full railroad costume, who offers to take me on a little ride in his engine. A conductor hanging off a Pullman coach yells “All aboard,” and off we chug. The restored train doesn’t go far, about four miles, and John doesn’t say much, but I ask him “If a train station is where a train stops, what’s a work station?” He groans; puts the train in reverse.
From Boulder City we wheel across the Mojave Desert to the Valley of Fire, Nevada’s oldest and largest state park, but still just a fragment of the over two million acres of designated wilderness in Nevada. It erupts from the land like a big pot of calcified soapsuds. The 150 million-year-old rock is mostly blazing red Aztec sandstone, eroded into phantasmagoric lumps and wedges. Steve Santee, a ranger who lives in the park, hands me a passport, as though he’s recruiting me for some sort of escape. (I came for the waters…. I was misinformed). Turns out the passport is the centerpiece of a program designed to encourage visitation to Nevada’s 23 state parks, some of which are distinguished for their lack of callers.
Steve explains that once passport holders have their booklets stamped at 15 different parks, they earn one free annual pass to all Nevada State Parks. He stamps mine; I’m on my way.
The sun is quickly falling, so we head up a low ridge to Rainbow Vista, an overlook of washes, dendritic mazes, domes, towers, ridges and valleys, and bands of colors, sandwiched like the stratum where peanut butter and jelly meet. The view tumbles like layers of life, and it seems, if I look hard enough, I can see the whole of my personal span in these rocks.
World class sunset in the Valley of Fire last night. Where is this place? Nevada. I’m taking an epic road trip through this great state this week. #travelnevada #dontfencemein #RBquests #NevadaCadabra
A photo posted by Didrik Johnck (@deetrak) on Dec 5, 2015 at 6:46am PST
Then, beneath the scarp of purple nightfall, we’re off up the Great Basin Highway, running through a watershed named by explorer John C. Frémont in the mid-1800s. The region comprises not one but at least 90 basins, or valleys, and its rivers all flow inland—not to any ocean. If you are running water, you can check in, but you can never leave. Livin’ it up in the Hotel Nevada.
Under a stanza of stars, seemingly amplified by the high desert air, we find our way to a set of cabins on a ridge under a windmill outside of a former horse thief resting station called Alamo. Even with a bakery featuring generously-sized homemade pastries, it does seem like a last stand.
The day next, beneath a beckoning blue sky, we probe up the road, with a speed limit of Warp 7, to the intersection with State Route 375, which in 1996 was renamed the “Extraterrestrial Highway,” for the many UFO sightings along this naked stretch of road. The highway is adjacent to Area 51, the super-secret Air Force test facility, whose existence the U.S. Government didn’t even officially acknowledge until recently, and which many believe is holding a ménage of little green intergalactic pilots and their downed spacecraft.
There is a single shop at the intersection, ET Fresh Jerky, with a large sign out front “DROP YOUR TOXIC WASTE IN THE CLEANEST RESTROOMS IN AREA 51. FREE SAMPLES.” Who could resist? We park, and walk in. Aliens do have the power of mind control.
Inside I meet manager Dixie Scabro. She’s quite friendly, happily ringing up my purchases, but none too chatty. I ask if there might be any relationship between alien cattle mutilations and this jerky outlet. She shakes her head no. I probe some more, asking about Area 51, just beyond her doorstep, but she just clams up. What secrets is she hiding? She won’t tell. Instead, she directs me to the Alien Research Center, just down the road. “But, it’s never open,” she warns.
So, we head down the ET Highway to a giant metal statue of a goofy-eyed alien standing in front of a Quonset hut (I was born in a Quonset hut, adding to the mystery). It turns out it is indeed open, and so we venture inside to a galaxy of Martian t-shirts, X-Files posters, space gimcracks, UFO tchotchkes and an empty bottle of Alien Tequila. Someone, it seems, drank the research before we showed up.
Back on our telluric adventure we weave through a landscape that looks as though left in the sun too long. We stop at Caliente, named for the hot springs in a cave at the base of the surrounding mountains.
It was once the center of a railroad war, as it is the half-way point between Salt Lake and Los Angeles and rival barons wanted to own the tracks. When steam engines were replaced by diesel locomotives in the 1940’s, the division point moved to Las Vegas. Now Caliente seems the backside of an idea, more wish than reality, a semi-ghost town with about 1000 residents.
Here we meet Mayor Stana Hurlburt, whose office is in the old Spanish mission style railroad depot. She shares she is hoping to reinvigorate the town by turning it into a mountain biking mecca, similar to Moab.
It has the terrain, to be sure, and no crowds or spandex, yet. She may be on the right track.
We round out the day visiting Cathedral Gorge State Park, a long, narrow valley where erosion has carved stagy spires and basilicas in the soft bentonite clay. It looks like the maria of the moon.
Ranger Dawn Andone takes us on a hike through earth’s artistry, into twisting slot canyons, around church-like steeples, beneath buff-colored cliffs, and by the fluted hoodoos carved from remnants of a great freshwater lake millions of years old. “How did all this happen?” I ask. “Sedimentary, my dear Richard,” explains Dawn.
Under the dark clock of night we make our way another six miles up the road to Pioche, once the baddest town in the West, badder than Tombstone, Deadwood or Dodge City. In its heyday as a silver mining center it had 10,000 residents, 100 bars, and 100 whore houses. Now it’s another living ghost town, and we take the night at the only accommodations around, the old haunted Overland Hotel & Saloon.
We break the seal of night with a home-style breakfast at The Silver Café across the street. Then, we hook up with local historian and amateur gunfighter Jim Kelly who offers to show us the Boot Hill Cemetery, where, in its boom years, 72 people died of lead poisoning, croaked with their boots on, before anyone died of natural causes.In 1873, the Nevada State Mineralogist reported to the State Legislature “About one-half of the community are thieves, scoundrels and murderers.”
Alongside Murder’s Row, a section in the cemetery with markers for over 100 murderers, Jim hands me a six-shooter, and challenges me to a gunfight. Somehow, I win, and he crumples like a kicked tent down onto the grave of his great grandfather, shot down by local rival.
Back at the long cherry wood bar, both staff and guests alike talk about their encounters with ghosts, including bartender/maid Stephanie Haluzac, who speaks about the many spirits she’s faced over the years. Once she was in the laundry room folding a towel when a heavy glass ashtray came flying across the room. She gave up smoking then and there.
Next we hare past fields of alfalfa and through a couple of state parks centered around man-made reservoirs, Echo Canyon and Spring Valley, both of which might be designated Ghost Parks this time of year. Almost like a Twilight Zone episode, or The Rapture, every human seems to have been plucked from the landscape, though all the facilities…bathrooms, picnic tables, campgrounds, boat launches, information signs, a stamp machine for the state park passports…are perfectly presented, waiting for a dinner party. It’s nice having these resplendent parks to ourselves, and we take some short hikes, skip some rocks, take some pictures, and then start driving north.
Looking at the map, it seems there might be a shortcut over the Mount Wilson Byway Road. It’s a gravel road, almost entirely through BLM land, that crooks through a volcanic caldera overgrown with pinyons, junipers, and, as we climb higher, snow. This is a stunning drive, past high peaks, around councils of aspens, ponderosa pines, and the exquisite non-existence of right-angled civilization. Even in our GMC Yukon, in four-wheel-drive, we skid and swerve in the ice and snow, sliding sometimes like a fried egg on Teflon, but finally crest the snow-covered pass at 8,900’, looking over to the great girth of original country, and beyond to a sere horizon.
See Richard’s Guide to road tripping in Nevada here.