If I have to be alone, I
can think of no better place to be alone than in the desert. The desert
swallows up the lone traveler, yet allows him to exist in glorious, unbounded
isolation. I am glad the desert separates California from the rest of the
country ... if all one had to negotiate to get there was the New Jersey
Turnpike then the treasure of the Sierra would be less unique. Not that
negotiating the desert today is an onerous as it was for the traveler of
100 years ago. My humming BMW makes short work of the 320 miles across
Nevada in a manner that lets me truly enjoy the passage.
Some people hate the desert for its 'sameness'. Perhaps there is little variation, but there is much difference if you take the time to look at it - time which you are going to have to spend anyway in crossing. In the brilliant morning sun, the aroma of sage mixed with the pungency of a broken creosote bush. There were also scrub pines, various small cedar, and even an occasional oak. White wildflowers, like poppies, on the road's edge danced in the wind of my passing. Cactus of all shape and size vied, unmoving, for their position, crowded together in clusters amongst the wide open surface. And even the wild grasses, of which there were several obvious varieties, showed their Darwinian dedication to survival by seeking just the right nook or cranny. Passing by the sand bottom of a dry lake, I was amused and entertained to watch multiple dust devils form and dance together, then stray over the edge of their sand dance floor and collapse.
If you see your crossing of the desert as no more than a chore to be done, you are missing a subtlety of nature that is as deep as the visual 'imperceptibility' of the great canyons ... that is, you see them but they don't seem real. The desert feels real, but you almost don't see it.
Previously I have commented on the vastness of traveling in the west. If you have not been there, it is difficult to fathom. Consider the feeling of drifting down this long plain into a valley that will take nearly an hour to cross. It is 50 miles to the next ridge. You can look to the left for maybe 30 miles. You can look to the right for 40 miles or more. You can look around and see no manmade artifact other than the road you are on, and you are the only human in the space visible to you - a space not much smaller that the size of the entire state of Rhode Island! Then you crest the distant hill ... and enter another valley ... only larger.
"The desert, like a powerful
magnet, changes those who come within its field. Many travelers have felt
it to be an almost mystical experience; others, a challenge to their humanity,
to their very survivability. Some have found peace, some despair. Others
have created from inner resources monuments of literature, philosophy,
and religion. Perhaps the desert is no more than a magnifying lens, something
that enables man to write large whatever he truly is."
- William Polk and William Mares, 20th century American scholars
The first half of my crossing
went almost too fast. A planned gas stop in the dying-since-it-was-born
midpoint town of Austin was stretched into a longer rest while waiting
for the gasoline delivery tanker to unload. A walk around the town convinced
me that if those aliens, who so many people have claimed they encountered
in the desert, really did land in Nevada, our planet is listed on the intergalactic
travelers map as 'previously inhabited, now abandoned'. Abandoned, but
very well protected. As I prepared to leave, four Nevada Highway Patrol
cars pulled in to the restaurant next door for lunch. That's more police
presence than I have seen in the last dozen states, and this is nowhere
near an Interstate ... That tells me two things: lunchtime is a good time
to speed (if you are so inclined), and the Toiyabe Restaurant must have
pretty good food. On the other hand, it is the *only* restaurant for 116
miles to Fallon.
In an earlier segment I commented about the composition of the road. In much of the west, chip seal is the preferred material. It is roughly half inch round gravel which is poured over and pressed into a layer of tar-like oil sprayed on the road. Unlike asphalt which is more like putty, chip seal is less prone to cracking in the extreme changes of temperature - because it wasn't 'solid' to begin with. Chip seal has one significant deficiency, though. Because only the stickiness of the tar-oil is holding it in place, the gravel tends to dislodge in heavy friction areas, like where there are skidding tires - like on very sharp curves ... I turned off US 50 to take the old route through the Desatoya Mountains. It had a sharp right turn. The surface of the turn was darker than the road. My road survival training immediately kicked in and alerted me to slow down. That dark surface turned out (no pun) to be only tar with all the gravel peeled out. Going across it - even as I was prepared - my back wheel slid out and I had to abort the curve all the way to the other edge of the road to keep upright. Had I hit this unaware, I would have been very aware of hitting the ground in a hard lowside. Yes, some lessons need to be learned over and over: when the appearance of the road surface changes rapidly - caution!
Slightly east of the one-building
'town' of Salt Wells (the one building is the Salt Wells Cat House) a salt
lake bed lines both sides of the road. As pioneers did so many years ago,
modern travelers who felt more with the desert than just the heat against
their air conditioned windows have left their names in perpetuity. For
more than five miles along the roadside, rock words have been written in
dot-pixel letters with dark stones against the white salt sands. Most are
only a name, some are a salutation or an amorous proclamation, a few are
illegible symbolic cryptics. You can tell some started with great intention
- the first few letters have 30 or more stones, then as the words progress
the letters have fewer and fewer until the last are 4 or 5 stones tall.
Hot stones on a hot day tend to shorten creativity ... what looked like
a fun idea became a burning desire to finish as quickly as possible. (Of
course I would also notice ... why is it that everyone 'rock prints' in
a block sans serif arial font ?)
As the Sierra Nevada loom closer, a comfortable familiarity settles over me. These are the roads that make up the 'back yard' of my riding. Tomorrow I will savor the final tankful of passage that could have been squeezed out of today. The trip is coming to its end, as must all things, but the final day must not be rushed, for even a single day can be a journey of a lifetime.
FuelPlus 320 miles, 5:25 hours engine, 60 mph average
Ely US50 NV722 US50 Carson City
Sam Lepore, San Francisco