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Erik Trautman

“Everything you can imagine is real.”
-- Pablo Picasso

The Longest Ride Down The Loneliest Road

The first bit of my ride from Irwin, ID to Salt Lake City covered familiar territory (which I usually hate to do) along the Palisade Reservoir but I found virgin road on 89s soon enough. That part of the ride passed little subsistence farms and decrepit farms amidst gently rolling hills. Then the hills gave way to hot flat expanses of parched plains cupped by mountains. Once I turned onto 16, the land again began to rise and I started seeing hints of the jutting red rocks that I’d come to Utah to experience.

More unexpected were the smells of New England that accompanied the birch forest which hugged the side of the mountain as the climb continued. Eventually this gave way to evergreen as the highway twisted along the pass. Forest fires again kept visibility limited until I got into Salt Lake City.

My first impression of Salt Lake, as seen from I-15, certainly wasn’t glowingly favorable. That highway seems to pass all the industrial factories and gravel producers in the state. The air has an ozone sort of smell mixed with a fine-ground rock dust. Someday I’ll have to check out the real Salt Lake City, but this time I went to bed early before a long day.

The next day I set out on the longest ride I’ve ever done: About 650 miles through the Nevada desert to Reno via Great Basin National Park. Salt Lake City was hazy and cool when I left. I had some misguided impression that it would get unbearably hot as soon as I pointed towards the Pacific. Instead, the road wound through many mountain ranges separated by long valleys that stayed cool well into the morning. The land was dry save for long salt flats that shimmered in the sunlight like oases in the distance.

I came to the national park with no preconceptions or expectations whatsoever, so I was pleasantly surprised by the experience. I learned that none of the water that falls within the Great Basin, which stretches from Southern Nevada into Oregon, will make it into the sea (at least not via any aboveground waterways). What surprised me is how much life thrives thousands of feet above the valley floors, which are basically arid.

I took a scenic ride up above 10,000 feet and was amazed to smell the most wonderful mixture of pine and birch and desert wildflowers, which had bloomed bright yellow after the rains of the previous few days. It reminded me a lot of the alpine smells in Patagonia.

At the top of the mountain, I did a 3 mile hike into a bristlecone pine forest. Bristlecones are thought to be the oldest living organisms, capable of surviving for over 5000 years. They are truly a marvel — they grow in some of the harshest climates and locations and evolve slowly over centuries to take on gnarled and unholy-looking shapes. When a bristlecone dies, it is too dense to rot… it simply *erodes* over the next 1500 years or so. They are almost like petrified wood still alive.

By the time I descended from the altitude of the park, the valley below had at last reached a more expected level of heat. I was still thousands of feet above sea level, though, so it was still manageable.

If you look at a google earth view of the route across Nevada, you can see that it looks a lot like a giant field of wrinkles. From the ground, I got quite used to racing across a sparsely vegetated valley for 20 miles, climbing through a forested mountain pass at about 7000 feet for another 10 miles, and repeating the cycle again. They call Route 50 the “Loneliest Road In America” because towns (which are often just ancient mining villages held together with duct tape and sheer force of will) are usually about 50 miles apart. Despite this, there are always plenty of mountains to climb and it’s a good place to get lost in one’s thoughts. Compared to my expectation for a flat and featureless desert, the road’s rhythm was most welcome and I didn’t find it too bad at all.

I hit some nasty thunderstorms about 100 miles out from Reno but managed to avoid the worst of them and when I shot out the other side, the sun had just began to set across the basin:

In Reno, my girlfriend (who took the shorter route) and I found our way to a completely random beer bar and took in the sight of the main strip, which is lit up like a mini Las Vegas. The “Biggest Little City In The World” sure feels like a small town trying to bark really loud. We were both glad to have seen the heart of the city but neither of us felt much urge to extend our stay. It was a very long day overall, starting at dawn and ending well after dark. It was challenging but far from traumatic. I may not do it again anytime soon, but I actually found a warm spot in my heart for that lonely road.