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Old 07-18-2011, 02:59 PM   #1
WoodWorks OP
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Transcontinental Railroad & Pony Express (NV & UT)

The western United States, especially the Great Basin region of the western United States, has some vast expanses that are only accessible by dirt or gravel roads. Perhaps this is because there are so few humans out there, and there seems little point in connecting tiny, isolated hamlets and ranches with networks of expensive pavement. Nevada, for instance, has a population density of 18.2 persons per square mile (compared to New Jersey: 1134.4 or even Texas: 79.6), a calculation that includes the Las Vegas and Reno metropolitan areas. Away from those glittering gambling meccas, you're much more likely to run across a jackrabbit or a coyote than another human being.

These unpeopled, jackrabbit landscapes are the ones I find myself most drawn to explore, preferably by motorcycle.

And so it is with this in mind that I rode out in early July to travel the dusty parts of Nevada and Utah. Not aimlessly, mind you. I did have a couple of goals in mind for this trip. Specifically, I wanted to roll along the old, abandoned railroad right-of-way north of the Great Salt Lake past Promontory Summit (of Golden Spike fame), and then return west via whatever traces I could find of the old Pony Express route. But other than that, my goal was to see what's out there, and to take my time seeing it.

My usual habit of racking up as many miles as possible was off the agenda for this trip. If I found myself stopped somewhere in the late afternoon, looking at the map and noting that another 200 miles will get me to Ibapah, or Mottville, or Jiggs, I would resist temptation, fascinating as those places may be. I had been through Ely at least ten times, and had never visited the famous railroad museum there. I determined that this time I would. Call this the Stop and Smell the Sagebrush Ride.

Here's a map of the planned route.



Of course, plans change. Mechanical devices fail, distant vistas beckon, exhaustion sets in, and weather happens. Were I to get rained on, all that dust would turn to mud. And mud is not my friend. So there would certainly be unforeseen diversions from the plan. But that's OK. There's plenty out there that I have yet to see.

My plan was also to camp at least a few times along the way. It was the time of the new moon, and eastern Nevada is one of those places least affected by light pollution. So the starry sky would be spectacular.

I decided to leave all of my fancy photography gear at home this time, and documented the trip using only the camera in my iPhone. Naturally this means that my images may lack some sharpness and dynamic range, but it would also allow me to concentrate simply on light, shadow, and composition. You know, what photography is supposed to be about.

Since I was traveling light, the iPhone would also be my sole method of updating this report. I figured that this maybe cause the odd worm to be insert into the text as the auto-correction feather does its thing. But you'll just have to chalk that up to poop proof-reading on my party.

And I can't express enough thanks here to AdvRider's own DockingPilot for providing GPS tracks for the section around the Great Salt Lake and the Pony Express route through Utah, and to Bucko for valuable info about the Pony Express trail in Nevada. This trip would not have been possible without their invaluable help.

So... Wish me Luck!

Ready... Set...
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Old 07-18-2011, 03:11 PM   #2
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Good Luck! It sounds like you have done some homework and it should be a great trip. I am very jealous!
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Old 07-18-2011, 03:44 PM   #3
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I'm in, this is one of the trips I've been wanting to take for awhile.
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Old 07-18-2011, 04:38 PM   #4
EnderTheX
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Subscribed! I too love the wide open areas in the desert. I'm looking forward to following your remote riding!

The last old railroad trail I traversed had me on edge after finding some other motorcyclists stopped to repair a tire an old railroad spike had torn apart
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Old 07-18-2011, 08:54 PM   #5
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Always in for a ride in my backyard.

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Old 07-18-2011, 09:31 PM   #6
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Old 07-18-2011, 09:51 PM   #7
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Quote:
Originally Posted by ChiTown View Post
... and you possibly sharing those tracks when you're done....
I saved some. Lemme know!
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Old 07-18-2011, 10:04 PM   #8
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The Mound of the Basquevilles

What is it with the Basques and their food? I've eaten at Basque restaurants several times now, and each time I've been presented with multiple courses of heaping piles of food, enough to satisfy at least four very hungry people. I mean, it's good food and all, but does anyone over there actually clean their plates? Is there some sort of Euskadi gene, that gives them a hyperactive metabolic rate? Or hyperbolic meta-active? Seriously. Had I been able to take my leftovers with me, I could have eaten well on just them for the rest of this trip.

Next time, I'm bringing a cooler. And a tapeworm.



Setting Out

So where was I? Oh yes, I got a late start today, so I made it only as far as Alturas in northeast Cailfornia. It was a scenic ride, though, over highway 66, one of my favorites.



Highway 66 at the Klamath River

I was headed toward Klamath Falls, but I bypassed the town via a little shortcut I know that took me through the Wildlife Refuge south of there, and then southeast past Newell, where the remains of the Tule Lake War Relocation Center are still visible. 18,700 Americans of Japanese descent were interred (how about we just call a spade a spade and say imprisoned) there from February 1942 until the camp was finally closed in March of 1946.

I rolled up to the fenced area surrounding the only remaining building from the camp, the jail, just as a car was pulling out. The driver of the car rolled down her window and asked if I wanted to see the place. Well yeah. She turned out to be a volunteer docent who was just about to leave for the day. Instead, she turned around and gave me a private tour of the jail.

Her name was Laura Patton, and she told me that she was a newly minted history major from Minnesota, volunteering out here in hopes of eventually being hired as a Park Ranger. She had a stack of old photos of the camp, and while we wandered through the cool interior of the remains of the jail, she filled me in on the history of the place and some details about the people imprisoned there.



Laura Patton in front of the jail





Tule Lake Relocation Center

It was an amazing stroke of luck for me to have arrived when I did. And after the tour I thanked her profusely and expressed my dismay that our government can't seem to figure out a way to pay for such excellent public service.

My guess is that she shares my dismay.

Just beyond Newell are the lava beds and the stronghold where Captain Jack and his 53 Modoc warriors held off more than 500 soldiers and militiamen for more than six months in 1873 after the government tried to herd the Modoc onto the same reservation with their old enemies, the Klamath. I mean, what could possibly go wrong?

There's a cross on top of a nearby bluff to commemorate Gen. Canby, the only general to be killed in the Indian wars.



Canby Cross and the stronghold in the distance

Both the camp and the lava beds left me thinking that our nation has had finer hours.

But I've had few finer hours than the time I spent for the rest of the afternoon, rolling through the Modoc National Forest into Alturas, where I find myself tonight, recovering from the aforementioned culinary assault by the Basques.

The Modoc forest is covered with juniper and ponderosa pine, and after our recent rains, the heat of the day filled the air with a delightfully pungent aroma.




Modoc National Forest

I understand that the juniper is a bit of fire hazard, and I saw evidence of thinning operations as I rolled along. That made me sad. Think of all those juniper berries going to waste, instead of being distilled into good, wholesome gin!



Near Alturas

Miles today: 158.3
Total miles: 158.3
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Old 07-18-2011, 10:26 PM   #9
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The Jungo Book

The day dawned clear and cool, and I wasted no time packing up and heading north on highway 395 toward the turnoff onto County Road 13 that would take me over Fandango Pass and into the Surprise Valley, where I would break fast in Cedarville.

I had only ridden this section of 395 twice before, both times in late summer, and to my surprise I found that Goose Lake is actually a genuine lake in early July, and not a dry lakebed. Who knew?



Goose Lake

The western approach to Fandango Pass rises gently on the west side, and belies the struggle that the early settlers faced on their trek from the east.



The Western Approach to Fandango Pass

I stopped at the summit and surveyed the 1600 foot drop (in one mile!) down into the Surprise Valley. How ox-drawn wagons made it up that grade is a secret that's all too safe with me.




Eastern side of Fandango Pass, Surprise Valley and the Warner Mountains in the distance

The pass was originally named for Peter Lassen, who plotted the track southwest from the Applegate Trail, the trail that allowed Oregon-bound settlers to avoid the dangerous route down the Columbia River. But somewhere along the way it got renamed Fandango Pass, for reasons that are lost in western lore.

The two competing stories are: A) the first settlers were so happy to have survived the crossing of "The Great American Desert" that they broke into a fandango once they hit the summit. And 2) a troop of soldiers stationed at the base of the pass in winter broke into a fandango to keep warm.

Neither of these fables pass the smell test for me. If I had spent the good part of several weeks dragging an ox train up 1600 feet of rim rock, the last thing that I'd have the energy for is dancing.

As for the light-footed soldiers, I've looked up "fandango" on YouTube, and it's not a very energetic dance. There are many, far better ways to keep warm. I don't know. Maybe "Jumping Jack Pass" didn't have that certain pioneer cache.

Anyway, I had much less trouble getting up and over the pass than the early settlers did, and I even had the additional advantage of a comfy breakfast place waiting for me just down the road in Cedarville.

South of there the landscape turns dry and barren, and I finally got my first whiff of sagebrush.



The Warner Mountains

An hour, and many delicious curves later, I was in Gerlach, NV of Burning Man fame. Since I had just ingested a large meal, I skipped the customary plate of ravioli at Bruno's Country Club, and decided to ride north a bit to see what sort of shape the playa was in. I couldn't resist rolling out onto the lakebed and take this picture with Gerlach in the background.



The Playa

Those of you familiar with my previous unfortunate encounter with the playa's mud may find this decision puzzling.
And for those of you unfamiliar, here's a clue:



Here's the thing: I need to learn everything the hard way. At least twice. OK?

Just south of Gerlach is the start of the Jungo Road, a 100-mile shortcut to Winnemucca that traverses a very empty part of Nevada. I had ridden this road once before, so I just aired down my tires and got on with it.



Airing Down the Tires

I love this road. It's seriously isolated, and when I stopped at about the halfway point and shut off the bike, I got to witness what silence really is. The weren't any clanging human sounds, nor any natural ones. No wind. No tinkling brook or rustling leaves. No bugs. Nothing. Silence.

Wow.




Jungo Road

But I couldn't just stand there all day listening to nothing, so I forged on, encountering some wild horses just before passing the big mining operation at Sulphur.



Wild Horses



Sulphur Mine

Shortly thereafter the road turns into a gravel superhighway, and I was up in 5th and 6th gear all the way into Winnemucca.



Gravel Superhighway

I had entertained the idea of bypassing I-80 on another 100-mile dirt road. But the temperature was 92F at 2 o'clock when I rolled into town. And the idea of crossing terra incognita in the heat of the afternoon seemed neither prudent nor pleasurable. So I aired up the tires and slipped onto I-80.

By the time I gassed up in Battle Mountain, the thermometer on my bike read 102F, so I think I made the right decision.

Tonight I find myself in Wells, NV. I was hoping to find a small motorcourt motel within walking distance of a cozy bar where I could knock back a few while listening to an old-timer named Al regale me with lies about the old days. But after surveying the entire length of Business-80 as it passes through town, I can only conclude that Wells is like a terminal cancer patient, whose entire torso has rotted away, leaving only withering appendages out by the freeway exits. Time for last rites.



Miles today: 438.5
Total miles: 596.8
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Old 07-19-2011, 04:06 AM   #10
Sutherngintelmen
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hmmmmm, juniper.
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Old 07-19-2011, 04:25 AM   #11
MemphisR32
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Excellent start so far, im in!!
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Old 07-19-2011, 04:34 AM   #12
pops
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I am in
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Old 07-19-2011, 04:48 AM   #13
achesley
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Nice Report. Love that area. Memories flowing as I read yur report. Keep it coming.
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Old 07-19-2011, 08:41 AM   #14
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Enjoying the write-up.

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Old 07-19-2011, 09:57 AM   #15
WoodWorks OP
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Riding the Iron Piglet

The view out of my motel window was ominous this morning. Dark grey clouds obscured yesterday's clear blue sky. And I feared that my plan to ride the abandoned transcontinental rail bed might get washed away.

But it wasn't raining yet, and the local forecast predicted only a 30% chance of rain. So I packed up and hit the Interstate.

My tank was only half full, but my AAA map showed a town called Oasis at a turnoff up ahead. It's on I-80. There had to be a gas station there, right?

Well, there was a gas station all right. But it looked like it had been abandoned about twenty years ago. And that's pretty much all there was to Oasis. So now what? Head back to Wells, or continue another 35 miles to Wendover and then take a 52-mile dirt detour to Lucin, UT, where the rail bed began.

I hate backtracking. So Wendover it was.

I filled up there, and put some gas in my two MSR bottles for security. I wasn't sure how much gas I was going to burn before I popped back out into civilization just north of Salt Lake City.

I hadn't planned for this detour, so I had no topo maps of the route north out of Wendover. But I did have my AAA map that showed a rough road from just east of Wendover all the way to Lucin.

So I plugged Lucin into my GPS and asked it for the shortest route. It routed me out of Wendover in a northerly direction, but the road wound through a residential tract, and then ominously turned to gravel right next to the Wendover cemetery. Hm. Bad omen?

Very quickly the road turned into a very rough jeep tack, with deep ruts filled with fine gravel. Though it was headed in the right direction, I knew that by staying on this road it would probably take me all day to get to Lucin, and very likely would cause me to drop the bike more than once.

It's been my experience that if a road appears on a AAA map, I can usually count on it being well within my comfort zone. But this road was well outside of that zone. Time to turn around and reconfigure the GPS.



The Wrong Road

So I rolled back into town and had another gander at the map.

The "right" road seemed to begin a little to the east. So I got back onto I-80 and rode to the next exit at the Bonneville Salt Flats. Then I asked the GPS to take another crack at it.

This time the course it gave me seemed to hew more closely to the line on the map, and after heading up and over a ridge to the north, I was rolling along on a nicely graded gravel road, skirting the edge of the Silver Island mountains, and well on my way to Lucin.



The Right Road

By 10:30 I was in what's left of Lucin (not much), and found the beginning of the old rail bed.



Lucin

The railroad ran through this part of Utah from 1869 until the Lucin Cutoff was constructed right across the Great Salt Lake in a series of landfill berms and trestles in 1904. After that it was used mostly for local traffic until 1942 when they ripped out the rails for use in the war effort in WWII. Now, anyone with a 4WD vehicle (or adequate motorcycle ) can cross the 90 miles from Lucin to Promontory, and if you find yourself in the neighborhood, I highly recommend the detour.



The Beginning of the Railbed

I figured that the track across to Promontory Summit would be relatively straight and flat, so I'd be able to maintain a decent speed. And I did for the most part. But at regular intervals the rail bed crossed washes on small trestles, and here the track would dip down and to the side. So I had to keep on my toes lest I enter these little zig-zags a little too hot.



Remains of a Trestle

Here and there I saw railroad ties left from the removal of the steel rails in 1942.



Railroad Ties

Every now and then I'd pass a sign indicating where a siding had been, or a watering station for the old steam trains, or pass through a deep cut.



But mostly I was surrounded by lots and lots of emptiness.




After three hours I ascended the last grade onto the plateau at Promontory Summit, and parked my bike in front of the visitor center there.

First I watched a 20 minute film describing the history of the railroad and the golden spike ceremony. Then I strolled out back to see the exact replicas of the two locomotives that met there when the transcontinental railway was completed on May 10, 1869. You can't board them, but you can get right up next to them, and since they've got them all fired up each day, you can feel the heat from their boilers and the steam hissing from their pistons. Gaudily painted in their original colors, they're beautiful and powerful machines from another era.






I could try to fill you in on all that I've learned about the transcontinental railway, and the Golden Spike, and all the various powers that conspired to bring the railroad into fruition, and the changes that it wrought. But better you surf on over to wikipedia, and get the info from more authoritative sources.

I just came here because I wanted to ride the rail bed.



Miles today: 273.7
Total miles: 870.5
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