My first night in Nevada was spent under a full “Strawberry” moon, laying less than a mile from the “Welcome to Nevada” sign under the soft silver-pink light of the moon and the Milky Way-no tent, just my thin blue sleeping mat and my sleeping bag. I could see the treeless mountains surrounding the valley and imagined what could be over that first ridge: sand dunes, vultures circling over, dry mouth and chapped lips and sunburn and blinded eyes, all with Chopin’s Funeral March as the soundtrack. The thought kept me awake for a little while, but the wind kept me awake for longer.
The next morning, in a quaint café in the small town of Baker, I treated myself to some absolutely scrumptious pecan-banana pancakes in a tall stack, with black coffee and ice water on the side. I took my time, savoring each bite, with the knowledge that throughout the next few weeks I would be surviving mainly on white rice and off-brand spaghetti-o’s. The couple that managed and worked the place told me that the dark clouds overhead would likely pass over without dropping more than a few drops- this happens a lot in these parts. Before I left, I played them what would soon become my unofficial theme song (Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again”), and they presented me with a small booklet titled “The official Highway 50 Survival Guide: The Loneliest Road in America” and stamped the official Baker stamp to prove I had been there. The title comes from a quote in an article from Time magazine during the 80′s that said drivers must have survival skills to make it across- considering I was walking, I assumed my imagination wasn’t too far off.
At first, walking in the desert wasn’t so bad. The 64 mile stretch between Baker and Ely was long, but not the longest I had experienced, taking only 3 days at my newly accelerated pace. The heat would come and go with the moving clouds, and the most uncomfortable part was having to drink warm water all the time. Surely, the worst was yet to come. Also, it turns out that my mental image of Nevada was quite wrong, much like my mental image for Kansas and Illinois were quite wrong. It was much more mountainous than I had thought. Granted, I still felt like I was being cooked alive sometimes, and there were still vultures that circled over, but as long as I stayed hydrated, the chapped lips and dry mouth were kept at bay.
Just before arriving in Ely, a dude gave me $60 bucks on the side of the road just for “having the balls to walk out here”, and I got a motel room. I hadn’t showered or washed my clothes in a week, not to mention slept in a real bed. For the record, I love it when receptionists ask “is a queen sized bed OK?”. Ummm… HELL YES. On the walk to my first floor room, I saw a girl roughly my age sitting against the wall, looking totally disheveled and smoking a cigarette. I threw my stuff into my room, remembered to slip the key card into my pocket, and walked back to where the girl was sitting. I don’t remember if I asked to sit down or if she nodded to indicate that she already had my intention, but I told her she was clearly bummed about something and asked if she wanted to talk about it. She explained that her and a group of her closest friends got busted on their way to a concert in Vegas after being pulled over and having their vehicle searched. For the past week, she had been alone in this motel, with barely any contact to the outside world, and none at all with her friends. She had spent a night in jail, was bailed out, and had been crying and trying to make sense of what just happened for a week. The worst part was that, after talking with a lawyer, she learned that she could only guarantee a lesser penalty for herself if she testified against her best friend in court. She was doing the right thing by talking about it, instead of suppressing her thoughts and feelings. Soon enough, the conversation turned to our lives in general, especially our love for music and living life in the moment. At 1am, or maybe 2am, we said goodnight and went to our rooms- we both really needed some sleep. I had listened to everything she had to say, and responded the only way that I could. I know what it feels like to be alone, and how relieving it is to tell a complete stranger all of your woes and worries. Even when I’m meeting people everyday, I’m still walking a lonely road. The loneliest road in America, in fact.
After leaving Ely, I became aware of 2 things that remained consistent throughout my entire walk in Nevada- first, that people will stop everyday to ask what the hell I was doing out here and if I needed any water; and second that the mountain roads are steep and winding, and the valleys are long and hot. I fell into the routine of camping at the base of the mountain, nestled under a short tree so I could have shade in the morning, then walking nonstop for up to 10 straight hours to get through the valley and camp again at the base of the next mountain. I met many cross-country bicyclists, which was really great for a multitude of reasons. Not only did they understand how it feels to be sore and tired in the morning with a full day of strenuous physical activity ahead of you; not only did they make great company and share great stories and ride for noble causes; but they also could tell me exactly what to expect from the towns ahead and the mountains in between, all from the perspective of someone whose focus lies on simple things like food, water, and a place to sleep. Other than toilet paper, nothing is more handy than the knowledge of a fellow traveler.
After 4 days in consistent 100°+ heat, with a record breaking heat wave coming in to last all of next week, I already knew exactly where to go in Eureka for everything I needed. However, I didn’t mind taking an unplanned stop for breakfast to chow down a country-fried steak/egg/hashbrown sandwich. A short time after leaving Eureka, I can recall having a conversation with one of my best friends on the phone where I admitted (for the first time aloud) that I knew for certain that I was going to finish. It had been 99% for a while, but once I knew I could handle the heat, any trace of doubt left my mind. Bicyclists heading west began calling my name, or at least calling me Dudetrek, as they rode up behind me. Rumors from the east-bound bicyclists had reached them and they were often stoked to meet the crazy walking kid with the baby stroller they had heard about. A professional photographer from Oregon stopped to take some really high-quality photos of me in the desert, and provided me with a makeshift oasis out of his car. After giving me food, water, and of course promising to email me the photos, we parted ways in an intense gust of wind and the first rain I had seen since crossing into Utah. We agreed that the rain was a good omen, especially in this climate.
Just before arriving in Austin, on the 4th of July (my favorite of all holidays), a couple stopped to give me blueberries and say that they heard about me from some cross-country bicyclists. “You’re famous on this road, you know”, they told me. I laughed at the irony of being famous on the loneliest road in America, but was soon hailed by another group of cross-country bicyclists that had heard about me. I went with them to the free community BBQ/jamboree/pool party at the park in town, and boy was it wonderful! I stuffed myself with free food, jammed with the band, and took a much needed dip in the pool. I followed the lead of the bicyclists and washed my clothes at the laundromat, then rushed back to the park to catch every moment of the fireworks show. I saw the truck pull up, bed full of every type of pyrotechnic imaginable, beer in the drivers hand (definitely not his first of the night), cigarette dangling from his lips, and most of his fingers intact. This dude may not have been what most people would call a “professional”, but I knew then and there that it was going to be a wild and reckless display of patriotism- you know, what independence is all about. When the sun was well below the horizon, the show began, the explosions occurring at eye level as we all sat up on the hill. I passed out sparklers I had been saving to anyone that wanted them, and a few times watched people scramble as a misplaced rocket went off in the parking lot. No one was hurt, and nothing was seriously damaged, so it was okay to laugh. I sat in silent admiration for a long time, but felt so stirred by the finale that I began a chant of “USA! USA!”. Once the show was over, the whole park was empty within 20 minutes and I fell asleep under a pine tree in the soft grass- something I hadn’t done in nearly 2 months. In this town with a population of around 200, with 4 or 5 bars, a nice public park, and a single grocery store/gas station, I had the best, most American Independence Day of my life.
By the time I woke up, the bicyclists were gone. They got up very early to beat the heat. The next town, Fallon, was 112 miles away and thankfully it was getting cooler. That first day was only 97°, instead of 104° like it had been the previous week. I was hoping to make it in 5 days, which was reasonable considering that I had been averaging 22 miles a day in Nevada so far. I learned that there were 2 stops between Austin and Fallon, and I made it to the first stop, a bar and RV park called Cold Springs, on my second day. It was a Friday and there was a BBQ buffet. It wasn’t free, like in Austin, but my stomach argued with my brain and my hand pulled the $12 from my wallet. I must have eaten 4 or 5 pounds of food. I was full after the first plate, then had another and a bowl of chili too. My stomach was sore from being so stretched out, and when I set up camp behind the bar that night, I had trouble sleeping with the uncomfortable pain in my stomach. Unfortunately, the stomach ache lasted for a few days. I had definitely eaten too much, and began to worry that I had appendicitis. The next day, I made it to Middlegate, the second and last stop before Fallon. This wasn’t just a bar, this was a real saloon. I talked to a dude with crooked fingers and spiders webs on his hat, and watched him drink whiskey as naturally as I drank water. There was a cover band that night, and they were very entertaining; they even played some Hendrix songs and the guitarist matched the solos note for note. It was late when I fell asleep out back. One more day, this time with fighter jets and carrier planes zooming overheard every couple minutes. I was getting close to Fallon, home of the Naval Air Station where Top Gun was filmed. A dude on a motorcycle stopped to offer me a place to stay that night, we exchanged phone numbers, and he picked me up just outside of town a few hours later. There are many good things I could say about him and his family, but to keep this already lengthy post from being too lengthy, I will only mention his awesome gun collection. I am not sure if he showed me his guns as a warning in case I had bad intentions, or maybe because he could tell that I was genuinely fascinated by these relics of western history. I got to hold some very very rare guns, and he took a picture of me holding his pair of Colt .45s. I felt badass, but it was very unnatural. I’m not fit to be a cowboy, I guess. In the morning, after scarfing down his wife’s delicious breakfast burritos, I set back to walking, this time on the final stretch to Carson City.
Once I reached Carson City, I was picked up and brought to Reno by some close family friends whom I had already seen a few times on this trip. I spent 2 days chilling with them, even though that had just moved into their new house not long ago. I got to see Mark’s (the father in the family) band play at a wedding gig. It was really nice to meet his band and see them play, not to mention hearing stories of living on the road for years going from show to show. It was a wild wedding if I’ve ever seen one, but I enjoyed myself . Before hitting the road, I left my jogging stroller with them and started carrying my minimalist backpack setup. I figured that with so few days left in my trip, I wouldn’t need to pack much.
Turns out the loneliest road wasn’t so lonely after all. Actually, I met lots of really neat, nice people while in Nevada. It’s a bit ironic, but I have noticed that I meet more people in less populated areas. Not many people would take the time to meet me in the cities, but not so in the rural and suburb neighborhoods. Based on my sunburn and dry skin, I can assure you that the desert was very very hot and sunny all the time, but it was apparently survivable- even enjoyable. In a way, I enjoyed Nevada more than Colorado. Almost every mountain is being climbed on, every river rafted down, every trail hiked or hiked on in Colorado, while in Nevada the land was totally and completely unoccupied. It was really nice being able to camp anywhere without having to worry about getting caught in a storm or messed with in any way. The silence of the desert at night is more than profound. The silence is so great that any noise, no matter how loud, is dwarfed by the surrounding quiet, like a light in a cave. 12 states down, one to go.