November 21, 2015
Since we’d had a good dinner at Jerry’s the night before we decided to grab breakfast there before heading out. Before grabbing a bite to eat, we packed up the bikes and noticed the morning was quite cold. So, instead of rushing we decided to take our time in the hopes that it would warm up. In the process of re-packing the pannier I noticed that some lube for mounting a tire had leaked over one of the bags. It looked like the extreme heat in Death Valley had actually melted the container of tire goop. Still, nothing some water and a little time couldn’t fix.
Sitting at Jerrys the clouds seemed to gather then break. Then gather again. There were moments when blue would peek through but they’d quickly disappear. After a quick bite we decided to get rolling incase mother nature changed her mind as to where the day was supposed to go.
The first stop of the day would be Austin, a small mining town nestled 6600ft on the slopes of the Toiyabe Range, well into the snow line but far from the highest point we’d reach on todays ride. I was a little anxious as we headed out towards our first stop – the road to Ely had seven mountain passes with five of them over 7000ft which was well above the snow-line for the storm that had just passed through. Folks in cars are generally unaware of the vulnerability of riders. The environment imposes a huge effect on the rider in ways that can be remedied by the simple turning of dials in a car. There would be moments on this day that I’d see the rare car and wish I was in a bubble, if only so that I could feel my fingers again!
The first stretch was stunning. If felt like the land unfolded in front of us with no sign of people anywhere. By the time we’d reached Sand Mountain, a 600ft dune east of Fallon, we already felt like the moniker of “Loneliest Road in America” was fitting. At 658km (408mi), the vast stretch of road is populated by four towns (Fallon, Austin, Eureka and Ely) and the occasional bundle of cabins or trailers. Other than that, nothing. No gas, no water. As we passed, we saw little black dots travelling in lines along the ridge of the dune. The people and their ATV’s looked like ants against the sand.
Our road rose steadily hiding the altitude changes and, over the first small pass we began to see snow-capped mountains in the distance. The temperature started to drop to around 7C (44F) and stayed there for a little while. With all of our gear it was still pretty manageable. The clouds were thick and low making the landscape look very much like a letter-box movie. But they were still white which made us hope for a snow-free day.
With so many passes you’d easily imagine a landscape much like the rockies where the rock is like a gateway that, once inside, keeps you close to it’s chest until it allows you to leave hundreds of miles away. Here, the early passes were short and released us quickly into a basin that was like a step-up from the previous. The basins were flat and empty except for sagebrush and yet somehow magical. We were seeing a part of the world that was largely as it should be – that is to say free of heavy human influence. It was in stark contrast to places like Palm Springs where *all* of the vegetation is manufactured.
The last basin before Austin dropped the temperature to around 5C (41F) and we hit the first pass the felt like a proper mountain pass. As we climbed the town of Austin revealed itself to us and we saw two of the greatest things travellers could see: a coffee shop and a gas station. The two hours it had taken to get there had left us chilled but not frozen. A coffee and some chilli would heat us up and get us ready for the next stretch to Ely.
Literally the first turn out of Austin and we were flanked by snow lined rock. The road was clear and we were climbing up a twisting road toward the summit. The stress began to rise – this summit was one of the lowest and, rather being present with the current situation, I was already thinking of the five higher passes to come. Still, even with the rising stress, the road up to the summit had us smiling.
We dropped a little before hitting another basin and the landscape continued to impress. Now we could clearly see the Toquima Range and it was a very stark white. And the clouds were decidedly *not* white. In fact they’d grown very dark and thick. The next couple of passes continued to drop us into higher basins and regularly reached over 7200ft. The snow-line was below us but the road remained clear which was a huge relief.
Then, the next basin got much colder. The temperature dropped to just above freezing and, mixed with a speed limit around 70mph, we started to get very cold. I started to feel a pain in the tip of my thumb and middle finger – likely because those fingers don’t entirely rest on the heated grips. I tried riding using only my finger tip but the focused pressure sent shooting pain up my arms. Instead, I tucked my thumb under my index finger and it provided a little relief for a while. I could also feel my body temperature begining to drop. We had an hour left to Ely and, honestly, I just wanted to get there. Fast.
Into another pass – 7600ft – and the snow started blowing. The clouds had dropped to touch the ground around us, our visors we fogging and the road remained wet but clear of snow or ice. Over the top and a fairly long drop had us believing the passes were over and the warmer temperatures were a great relief but shortly we started climbing and once again the snow was blowing around us.
We were frozen. By now the pain in my fingers had me worried about taking my gloves off. My teeth were chattering and I’d stopped talking with Nita. Fifteen minutes to go. It felt like an eternity. As we pulled into Ely we felt proud, happy, relieved. As we pulled up to the hotel I whipped off my glove to check the fingers. They were bright red but fine. I don’t think the hotel staff have ever seen two people unload a bike and get into a hot-tub as fast as we did. It was heaven.
Reflecting on the day was fabulous. Challenging days are often the highlights of a trip. The scenery was specatular and amplified because of the conditions. The clouds and cold met to create an incredible scene for us to witness. We were invited to something people avoid, and we feel richer for having witnessed it.