Saturday morning, we left Cedar City for Duck Creek Village. Here, dig this.
29 miles east of Cedar City, 10,000′ elevation. Well, around the 5-mile mark I told Betty it didn’t look too good. We were in her fancy-pants Lexus 4WD, because my workmanlike Explorer took a nail to the tire Friday night and we didn’t have time to fix it.
Nevertheless, we soldiered on. Utah Highway 14 is loaded with hairpin turns and steep inclines/declines. 27 miles in, I first lost control of the Lexus. I was in 4-wheel mode, super-low gear, doing maybe 18 mph. Fortunately there was no one around to watch us circle on the highway.
All that stuff they tell you in driving school about “drive into the skid”? No one remembers to do that when it’s showtime. Besides, determining what direction the skid is in is difficult enough. We landed in a snowbank, but it was easy enough to engage and get out. And, of course, turn back. Part of me thought we should continue another 13 miles past Duck Creek, down to the lower elevations of U.S. Highway 89 and onto Kanab, but that’ll be an adventure for another time.
Light snow, plenty of ice. I continued at the same low speed, a car or two behind me but I didn’t care. (This coming from the man who regularly does 90 on Interstate 215 in clear conditions.) There’s a place on Utah 14 called Webster Flat where the signs say “8% Grade – Trucks Use Lower Gear”, punctuated by a treacherous cliff and no guardrail on the south side of the highway. You don’t think twice about it in the summer, but it was pretty memorable this weekend. At the highway’s steepest part, we were behind (and above, because we were going downhill) a small truck that had passed us. And watched him do a 720º. Now there were 6 vehicles heading up, us and a few others heading down. We decided to pull over onto the shoulder and wait for things to pass or carnage to begin.
A little Toyota hatchback passed us, heading west to Cedar City. This one only did a 360º, and then headed straight for the cliff. We were certain we were about to watch someone die. It stopped with one wheel over the cliff and the opposite wheel up in the air. Turns out there’s a lip under the cliff that you can only see when you’re helping a terrified passenger out of the car. Dad, pregnant mom, loquacious (but at least not panicky) little kid. Some Samaritan heading uphill in a big GM SUV roped him out.
I fell on my ass multiple times while trying to tie the rope to the Toyota’s bumper. I said to Betty, “I can’t even walk on this road, and my feet aren’t round.” So we continued to wait, hoping for a plow but it didn’t really matter because there wasn’t much snow to plow, just lots of ice. Eventually Betty decided to drive with the right side of the car firmly planted on the rocky shoulder: at least she’d be getting traction with 2 wheels. I was actually running in front of her for a couple miles, testing the surface of the road while she followed. I told her to drive until she ended up in the clear, don’t worry about me, I’ll walk down to town. There was plenty of daylight and it was impossible for me to get lost. I walked for a few miles (my gloves and jacket were in the truck, YES!) and eventually got a ride from a guy with a slobbering chocolate lab in the back seat. The saliva of safety.
Sometimes finding a new place to explore involves nothing more tactical than looking at a map and wondering what a particular place looks like. Montello, Nevada has a rodeo grounds and two functioning bars, or at least according to the map it did. So why not confirm it?
Montello (pop. 216, and that sounds liberal) sits 23 miles northeast off I-80, on State Route 233, which continues seamlessly into Utah as its State Route 30. For decades Montello’s big industry was supplying the railroad, and that appears to still be the case. We sat captivated as a mile-long Union Pacific freight decoupled its twin engines, a process that took fewer minutes (about 12) and workers (2) than we would have guessed.
Montello’s another town that once you digest it, you have to either retrace your route to get back to civilization, or continue through harsh and unfamiliar territory. The latter strategy was still too tempting to pass up. The plan crystallized – continue into Utah, then take a 4×4 road to the historic ghost town of Lucin.
Lucin is noteworthy for a series of trestles known as the Lucin Cutoff – a work of engineering genius that enabled Southern Pacific trains to cross over Great Salt Lake rather than around it. Lucin, long dead, sits about 8 miles south of the lightly populated state route. The navigable if erratic dirt road continues south for 70 miles. Several working ranches dot the route, sandwiched between the staggering Pilot Mountains to the west and the edge of the seemingly infinite Bonneville Salt Flats to the east. It prompted one inveterate traveler to remark that she now understood what inspired Brigham Young when he declared “This is the place” and brought the early Mormons’ westward trek to an end.
The only signs of human life we encountered south of Lucin were 4 hunters riding ATVs, it being the opening day of Utah’s 2-week bull elk season. Pilot Mountain Road took us briefly back into Nevada, within the boundaries of a hunting unit in which a cognizant bull elk could remain safe from muzzleloader fire for another 8 days.
The road then curves southeast back into Utah, with a view into the panorama of the famed salt flats. Either you need to hold a yardstick in front of you while looking at them in order to detect the curvature of the Earth, or that’s just an urban (or rural) legend. Still, it’s as impressive as any barrier reef or glacier field.
Back on the interstate, and one more attraction to cross off the list. Metaphor: The Tree of Utah. A sculpture the height of a cell phone tower, consisting of a series of baseball-shaped polyps emanating from a trunk. Hard by the westbound lanes of I-80, it’s the only work of note from Swedish artist Karl Momen, who financed and built it in the early 1980s. He wouldn’t spring for a highway exit, so the tree’s plaque and its inscription sit unread by the thousands of travelers who speed by daily. Having already encountered one highway patrolman too many on this trip, we didn’t think it wise to double back and have “radiator trouble” by the sculpture. Instead we continued into Salt Lake, ready for metropolitan life once again.
Like Belmont, Manhattan sits at the end of state route that’s really more of a spur road. But at least it’s paved. We headed west and made a quick return to Route 376, then north to Round Mountain.
Round Mountain’s primary attraction is its open-pit gold mine, owned equally by Canadian extraction giants Barrick and Kinross. The mine is so lucrative, and thus the pit grew so big, that it forced the town itself to move a few miles west to the other side of the highway. The resultant company town is a model of cleanliness and uniformity, with shining streets, a golf course, and immaculately manicured (and pedicured) lawns. The new, incongruous Round Mountain is officially named “Hadley”, although no one calls it that. It’s the Levittown of rural Nevada, situated in a place where you’d expect to see people living in prehistoric shacks and decaying concrete bungalows. A few of which remain at the original Round Mountain.
One of the hardest parts about negotiating travel in rural Nevada is keeping oneself fed. (Yes, the pioneers had it harder. No one disputes this.) Tonopah has the only proper supermarket for miles and miles, and failure to stock means getting famished with no visible respite. The upcoming village of Carvers had a couple of roadhouses, but to stop there or continue to the next significant town, Austin?
Austin it was, which was a bad decision for at least two reasons. Austin is situated on U.S. Highway 50, officially The Loneliest Road in America but as anyone who’s traveled through Nevada knows, it doesn’t crack the top 10 in the state. Our eventual destination was Elko, more than 200 miles to the northeast, but in this part of the state the most convenient food and your night’s terminus don’t necessarily lie on the same line. We instead traveled west to Austin (pop. 340), situated beyond the most treacherous curves we’d encountered so far. And a hand-lettered sign warning of a speed trap on the edge of town. And a final sharp turn into a courteous and unswayable highway patrolman. In today’s America, with governments looking for revenue everywhere possible, no male is getting out of that $72 fine.
Austin is dying, and good riddance. It offers the only services on a 180-mile stretch of the Loneliest Road, which means the town will always exist in some form until the invention of the mass-produced hovercar. Lunch at the only restaurant in town – I wasn’t hungry for some unfathomable reason – and then we changed our itinerary on the fly yet again.
Austin was the seat of Lander County until 1979, when an already speedy population decline forced the local government to move, as we then did, 89 miles north. To Battle Mountain, another piece of Nevada eclectica, only with a less-than-complimentary nickname: “The Armpit of America.”
Several hundred locales, of course, have been considered the nation’s axilla: and as armpits come in pairs, I nominate Camden, New Jersey and Gary, Indiana. But Battle Mountain embraced the moniker after self-consciously cosmopolitan Washington Post Gene Weingarten reporter referred to the town as such (and took a similar view of much of the rest of rural Nevada) in a 2001 article. Old Spice sponsored an “Armpit Festival” the following year, an annual event that never made it to its 3rd birthday. For the record, Battle Mountain is a perfectly functional and sanitary unincorporated area, and more to the point, an ideal fuel stop that sits abreast of Interstate 80. A divided highway with an 80-mph speed limit sounded about right after a day of downshifting and praying for tires to remain resilient.
The interstate took us through Carlin, which is near (these things are relative) the largest gold mine in the Northern Hemisphere. It’s also about 30 miles south of where in 2009 we came face-to-face with a wolf. Which would be commonplace in the Yukon, unusual in parts of Idaho, but a singular event in Nevada. Only a few months earlier, local authorities had confirmed the first sighting of a wolf in the state since World War II. Our unofficial but verifiable sighting suffered for lack of a quickly functioning camera.
And then to Elko, which as recently as the late 1990s was Nevada’s 4th-largest metropolitan area with a population of 30,000 or so. It’s since fallen behind Pahrump, the bedroom community 60 miles west of Las Vegas that’s most famous for its legal prostitution. To an ignorant East Coast newspaper columnist, Elko is “charmless” and “tacky”. To a pair of tired Nevadans, Elko meant an inviting if temporary home.
Yes, a good trip is more about the journey than the destination, but you still have to end up somewhere. And as the journey progresses, options fall away and the choice of destination becomes more focused. We agreed to spend the next night in Salt Lake City, an easy 230-mile ride over the interstate. But with no pressing need to arrive as fast as possible, where’s the fun in that? (There isn’t. So we improvised…)
A: Central Nevada, the Chicago Cubs, William McKinley.
Q: Name 3 entities that reached their zenith a century ago.
Tonopah (pop. 2,627) and Goldfield (440) are the two “major” settlements in what’s conventionally if erroneously labeled Central Nevada. The seats of their respective counties, the towns sit 27 miles apart on one of the emptiest stretches of an empty road. When the silver mines were at their busiest, Goldfield was Nevada’s largest city; 20,000 strong, and influential enough to host what was then the biggest boxing title fight in history. (The lightweight bout lived up to the hype, too: former champ Joe Gans took 42 rounds to regain his belt from Oscar “Battling” Nelson.) Today, the largely abandoned town serves as the gateway to the more prestigious Tonopah. This area holds the distinction of being farther away from an interstate highway than anywhere else in the United States.
Tonopah is so small that the high school plays 8-man football (3-man offensive line, and typically 2 running backs and 2 tight ends; 3-3-2 on defense.) We unwittingly visited on the biggest day of the year – the day Tonopah High (Home of the Muckers) hosts its cross-county rival from 60 miles up the road, and our next scheduled stop, Round Mountain. The students formed a chain across the main drag and screamed something unintelligible outside our hotel room in the middle of the night, then disassembled to enjoy Tonopah’s world-renowned nightlife.
We set sail for Round Mountain, but first, an irresistible detour: 40 miles out of our way, the somewhat adjacent hamlets of Belmont and Manhattan.
The major (only) paved road heading north out of Tonopah is State Route 376, which passes through Round Mountain and terminates in Austin, more on which later. Past the makeshift rodeo grounds outside of Tonopah, and yet another abandoned mine, sits the unmarked and often unpaved State Highway 82, whose only purpose is to ferry the curious into and out of the semi-retired mining camp of Belmont. Not only is the distance to the nearest gas greater than the distance from New York City to Delaware, you’ve got to travel on some challengingly graded roads to access said gas.
At a gaudy 7600’ above sea level, Belmont is yet another claimant to the title of erstwhile biggest or 2nd-biggest city in Nevada. The town claimed 15,000 people during its 1870s heyday, and an inexact 2-digit number today. The usual criterion for judging ghost towns seems to be level of preservation, and by that standard, Belmont qualifies. A 21st century Catholic church sits near the summit of Cemetery Hill, Belmont’s highest point. The church is so tiny that from a distance it looks like an unusually pious travel kiosk. In a town with barely enough residents to fill the rosters for a Papists vs. Reformists basketball game, the Catholics understandably invite other denominations to hold services on the premises.
The featured attraction in Belmont is the brick courthouse, which was in use when Belmont was the seat of Nye County – a title ceded to Tonopah in 1905. The courthouse is a state park, and ostensibly open to the public, but the padlocked doors suggest otherwise.
A detailed tour of Belmont, including one of the two cemeteries, takes about 20 minutes. This leaves ample time to find a more inventive way to the next stop. Rather than retrace State Highway 82 the 26 miles back to its confluence at State Route 376, we took the Explorer through the Forest Service roads to the one remaining settlement between Belmont and Round Mountain – Manhattan.
The grandiose name was no accident, nor was this Manhattan’s failure to eclipse its New York counterpart. Founded in 1867, Manhattan now claims 124 residents, none of whom were visible this day. Manhattan is also the only place in rural Nevada where the political yard signs indicated any notable support for incumbent U.S. Senator Harry Reid. If our trip counts as an unscientific poll, Sharron Angle can begin measuring the drapes for her office in the Dirksen Building.
This week, an ambitious 3-day trip through a few of the ghost towns and apparition-towns we haven’t yet seen, or seen enough of, in Nevada. So many of them that it warrants multiple posts. More tomorrow.
There are several names for this underappreciated, undertraveled part of the continent – the Intermountain West, the Great Basin, the Mormon Corridor, America’s Outback. Visitors, even from surrounding states, rarely appreciate how sparse and desolate this mysterious land really is.
We headed northwest out of Las Vegas on U.S. Highway 95, which connects Canada to Mexico. Fifty years into the interstate era, 95 remains one of the few U.S. routes that hasn’t seen its traffic decrease, largely because it never carried that much to begin with.
Nevada has 3 congressional districts. NV-1 is urban Las Vegas and NV-3 is suburban Las Vegas, meaning that the remaining one is the largest district in the lower 48 (excluding the at-large district coextensive with the entire state of Montana, and even that one is slightly more densely populated than NV-2.)
Las Vegas is unusual among major metropolitan areas in that its sprawl has crisp, unmistakable boundaries. The city doesn’t consist of a central business district of skyscrapers, giving way to low-rises, circumscribed by tract homes and then surrounded by farms. Instead, it’s a populated mass that borders sagebrush which immediately disappears into the horizon.
U.S. 95’s desolation starts in central Clark County and continues throughout the entirety of its Nevada run. The towns are irregular, both in their spacing and in their character – Indian Springs, which hosts a newly christened Air Force base and a prison. Amargosa Valley, an arid crossroads with no visible residential population, and home to the least likely dairy in the world. Beatty, where two-lane U.S. 95 takes a 90º turn on main street and becomes a logical place to stop and find a place to eat; the wonderfully named Sourdough Saloon. In most other places, a restaurant with such a handle and décor (stapled currency on the walls, mismatched chairs, deep-fried menu) would be kitschy. Here, it’s mainstream.
Continue up the highway, and you’ll reach several junctions with dirt roads that lead south to the northern reaches of Death Valley. Miles to the north lie Yucca Mountain and the notorious Nevada Test Site. And yards to the north, a wayward mountain coyote.
She was docile, and reasonably comfortable around humans – far more so than the urban coyotes found in Las Vegas’ outskirts. She appeared to be negotiating a crossing of the highway – waiting for the traffic, such as it was, to subside. Mountain coyotes typically hunt in pairs, leading one to wonder whether this one was searching for food, her partner, or perhaps her litter. We checked a nearby culvert for cubs, and found nothing. The coyote trotted haphazardly, neither avoiding human contact nor going out of her way to embrace it. She posed for a few photographs, avoided the desultory 18-wheelers speeding by, then continued with whatever quest she was on before being so rudely interrupted.
Welcome to the most remote town in the lower 48: Jarbidge, Nevada. (No, not “Jarbridge”, Jarbidge. While we’re at it, it’s not “Ne-vah’-da”, either.)
Situated in the 180-square-mile Jarbidge Wilderness, the namesake town tests the limits of the axiom about the journey being the destination. The “nearest” “major” city is Twin Falls, Idaho, a town of 35,000 people that’s 92 miles away, most of that on quiet county roads and dirt. We traveled from the next closest destination of decent size: Elko, Nevada, home to 17,000 people and 100 miles from Jarbidge.
The trip from Elko takes a couple of hours. The guidebooks state that a car can make the trip, but at times it even felt treacherous in a full-size 4WD SUV. The only vehicles we passed along the dirt portion of the program were other SUVs, passenger trucks, and plenty of ATVs..
Estimates of Jarbidge’s population range from 12 to 20. Why there isn’t an authoritative, exact count of such an easily quantifiable population is unclear. We would have conducted the census ourselves, but the locals don’t take kindly to outsiders pressing them for information.
Case in point, the Sagebrush Rebellion of the mid-1990s. To summarize – a flood washed out a nearby road. Representatives of the U.S. Forest Service decided to close the road, reasoning this would give the local bull trout population a chance to grow. The locals, with the backing of county government officials, decided to open the road themselves. People from all across the West descended upon the town to offer their help in beating back a voracious and nonrepresentative federal government, in the form of manual labor. The “Jarbidge Shovel Brigade” kept the road open and is memorialized by the 28′ high shovel in the picture.
Enter Las Vegas-to-Jarbidge on Google, Bing, Yahoo and Mapquest and you’ll see 4 different routes. Ours involved taking State Route 225 north of Elko, then heading east on County Road 746. From there, signs are as sparse as asphalt. The wildlife is not shy, with plenty of mule deer and even the occasional pronghorn. But the most exotic wildlife we encountered – if by exotic you mean alien and curious – were the untold numbers of Mormon crickets swarming the dirt road at various points. These infernal katydids, many of them the size of a chihuahua puppy, are the bane of Elko county. They can travel in packs up to a mile long and a mile wide, the ones in front motivated to cover ground by having their cannibalistic brethren marching behind. No one wants to get a flat tire on an off-road adventure, but especially not where there’s a danger of sharing the ground with a few myriad giant insects. Fortunately, they can’t fly.
Jarbidge itself sits over 6000′ above sea level, but still 2000′ below the surrounding mountains, which presumably makes traveling here in the winter a challenge. In the summer, however, the place is gorgeous and thoroughly modern – the food is plentiful, the credit cards are honored, and even the telephones work (land lines were installed in 1984. Cell phones, any decade now.)
To return, we continued north out of town, on an additional 17 miles of dirt before crossing into Idaho and driving another 45 miles east to the town of Rogerson, complete with gas pumps. Rogerson sits on U.S. Highway 93. Take it south to Jackpot, Nevada, a border town where Twin Fallsians go to gamble.