Reno To Carlsbad

The Plan

I was going to go be riding around Denmark with my nephew this year, but COVID-19 thoroughly derailed those plans. All international travel was off the table for spring and summer. As the months of isolation dragged on, I got obsessed with finding some way to still make a bike trip happen, and eventually the government restrictions loosened up enough for me to put this plan together.

The pins represent scraps of civilization.

Ever since my ride across the Oregon scrubland in 2009, I’ve wanted to make another bike tour through a hot, dry climate. The isolation, the intensity, and the alien feel of the terrain appeal to me. This summer I need to keep human contact to a minimum anyway, so why not do it outdoors in the blazing sunlight, in an environment hostile to germs?

A flurry of preparation. Don't try this at home folks: You need to be very careful on those hardwood floors!

I packed up the same touring gear that I used for Iceland – an extremely cold climate – but I left out my thick sweater, hiking socks, hiking shoes, and wool hat. Add in a giant thermos and another extra water bottle, pull the extra liner out of my sleeping bag, and I was good to go!

Except for one thing: My cute nightlight needed repairs. Gotta have that!

Temporary workspace while I attempt to repair my highly customized night-light candle.

It's fixed, but its new name is Peg-Leg Pete The Night-Light.

The Train To Reno

As usual before a big trip, I didn’t sleep well. Too excited!

Setting out in the morning. The shades are concealing some very tired eyeballs!

Beth was already on a conference call. Work work work! I held up the iPad with a drawing of a heart on it, and she grinned and waved.

I had a few extra minutes before I needed to hit the train station, so I got a donut and a mocha, to supplement the big chunks of bread I’d pilfered from the kitchen on the way out. The previous night I’d been watching the South Park episode “All About Mormons” while trying to repair my camping light, and the song was now bouncing all over my sleep-deprived brain. I couldn’t remember the lyrics though. As I rode to the train station I sang:

Joseph Smith he was a Mormon
      Dum dum dum dum dummm
Farty-pantsy pantsy-farty
      Dum dum dum dum dummm

Transporting a bicycle on the train is so much easier than transporting one by air, it’s almost disorienting. You just get a luggage tag for it like any other piece of luggage, and make sure you’re early in line to load the bike on the train so the attendant has time to prepare.

Just tag the bike, remove the bags, and hand it up to the luggage car. Amazingly easy.

Take your bags off and carry them with you, or check them too if you like. That’s it. No box and no disassembly required. (I assume this is because the train service is terribly under-utilized right now due to COVID-19, because the regulations state that you need some kind of bike carrier box. I asked the clerk about it the day before and he said a box would not be needed.)

Writing code as we move across the land.

Now you can see how tired I am!

I’d purchased a little private room, because I wanted a safe place to stick five big chunks of luggage, and some relative isolation from the other passengers. It wasn’t much more expensive than a regular ticket, and the table was helpful for getting work done.

All I had to do was sit, and the landscape slowly transformed outside the window until I was in Reno:

The ride was quite pleasant, though there was a dark spot. I could overhear someone playing a talk show on their phone with the volume turned way up. The little speaker carried right through the wall. It was some obviously right-wing pundit screaming at the top of his lungs, about how Democrats are ruining the country because they’re saying there’s systemic racism.

“What systemic racism?” screamed the pundit. “The officer who killed George Floyd was arrested and charged with murder! The system obviously works! What are these people complaining about?”

The jackass was of course either deliberately not mentioning, or just stupidly unaware, that all the repercussions for Floyd’s death have come about because the four police officers who pinned him down were recorded by onlookers, who then raised hell. One of the officers actively tried to prevent the recording. No recording, no uproar.

And this is aside from the fact that Floyd was being arrested on suspicion of using a counterfeit bill at a nearby market. That’s not even a violent crime; not even close. If I write a bad check, I get a 35 dollar fine. George Floyd was strangled slowly to death face-down in a public street by the police for the equivalent.

This information is everywhere online and trivial to verify. And yet, I’m hearing this talk show pundit have a full-scale 100-meter freestyle whimpering hissy-fit, which goes on for half an hour, based on an ignorance that it would have taken him 30 seconds on a smartphone to dispel.

“The Democrats want these protests to happen! They want the looting to happen! They don’t care if the whole police force gets defunded and the country sinks into anarchy, they just want Republicans to die. This is a war on white middle class people and it’s based on lies!!”

Deliberate construction of an enemy, blaming it for every problem, stoking fear and impotent rage. What people are drawn to this? Why do they take it in? What do they get for spending hours absorbing it?

These are the times we live in. Honestly, I’d feel much better if these people were just watching porn.

I put in my headphones and ignored the voice. Then the ride was great again. I only left the compartment twice to use the bathroom, and wore my mask and washed my hands thoroughly each time. Getting sick is no way to start a bike trip!

I could tell when I was getting close to Reno because the number of hidden homeless camps sharply increased.

Homeless huts tucked in along the railroad are a thing in Reno too. The only difference between these and the ones in Oakland is the occupant is more likely to be addicted to meth than to crack.

At the Reno station, I marched out to the platform with my bags. The man at the luggage car already had my bike at the doorway, and he handed it down to me. And just like that, I was in Reno with all my gear! Why do I travel on airplanes…?

Bike off the train; bags off the train. All in less than three minutes. So much better than flying.

Outside the air was fresh and it was only 88 degrees. I rode around a bit to orient myself.

Big sky in Reno!
All bundled up to ride around the town.
More big sky.
Got to photograph the silly arch!
Local protestors. Not very many of them, but they're out and about.
A whale of a sculpture!

The main drag was a forest of construction cones. Looks like the city is jumping on the chance to get a lot of work done while people are away.

Lots of construction happening on the main drag in Reno, taking advantage of the light traffic from COVID-19 and curfews.

I rode southeast for a little while and checked into a sorta-sketchy hotel near a mexican restaurant, then got some to-go food and munched it while watching a documentary on the Vietnam War. It seemed appropriate for the times.

First day of riding tomorrow! Big day!

To Carson City

Hey, I know! I’ll go for a swim before I head out!

Pools are off limits these days.

Oops, COVID-19 strikes again… That’s okay; I didn’t even bring swim trunks.

I threaded my way to the southern edge of Reno, taking my time. As usual just about everyone gave me strange looks because of the bicycle. Definitely a good thing since it increases my visibility.

I got onto “ALT 395”, which runs alongside interstate 580, and settled in for a long afternoon. My progress was slowed by a steady headwind. As I went I kept a tally of the number and kind of dead animals along the road. Eventually I got to 3 squished snakes, 2 smashed rabbits, 2 dead birds, and 2 dead deer, one of whom apparently expired with its head stuck between the wires of a fence. (It’s grim but I find that if I pay attention to it for a day, I can usually stop noticing it on subsequent days.)

I also passed a lot of construction projects, some involving the road. People in yellow hats, carrying clipboards and driving machinery, shouting at each other. Long strings of cones. Sometimes it’s hard to tell there’s a pandemic happening.

I found out later that this is the “Ormat Steamboat Power Plant”. A renewable energy project.

Not sure what species is being protected, but it's nice to see Nevada cares.

Apparently the plant is built in an area that is home to some protected species? Not sure which one…

Can't help but think of an old industrial noise band when I see this logo...
The elevated interstate highway.
Not a sign I see in Oakland!
Yep, there's still snow up there!
Who needs Google Maps? Everything's labeled!
Can't decide what to do with your extra scrap of corrugated aluminum roofing? Flag!
Politics here are very different from my home town.

While I was parked by the side of the road drinking water and chomping a half-melted candy bar, a man walked out of the house nearby and asked if I was alright. He was wearing a t-shirt and shorts, and a metal cross hung from a chain on the outside of his shirt.

“Oh, I’m fine,” I said. “I just have to do a lot of eating in order to keep pedaling all this gear around,” I said, and gestured to the bike. “Thanks for checking in, though.”

We chatted about bicycling for a while, and he said “Okay, well let me know if you need anything. Safe travels. God bless.”

I was grateful as always for the interest, and his salutation of “God bless” was an interesting reminder for me: I’m no longer in urban California. People around here have the Christian faith woven into their speech as the standard. I didn’t mind, of course; it was just interesting to think about how I sometimes feel more at home in almost any large urban center regardless of country than I feel out in the middle of my own country.

That feeling was amplified by the ‘Trump’ sign planted in front of the house down the street.

Suddenly in a thoughtful mood, I climbed aboard the bike and pedaled on.

Hot road. I could feel my tires sliding on the tar in a couple of places.
If this rock isn't called St. Bernard Rock, I'll be surprised.
When sagebrush gets a little too much water!
If this stick house were in the Bay Area it would be worth $350,000
It's like a colony of fluffy cat tails! (Actual "cat tail" plants don't look nearly as fluffy.)
Whispery grass.
Two carriages in a wee glass house, with my very modern bike in the reflection.
Lots of birds hanging out in the preserve area.
Big views near the lake.

After a while I passed a small herd of deer running around in a field next to the road. A half mile later I passed a large sign reading “Deer Run Farm.” A smaller sign next to that read “No Trespassing” and another sign next to that read “No Hunting.” I assume some literal-minded folks had tried to shoot deer from the road without technically trespassing on the farm, requiring that third sign!

Deer Run Farm lives up to its name!

Deer out and about.

I also passed a number of monuments to roadside fatalities.

Some poor fellow met an untimely end here. Asleep at the wheel? Hit an animal? Drunk driver?

Name obscured.

Another bleak memorial to a fallen traveler

Continuing the grim spectacle, I found this at a turnout:

Some deer don't make it.

Closeup of the deer.

A little ways after that I passed under the interstate highway, and began a climb up through a well-manicured suburban neighborhood. Out of curiosity I looked up the house prices on Zillow: It was a range from 700k up to 1.5 million. This was obviously the glamorous part of Carson City.

At the same time I hit the highest point on the day’s ride:

Highest elevation for the day. 5300 feet!

From there it was all downhill, blasting down towards Carson City on a steep road. The wind tore the visor off my helmet and I had to walk back up the hill and fetch it, but I considered myself lucky because it landed on the road and was easy to spot. From there I turned onto a paved bicycle-only path that ran along the hillside for several miles. A real bike path! A pleasant surprise.

First stop: The capitol building. Very serene and shady.

Outside the Nevada State Capitol building. Dig that silver roof!

I meandered around town a bit more before checking into a hotel.

That explains the cool bike path I found earlier.

Carson City style! I think Jack is handing out "Howdy bucks." I wonder what they buy?

I booked two days, knowing that since this was my first day back on the road I would need some time to adjust. Besides, I had work to do. And I also needed to eat a bunch of food!

Getting me two days' worth of some fine thai food. Going to spend tomorrow resting and working.

Managed to get it all back to the hotel with no spills!

Coding In Carson City

Much better than the hotel room from yesterday, and ten bucks cheaper.

Windburn on the face, sunburn on the neck. I need to to a better job covering up.

I did my best to write code for work today, but a bad night of sleep took the wind out of me. I find that when I’m sleep deprived I can do almost everything involved with my job – meetings, tickets, debugging, evaluating merge requests, writing documentation – but I struggle mightily with writing new code.

After staring at a piece of back-end database code I needed to modify and not making any progress for 90 minutes, I decided it was time to give up. I ate leftover Thai food and watched more of the Vietnam War documentary, then did some reading about the protests from 1968, and how they were used as fodder to get Richard Nixon elected.

50 years ago, protests and riots broke out when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. The Republican candidate for president ran on a platform of “law and order,” promising to bring the protestors and rioters to heel, and accused the Democratic party of encouraging lawlessness and anarchy. The promise worked. Scared, guilty, or indignant people – usually white – envisioned a furious horde of dark people smashing their windows, crawling into their houses, and personally assaulting them, and they cast their votes in favor of the candidate who would – above any civil rights concerns – protect their bodies and property. Nixon won by a wide margin.

(The irony of course is that the damage from rioting and looting consistently happened in poor urban areas far from the white middle class. All the more fodder for those white people to call them animals, for smashing up “their own” neighborhoods. Ugh.)

I’m pretty sure the current Republican candidate is going to use the same page from the same playbook. In the run up to November’s election we’ll all be hearing about these protests every day, from talk-show pundits and lunatics like I overheard on the train, drumming up the call for “law and order”, accusing any and all Democrats of “siding with the looters”, et cetera. The perfect fear-stoking smoke screen over the last four years of crass, divisive rhetoric from the commander-in-chief.

It looks like current events are going to bleed through and set the tone for this bike journey. Turns out I can’t get any distance from them, especially not in rural Nevada. So be it.

All The Way To Yerington

Finally a good night of sleep! I packed everything up and set out, heading south towards a sporting goods store. I wanted to find something like a loose kerchief to augment my bandana against sunburn.

Unfortunately the store didn’t have any. “The second we put anything like a bandana up on the shelves, people come in and buy them all,” the clerk said. Well that makes sense. COVID-19 is about.

Before exiting I paused at the gallery of photos arrayed on the wall by the doors. All snapshots of men in hunting gear posting next to freshly killed animals, including a gangly kid about 14 years old standing over a deer with the caption “first kill,” a guy standing over what looked like an African ibex, and a guy brandishing a big silver rotary-barrel pistol and propping one foot up on the head of a giant warthog. Left of the gallery was a large sign declaring “To purchase a firearm you must have a valid ID and be 18 years of age or older.”

It occurred to me that I could buy a handgun right here in about 20 minutes, walk outside with it, and tuck it into my bike bag. No questions asked.

The idea revulsed me. On bike trips like this one I’m surrounded by cars and some of them do very rude things. I can distinctly remember times when I’ve been so angry at the behavior of a motorist that, if I’d had a gun nearby, I would have taken aim with it. Perhaps even fired.

Why would I give myself that power? What would be the point of it? Safety? I am voluntarily using a mode of travel that places my life in the hands of other people, hundreds of separate times every day, as they drive past me on the road. If they wanted to they could obliterate me in a split second. The level of trust I’m operating on is extremely high. It wouldn’t really be consistent for me to be packing heat on a bike tour!

Outside the store, as I was putting away my hat and mask, a tall man walked up to me. “Where ya headed?” he said.

“Down to Carlsbad, California eventually.”

“Wonderful! Interesting that you’re using a recumbent. I did a bunch of bike tours myself, years ago. All across Oregon and up the coast…”

We had a fun chat about the bike touring experience and how unique it is, and how hard it is to eat enough calories to keep going every day. “I had to eat as I went,” the man said. “I learned this skill: I could prop my elbows on the handlebars and peel an orange with both hands, and eat it, without slowing down!”

I handed him one of my little cards with the website on it and he wished me a safe journey. Who knows, maybe he’ll be inspired to get back in the saddle again?

Anyway, time to head east! Along the way I did a zig-zag to catch this cute park:

Okay, how many people thought this was "Smills Park"? I know I did.

Then I got to the main highway out of town, route 50. Serious business ahead.

As a bicyclist, this is one of those views where you think "I know what I'm going to be doing for the next hour..."

I took a brief detour to check out this old cemetery:

Visiting the Empire Cemetery.
The cemetery is tucked into a gap between a cement works and a waste management facility.
Pretty good repair job!
What a story!
The Danes came here long before I visited the country of the Danes...
"And our babies" adds an interesting touch of creepy to this marker.
History of the cemetery.

On the way back to the main road I spotted this:

Tucked in with all the broken air conditioners and heaters is a big stack of "LimeBike" bicycles. Thanks, Silicon Valley...

About an hour later I crested the big hill, and did a frightening descent on the other side, hitting nearly 40 miles per hour riding along the shoulder of the road. On a racing bike that doesn’t seem to scary, but when you’ve got 75 extra pounds of bags and gear and water adding to your momentum, it really gets your heart rate up!

I continued along highway 50 going northeast in a straight line, grateful for the tailwind. It was still early in the day when I got to Fort Churchill Road. At that point I needed to make a decision: Continue northeast and cut a big horseshoe around the Churchill Butte, so I could continue south on ALT 95… Or take the shortcut due east, following the Carson River along Fort Churchill Road. The northeast route was longer but paved all the way. Fort Churchill Road was more scenic and less crowded, but the majority of it was gravel and dirt.

“Well, I’ve got my nice touring tires on, and there’s still plenty of daylight. Why not be adventurous?”

I cycled east, and in about ten minutes the pavement vanished.

Uh oh, gravel road ahead...

For the next hour I had a pretty good time. The road wasn’t too lumpy and I got plenty of traction.

Cruising along.

Then I started to hit pockets of dust that had accumulated from rain and wind. Over and over again, the bike would lurch, and I’d have to pedal like mad to keep traction on the rear wheel, or stop and push the bike until I was clear of the drift. This cost time and effort and was extremely annoying. I began to swear at the road.

Hideous road for a bicyclist.

For several hours, my mood went back and forth between happiness and panic. I would pedal merrily along smelling the air and looking at nature, then suddenly flail to keep the bike upright.

The sky is lovely, it's a mere 90 degrees, and the wind is with me... What a fine day! Now if only the road was in better shape.

On balance, it was still enjoyable, though if I had the choice again I wouldn’t take this shortcut.

Just in case you city people are confused, that sign does not read, "No fires; no barbecues; laptops OK." That's a propane stove.
Some welcome shade on this dusty road.
Very twisty rocks up there!
Luckily I did not have to take this road. The road I was on was bad enough already!!

One thing I definitely wouldn’t have seen on the other route: A bunch of tumbleweeds rolling along in front of me!

At the halfway point along Fort Churchill Road, I passed through the Nevada Automotive Test Center and got to ogle some of the concept vehicles they were testing for the army. Neato!

Some interesting "concept vehicles" for the army are kept here at the Nevada Automotive Test Center.

Now if only these jerks would do something about the road leading to their compound.

As I approached highway 95, I passed by a chunk of the Pony Express trail.

I've often wondered... Why not the "Horse Express?" Aren't ponies slow?

Near that was the Fort Churchill State Historic Park.

It looked neat, but not quite neat enough to compel me to stop.

It looked less interesting than I imagined it would, mostly because of how it was preserved. Some time in the past the fort had been abandoned and fallen almost completely to ruin. Then people came along and re-formed the walls, creating what the official website calls “a state of arrested decay.” Perhaps they just didn’t have the money or the interest to rebuild it how it was, so they compromised. I can understand that. But the now place looks like somebody’s foam rubber LARP arena.

Two bucks to get in, for a cyclist. Not bad.

Admission was cheap, and there were camp sites as well, but I felt ambitious and decided to press on to Yerington.

If only there had been a sign at the OTHERE end of the road, warning me it was "dirt"!

I turned right on highway ALT 95. I could do 25 miles and 600 feet of climb before nightfall, right? No sweat!

Riding up the shoulder, on the outside of the rumble strip. Very little room but the cars were polite.

Did I say there was very little room before? Okay, now there's even less...

I rode steadily along, stopping regularly to drink water and scarf Thai food.

The day moved into evening. The wind shifted as well, though it was still partially at my back so I was happy.

Scrubby scrubland.

A nice flat valley ahead.

Those weeds grow to some amazing heights!

15 miles to go! All right!

Folks are clearly having a good time on this ranch.

I passed some groovy local architecture. Nice to see people are keeping it interesting.

Pretty evening clouds.

Then the wind started hitting me directly on the side, slowing me down. I had to zig-zag along the shoulder to make course corrections, and that cost me energy. I drained my second water sack. There was a pile of ice at the bottom, and I would need to wait for it to melt before I could drink more water. That was some poor planning!

Night fell. I turned on my headlight. A grisly yellow moon floated up from the eastern horizon, setting the scene without granting me any illumination. It was late, so I called ahead to the various hotels in Yerington and reserved a room. Thank goodness there were rooms free, because the wind was now blasting hard from the west at something like 40mph. Dirt and debris were streaming around the trunks of the trees lining the highway. Even if I could find a place to stealth camp, there was absolutely no way I could keep a tent upright on open ground.

A decent room. Only a little stinky.

It was well after 10pm when I finally made it to town. As I rolled into the hotel parking lot a group of people on the upper floor pointed at me and cheered and applauded. “Hey, you made it!” one of them yelled. “We saw you back at the train station!” I gave them a thumbs-up and smiled.

I dragged my bike into the room and ate the rest of my cold Thai food in a daze, then fell gratefully into bed. Tomorrow would be another “day off” for writing code.

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