"We don't see too many folks on foot out here," exclaimed the cattle rancher, as he hopped down from the truck he had been using to ferry cows from one pasture to another. And not only was it unusual to see walkers, but we were an unusual looking pair. I was, at age 65, a bearded California outdoorsman towing a 150-pound rickshaw, while my niece Laura, 22, was a backpacking Ohioan just out of college who would soon be off to medical school.
That day we had been "dusted" numerous times by the rancher, who had then surprisingly stopped to apologize for disturbing our walk and to ask what we were about. After talking for most of 15 minutes, he drove off only after offering us any help we might need including the use of his camp just a few miles away. His down-home hospitality was to be repeated many times during our 500-plus-mile trek down the east side of Nevada from Idaho to Arizona.
Dust is a given when you trek the four-wheel-drive roads of the state's outback. That it was a problem we knew going in and so weren't surprised when it materialized. But a problem bigger than expected was the issue of getting into the rhythm of long distance walking. The daily chores of breaking down camp and setting up a new one, setting up the stove and cooking breakfasts and dinners and maintaining personal hygiene -- not to mention laundry, dishwashing, journaling and photography -- all took more organization and time management than we had expected.
It was ten days into our hike, a Sunday, when doubts first entered the picture. The day had been a short but tough one -- only 7 miles covered, and two of those were off-trail to pick up a water cache. Our objective had been a campsite near Charleston Reservoir, a wetland lake at the base of the Jarbidge Mountains, where we had hidden 12 gallons of water. The day's trials had started off at dawn with ice in our tent, and included breaking a shadeless-camp in midmorning under a relentless sun, walking through a hundred-degree afternoon, then setting up a new camp and doing a large load of laundry. In fact my trip journal recorded the entry: "Today, for the first time, I'm questioning the wisdom of this venture." My companion later confessed to similar feelings.
The heat problem we mitigated by setting our alarm for 5AM. But as I sat outside in the dark that first early morning, headlamp and stocking cap on, wearing three layers of body insulation and watching my exhaled breath as I tried to coax a cold stove to life, I pondered the trade-off. We were dealing with at least a 50-degree-day-to-night variation, and managing that was no easy feat. The cold daybreaks, however, led to nice morning hiking temperatures, even though they did nothing for the afternoon heat. But we did cover more ground. That next day we breezed through 11.5-miles, and began to discover that the easiest mileage of the day almost always came before noon.
It took most of the 80-mile journey from the Idaho Border to Interstate 80 near Elko to "shake down" the trip, that is, for us get used to our loads, me with my rickshaw (which we nicknamed Gertie), how to load her, trim her and how much weight I could actually pull. Laura had similar lessons getting used her expedition backpack. This process also included our getting to the point where "chore allocation" between us required no thinking or talking. That proved easier than I had imagined, as Laura was good at anticipating what needed to be done, and if I wasn't doing it, she set about doing it herself. By the end of this first segment of the hike the two of us could set up the tent in 30 minutes even in a strong wind. Finding a campsite, on the other hand, sometimes took us an hour.
After the tent was up, Laura handled most of what went on "inside" including air mattress inflation, extracting sleeping bags from their waterproof sacks and arranging things in the crowded tent to minimize claustrophobia. My responsibilities became everything "outside" including finding level ground for our two lightweight chairs, selecting a flat, non-flammable locale for the stove, assembling and fueling it and rearranging Gertie for the evening. Our division of responsibilities naturally evolved since Laura "showered" every afternoon in the tent, whereas I preferred making my ablutions in the fresh air. (Quite appropriate, since "older men" and "younger women" normally are at opposite ends of the modesty spectrum. But passersby were rare during our nomadic days.)
We had enough clean clothes for at least three days of walking and since we normally picked up fresh water at that same frequency, we would wash clothes only after securing a fresh supply, usually 12 gallons. Water in the desert is a precious commodity and we treasured it accordingly. We never knew when some animal, two-legged or four, would tamper with our cache. Our luck held and that never happened.
After rest and a re-supply break in Elko, we hit the trail re-energized. We reached the top of Secret Pass in the Ruby Mountains on a Friday evening and set up camp. It was then that Laura discovered what became known as "the mother of all blisters." She wore new boots for the hike and while the first two weeks of walking failed to produce any foot problems, this second segment started off differently. The blister, red and about the size of a quarter, was evident before dinner. She had had no clue it was developing.
The next day, descending into Ruby Valley, brought worsening conditions. We stopped early to air out Laura's foot and hopefully accelerate recovery. No luck. The next day was horrible for her. She began favoring the blister, now covering one-quarter of her foot, and that in turn brought on other foot problems. Something had to be done, as this injury could seriously impact not only the success but also the enjoyment of the trek. That night, as a future doctor, she performed her first surgery, lancing the blister using her headlamp. The surgery was successful and we walked 13 miles the next day.
But that painful Sunday in Ruby Valley proved to have a silver lining -- we were hit head-on with the hospitality of rural Nevadans. It started when we stopped in at a valley ranch house. Already a little low on water (we had none cached in the area), we paused mid-morning when we saw a sprinkler in the yard. We entered hesitantly. Everyone "knows" Nevadans are well armed and quite capable of defended their widely spaced domiciles.
"Hello, anyone home?" I called towards an obviously wide open house.
"What can I do for you?" responded an attractive 30-something rancher coming out onto her deck.
"Could we fill our water jug from your sprinkler? "We're running a little low."
"No, because you'll get beaver fever from it -- let me get you something better from inside."
With that she promptly hooked a hose up in her kitchen and brought it out within reach of the jug while noting the uniqueness of Gertie and asking who had made her. As I filled our six-gallon plastic container (nicknamed "Big Blue") she questioned us on our purpose and destination.
"Arizona," I said, for the first time with conviction. After 100-miles-plus under our belts, Laura's foot notwithstanding, we were beginning to feel like that goal was a possibility. Another ten minutes of chatting ended with a pleasant goodbye and wishes for a safe trip.
Toward the end of the day, with Laura's foot in agony, we were sitting on our chairs by the side of the dusty road eating our trail mix and dried fruit. We were actually considering camping right there.
"Are you the two hiking to Arizona?" a middle aged woman asked from her stopped car. Obviously after our contact earlier in the morning, word had spread.
"Well my home is 3 miles down the road and while the house is off-road a ways, there's a 5th Wheel by the fence and it's open. Why don't you guys make yourselves at home, there's hot water, a washer and dryer and beds."
It was obvious the woman didn't do that kind of thing very often, her speech was somewhat broken as she tried to put her sentiment into words. After saying we weren't sure we would get that far and thanking her profusely, she drove off.
Ten minutes later we were still talking about our last offer of hospitality when a large cattle-feed truck drove up and the airbrakes swished it to a stop. A rancher in well-tailored levis and cowboy hat and boots hopped down and came over, as a woman stayed in the truck.
"The name's John Neff," he said as he extended his hand. After introductions he proceeded to "tell" us where his house was (a half mile), "instructed" us to set up camp in his front yard and make ourselves at home. He was obviously a man accustomed to directing people.
"We're going down the valley to a social event and we'll be back in a coupla hours. We'll see you then."
Obviously still in shock from the previous offer we were almost speechless. We thanked him and he headed off.
We chose not to follow his strict instructions, instead camping on his property across the road near the barn, under a canopy of enormous cottonwood trees. We just couldn't see messing up his yard, even if only temporarily, as our campsites sometimes resembled a homeless encampment. It was under those trees that Laura performed her surgery (it took 12 pokes with a sterilized needle.)
While the Ruby Valley's hospitality was never to be duplicated, our experiences pointed out indisputably that rural Nevadans are almost instinctively hospitable, frequently curious and rarely suspicious. Early in my planning, friends asked if I was going to take a gun along, some even volunteering to loan me theirs. "There's a lot of bad dudes out there in the desert," I would hear. After thinking long and hard about it, I chose not to, believing more harm can be caused with a gun than without. Instead, our self-defense kit consisted of two canisters of pepper spray. And while I'm sure there are indeed "bad dudes" out there somewhere, the worst behavior we encountered were the occasional "dusters" and even they frequently apologized for doing it. (To be continued.)