Turning off the airline mode on my mobile phone I exited the United Airlines Dreamliner when the first text came in: “Plane turned back four hours out from Sydney…navigation problems! I’m at a Sydney airport hotel. Arrival now Mon. 9.30 am - call me. Mark.”
“The best laid plans of Mice and Men,” Steinbeck once wrote. Mark, my travel writer buddy from Sydney was flying into San Francisco on the same day I was, both within 30 minutes of each other, or so we thought? This was not the best start to a 2,000 plus mile (3,218 km) road trip – making alternative arrangements suddenly became a priority.
Note to self: arrive a day or two early before the start of a trip like this to ensure that any mishaps, delays, or cancellations will not disrupt pre-booked vehicles, hotels or campsites and attractions. In our case I had to cancel a night in a Lake Tahoe casino, restaurant dinner and a casino show as well as rearrange our five-hour fishing trip from Monday to a Tuesday. Instead of both of us picking up our vehicle, I did it alone and waited overnight parked-up in a supermarket parking area (quite legal in the United States) near a train station for Mark to arrive a day later with a different airline… big lesson learnt.
Our first 200-mile (321 km) day was uneventful as we increased altitude heading into the Sierra Nevada Mountains on scenic Route 50 that twisted in and out of hairpin bends. It was a bedazzling blue-sky day as the pine trees soared skywards above a wide rushing creek that pursued its boulderstrewn course towards Lake Tahoe. Crossing the stateline which separates California and Nevada we pulled into Harrah’s Casino Resort, to spend the first night in a couple of casino hotel rooms as the local Emerald Bay Campground had closed for seasonal renovations.
After a 5.30 am wake-up call we checked out of the casino at 6.15 am to head to the Ski Run Marina for a five hour fishing trip on the lake with Sportfishing Tahoe. Scott, the skipper, slowly steered the boat, Hopper 1, out of the marina and then for the next hour we hurtled across the lake until it was time to drop drift-fishing lines over the side for Mackinaw trout. In a depth of between 100 feet (30.5 m) to 150 feet (45.7 m) of water we landed our first trout inside 10 minutes, and so it went on for the next three hours.
On board were two locals both originally from Columbia, Al Gomez and Alvaro Galindo along with a visitor from New Jersey, Walter Hassett, a youthful boat hand named Chad and a local gal called Mickaleah. By midday we had all returned to dock with an ice-chest full of fish and satisfied smiles all around.
That afternoon we headed our El Monte RV into downtown Reno, to park up at the Grand Sierra Resort RV Park. This is another casino and it certainly stands out on the skyline with its 2,000-seat theatre and family friendly amenities. The resort is a really good option if you have an RV but still want the added fun of casino entertainment and a varied range of quality restaurants to dine at, which we did. Once again we were being indulgent.
From Reno to Tonopah is 235 miles (378 km), and so after a lazy start we pulled out of Reno, christened in 1927 as, ‘The Biggest Little City In The World’, following I-80 east before we turned south near Fallon Navel Air Station to travel beyond Walker Lake past the giant sprawling desert base of the Hawthorne Army Depot, which had both above ground sheds lined up like troops on a parade ground as well as hundreds of concrete bunkers housing who knows what!
Our night stop was the often-overlooked mining town of Tonopah where we had booked rooms at the only four-star hotel on main street, The Mizpah. After being left derelict for 12 years it reopened in 2011 to much celebration and fanfare. In its heyday, The Mizpah hosted politicians, prospectors, pugilists, philanderers and not surprisingly a few ‘ladies of the night’. One famous prostitute in the 1920s was a young woman whose fate would leave its mark. A mysterious ‘Lady in Red’ was murdered on the fifth floor of the hotel in a suite that now bears this name . . . many people believe her ghost still roams the halls and rooms, with many a strange occurrence recorded in the hotel’s visitor book.
Prior to the building of the four-storey hotel in 1908 (the highest structure in Nevada until 1925) stood a white, single-storey wooden building also named The Mizpah, where the famous gunslinger and former sheriff, Wyatt Earp used to drink and play cards. Earp made enough money to eventually finance and put his name to another drinking establishment in town, The Northern Saloon.
For those of you wondering about the origin of the name, Mizpah, it’s a biblical reference meaning, “to come back together with those you love”.
It all began in 1900 when a prospector named Jim Butler out looking for his lost ‘burro’ stumbled upon the second-richest silver strike in Nevada’s history. Within a few years the town had six saloons, restaurants, assay offices, lodging houses, doctors, lawyers, ladies of the night and a rapidly swelling population of 650 people out to make a fortune from the local mines that excavated gold, silver, copper and lead. Today the area is the home to a single lithium mine, used in lithium batteries, the brine operation accounts for all of the United States lithium output.
Tonopah, at an elevation of 6,030-feet (1,838 m) still has many dilapidated wooden miner’s cabins, sheds and outhouses, close to the Tonopah Historic Mining Park, and many original buildings including a great bookstore on Main St. and a host of very friendly residents. I asked John, the manager of the Mining Park Visitor’s Centre & Museum, “How much gold and silver did these mines produce? “Well they say the mines around the town produced almost US$ 750,000 in gold and silver in 1901, the first year of full production, and for the next 40 years, all the mines were consistent producers. Mine production from 1900 to 1921, the peak years, was almost US$ 121 million.”
By 10 am the next day we were on the road again. As we chatted away, Mark turned the RV onto Route 6 east towards the town of Ely, Nevada, and surprisingly we both ignored or didn’t comprehend the roadside sign that stated, Next Gas 162 Miles (260 km). This is probably one of the loneliest roads in America, with long stretches of nothingness; desert scrub, bullet holed signs, occasional saltpans, mountain ranges, no towns, along with six road summits ranging from 6,030-feet (1,838 m) to 6,999-feet (2,133 m) and the seventh and final summit topping out at 7,317-feet (2,230 m).
After 72 miles (115 km), we finally reached the turn off for the Lunar Crater dirt road, where we suddenly had a mild panic attack as we contemplated our rapidly dipping indicator on the gas gauge. Looking at the map we could see two small communities between our current location and Ely but would they have gas?
As we drove the dirt road I calculated how many gallons of gas we would consume, and the resulting answer was it could go either way – we might very well run out of gas or reach Ely on the smell of an oily rag. With 90 miles (145 km) left to go Mark coasted downhill from each road summit keeping our rev counter as low as possible, when eventually the ‘empty’ red light indicator flashed on with a little over 50 miles (80 km) to go.
We eventually guessed that gas tank when the empty indicator flashed on had about 5-6 US gallons (about 20 US liters) left…allowing us to smile broadly as we reached one of Ely’s downtown gas stations.
We still had 65 miles (104 km) to reach our next nightstop, Nevada’s Great Basin National Park, the only one in the state if you discount about two percent of Death Valley National Park that sneaks over the California border into Nevada. With daylight fading we found one of only two sites left in the park’s campgrounds that were still open. As the evening shadows lengthened, a resident flock of fat ‘wild turkeys’ gobbled loudly as they waddled in a gait-like procession past our site ignoring the flames of our campfire to climb the slope of the hillside above us. This was so they could achieve ‘lift off’ (their flying ability is very limited) to fly into the higher branches of the higher reaches of the sweet-smelling pine trees for the night.
As the temperatures dropped we added more wood to the fire and cooked steaks for dinner on the barbeque grill provided, tucking into the eye-fillet, foil-baked potatoes and corn on the cob.
Morning broke as we made our way to the Lehman Caves Visitor’s Centre, to experience one of Nevada’s premier attractions – the underground single cavern labyrinth of stalactites, stalagmites, helictites, columns, shields, draperies, flowstone and soda straws – cave formations that scientists call speleothems. First discovered and explored in 1885 by local rancher and miner Absalom Lehman, they attract hordes of ‘cave dwellers’ from all over America as well as local school groups and a couple of odd travel writers.
The Forgotten Winchester! In November 2014, archaeologists at Great Basin National Park unexpectedly encountered a man-made artifact leaning against a tree. They found a 132-year-old Winchester Model 1873 Lever Action Rifle. They posted a photograph of the rifle in its location on Facebook. The Post asked, “Can you find the man-made image in the photograph?” That one question sparked a media sensation. The “Forgotten Winchester,” as some have called it, went viral online and attracted international attention.
Like much of this region, Native American Indians knew of the caves existence long before the “Forgotten Winchester” was left behind, and Absalom Lehman stumbled upon the caves, but that is just one of hundreds of stories about events that shaped America’s frontier states and Nevada is no exception; a place extoling it’s history, geography, gunfighters, ranchers, miners, and not forgetting the tales of woe for gals like the ‘Lady in Red’ who frequented saloons that left a ghost-like legacy for us all to wonder about.
Old mine buildings Tonepah