High desert drifting in Nevada

Reno

Come join generations of drifters who have taken road trips through Nevada's high desert towns.

An endless thread of arrow-straight bitumen slices through mountains stacked like pancakes before dissolving into Nevada’s arid, surreal emptiness.  Clumps of sagebrush cling tenuously to life, islets floating in a dry sea bed where distant cars drift like shimmering mirages.  Ahead lies a 2,640km road trip that follows the fabled Pony Express route and some of the first European settlers’ long dusty trails through a string of high desert towns - repositories of dreams of a new life.

NOT QUITE VEGAS

A counterpoint to Las Vegas’s ostentatious glamour, modest Reno oozes old school charm.  However, when it comes to automobiles, there’s no contest.  On the banks of the picturesque Truckee River, you don’t have to be a petrol head to appreciate the National Automobile Museum’s 200-car collection of dazzling originality and historic significance.  Amassed by William Fisk Harrah who shaped Nevada’s gambling industry, these motors generate movie-star wattage.

The pretty riverbank is lined with cafes, boutiques and sociable wine bars while on the water, novice kayakers provide entertainment practicing their maneuvers.  Reno is a personable town and in the basement Steak House at Harrah’s, local personalities Ozzie and Mike regale us with celebrity-heavy tales of the glamour days as they flambé our dessert.  Forty minutes south, and under a crystal blue sky, we breast Geiger Summit before a rolling descent into Virginia City and back to the 1860s.  Spurs jangle on wooden boardwalks where gentlefolk in top hats and crinolines stroll.  Gunslingers ready for the daily shoot-out and unshaven drifters wander into the Bucket of Blood Saloon.

More than a century ago, only banditos, outlaws and ladies of the night frequented Virginia City.  Then gold was discovered and the real bad guys  – politicians, bankers and lawyers – moved in!  I take a 20-minute trolley ride that ricochets through the township that was founded on rich gold and silver seams including the Comstock Lode that extracted $400m of precious ore, enough to build San Francisco.

WESTWARD HO!

“Eastward I go only by force.  Westward I go free”.  Outside Elko’s impressive California Trail Interpretive Center, Henry David Thoreau’s quote of 1862 holds pride of place while inside, settlers’ stories filled with hope are retold and travelling households, assembled in covered wagons for the arduous journey West, are displayed.   As we reach Ely, our trail takes an artistic bent with public art depicting the town’s mining and ranching heritage.

Near a peaceful park, a triptych dedicated to the Pony Express depicts a rider waving to a gang of workers erecting telegraph poles that will ultimately replace a unique mail delivery service that from 1860, operated for just 18 months along a perilous route.  A short detour east of Ely to Baker and we enter the moody Great Basin National Park where the coolly spectacular world of stalagtites, natural limestone formations and the cavernous Lehman Cave await.

Joining Highway 50, the Loneliest Highway in the World, it seems pretty busy as we serpentine through rolling mountain ranges and bone-dry salt pans.. We’re following in the hoof-prints of the Pony Express and at 7,000’, this is real high country cruising and spindly fingers of light cast long shadows across vast plains.  We drop in on small communities that grew-up around railroad constructions, each with an historic trail and stories to tell.

A pit stop at Eureka reveals a charming mid-19th century opera house, an immaculately restored Court House where mid-19th century newspapers and mining claims are retained and staff are kept busy fielding enquiries from visitors trying to trace long-lost relatives who came to Nevada to make their fortunes.

ROCK AND AWE

The Toiyabe Range is sugar-coated with remnants of winter snow as we ascend 7600’ to Austin Summit.  Voluptuous hills carpeted with butter-yellow spring flowers decorate hairpin bends that swiftly drop us one thousand feet into Austin, a hamlet famous for its silver treasures and one man’s folly.

Jason’s Art Gallery mines, cuts and produces beautiful stones which they also trade for New Mexican Navajo beadwork, buckskin and pottery.  For a view of one man’s folly, we take a sharp left turn at the end of town up to Stokes Castle, built in 1897 by Ansom Phelps Stokes as a summer home.  Made of hand-hewn local granite, it’s modeled on an Italian Medieval rural tower which Ansom  admired on his travels to Rome.

Occupied for just one brief period, it has remained unoccupied ever since, silently guarding the vast plain below.  Approaching the high desert town of Fallon, sandy tentacles spread across the road and we stop by the ruins of a Pony Express relay station dwarfed by a giant sand mountain. With relay stations every 10 to 35 miles, Pony Express riders could cover 2,000 miles in ten days.  Nowadays, the sand mountain draws all terrain vehicle enthusiasts year-round to stay and play.

Moving south, we explore Walker Lake, the last vestige of the ancient Lahontan Sea that covered Nevada millennia ago.  The colour of Navajo turquoise framed by ochre sandstone hills, naval jets from Fallon’s “Top Gun” school for military pilots silently slice through a powder blue sky.

Turquoise, silver and gold were extracted by the bucketload at Tonopah, the ‘queen of the silver camps’, where the lovingly restored Mizpah Hotel sizzles with stories of ghosts and skullduggery.  Legendary lawman Wyatt Earp once worked there as a bouncer while behind the hotel, a mining park now mines the town’s rich historic seam.

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