Basin, Range, Repeat

A 1986 article in Life Magazine did a smear job on Nevada, branding US-50 the loneliest road on America.

“We warn all motorists not to drive there unless they’re confident of their survival skills.”

So the State of Nevada turned it into a brand to promote tourism. Official road signs celebrate the recent 30-year anniversary (you can tell they’re new signs because they have fewer bullet holes), and you can get a passport book to be stamped at a number of bars and historical sites along the way to show you “survived” it. The road’s not as lonely as it once was, but there’s no doubt that when you’re on US-50 in Nevada, you’re out there.

I survived the Lonliest Road.

The Land

Nevada has a scale and a rythm that aren’t quite human. There are some 100 or so mountain ranges within its borders, mostly oriented north-south for maximal barrier to east-west travel. Draped over all of this is a blanket of sagebrush and dry dirt so vast that taut basins 20 miles wide seem to hang between the ridges. Geologists (and interpretive signs) say that the Earth’s crust is being pulled apart here, so think stretch marks of the continental variety.

A dozen or so high altitude mountain passes combined with desert conditions, almost no surface water, and a rarefied population makes Nevada’s Great Basin a cruel last test for anybody heading west to California. I just did it on a bicycle, and I still have trouble imagining the agony of crossing in a covered wagon before roads and those still-too-rare convenience stores.

The Experience

Few of my pictures could capture the feeling of the space here because everything is either very close or very far away, and there are no natural visual cues to help you understand the difference. In the photo above, I used powerlines to attempt that connection; withouth them, it’d be a completely flat scene, right? The same effect that frustrates the camera frustrates the eye.

Why am I not there yet?!, I said, multiple times a day. After the steep descent from one summit, the next ridge is 15-20 miles away but also seemingly immediately in your face. Despite the illusion, physics doesn’t change, and it’ll still take you well over an hour of hard work to get there at 13 mph.

Plenty of times in the basins, I would start to worry about my energy level because I would notice it was unusually difficult to peddle during the “flat” part. It would take looking at the slope of the road behind me to verify that I was actually climbing. Take a look at the next photo. It may look like the clouds are crooked, but it’s the horizon and the frame; there I had been peddling uphill for some time. 

These are things you’ll encounter on a bike that you’ll never see with an engine. And it matters too. On a bike, Nevada is both a slow-moving funhouse for your perceptions and a hostile desert. Most of the time, it feels like you’re working hard but not moving at all, while you must always be conscious that anytime you’re away from a water source, you’re on a clock to get to the next one. It’s days like that: that rhythm, flowing smoothly from descents to climbs, with something indefinable inbetween, always feeling pressure to move faster, always climbing nearly a mile between remote towns. Nevada is a true test of the theory that if you keep moving, eventually you’ll get there.

Also, there really is pretty much nobody here. Of course I had mixed success with my first very long gap in services in Utah, and I knew Nevada would be nothing but long gaps. The first one was 83 miles from Milford, UT to Baker, NV. I started on the road at 6am to beat the heat and to also give myself a strong head start in my then-daily race with thunderstorms. I juuust made it before the rain and lightening reached Baker about 5 minutes behind me. For the 20 miles that I was chased by one cloud (photo below), I swear I set a land-speed record. (I know that sounds dangerous, and I’m sure it was, but it’s also the nature of the weather there. You’ve gotta play by the rules of where you are.)

The next gaps in service were 60, 75, 70, 60, and 50 miles. So for a cyclist, US-50 is something like a conveyor belt; everyone has to make the same stops in the same order (Austin, NV below). I didn’t see any other cyclists, but I’m told that it’s common, and everyone in the little towns that service the road has stories.

The People

And once again, there are some shining examples of beautifully kind people. On my third day, I was climbing one of those 1,500-ft hills when I noticed a pickup truck/camper that had passed me was waiting at a pull-off, seemingly for me. My first reaction was to be alert but to look focused (standard urban tactic), until I realized that the couple was trying to give me something. Food! And cold Gatorade! Bobbi [sp?] and Mike were runners and cyclists themselves, and they said they always stop to give cyclists food when they see them. They were headed to Burning Man, and it was a great conversation.

Yesterday was my longest day and a personal record: 111 miles between towns in heat that climbed to 100°F by the afternoon. There was just one watering hole stop halfway through at the site of an old Pony Express station. I clearly belonged to the bicycle outside, so people were friendly with questions. One man a few tables away was particularly interesting and he gave me lots of great information on the history of the area. He has relatively old roots here; his great grandfather was one of the very first gripmen for the San Francisco cable car when it opened in 1906, and he’s a retired national park ranger who lives in Carson City, my stop later tonight. He offered to host me, and of course I’ll take him up on it. So I fully expext to learn a ton from Ranger Don about California and Nevada history soon!

Later in the afternoon, while I was still dozens of miles from the next town, an older man (also driving a pick-up truck) slowed down next to me and offered me water. I didn’t need any (see I learn!) but it was very kind indeed.

Finally, motorcyclists wave to me with encouragement frequently now, which is rad.

The Final Countdown

I’ve been so worried for the last weeks about being late to San Francisco that I’m in danger of arriving days too early. After today, I’ll be poised on the California border ready to cross Monday morning. I’ll only have 240 miles left, all downhill after one last giant climb over the Sierra Nevadas. I’m planning to arrive in SF on Saturday (details for my SF friends to follow), so I’m going to slow down and enjoy Lake Tahoe and visit family in Sacramento this week in preparation for reentry.

Nevada has afforded me a lot of time to think and to reflect on a huge journey nearly complete. I’ll save sharing my deeper thoughts here for a few more days, but it’s a wild concept that I’m almost done with something that I never fully internalized was possible to begin with. Let’s be honest—who could have? A gas station attendant in Austin, NV, is the first to ask where I came from and where I’m headed then respond simply with “Congratulations!” It hadn’t occured to me yet, but yeah, it’s time for the end of this, any and all profoundness to-be-comprehended later. 


So I just crossed southern Utah on a bike. Turns out it’s a lot harder than the Rockies.

In Colorado, I could afford a sort of blissful ignorance relative to my San Francisco deadline. The mountains and the altitude were all new to me, it was just the beginning of my alotted time to get from Denver to SF, and I expected there would be a learning curve anyway. Meanwhile I was conscious of several exit plans. If I ran out of time, I could skip most of Nevada by taking a Greyhound with my bike from Cedar City, UT to Reno, NV. If I attempted Nevada after all, and if I were to fall short, I could take Amtrak from Reno to SF. And finally, that solar eclipse was still nagging at me—it would have required trading Utah and Nevada for a huge skip via rental car from SW Colorado to Portland, OR, followed by a final bike ride to SF down the coast.

So many choices. Mostly, I was starting to feel agitated by the imminent end of my free time and also by the looming possibility that I could have trouble getting to SF on time. I was already having to write emails and take calls for soon-to-be-work while trying to climb those first Rocky mountains, so the reminders were sometimes daily. I started to frame my own question of how to spend my remaining time by: “what will I regret least?,” which is never a good position to be in. Then thankfully the cost of getting me and my bike from Durango to Portland doubled over night and made my decision for me. I felt more content with Plan A, and I kept heading west into the desert. So no avoiding it: I’d have to face my fears of days extreme heat and little access to water (achem, see: Kansas, achem).

Utah is an order of magnitude more difficult than Kansas ever was. The map segment through Utah earned a disclaimer that never appeared on the map for Colorado:

“This section of the Western Express Route is considered very difficult due not only to terrain (grades of 6% to 14% in Utah), but also due to lack of water, temperature extremes, and long mileage without services… Utah is extremely dry and most of the route has only rocks for shade.”

Yes. All of that.

The first day, between Dolores, CO and Verdure, UT, was uneventful. Boring even, like simple intersticial space separating two very different worlds. At a diner in Monticello (Mon-ti-SELL-oh), a woman at the next table over asked me where I was riding. “San Francisco.” “Oh, did you start in Boston?” Me, shocked, “yes…” “Oh I just read about you in the paper!” “Uh, oh, I hope not! I swear I didn’t do anything wrong!” It turns out it was some other guy entirely, doing the same thing. I’m sure neither of us is even the ten-thousandth person with that itinerary, but it made me smile.

The next day was the scariest. The Adventure Cycling Association maps do a good job telling you where there are large gaps in services. The first section in Utah had an 80-mile gap (with about a mile of climb) immediately followed by a 50-mile gap, punctuated by a single convenience store on the edge of Lake Powell that was supposed to close at 6pm. I had reason to doubt that even that was correct, and they didn’t answer their phone to help me feel more comfortable trusting my life to their operating hours. So I carried as much as I could: enough food for two days in case the store was closed and 5 bottles of water. I planned to drink out of the lake if the store were closed.

I started as early as I could. I meant to hit the road at 7am, but it ended up being 8am because a family with a screaming baby moved into my campsite at 4am then took an hour to set up—I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt that they probably didn’t see my bike, but they didn’t apologize either. I had a slow-burning panic all day that that store wouldn’t be open when I got there. The manager of the campsite had also just told me: oh that marina hasn’t been open for years… I kept my pace as high as I could manage all day. But it was also very hot and I went through water faster than I had planned; I was rationing it 20 miles out. The landscape was among the most beautiful I’d seen on a bike. But parched. It’s exactly where Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner play in the cartoons, the kind of scenery that makes you thirsty when you imagine it.

The first water I saw was at the bottom of a canyon, and I tried to think of how I could get there, but nothing made sense. Then I realized that all of my thoughts were about some form of water. I was just starting to feel desperate when I saw the first sign for Lake Powell. I knew I would make it, but I was also realizing then that I was more dehydrated than I remember ever being before, which was scary. My back ached (not normal despite what I’ve put it through) and my head had been hurting for a while.

Then there was, of course, one last steep climb before that store was supposed to appear, and though I was also nearly out of energy, water first! Partway up the hill, I felt dizzy, then that I was imminently going to pass out. As a mental trick I learned to deal with my fear of needles, I fixated on something else that I decreed would solve the crisis. In this case, drinking most of the last few sips of water I had left. That worked, and I got to that store at 5:37pm. Closed.

…but actually there were still people inside and the door was unlocked. They now close at 5pm, they said, but they just happened to have a continuous flow of customers that day after closing time that prevented them from locking up, and I was the very last. They were very nice. I bought a ton of food and a couple gallons of water, all of which I consumed by the morning. I didn’t have to drink out of the lake after all, but I did go for a swim in lieu of a shower.

Lesson #1: 5 bottles of water isn’t enough so I’d have to figure out how to carry more. Lesson #2: dehydration can sneak up on you and become a big problem all-of-a-sudden, so be even more careful. Lesson #3: get up even earlier in the morning.

The next day I started by crossing the Colorado River, which was tragically dammed to create Lake Powell on the 60s. The last time I was there, I was under that same bridge, a wide-eyed eighteen-year-old headed to college, just ending a weeklong Outward Bound whitewater rafting trip as part of my Emrick-Cutler scholarship to Ohio University. We took the boats out of the water there (back when the marina was open), and I would have walked by that same store.

Later on the road I caught up with a cross-country cyclist who was also headed to SF. That’s just twice in 2,500 miles since Boston that I’ve found someone else going my way; the last one was in Erie, PA, but she was exhausted and didn’t share much. This guy’s story was much cooler than mine. He was at work one day in Maryland, and he saw a story about a guy who rolled his wheel chair across the country. He thought “I could do that,” put in his two-weeks notice that day, and left for the bike ride two weeks later. He said he hadn’t touched a bike in over a year before that and had never gone more than ten miles. I hope I see him again somewhere on US-50 in Nevada.

Okay, so then came Utah Route 12. WHOA. You might have been wondering why my route through Utah was so circuitous. It’s partly because that’s what the paved roads do and partly because that’s what the great roads do. Utah-12 must be in the Pantheon for cycling.

It started in Torrey, UT with a 3K-ft climb over Boulder Mountain with a breath-taking 4K-ft descent to a small town with good lunch. I honestly thought that was about it for the day; it was enough. I headed south out of that town and almost immediately found myself on a knife-edge with thousand-foot drops on both sides and no guard rails. Pictures could never represent this, but the best I could do is below.

It’s the closest thing to flight I’ve ever felt. Better, even, than the downhill on the Marin Headlands loop north of SF where I first fell in love with cycling. From the knife-edge, you drop into a canyon to gently follow a river like you arrived by glider. But then like anything, you have to pay for it by climbing out of the canyon with some heart-taxing steep grades.

Since then and for the last four days now, little thunderstorm cells have chased me every afternoon. Really, like they have been appearing out of nowhere behind me and they always want to be where I am, headed toward me at right about the maximum speed I can maintain. None has caught me yet, but I still really don’t appreciate the stress. Thunderstorms, like I mentioned before, are particularly dangerous to cyclists on wide territory like I have been, where [even] I am the tallest thing around. One big un-forecasted storm stranded me where I was eating lunch then lasted for 12 hours. I stayed in that little town that night, but it threw off my math to have such a short riding day. I didn’t want to burn the full day of slack in my schedule I had earned through extra miles over several days before, so the short day had to be compensated for with a century (100+ miles) the next day, my last full day in Utah and the day of the eclipse.

Lastly, I have to say something about the people here. I’ve been blown away by how genuinely kind everyone is. I was coal-rolled once in Utah, but that stands out as odd all the more because almost every other driver has given me plenty of space. Drivers and motorcyclists have waved at me for encouragement as often as a few times an hour. That happened maybe three times in Colorado and never before then. I was waved at in the Midwest and East Coast several times, but with just one finger.

I met a family of three at a rest stop one day who were visiting from New York. We chatted for a while, and the young son posed with me for a picture. They found me the next day too as I was climbing Boulder Mountain. I heard a car slow next to me and a voice say “I thought that was Colin!” If you’re reading this, you’re awesome. Thanks for the pick-me-up.

During the eclipse, I was preoccupied with riding as far as I could as fast as I could, having accepted that this year I couldn’t participate. At a fairly high speed, I was just about to pass a guy and his daughter, who had just parked on the side of the road where they found a break in the clouds, when the man reached out to me to offer his glasses. I screeched to a stop, and I got to see that crazy bite out of the sun myself too. Still the greatest thing about that was that a stranger on the side of the road saw me as another human and offered to share something amazing with me. It shouldn’t be exceptional but it is. After riding through most of this country, I’ve become used to being treated fairly consistently as a nuisance on the road, and here there were so many examples of people seeing me as just a guy… who happens to be on a bike.

It feels so good to have all these people, locals and fellow travelers alike, acknowledge me as a person, and usually as a person who is doing something admirable. Crazy too, probably, but admirable. I couldn’t possibly ask for more.

Utah: Challenging? The hardest so far. Worth it? Yes.

The Rockies

Oh Colorado. How truly amazing you are. This. This was the reward for all those bleak miles that came before.

On the second, 80-mile day of the Boston to Montreal ride way back in the Spring, there was a steep 600-foot hill that several people were worried about. I was one of them because I kept hearing about it, and at the time, I had never done even 50 miles two days in a row, so that big hill loomed in my thoughts all day even though it wasn’t unusual by Bay Area standards. It’s definitely still tough, but it only lasted ten to fifteen minutes. After it was over, I could only conclude that I’d rather not have known about it so that it would not have dominated my day with fear. The Rockies were a looming fear factor like this from well before I even started. “Yeah, but the Rockies” is a phrase I’ve heard a lot from people trying to empathise with my plans. My reaction was to look forward to the mountains all the more strongly because, yeah, the Rockies… but I knew I’d get through them eventually, and maybe it would hurt less if it’s pretty. I got that one right!

Nine days from Denver to Dolores, Colorado—528 miles and 34,766 feet climbed, and the Rockies are officially vanquished. I’m not sure how else to describe how hard parts of this were. Or how exhilarating. But I can say that my time here has been far and away the best of the trip. Whatever it is I came here for, I’m sure I got it.


Each day was priceless, so it seems to warrant a chronology …and cool graphs from my Ride with GPS app.

Aug 7: Front Range


My first big day back on the bike was hard! I needed to get to Pueblo to meet the Adventure Cycling Association’s Western Express route that would take me straight to my new home. So 120 miles south, skirting the mountains, right? Wrong. That first day alone rivals all of the other days in the Rockies in terms of distance and climb. The route was beautiful, but the weather was awful. With still 40 miles to go, the rain started, I got soaked, and the temperature dropped to 55°F. I shivered for hours as I peddled, and eventually I felt like I needed to vomit from being so tired of shivering. The last 25 miles were all on a gravel and dirt bike path that got muddy, then dark (ahh, bears!). I missed getting to Colorado Springs before sunset because I had to wait out some lightning in the afternoon. Then 10 miles before the hotel I had booked, my newly tuned-up brakes both all but gave out, though luckily just as I was passing the first crop of hotels I had seen into all day. Safety first: I had to book a second room for the night and stop. It’s a good thing this was the first day, before my tolerance for ridiculousness had a chance to start eroding with the miles.

Aug 8: Pueblo


In the morning, with a clearer head, I took a look at those brakes because I wouldn’t be going anywhere without ’em. The pads were indeed replaced as I had paid for, but the screws that clamp the cables to the brakes were both loose and the cables had slipped. Easily fixed. Good to know.

Also, lesson learned from the day before: don’t plan to need to go the usual 80 miles before getting used to the high altitude or during Colorado’s “monsoon season.” So I took it much easier this day. More rain and lightening, but I was less rushed, so I waited it out by finishing that last blog post. I got stuck in mud once on a bike path, and I had to drag my heavy bike through it for a quarter mile. Then I rode around through puddles for a while to clean off the bike.

Aug 9: Intro to the Rockies


Woo! The Front Range of the Rockies is intimidating when you approach it head-on. I stared at a mountain that towered 4K feet above me for thirty miles before I even got to the base. It was my first all-day climb. It’s brutal. I found myself questioning if it would ever end after just the first hour. Once you’re in the lowest gear, the only option is to work harder when it gets steeper. I found that playing music helps with long, hard climbs.

You get a lot less oxygen per breath as you go up, and it’s obvious when you’re exerting yourself. Somewhere on that first big hill, I gave up trying to ram that much air through my nose, and I’ve been a proud mouth-breather in the mountains ever since.

Aug 10: Approach to the Great Divide


I had my first long downhill, about a third of the way through the day. Otherwise I quite peacefully spent the day climbing on one side or the other of the Arkansas River. I stopped for a while in the town of Salida (Sah-LIE-da), which was hard to leave because I was just not feeling that big climb that was waiting for me after.

That night I stayed at a mountain lodge 5 miles short of the continental divide at about 10K feet above sea level. Just before I was about to turn left into the parking lot, a car passed me very closely. They were turning left too, and they were probably preparing to take that left by going slightly to the right first like many drivers do. As I pulled into the parking lot behind them, the driver stepped out and right away apologized for passing me so closely. I said thank you and that I appreciate that. It also, at the time, made me feel better that probably a good number of the close calls I’ve had weren’t intentional. The group checked in at the front desk ahead of me, and there was enough time that we started chatting. The gentleman, the driver, asked where I was headed, and then he told me all about each climb I would encounter. So of course it turns out that he’s a cyclist too. And the younger woman in the group, perhaps his daughter, lives in Boston.

I woke up constantly all night long gasping for breath. I get that I have to breathe more deeply here, but my sleeping self hadn’t gotten the memo yet.

The next morning I saw the same group at breakfast. The gentleman came over to sit with me for a while, and he introduce himself as Roger. He said he’s cycled many of the roads in Colorado but not all. He added that it’s rare to see someone cycling alone cross-country going the direction I was headed. I can imagine why! Then Roger gave me his phone number and offered that if I’m ever in any trouble in Colorado, I should call him and he’d come get me; he’s retired and he wouldn’t mind! So shout out to the amazing cyclist Roger. It made my day to talk with you.

Aug 11: Great Divide and Down the Other Side


I crossed the continental divide at Monarch Pass on US-50. At 11,312 feet, it’s one of the highest paved roads in the U.S. Great view too. And man that felt good to get there. At the top, I met several hikers who were also passing through going north or south along the Great Divide trail. I enjoyed talking to one older gentleman who has hiked 10K miles with his wife and dog over the past four years. He has diabetes, and he felt his body deteriorating, so, he thought, now’s the time! And his wife was up for it too.

The downhill from the Divide was epic. Too long, actually. My eyes were burning from the wind as if I had been cutting onions, despite wearing sunglasses. But fun! Just before I got to Gunnison, CO, I passed a group of three middle-aged guys who were clearly on their own cross-country trek going East. That’s always a thrill: “Other crazy people!” One shouted to me that I did a great job packing light 🙂

Aug 12: Black Canyon


The Black Canyon of the Gunnison has to be among the most impressive of the western canyons. It’s crazy deep and crazy narrow. From some parts of the rim, I remember from visiting with my parents in 2003, you can’t always see the river at the bottom because the tall walls undulate and seem almost to touch. I got to spend the day riding along side it, with a brief stop in the canyon at about the 50-mile mark. (You can tell when that happened in the graph above.) The rocks are a billion years old, likely older than multi-cellular life itself. The canyon is just 2 million years young.

At a gas station that hadn’t been updated in 50 years—creaking rusted signs blowing in the wind and all—I met two motorcyclists who thought what I was doing was awesome. It was awesome for me too because mostly the two kinds of bikers consider each other separate species. Not here!

Aug 13: Hot Springs!


I was looking forward to this for weeks. I made an appointment to stay at Orvis Hot Springs in Ridgway, Colorado as a kind of rest day. I started that morning in Montrose, Colorado, and I only had to go 30 miles and uphill about 1K feet. But one of my gear-shifting cables snapped. You can still ride a bike like that, but with the tension in the line gone, the derailleur reverts to the smallest (highest) gear. There was no way I could climb 10 feet like that without blowing out my knees. I was lucky I was in a town, but it was Sunday, so the two bike shops were closed. I really didn’t want to pay for that hot springs twice, so I had to get there. I found a replacement kit at Walmart, and, whelp, I figured it out. We definitely did not cover that part in the bike class I took. The tools I had with me are crude, but after about an hour in the Walmart parking lot cutting braided stainless steel wires with a rather blunt instrument, I made it work, or at least enough to get me to where I needed to go that day, and I got it professionally fixed at the next bike shop I found. That was my greatest bad-ass moment so far.

The same force that caused the Rockies to rise 70-or-so million years ago caused a magma chamber to rise below it, which has the effect of dotting the landscape with hot springs. I stayed , which is like a garden full of differently-heated ponds of water directly from the bowels of the earth. I got my first massage too, which was awesome. I met some nice people there too, some locals and some travelers like me trying new things. The handful of people who stay the night there have the hot springs to themselves all night. I had a giant hot spring-filled pond to myself for an hour under the starriest of skies.

Aug 14: “To-Hell-U-Ride”


Telluride is really beautiful. Dripping with money, really. There are gondolas that run all summer so you can take your mountain bike to the top of some of the ski runs and ride down, free from the pain of climbing and free of charge. I’m not sure how I feel about that from a purist standpoint, but if I could take a gondola wherever I wanted to go, I’m sure I would.

A bartender told me that a 24-year-old man was struck by lightening and killed by lighting while mountain biking near Lizzard Head pass the day before, which is of course where I was headed next. So I’m glad I’ve been sticking to the policy of waiting out lightening storms. It’s a reminder that the number of dangers are quite high.

Aug 15: Lizzard Head Pass


This was my last Rocky Mountain. Really nice day too. At the top I met a couple who were taking a break for lunch. The guy said he did his cross-country ride in ’84, but that he was carrying a lot more than I was. It was interesting to compare stories. I’m using a lot of tech on this trip: GPS, lightweight tent, probably a better bike, and it only makes me think how much harder any of this was just 10 years ago.

So with that, I’m off to Utah. Plenty more mountains to climb; they’re just not officially part of the Rockies.