Oh, give me land…
Of what avail are 40 freedoms without a blank spot on the map?- Aldo Leopold
When conservation biologist Aldo Leopold asked the question above, he might have had the Wah-Wah Mountains in mind. This desert range is devoid of civilization, a wild, untamed place that stands over an enormous basin bristling with sage, rabbit brush and creosote. Our dirt road drops down from the Wah-Wahs, stretches across the arid basin and disappears on the far horizon where another range rises to meet the sky.
Basin and range … basin and range. That’s the rhythm in eastern Nevada where huge mountains swell in corrugations like tidal waves on an inland sea. From across these expanses comes a headwind, the Chinese water torture of bike touring. Factor in the sun glaring down through some of the driest air on Earth and you’ve got a picture of the remote eastern fringe of the Mojave Desert.On this, our annual “Blank Spot Bike Tour,” the more distance we can put between us and the industrial world, the better. That’s why, as the years progress, Graeme and I choose more remote routes. Years from now, when we’re ambulatory enough only to rock the porch swing, we can reflect upon these desert wastes, relive the adventures of the past and hum a familiar tune that speaks to it all: “Oh, give me land/Lots of land/Under starry skies, above/Don’t fence me in.” That song echoes in my head as we push against an unceasing headwind that swirls dust devils and strums the sagebrush.
On tours like these, dry camps are certain. Blank spots are blank because there’s nothing there, especially water.Earlier that day at Wah-Wah Ranch, a desolate, dust-blown habitation, we filled up with water – seven liters each. “Help yourself,” said the affable blonde-haired woman who was busy marshaling three small children off to church in Milford, the nearest town – the only town – in this forgotten corner of the West. Full water bags give us about 36 hours to find the next water; they also make our bikes weigh 90 pounds.
The Wah-Wah Mountains, remote and mostly unpopulated, appeal to me and Graeme. Our friendship is conducive to exploring the seemingly limitless Western landscapes where the great open spaces enhance a vital sense of freedom. Often silent or efficiently monosyllabic, Graeme and I endure well together no matter what nature and geography dish out.In truth, we dish it out to ourselves. We begin by spreading out maps, searching for the emptiest spaces, then tracing with a highlighter pen the faint red lines of vague county roads. Our random objective on this tour is the Nevada town of Pioche, considered in the 1870s the roughest, most lawless silver mining town on the Western frontier. Here was a Hobbesian world where every man was against every other man in a state of perpetual warfare, all for the pursuit of precious mining claims. Enlisted to fight this war was an army of mercenary gunmen imported at 20 per week by the highest bidders.Legend has it that the Pioche cemetery held 50 graves before anyone there died of a natural cause.
We coast down from the Wah-Wahs and are halfway across the windswept basin when I hit my limit. My every pedal stroke becomes a Sisyphean futility against the enormousness of the landscape. We stop at dusk at a cattle guard where there is a pull-out wide enough for our tents. Graeme suggests we go on to Sawtooth Mountain, which rises in the distance, but I’m whipped. The cattle guard is the last goal I had set for myself before collapsing onto my sleeping pad in utter exhaustion.That night, as stars dot the sky and a silver crescent moon dips to the west, we reflect on how far we’ve come since Cove Fort, Utah, a Mormon fortress built in the 1860s. First there was Black Rock, a railroad siding on the Union Pacific line where Jim, a rancher in his 60s, provided us water. Jim lives on a desert oasis where streams gush from beneath a huge bed of lava, filling a slough full of migrating ducks, geese, cranes and herons. We camped that night on a grassy swale where antelope roam in the nearby San Francisco Mountains. The next morning we pedaled the Wah-Wah Hardpan, a dry lakebed on which we rode 10 miles of uniform white clay. Then came our last water stop at Wah-Wah Ranch, followed by the long pass over the Wah-Wahs.
At our cattle guard camp I wake at first light to the bright chatter of bird song. Soon, the sun glints over the eastern ridge, its low, slanting rays illuminating Sawtooth Mountain. We down a breakfast of oatmeal and black coffee, then pedal west in a momentary calm that soon becomes a blustery headwind. The air smells like sage and the sky is a great dome of solid blue. Soon we’re climbing past Sawtooth through rolling hills of pinyon and juniper.We top another pass and roll down into an enormous valley with no water and no people (Without one, you don’t have the other). We eat lunch in the lee of a decrepit old homestead where the wind rattles the tin roof and whistles through cracks in the chinking. Here is a neglected monument to a man’s failed dream and misbegotten vision.We climb another long pass on a faint two-track over yet another mountain range where a spring slakes our thirst and refills our water bags. Then it’s down into another basin and up another range. After 10 hours in the saddle we camp in a pinyon-juniper forest on a bed of red dirt and pine needles. A thunderstorm breaks loose that evening for half a minute, then vanishes. We haven’t seen a car all day.
The next morning we drop into Eagle Valley, where a mountain stream burbles through grasses and reeds. Water fills ponds and irrigates hayfields, making the land green, which is a most soothing color after days of parched riding. We pass a beautiful lake where fishermen cast for trout. We ride along the Eagle River, where great blue herons rise on every bend of the canyon.Our road turns uphill and we reluctantly leave the water, the green valley, and the sweet scent of hay. We grind over another mountain pass through high desert scrub and drop into yet another desolate basin. The road swings north toward buff-colored hills marked with tailing piles, mine hoists, tipples, mills and aerial trams.At high noon we arrive in Pioche, Nevada.The story of Pioche is told at a glance: A once-rich silver mining town goes bust more than a century ago and everything is left standing like it was in 1880: weather-beaten shacks, run-down hotels, a deserted four-story mill, a tram with ore buckets still attached. The town’s primary economy today is the state prison on its outskirts. The bleak gray walls are festooned with silvery loops of concertina wire. Narrow windows let in scant daylight for inmates who might chance to see a couple of cyclists pumping up the steep hill toward Main Street.
We change into fresh clothes and hang odoriferous riding garments from our handlebars, then enter the Silver Café for a hot lunch. It’s like any small town café where everybody knows everybody and strangers get the once-over. The food is good and filling, and we keep the waitress busy with multiple courses, ending with pie and coffee. After lunch, I buy a pint of whiskey in a dingy barroom where patrons nurse drinks and hunch over electronic slot machines. Graeme visits the local gas station, asking directions to get us through the Pioche Hills to Castleton, a neighboring mining district. By late afternoon we’re pushing our heavy bikes up impossibly steep mining roads past open tunnels, cable hoists, and mounds of acrid-smelling tailings. Pioche is an open-air mining museum, and so is Castleton, where the hills are Swiss-cheesed with diggings. We poke around in a long-abandoned boarding house, explore a well-preserved mine hoist mechanism, toss a few stones down a deep shaft, then roll south to Cathedral Gorge, a small state park with modest rock formations but impressive hot showers.
We’re up early the next morning for the promise of a hot breakfast in Caliente, a railroad town 20 miles south. A blissful tailwind pushes us there in a little over an hour. We enter the bar/restaurant where the suffocating smell of old cigarettes and stale beer hangs in the air. As we wait for breakfast, the TV above the bar features a pair of news commentators describing contrapuntally the story du jour. They refer ad nauseam to “The Micro-Waved Baby” while weaving in the latest roadside bombing atrocities in Iraq. Our moods dimmed, we hurriedly pay the bill, pick up a few provisions at a small grocery store, fill our water containers in the bathroom of a car dealership, and head back into the sheltering hinterlands.The sun is hot as we grind our way up endless desert hills in the Cedar Range. We’re alone with our thoughts and reunited with a headwind that wafts aromas of sage and pinyon, Lethean scents that erase the woes of the world. At dusk we camp in a pinyon-juniper forest, sip whiskey and watch stars brighten the night sky. Sleep comes early and easy. When a chorus of coyotes howls at daybreak, we’re up and boiling water over the gas stove, packing our gear, then riding in the cool morning air. Few words are spoken as the cadence of spinning pedals lulls us into the welcome, meditative trance of bike touring.There are more hills and more desert mountain ranges. They go as far as we can see, all roadless blank spots on the map. Finally, we crest a pass and roll down into a fertile valley running with water and verdant with hay meadows. We stop to watch a cattle branding at a ranch and are invited into the corral. The rancher turns out to be a banker from Phoenix, who is working cattle for fun with his family. We roll into nearby Enterprise, a farm town with a family diner that serves thick burgers and thicker shakes. Tanked up with organic, renewable bio-fuel, we make the final push to St. George, Utah.
After four hours of busy highway riding we arrive at Snow Canyon State Park, a spectacular gorge carved in the red rock just west of St. George. We camp among flowering barberry and Joshua trees, feeling mellow from the miles and wondering what chunk of the West we can carve out next spring – where there are still blank spots on the map.Paul Andersen is a freelance writer, an Aspen Times columnist and an avid bike tourist who always looks forward to getting back in the saddle.
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