The Great Basin Highway

September 21, 2008

All Posts, Features, The Rebel Rides

North Las Vegas is your last chance to buy gas. There is a Shell station on Range Road. If you miss that there is a Mobil on Speedway.

You climb one of the grades that frame the desert cities. Eight percent, maybe ten, for five or six or eight miles. From the summit you can see the Vegas strip poking through the yellow-grey smog. From there it is only another couple of miles to the Route 15, Route 93 split.

Boosters call Route 93 the Great Basin Highway. There is a sign that says that. Old timers call it the Mormon Trail. Whatever you call it, this is where you leave the state of Las Vegas and enter the State of Nevada.

Freighters use this road because it is the fastest route from the Port of Los Angeles up into Idaho -what with the no speed limit and all. Well, technically there is a posted speed limit. It is something like 70 or 75.

But, this is the west bikers know: The used-up west, the poisoned west, the radioactive west, the corrections industry west, the open pit west, the west of bankrupt housing developments. This is the west where the cops leave you alone because when they stop you it is just the two of you. Or, maybe it is the five of you and just the one of him.

Is It Really Speeding If Nobody Sees

Not that any cop is going to sneak up on you. This country is so full of lines and angles and empty spaces the wonder is that the Paiute and the Mojave never invented geometry. There is a fortune in gold lost out there. There has to be. There could be a tribe of Indians hiding out there, a tribe nobody has ever seen. There could be. You could never sneak up on them. They would see you coming.

You can see anything that moves 20 miles away.

I am a good citizen so I start off going 70. Ten minutes later when nothing that I see seems to be getting any closer I look down and discover I am going 80. Then I am clocking 90.

I flash by a car that seems to be crawling. I wait until I see him in my mirrors, signal my lane change, get back over to the right. By then the car is no bigger than my thumbnail and when I look down I am going 105.

The mountains get no closer. I dust off a couple of trucks. I slow down to read a couple of signs.

One sign informs me I am now in Lincoln County. Lincoln County is about twice as big as Connecticut and home to 4,000 souls.

Area 51

The other sign warns me to watch for low flying aircraft. At first I think the authorities may be drolly warning other motorists about people like me. Then I remember what they call that vast emptiness of Joshua Trees, ocotillo and mesquite over there, over to my left.

People call that Area 51. The aliens have their secret base out there. The government knows all about it but I am not supposed to know. After that, for awhile, I watch the sky but the flying saucers never appear.

Suddenly and unexpectedly the landscape changes. I am in Pahranagat, which is a Paiute word which I am told means shiny lake. I don’t speak Paiute so I don’t really know. For all I know it means, “The sky aliens left this water for us here.”

Pahranagat is a 40 mile long strip of oasis. In 1862, a newspaper reporter named Dan DeQuille wrote a briefly sensational story about the “travelling stones ” peculiar to this place.

All Reporters Lie

“Some years ago,” DeQuille wrote, “a prospector who had been roaming through the Pahranagat Mountains, the wildest and most sterile portion of southeastern Nevada, brought back with him a great curiosity in the shape of a number of traveling stones. The stones were almost perfectly round, the majority of them as large as a hulled walnut, and very heavy, being of an irony nature. When scattered about on the floor, on a table, or other level surface, within two or three feet of each other, they immediately began traveling toward a common center, and then huddled up in a bunch like a lot of eggs in a nest. A single stone removed to a distance of a yard, upon being released, at once started off with wonderful and somewhat comical celerity to rejoin its fellows; but if taken away four or five feet, it remained motionless.”

Eventually, all the lies he had to tell in the course of his chosen profession got to be too much for DeQuille. His problem was he could think them up faster than he could write them down. So he had to hire an assistant. He hired a young man named Samuel Clemens, who began writing under the name Mark Twain. And, eventually Clemens became an even more famous liar than his first editor had been.


Near the end of the Pahranagat you roll into a town called Alamo. The Greater Lincoln County Chamber of Commerce brags that Alamo is a “full service” community. That means it has about three gas stations and a couple of places to eat. About 400 people live there now. Most of them work at the Nevada Test Site.

Unofficially, Alamo is also the iodine isotope 131 capitol of the western world. Alamo was directly downwind from most of the atomic tests in the 1950s and 60s.

In 1956 the New York Times cheerfully reported about the tests the previous year: “The heaviest fall-out radiation was 6.93 roentgens recorded in an unpopulated area fifteen miles south of Alamo, Nev. Alamo, on U.S. highway 93, is about sixty miles east of the test area.” That might have been the last time Alamo made the New York Times.

A Grateful Nation Acknowledges Your Glow

The year of the real bad tests, a grateful United States of America wrote Alamo a nice letter. “Some of you have been inconvenienced by our test operations,” the letter apologized. “At times some of you have been exposed to potential risk from flash, blast, or fall-out. You have accepted the inconvenience or the risk without fuss, without alarm, and without panic.”

Alamo, in other words, took one for the country. But, nowhere in the letter does the country ever actually say thank you.

The government eventually paid off each of the people who got cancer and who were not yet dead from it with a one time only, lump sum payment of $50,000.

I get off the bike and gas up in town and have a pleasant conversation with a real nice, tough looking guy who is riding a Big Dog.

Small Talk And Pleasantries

“That sure is a pretty bike.”


“Isn’t it hard to ride that thing?”

“Not really. Not when I’m going straight. It’s only tough to turn. Do you know how far it is to Tonapah?” He has pretty big ears and a shaved head. At one time, I believe he had plugs in his ears but he must have lost them somewhere because now there is just the holes.

“I know it’s a ways.”

“I came up from Vegas. I want to ride over to Tonapah then head down through Beatty and get home that way.”

I lend him my maps. I always have maps. We calculate it is about 155 or 165 miles between gas stations the way he wants to go.

He has no saddlebags or any of the crap I carry in mine -maps, water, chewing gum, rain suit, sweat shirt, candy, GPS, tool kit, tire repair kit and a snake bite kit. I started carrying the snake bite kit after a close call with a rattlesnake.

My new friend carries none of this. Carrying the crap I carry would mar the exquisite lines of his beautiful bike.

On The Road Again

The two of us ride out of town sort of together and sort of alone at the same time. After a dozen miles he turns left onto Route 375, the “extraterrestrial highway.” He waves. I wave. We both have understated, masculine waves.

He told me back in town that his bike would only go about 140 miles on a tank. And, I thought we had agreed that he couldn’t make it all the way to Tonopah before he ran dry. But he just still has to try it anyway. I like his attitude.

There he goes.

Maybe he got back to Vegas that night. Maybe he got adopted by an Indian tribe nobody has ever seen. Maybe, a hundred years from now he will return from a voyage to the stars and he will not have aged a day. Anything can happen out here.

The Pahranagat yields to a network of sandstone canyons and after only another 55 or 60 miles I roll into the old railhead at Caliente. The railroad came through in 1905 and by 1910 Caliente was already the biggest town in Lincoln County. It had a population of 1,755. Now it is down to only about two-thirds of that but it is still the biggest place I have seen since I got on the 93.

There is water in Caliente. Water is the future of Caliente. Water is what is going to bring people back. The water in Caliente is a dream of a golf course and a resort and a brand new housing development. Of course, La Vegas wants Caliente’s water, too. Las Vegas has its own dreams.


Twenty-five or thirty miles north of Caliente is Pioche. It is named for Francois Pioche who owned the town after the Civil War. In the 1870s it was the toughest town in the west. Deadwood was Disneyland. Pioche was Khe Sanh.

Pioche was a silver mining town. The old tram for the ore buckets still stretches over the highway. And in the boom days there was no law. So, there was no way to hold a silver claim except to be quick with a gun or hire somebody who was. The hired guns streamed in from all over the west. Seventy-five men died in showdowns before anybody in Pioche died a natural death.

The silver played out in 1876 but Pioche bided its time. Sure enough, in the 1940s Pioche rose again to become America’s second largest producer of lead and zinc. Then the Second World War ended and America found itself some other place to get its lead and zinc.

Pioche still has, to the best of my knowledge, one gas pump, two restaurants and three saloons. The saloon I enter has a cherry wood bar that came around South America on a sailing ship. I can imagine how it got to San Francisco but I cannot imagine how this bar got from San Francisco to here. None of my mid-afternoon drinking companions knows either. Actually, none of them gives a damn.

All I know is that in the best of times in Pioche nobody thought this town needed a sheriff. But everybody agreed that Pioche needed a real nice bar.

A Hundred Miles Of Sage

For 110 miles north of Pioche the long straight road cuts mostly through a savanna thick with sage. Here and there on the high spots are the pinon and juniper scrub that you see all over the west. Mostly there is ancient sage thick as hedge.

This is what geographers call the Great Basin Desert. There are three deserts in the west: The Mojave which sometimes features Joshua Trees; the Colorado which has Saguaros; and this place which is dominated by sage. People call this a desert but by now the temperature has already dropped down into the 80s and as I ride along I amuse myself by thinking about whether this is really a desert or not.

Eventually I conclude that this place has way to many bugs to be a desert. Every mile four or five of them commit suicide on my face. Although, I have to admit some of them may not be bugs at all. Some of them may be very small birds.

Little, Red, Boxy, Piece Of Crap

I am worried enough about running out of gas that I am only going about 85. Most places, 85 is enough to make me the fastest thing on the road anyway. But this afternoon as I glance in my mirrors I am surprised to discover that I am about to be passed. Someone in a little, red, boxy, piece of crap runs past me going about a hundred.

I pass the time watching him disappear. I am bored. I wonder how far I have to go but I won’t look at my odometer. I know I will get there faster if I do not count the miles.

I watch the speeding, red, piece of crap grow smaller instead. When I cannot see him anymore, I promise myself, I will look down to see how far I have come. And, when I finally look down I am about 50 miles north of Pioche.

Steady does it, I coach myself.

Although, frankly, I don’t get passed on this kind of road very often. So, I have to ruminate on that for a few miles. Am I slowing down? Am I no longer the motorcyclist I once was?

Well, shit. Of course I am not. Shit.

Stopping To Make New Friends

Then up ahead, by the side of the road, I see the little red box. I brake and downshift.

I am a good Samaritan is what the hell I am. As God is my witness. Most of the time if you are broken down I can’t do a damn thing for you. But, I will at least stop and talk and try to cheer you up. I will do my best to give you false hope. I will do that much.

Two young men who are both about the same age I was the first time I had to kill somebody, the first time I knew I was going to die, are pulling their luggage out of their trunk. It has not yet occurred to either of them that they are ever going to die.

“Are you guys, alright?”

“No,” the one without a beard says. “It stop! Poof!” He looks like a character in a Judd Apatow film. There is no beautiful starlet though, only the other young man. This ain’t the movies. They are German I think.

“Do you have gas?”

“Poof,” he says again.

“You have phone,” the other one asks me. He looks stupid and mean. He might be dangerous if he put on another 50 pounds.

“No partner. Cell phones don’t work out here.”

“Poof,” the beardless idiot laughs.

“You have phone?” The idiot with the beard pantomimes using a phone for me.

“Listen pal. Pioche is about 55 miles back there.” I jerk my thumb. “Ely is about 55 miles up ahead.” I stab my finger. “This is a bad place to break down.” I smirk. “Did you run out of gas.” I raise my eyebrows as inquisitively as possible.

But, my sign language is no good. “Poof! Ha, ha, ha!”

“There has to be a truck back behind me, somewhere.” I know they do not understand a word I say but I talk anyway. “When you see him you flag him down. He’ll have a radio.”


“And stay out of that sage. Jesus. Snakes in that sage.”

“You have phone?”

I twist the throttle and take off. I leave them there. I speak only slightly more German than I speak Paiute so I cannot even cheer them up.

I don’t want to cheer them up, anyway. I want to tell them this is not Vegas. This is not the country with cell phones. This is the American west. I want to tell them this but I know they would not understand.

, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

5 Responses to “The Great Basin Highway”

  1. Josh Maxwell Says:

    You know, I have to tell you, I really enjoy this blog and the insight from everyone who participates. I find it to be refreshing and very informative. I wish there were more blogs like it. Anyway, I felt it was about time I posted, Iíve spent most of my time here just lurking and reading, but today for some reason I just felt compelled to say this.

  2. Wood Elija Says:

    I emailed this to my friend

  3. BMW Says:

    I had fun reading this article. It took me back to days when I could enjoy the ride, and not think of anything else. The freedom of nothing to gain, nothing to lose, and no schedule. Those were the days! Nice article, good work, Rebel!


  4. Bruceter Says:

    This was another great story. Thanks!

  5. fuckjeffgoldblum Says:

    This is a great read.
    I live in north nowhere Nevada , straight up wild west and trippy as fuck.
    I have met some guys broke down that were alot like your germans but they were french (I think)and they were trying to find burning man and were dressed up like chicks and were gesturing the phone thing also…too funny.

Leave a Reply