I crossed the state border early in the morning but already it was hot. It was hard to believe that just a few days ago I’d been cycling by 10ft of snow but if I looked back I could still see the Sierra Nevada’s white peaks. I wetted my bandana and wondered when I would next be seeing snow.
On paper Nevada seemed easy in comparison with the Australian outback. I wasn’t so sure. There would still be long empty sections and the temperatures would be similar. That I could handle. It was the lack of shade that had me nervous. Most of the time Down Under I could find scrubs to hide under or gum trees by dried creeks offering some shade. Here in Nevada the horizon just stretched out without a single tree in view and I had a feeling it would stay like that.
There is nothing wrong with being nervous about what lies ahead. In fact, the nerves add to the excitement of a new adventure. I love deserts: the emptiness, the peace and quiet, the solitude and the gradual changes in scenery within them. It’s funny, at the start of my tour I was desperate to visit as many ‘famous’ cities and meet as many new people as possible. I guess it’s a good thing I started in Europe. Now I seek the opposite. I want somewhere unspoiled by human settlement. I want to be free to cycle in silent meditation and camp wherever I choose.
Without those wretched bush flies, I enjoyed the deserts here far more than Australia. There were more people on the roads too, which was comforting. Plenty of people stopped to check up on me and would say obvious stuff like “it’s very hot out here” and “it’s a long way between places”. On the first day a woman driving a truck of juice stopped to give me an ice cold bottle and another bloke pulled over, passed me a cold bottle of water and whizzed off. There is no greater treat in the hot desert than a cold drink.
The next morning I reached Tonopah, a strange little former silver-mining town that had clearly seen better days. Many of the buildings were abandoned at the edge of town. It was only a small place but it had a supermarket (the first I’d seen in a week) which was ideal as I needed to stock up for the lonely road ahead.
My plan was to cycle the 395, nicknamed the Extra-Terrestrial Highway. For that I would need a lot of water as it was more than 100 miles until the next settlement. Locals warned me that a heatwave was incoming and temperatures were now reaching triple digits (40C) so I attached 15L of water to my bicycle. A couple of motorbikers looked shocked when I told them which way I was heading, “even we’re too scared to take that road – there’s nothing out there!”. Scared of what? Getting a sore wrist? Another local lady who used to work for the ambulance-people told me to me careful. She’d once had to go and collect a cyclist who’s been hit by a truck out that way. By the time she’d got there he had been dead. Great to know.
The shade was a problem continuing on from Tonopah. There was no hiding from the sun out there and so whenever I had a chance for shelter I had to take it. Fortunately some road workers had left large concrete squares out in various places beside the road (I think they were for underpasses below the road). As I pulled over to some I startled some pronghorn antelopes (not that I knew they were called that at the time) who jumped up startled. I paused immediately – also having had a shock- and then, seeing that I wasn’t a threat, they trotted off very casually across the road. What strange looking creatures. I felt bad for depriving them of the only shade for many miles.
There was plenty of wildlife in the desert. Many different types of rabbits and hares, lizards all over the place and zillions of Colorado chipmunks darting between the bushes. There are lots of annoying flies too. Had I not been to Australia I’m sure I’d have complained about them here, but with the Aussie bush flies fresh in my memory I know better than to complain.
One afternoon a car pulled over and I stopped, thinking they wanted to talk to me. “We were just looking at that golden eagle over there” the driver said, pointing behind me. I looked back, half expecting to see an eagle perched on my rear pannier. Then I saw the bird on the rocks across the road. “Bloody hell, it’s huge!” I said “And that’s just a baby” they replied. The bird was at least as tall as my knees and we watched it for a few minutes attempting to fly. It had a lot of learning to do.
The guys were workers on the ranch through which I was currently cycling. I believe they said it was about 650,000 acres – pretty bloody huge. They had a couple of thousand Herefords on the property that apparently had been the same bloodline there for 200 years. Just like the big stations in Australia, they too had a helicopter on the farm for when they go mustering. That continues to blow my mind.
At the junction of the 395 (the day before the above encounter) I found something positively bizarre. The place was marked on my map as ‘Warm Springs’ but I had been told it was an abandoned old rest area/motel, not somewhere I could get water. The place was indeed an old ruin, fenced off but unlocked and a few cows grazed around the crumbling buildings. The bizarre part was the caged off swimming pool, fed by the natural stream that trickled down from the hills. I climbed over the fence and went to check it out. The door to the swimming pool was unlocked and when I dipped my finger in the water was warm. Everything else there was dirty and rusty but the water – being spring fed – was clean and fresh. I stripped my gear off and hopped in – the water was the temperature of a hot bath. What a delightful (and peculiar) way to end a long sweaty day in the saddle!
The Extra-Terrestrial Highway gets its nickname thanks to an unusual amount of UFO sightings in the area. Just over the mountains is the infamous and off-limits Area 51 where the US government fingers aliens in top secret.
The nights are short at the moment and I’m usually in bed before the stars are at their brightest and up after they’ve already started fading. However, this night I decided to stay up a little later to do some stargazing and see if I could spot any unusual activity in space. I couldn’t, but while I was up so late I took my camera out to play with…
Let me sum up cycling Nevada in a quick paragraph for you. The desert is divided up into neat valleys, separated by a sliver of mountains. You cycle up one long gradual pass and then drop down into the next valley with a huge descent before beginning the next climb. These valleys are essentially ginormous half-pipes. The horizons are seemingly never-ending. Because of this arch often you can see the road more than 20 miles ahead which is quite mind-boggling.
Usually the valleys were pretty similar but in one there was something very new to me – cacti! I later learnt that the plants were Joshua trees and that this particular valley was unique because two sub-species of the plant co-exist right here. One type have long and spindly branches stretching out in all different directions, while the other type are tall and straight with many pointy bits. The result was a surrealist’s sculpture park where no two trees looked the same. I decided that they were the coolest trees I’d ever seen.
I was happy to have something to lean my bike against (I don’t have a stand and this makes packing up in the morning far easier) and so I camped beside one of the trees. That night a huge storm raged. Not the type of storm that delivers crashing lightning and thundering rain, just outrageous gales of wind. Usually the temperature would drop to an agreeable level as soon as the sun set but this night was boiling. I lay in my tent sweating while the wind blew gusts of fine sand under my outer tent layer and through the inner mesh. In the morning everything was covered in sand.
I had not had a good night sleep. The wind had been so aggressive that it had felt like somebody was violently shaking my tent all night. That lack of sleep will be my excuse for what happened next: As I was packing my panniers I bumped my head on the cactus my bike was leaning against in the above pic. Ouch. Just as I went to re-arrange the bag’s contents I felt a warm trickle down my forehead and into my eye. I touched the liquid with my hand and saw my fingers covered in blood. Cactus spikes are not soft. The one I’d bumped my head into had stabbed my scalp and now a slightly alarming amount of blood was dribbling across my face. It took a good few wet wipes to clean up the mess. Thank God I hadn’t poked my eye on one of those things…
The next valley was cacti-free and then in the next they were back again. After that I never saw anymore Joshua trees. Good riddance. I didn’t think they were ‘cool’ at all after that morning’s stabbing.
I eventually reached the end of the ET Highway and had to take a boring numbered road east that had no memorable or exciting nickname. There was at least some more traffic passing by to keep me from falling asleep on the road. A highway-patrol car pulled over to check up on me.
”Yep, all good thank you”.
“You haven’t gotten very far since I last drove past you”
“That’s probably because I’ve been napping behind that boulder over there for the last couple of hours!”
I’d only just gotten back on the road and you could still see the big rock I’d been hiding behind in the distance. When I passed it the sun had just begun its afternoon descent and it was offering only the second bit of shade I’d seen all day. I curled up next to the rock and as soon as I put my head down I passed out like a light.
The copper suggested I wrote down the police’s number in case I ran into trouble. I was impressed that it was as simple as NEV on the keypad. The only problem was that there was no phone reception in the desert. I’d only had signal in two spots across the whole state so unfortunately it seemed unlikely that I’d be able to call up the highway-patrol and ask them to bring me out a cold coke. Before he left the policeman said, “I’ve got a present for you”, nipped into his car and returned with a Nevada police badge for me. The people in this country are really some of the nicest I have ever met.
The next morning I passed Caliente, a charming little town that looked like something out of the Wild West. Some of the villages out here are just ramshackle farmhouses with rusty tractors for garden ornaments, other settlements are the quaintest little places. Caliente was full of neat square houses with immaculate lawns behind white picket fences. They each had a porch and many of the those had a US flag hanging over the doorway. Many of the lamp posts had posters attached saying ”insert name‘ proudly serving in the US Army’ which was a little strange. It reminded me of the urban tributes in Iran to the young men who had died in the Iraq war.
Finally there was something to see in Nevada other than empty desert! I eagerly made the short detour to Cathedral Gorge State Park where erosion has carved quite remarkable shapes into the soft bentonite clay.
From there I took a minor dirt road into Utah. Normal, spike-free trees were back! I was incredibly thankful for the shade.
Utah was much greener. Beautiful farms stretched out under brown, rocky mountains. On the way into St George I cycled through the Snow Canyon which provided a pretty stunning route into the first big town since crossing the Sierra Nevada.
I was now in Mormon country and so I stopped at ST George’s Utah Temple to visit the big white church in town. I’m a fan of the Mormons (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints [LDS] followers). I’ve met a whole bunch of them around the world and they are always absolutely lovely. Because of their obsession with missionary service you find them on a two-year mission all around the world. (You can always spot them cycling around as a pair in white shirts). Ignoring the fact that I find the idea of missionary service an uncomfortable and immoral waste of time, this results in a fairly ‘worldly’ community who have interacted with cultures around the globe. It’s no surprise that the Mormons have a high number of public figures in top businesses and politics.
For an atheist, they are also particularly fun to poke fun at as they believe some absolutely bonkers stuff (although no more silly that the beliefs of the other great monotheistic faiths). They are also unfortunately just one middle m away from being a much less flattering word.
But my favourite thing about the LDS Church is that they took out an advert in the program for the musical comedy ‘The Book of Mormon’ promoting the actual Book of Mormon with slogans like “the book is always better”. What a measured response to a production that satirises your faith! Imagine if you tried to commission a show mocking the Qu’ran? You’d have been blown to smithereens before your first dress-rehearsal.
I think that will do for now. I’ll save the rest of Utah for next time. I’m pretty sure there will be lots to write home about…