February 21 2013 by Jason Fogelson
I'm all packed and ready to go. I study my weather apps and my maps. I'm planning to ride to Carson City today. There's pretty much one route available -- US-95 North, through the desert along the Nevada/California border and the east edge of Death Valley. I can't ride any further east -- that's where all that nuclear testing took place back in the day, along with Nellis Air Force Rage. No public roads available -- and I don't want to get too close to the testing sites, anyway.
I check out of the BEST WESTERN PLUS Las Vegas West Hotel. I've been particularly impressed with the staff here -- they've been uniformly friendly, professional and helpful. I far prefer the atmosphere here a few miles off of the Strip to the hyper-charged megahotels. I liked being able to visit the Strip without feeling trapped by it.
I saddle up on the blue Electra Glide (have I mentioned how pretty the color is?) and ride out of town. Las Vegas soon recedes in my mirrors, and I'm in sprawling suburbs. Those too fade away, leaving the vastness of the desert. US-95 starts off as a wide divided highway until it dwindles to a two-lane road itself. I travel over short rises to discover new flat desert valleys with scant vegetation.
Some people find the desert featureless and unattractive. I'm not one of those people. I love the desert landscape, and I'm fascinated by its ever changing beauty. I love conquering the desert on a motorcycle, all the while imagining the challenges that the pioneers faced just a century or so ago. Crossing the desert wasn't something that you did lightly back then.
It isn't now, either, unless you pay careful attention to your fuel consumption. There are few open gas stations along US-95, so make sure that you fill up if you have any range anxiety at all. I stop when my tank is half-empty, just to be safe.
Beatty, Nevada is a wide spot in the road about 120 miles along US-95 from Las Vegas. I bring this up simply because it's one of the few towns along the route, and an interesting place to pause and get warm.
Because it is still cold today. In fact, it's getting colder all the time. Riding faster seems like a good idea, if only to get out of the cold. But riding faster increases the wind's effect, and makes me feel colder. I have to ride at a reasonable pace, which means I'll be out in the cold longer. Not good.
I fight the cold until I reach Tonopah, 100 miles past Beatty. In my original ride plan, Tonopah was my stop after riding day four. As I pull into town, the temperature is in the upper 20s. There's snow on the ground and ice everywhere. I see the BEST WESTERN Hi-Desert Inn in the heart of town. I make a decision. Tonopah seems like a very nice place to stop for the night. Carson City will have to wait for another day, another trip.
I park on Tonopah's Main Street and go in to the newly-restored Mizpah Hotel and Casino for lunch. The historic building was built in 1907, a five-story monument to the Nevada Silver Rush. As Tonopah has seen its ups and downs, so has the Mizpah. The current owners undertook a renovation to the public areas of the building in 2011, and it's a great relic of an earlier age. I repair to the lobby cafe for lunch and some hot coffee, and get to work rescheduling my ride. I first call the BEST WESTERN Hi-Desert Inn to change my reservation to tonight. They're very accommodating, and even offer to get my room ready early so that I can check in right after I eat lunch. Nice. I then call the BEST WESTERN Carson Station Hotel and Casino to cancel my room. Once again, no problem -- and it's probably not wise to ride into town anyway, as snow is falling even as we speak.
After a nice lunch at the Mizpah, I roll the Electra Glide over to the BEST WESTERN Hi-Desert Inn. I notice that there's clearly designated parking for motorcycles right outside the front entrance, with a cool laser-cut steel sign. Unfortunately, ice has claimed the motorcycle parking area, so I park a little further away with the ordinary cars. Oh, the indignity.
I get an extra warm welcome when I walk in to the lobby. I guess they were expecting me, and have read my blog. I am greeted by Joanne, the General Manager, and Lisa, her associate. They invite me out for dinner tonight, and recommend a visit to the Tonopah Historic Mining Park this afternoon. I load my gear into my ground floor room, and head out to explore Tonopah on foot -- carefully.
The Tonopah Historic Mining Park covers over 100 acres, carved into the side of a hill behind Main Street. It features trails that take you past displays of actual mine openings and equipment from the days when Tonopah was at the heart of the Nevada Silver Rush in the early 20th century. The visitors center is at the top of a steep, long path. Hiking up the hill reminds me that Tonopah sits at over 6,000 feet -- higher than Denver, Colorado. I am sucking wind climbing that hill, and feel pretty old and cold by the time I get to the top. The visitors center is a pleasant respite, with several cool scale models of the site and a big collection of rocks, minerals and fossils on display. I decide not to tour the grounds because of the freezing cold temperature outside, and I am glad that the walk back to Main Street is downhill all the way.
Back on Main Street, I stumble across a great discovery: A well-stocked used book store called "Whitney's Bookshelf." Beyond a front area with comfortable seating, the store is packed with well-organized shelves full of used books at very reasonable prices. Hard covers are $2 and paperbacks are just a buck! Rare books and collectables are also available -- those cost a bit more. Whitney's Bookshelf is just the kind of store you hope to find in a small town. I buy a yellowed but clean paperback copy of Mario Puzo's "The Godfather," which I have never read (I know, embarrassing, but I somehow skipped it). The thick paperback fits right in my jacket pocket, and at one dollar, I feel like I've found the perfect companion for the rest of my trip.
I return to the BEST WESTERN Hi-Desert Inn in time for my dinner appointment. Joanne and Lisa pick me up in Joanne's Prius, a dwarf vehicle in the middle of a town populated with big pickup trucks. We drive to El Marques Mexican Restaurant on Main Street and share a hearty meal while sharing stories of life in Tonopah. Joanne's been here for over two decades, while Lisa is a relative newcomer, having been here for a decade or so from Arkansas. They are obviously well-known and well-liked in town, as fellow patrons keep stopping by the table to say hello. It's a really nice time in a very friendly town.
Before we return to the hotel, Joanne has a surprise for me. We drive past the town limits a few miles to discover a bench beside the road. Joanne tells me that Tonopah is one of the darkest towns in the United States, with very little light pollution to obscure the night sky. She has brought a pair of binoculars, and invites me to scan the stars. Once she turns off the lights on her Prius, we're enveloped in total darkness. I can barely see my hand in front of my face. I turn my head to the sky, and in a few moments, my eyes adjust. I can see a carpet of stars overhead, more stars than I think I have ever seen before in my entire life. I raise the binoculars to my eyes, and even more stars are revealed between the stars. The depth and breadth of the sky is overwhelming, and I could stare into space forever. If only it wasn't so cold. I stare at the sky until I hear Lisa's teeth chattering, then reluctantly suggest that maybe it's time to go. Joanne and Lisa hide their relief well -- they're very good hosts. We climb back into the Prius and return to the world of artificial light.
I thank Joanne and Lisa for a great evening, and toddle back to my room for a good night's rest. I know that I'll dream about the stars tonight -- and Mexican food.
Miles ridden: 216
NEXT UP: Chilling In Nevada, Day Four: Tonopah to Las Vegas