A long late climb

I got nine good hours of sleep — just what I needed!

As I was rearranging my tent, I considered my next move. If I made the ride to Tonopah today I would need a lot of food. The local burger shack didn’t open until 11:00, which meant waiting around for almost two hours, but leaving with enough food was more important than leaving early.

I’d probably stand around eating some of the food right after I got it, so I wouldn’t leave Mina until noon. Then I’d have around 60 miles and 2000 feet of climbing to do, assuming I could ride through the construction zone. My instincts said that was at least 12 hours. With rest breaks, I’d be arriving in Tonopah some time after midnight.

If I got to the construction zone and they turned me away, I’d be forced to go back the way I came and spend another night in Mina. Then I’d just have to hunker down in the RV park until the road opened. Not a terrible fate, since I could get work and writing done.

I washed and shaved in the RV park shower, then packed everything onto the bike.

Packed and ready to go!

Then I rolled downhill to the burger joint.

Mmmm, road food.

A woman was outside sweeping dust away from the tables. Long sun-bleached hair, strong arms, in her 50’s perhaps. When she saw me she said, “Go ahead and order; Mom’s in there.”

I approached the window and an older woman inside raised the screen, blasting me with a column of air-conditioning. The day was already heating up. She leaned forward and said, in a squeaky birdlike voice:

“Good morning, dearie! What can I make for you?”
“I’ll have the turkey sandwich, please.”
“You wan’ all de toppings? Lettuce mayo onion pickle mustard? Wheat bread okay? You wan it toasted?”
“Everything on it, yep. Not toasted.”
“Okay, dearie, let me just write this down… Turkey… Everything… No toast. Anything more?”
“Yes, could I get the fish and chips too? And a cup of ice-water?”
“Fish… Ice-water. Anything more?”
“That’ll do it!”
“Okay dearie. No problem. I get you ice-water.”

Just then the phone rang inside the building and she vanished. I heard her writing down another order, then she came back and I paid the bill.

As soon as I backed away from the window, another woman walked up. Early 70’s, tanned and wiry with a short gray haircut. Much smaller than the other two women. I looked behind me and realized she’d emerged from a gigantic RV that pulled up across the street.

The woman in the building took her order, using a different and more official tone of voice, and without using the word “dearie” at all. Then the daughter finished sweeping and went inside, and the mother-daughter team began cooking up a storm.

The woman from the RV leaned against a table, a respectable distance from me and my bike, and struck up a conversation.

“How far have you gone today?”
“Oh I’m just getting started. Going to try and head south to Tonopah. I heard there was some construction on the highway though and I’m worried about that.”
“Yeah, we just went by that. We’re coming from Arizona.”
“Was there a flagman out, or was it just a bunch of cones and stuff?”
“Bunch of cones, as far as I could tell.”

That was good news to me. It meant I could slip onto the closed highway without being spotted, and then negotiate my way around the actual construction when I was already upon it. The crew would be less likely to turn me away if I was already halfway through.

We chatted some more about travel in the time of COVID-19, and the difficulty of knowing what each day might bring. She was friendly but I could tell she was stressed out — probably from having to detour over 40 extra miles of winding mountain roads this morning.

A man walked up to the burger joint. Top-heavy, with tattooed arms sprouting from a sleeveless flannel shirt, and a friendly, almost goofy expression beneath his thinning crewcut. The mom inside broke away from her cooking to take his order, throwing in a few “dearies”.

He chatted with the woman from the RV. His truck was just down the street, and it had a busted alternator. He’d been stuck up in the mountains for a couple days trying to fix it, then getting ahold of a spare battery so he could limp it into town. From Mina he planned to hop to Hawthorne, where he knew a good mechanic.

A car parked nearby and two young women got out, both showing an unwise amount of skin for the blazing sunlight. They placed an order – no “dearies” for them – and then tucked themselves into another corner of the courtyard. It was getting crowded here.

The screen slid up. “Turkey sandwich and feesh!” said Mom.

I gathered two tinfoil-covered plates and placed them on my bike, then wheeled it about ten yards away. As I was scarfing down the fish, a man in a serape and a wide hat, walking with a stick, came ambling down the hill. He drew near and I saw he was unmistakably African-American. I was secretly delighted to find someone of his ethnicity out here in the boonies of Nevada, and we struck up a conversation.

“That is a really interesting bike you’re riding there. Recumbent I think?”
“You got it! It’s the most comfortable bike I’ve ever had.”
“Oh I bet. Yeah, I used to have a whole bunch of bikes. I think I had six of ’em at one point. Used to ride around everywhere.”
“Well, you know what they say. The right number of bikes to have is one more than the number you have now.”
“Hah! Yeah. You know, bicycling saved my life.”
“I was in a bad way. About ten years ago. I couldn’t work, and I wasn’t taking care of myself. I had this friend. He had … what’s it called … Spina bifida. He had a bicycle, and he rode it a little each day. I asked him ‘How do you ride that? Isn’t it really painful?’ and he told me, ‘I just ride through the pain.’ Ride through the pain, he said. I decided that day to get myself a bicycle.”
“Wow! Yeah, I know exactly what you mean. I was having a serious health problem about ten years ago. Probably not the same thing you were going through, but I got out and rode my bike, and it healed me.”
“Healed you! Exactly. I got that bike – it was a real clunker but I didn’t care – and I rode it all over Richmond, made loops, went out and back all over the place. Longest ride I did was Richmond all the way to Sacramento.”
“You’re from Richmond? I’m from Oakland!”
“Hey, right on!”

We had a lively talk about the wonders of bicycling. He drew in the gravel with his stick, describing his favorite routes. He’d gotten six flat tires on his way to Sacramento, and it had taken three days. He’d lived in South San Jose for a few years, and rode his bike up to San Francisco on a regular basis. He said that in the beginning, when he was still struggling, he was homeless for a while and would ride from town to town sleeping rough. The police would threaten to arrest him, and he’d say, “Hey, please do! At least I’ll sleep somewhere secure, you know?”

“So how’d you get out into the middle of nowhere in Nevada?” I asked.

He described a land-stewardship program that the state of Nevada was running. They sold him a chunk of land on the edge of Mina for a hundred bucks, and he promised to manage it, perhaps try ranching or farming.

“It’s tough out here, though, because of the thieves,” he said.

“Really? I figured people out here would be more honest.”

“Oh most people really are. But it’s the addicts. They’ll sneak onto your property and steal anything then can get. As soon as I got here I had to build a fence around my land, then I had to MacGyver myself a firearm to keep scaring them off.”

We both commiserated over the economy, the lack of social programs and support for addicts, and how it was hard to do the right thing while still being safe. I walked my empty plate to the trash can. He wished me luck on my journey, shook my hand, and went over to the burger joint to place an order.

Time to get rolling!

70 miles and well over 2000 feet of climb. This is the big one today.

First up: Several more amusing critter-crossing signs.

I am amused by how many different signs for four-legged highway invaders I can find along this route.

Then some serious utility infrastructure of utmost Kwality™:


And then, to my astonishment, a brothel.

Yep, it's a brothel. Nevada is weird.

The sign looks new, even though the place looks decrepit.

The main building was a big flat square, surrounded by freestanding white Roman columns like posts for an invisible fence. The columns were probably meant to add a feeling of classy reverence, like “here be goddesses,” but they appeared to be melting in the weather as though they were made of plaster, and the building itself badly needed a coat of paint. This weird establishment was plopped down in the center of a dirt and gravel parking lot. No cars were near it, though several broken or wrecked trucks and some construction equipment slowly roasted in the sun on the opposite side of the lot. The effect was like the building actually repelled cars.

Some distance behind this weird “temple” was another building, rectangular with a metal roof. Four joined rooms like a motel, each with a door. Printed across the roof in ten-foot letters was the word “PLAYMATE”.

I rolled by too quickly to get a picture – in fact I felt a sense of revulsion that compelled me to keep going, like the building was a giant predatory insect – but now I wish I’d taken a few shots just to document the sheer absurdity of it.

Later on I did some reading, out of curiosity:

Wild, weird stuff.

I crested a hill and then began a very long, slow descent into a valley. The wind was blowing squarely against me at least 20mph, so I had to pedal to make downward progress. I felt less frustrated than usual because I might have to turn around at the detour ahead, and in that case the wind would blow me right back up this hill with ease.

Almost to the construction area...

I rolled up to the intersection with the cones and saw a truck parked next to them. I dismounted my bike nearby, and a woman in an official uniform and a hard hat got out the truck.

Before I could ask her anything, she said: “You can probably get through. There’s just a small section a few miles in where we’re resurfacing the highway, and it has a 2-inch drop, so you’ll need to be careful of that. But I can radio ahead to my boss and let the trucks know you’re coming, and you can probably just ride on through.”

What a pleasant surprise!

“That would be wonderful,” I said. “‘Cause that detour would probably be too much for me to handle.”

She nodded and got on her radio, and I took out my thermos of ice water and poured a cup. When she finished I offered her some.

“Oh no, I’ve got plenty in the truck, thanks. You can go on ahead!” She grabbed one of the big cylindrical cones and pulled it aside, making a gap wide enough for

Dang; that was easy!

I pedaled onto the empty road, feeling like royalty. Every twenty minutes or so a big-rig dump truck clattered by, going in or out, but aside from those I had the whole surface to myself. I stopped to drink more water and fish out a chocolate bar, and was disoriented by the silence. I could see cars moving along the detour in the distance but I couldn’t hear them at all.

Terrain that ain't good for much other than ranching or passing through...

For the next hour or so I went slowly into the mountains. The dump trucks continued to roll by. Then at the top of a hill, I saw a regular truck coming down towards me. It pulled to a stop and another woman in a construction hat waved hello.

“Hello! My boss sent me down here to talk to you. We’ve got a lot of trucks passing in and out of here, and sometimes when the road is closed they don’t pay a lot of attention to where they’re going. So my boss is worried for your safety. Do you need to pass through?”

I explained that I was on a bicycle trip headed south, and the detour would be too difficult, so ideally I could pass through instead of turning around.

“Okay, well, we don’t really want you riding through the site, but how about if we put your bike in my truck and I give you a ride to the other side of it?”

I quickly realized this was my best option, as well as a generous offer. The only other thing I could do was turn around and spend the rest of the day biking back to Mina, then probably back to Hawthorne from there.

“That sounds great; thank you!” I said.

She turned the truck around on the road, and I detached all of my bike bags. Together we lifted the bike into the rear of the truck and I tucked a few bags under it to keep pressure off the lower rack. Then I hopped in the cab. She spoke briefly on the radio, and we were off.

For the next half an hour she drove me slowly through the construction zone, threading around large trucks and earth-moving equipment. We kept up a light conversation about landmarks to see in Nevada, the economic impact of COVID-19, and teaching the old members of our family how to use the internet. I learned that this particular repair job was sandwiched between two other tough jobs, and was being rushed in order to keep the schedule. The recent earthquake – a long one in the 6.0 range – had pulverized several parts of the road and the crew had less than a week remaining to clean it all up.

“Oh jeez,” I said. “And here I come along on my little remote-work joyride and slow you folks down even more.”

“Oh don’t worry about it. This won’t take much time at all.”

In the back of my mind I was a little disappointed that I could no longer claim I had pedaled every mile of this journey, but I knew I didn’t have a choice — and besides, she’d carried me over the hardest part of the day’s ride on a day that called for way too much riding anyway. 65 miles and 2500 feet was beyond my standard budget. She’d subtracted 1000 feet and probably 10 miles from that.

Once we were beyond the construction, she pulled aside and we unloaded the bike.

“It’s all good road from here,” she said. “Be safe on your ride! I hope the wind is with you!”

“Thanks! I hope your work gets done on time!”

I hooked my bags in place, then poured some more ice water and stood around drinking it.

Time for more icewater.

It's a bit like making tea in England: There's a ritual.

Then I checked my phone and realized I needed to be in a work conference. I dialed in, then got on the bike and pedaled as I took part. Two bars of LTE signal out here in the middle of nowhere. What a world.

The vanishing road...

While the call was going I spotted a lizard by the road, and this time I decided to take a photo instead of just chasing it into the desert like a madman. I rolled to a stop, with the conference still going.

Local lizard!

Check out that super-long tail!

A few more miles of easy riding later, I reached the end of the detour. Now the road would get noisy again. Oh well.

Finally reached the end of the detour.

I recognized the intersection from my route research. This was Coaldale. The wasted buildings scattered here used to be a truck stop and motel. It was populated and running in 1991, abandoned by 1998, and burned mostly to the ground by 2006. Now it looks like this:

What a fine vacation home!
If this were Oakland, there would be 150 people hunkered down here.
People sure love spraypainting random crap.
Various opinions.
Good advertising!

In another bizarro juxtaposition of modern life, I walked around the site snapping pictures while actively taking part in a teleconference for work.

Long lonely road.

I rode on. The conference ended. I chomped my sandwich from the burger shack. I listened to more of the materials science audiobook, then some podcasts. The scenery continued to be mesmerizing.

Colorful hills.
Nice place to go for a stroll.
I've no idea what this building is. It's not labeled on any map.
A random rest area.
Some local history.
More of that big sky...
The day is moving on...
Tens of thousands of scraps like this line the highway.

I still had about 30 miles and 1200 feet of climb to deal with. The motel I’d called in Tonopah was open 24 hours, so at least I didn’t have to worry about showing up to a locked door.

"The Lone Mountain" ahead.

As the sun went down, the wind shifted direction and finally favored me. I covered ten miles of flat ground quickly as twilight became full darkness.

Toothy shadows at night.

The darkness felt comfortable, like the walls of a familiar home, and a little bit spooky as well. To complement the scene I listened to some radio shows:

These turned out to be a perfect fit, because the ride into Tonopah was extremely taxing, and I needed something to keep myself awake and keep my – pun intended – spirits up.

Moon over Tonopah.

The last ten miles of the approach to Tonopah were straight up a steadily increasing grade, so progress became more difficult just as my legs became less energetic. I could see the lights of the town above me in the distance, growing larger imperceptibly as the hours passed. Just to add to the challenge, the wind had turned on me again and was blowing an irregular 10mph.

It was 3:00am by the time I reached the motel and checked in. If that construction worker hadn’t given me a ride earlier in the day, I would have been cycling until 4:30am or even later, or probably just set up a tent in the “rest area” at the base of the mountain and had a dusty, noisy night of sleep.

It all worked out! Time to sleep six hours and then do three hours of work meetings…

2 Responses to A long late climb

  1. Ankim Nguyen says:

    Oh to be Garrett having a lizard photoshoot in the middle of a conference meeting XD!! If you see any cats, take their pictures too! What podcasts do you listen to for your rides? Been meaning to find some sciency ones to listen to while I do sciency things. Don’t rough and tumble too hard out there, we need you all in one piece. Best, Ankim

    • I’ve only seen a couple of cats, and they’ve all been too sneaky for me to get a picture in time. But I’ll keep an eye out!
      Hmmm, good sciency podcasts… That’s a tough order, yes.

      60 Second Science is pretty good. Brainstuff wanders a bit, but is generally good. Sawbones is about medical history but has a strong scientific angle — it’s one of my favorites. IQ2 US is mostly about politics, but when they cover scientific topics they do well. The Science Talk podcast is the most science-ey, though it’s overwhelming if you try to listen to all of it.

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