Walking Nevada

Part 4: Caliente to Arizona & The Finish Line

California Explorer Magazine, March/April, 2006

We couldn’t have choreographed a more beautiful ending. The evening was warmly gentle with just the hint of a breeze. The moon, nearly full, was in front of us, low on the eastern horizon as we descended the ridge towards the Arizona border. Below the moon, the walls of Grand Canyon Parashant National Monument glowed an orangey-pink reflecting the late afternoon sun. In between sat a shadowy, appropriately named, Hungry Valley and our finish line.

It was October 13th, and my niece Laura and I were about to conclude a 510-mile trek down the east side of Nevada, that began in Idaho and was concluding in Arizona. We had logged 46 walking-days from our beginning August 6, 2005, to today. During that period we had laughed, sweated and swore our way through the forbiddingly beautiful landscape. We had experienced a healthy dose of hot and cold, challenge and success, problem and frustration. And a little more rain than we expected. And through it all, uncle and niece had become great friends.

Nine days before, we had begun the final segment in Caliente after my wife Marilyn dropped us off at the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) office. We were fully supplied and ready for the final 108 miles.

By coincidence, that first day back was also my 65th birthday, and it was a memorable one. I never remember feeling better, stronger or happier. My trusty rickshaw, Gertie, and I had grown to feel as one. Even when she had a two hundred pound load, she felt like an extension of my torso. That’s not to say, however, that she wasn’t a pain at times, as a sore back might be.

We soon left civilization behind (if Caliente and its 1132 residents can be so insulted) and headed into Rainbow Canyon. The gorge is part of the Meadow Vista watershed that eventually joins the Colorado River at Lake Mead. Our presence in the Colorado watershed had been hard earned. We had started in the Columbia/Snake River basin, left that at 8600-foot Bear Creek Summit, and then walked into, through, and finally out of the Great Basin.

Our mid-morning start was later than usual, but we still covered 12 miles that day. We camped under a huge cottonwood tree bordering a small alfalfa field, behind a fence marked private property. We were accustomed to violating that convention with our campsites, as the BLM actually owns most of Nevada. The ranchers merely lease the land, and then fence it to keep their herds in. Technically it’s public land, and if you keep their gates closed, everybody’s happy.  

There was no highway in the canyon, but there was a rail line. What had seemed like a perfect spot when we stopped, became something less during dinner. The first train to reach us was easily a mile long, and the engineer gave three prominent bellows from its horn just as it approached. I choked on my mashed potatoes.

“It’s going to be a long night,” Laura said between mouthfuls.

“I’m sure the trains’ll be few and far between. This canyon’s deserted,” I responded hopefully. It hadn’t registered how many had passed while we were walking.

The trains came about every two hours all night long, and it was, as Laura had suggested, a very long one. There must have been a sign on the tracks that told the engineer to announce each train’s arrival with three blasts, as every one followed the same script. “Didn’t those guys realize it was my birthday,” I thought shortly after retiring, “Give me a break.”

Morning brought a brisk wind and cold temperatures. We were still over 4000 feet elevation and it was October after all. Rising at 6:30 AM, I had a tough time making breakfast. First the gusts kept blowing the stove’s wind-screen away, then they took on my coffee filters and finally the empty oatmeal packets. Despite wearing multiple layers of clothing, we both returned to the warmth of the tent after breakfast. We had never done that before.

Because of the canyon’s depth, sunrise came late. Full light revealed multi-colored walls that we hadn’t appreciated the previous evening. Near the rim were salmon-colored erosion patterns that contrasted dramatically with the predominant blue-green forest and white limestone walls.

The walking was easy as there was a service road that paralleled the train tracks. High water had eroded it severely, but Gertie didn’t seem to mind.

“Looks like there was quite a flood in here?” I remarked to the driver of the first Union Pacific truck that stopped to chat.

“Yeah, the rains last January and February were terrible. Just about wiped out the whole operation. Then during Monsoon time, we had a bad fire, so it’s been quite a year.”

“Why’d they put the tracks in so remote a canyon?”

“Shortest route between Salt Lake and Vegas, in fact between LA and the Midwest. Also the canyon floor’s a thousand feet below the surrounding desert which means less snow to deal with.”

“When I researched this route last June, I had no idea the track would be this busy. What concerned me then was all the private property signs.”

“Union Pacific owns a lot of the canyon, but never bothers anyone camping. But I must say we don’t see many visitors on foot.” It was hard to count how many times we had heard that.

That night we were much more selective with our campsite. The canyon had widened a bit and we took advantage of a train tunnel that muffled the noise.

The flora in the canyon didn’t prepare us for what we would see when we climbed out. In the gorge, fed by water from Meadow Vista Wash, there were sycamore trees, oaks and tall sage. Once up and out, in what is properly known as the Tule Desert, we encountered joshua trees, cholla cactus and creosote bushes. That left no doubt that we had transitioned from the Great Basin into the Mohave Desert.

“See that coyote paralleling us over there?” Laura asked as we walked.

Indeed, a small, bushy-tailed stalker had been walking with us, fifty yards off the trail.

After the trains and the Union Pacific trucks in the canyon, the Tule Desert brought total solitude. The occasional jet contrail gave us the only clue as to what century we were in. The animate shapes of the joshua trees were welcome companions as we followed a flat valley through the Mormon Mountains.

That afternoon we had a message on the satellite phone from Martin Griffith, our Associated Press friend whom we had met on the trail south of Ely. He wanted to interview us for a syndicated article he was writing about our trip. As we perched in the shade of a bear-shaped Joshua tree, we talked about what we liked about Nevada. What had drawn us to the state?

Neither of us had quantified that before, but as we talked to Martin the reasons just poured out:

• The vast majority of the state remains untouched by man -- nature as nature should be.

• A reputed desert wasteland is in reality a sagebrush ocean, containing evergreens, aspens, cottonwoods, wildflowers, lakes and rivers.

• Our route, now nearly 500-miles long, had passed by only 12,000 residents. And ninety percent of those had been in and around Ely.

• Nevada’s coy with her charms, not revealing them casually. But to those who search, they’ve got it all to themselves.

• It is the “least urbanized” state in the union.

The day after our conversation with Martin, it began to dawn on me just how far a human being can walk. In one hour, for instance, the hiker can be out of sight of someone remaining at his starting point. In a day, the hiker can walk a distance that can be measured on a highway map. And in less than 50 days of walking, it is possible to hike the length of the seventh largest state in the union.

“Do you realize that since we started, we have covered 5 degrees of the 360 degrees of longitude on the earth’s surface,” I said. “That’s a distance measurable on a globe.”

Laura gave me one of those “if you say so” looks, not wanting to break her zen-like trance. That’s the meditative state we usually assumed during the middle of the day. It helped with the miles.

Breaking camp the next morning, had us feeling like a couple of rank amateurs. After taking down the tent over 40-times in all kinds of weather, we let the wind blow it out of our grip and into a large, porcupine-like josua tree.

“Oh well, we’re done with rain, right?” Laura said.

Next, leaving our campsite, I tried to cross a berm in the desert at an angle and Gertie turned over, taking me with her to the ground. In wrestling they’d call that a body slam.

“Caught me taking her for granted, I guess.”

The last two major summits one -- 3700’, the other 4900’ -- seemed like the hardest of the trip even though we had crossed much higher.

The first high point, ominously named “The Summit,” was in the Mormon Mountains and separated the Tule Desert from the Virgin River valley. Two hours after leaving camp, my GPS announced that we had gained a thousand feet of elevation yet had made no measurable vertical progress towards the summit. It had been a hundred feet up, and a hundred feet down -- repeated ten times.

The second obstacle was Whitney Summit, the high point in the Virgin Mountains, a mere two miles from the finish line. Part of the problem was that there was an error on the map, it had miss labeled it by a considerable amount, of course in the lower direction. That can be discouraging. But we also felt Whitney contained the steepest gradient we had yet climbed, and it was also a 2000’ gain. Patterson Pass leaving Cave Valley (almost twice as high) hadn’t been that hard.

Several times I stopped to shift Gertie’s load to better trim her, but it didn’t seem to help. I kept thinking, “I can’t let the entourage of family and friends (already enroute to our meeting place at the border) see me exhausted by the side of the road, a few miles from Arizona. “And I’m damned if I’m gonna jettison the remaining water in our jugs.” Ah, pride.

Rejoining Laura at the summit (she always waited patiently for me to catch up), we giddily descended our last two miles. We stopped short of the border under orders from Laura’s mother who wanted to see her cross the finish line. We sat patiently in our camp chairs on the rutted road.

Twenty minutes later the two-car caravan rumbled up. We made our ceremonial crossing and then received a round of congratulatory hugs. A tailgate party followed that. To a person, the newcomers couldn’t stop talking about the beauty of the desert. The last hour of their drive had paralleled the route we had walked the last two days, and they had seen it under the ideal light of a desert sunset. Surely, Nevada at its best.

Leaving the darkness of the desert for the lights of Las Vegas and our hotel rooms was true culture shock. We hadn’t experienced anything like that for three months. We had seen the city’s lights for the past few nights as a glow on the southwestern horizon, but up close they were shocking.

Walking through the crowded casino toward our rooms, I felt like some alien experiencing a new civilization – the acoustical assault of the ubiquitous slot machine bells and loud voices of tipsy patrons, not to mention the hordes of people. And in my dirty shorts, salt-stained Henley, beat-up hat and gaitors still on my boots, I must have appeared equally foreign.

It’d been a hell of a trip. But Laura and I had a serious case of culinary deprivation to get over, and a room service dinner would be a great start.

Postscript to come.
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