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. 

5 thoughts on “Basin, Range, Repeat

    • So far I’ve seen one rattle snake and one bear. But both were road kill. I’m SHOCKED that I got through two states’ worth of desert without a flat tire. And there were certainly times when that would have been particularly problematic. I had a camping adventure where the sprinklers came on in the middle of the night. That’s gotta count as a #facepalm event…


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