Chapter 4 – Between a Rock (Area 51) and a Hard Place (Death Valley)

Originally published 10/31/2008

Once on the freeway, I headed Northwest out of Las Vegas onto Route 95.  While there is no direct route between Vegas and Reno (why, Nevada, why?) this route meets route 80, so I thought, just east of Reno in the town of Fernley, which also happens to be the turn off area to get to Gerlach and Burning Man.  Route 95 starts out as four-lane highway and goes to two lanes just outside of Vegas.  Most of this road is arrow straight and goes through desolate scrub desert, so the headlights you see coming at you in the distance could be 60 seconds or six minutes away.

Unbroken stretch of route 95, Nevada

Unbroken stretch of route 95, Nevada

This means it is hard to be sure when to pass, even with miles of visibility.  The speed limit is 75 and the edge of the road, mostly, has a rumble strip to help drivers stay awake.  That came in handy for me, although with windy conditions, I hit those strips more than I wanted to while learning to handle the RV.

Area 51

The remainder of the afternoon seemed to go quickly.  About 100 miles out I came to a gas station, “Last service before Area 51″ this was the Yucca Mountain area.  This stretch of 95 runs directly down the middle of a corridor between the mountains of Death Valley to the west and Area 51 and other military bases to the east. Just to the west was a massive sand dune, although I missed seeing it myself on my way North.  I did stop just to take a picture the sign for those back home who insisted that “Area 51 was in Roswell”.

sign for last service before area 51

Last service before area 51

Looking out the window to my right, I spied something attached to the gas station and quickie food mart that I had never seen before.  I’ve been to Nevada several times but I’d never seen this other type of quickie mart…

sign - cherry patch legal brothel

Sign outside the cherry patch next to the service station / store

..but now I understood why the sign said last service, instead of last gas.

Back on the road once more, another hour found me 160 miles out of Vegas, entering Beatty, the “gateway to Death Valley” as they call it. Here a left turn would take you through the mountains to the west and into Death Valley proper.  Not for me!  I continued north as the afternoon turned to evening and the sun headed closer to the horizon.  To the west, where Death Valley hid beyond the mountains, there appeared to be a storm gathering.

“Ghost” Town

As the sun moved ever closer to the mountains I found myself entering the small town of Goldfield.  This town has, for no apparent reason, several sharp turns that force the road through the center of town and then turn it north again.  Goldfield was once a big mining town.  While it is probably a mining town still, now that gold prices have gone sky high, it has gotten much smaller.  I would never have recognized this town, except for the largest structure in the center of town, the Goldfield Hotel.  I’d seen this building before on ‘Ghost Hunters’ and another ghost hunting documentary show.  Reputed to be haunted, the hotel has been closed for renovations but that hasn’t stopped folks from parking and peering in the windows.

view of the Goldfield hotel

The Goldfield Hotel

Running late already, I kept moving.  I was learning to shoot still pictures out the window, on the fly, when necessary.  I had a few more miles to go before the next town, the half-way point of this leg of my journey, and time to fill up the RVs tank for the first time.

The Sun Worshipers

The sun was getting closer to those distant peaks and the evening light was changing.  It was then that I spotted something new in the surrounding desert.  On hills on either side of the road, scattered like a crowd on a sunny beach, stood cacti.  At first, in the slanting light, I mistook them for people. Each one looking like a football referee after a touchdown with their two arms straight up and all appeared to be facing the same direction, west toward that setting sun.

A cactus in the desert

A cactus in the desert seems to worship the last rays of the sun.

[Editors Note: This is not my picture, just one I found that represents the look of those cacti.]

Scattered all over the hillside like that, they resembled some sort of sun worshiping tribe soaking in the last rays of the setting sun.  Then, as I drove further, they were gone.  I only saw them in that one area just before sundown and saw no others before or after that.  It almost seemed as if they came out for the last rays of sun and then disappeared again.  The sun, itself, disappeared behind those storm clouds to the west and soon re-appeared underneath them, through a gap in the distant mountains.  I was just outside my next stop , Tonopah (I’m told it’s pronounced tone-UH-pah accent on the uh), and I couldn’t help taking a moment to get a picture then.

A sunset over the mountains toward Death Valley

A sunset through a storm over the mountains toward Death Valley

Entering Tonopah, I found the Silver Queen, another reputedly haunted location – across from the gas station where I decided to fill up.

Exterior of the Silver Queen, Tonopah, NV

Exterior of the Silver Queen, Tonopah, NV

This was the half-way point to Reno, and the tank was not quite half empty, but I wanted to make sure I had enough for the next 250 miles.  At $75, the pump clicked off and would not let me put more gas in.  Many pumps are limited like that out there.  Something about credit card surcharges, the sign said.

So, I drove a little farther to the North end of town, found food and gas and finished topping off the tank.  The view of the sunset from there was great. I grabbed a burger and called the Circus Circus hotel to make sure my reservation would still be there after midnight, if I ran a little late. Grabbing some more pics before the sunset faded away, I headed north once more.

Storm clouds reflect the sunset in Tonopah, NV

Storm clouds reflect the sunset in Tonopah, NV

Night, in the west, falls quickly and it seems as if, in open areas, once the sun has set, you can almost see a dividing line between dusk and night crossing the sky above to come down in the west like a blind being closed.  Being from the east, my sense of surroundings is oriented to trees and woodlands.  At night on the dark road, it seemed as though I was driving through a typical area with trees along the fringe.  That, however, was a mirage of sorts.  My mind seemed to fill in the darkness, so that it seemed there were trees along the highway, just out of the reach of the headlights. In reality the area I drove through, from Tonapah north, was open scrub land and a few small towns and ranches.

Around 9pm, I stopped along the road in the middle of nowhere.  I had seen a sign, back a ways, indicating that the area had some of the darkest skies in North America.  I decided to take a break from driving and find out for myself.

I stepped out beside the RV, and, even with the parking lights on, it was disorienting to see so many stars so clearly.  The milky-way is almost never seen like this in the east.  I was awe struck with how many stars I could see here that I could never see at home.  Humbled by the scale of the universe hanging above, I climbed back aboard the RV and continued on down the road.

Things were going well so far, but that was about to change.  The first indication seemed to be that every car or truck I passed, would hit me with their high beams, and when I hit them back with mine, they dropped theirs.   Hmmm.  Seems this nearly new RV had it’s high and low beams hooked up backwards!  What else, I wondered, could go wrong?

A few more hours passed on the long, dark road.  I passed a large lake but could not really make out what it looked like, only the reflection of some lights across the water.  I found out later it was called Walker Lake.  I eventually came to a town and thought I had missed a turn somewhere.  I was expecting 95 to take me back to route 80 again near Reno.  Instead I discovered, in Fallon, that I was way to the east of Reno and lost route 95, ending up on route 50 and alt 50 with signs indicating Reno.  Good thing though because, as it turned out, following 95 would have gotten me another 25 miles or so farther east of Fernley before reaching route 80.

Finally, the hardest part of the drive was over, I found route 80 and headed west toward Reno, passing the Fernley off-ramps where I knew I would be going, the next evening, toward Gerlach and Burning Man.  Here, on 80 I began to notice them; The cars with multiple bikes, the pickups, vans and cars hauling trailers piled high with luggage, bikes, barrels and all manner of stuff.  Fellow burners, heading into Reno for the night.

Traffic moved swiftly. until just past Patrick, where all traffic came to a sudden halt.  Sirens, fire engines and all manner of emergency vehicles passed on the shoulder headed somewhere ahead of me.  After what seemed like an eternity of slow travel, I passed a car that had obviously caught fire and burned out, the owners appeared to have gotten out but the roof rack and such indicated to me they might have been burners.  If they were, then they lost almost all they had.

Beyond the burned out car, traffic sped up again and soon Reno came into view.  I found my hotel and got parked in the big lot next door, with many other RVs and overburdened vehicles.  After hitting the showers, I crashed for the evening.

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