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Physical State of Matt #4 - NEVADA

Driving the full 550+ miles from Twin Falls to Death Valley in one shot would have been grueling, so I looked for a place to stop in the middle. Great Basin National Park is situated conveniently halfway down the state along the Utah border, so I decided to stop near it for the night and check it out in the morning before completing the drive. There were multiple weather warnings for high winds and heavy snow along my drive but I had my chains so I wasn't worried - I welcomed a little weather.



BAKER

Ely was the closest city to Great Basin but, as I zoomed into the map, I spotted a small dot right next to the park labeled Baker. When I stopped to refuel in Ely I checked my hotel app. Baker had two places to stay listed and one was booked up. I took a chance, booked the Border Inn Casino, and drove on. The wind buffeted my car all over the road, but the snow hadn’t arrived yet.


I rolled up to the Border Inn Casino and thought I’d made a mistake. There were two gas pumps lighting up the night with a semi parked next to them, loaded with bales of hay. Several long single story buildings were scattered throughout the parking lot but they were all dark. The only building with lights on looked from the outside like a convenience store.



Entering the store, I discovered that the building was convenience store, front desk, restaurant, bar, and casino all wrapped up in one. The effusive Joe checked me in, handed me a menu, and offered me a seat at the bar. Relieved I could still get something to eat, I grabbed my computer from the car and collapsed into a bar seat. 


Then suddenly the power went out.


Joe wasn’t phased, and soon procured a couple of small battery powered lanterns. Ty, who had just arrived to do some gambling took a seat next to me at the bar and ordered a double scotch. Alex, the front desk manager, showed up a short while later with her boyfriend Kevin to check on the place. Apparently all of Baker was in darkness. When asked how frequently this occurs, she told me that it used to happen more, but now it’s only 2-3 time per year. She assumed the extreme wind had blown someone off the road and into a power line. 


(Ty on the left and Joe on the right - after the power returned)


Joe offered to have the cook make me something that could be made without electricity, so I had a burger from the gas grill, made by the light of a head lantern. Together, we drank whiskey in the dark bar and shot the shit. I learned about Ty’s penchant for ice baths, Joe’s hobby hunting for gold with a metal detector, and Alex’s missing orange cat Cheeto who had gotten out for the first time a week prior.


At one point I stepped outside for a moment. The wind was howling but the sky was still clear. Out in the middle of nowhere, without any light from the Casino or from Baker a couple miles away, it was pitch black and the stars gleamed with an intensity I'd never seen. 


(not my photo)


When the power finally returned an hour later, I was honestly a little disappointed. There was something surreal and enjoyable talking with strangers by the light of battery-powered lanterns, surrounded by silent slot machines. I paid what we estimated my tab to be since no one had been keeping track without the POS system, and I turned in for the night.


As I prepared for bed I heard a faint mewling over the wind. I opened the door to find a little orange cat huddled by my car crying. I tried to coax Cheeto into my room, but he wouldn’t come past the threshold and ran when I tried to get him. I walked back to the front desk to tell the woman who replaced Joe that I’d seen him. Although Alex was never able to find him that night, she was relieved he hadn’t been eaten by coyotes yet. 


The next morning I checked out and looked at the time on my phone. I was confused because it was an hour earlier than I thought it had been. Then I realized that the Border Inn Casino was literally right on the Nevada/Utah border. The night before, I had hung out in the casino in Nevada, then walked across the parking lot and slept in my room in Utah. 



As the snow started, I drove to nearby “downtown” Baker (one intersection) on the way to Great Basin National Park and stopped to refuel the car and my coffee cup. I popped into the Bristlecone General Store and spoke with the proprietors Liz and James. They also own The Stargazer Inn next door, which hadn’t showed up in my search because they don’t use booking apps.


Liz & James play and host live music, do contests for guests, and run hikes and driving excursions to watch the stars. Although I wouldn’t have traded the adventure at the Border Inn Casino for anything, I will for sure stay with them whenever I return. Liz & James had a wonderful energy and were super enthusiastic about my trip. We both took pictures to post on Instagram. 



I told them I was hoping to see Lehman Caves and Bristlecone Grove. The Bristlecone Pines are gnarled ancient trees that live in high altitudes under harsh conditions. Those in Great Basin are as many as 5,000 years old.


(not my photo)


James showed me on a map that the road to the grove was closed for the season, but it could be reached by driving to the end of the road and hiking 5+ miles each way. I didn’t have that kind of time and the weather service was predicting 3-8 inches of accumulation so I had to get out of there. I opted instead to drive to the nearby Lehman Caves Visitor Center to check those out. 


By the time I arrived at the visitors center, the snow was really coming down. I had to make this stop quick so I could get out of Baker before I got stuck. Upon entering, I was told that the caves were only accessible as part of a tour and I’d missed the 10am tour by 20 minutes. There was an opening in the 1pm tour if I wanted to stick around, but I couldn't. I watched a great 20 minute video on the park and hit the road. 


(not my photo)


This is the double-edged sword of the way I like to travel. Because I do very little planning and hardly any research, I constantly get wonderful surprises and have random adventures like the one at the Border Inn Casino, but I do get left out in the cold more frequently too.


The trip to Baker was absolutely worth it, but I will have to return when I have more time to see all of the amazing things Great Basin has to offer. I was a little disappointed to have missed everything, but I reminded myself as I drove away that this trip isn’t a tour of our National Parks and that Great Basin was a last minute addition to the itinerary with no expectations. Besides, now I have a growing list of places I want to revisit.


STOPS ALONG THE WAY

The wind hadn’t abated one bit, but at least the snow stopped once I got out of the mountains. In the early afternoon, I saw a sign marking a scenic viewpoint and pulled off the road. I parked the car and walked out to a gazebo-like structure on an overlook and discovered that I had stumbled across Cathedral Gorge State Park. Bizarrely shaped sand-colored spires and gullies stretched out before me. I took a set of stairs and a dusty path which led me to the bottom of the gorge. I wanted to explore, but I was hungry and needed to get going. I was once again reminded that a week isn't remotely enough time to properly explore a state.



I stopped for lunch in Caliente. The wind was unrelenting and the town had been invaded by a herd of tumbleweeds. Running them over when they rolled in front of my car made this grown-ass man bubble with boyish glee.





After a late lunch, I continued toward Las Vegas and over the desert, behind a ridge of mountains, caught a spectacular sunset between the passing storm clouds.



It had been dark for a couple hours by the time I emerged from the wilderness to connect with the highway 20 miles north of Sin City. Rather than pushing myself, I grabbed a hotel room in Downtown Vegas for the night.


The next day I had a straight 2-hour shot across the desert to Death Valley. Around 40 minutes in, I drove past a huge military base but didn’t think much of it. 20 minutes later I saw the first gas station I’d seen in a while so I pulled in to refresh my coffee. As I parked I noticed all the signage announcing the store to be Area 51. Getting out of my car I further realized I had parked in front of a bright pink and purple building with a sign declaring it the Alien Cathouse Brothel. I guess themed tourism presents an opportunity for all sorts of businesses.



The store was, as you can imagine, full of alien-themed souvenirs replete with probe jokes. There was even a fortune teller machine like the one in Big, but an alien. I wondered what that genre mash-up reboot would look like.



The clerk confirmed that the military base I had driven past was indeed Area 51 but that there wasn't anything for tourists to do there unless they wanted to be arrested or shot.


And no, to answer the question you silently thought, despite my curiosity I did not venture into the brothel. I had places to be.


DEATH VALLEY

I arrived at Death Valley National Park in the early afternoon. "But that's cheating - Death Valley is in California." you say. To which I respond, "Relax, they're my rules. I make 'em, I'll break 'em if I wanna."


The sun was high and the air was hazy from all the dust the wind was kicking up. The first place to pull off the road and stop was Zabriskie Point, named after Christian Brevoort Zabriskie, an executive at the Pacific Borax Company in the early 1900's. A winding path led up to a lookout that provided a view across miles of golden rolling hills, the likes of which I had never seen. The gusting wind kept threatening to rip off my hat or knock me over.



The road continued on for a few miles, finally doubling back around the other side of the hills I had seen from Zabriskie Point. I had never been to Death Valley before, so I didn’t know what to expect, but the valley stretched out for miles and miles. The mountains on the other side of it were tough to make out through the haze. 



The valley is usually a vast expanse of salt flats. The less than two inches of rainfall Death Valley gets per year can sometimes pool in the basin, but it evaporates quickly. Last year, Hurricane Hilary dropped two inches of rainfall all at once, reviving a smaller version of Lake Manly as it's known. Then in February this year an “atmospheric river” brought another two inches of rain all at once, creating a lake that was 6 miles long, 3 miles wide, and about a foot deep.



As I drove along the edge of the valley, a thin ribbon of bright reflecting light appeared in the distance. I waited until I was sure that it wasn’t a mirage before I got excited. Each mile I drove, the band of water got wider and wider until it seemed to go on forever. Astounded by its scale I said out loud “you have gotta be kidding me.” 



I pulled over and joined a cluster of parked cars by the side of the road. A sign labeled the area as Devil’s Golf Course. A narrow dirt road led straight out to the water, but there was a locked barrier across the entrance necessitating a walk. It took a lot longer to get to and from the water than I had anticipated - turns out distances are hard to gauge in the vastness of the desert. 



The water was muddy, having been churned up by days of sustained winds reaching 40 mph. Small wind-driven waves lapped against the edge of the road. Where the road dead-ended, craggy salt formations stretched to the horizon, a few inches of standing water between them.



It's cliche, but the landscape of Death Valley felt truly otherworldly, especially with the lake. The salt in the air stung my eyes while I posed for a selfie and enjoyed the moment.



A mile and a half further down the road was Badwater Basin. At 282 ft below sea level, it is the lowest point in North America. The lake was closer to the shore there. A group of people had gathered around the edge looking almost - if you squinted your eyes - like a summer crowd on a New Jersey beach.



I walked to where they crowd was, took off my shoes and waded in. The ground sucked my feet in deeper and deeper the further out I went. The big wind gusts nearly knocked me over because my feet were stuck.



On my drive back out of the park, I turned onto a dirt road marked "Natural Bridge". After a slow, bumpy ride to the top of the hill, I hiked a short way up the rocky wash of the canyon. The jagged natural bridge looms over the path, 35 feet above the ground.



Farther up the wash past the bridge was a dry waterfall chute that created an unusual rock formation. As far as I can tell, although it's mentioned in most descriptions of this hike, it has no name, so I cheekily dubbed it Vagina Rock.



On my way back to the car, I emerged from the canyon just as the sun was disappearing behind the mountains on the western side of the valley. I sat for a while watching the sunset, truly appreciating the vastness of the lake from this vantage point and soaking in what a special day this had been. 



PAHRUMP


The choices of where in Nevada to stay were pretty limited. I wanted to stay in the southern part of the state but there just aren’t a ton of options. I’ve been to Vegas dozens of times. Henderson is basically a suburb of Vegas. Mesquite is just a bunch old people and golf courses…so I picked Pahrump.


(not my photo)


Pahrump (pronounced like in Little Drummer Boy) gets its name from the Southern Paiute name Pah-Rimpi or “Water Rock”, so named for the artesian wells in the area. Its two biggest selling points is that it's close to Death Valley and it's close to Vegas. It was the perfect low-key spot to regroup before more desert adventures.


(my backyard in Pahrump)


After staying to watch the sunset in Death Valley, it was 8:30 by the time I got everything loaded into my latest Airbnb and I was famished. From the meager list of restaurants that were still open, I selected the Pourhouse assuming it was standard pub fare. When I arrived I discovered, much to my surprise, that it not only did it have some traditional American options, but a whole North Indian menu as well. I got a glass of Moose Drool beer from Montana, and ordered a steak prepared with an Indian marinade. It wasn’t until later that the irony of eating Indian beef occurred to me.


(not my photo)


To say there wasn’t much to do in Pahrump would be an understatement. The story I heard repeatedly when speaking with residents was that they had gotten tired of Vegas and wanted something quieter. Pahrump sure fits the bill. 



I played blackjack at the casino twice, I went to a dive bar and played video poker, and I frequented the frozen custard stand. One night I decided to see Dune 2 only to find the closest movie theater was an hour away in Vegas. 



The last afternoon I was there, a hail storm blew through complete with thunder and lightning. Now, that was exciting!



HOOVER DAM, LAKE MEAD, VALLEY OF FIRE

Leaving Pahrump on Friday morning, I got a 6am start. I had important midday meetings and I needed to be somewhere with a stable Internet connection for them. Pockets of civilization are few and far between in Nevada, so I had to time my stops precisely. 


I started my day with a beautiful view of Lake Mead followed by the Hoover Dam. I drove over Hoover Dam 20 years ago while on a roadtrip with a friend. I remember being impressed, but no specifics beyond that. In 2010, they completed the Mike O’Callahan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge, completing the Hoover Dam Bypass project by rerouting the majority of interstate traffic off of the dam. 



Mike O’Callahan was the governor of Nevada. Pat Tillman was a famous NFL player from Arizona who walked away from a big football contract to enlist after 9-11, becoming a recruitment poster boy for the Bush administration. Pat was killed in Afghanistan in 2004. It wasn't until years later after a thorough investigation the Army admitted that he had been killed by friendly fire. John Krakauer, author of “Into the Wild”, wrote a book about his sad but compelling story called “Where Men Win Glory”, which I recommend. 


(not my photo)


This bridge spans the Colorado River, connecting Nevada and Arizona, not far from the Hoover Dam. There is a pedestrian path along the edge of the bridge closest to the dam that offers incredible views. To say that the dam is big is obvious and unoriginal but truly, the scale of the thing in person is jaw dropping. It is an incredible feat of engineering. 



My target was to get to Moapa Valley before my first meeting at 10:30, and that took me straight through the Lake Mead National Recreation Area. I drove past a number of things I wanted to stop and see, but I was on a schedule. I found a diner in Moapa Valley with WiFi and settled in right on schedule. It can sometimes be challenging balancing my ambitious travel plans with the necessary and demanding work that pays for them. I guess I’ll put Lake Mead onto that list of places I’d like to revisit later. 


After a few hours of meetings I shut my laptop for the weekend and headed to the Valley of Fire State Park. Just a short way into the park, giant rust-colored boulders and cliffs begin to appear along the road looking out of place in the dusty landscape like they burst from the ground. The road turned toward the rocks and led me, winding uphill, through this strange new terrain. 



I had time for one activity in the park before it closed at sundown, so I chose the 3.2 mile loop combining the White Domes, Seven Wonders, Fire Wave trails. The trail took me past - and through - every kind of rock formation imaginable.


I walked on the rounded swirling pink and white hills of Fire Wave. I traversed Pastel Canyon with its colorful streaks that seemed unnatural, like a mural painter had left his paints out in the rain. I sat in the five-foot porthole-like opening in a golden rock catching the rays of the late afternoon sun. I squeezed through a gray slot canyon only wide enough for a single person to pass. It was truly an awe inspiring couple hours - around every corner was a new and different jaw-dropping natural beauty. 



Losing daylight, I finished the loop and drove toward the park exit, aware of the signs that warned anyone in the park after sunset is TRESPASSING. My destination, St. George, UT to rest my head for the evening. 


I packed a lot into my time in the Pacific Northwest. I love rain, waterfalls, moss, and most of all moody mist hovering on pine-covered hills. Despite living in LA for 23 years, I never explored the desert much - partly because the sun and I are not friends (I had a melanoma in my thirties). But really, somewhere along the way I guess I just decided the desert wasn’t my jam and had little to offer me. Wow, was I wrong. This was the most packed week yet - loaded with incredible sights and experiences. And truth be told, it may have been my favorite too.



I have to come back to Las Vegas for a week on March 14th to attend a work conference. At this point in my life I've been there, done that far too many times. Now I want to be anywhere but Vegas, spending more time in the vast openness and beauty of Nevada.


Yes, and…

Matt

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