Walking Nevada

Part 3: Ely to Caliente

California Explorer Magazine, January/February, 2006

“Are you two also doing the American Discovery Trail?” came the question from the bearded guy as he jumped out of his dusty compact car.

“Not that we know of,” I said rather sheepishly.

“Well there’s a Bay Area couple a day or two ahead of you walking to Point Reyes from the East Coast. Started in February, hoping to finish up by October,” (It was now early September.)

“No, I’m from the Bay Area, but we’re just walking the 500-mile length of Nevada. We started at the Idaho border in early August and we’re hoping to get to Arizona by October. That’s enough for us.”

“Wow, I gotta hear more about this,” our friendly inquisitor said.

As things evolved, my niece Laura and I spent over an hour talking, poring over maps and sharing stories with our new acquaintance. Martin Griffith, an Associated Press reporter from Reno, was one of the nicest “finds” we made on our trek. A kindred spirit in his love of the Western outdoors, Martin was currently doing field work on a book he was writing about John Muir in Nevada. After we finished,
he would go on to write a wire service story about the two of us and our adventure.

Earlier that morning Laura and I had left our motel bivouac in Ely, feeling ambivalent. We had just spent a week off-trail, gotten cleaned up, slept between sheets, ate everything in sight and cached food and water for the next leg. We were always glad to hit the road again, we even felt kind of slothful during our layovers, but then again, civilization was hard to leave.

This was to be the longest segment of our walk, about 170 miles, and it had taken some mental gymnastics to psyche ourselves up. We had a similar set of conflicting emotions following our last stop, a week’s R & R in Elko. We had gotten over it the very first night in camp, however, and that happened this time as well.

After leaving Martin, we capped an 11-mile first day by camping at the Ward Charcoal Ovens, a Nevada State Park.

“Wow, outhouses, picnic tables and a water pump,” Laura said as we huffed and puffed into the park after a mile-long uphill detour. A park, with even primitive camping, was an unusual treat for us. Not having to cook on the ground and having a table to eat at seemed deliciously decadent.

During our two month’s trek there were only three or four occasions that we were near enough to make use of state parks, and we always created quite a stir walking in. Laura with her backpack, me pulling my attention-grabbing rickshaw, Gertie, and both carrying a healthy coating of trail dust.

All the park rangers we met said they had never witnessed a “walk-in” before. RV’s were the rule. Nor had they ever seen a contraption quite like my 300-pound-capacity rolling backpack. One ranger even took pictures of us the next morning when we walked out.

Two days later, descending into Cave Valley, we encountered the worst storm of the trip. The morning had dawned red, warmer than usual and with a strong southerly wind – not good omens.

The valley, one of the most desolately beautiful in the state, had roads that our map labeled “impassable when wet.” We had never seen that designation before, and the combination of deteriorating weather and the threat of uncertain footing left us feeling vulnerable. We had food and water cached at strategic locations along our route, and if we were slowed down or stopped by boggy conditions, our supplies would be stretched thin. Would they last? What if we needed help? Ah, the mind can be a real problem sometimes!

Sure enough, showers began before noon, a steady rain arrived at 1PM and a downpour at 3PM. By 4:30PM we were inside our tent at a very soggy campsite. We would stay inside for the next 16 hours, eating a cold dinner of tuna burritos and catching up on our journaling. We emerged the next morning into a foggy but clearing landscape.

We lost most of that day drying clothes, sleeping bags and other camping paraphernalia that we couldn’t pack away wet. We set off into a sunny afternoon and began to absorb the beauty that was Cave Valley.

The valley is a 50-mile long, 5000-foot deep basin, that put more succinctly, presents a 360-degree piece of eye candy. The place defied description in the usual foreground, midground, background sense as its splendor was cylindrical. Behind us the valley sloped upwards to the summit we had crossed yesterday and then beyond to the granite alp of the Ruby Mountains. In front of us the valley stretched endlessly, broken only by low, forested hills that snaked from their beginnings under the sawtooth pinnacles of the Egan Range on our right. And on the left was an 11,000-foot limestone massif, containing just enough isolated monoliths to be unlike any I had ever seen.  As for civilization, from all we could tell, there wasn’t any.

Despite the beauty, the wet trail caused slow going and made us rethink our route. The plan had been to hike the entire length of Cave Valley which would confront us with more than 50 miles of “impassible when wet” conditions. At camp that evening we talked about various alternatives and hit on a revised plan. After dinner we pored over maps and took a careful inventory of supplies.

The revision would cause us to miss one food and water cache but would shorten the overall length of this segment. Water was the principle problem and the one that required our large capacity rickshaw. As we had discovered, water in the desert in late September was nonexistent, despite the recent rain. The desiccated landscape had a way of swallowing an inch or two of rain with minimal evidence. Our environment didn’t tolerate casual route changes.

The next morning, reassured that our provisions would last, we reluctantly left Cave Valley for the more stable footing of Lake Valley. But there was this little matter of 7400-foot Patterson Pass to overcome. It was an 1100-foot trudge and proved to be the steepest grade I had yet done with Gertie. (We estimated she was just about 200 pounds on that ascent.) I found myself taking baby-steps and lagging seriously behind Laura. We “high-fived” each other at the summit and gave up most of the elevation-gain descending to our next camp.

Our new routing proved to be a minimal compromise visually. The only real concession was having to parallel US 93 as it coursed its lonely way between Ely and Pioche. There were no towns or settlements in Lake Valley, but the highway and its occasional car or truck was an intrusion on our solitude. There were times when we had to walk on the road itself, but if our experience was any indication, Nevada US 93 is a close runner up to US 50 for “Loneliest Highway” designation.

At breakfast in our third Lake Valley camp, we were joined over oatmeal by a wild stallion and his heard of mares. Eight total, including one colt, they kept their “radius of comfort” but were a real treat to watch.

During this section of the walk we were averaging close to 3.5 mph according to my GPS and were logging over 13 miles per day. That pleased us given the loads we were carrying/pulling. We were running on empty, however, when we finally reached our next water cache at an isolated BLM fire station at Pony Springs Junction. We had spoken to two rangers earlier in the month and they had agreed hide 15 gallons of water for us just outside their gate. After “refueling” we proceeded east towards the Wilson Creek Range, Spring Valley and a major food cache hidden in a pinon forest. That night after packing away our treasures we confronted another major route decision.

My wife, Marilyn, was our “quartermaster” and met up with us four times during the walk to bring a truck-full of food which we would then divide into week-long packages and take out and hide. She had accepted a major baby-sitting assignment with our grandson back east and needed to fly to New York on the 20th of October. As if that wasn’t enough, she had also scheduled an end of the hike celebration party in Las Vegas for the 15th. It was now September 25 and we were over 150 miles from our destination – the Arizona border south of Mesquite! Talk about pressure! We had also planned to rest a couple of days in Mesquite.

More poring over maps. And so we discarded the Spring Valley route, a savings of at least three days of hiking and headed off the next morning towards the historic mining town of Pioche, and then to Caliente 50 miles away. Marilyn would meet us there for our last major re-supply of the journey.

After walking into Pioche, staying in a motel, and enjoying two meals at the Silver Café (treats afforded by our revised route) we proceeded south and walked into our last state park, the beautifully eroded Cathedral Gorge.

The gorge is part of the Meadow Vista watershed that eventually meets the Colorado River at Lake Mead. This milestone meant that after starting in the Columbia/Snake River basin, we had walked into, through, and now out of the Great Basin, and were now in the Colorado watershed.

We also dropped below 5000 feet for the first time on the trip and it turned hot. Two liters of Gatoraid a day were now required, versus one previously. We were sweating buckets, even though the days were getting considerably shorter.

After Cathedral Gorge, the walk to Caliente was a humdrum affair involving way too much time on US 93. Hot, dusty, windless and visually unremarkable pretty well sums it up. Our next leg, through Rainbow Canyon and points south, however, would be far from pavement and semis. We talked about that over a quart of soft serve ice cream in town. (To be continued)
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