A joint post by Joy & Tony
Nevada Basin and Range (Joy)
Traveling across central Nevada on Highway 50, also known as the “Lincoln Highway” but better known as “America’s Loneliest Highway”) should have been monotonous. The most unusual element of the geography was its repetitiveness: climb a mountain range, descend a mountain range, cross a valley. We did this about a dozen times. The passes were between 6500′ and 7500′ high; climbs were usually 6-8% (this is pretty easy on a bicycle); valleys were 4800′-6000′ feet high and usually about 25 miles wide. Over and over and over. We had plenty of time to focus on the subtleties in the landscape.
The books say that the mountain ranges are like islands: separated by the valleys, the ranges have their own isolated ecosystems and some unique species or varieties. We aren’t biologists enough to discern these differences. The differences between the valleys were more obvious to us. Valleys included:
- A wide salt flat in the west, near Fallon (30 miles of white and flat, this stretch was truly boring – except for messages written by placing black rocks to spell out words and messages – mostly of the “Billy luvs Suzie” variety)
- Relatively verdant stream-crossed farmland
- Less verdant ranch land
- The occasional reservoir in the bottom of the valley (I could never figure out who or what the reservoirs were for, as there were no cities nor even towns nearby)
- Even less verdant expanses of emptiness crossed by neither road nor stream nor anything at all.
Although the valleys are described as desert, they were quite green and filled with more sagebrush than anything else. In the warming sun, the sage has a dusky aroma that’s quite wonderful. In August I expect the valleys are dusty and brown, but in May after a wet winter, they were a thousand shades of green.
The beauty is subtle and not well captured by the camera. It is a study in green, from the dark black-green of the pines on the peaks, to dusty blue-green of distant hills, grey green of sage, bright pops of budding trees. We could see forever. The bones of the mountains before and behind, the shadows of the clouds on the valley floor, even the shadows of birds (vultures?) passing above.
There weren’t many highlights, which doesn’t mean it was bad, just that it was all the same. The towns were few, far between, and unworthy of the name “town” in any other place.
Austin, as almost every town that ever materialized in Nevada, was the result of short-lived mining success. In its heyday, Austin boasted a population of 10,000 and rivaled Virginia City but was hit with a double death knell of a tapped out mining vein and the creation of Highway 80 a hundred miles to the north.
Now Austin is a pathetic little town in the middle of nowhere, half way up a really steep peak along Highway 50. With a population hovering just under 200, it’s a town that doesn’t know if it’s trying to live or willing to die. It doesn’t peter out at either end the way most towns do; it starts petering out in the very middle and just stops abruptly at either end. The kind of place where residents develop an ulcer just to have something to do.
Austin once had the potential to be a cute ghost town celebrating its history of silver mining and Pony Express. Now it’s the kind of place that, if you’re driving, you would only stop at if you desperately needed gas or to pee. Certainly a place you would never remember.
Yet for us, it’s a memorable stop on our cross country bicycle tour. We spent a rest day in Austin so we had a chance to really experience the town and its residents. Mostly, that meant choosing between the three places to eat:
- the Toiyabe Cafe (which had pretty good food but closed at 5pm so wasn’t an option for either of our two dinner opportunities)
- the Chevron station (I kid you not. Both the hotel owner in Austin and a bartender in Cold Springs, Nevada, suggested the Chevron minimart as a option for meals)
- the International – a place both the hotel owner and the bartender suggested we patronize only if we were fully prepared. In fact, the hotel owner told us to, “Know the price of drinks and check your change.” Advice that came in handy.
The International is owned by an old, odd couple. Characters right out of a Chekhov play. He runs the bar and mostly stays on his side (the right side of the building.) She runs the cafe. He is a Serbian who immigrated to the US in the early 60s. It certainly colored his view of the world. He was unrepentantly racist, particularly when it came to Muslims and President Obama. When Joy and I entered the bar we were the only patrons so we sat on the stools at the beautiful 1863 bar and gingerly broached topics with him, metaphorically sticking our fingers near the flame to see what scandalous (to us, at least) things he might say worth reporting on FaceBook. He had firm opinions on many things, including Nevada laws of all sorts, Detroit, unions, WalMart and the use of curse words in front of a lady (he defended Joy’s lady sensibilities when a drunk-as-hell-before-he-even-entered-the-bar young man engaged Joy in conversation). At one point the owner commented that he had no use for either the Democrats nor Republicans but that his wife was the enthusiastic Trump supporter.
If you somehow missed her political leanings plastered on the outside of the building, she announced her views by sporting a Trump baseball cap and tracking Trumps delegate totals on a whiteboard prominently displayed in the cafe. She, we didn’t talk to other than to put in our dinner orders. But we communicated well enough. She had an awesome evil eye and she was generous with it. I’m sure her glare could wilt flowers, stop clocks, and cause young women to become barren. Even her husband was cowed by her glare, which she delivered by tucking her chin down and looking at you over the top of her glasses which always seemed to sit on the end of her nose. I was afraid to take her picture, so imagine a woman in her early 70s, of medium height who had gone soft around a big frame and who considers dressing a chore deserving of no thought other than whether her baseball cap was pointing forward.