Great Basin National Park, Nevada
I awoke with a start. A noise had pulled me from my sleep, but I couldn’t place it. An owl, perhaps. I listened, but the only noise I heard was the calming susurrus of the nearby brook. After a time, I heard the wind through the pines. How different it sounded at night. What was comforting and energizing during the light of day became haunting and foreboding alone and in the dark. We are genetically hard-wired with 50 million years of night-fear. Night was when the predators came. A few thousand years of civilization can’t undo that. You may think you’ve got it beat. You may tell your children that there is nothing to fear from the dark. But put yourself out alone in the wild in the middle of a pitch-black night and then ask yourself who’s not just a little bit afraid.
The clothes I wore were damp, as if from a fever-break. I wiped cold sweat from my forehead. I hadn’t been sleeping well that night. My body, restless. My dreams, fractured and stressful. I had been dreaming about a flat tire on my motorcycle. That was a problem I didn’t want to face on those lonely roads. I pulled up my sleeping bag and cinched it tight around me as I listened to the sounds of the deep night. Sometime later I fell back into restless slumber.
The morning sun lit up the tops of the tall pines that surrounded me. I stretched and yawned, and the night’s cobwebs cleared from my mind. Afraid of the dark? Ha! What a notion! I crawled out of my sleeping bag and shuffled over to a nearby pine. After watering the tree and brushing my teeth, I struck my tent and packed up my sleeping bag. It was a beautiful cool morning, and I was itching to get an early start so I could take a little tour of the park before heading east. I secured my gear on the bike and lit out for the hills.
I hadn’t eaten breakfast, but I was counting on finding some food before too long. I headed down the mountain and made my way back to Rt 50. I turned right onto Rt 50, heading east, and a few miles later, I was at the Nevada/Utah border. There was only one small cluster of buildings at that lonely border: The Border Inn and Casino – a restaurant/bar/casino/gas station/motel/RV park, and the only thing around for miles. I loved it. Breakfast at the Border Inn, it was. I parked my bike, strode into the restaurant and sidled up to the counter. I looked over the menu as my coffee cup was filled. Eggs, toast, bacon. Can’t go wrong with the basics. The counter was filled with locals. I sipped my coffee and listened while I waited for my eggs. Folks in small towns like Baker, Nevada move differently and speak differently. Their orbits are slower. They don’t rush like city folk. I listened as they spoke of trivial things. The subject matter wasn’t important, but the way in which they spoke of it was fascinating. A man with a red mesh baseball cap was talking to a another man and a woman.
Woman: Well, you know Sam. He just can’t tolerate air conditionin.’
Man: Yep. It’s true. He ain’t never had it. Says he don’t need it. I can go most days without it, but sometimes…
Red Cap: My truck’s ready for AC. I got the blower. I ain’t hooked it up, though…
And they carried on like that. Just idle talk and gentle gossip, spoken in measured tones at a pace which would drive a city-dweller mad. I loved it. They reminded me of the tobacco farmers I worked for as a kid in South Glastonbury, Connecticut.
I ate my breakfast and downed a few more cups of coffee. When I felt properly caffeinated and awake, I tossed some cash on the counter, nodded to the locals and headed out into the cool morning. Someday, I’ll take Handan there, when we’re older and retired and riding around the country. I think she’ll like it.
I rode out of the parking lot and crossed into Utah riding straight into the climbing sun. This was stunning country. Basin and range as far as the eye could see. The sense of space was overwhelming! I wondered about the first American settlers to this land. What did they think each time they crossed over a line of mountains. What did they expect to see as they looked down after cresting a ridge? The Promised Land? The ocean? Certainly not another endless stretch of basin and scrub brush. How humbling. How terrifying.
The landscape was dotted with salt flats – remnants of ancient oceans long since evaporated. Some, like Sevier Lake, will fill with a few feet of water depending on the year and the season. The salinity of the water at those times approaches 20% – prohibitive for life and salty enough to prevent freezing in winter. Salt flats are mesmerizing. I pulled over and walked out into one, blinded by the glare. I wanted to ride my bike out there, but I knew that the salt wreaks havoc on tires. I moved on into central Utah.
There is a region there known as the Confusion Range, so named for its isolation and quirky geology.
Shortly after riding through Salina, Utah, I ran over a piece of metal in the road. My dream. I spent the rest of that day obsessing over a possible puncture and the probability of a blow-out.
My time on Rt 50 was drawing to a close. My goal for the day was Grand Junction, Colorado, and from there, I would break from Rt 50 and head north to Aspen. I took a few more photos along the way in eastern Utah and western Colorado.
I rolled into Grand Junction, sweaty and beat. After a cool morning, the day had turned wickedly hot, foreshadowing the heat I would experience for the rest of my trip. I had been lucky with the weather thus far. When I had left San Francisco, there were storms in the Pacific Northwest, severe storms and flooding in Texas, storms in the northern plains and storms on the east coast. I was riding in the only clear patch in the whole country! More amazing, as I pushed east, bad weather closed in behind me, enveloping California in rain, while the storms ahead of me continued to push east. I was riding in a moving pocket of clear air. What luck! But luck always runs out, eventually, and I would have a harrowing time fleeing a tornado-spawning storm a few days later.
But that was in the future. Right then, I was in Grand Junction, ready to find a hotel with a restaurant and a bar. I found one whose name is lost to time. I got a room, had a long, cool shower, and went downstairs to the bar. I drank one of the best margaritas I’ve ever tasted and ate a hamburger that could have won awards. After another margarita or three, I called it a night. The next few days would be a mid-trip break, as I would visit my sister and brother-in-law in Aspen. They were there for a friend’s wedding, so I planned a detour to see them. Then I would shoot over to Fraser, Colorado – the town I lived in for a year after college – to visit my college buddy and Colorado roommate who was still making his home there as a fly fishing guide during the summer and cross country ski guide during the winter.
I slept well that night and dreamed of empty roads and wide-open spaces.
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