The term "outback" is one that usually conjures visions of Australia, kangaroos, vast expanses of dry and desolate desert, and probably the late (and great) Crocodile Hunter. What you may not know is that we Yanks have an outback of our own. Sometimes referred to as the Great Basin, the U.S. version of the outback is as remote and wild as one can imagine. In days gone by, this was the Wild West, home to the Pony Express Trail, the Mother Lode, and the Indian Wars of the 1800s. In the middle part of that century, wagon trains of more than 1,000 rickety buckboards rattled westward in search of a better life and free land. It was a place of harsh realities, a place where shallow graves and small white crosses lay in the wake of each procession. These pioneers would eventually define Manifest Destiny and the ultimate push to the Pacific Ocean. We joined the Jeep Jamboree USA (JJ) crew for the inaugural Great Nevada Outback Jamboree, one of JJ's new Mark A. Smith Signature Jamborees. The cool thing is you don't have to get on a plane, you don't need a passport, and you don't need two months and a herd of camels to get there. A Jeep will do... and you won't find any crocs, mate!
Referred to as the "Loneliest Road in America," U.S. Route 50 runs dead center through the state of Nevada and stretches some 300 miles from the California state line to Interstate 15 in Utah. About 15,000 years ago, the expanses between these points were filled by two inland seas known as Lake Bonneville and Lake Lahontan. Glaciers ravaged the higher elevations, tall forests of bristlecones and pines blanketed the valley, and now-extinct mastodons, glyptodons, and woolly mammoths roamed the water's edge. As temperatures began to rise after the Ice Age, the glaciers receded and the water began to evaporate. The great marshes and grasslands slowly dried up and went fallow, and the species dependent on this ecosystem either adapted or perished. The region, though now a desert, is known as the Great Basin and is the recipient of most of the watershed between the eastern gradients of the Sierra Nevada and the aspen stands of the Fishlake Mountains in central Utah. The available water quickly dissipates in the dry and thirsty desertscape, but a new ecosystem of sage and pinion has evolved and flourished.
Pulling on to the Loneliest Road near Fallon, Nevada, our first stop was the crumbling remains of a Pony Express station from the 1850s. Only a few walls of the original stone building are left standing, and encroaching desert sands are slowly covering what is left. With miles of sagebrush in every direction and several hundred miles to go, we were glad to be crossing this desert in Jeeps and not buckboard wagons. A short distance to the east, we passed a small roadside structure surrounded by a cyclone fence and an expansive dry lakebed in the distance, Salt Wells. Legend has it that when the transcontinental railroad was completed in the 1860s and the Pony Express was no longer needed, the owners of a local station began mining salt from the lakebed and built a supply depot near the old wagon route. When traffic along the route faltered, the depot was fenced in and a red light was hung out front for the weary traveler (it was a brothel). The brothel has been boarded up for some time, but the salt facility still scrapes out a living (literally) on the playa. An hour later we were carving turns across the dunes at Sand Mountain Off-Highway Vehicle Recreation Area. One of the highest sand dunes in Nevada, Sand Mountain is the accumulation of thousands of years of dust and sand blown in from the nearby dry lakebed.
Continuing 50 miles to the southeast, we found ourselves at Ichthyosaurus State Park. Discovered midcentury by prospectors, the park is unique in its collection of fossilized, flesh-eating fish. The ichthyosaur was not just your common guppy. These little flippers grew up to 40 feet long and sported a set of teeth that could tear a person in half. Fossilized for eternity and encased in stone, they caused us no harm. After a narrated tour, we headed toward our lunch stop in the remote town of Ione. Ione is an authentic, semi-operational ghost town with a population of eight (no, this is not a typo) - the family that runs the bar makes up half the population. The innkeepers served up a full spread of barbecued hot dogs, chicken, and burgers with all the trimmings. Miles from any town, an occasional UPS truck has now replaced the old freight wagons, and the incessant whistle of steam-powered stamp mills no longer resonates through the hills.
Next on the agenda was a stop at the historical ghost town of Berlin, a mining district that operated all the way into the 1950s. We took some time to explore various relics, old buildings, and the Walter Bowler Tunnel - a hard rock mine bored thousands of feet into the mountain and operating on several different elevation levels. As the sun headed for the western horizon, Smith turned the wheels of his Grand Cherokee to the east and we made tracks for the town of Ely, Nevada, and the historic Jail House Hotel, our basecamp for rest of the trip.
Jeep Jamboree packs a lot into its events, and over the next several days we would visit places like the gold mines of Egan Canyon and Cherry Creek, the Ward Charcoal Kilns, the depths of the Lehman Caves, the Ruth copper mine (the largest in the world) and enjoy wine and cheese on one of the country's last operational steam-engine trains in the country.
If you get off the Loneliest Road in America you'll find yourself in a place where distances between points seem to fade into a dusty mirage on the horizon. It is a place of few fences and thousands of miles of enticing two-tracks that beg to be explored - a place where historical artifacts and local lore abound for those with an adventurous heart.