Last month, adventurers Chris Collard and Del Albright backed a borrowed Jeep JK up to the big steel fence at the Mexican border, aired down the tires, and embarked on an epic all-dirt trek to Canada. This month, we follow the Border-to-Border boys through the Wild West ghost town of Bodie, to the Biggest Little City in the West, and along the tracks of 1840s explorer John Fremont.
Threatening black thunderclouds spilled over the Sierra Nevada and into Mono Basin like a tsunami, warning us of the impending deluge. I glanced over at Del and said, "Don't even think about it-you're still not sleeping in my tent." Temperatures were dropping, Del had been setting up his ground tent each night, and I'd be crawling up into a warm and cozy rooftop hacienda (an ARB Simpson II tent) with Radar to keep me warm. Sheets of the aqueous onslaught hammered against the rhythm of our windshield wipers as we made our way around the eastern edge of Mono Lake on a sandy-to-muddy two-track. With his usual swagger and mischievous grin, Del looked back at Radar and said, "Buddy, you're a dog, and I might pull rank tonight!"
Two days earlier we were sponging the sweat off our temples as the sweltering heat of Saline Valley baked our cerebral gray matter. We were heading to Bishop, California, where we'd join the Eastern Sierra 4WD Club (ES4WD) for an Adopt-a-Highway conservation project. The trip meter clicked mile 647 as we passed a set of giant radio towers south of town (think "a Dish Network satellite dish on Red Bull steroids" about 150 feet tall). With another couple of thousand miles of dirt roads ahead of us, the order of business was this: Restock sundries, address some suspension issues on the JK, and hook up with the ES4WD guys for dinner and a map review.
The original suspension on our Jeep JK Overland was fine until we burdened it with a half-ton or so of gear (toolbox, Hi-Lift jack, Expedition One fuel cans, a 40-liter Front Runner water cell, camera gear, an ARB fridge/freezer, etc.). Normal stuff, yes, but it rendered the tail end of the JK as springy as an old Dodge Dart with the shocks removed. And while they did give us the vehicle (okay, it was a loan) and we shouldn't complain, the Overland, which is a prototype concept rig, hadn't had a true, fully-loaded shakedown. This was it-thousands of miles of America's backroads. The flipside is that the guys at Jeep actually wanted some real-world feedback.
I called Scott Brown at Jeep Communications and let him know the JK needed a set of heavier progressive coil springs and a 50-percent-stiffer rear shock. By the time we arrived in Bishop, Poly Performance had lined us up with the right combination. A quick stop at the Bishop Automotive Center, and we were right.
Road Kill, Glass Mountains, and "Saving Mono Lake"
Mile 647, Bishop, CA. Lat N37º 21' 46": Rising into the clouds almost 10,000 feet from the valley sagebrush and stretching north-south for more than 400 miles, the Sierra Nevada ("snowy mountains" in Spanish) stood as a formidable foe for western travelers of the 1800s. Today, winter snows still close all roads in the 300-mile swath between Carson Pass and Tehachapi, and the eastern towns such as Bishop, Independence, and Lone Pine are all but isolated from California proper. This was also the case for early Wild West mining towns such as Bodie-our next destination.
Getting in and out of Bishop cost us only eight miles of pavement, and we were back on Diablo Mine Road, a dirt track leading towards Crowley Lake and the site of the conservation project. After filling a few dozen large garbage bags with everything from cigarette butts to two-month-old road kill, the ES4WD crew led us up a track through the Glass Mountains to the north. Tall sage and salt grass yielded to pinion and juniper, and our Garmin GPS indicated 9,916 feet, the highest elevation of our trek.
It was mid-June, and snow still blanketed the higher elevations, fanning down north faces, fissures, and crevices like the tattered ends of a flag in the wind. The temperature was dropping and the dozen switchbacks leading down to Mono Basin provided a bird's-eye view of the impending storm. The ES4WD crew had headed home, and it was back to dos amigos (tres amigos if you count our buddy Señor Patron), and a dog.
Mono Lake has always been a place of intrigue. As a kid, the family made frequent camping and fishing trips to Lee Vining Creek near Tioga Pass. The parental units extended us kids the liberty of hiking down the creek, about eight miles, to the township of Lee Vining for ice cream. To the east lay Mono Lake, a small but unique inland sea flanked by endless expanses of open desert. I dreamed of exploring its distant shores one day.
In the '70s, after years of the Los Angeles Metropolitan Water District diverting the natural watershed away from the lake, water levels hit alarming lows and saline levels rose to triple that of the ocean. Alkali tufa formations materialized from the surface, catching the attention of the world-and many environmentalists-and leaving Mono and its tufa as a world-renowned tourist attraction. The "Save Mono Lake" crowd rallied to . . . Save Mono Lake. They've succeeded. Lake levels have risen and the area's main tourist attraction, the tufa, have all but disappeared.
The thunderheads and heavy rains passed as quickly as they arrived, trailing off to gray skies and a soggy track. That track was the eastern strandlines of Mono Lake that I'd gazed at from a distance as a young boy. Spectacular! We made our way north, crossing Highway 167 and into Cottonwood Canyon towards one of the most celebrated ghost towns in the Gold Rush.
"Goodbye God, I'm Going to Bodie"
Mile 802, Bodie, CA, Lat: N38º 12' 46": A chilly wind blew through the paneless wood-framed windows of the old church, swinging a pair of creaky-hinged double doors open and kicking up a swirl of dust as it exited the scene across a wood-planked sidewalk. Down the street was one of Bodie's 65 saloons: a billiard table with a full rack, dusty beer pitchers on the bar, and pool cues leaning against an old handmade rack. It appeared that the party just got up and walked away. That day was in 1962, when the State of California deemed their town a state park. This was the legendary ghost town of Bodie.
With a reputation for being a haven for gunslingers, con men, merchants, gamblers, and ladies of pleasure, the people of Bodie didn't mince words when it came to hard rock mining, drinking, or paydirt. In its heyday, around 1880, preachers, teachers, shopkeepers, and ladies of society had moved to town in an attempt to save the township from eternal hellfire (and maybe make a buck in the process). They were a hardy lot, and as winter snows and arctic-cold winds encapsulated the town, most folks stayed the course. The steam engines continued to whistle, stamp mills pounded away at mule carts of gold ore, town folks shoveled snow tunnels from saloon to saloon, and proper church services were still held on Sunday. The famous quote, "Goodbye God, I'm going to Bodie," was penned by a young girl whose family moved to godforsaken Bodie from the refinement of San Francisco.
The sun broke through and the clouds dissipated as we climbed the grade out of town to find camp along Bodie Creek. The altimeter read 7,700 feet, temperatures were still dropping, and it looked like it was going to be a one-dog night (sorry, Del). I'm sure Del can cook, or at least heat water for an MRE, but dinner tonight was via Cuisine a la Chris: spaghetti with sautéed onions and fresh garlic. It wasn't quite up to the seafood alfredo I'd whipped up in Death Valley, but hot and tasty on a chilly night.
Tombstones, Bucket of Blood Saloon, and the Biggest Little City
In the morning, Del was brushing the frost off his tent, our small fire warmed our backsides, and fresh coffee was brewing on the stove. The sky was clear and the compass beckoned us north. Our morning ritual, Willie Nelson's On the Road Again (followed by anything by Jimmy Buffett) got our blood moving for another day. A half dozen antelope darted across the track in front of us, and prickly poppies, jimson weed and prince's plume, all in bloom, lined our route as we traversed a narrow canyon to Fletcher Junction and the remnants of the Pine Grove mining district. After snooping around the bone yard in Pine Grove, we got a surprise visit from the, uh, guard? We didn't know it, nor did we see anything posted, but Pine Grove is a privately owned mine. We assured the guy we were harmless and stupid tourists, and made our exit north towards Smith Valley.
One of the truly special things about the state of Nevada is that the Wild West and wide-open spaces still remain. And, you can get just about everywhere on a dirt track if you choose. We slipped onto a few miles of pavement (maybe three) to fuel up in Smith Valley, a small agricultural community southeast of Carson City, before traversing the lee slope of Mt. Como, through the Como Mining District and on to Virginia City.
As the days rolled into weeks, the cab of the JK was taking on the aroma of a dirty sock bag, and we figured a hot shower, some good grub and a few cold suds were in order. After the previous day's storm, we rolled into Virginia City looking like we'd been sprayed with a mud cannon. The clock had just passed 10:00 p.m. when we wandered into the Bucket of Blood Saloon on Main Street. It's the kind of name that you can't help but to pose the question: "How did it get its name?" The barkeep just raised an eyebrow when we queried the subject (online research revealed nothing concrete). We speculated that since Virginia City was one of the boomingest mining districts in the West (the Mother Lode is said to have produced almost $500 million in silver alone), somewhere in the mix of crusty miners, rotgut whiskey, ladies of pleasure, and handy revolvers tempers flared and the blood occasionally spilled. Maybe here?
Mile 1026, Reno, NV, Lat: N39º 31' 34": The skyline of the world's Biggest Little City spread across the valley as we descended Rattlesnake Mountain grade into Reno. Del needed to be at Terrible's Casino for the W.E.Rock "Reno Rocks" event. (By the way, if you are getting a room in Reno, Las Vegas, etc., Terrible's is totally supportive of the racing and four-wheeling scene.) In Reno, I'd be kicking my old buddy Del to the curb in favor of my lovely wife Suzanne (she's way better looking). There really isn't any way to get in and out of major cities on dirt tracks, and we sacrificed another 30 miles to our tar-road tally. But well worth it! The event rocked, and sacrifices must be made.
John Fremont, the Smoke Creek Desert, and Bruno's
Though fences, paved roads, and so-called wilderness areas are boxing in the Wild West, Nevada is still a premier destination for backcountry travel. Saying a sobbing goodbye to Del (I'd soon be missing his cab karaoke version of Jimmy Buffett's Four Lonely Days), the new Border-to-Border crew loaded up and continued north to Red Rock Road and Eagle's Roost Ranch, gateway to Nevada's great northern desert.
Colonel John Fremont, a civil war veteran, explorer, and strong proponent of Manifest Destiny, was the first white man to glimpse the deserts of northern Nevada. His charge, from 1841 to 1846, was a government-funded survey of the region from the Oregon Territory and the Great Basin to the Sierra Nevada Mountains. After meeting Kit Carson on a Missouri riverboat and working together on several westerly expeditions, the two left St. Louis with 55 men for a five-month survey of the west. With a howitzer (cannon) in tow, apparently to fend off hostile Indians, they ventured into the Black Rock Desert. It was January 5, 1843 and a low ground fog obscured visibility to a hundred feet. Many of their livestock and horses had been stolen by Indians or had died, and Fremont's crew needed to find greener pastures. A scouting trek up a precipitous peak revealed the vast azure waters of Pyramid Lake to the south, and the Smoke Creek desert, which was named for the rising smoke from Indian campfires through the fog layer, stretched northward. Fremont's vantage point may have been the peak to our right (east) as we cleared the Moon Rocks area and veered north on Winnemucca Ranch Road.
Winnemucca Valley was a regular dirt-bike haunt from my younger days; I knew the area and figured we could access Smoke Creek from the north end of the valley. Suzy climbed out to open the first of at least 40 cattle gates near a marshy meadow in McKissick canyon (okay, I ended up closing most of the gates from then on). From the summit near Stateline Peak, the distant reaches of the Smoke Creek playa extended for what seemed like eternity.
Mile 1083, Smoke Creek Desert, N40º 32' 11": We lit our campfire in the lee of Eagle Head Peak near Willow Canyon this night. Daily temperatures were rising, and a light wind blew from the south. Looking out over the Smoke Creek Desert, we couldn't help but envision the heavy fog that Fremont and his men witnessed, and the smoke from scattered Indian camps rising through it as a constant reminder they were not alone. Unlike Fremont, we were only graced with the howl of a lone coyote this night. (Radar, the wonder-dog, tucked his tail and burrowed his way to the bottom of the sleeping bags.)
Technology is amazing. One of the JK options (actually, all Mopar-optioned vehicles) was a mobile wireless router connected to Mopar's UConnect Web service. In Reno, Scott Brown had hooked us up with a unit and I was able to get a 3G signal from my camp chair. There I sat, at the edge of emptiness, updating the Border-to-Border blog on fourwheeler.com and warming our toes by the fire.
As we pulled into Gerlach, an outpost on the edge of the Black Rock Desert, our departure from the Mexican border seemed like a distant memory. Each day blended with the previous, each new two-track streaming under the JK's AEV bumper like high-speed video game day. The trip meter clicked 1126, nine miles short of Google Earth's "as-the-crow-flies" distance from Mexico to Canada-and we hadn't made it to Oregon yet. We still hadn't unspooled the Viking winch rope from our Warn 9500, but the snow and downed trees to the north would undoubtedly put them to work. Topping off our fuel and water (and grabbing breakfast at the famous Bruno's Café), we again turned the wheels north, nosing the JK onto the Black Rock Playa, a 30-mile-long pool-table-flat alkali flat. Beyond lay the High Rock Canyon, the Trail of Death, and Oregon Territory.
Gear for the Road
When you hit the road for an overland trek, having the right gear is essential. With each installment of B2B, we'll share some of the gear we used and how it worked.
Author's Sidebar Note
If you made it this far in our B-2-B adventure and are wondering about the places that we passed through, look them up on the Internet and read up on them. You'll be amazed how much historical information is available. Don't live on the West Coast? Throw a dart at a map of your state, type in the name of the place it lands, and take a drive. On the side, Chris