It poured all night and into the morning, so I decided to wait out the rain in a Starbucks and charge my laptop. The rain was not quite heavy enough to soak me as I walked across the small parking lot, but it was enough to soak me when I realized that I forgot my charger in the van and crossed the parking lot a second and third time to get it. It dumped and dumped for over an hour without letting up. With my battery charged, it was time to either get wet or give up.
Running options within a short drive of the factory towns east of Reno were poor, but I did find a 3-mile loop on Alltrails that went around a lake. The “lake” had more of the appearance of an irrigation pool, and judging by the number of pairs of underwear I saw tangled in the bushes along the way (and absence of used condoms), I guessed that most of its guests were teenagers getting drunk and getting pregnant.
The ground was deep sand and puddles, and as we started to run it started to hail, adding to the misery of the whole experience. I was so absorbed in my gloom that I forgot to take careful note of my surroundings. There were no real landmarks or noticeable features on the quarter-mile path that had come up from where I’d parked, and with the rain I couldn’t even orient myself by what direction I was facing when I began and which mountains I saw in the distance. The trail was actually a network of parallel trails that that braided and snarled together every tenth of a mile or so. There were also access trails from every direction, spoking off like the handles on a ship’s wheel. To make matters worse, I’d left my phone in the van to protect it from the rain.
I took one offshoot that looked like a likely route back to the car, but then had to choose which way to go at one fork and then another. After a mile, I still hadn’t found the road, but I did find a river with a sort of stovepipe that I definitely would have noticed if I’d been here before. This told me that I was in the wrong place, and also that I might be a little bit fucked. I knew that I could just head back to the lake and keep going around the circle, but I had taken so many turns since I left the lake that I wasn’t sure if I could find it again. Just like I had done in the mountains the day before I stopped and thought: how did people find their way before smartphones when they were lost and alone?
Footprints! Luckily we had left clear and distinctive footprints in the wet sand, and I was able to use those to navigate my way back to the lake and continue in the direction I had been going when I took the wrong exit. What felt like hours later, but was probably only a couple of minutes and a fraction of a mile, I found a familiar sign, and shortly after that my way back to the van. I had learned an important lesson about safety in isolation: never, ever go anywhere without your cell phone.
Alltrails had been empty of trail suggestions all through northern Nevada. At first I thought that it must be an indication that the people in the area aren’t as technology-forward as the sophisticated urban folks mapping trails near me. Everybody has joined the smartphone revolution, you elitist, patronizing coastal asshole. The reason that there were no trails on the app was because it is nothing but empty space out there. The road we were driving was called “the loneliest road in America,” and despite frequent compost toilet rest areas and regular gas services, there was nothing but emptiness for as far as the eye could see on either side of the road.
I stopped at a rest area for lunch, and hidden in the scrub at the edge of the parking lot was a tiny 8” tall sign that said “trail.” That was an invitation to and Alice in Wonderland type adventure if I ever saw one. I hadn’t noticed it before, but now that I looked closer, there was a discernable trail of bare dirt winding its way through the sagebrush. I decided to let Oscar off leash and see where it went.
The informational sign in the parking lot explained that this trail was part of the Pony Express route, which you could still follow for hundreds of miles through the desert. According to the sign, this was a particularly dangerous part of the route, frequently targeted by Indians. My sense of adventure stirred for the first time in years as I thought about what it would be like to travel with only the minimalist essentials in the lightest pack you could get away with, just you and your animal racing from waypoint to waypoint across the planes, deserts and mountains to the Pacific as fast as your six legs could carry you. With how isolated this trail was today, I couldn’t imagine what it must have been like to travel that route before it was punctuated by rest areas and gas stations, and you hoped you wouldn’t meet another soul because anyone you met was likely to kill you. My imagination’s mouth watered as I thought about following the Pony Express trail end to end on a cyclocross bike, camping and avoiding human contact myself for thousands of miles.
The next bathroom stop yielded an even greater surprise. A sign on the highway indicated that there would be petroglyphs, and all I was expecting some old rocks standing in front of a parking lot and a bathroom. But again I found another fantastic trail marked with informational signs. Is there a name for this kind of trail? If there is, I don’t know it…
The petroglyphs were disappointing, of course. Just some scratches in the rock that were less sophisticated than the etchings you can find on high school desks anywhere in the country. But what had they looked like thousands of years ago when they were fresh, before thousands of years of erosion? The sandstone was so soft that the wind had carved it with holes like Swiss cheese. What detail was lost from the petroglyphs over all that time? Were they ever something more impressive? Then again, humans get more intelligent with each generation as each epoch is grows up surrounded by more sophisticated ideas, and the inventions of one generation build on the last. Whoever had carved these doodles must have been the social influencers of their generation. What must it have been like to live in a society where the idea of leaving your mark by scratching into a soft rock was a mindfuck? It would be like living in a world where subway vandals ran the media… which I suppose isn’t so different from today after all.
We continued to explore, climbing on the rocks toward an overlook point at the edge of the mountain that looked over the flat desert and the Sierras beyond. I didn’t think that I had ever seen so much open space before. Not just the land below, but also the giant bowl of empty air without so much as a bump or medium-sized tree to interrupt it. No wonder the winds could carve the rocks up like waves.
I stopped for the night in a town near the Utah border called Ely, and started a load of laundry (I had not yet started spending the whole day in my running clothes and then sleeping in the next day’s clothes at night, and so was burning through 2-3 outfits a day). No sooner had I settled in to the van to relax, I got a text message from my friends and adventure role models. These friends work for a few months at a time, and then head off into the world to ride their bikes across Korea, ride horses across Mongolia, or hike the Grand Canyon for weeks and months at a time. They were coming back from one of their trips, and by chance we were traveling in opposite directions on the same road. So much for the loneliest road in America…. It seemed like I would be able to wake up early in the morning, backtrack a few exits, and spend a few hours in the hot springs with them before continuing on to Utah. I happily congratulated myself on not being such a loner… until I googled the directions and realized that they were 2.5 hours behind me. The desert was so vast that 150 miles had seemed like a quick hop on the map. And so my isolation was confirmed.
The next morning I ran 7.5 miles over a gorgeous rocky trail with just enough dried-out pine trees to give it features, but short enough, sparse enough, and not so many of them that they blocked the views of the mountains, lake or butte. I didn’t eat breakfast until after the run. Despite all of the activity, and long hours of driving, I was rarely hungry. My food options were limited to canned food and the few essential items that I could fit into a tiny fridge the size of a boot box. When eating required stopping, setting up my stove, preparing the food in the wind and elements, and then washing my dishes in the ridiculous pump-action sink that sat at eye level in the van’s “kitchenette,” it only made eating attractive when I was really and truly hungry. When I worked at an office, I was hungry for snacks every hour to break up the monotony of stress and boredom. Driving could be an incredibly boring activity on the interstates, but on these back roads the scenery and technical driving kept my mind off of snacking.
When I crossed the Utah border I lost an hour to the time zones, and by the time I got lunch at the Salt Flats it was after 2pm. In Salt Lake I took advantage of civilization to stop at a Walmart and stock up, and by the time it was time to find a place to bed down for the night, I still hadn’t cleared the Salt Lake City area. I stopped at an RV park, but there was a sign posted at the entrance that they were full with a waiting list. I called a few more parks to see if there was space, but couldn’t even get anyone on the phone. Most just had a voicemail message that let me know that they were full and to go fuck myself.
Many people who aren’t familiar with road tripping or homeless vehicle living don’t realize that Walmart has a policy of allowing travelers to sleep in their parking lots for a couple of nights. When I volunteered as a RAAM crew member, we traveled from one Walmart parking lot to another across the entire country, and the uniform floorpans (the only variation was “food on the left” or “food on the right”) provided the trip’s only consistency, while the massive variety of merchandise made it possible to live comfortably out of a backpack no matter what fortune brought our way.
Ever since then I have had an obsessive devotion to Walmart, just like millions of other country folk and the drifters in the hard-to-reach places of America. I really don’t have anything against Walmart’s steamrolling small businesses in the backwater towns where the 1950’s never ended. This is a world where the rednecks and bumpkins use the same tools to mark their RV tracks as the crunchy vegan hipsters use to rate the trails to the best rock climbing spots in Yosemite’s back country. Walmart brought the modern world to the underserved and remote corners of the country when their local small businesses were too backward to adapt to meet their needs. All that being said, I didn’t want to sleep in a Walmart parking lot tonight. There had been no shade or discrete corners in the Walmart parking lot I’d just left, and so I decided to drive off into the emptiness outside of town and hope that a campground or RV park presented itself.
I was familiar with the concept of boondocking (camping in non-designated campgrounds), but coming from the home of “sit-lie” ordinances where there are restrictions on every parking space and grassy patch, I wasn’t sure where to stop that I wouldn’t be roused and kicked out. I had seen what looked like trails and ATV tracks shooting off from the road into the emptiness for as long as I’d been driving through Nevada and Utah, but I still hadn’t figured it out. As I was driving out of Vernon, Utah I saw a sign that said, “BLM Lands Maintained by Tooele County,” and then “Enjoy your public lands.” I most certainly would! The next pull-out I saw was a sizable parking lot with a sign and a map. When I pulled up to it, the sign reminded me that there were millions of acres of unpatrolled land, so don’t do anything stupid and get stuck out there. My imagination’s mouth watered again. All that emptiness to explore, and no one to bother me about park hours and leash laws! I slept in that parking lot, and despite some incredulous looks from the good ol’ boys that popped out of the emptiness in a giant truck, no one bothered me. In the morning I decided that this was as good a place as any to run, and so headed off into the blankness on foot.
The ground was littered with shotgun shells, which wasn’t exactly surprising. Even I was clued-in enough not to suss out that this land would be used primarily for hunters, but I was shocked by huge number of shells that I saw just in the first few miles of the trail. Exactly how much shooting went on around here?! Guns scare me, and I deliberately stay ignorant about hunting or gun culture so as not to make myself angry. It was 7 in the morning on a Monday, and I had no idea whether the types of people who left those shotgun shells might conform to a 9-5 work schedule, but I suspected they didn’t work office hours. I also didn’t know how to spot them, or how likely they were to spot me… or my more-game-like dog. I was wearing a red visor, and he a red bandana, but would that be enough? Or do hunters just shoot at anything moving? I mean, hunters are human beings, so that would suggest that they would probably restrain themselves before shooting me. But then again… that hadn’t helped Dick Cheney or Greg Lemond…
I ran for about 5 miles, and would have liked to explore more. The land was so open and generally featureless that it was the sort of place that could only be enjoyed in large volume rather than up close and magnified. But I thought it prudent to find out at least a little bit about the BLM land conventions (specifically, the likelihood of a trail runner getting shot while using the trails on foot) before I really got in deep. So I headed back to the van and pointed myself south.