(22nd December 2015 – 9th January 2016 )
After taking the mountain pass east of Lake Tahoe everything suddenly changed. We almost couldn’t believe the drastic changes that unfolded in front of us. Not only did the landscape change from the deep green of Pines to an aired desert-like landscape we suddenly found ourselves under a clear blue sky with at most a few little clouds scattered in the distance. Our depressed mood lifted slightly and we were even a bit hopeful that things might just be different for us on this side of the mountains.
The Holidays in Carson City
As we finally arrived in Carson City we were greeted by gusty winds and it was decidedly colder though that suited us just fine and was much better than the dismal grey of the last few weeks. Carson City may well be the capital city of Nevada, though not particularly touristy and that turned out to be just what we needed. At the Plaza Hotel we finally found a warm and dry place where we could spend the holidays. Though, to be honest, it wasn’t exactly the nicest Hotel and well quite frankly it bordered pretty close to being a dive, but we managed to get a suite with a small kitchenette for an unbeatable weekly price. By now our expectations for the holidays had sunken to new lows so in the end we were quite happy with our accommodations. However it defied reason; our kitchenette was completely empty not a spoon, plate, glass could be found in the cupboards, we also didn’t find a pot or a pan anywhere with which to cook a meal. Apparently they don’t really want any of their guests to cook meals in the suite because what traveler schleps an entire kitchen with them? The average hotel guest could at the absolute maximum bake a frozen pizza in the oven, though they would have to eat it directly from the tray and without any utensils…Thankfully when it comes to the kitchen we are, of course, quite well equipped and therefore wouldn’t have to forgo our Christmas roast. We were also quite surprised to see that we weren’t the only guests at the Hotel over the Holidays as it was almost fully booked with Skiers, whom apparently also found the prices in Lake Tahoe to be exceptionally high.
We drove to Wal-Mart and bought a couple of battery operated LED light strings and Gary tinkered a little homemade Christmas tree out of wire and tinsel which went a long way to add a bit of Christmas feeling to our hotel room. We also didn’t want to miss out on the culinary side of things so we headed to Trader Joes (our favorite grocery store in the USA) and decked our selves out with all manner of delicacies, a whole bunch of wine and beer and even some sparkling wine. On the way we stopped at the Tourist information center where a friendly lady greeted us and was obviously happy to see visitors from Germany. During advent they had organized a little Weihnachtsmarkt (German Christmas market) and had mulled wine mugs made especially for the occasion. She gave each of us one of the hand made cups and a packet of original German “Glühfix” (mulling wine spices) with a “Merry Christmas and Welcome to Carson City” for good measure. We were rather moved by the wonderful gesture, which helped us to reconcile the difficult events of the previous week. Christmas can now come!
The next day was Christmas Eve and just like in the Christmas stories we were given a wonderful and unexpected gift: It snowed! A white Christmas in the desert! Who would have thought? By the afternoon we had over 15cm of snow and walked through the snow-blanketed streets and delighted in the snow swirling about our heads. Away from the main street it was very still and peaceful; we delighted in the mostly artfully decorated houses (the typical American Christmas kitsch was thankfully kept at a minimum in this part of town) and even encountered a pair of Mule deer strolling through the yards. That evening we cooked up a festive meal for the two of us and enjoyed a few glasses of Glühwein from our new mugs. There was, however, a slight echo of sadness to our evening. To be so far away from our family and friends induced a bit homesick in us, making us even more thankful that we have Skype, which came to extensive use on the 25th and 26th.
Carson City lies directly on the eastern foothills of the Sierra Nevada, which provides ample and excellent hiking opportunities. We strapped on our gaiters and tromped up through a winter wonderland. Time and again we encountered Mule deer who, with their big mule like ears and dark eyes, watched us with apparent curiosity as we trudged by. The air was cold and fresh, the sky was a sparkling blue and after some time we reached the top where we enjoyed the magnificent panorama of the city below. Almost every day we headed out for another hike to enjoy the wonderful winter weather. Subsequently we enjoyed our warm and comfortably decorated suite, where we spent the evenings playing board games and taking advantage of the fact that we had an oven to cook things like pizza or apple turnovers, which we seldom had the opportunity to do.
Just before we arrived in Carson City a piece of our exhaust sort of fell off (it hung on solely by a bracket), and so we decided to take advantage of the extremely good weekly rate at our hotel to deal with the issue. We ordered a new exhaust system (which we ordered shipped in from England like almost everything for the landy) and spent the New Years in Carson City. Gary had “warned” me not to expect too much from New Years Eve that you can’t really compare Germany with the US or for that matter Canada. But I hadn’t really expected this: No fireworks, no bangs, cracks or pops of firecrackers, no flares, rockets or roman candles, not even a hillbilly shooting his shotgun, nothing – at midnight prevailed absolute quiet! The loudest sound to be heard was the popping of the cork from our bottle of Champagne – apart from that there was absolutely nothing going on. Oh well, you can’t have everything…at least we were well rested the next day and we ready to undertake a New Years hike through the snowy landscape.
After almost 2 weeks of coziness and recovery we were well rested to take on our new Adventure: Highway 50 – the least travelled road in America. We weren’t so certain that they included Alaska in their calculation but we soon found that the road is really quite lonely and on top of that it lead through some uniquely beautiful landscape – right up our alley.
Right at the start we enjoyed the long absent freedom of setting up our camp wherever we wanted. Just after Fallon we followed a gravel road to the “Hidden Caves” and discovered a nice spot not too far away in the desert. Without too much ado we set up our camp for the night simply enjoying the fact that we are once again alone in nature. The night sky was clear and star spangled with the call of a few coyotes being the only thing missing to make it perfect…the thought wasn’t even fully formed when our wish was granted; in the distance we could hear the barking, howling and yipping of the Steppenwolf. It echoed eerily but wonderfully in the night other than that it was absolutely quiet. We lay that evening in bed excited for what the 50 would have in store for us. The excitement of travel after the difficult December had us full in its grip…
The 50 follows along a large portion of the old Pony Express, during its heyday in 1860 the Pony Express was the fastest way to deliver post in North America although sadly it only lasted for about a year before the railroad made the whole affair redundant. What we learned of the riders, horses and way stations left us with feelings of respect for the riders and station managers and reminded us of so many Wild West films.
The area is also rich with Petroglyph – prehistoric images chiseled into stones. Not far from our first nights camp was a kind of stone garden filled with hundreds of Petroglyphs. A path led through the myriad stone images where we had to use our imagination in an attempt to decipher some kind of meaning from them.
The 50 led us farther along to Sand Mountain – an impressively huge sand dune that springs up quite suddenly out of nowhere. We could only imagine what craziness happens here in summer – a huge playground for all manner of ATV’s and dune buggies with parking and camping for hundreds. Though at this time of year we had the dune practically to ourselves. We climbed a little way up one of the flanks of the dune and then hopped and slid down through the deep sand, which was a blast! Though we had to endure a very icy winter wind making the whole excursion rather short and forcing us to take refuge in our vehicle.
That afternoon we decided rather spontaneously to take a detour on a side road, the 722, which ended up being really lonely. It wove through the mountains and through a small pass from where we enjoyed a lovely view of the evening sun. After quite some time we stumbled over the 50 again where we spent the night, for lack of any other options and fast approaching night, in a sort of pullout. Though that wasn’t too bad since traffic was pretty much non-existent and so we had a rather quiet night without any incidents.
The next morning we awoke to chilly temperatures and as we opened the back door, still groggy from sleep, a gust of icy wind blew in covering our blanket with a layer of snow. Shocked and surprised we quickly closed the door and crawled back under the blanket. Apparently during the night it had snowed quite a bit and now we not only had snow but a chill wind to deal with. The idea of preparing breakfast in those conditions appealed to neither of us so without too much delay we did a rapid pack action and headed directly for Austin, the next town on our way.
Austin is a little town like one would imagine out of a Wild West book or film. It was Thursday and apparently Thursday is when they don’t come out of their homes as it was pretty deserted and just about all the shops and restaurants were closed. Luckily we found a quaint little saloon where we got a full hearty breakfast. The atmosphere was quite unique and so as the snow had somewhat abated we decided we just had to take a stroll through the town.
Spencers Hot Springs
The area around Austin is rich on natural beauty as well as hiking and mountain bike trails, which during summer are easy to find and navigable. However, since everything was covered with a rather thick blanket of snow the possibilities, without detailed local knowledge, were pretty limited. Though one attraction we didn’t want to leave out and that was “Spencers Hot Springs”. Nevada has an abundance of hot springs; there is even an appropriate guide where one could travel weeks going from one hot spring to the next. Of course the idea of a hot spring in the middle of winter has its own seduction. So we headed out to search for the nearby hot spring. The coordinates lead us from the cleared asphalt roads to a thickly snow covered gravel road where we didn’t really know how deep or good the quality was. We tested a good 100 or so meters before deciding that we could undertake the adventure without all too much risk. The road lead arrow-straight toward a mountain range and then just before reaching the end we had to turn left onto an even less established road until it simply ended. There we were in the middle of a white landscape that went on for miles without a hint of a hot spring to be seen. With the exception of a few rabbit tracks there was nothing that even resembled a path anywhere. We questioned whether we had the right coordinates and decided to take a little walk around just to see. And sure enough after only a few minutes we found the hot springs that were divided into a number of handmade tubs. It took quite a bit of willpower, what with the icy winter wind blowing, to get naked, but in the end it paid off once we got into the bathtub hot water. We almost couldn’t believe it: Completely alone in our very own private hot tub, in the middle of winter and to top it all off an amazing panorama view of the Nevada winter landscape stretched out before us. Fantastic!
Climbing out of the warm water I “soaped” myself down with a handful of snow and then hopped as fast a possible into my warm clothes whereas Gary did the “full Finnish cure” in proper style and rolled around in the snow in his birthday suit! After that amazing sauna-like experience we felt completely relaxed and happy.
Apparently the snowstorm from the previous night wasn’t quite finished with us because as the day progressed into afternoon it started snowing again. This time however, quite heavily. Plans of cooking were cancelled and a stop at proper burger joint in Eureka served as an early supper. Just outside of town we started searching for a spot to park for the night, though we had to admit to ourselves pretty quickly that we weren’t going to have an easy time of it based on the amount of snow. There were probably plenty of spaces where we could have parked but with the deep snow all of the access roads were more or less impassable. The road wound higher into the mountains and the snow got higher and higher. We drove and drove some more and it slowly started to get dark without any hint of an accessible spot. Whenever we stopped at a potential spot and tested the snow situation we sunk past our knees and soon had to accept the fact that we wouldn’t be able to park in any of the pullouts without risking getting stuck – we needed a spot cleared of snow. Just before we gave up hope and started looking for a hotel we came across a huge cleared pull out. Apparently it was the turn around spot for the snow plows. After chatting with one of the snowplow drivers to make sure it was ok we parked as far from the road as possible and settled in for the night. Not the most comfortable nights sleep we had but at least we didn’t run the risk of getting snowed in.
The next morning we were greeted by clear blue skies and wonderful sunshine almost as though last night never actually happened. We had a relaxed breakfast in the sun with a bowl steaming hot porridge before heading onward to the small town of Ely, where some rather astonished people asked us how we managed to arrive so early. No one wanted to really believe us that we drove partly though the snowstorm and over the pass – we had to laugh as it sure was an adventure.
In Ely we took advantage of the nearby truck stop and had a nice hot shower before continuing our journey along the 50. Just before the border to Utah awaited another highlight for us: the Great Basin National Park. Out of the way of the road lay the magnificent wilderness of the park at the feet of the 3982 meter Wheeler Peak. During the summer months it is possible to drive along a mountain road to over 3000m, though at this time of year the road is sadly impassable. However, they had cleared the road all the way up to 2225 meters to keep the Lower Lehman Creek campground open for winter camping –our goal for the day. The small almost single-track road headed steeply upwards into an even more heavily blanketed winter landscape. Along the way we encountered a flock of wild Turkeys making use of the easy travel along the roadway, though upon seeing us they fled rather noisily into the safety of the pines. Upon arriving at the campground we were rather impressed with what we discovered. The park rangers had actually plowed and shoveled a number of the camping spots free of snow. Even the picnic tables, fire pits as well as a small clearing were cleared of the deep snow. All for the price of 15 USD, which given the amount of work it must have taken a rather fair price. We thought for a brief moment whether or not it was such a good idea to be camping at over 2000 meters in the middle of winter. We’ve had it quite cold so far but at this altitude with all this snow around us it was bound to be that much colder. But the landscape had us completely under its spell and we were simply mesmerized by the beauty that surrounded us so that we definitely wanted to stay the night. Hadn’t we said once or twice that we weren’t set up for winter camping? And now we are in the thick of it! We also aren’t the only ones out for a bit of adventure-2 others are out braving the cold to enjoy the winter, one even in a tent. As soon as the sun disappeared behind the mountains we really found out what it meant to winter camp as the thermometer went immediately into free fall. We put on our warmest and thickest clothing. Cooking became a challenge no only because everything froze immediately to the table but because with the steadily falling temperatures it was almost impossible to do anything without our thick winter gloves on. We had bought some firewood in Baker, the last town before entering the National Park, though sadly not the best quality and so we had more smoke than flame for a while before we generated enough heat to get it going. We ate with our winter gloves on and afterwards the washing of the dishes presented the next challenge, which we accomplished in record speed before we pressed ourselves as close to the fire as humanly possible without actually sitting in it. That night the thermometer dropped to under -15C (5 F), which we really felt. As I walked the 200m to the outhouse a light breeze blew down off the mountain and I had the feeling as though my face muscles were about to freeze solid. Back at the fire I noticed my speech was quite a bit slower until my face thawed again. It was bitterly cold, though the cold has its own beauty: We were surrounded but a wonderful wildness, that was absolutely tranquil – canopied by an amazing starlight sky. We were treated to the most amazing night sky that we have ever seen – perfectly clear and strewn with Billions and Billions of stars. The Milky Way could be clearly seen and time and again we witnessed shooting stars streak across the night sky. It is an experience that you can only have in the deepest winter when the air is crisp, dry and free of clouds. We were moved by the experience and thankful to be there at that moment in time. Nevertheless, with our sputtering fire and try as we might we couldn’t hold out any longer and so we fled the cold into our Landy where we pre-heated a while with our auxiliary heater before crawling into bed.
The next morning the sky was a deep sea blue with the snow sparkling and glittering in the morning sun. We prepared a warming bowl of porridge – our absolute favorite when it’s cold – and watched as the thick ice sheet that had formed on the inside of the windows overnight started to melt. Sitting in brilliant sunshine we quickly warmed up and decided that before continuing onward we should take advantage of the snowshoe path our neighbor had made the day before and go for a little hike. With our gaiters on we followed the path for almost 40mins uphill where he evidently decided to turn around. Back at camp we sat a while longer enjoying the sun and the spectacular view before leaving the magical park and thereby Nevada to continue our adventure.
More Photos on Flickr: Nevada