It’s 11 p.m. in Reno, Nevada and I am sitting next to my wife on a monorail that looks, sounds, and smells like it was on its last legs during the Carter administration.
The glorified golf cart squeaks, shakes, and judders three floors above the city streets, on its way from a grim, joyless casino to a dingy, brutalist hotel block—in which every surface is sticky and slippery like a movie theater floor. I turn and look at my fellow passengers. To my left is a family with three small children who are up way past their bedtime. To my right is a group of young men with what look like prison tattoos.
Not only is this my wife’s and my first real vacation in over a year, and a chance to christen our first-ever new car, but it’s also an opportunity to get in some adventures before we start trying to have our first child. To that end, we had decided on a basic route that would take us in a vast 3,600-mile circle, across five states all in just over eight days. Despite the underwhelming and unsettlingly sticky start in Reno (more on that in a second), our trip would turn out to be all of those things and more.
The Biggest Little City In the World
The first day’s journey that took us from our home in the Pacific Northwest was designed to cover as much ground as quickly as possible. An overnight stop in “The Biggest Little City In the World” made sense, largely based on its virtues of being in about the right distance from home and also cheap. I figured that, based on my prior experience with Las Vegas, we might be able to get a decent meal, a decent hotel room, and an early start—all for a few bucks. However, cheapness and relative proximity are indeed Reno’s only virtues.
So, it was with unfulfilled dreams of all you-can-eat seafood that we climbed back into our car the following morning. We set off early, and choose to eat trail mix in the car rather than spend a minute longer in Reno. Ahead of us was the polar opposite of Reno: the “Loneliest Road in America.”
Route 50 runs across central Nevada, which is a little like saying it runs between no and where. Anchored on one side by Reno and the thriving 4,000-person metropolis of Ely on the other, there are a less than half a dozen towns on its entire stretch—and those hardly more than hamlets. More than the simple absence of towns is the absence of anything at all.
Nevada, a rumpled bed sheet
When you zoom out, Nevada looks like a rumpled bed sheet, a succession of steep mountain ranges with absolutely dead flat valleys in between. Driving through these becomes almost hypnotic, with each successive valley opening up before you, mountains in the distance, and hundreds of miles of straight road. It’s beautiful despite there being almost nothing to look at. Vast stretches of dry lake bed, sand dunes, and haze clouded mountains as far as the eye can see.
The first stretch of the drive was nothing either of us hadn’t seen before: suburbs slowly trailing off into sun-hammered and not-very-attractive desert. However, this slowly changed into the eerie—almost Martian—terrain of the Salt Wells.
ROUTE 50 RUNS ACROSS CENTRAL NEVADA, WHICH IS A LITTLE LIKE SAYING IT RUNS BETWEEN NO AND WHERE.
This vast dry lake bed is empty, devoid of virtually anything. In fact, it’s so empty, it’s where the Navy comes to practice dropping bombs. But the lake beds are just the start of what Route 50 has to offer. As we drove through this wasteland, where the only thing rarer than water is cell phone service, we discovered a number of minor miracles.
Driving west, climbing yet another mountain range towards the tiny town of Austin, my wife Kate pointed to a headland of rock to the south and called out, “Is that … a castle?”
Towering over the vast wasteland stood a sandstone spire complete with battlements at the top.
“Well, clearly we need to go look at that,” Kate said.
We managed to find a road that wound up the hillside to the tower, which was surrounded by a battered chain-link fence. The tower itself stood three stories tall, each floor collapsed into the last, and its windows staring hollowly across a hundred miles of nothing.
Finding this oddity in the middle of an empty vastness made us feel like explorers; disconnected from Google and Wikipedia, we had to just stand there and appreciate it rather than immediately begin poring over what others had said about it on the Internet. It’s not often in my life that I get to do that, feel like I’ve discovered something. It was there, wandering around the virtually mystical ruins of what I later learned was Stokes Castle, that I got into the spirit of this adventure.
America’s best idea
The next morning it was time to visit the Lehman Caves, the chief attraction of Great Basin National Park. It was named for the prospector who discovered the caves by literally falling into them. We learned this and other fun facts (the caves stretch for over two miles and are home to ten species of bats) from the Park Ranger giving the tour.
Allow me to say that I love Park Rangers. I love the dumb hats, the bad jokes, and the simple earnest devotion to the task of getting hordes of kids, senior citizens, and foreign tourists to appreciate natural wonder. Normally, I hate any kind of tour. However, I will wander around a Best Buy for a couple hours if there is someone dressed like Smokey the Bear to tell me about its construction and cultural significance.
As an added bonus, the Ranger we landed looked like the child of Teddy Roosevelt and a particularly erudite walrus, and talked like an old timey prospector. From him we—the kids, the foreigners, and the elderly also on the tour—learned that before the caves were taken over by the government they were run as a private attraction.
During this era, your $1.00 admission fee got you a candle guaranteed to last five hours, and the right to take anything out of the cave you could break, chisel, or sledge-hammer off, provided you could carry it away with you. And, during prohibition, the caverns were turned into a full-on speakeasy, with people traveling from as far away as Salt Lake City for the chance to clamber hundreds of feet underground in suits and dresses, get drunk, and do the Charleston. This, proving once and for all that Mormons can have fun.
Also, the caves are just stunning: some rooms are the size of a three-story house, while others feature formations that look like anything from pipe organs to elephants to cubist sculptures. The only sad part is that we didn’t get to drink Manhattans and listen to swing music down there.
We finished our second day in southeastern Nevada at Great Basin National Park, which is a remarkable place for a few reasons.
First, despite being less than a day’s drive from well-known sites like the Zion, Bryce, and Grand canyons, Great Basin National Park is shockingly little-known.
Secondly, the Great Basin National Park itself is centered around the 13,000-foot Wheeler Peak that towers above the surrounding Great Basin.
And third, Great Basin features a road that runs within only about a thousand feet of its peak, which we opted to take, despite our arriving at the basin at nearly sundown.
Fortunately for me, but unfortunately for my wife, this gave me ample opportunity to test the handling capabilities of our all-new car, which I did by hammering up a twisting set of switchbacks and hairpin turns—all the while perched above an infinity of sky.
Slaloming up that road that evening might not have been the nicest thing I have ever done to her. However, after a day’s driving across dead straight highway, the g-force felt like paradise to us both. At least that’s what she told me through a gritted grin.
When we arrived at the top, we were greeted by a view of snow-capped peaks, high mountain valleys, a small group of hippies, and what appeared to be a grizzled sex tourist.
For my part, I would have been just as happy to pretend these people didn’t exist. The young hippies had a pair of cute dogs, though, which ruled that out. You see, my wife has not yet met a dog that she would not vault an alligator-filled moat to greet.
YOU SEE, MY WIFE HAS NOT YET MET A DOG THAT SHE WOULD NOT VAULT AN ALLIGATOR-FILLED MOAT TO GREET.
The hippie couple, I learned while my wife showered their dogs in smooches, had driven in from Colorado in their battered pickup that looked as though it had been hammered together out of other, more broken pickups. And the couple and their dogs were stopping over at Great Basin before heading to that other great hippie reserve: Oregon.
While Kate, the young hippies, and I chatted, the other gentleman at peak that evening stumbled around us and mumbled something about the view while making sideways glances at the four of us.
Despite my immediate assessment of him, once he finally stumbled close enough to engage us in conversation, I discovered he was actually a charming Utahen. As the sun set behind us, the grizzled Utahen regaled my wife with tales of near-death experiences rafting down the Colorado River.
If these are the sorts of people you can meet on a mountaintop in rural Nevada, it’s no wonder that people call the National Parks “America’s best idea.”
After talking with our fellow travellers, we descended the mountain to locate a campsite.
To our amazement, we found a spot that was flanked by two streams that rushed down the mountainside, drowning out the sound from neighboring camps.
Being the consummate outdoorsman, gentleman, and husband, I set up camp and served my wife dinner. This consisted of dining on military rations, drinking cognac from a flask in the back seat of our VW. And, as we dined and drank, we watched a group of deer engage in what appeared to be a spirited game of tag in the meadow just yards from our car.
A place from another planet
The next few days went by in a blur, with stops at Bryce Canyon—a place transported here from another planet—and a fenced-off, abandoned mine from the 1890s that we snuck into during a thunderstorm.
As an aside, let me say, if you have ever wondered what it’s like to feel like you are about to be murdered by vengeful spirits, go wander around in some creepy stone ruins in the desert with thunder in the distance.
We also stopped at a BBQ restaurant in Gallup, New Mexico where we were surrounded by cowboys fresh from a rodeo, members of a religious sect wearing bonnets and ankle-length skirts, Navajo and Zuni indians, and a big group of German tourists riding Harleys through the desert.
All of this was only the lead up to what was for me the highlight of the trip: the Chaco Canyon National monument. It is one of the singularly strangest places in the United States. Originally home to the ancient Pueblo people, more commonly called the Anasazi, Chaco Canyon is a collection of ruins that date back well over a thousand years. The biggest of them, Pueblo Bonito, was the largest structure in North America until the 19th century.
I had been there once before when I was eight years old, and I recall, even as a small boy, being absolutely floored. Not only is it basically a giant, 1,000-year-old castle full of haunted-seeming ruins, but it’s one you’re allowed to wander around in pretty much freely.
While many of the specifics of that first trip to Chaco have faded in the last twenty four years, the feeling I had of being somewhere ancient, majestic, and alien has remained.
These days, I spend my time with people and their problems that seem altogether too real and squalid. So, I was really looking forward to coming back to a place, albeit deserted, where time seems frozen and problems feel foreign.
Intriguingly, despite it being a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most significant archaeological sites in the United States, Chaco Canyon is only connected to the world by two 40-mile-long dirt roads that, to put it mildly, suck.
The roads are bad enough that, unless you drive them at a snail’s pace, you have to focus pretty hard to keep the car pointed in the right direction. This makes the arrival at the park itself all the more shocking. Coming over the final ridge, we were confronted by a massive spire of freestanding rock. This monolith stands skull-like, with its shadow stretching out over the dry canyon floor and its dozens of ancient ruins.
After paying our admittance, and filling out some forms, we drove to the ruins themselves. From smaller sites to the massive Pueblo Bonito complex, these “great houses” combined ritual religious spaces with living and storage spaces. Easily the most striking elements are the Kivas: massive stone circles, closely mapped to solar and lunar cycles, sunk ten or twenty feet into the ground that were the site of religious rituals.
The Kivas and great houses are built on carefully surveyed lines, so that light from the sun will pass over certain areas on specific days of the year. Think Raiders of the Lost Ark. Even the cliff walls have been carved out to exaggerate natural amphitheatres and allow drumming from one site to be heard from miles away.
These ruins were home to a civilization out of all proportion to the arid, barren countryside that surrounded it. The people who lived there hauled wood from hundred of miles away and traded turquoise for cacao. They even imported parrots from Central America, a journey that, a thousand years ago, would have taken over a year to complete.
Wandering around in these old stones and buildings along with a handful of other people, it was fascinating to hear what they saw in these ruins. Putting my rusty German to use, I heard a German couple engaged in detailed discussion of engineering, proving that some stereotypes are accurate. The aged hippies seemed absorbed with the place’s energy. And a couple of kids scampering around the grounds seemed almost as thrilled by the adventure as I had once been.
We left these contemplations behind, scaling a narrow trail up a nearby cliffside to look at the ruins from above. The sun was beginning to set, while hawks circled above, and Kate and I quietly studied the scene from above, as the bright orange light eventually gave way to shadowy dusk.
Standing there with my wife at my side above Chaco at sunset was one of those moments that seems like it should be deeply meaningful. That, or that we had accidentally wandered into a commercial from New Mexico’s Tourism Board.
What I found striking looking down on these ancient ruins was not the same sense of magic or mystery that I had found when I was a kid. Rather, a sort of pleasant surprise overwhelmed me; people have been making the choice to come and visit this place for over a thousand years. First, they came for religious rituals and to see the foreign, colorful parrots. Now, people make the pilgrimage here to see something ancient and beautiful.
What’s more, they have come to a place that’s hard to get to, isolated, and lacks creature comforts when they could be revelling in some terrible tourist trap … like Reno.