Few places conjured as much dread for me as Nevada. It’s a big, dry, hot, rugged expanse of desert, which makes it a less than ideal place for cycling. Like Texas and Montana people talk about driving across like its a penance for all the things they have done or intend to do in California. Nevada could actually be the death of me.
Still Nevada has its proponents. Over the past year I’ve met a handful of people who have tried to sell me on the idea riding across it. One was a person that hosted me in rural Texas and told me that it would be the hardest ride he had ever done and that I wouldn’t be able to do it self-supported (He was talking specifically about US-50, but I’ll get back to that detail), but that it was a worthy challenge. Just recently I met two people in Mammoth Lakes that insisted it was a great place to ride. One, eyes bleached and skin tanned to leather, told a story of riding 163 miles with a single water bottle because his other had blown away or some such. He loved every moment of it, but he was a certified Nevada desert camel. I’m a wet-lander with skin full of life and water.
You don’t want to live forever do you? Good, point your bike East and bring your shades because Nevada is a-calling.
Final Day California
Why Do Hot Springs Attract Idiots?
The bike people we shared a campsite with in Tuolumne Meadows told us about hot springs just off of US-395 near Mammoth Lakes. The green church hot springs are well known to folks in Mammoth so we got some beta (Turn right, then left. Try not to get lost.) and decided to take an easy day and soak for a bit. I don’t have pictures that don’t include Megan so picture a small rock tub fed by a hose.
On our way out we met a pair of ladies that had stayed the night. One had been living in Whistler for a bit and told us an infuriating story about trying to feed the bears there. “I like to set little traps for them…honey and nuts” Megan and I were completely flabbergasted. Do you know the one thing that you are definitely not supposed to do to bears? Feed them. There are signs everywhere in bear country telling you not to feed the bears because a “fed bear is a dead bear”. It is impossible to be ignorant of how dangerous and stupid it is to feed bears unless you are hopelessly self-absorbed.
She did nothing to dispel the notion that people that frequent hot springs have no concept of backcountry ethics and leave-no-trace behavior. Don’t believe me? See this press release regarding the closure of the Umqua hot springs and neighboring campground we just visited near Crater Lake. In Nevada we found human waste a few feet from a natural hot spring. How people can be so negligent I may never know.
Abandon All Hope
…or What to Expect in the Great Basin
Would you believe I planned my route through Nevada back in late April? I sat in a coffee shop in Santa Fe relaxing and determining what the longest stretch without water would be. The answer: 110 miles, with contenders at 80 and 82 miles. There are places on this continent with more distance between services (I’m looking at you British Columbia and Alaska), typically you there is water to filter and its possible to carry two weeks of rice and lentils. There are few places that have less water than Nevada, and I wager you can’t carry more than a few days supply before it becomes prohibitively heavy. Death Valley may be worse than Nevada, but it’s a tourist draw so there’s water and people carrying water. In Nevada, not only is there no water but half the towns on the map aren’t more than intersections.
Then there are roads like NV-375 in Nevada. There is no reason to be on 375 unless you want to pass by Area-51 or you want to get from Yosemite to Zion without passing through Vegas. That’s it. There’s not even freight on this road because there is nothing to receive the packages at either end, just more sage brush. There are signs posted on these roads letting you know to check your gas because if you run out, you’re out of luck. I don’t care if you have Verizon, you’re not getting any cell service between towns out here. Yet people STILL run out of gas. As part of the planning process 5 months ago I verified with satellite imagery that yes Tonopah is a town, and no Basalt is not. It’s an intersection and maybe there’s a mine nearby. If you screw this up you’re a goner.
Nevada Day One: Coaldale and Tonopah
80 Miles Without Water
Our last night in California found Megan in great spirits because her bike fit solved all her problems. Meanwhile, I was exhausted and insisted that we stop early so I could gaze blankly at the sky and make my peace with the world before crossing into Nevada. In Benton, CA we found the perfect county park and cooked dinner as the sun set right behind Boundary Peak, the highest point in Nevada. Unfortunately the irrigation nearly tore a hole in our tent that night as it watered the nearby scrub pine and bleachers.
The following morning we filled up on water and tried our best to be excited about the desert. Following the climb to Montgomery pass we coasted for a very long time and marveled at the land that could likely become our graves. If that all seems, grim keep in mind I’m the one that needs to explain to Megan’s parents at her funeral why we thought riding across Nevada was a good idea.
A Note on Maps
You have probably noticed that I switched the style of maps from the usual default to satellite mode. I think it better illustrates the desolation of Nevada. For Reference, above is St. Geroge a city of 76,000 people adjacent to Zion National Park. It’s a little city with an urban core and all the amenities a modern American expects. Here is Basalt, a town we passed on my road map.
Now you understand why I started planning my trip across Nevada months in advance.
By lunch we made it to Coaldale, a ghost town marking the spot of a former coal mine. What’s there now? Graffiti and used tires.
At Coaldale sleepy US-6 merges with a US-95, major freight route. The shoulder disappears and people forget they have brakes or that cyclists are humans. For the next 40 miles we hung on for our dear lives as RVs pushed us off the road. Immediately before Tonopah is a rest stop with water and a view of giant solar power facility. What is there to recommend Tonopah itself? Gas and water. We crashed behind the senior center, dry and exhausted.
Days Two and Three: Tonopah to Rachel
110 Miles Without Water
At Tonopah most freight and tourist traffic turns south to Las Vegas, and only a few follow US-6 in the direction of Utah. Otherwise it’s just we two idiots on bikes and the locals because Tonopah is the last point on the map for at least 110 miles. That’s a lot of miles on a bike, and the terrain in this state follows a template. Coast downhill for 5 to 10 miles, ride 10 miles of flat dry lake bed, climb for 10 miles. Stare into infinity and guess at how many 10s of miles you have until you need to climb the next mountain. This far south in Nevada the mountains have lost their teeth and the grades aren’t bad, but you get worn down after crossing a few valleys.
Megan and I took a stretching break outside of Tonopah and documented the roadside flora.
I’m sorry if these photos appear a little bleached, but that’s the reality of life in Nevada.
As always, I’m exaggerating. These individual plants blend together and create a tapestry of pink and gold against a clear blue sky. There was certainly a lot of sun in Nevada, but I don’t think the temperature ever crossed 90. The wind was mostly calm. We considered ourselves pretty lucky on all accounts, a few more degrees and our water supplies may have run out before Rachel.
Perhaps it was Stockholm Syndrome setting in, but Megan and I started to enjoy riding across Nevada. It’s a vast empty expanse unrivaled by any place save West Texas. There aren’t many cars and the mountains and desolation are beautiful. Before the wind picks up you can hear a pin drop, so we could hold a conversation with each other about how it was nice out in the desert.
One of the places on the map between Tonopah and Rachel is a “site” named Warm Springs. What is it? A now defunct resort of some sort where hot water gushes down a hillside into a large man made pool. It’s like the best of both worlds: A wild hot spring, and a resort. It’s free and most visitors are dissuaded by a huge KEEP OUT sign. All the locals we met told us to go for it, and even though its on private property we were told the owners don’t care about visitors.
Unlike our time spent riding down the Pacific coast where we would stop every 5 minutes to look at things here in Nevada we grind out miles for hours. I enforce a regular stop for stretching about every 10 miles, otherwise we keep moving to get to our next water source. The first rule of desert riding is carry more water than you need, and the second is to start early to beat the heat and wind. So we got to Warm Springs relatively early and enjoyed ourselves.
Once we saw how beautiful the pool was we both got giddy and jumped in. And what of my theory that hot springs are a beacon for idiots? We found human waste a few feet from the pool and some toilet paper. I hate people. Though to be fair the surrounding property was used for cattle grazing so the e. coli levels in the water were probably through the roof before people ruined it.
A few weeks ago I shared our foraging strategy, jokingly with a muffin. On one of our last mornings in California another cyclists told us he had just been to Warm Springs 3 months ago, and had cached a beer and/or water behind the shed. Megan and I spent the intervening days wondering whether or not we would actually find anything.
The contents were warm and gross but we were on water rations and quaffed it greedily, along with the half liter of water we had found next to it in the same bush.
That night we skinny dipped in the pool and star gazed. Warm Springs is pretty much in the middle of nowhere so the Milky Way was visible from horizon to horizon. The closest light source is probably the Nellis Test Range, and that’s limited to times when they’re blowing things up. Then the gibbous moon rose, obliterated most of stars, and cast shadows. A man and his son showed up and discussed the controversy in Utah over National Monuments, which I found enlightening. On his way out he left us a lot of grape juice and a little bit of water. We set the tent up between cow paddies and hoped no one would care.
The following morning we woke refreshed from our warm e. coli bath and ate cold cereal and drank cold coffee. Our water levels and spirits were high and we started the next leg of our journey to Area 51.
Did I mention I intended all along to go to Area 51? The shortest path between Zion and Yosemite takes you through Rachel, a town famous for its proximity to the Area 51/the Groom Lake facility where our government keeps aliens. If you weren’t aware of that before you start down NV-375, don’t worry, they’ll you all about it on the way.
As we got within 20 miles of Rachel the wind picked up and the sun started to get far too strong so we planted our tent on the right of way and made lunch. Soon the desert silence was interrupted by the sound jet engines and we passed the time looking for fighter jets. Around here they fly low and loud. By the time we crested the last hill and saw Rachel we were both pretty saddle sore. And of course seeing a town out here is a lot different than back home, we still had a ways to go.
Little A’le’inn is a place I’ve always wanted to go. Why? Probably because it was in Independence Day, but also because it represents the exact kind of eccentric desert culture I’ve come to love. Here is an alien themed bar cobbled together in the middle of nowhere because it’s about as close as civilians can get to Area 51. That’s the draw, and a relatively huge number of people are willing to drive into the middle of the desert to get a beer.
One of the first people we saw had run out of gas driving to nowhere and was looking for a funnel to fill his engine. The next people we talked to had won a Subaru and bought us lunch because they liked our story. Once they left I thought I would treat us to an Alien Beer in time to watch the sun set.
And that’s when I realized I left my wallet at the gas station in Tonopah, 110 miles behind us.
Day Four: Rachel to Tonopah
110 Miles Without Water
The night we got to Rachel some Swiss people took pity on us and let us use the shower in the room they were renting at the inn. The next morning we got up and were determined to hitch out of town otherwise it would be a 4 day round trip. The problem with hitching to and from Rachel is that there is no one traveling to and from Rachel. The Swiss were leaving that morning and offered us a ride to Tonopah so we packed some essentials in a bag. Just before we committed to a one way trip with the Swiss the owner of the Inn insisted that she drive us the 220 mile round trip journey because she had business in town anyway. It was a great ride and we got to hear about all the small town problems that they deal with in the middle of the desert. I managed to retrieve my wallet from the Sheriff and we all ate at Burger King. It was refreshing to connect with other people for more than just a few minutes.
Day Five: Rachel to Caliente
84 Miles Without Water
Our final full day in Nevada was spent riding to Caliente. More Desert, but this time with clouds and the threat of rain. The terrain was familiar, but at one point we were surprised by a forest of Joshua Trees!
How Long Does This Road Go? Forever.
We stumbled upon the one place in the country where western and eastern Joshua Yrees coexist. The distinction between them was too subtle for me to appreciate but one type is bushy and the other is tree-like. That’s what the sign told me anyway.
The last climb into Caliente was particularly hard, owing to a brutal headwind. The sheriff found us making dinner and suggested we drop a tent in the dust. And that’s how we spent our last night in Nevada.
The clock tolls for me, and I must depart. We’re heading back into the desert soon, but surely nowhere so remote as Nevada. Unless we get to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon that is.
It’s so moist in Utah,