Archive for the ‘Nevada’ Category

Days 200-205/ Sep 22nd-27th – Winnemucca, NV to Fernley, NV: Just deserts

September 27, 2010

‘It is death to every one of you… to travel a distance so great as that through a trackless desert.’ – William Sublette, 1842

‘This is, I think, one of the most detestable countries God ever made, to say nothing of its sterility and barrenness.’ – James Wilkins in the Nevada desert, August 20th 1849

‘Here indeed was a picture of misery… dead horses and oxen, in great numbers… and men, without a morsel to eat, were… offering all they had for a little dry bread.’ – John Clapp in the Forty-Mile Desert in Nevada, July 15th 1850

‘The desert!  You must see it and feel it on in a August day… to realise it in all its horrors.  But heaven save you from the experience.’ – Eleazar Ingalls, August 5th 1850

Track across the Nevada desert

Sally on the dustiest track in America

It was the third dead cow that really gave us pause.  We followed a faint track through the sagebrush beside the Southern Pacific railway line for most of a hot, dusty day, kicking balls of dry tumbleweed out of our way.  The first cow carcass we passed was still bloated and fly-blown; the next one a sunken, shrivelled skin; the last a bare, bleached skeleton.  Everything that grew along the track was viciously thorny and seemed to want to scratch or prick us, especially the tiny, mace-like burrs that attached themselves to our socks and calves and detached sharp spikes into our fingers, like cluster bombs deploying.  It was fiercely hot, as it had been all week, and we had no signal on our phone.  This would be a poor place, we reflected, to break an ankle.

Cow skeleton in Nevada desert

America's worst rib restaurant

We had stiffened our resolve and set out into the desert after a day off in Winnemucca, a small town that was equal parts interstate stop, mining boomtown, casino strip and brothel district, and not without a certain rough charm.  Many of the Chinese labourers who worked on the Central Pacific Railroad subsequently settled here.  They were visited in 1911by Sun Yat-Sen, just before he became president of the new Chinese republic, surely the only Chinese premier ever to visit Nevada (with the exception, of course, of Chairman Mao’s infamous ‘lost weekend’ with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin at the Sands in Las Vegas  in 1964).

Casino mural in Winnemucca, Nevada

Casino mural in Winnemucca

For three days we followed ranch-tracks across the scrub, setting off at dawn in near-freezing temperatures, and enjoying a single hour of equable temperatures between nine o’clock, when we took off our woollen hats, and ten, when we put on our sun-hats.  The tracks often degenerated into dust, several inches thick, as fine and yielding as flour, which we sank down into up to our ankles.  It seemed impossible that they didn’t simply blow away.

For three days we didn’t see a car, or, for that matter, a human being, though we weren’t alone: just after dawn one morning, a herd of nine antelope clattered slowly across the road just thirty yards ahead of us, close enough for us to see the steam rising off their backs.  Later on, we walked through a herd of Holstein cows, which considered us gravely for a full minute before deciding that their best course of action was a full-blown, panicked stampede.  And just outside Mill City, we came over a gentle rise to find a pale, silvery snake, perhaps two feet long, curled up in the middle of the road.  It reared and struck at my poles, and after a Mexican stand-off lasting a full minute, flowed away into the undergrowth and vanished.

Snake in the Nevada desert

Snake is 1/100th actual size

For most of our route through Nevada we had been following the course of the Humboldt River, which rises in lush pastures near Wells and winds for 300 miles across the north of the state.  The first European to see it was Peter Ogden in 1828, who named it ‘Unknown River’.  Unsurprisingly, this name didn’t stick, and the Humboldt was known as ‘Paul’s River’, ‘Mary’s River’, ‘Swampy River’ and even ‘Ogden’s River’ before in 1848 the great explorer John Fremont named it, rather quixotically, after a German naturalist who had never even set foot in the American West.  Barely known even in America, the Humboldt provided a viable route for some of the hardest stages of the California Trail, the transcontinental railroad and, more recently, I-80.

Truth to tell, though, it was decidedly unimpressive to look at, meandering in a shallow channel across the gravelly plain, and occasionally crossing beneath the road in a sluggish trickle that we could easily have waded across without getting our knees wet.  Just beyond Lovelock, it finally gave up the unequal struggle against the desert and expired in a featureless, salty pan called the Humboldt Sink.

Moonset in the Nevada desert

Moonset in the desert

Lovelock lay at the edge of the Big Meadows, a near-miraculous oasis of canals, horse-ranches and hay-fields, where the early emigrants would stop to rest and water themselves and their animals before tackling the horrors of the Forty-Mile Desert.  Despite its efforts to promote the ‘Lover’s Lock Plaza’, where couples are encouraged to buy and affix padlocks proclaiming their love, the town is more infamous today as the involuntary residence of O. J. Simpson, serving a 33-year sentence at the local prison.

Two Stiffs Gasoline in Lovelock, Nevada

Two Stiffs Gasoline in Lovelock

A historical marker beside exit 83 of the interstate described the Forty-Mile Desert as ‘a barren stretch of waterless alkali wasteland… the single most dreaded section of the entire California Trail.’  Not much has changed in the last 150 years.  Our usual strategy for interstate walking on hot days is to rest underneath exit bridges, but here there was only a single one along a thirty-mile stretch of otherwise utterly shadeless road.  The driver of a breakdown truck attending to a pick-up on the shoulder looked at us dubiously as we walked past him.

“You guys got enough water?  It’s a long way into town.  Gonna be about 96 today.”

Big Meadows haystacks near Lovelock

Haystacks in Big Meadows

We passed the 3,000-mile mark on our walk in the middle of a salty plain, reeking both of the sulphur hissing from geothermal vents in the ground and the outflow from the vents of the Olam onion processing plant.  We sweated out liquid as fast as we could drink it, and, under a pale white sky pouring out heat, apparently in sympathy with the early pioneers, our camera expired.

We were visited often by the ever-friendly highway patrol.

“I’m just checkin’ you’re here because you wanna be, not because you hafta be,” said one officer.

Walking on the interstate in Nevada

The scale of America can make you feel very small

A few hours later, we were stopped again by Officer Harrison, a strikingly pretty young blonde.  Halfway through our conversation, her radio crackled, and she shot us an apologetic look and drove off at speed down I-80, sirens blaring.  A mile down the road, we found out why.  A crushed, dusty little car was lying on the slip-road that ran under the interstate near a rest stop, surrounded by a small circle of police cars and an ambulance.  On the road next to the car was a pale blue sheet covering a body.  Another body was being lifted into one of the ambulances on a stretcher, and a young woman was lying behind the back wheels, a knot of paramedics crouched over her.

A retired couple from Idaho, standing next to their RV, had seen it all.

 “She come off there really fast, I guess,” said the woman.  “It just went end over end.  You can’t imagine the dirt.  The one girl died, and I think there’s two others.”

Her husband came over, evidently badly shaken by what he’d seen.

“She died.  I was tryin’ to keep her alive.  It were horrible.  I seen ‘em flyin’ out the winders.  I din’t know if it were luggage or people or what flyin’ out.”

Even after 3,000 miles walked in their wake, the relatively short distance across the Forty-Mile Desert had given us a renewed respect for the toughness of the early westward emigrants.  In 1850, when the California Trail was barely five years old, a survey found no fewer than 953 graves along this stretch of the route.  It was then, as it still is now, a very easy place to die.


Days 194-199/ Sep 16th-21st – Elko, NV to Winnemucca, NV: A scorpion in the slot machine

September 21, 2010

‘Nevada attracts people who have trouble fitting in anywhere else, and… the ones who have trouble fitting in in Nevada go to small towns like Battle Mountain.’ – Lorrie Baumann, editor, Battle Mountain Bugle

The desert outside Winnemucca, Nevada

The Nevada desert just outside Winnemucca

Long before you ever see the small towns of northern Nevada, you can tell where they are from the single white letters, a hundred feet high, painted onto the beige mountains that rear up above them.  As we walked across the desert collecting a full Scrabble rack of them – ‘E’ for Elko, ‘C’ for Carlin, ‘BM’ for Battle Mountain, ‘W’ for Winnemucca – it occurred to us that as well as expressing civic pride, the letters perform the useful function of helping visitors tell the towns apart.

Inez's brothel in Elko

Dancing and diddling at Inez's brothel

Most of them share a hard, utilitarian architecture, with all the charm of a remote Arctic research station (there are entire towns with, as far as we could tell, no stairs).  They share a similar history, too, getting their start with the construction of the Central Pacific railroad across Nevada in 1868, and relying since then on a combination of mining, ranching, casinos and brothels for survival.

And most of them seemed to be having a pretty good recession.  Elko, in particular, was a cheerful, bustling place, thronged on the evening we arrived with visitors to a hotrod convention and drunken revellers, all sporting glowing wristbands, leaving a music festival in the main square.  Tucked into a curl of the Ruby Mountains, it’s about as handsome as towns in northern Nevada get, and, halfway between Salt Lake City and Reno, it’s a popular interstate stop for truckers and long-distance drivers.

Pipeline workers at the Star in Elko, Nevada

Miners and pipeliners at The Star in Elko

But Elko’s current affluence isn’t down to truck-stops or music festivals.  Just west of town is one of the world’s largest gold-mining regions, the Carlin Trend, which to date has produced a scarcely comprehensible 2,000 tons of gold.  And as a map in the excellent Northeast Nevada Museum made clear, more or less every metal in the periodic table was mined in the hills surrounding Elko.  If you should ever go down to the shed and discover that you’ve run out of molybdenum, this is the place to come.

“The average wage for a mine job is $62,000,” explained Ted, a burly photographer on the local paper.  “Having them here really jacks the prices up.  But it’s hellish dangerous, especially down in the pit.  These young kids who go into mining usually only stick it for half a year.”

Nevada desert near Carlin, Nevada

The sagebrush and the mountains near Carlin

We met Ted during an interview about our walk with the Elko Daily Free Press, which led to another with a local radio station, KWNA in Winnemucca (‘Richard Ambrose and Sally Gould are joinin’ us; they’re walkin’ across America – and they’re almost there!’).  Together, they gave us a small measure of northern Nevadan notoriety.  Near Carlin, Mike, a contractor in Carhartt dungarees, pulled over in his pick-up to wish us well.

“I saw you guys in Salt Lake!  Like a week ago.  Then I passed you in Wells.  I saw you in the paper.  And here you are now!  I can’t believe it.”

And on the interstate twenty miles outside Battle Mountain, Rebecca, a young lawyer for a mining company in Elko, pulled over and ran along the shoulder to catch up with us.

“I know you’re gonna be walking through Reno,” she panted, “so I wanted to give you some restaurant recommendations.”

I-80 near Battle Mountain, Nevada

Unfortunately, this is a very typical stretch of Nevada interstate

We weren’t expecting much from Battle Mountain, and it didn’t disappoint.  Almost a decade ago, the town achieved national infamy when the Washington Post declared it ‘The Armpit of America’, and while we had no quarrel with its essential conclusion, we took a perverse pride in noting that we’d walked through at least two places – Wells and Wamsutter – that were much worse.  The town came into view from fifteen miles away, a hazy line of dark trees and pale water-towers, and we walked towards it along a desert service road for most of an irksomely hot day.  A billboard for the El Aguila Real Mexican restaurant promised ‘The Best Seafood in Town’, which seemed a flimsy boast given that we were at least 500 miles from the nearest body of water.

Battle Mountain was an unprepossessing place, a grid of prefab bungalows and trailers on the edge of a thousand square miles of brushy scrub, but, like Elko, it had dodged the economic angel of death that had passed over Nevada thanks to a gold-mining boom.  The motels were full, and so too, presumably, was Donna’s Ranch, a licensed brothel (‘Branches in Wells and Battle Mountain’) across the tracks at the edge of town.  The noticeboard outside the Owl Club Casino was crowded with eye-catching ads for local businesses: ‘Troy’s Tractor Service – Can Do Any Job You Need Done: Brush, Hog-Mowing of Sagebrush, Greasewood’ and ‘Horseshoer, 26 Years Experience – Now Accepting New Clients’.

“Are you guys the London walkers?” asked a Paiute woman, shyly, while we were perusing the board.  “I was stationed at Lakenheath for two years.”

The Humboldt River in Carlin Canyon, Nevada

The Humboldt River in Carlin Canyon

Everyone we spoke to in northern Nevada was unanimous about why they loved living there.

“The wide open spaces,” said Ross, a faraway look in his eyes.  “I can drive my truck eight hours north on a little two-rut road and not see anyone else.”

He wasn’t kidding.  We walked for days between towns on desert roads and tracks empty save for panicked, sprinting jack-rabbits and the occasional dry carcass of a dead coyote.  The stretch of I-80 through Eureka County carried signs announcing ‘Patrolled by Aircraft’, suggesting that the police on the ground had recognised the futility of patrolling somewhere so utterly remote.  There were no people in sight, but from time to time we could hear the pop and clack of gunfire echoing across the sagebrush and knew that there must be hunters nearby.

The isolation sometimes got to the local citizenry: during the 1870s in Palisade, a long-abandoned railroad town, the inhabitants used to perpetrate an elaborate hoax, apparently out of sheer boredom, staging city-wide gun-fights and bank robberies whenever a train arrived to persuade new arrivals that they had arrived in a town in a state of anarchy.

Nevada passports notice in Battle Mountain

Although probably not to illegal immigrants

A mock battle would have been a welcome distraction during the ten lonely, windy miles along a gravel track into Valmy, a village of trailers off the interstate.  A mile before we reached it, a fading sign in a field enumerated its charms: ‘Deli – Grill – Cafe – Bar – Ice – ATM – Groceries – Cold Beer – Laundromat – US Post Office – Slots – Fax’.  In the petrol station, the young girl behind the counter was emptying a slot machine of quarters when she jumped back in sudden alarm.

“Holy shit!” she exclaimed.

“What is it?” I asked.  “A mouse?”

“No,” she said.  “A scorpion.”  And she pointed to a tiny, yellowish, translucent creature, before sending it down the sink with a well-aimed blast from the washer hose.  “Darn ’em.  They’re always tryin’ ta find a cool place to rest.”

Elko Daily Free Press front cover

World-famous in Elko

Days 187-193/ Sep 9th-15th – Wendover, UT to Elko, NV: A tale of two cities

September 15, 2010

‘It would be difficult to conceive of a more remote and cheerless state than Nevada.’ – Bill Bryson, The Lost Continent

The Ruby Mountains near Elko, Nevada

Nevada. Magnificent. Who knew?

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.  In Wendover, Utah, it was mostly the worst of times.  A single street of cheap, empty motels and faded pastel trailers, it resembled a hundred other struggling small towns we’d seen in the West.  But Wendover lay directly on the border with Nevada, and though the state line was marked by nothing more than a flaking white stripe of paint across the road, it was impossible to miss the moment we stepped into West Wendover, its sister city.  All of eighteen inches into Nevada, the biscuit-coloured towers of the Wendover Nugget and the sleek neon ziggurat of the Montego Bay Casino rose over the twin towns, announcing that we’d left behind the world of Mormon moderation and entered a state of sin.

Inside the Montego Bay Casino in West Wendover, Nevada

The subtly understated interior of the Montego Bay Casino

On the morning we arrived, KENV News in Elko reported that 1 in 7 Nevadans were without a job – the worst unemployment rate in the country.  But that statistic conceals a sharp divide in the state.  The small towns in the north are enjoying a mining boom (almost 10% of the world’s gold comes from Nevada), while the gambling metropolises of Vegas and Reno further south are re-adjusting to an America that can no longer afford to drop a thousand dollars on hedonistic weekends on the Strip.

The Utah-Nevada border in Wendover

Stepping into a different world in Wendover

It’s scant consolation to its modern residents that Nevada was once a byword for wealth, a territory whose silver financed the Union side in the Civil War, and which was fast-tracked to statehood in 1864 by a Republican Party keen to use its votes to re-elect Lincoln.  After the Depression and the decline of the mining industry, Nevada hit on an ingenious strategy to revive its flagging fortunes, systematically introducing laws to permit behaviour forbidden in California – gambling, easy divorce, 24-hour drinking, prostitution – with the aim of luring a new wave of emigrants, this time from the west.

Or tourists, from the north.  Fleets of charter coaches were disgorging pasty Idaho pensioners into the Nugget and the Montego Bay in West Wendover, where oxygen cylinders jostled for space with mobility scooters under the neon-lit mirrored ceilings inside.  It may not have been everyone’s idea of the best of times, but it was good enough that Wendover, the poor relation across the border in Utah, had voted in 2002 to separate from its own state and merge with its brother in Nevada.  The proposal was eventually vetoed by Nevada senators, worried that Wendover might build its own casinos to compete with the ones already here.

West Wendover, Nevada

Bidding farewell to West Wendover

The stretch of I-80 west of the Wendovers was as pleasant as interstate walking can be.  There was a wide shoulder, traffic so scant that often a full minute elapsed between cars, and sweeping views across the bushy bowls of sagebrush over which the road rose and fell.  We entered the Pacific Time Zone just below Pilot Peak, Nevada’s answer to Mount Fuji, Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Doom, a 10,000-foot snow-dusted cone with trailing wisps of cloud tugging at its summit.  It had been a key landmark for the Donner Party as they crossed the desert on their ill-fated journey west in 1846, and so it was for us, dominating our views north for two full days of walking.

Pilot Peak in Nevada from I-80

Few cars + great views = pleasant interstate walking

Although we’d already crossed Nebraska and Wyoming, the scale of Nevada was still capable of taking us by surprise.  For the next four days, we walked across Elko County, a patch of arid scrub larger than Switzerland.  At an interstate exit at the top of the pass over the Pequop Mountains, a faintly threatening sign declared ‘Next Rest Area: 114 Miles’.  Mercifully, it was grand country to walk in.  The interstate twisted down through narrow canyons before climbing again to the next pass, and as we approached the town of Elko, it ran alongside the snowy peaks of the Ruby Mountains.  In the mornings, we inhaled lungfuls of cold sagebrush-scented air, which reminded us that autumn was on the way. 

Ghost town near Oasis, Nevada
A ghost town near Oasis, Nevada

The grandeur ended abruptly at Wells.  Bill Bryson had described it in his tour of small-town America as ‘the sorriest, seediest, most raggedy-assed town I’ve ever seen’.  He wasn’t wrong (though he had clearly never been to Wamsutter, Wyoming).  It was the most obviously dying town we had seen on the whole of our walk, an over-sized truck-stop spread across a vast patch of brushy waste ground spotted with decrepit liquor stores, diners and motels.

McDonald's sign by the Ruby Mountains, Nevada

Burgers, gas and gambling. Who cares about the view?

Sixth Street was lined with independent motels – the Shellcrest, the Sage, the Crossroads, El Rancho – whose perky signs proclaimed the optimism of the Fifties and Sixties.  But today it was hard to tell which ones were closed and which were still in business.  A turf war between the neighbouring Sharon and Lone Star Motels – both offering rooms for $33.99 a night – had netted precisely four customers between them.  At the Big Pillar Motel, half of the roof had collapsed, and sagebrush, which surrounded Wells like a patient army, had already begun to invade the yard.

Storefront and trailers in Wells, Nevada

An unusual business model in a shop in Wells, Nevada

If there was any town that really didn’t need to be hit by a severe earthquake, Wells was it, but it had been, only two years ago.  It had done for the El Rancho, whose roof was covered by a mournful black plastic sheet, and for the Ranch House Casino, where half of the enormous plastic orange letters from the sign above its entrance lay shattered on the concrete of its forecourt.

But even without the quake, the decline of Wells was apparent wherever we looked.  There was hardly a building that appeared to have been constructed after the Seventies, and roughly every other house in town had been boarded up and abandoned.  The nicest part of Wells was its cemetery, a pleasant sward of lush lawn well away from the squalor of the town, overlooked by the snowy ridges of the Rubies.  It was, perhaps, the only place in America where death would take you to the top of the property ladder.