Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Fallon, Nevada

Friends: There may be no more pleasing or soothing sound than the gentle landing of snowflakes on tent, tiny parachutes of moisture so soft as to be barely discernible as they caress the tent's fabric. The sound is especially pleasant when they have replaced the recent din of rain drops pelting the tent.

But when one is camped at 6,500 feet in the back country of Nevada with the nearest town 30 miles and two passes away and one has less than a day's supply of food and water and it is the middle of September and one had been more concerned about heat than cold, the unexpected sound of snow falling on one's tent can feel like the grip of Godzilla upon his throat.

The day before in Eureka, Nevada, the self-proclaimed "Friendliest Town on America's Loneliest Highway," the woman who took my money at the town's small grocery store asked me, "Are you ready for winter? They say it may snow tonight." I didn't take that as a very friendly thing to say. I thought she might be toying with me, as locals are prone to do in isolated places. On the Alaskan Highway I continually heard tales of bears tearing off the rear ends of pick-up trucks and chasing after bicyclists and such.

But she seemed sincere. The temperatures had cooled and for the first time in my two crossings of Nevada these past two years, I had seen cloud cover. The clouds weren't unwelcome at all, as even if the temperature was cool, the sun was always intense and I could go miles and miles without any shelter from it. Still, I took her foreboding of snow as just meteorological hype, the weatherman trying to get people talking and to cover his ass just in case snow might materialize, when the likelihood was quite slim.

But cold and wet had moved in with gusting winds that prevented me from making it to a hot springs I was most intent on. The hot springs were off on a dirt road and they were in the middle of the desert without any protection from the wind, so when I came upon a cluster of shrubby pinon pines that offered some shelter I stopped to camp. My tent nestled amicably just under the low tree limbs. It was still raining in the morning, so I slept in for the first time since I had left Telluride nine days before. It was about ten in the morning when the rain turned to snow, and I began to fear being marooned. If it was more than a dusting and grew to inches, the road could be closed indefinitely. I'd suffered snow in France the previous May and now snow in Nevada in September. It was quite a year. There had also been snow for the first time in the 31 years of the Telluride Film Festival.

Fortunately, the snow was only short-lived, but it wasn't until two that afternoon that the sky showed signs of clearing and the end of precipitation, giving indication that it was safe to be on my way to Austin. I descended to 5,500 feet before the first of the twin passes of over 7,500 feet to Austin. As I approached I could see the mountains shrouded in clouds. At the base of the climb I was greeted by hail and a strong head-wind. It looked as if the mountain was engulfed in a blizzard. The only shelter was a historic sign in the shape of the state about half a mile away. The sign gave the lowdown on some caves down a side road. If the road hadn't been dirt, I might have made a run for them. Instead, I could only stand behind the sign and my bike contemplating what to do. After a few minutes I started cooling down fast. My only hope for survival was to set up my tent behind the small sign. Just as I finished erecting it, the storm passed and there was blue sky overhead as the clouds moved across the valley.

Down came the tent and I was soon back on the bike and climbing the first of the passes. The road was steaming dry with the sun on it, while the scruff alongside the road was covered in snow. This was the Loneliest Road in America and I had it virtually to myself. These were the ninth and tenth of the ranges I had had to climb on Highway 50 through Basin and Range country, and the steepest by far. I well remembered them from last year. I felt lucky to arrive in Austin less than an hour before dark and had no qualms about paying for a hotel room for one of the rare, rare times in my cycle travels.

It was good to be back in Austin. I remembered it well from last year, as I had been able to get a free shower at an unattended campground. If I believed in reincarnation, I would remember it too from my likely previous life as a Pony Express rider, as Austin had been one of the posts of the Pony Express route. There must be some reason why I have been drawn back to this route for the second year in a row. It is very rare for me to repeat one of my trips, though there is not a one that I wouldn't like to do again. I have been surprised at how intimately I remember the smallest details from last year's ride. Rather than the delight of discovery I have been enjoying the fondness of familiarity.

Unlike last year not once has anyone stopped to offer me anything to drink. Nor has the road been strewn with bungee cords.

Later, George

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