90 Miles to Elko
ADVENTURER | DAVID LOW
In ninety miles of mountain-cresting, valley bombing, river-fording bikepacking adventure, we never got more than five miles from Interstate 80, but the whole time we still felt like we were deep in the wilds of Nevada.
The adventure began to take shape when I got a call from an old friend up in Elko. Since I moved to Vegas, Elko seems pretty remote—a seven hour drive is nothing to sneeze at – but when Thomas told me about his bikepacking plans I knew I had to suck it up and get to cowboy country to join him. You see, Thomas and I like to ride bicycles. We both count it as a moral victory every time we use a bike instead of a car to get from A to B, and we both have a couple of multi-day road tours under our belts. But neither of us had ever done any multi-day off-road riding, or “bikepacking” as the hip outdoor magazines call it.
Last year Thomas got a bike specially designed for that kind of riding and had been chomping at the bit to get out into the world on his steed. I saw the writing on the wall and, not wanting to be left behind, followed suit much more cheaply by getting a $70 mountain bike from craigslist and upgrading it with another $130 of new components. You can spend as much money as you want on specialized gear to get your bike equipped for trips like this: special racks, frame-mounted bags, etc. Ultimately our rigs just boiled down to strapping tents, sleeping bags, sleeping pads and tarps to our bikes, loading food into panniers (bike-speak for “saddlebags”), and pedaling forth into the wilds of the I-80 corridor east of Elko.
This was our plan: on Friday afternoon when he finished his shift I met Thomas at his place of business—a gold-mining exploration site at the Oasis ghost-town, 32 miles west of the Nevada-Utah border. He brought his bike and gear in the work-truck with his coworkers that day. I passed off my keys to one of his coworkers who drove my car back to Elko. We would follow the remnants of Old US-40 and unmarked two-track and cattle roads over the formidable Pequop mountains, across wide Independence Valley, pass through Wells, Nevada, and then snake beside the serpentine course of the Humboldt River until we arrived in Elko. Here, Thomas’ home, 8 month old baby girl, and homemade lasagna courtesy of his amazing wife would be waiting for us.
So, there we were, two men and their bikes with 90 miles of basin, range, and river valley between us and our goal. With adventure and Italian fare drawing us forward and the sun lowering over the looming Pequops, we put pedals to gravel and disappeared into the sagebrush.
Winding and dipping over and around the natural landscape, two-lane Old US-40 originally stretched from Atlantic City to San Francisco when it was first paved in 1926. It was replaced, transformed, or circumnavigated section by section by the hulking four-lane-divided I-80 from 1956 to 1986. Where 40 hugs the landscape, I-80 blasts through it with road cuts and tunnels. Our route never took us more than five miles from the interstate, and we were amazed that it just disappeared as soon as it left view. No truck noise, no smell of exhaust disturbed us as we wound through the sagebrush on our slow climb up the east face of the Pequops. In the 40 years since this section of US-40 was replaced by I-80 it has deteriorated into patches of blacktop interspersed with gravely macadam, with ghostly remnants of a center stripe warning us from beyond the obsolescent grave when it wasn’t safe to pass ghostly slower vehicles.
Sage gave way to juniper forest as we gained elevation. Our breathing became labored, our stops to nibble energy bars in the thin air more frequent as we neared the top of the range. Immediately after gaining the summit at a lofty 6,967 feet above sea level, US-40 disappeared, subsumed by the interstate as the roadbed entered a canyon too narrow and precipitous to allow a new path for the new highway. We swooped underneath I-80 on an underpass and peddled yet higher than the highway on disappearing gravel roads until finally we found ourselves pushing our rides up a single-track path too steep to ride.
The payoff arrived when we finally hit our summit, a couple of hundred feet above the crest of the highway. Standing on that ridge we were surrounded by lupine flower buds, just a week or so away from opening into stalks of purple flowers. Independence Valley spread out beneath us, cut across on the left by the thin dual lines of the interstate cutting a geometrically perfect line to the first horizon more than ten miles distant. Beyond that, the snow-draped peaks of the East Humboldt range rose up in the pink dusk. We sat and shared the second half of a sub sandwich I’d picked up in Ely, and considered the steep plunge that awaited us, and the hidden paths in the tangled hills we would have to navigate before reaching the open valley below.
Some things aren’t helped by considering. It turned out the path before us was as single-minded as it was steep. We bombed down, bags and tents and jaws rattling as we let the bikes and gravity take control of our fate as we held on with white-knuckled hands. At one fortunate turn in the path we are able to self-arrest enough to dismount before the next yet-more-steeper-er plunge and walk our bikes down. They STILL threatened to teacup over down the steep grade as we walked them! Once on a more reasonable slope fifty yards down the trail, we mounted up, and tore down the mountain. Small rises became interspersed with the downhills and soon we found ourselves swooping down rolling slopes, grins painted across our faces as the mountain became a roller coaster.
Soon, we were dodging cow pies in what was obviously rangeland. We came to our first ranch gate of the trip, and one of us wrestled the barbed-wire-strung post open, let the other pass through, and then wrestled it back closed. We would repeat this courtly “after you, Sir!” process about twenty more times in the next twenty four hours, always heeding that most important bit of Nevada etiquette: if you pass through a gate—open or closed—leave it as you find it.
By the time we hit the valley floor the sun had set completely, and in the deepening darkness we rode forward on four-wheel-drive two-track roads deep with loose sand. If you consider doing a trip like this yourself, do not take a bike with less than 42 mm wide tires—you’ll need the floatation to roll over inevitable soupy dust and sand like this.
With the lights out we needed our lights on, and produced our bike lamps. This is where we encountered our first mechanical failure of the trip. Thomas’ venerable (six years old) dual LED lamp lost its battery charge due to the cold temperatures. It had been steadily in the 50’s so far in the ride, but the temperature was dropping fast and the lithium-ion rechargeable battery on his rig was on its last legs to begin with. Happily I’d borrowed my girlfriend’s brand new 500 lumen bike lamp, and we shared the light between us. As it turned out this was fortunate, because it forced us to ride abreast rather than in a pace line, and we had one of the best conversations of the trip.
In fact, that conversation was so good, and the limitless feeling of riding in the dark was so pleasant, that we rode on past our intended campsite in the juniper-covered hills that separate Independence valley from Clover valley and the town of Wells to the west. As we neared I-80 again we found ourselves on a smooth dirt road that just flew beneath us – until I developed a slow leak on my front tire: our second mechanical failure of the trip. We were on a roll and the temperature was dropping fast, so instead of changing the tire I opted instead to just stop every 15 minutes to pump it back up to 60 psi. As we crested the ridge above Wells we began to see white streaks in the beam of our bike lamp – snow flurrying down from the East Humboldts on the chilly spring winds. We put on windbreakers and glided down the old highway into Wells at about 10:00, intent on the Alamo Casino Gas Station that straddles the crossroads of I-80 and Hwy 93.
Although our call-of-the-wild bikepacking sensibilities were a little offended at the idea of inserting a casino rest area into our experience, we could not resist their restaurant’s siren song. Five hours in the saddle and twenty-five miles of rough riding will do that to you. Also, it was nice to get out of the cold wind while finally repairing the slow leak that had plagued me for the last two hours.
We had the restaurant to ourselves, and indulged in a basket of chicken fingers for Thomas, and a soup and salad bar for me. I’ll be honest – the barbeque bacon cowboy burger (complete with fried egg on top) was really calling my name, but I learned on another bike tour that such a meal would be the end of me, right then and there. Biking another couple of miles to whatever unlikely place we would camp while carrying a barbeque bacon cowboy burger food-baby in my gut sounded like too much to bear! As it turned out, the soup was just what I needed to shrug off the chill I’d gotten during our snowy descent into Wells.
Fed, fuelled, and flat-repaired, we headed out again into the night in high spirits. On the western outskirts of Wells we found a driveway that snaked beneath a bank to the right of the road, and found a bare spot in the sage brush large enough for our two-man tent. Up it went, and we fell asleep with barely a “good-night”, we were so tired.
We woke up to the sound of ravens croaking each other in the sky above us. I have no idea if their circling tipped off the Nevada Department of Transportation worker who pulled down our driveway shortly after we both rose, or if he spotted our day-glow colored windbreakers from far off. Either way, we half-expected to get chewed-out for camping by the side of the road, but the friendly driver had no such intentions. He’d pulled over to warn us about the impending spring storm that was blowing down from the gulf of Alaska, dropping feet of badly needed snow on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada just outside of Reno. It was headed our way, and we needed to make time before it dropped buckets on us. That sounded fine to Thomas and me. The breakfast brownies we’d just dined on notwithstanding, we were both already thinking about that lasagna that awaited us in Elko.
Our first five miles that morning were on an asphalt outer-road that paralleled I-80, reminding us just how close we really were to that artery of commerce. Trucks roared past us east and west, oblivious to the rising headwind that was our first taste of the storm that was coming our way. The clouds were spectacular: heavy and grey but luminous in the morning sun that shone on them from behind us. To our left the clouds clung ragged and wispy to the lower slopes of the East Humboldts, while the upper reaches of the mountains gleamed white with fresh snow dropped the night before whenever the sun managed to penetrate the cloud cover.
Crossing beneath the highway at the end of the outer road, we emerged on the south side of the interstate, once again on the remnants of Old US-40. Thomas spectacularly blew a tire on some unseen piece of razor sharp road debris, and we finished the breakfast brownies while improvising a rubber patch out of his destroyed inner tube. The tread and casing of his nearly-new tire had sustained a neat slit more than an inch long, and just changing his inner tube wasn’t going to do the job. He cut his old tube into sections and then fit them into each other, making several layers of rubber to fit between the open gash in his tire and the new tube he’d just installed. We rolled on with more than a little trepidation about his jury-rigged tire because some of the roughest terrain was yet to come.
Soon, US-40 just disappeared completely, and we took a left through a barely-recognizable ranch gate. Walking our bikes through the sagebrush because there was no discernable road, we soon came to the mighty Humboldt River at a spot where an old iron trestle bridge had once spanned it. The bridge was still there, but its plank pavement was rotted away, and half of its length had collapsed into the river. There was nothing for it but to heave our bikes down onto the exposed beams and shinny across with them. We couldn’t get over how much fun we were having.
On the other side of the river, un-dunked and fully-stoked, we cruised along intermittent ranch roads, through herds of idly lowing cattle who were more than a little disturbed by the two strangely silent creatures that rolled so smoothly down the dusty road they’d been using for their bed. We were careful to keep our distance from the animals, and to keep from alarming them too much, sometimes standing patiently by our bikes while the beasts lumbered away from us to what they must have thought was a safe distance. After all, ranch cows are half-wild and outweigh a cyclist and his bike by a factor of 10. Not to mention we were on someone else’s land – the last thing we wanted to do was give bikepackers a bad name by causing a rancher distress on account his property or land.
We thought we’d done our last river crossing, but we were wrong. Or half wrong. The road eventually petered out among several ox-bow ponds left behind by earlier channels the river had left when it changed course. We found ourselves standing on a dry tongue of land in a flooded pasture, covered with cow pies both dry and submerged. The ranch gate lay fifty yards ahead through about six inches of water. Thomas just rode on ahead to the gate on his twenty-nine inch wheels, but I had little faith that I’d keep my toes dry on my little twenty-six inch wheels, so I did what I had to do. I took off my shoes and walked my bike through the water to the gate, only to find that the gate didn’t open up to a shallow crossing through the irrigation ditch on the other side of the fence, but to a three foot deep, six foot wide canal! There was no way to get across, short of dunking everything in the drink. You may recall, the drink was full of sodden cow pies. We were not having it.
Thomas managed to ride back to dry land, and then again through the field to a place at the fence where we could climb over, portage our bikes, and then ford the irrigation canal where it was only about six inches deep. It was a bit of a production: more barefoot, cow pie-dodging wading for me, unpacking our bikes so they could be lifted over the fence, and then one of us clambering over and hefting the bikes to each other. Eventually we made it all the way across and I set out to clean my feet while Thomas busted on ahead. Imagine my mirth, when about a mile down the road his unstoppable 29er finally bogged down in deep mud and he was forced to hop off and push his way out!
Wet footed, we rolled on toward the formerly distant Elko hills that marked our final ten miles of trip. The weather had cleared up while we repaired Thomas’ flat earlier in the day, but now the clouds rolled in angry, low, and accompanied by a savage cold headwind for our homestretch. The last ten miles were a down and dirty grind. Snowflakes blew in our faces, and the light sunburns on our faces that we’d acquired earlier in the day were chapped by the cold wind. With the last of our energy we cranked up the hill to Thomas’ house, where we were rewarded with the long awaited lasagna provided by his amazing wife, and cooing smiles from his 8 month-old baby girl. Now that’s how you end an adventure! #NVAdventure
- Although this adventure never brought us more than 5 miles away from the largest traffic artery in our state, we constantly had the feeling we were deep in the hinterlands of Nevada. If you like to actually get out of those hinterlands, you can leave I-80 far behind on many of Nevada’s unpaved, but vital roads. I’m already planning another bikepacking adventure on the Reese River Road from Austin all the way down to Tonopah. There are isolated communities to explore, and untold vistas to enjoy from the seat of your bike.
- If you like competition and would prefer to take a route that’s already been established, check out the Great Basin Bike Route, which traverses our state from west to east
- Nevada may seem geographically huge, but the world shrinks when you’re on a bike. Go out and explore your state!