At the northern end of the fertile Mason Valley, by the old Union Pacific rail track, sits the 100-year-old Wabuska Bar. Inside, the bar’s 82-year-old owner Edmund Muller rests in his wheelchair. Business is down and I’m Ed’s only customer all night. We sit with beers in hand; stories and history flow well past the normal closing time. Ed used to run a water drilling business and drilled all over Nevada. “Driest state?! You drill anywhere and there’s water.” He also tells stories of his army service in Germany after the war, about the Yucca Mountain controversy, Harry Reid, and so many other things. I’m staying here tonight, camping by the side of the house. Tomorrow I’ll be carrying Ed’s regards to another Nevada oldtimer, Bruno Selmic, up in Gerlach.
This turned out to be one of the more relaxing days of the trip.
This morning I say goodbye to the Sierras and head again into Nevada. The next big mountain range will be the Cascades in Oregon. I’ve been looking forward to Nevada because, among other things, I want more comfortable temperatures. It was too hot in Death Valley (around sea level), too cold the past couple of days in the Sierras (around 7,500 feet elevation), and should be just right in Nevada (the average elevation in the valleys is 4,000 ft).
Another reason I’m looking forward to Nevada is its prevailing winds. Back in 2007, on our roller-coaster traverse of the state east to west, Masha and I were constantly pummeled by crosswinds out of the south. I figured that the narrow valleys must be acting as conduits that channel air masses in a consistent way. This year we’re riding north through here, in part to harness those southern winds.
The remote highway 182 spills out of Bridgport Reservoir and flows down the East Walker River Gorge. A “No services next 70 miles” sign gives me a start, for I know that Smith is only 40 miles away. Am I wrong or is the sign wrong? I am carrying only two liters of water, but that’s not really a problem, since the road follows several rivers. The asphalt is old and beat up; I ride in a state of concentrative meditation for a while as I carefully pick my way through the cracks. There are no cars, which is a relief after the busy Hwy. 395.
A lot of fishermen stand frozen waist deep in the water. The cafe in Bridgeport where I had dinner and breakfast was called “Sportsmen’s”. At first I sneered inside: these hunters, fishermen, and golfers call themselves sportsmen! But then I realized my error in translation. In Russian, “sportsman” and “athlete” are synonyms, but in English they are not. I’m an athlete. These guys are sportsmen.
I’m flying along the rushing river. The last view of the Sierra disappears around a bend and the familiar arid hills of Nevada take over. Soon the road turns 90 degrees and I climb the gentle-grade hill to Sweetwater Pass. It’s all downnill from here. Sweetwater is the last reminder that I’m still in the mountain country. We’ve climbed at least one major hill each day since Vegas: Spring Mountains, Funeral Mountains, Panamint Range, Argus Range, Sherwin Pass, Deadman Pass, Conway Pass, and now Sweetwater Pass.
At last the distance controversy is resolved. I roll into Smith Valley after just 40 miles, not 70 like the sign warned. My travel stories at lunch at the only store in town impress the folks there and they give me a t-shirt with the store’s name, Buckboard General Store.
A serious-looking mountain range separates Smith Valley from Mason Valley and I reluctantly brace for an uphill, but to my surprise, the Walker has sliced right through the mountain and the road hugs the river and runs straight down to Mason Valley below. The gorge is narrow, winding, and steep. The angry river churns class 2-3 whitewater. I wouldn’t canoe here.
Mason Valley looks nothing like the Nevada I know. Fed by the Walker and East Walker Rivers, it supports bountiful fields of alfalfa, onions, lettuce, and hay. Rows of poplars — both narrow ones and wide ones — line irrigation ditches filled to the brink. The poplars gladden my heart by reminding me of my native Moldova. I’ve only seen them in two U.S. states, Nevada and California. It’s probably too humid for them back on the East Coast.
It’s night at Wabuska. The wind picks up and changes directions with such surprising frequency that I’m having trouble deciding from which side to anchor my tent. I scout Ed’s property and find some logs, sawed but not chopped, and use them as heavy anchors. This solves the engineering challenge.
By the way, I’ve invented a method for determining wind direction more precisely than sticking a wet finger up in the air. It works like this: you position yourself so that your back is generally facing the wind. Then slowly turn until the noise in your ears is maximized. Stop. You’re facing precisely away from the wind.