Austin, Nevăda sits at 6600 feet elevation on the west slope of the Toiyabes. It is bisected by US 50. The first thing you see when coming in from the west is the Chevron and it was a busy place, filled with RVs and motorcycles. We topped off the tank and drove a short block into town and parked upslope from a bar and diner with a “Hippies Use Side Door” sign. We were pretty grungy after our campout and both of us sport long hair but we braved the front entrance nonetheless. The building was both Old West with its rickety wooden porch and New West with its jumbled pile of used appliances rusting slowly in the sun. The waitress was competent but uninterested and we feasted on excellent BLTs. I ordered the fries which were made from genuine thick-cut slices of potato, not the frozen reconstituted things so often substituted for this iconic American side dish. I also had a Ruby Mountain amber ale which was deliciously refreshing. Beer supply is a necessary limiting factor on camping trips—we’d had our last few the previous evening.
Back down the hill to the east we turned north on Nevada 305 and headed to Battle Mountain. Route 305 connects US 50 to I-80 via the valley of the Reese River. Large working cattle ranches dotted the landscape, solar panels replacing the windmills to pump groundwater. There’s not enough surface water to grow alfalfa but the wide green fields made it clear there was enough of it somewhere. Occasional cattle were seen, we figured most of them were still up in the high country. Stacks of hay were the only relief for a dozen miles on either side of the highway. Numerous east and west trending roads, most of them gravel, branched perpendicularly off the asphalt and headed into the hills. Mining is the chief industry of Nevada and they most likely led to gold, silver, and copper mines and processing facilities. I should say mining ranks second to tourism. Most folks spend their money in Las Vegas and Reno, but a small group of dedicated desert rats seek outdoor recreation in the 7th-largest state. We came to love the solitude and wide-open spaces, and saw enough other dust-coated vehicles laden with gear to know we weren’t alone.
Winnemucca is, by rural Nevada standards, a sprawling place and we picked the western edge of town for our lodgings. The showers were hot and the towels plentiful in the Best Western. We had a superb filet mignon in the Winnemucca Inn next door and retired to our king-sized bed to watch the Dodgers lose to the Mets in Game Five of the NLDS. The next day we topped off the tanks and checked the air in the tires (they were all at proper inflation despite banging around on rocky, rutted roads) and looked for US-95, the road to Boise. It took two trips back and forth on the interstate before we found the right exit and the circuitous path through the downtown area to connect. Our destination was Denio Junction, just south of the Oregon border. The countryside was broader and emptier than where we’d been, and when we connected with State Route 140 we were warned with a sign reading “No Services Next 150 Miles.”
140 took us across the northwest corner of the state and into southeastern Oregon. The further west we went the sparser and bleaker the landscape became. Now we were in the volcanic country of high plateaus and jagged ridges of blocky lava. We climbed the Doherty Slide which had 8% grades on the downslope and looked upon a moonscape, an alien, almost Martian scene of geologic turmoil and destruction. Immense fields of lava and volcanic ejecta buried hundreds of square miles some time in our distant past and the plucky desert plants that carved out their existence looked tired and forlorn. It was, literally, the middle of nowhere. The highway was surprisingly busy for such a remote and empty place. Don’t break down on 140 unless you have a lot of time. Fortunately our 1999 VW Eurovan was in tip-top shape after a summer of trips to the mechanic and we sailed along confidently, although mute in wonder and awe at the vast and lonely terrain.
Our final stop was Lakeview. This little town had a prosperous and lively feel to it. The few motels were mostly booked due to construction projects in the region and we were lucky to snag a room. We walked around both in the evening and next morning, enjoying the mix of old and new buildings. We had dinner at a Chinese place. Every town of any size in the American West has at least one Mexican and one Chinese restaurant. Lakeview is the county seat and it sports a modern library, always a good sign. The high elevation regions on either side are mostly Winema National Forest and the tall pines were a welcome sight. We drove home via Klamath Falls and US-97. After a week of arid climes we were surprised by the rainfall that pelted us most of the way, but it sure felt good. It seemed like a good soaking, but the vehicle was still filthy when we made it back to Yreka. Rain in the West is almost always an illusion, even heavy downpours disappear and dry up quickly. It’s the snowpack that makes life possible, and that’s been an iffy thing lately. Perhaps this winter we’ll finally get our regular allotment and not only will ski season be more fun but next summer and fall will be lusher and greener.
Thanks for reading!