I’m a former English major, so, of course, I’m searching for a theme, a dramatic arc, a deep inner meaning to my just completed Road Less Traveled roadtrip. But right now, I’m too tired to do more than offer a few quick impressions from a 1700 mile jaunt to the California border, across the center of Nevada and up the eastern edge, a swing across southern Idaho and down through Eastern Oregon and back down through the north of California.
So here goes:
Best big surprise: Eastern Oregon. It’s not what you think — instead it’s solid Cowboy Country complete with sagebrush covered high plains, cowboys mendin’ fence, cattle and, apparently, a rodeo in every town. I’ll definitely be back and I’m already planning themes. Perhaps I’ll do a Chief Joseph tour starting in the Wallawa Valley and tracing his famous retreat. Or maybe I’ll follow the famous Oregon Trail in reverse.
Best little surprise: masses of lupines in Lassen Volcanic National Park in California. These hardy little natives are like beans, they fix nitrogen in the soil, enriching it for other plants. We love them here in Sonoma where we’re trying to amend our soil by growing them as a cover crop among our vines. It was heartening to see masses and masses of them growing out of volcanic soil which is still pretty much just rock. Gives me hope for our rocky land.
Best meal: The Lectrolux Cafe at the Silver Jack Inn, Baker Nevada. This funny, funky, friendly little place would be right at home in Marin or Sonoma. From its art filled interior, cheerfully painted walls and its wonderful deeply shaded outside porch. It was a wonderful place to have lunch after exploring Great Basin National Park. And what a lunch, somehow out in the desert, they manage to stock a full bar, a wide range of great wines and micro-brews, and breakfast, lunch and dinner made with fresh, homemade ingredients. I didn’t explore their little motel, but I almost wished I hadn’t spent an extra night in the somewhat grim Ely and stayed here instead. As it’s only half a mile from the entrance to Great Basin, it would have been much more convenient.
Most interesting theory related to wildfires. As I drove through hundreds of miles of big empty spaces, I was constantly warned by roadside signs about elk, deer and other game migration routes. I didn’t see a single wild animal on the whole trip. In great long stretches, I didn’t even see any roadkill to tell me that an animal had wandered by at some point. Then I reached Eastern Oregon where hunting season was in full swing. Somewhere out on lonely Route 20, I stopped at one of those combination grocery store, deli and game weigh station that are de facto community centers in some tiny Western towns. I got chatting with some hunters in camouflage who said they hadn’t gotten a thing, not even seen an animal. The lady manning the game weigh station chimed in that no one had brought a kill in since season started. One of the hunters explained that wild animals instinctively flee from the smell of wildfire. He could only guess that the smoke from Idaho, Oregon and California fires — which had been drifting in and out depending on wind patterns — had driven all the game deep into the mountains. I guess next year, we can expect record game populations.
Best unplanned attraction: The Mustang Monument wild mustang sanctuary near Elko and Spruce Mountain Nevada. I pulled off US 93 when I saw teepees and was given a full tour by the caretaker, Travis Jackson, a Cherokee-Seminole. (The complete story of my detour here.) Spearheaded by Madeleine Pickens, the wife of T. Boone Pickens, the sanctuary has already saved up to four hundred horses. There are ambitious plans for an eco-resort, including horse therapy for wounded warriors. (Check it out here.)
Best celebrity encounter twice removed: Bone theft. Lucy found a rawhide chew toy belonging to Madeleine Pickens’ Dachshund. She stole it. Sorry Madeleine. Sorry T. Boone. Sorry Dachsie.
Best Welcome and Tourist Information Office: Oregon, as you cross on 84 into Ontario. From a lifetime of roadtrips, I’ve become an aficionado of the Tourist Office. You know, the kind you see shortly after you cross a state line. I can’t overstate the importance of these. Besides rest stop facilities, they usually have a wealth of free maps and tourist information. For years now Texas, in my mind, is the one to beat. They are always staffed by helpful, friendly ladies with hair just so and anxious to give you anything you need to realize how lucky you are to be in Texas. (No one is more state-proud than Texans.) In an exemplar of its type, I once stopped at a Welcome Center just over the border from Oklahoma on my way to Amarillo where I was treated to homemade sweet tea. Well, we have a challenger for those lovely Texas ladies. The women at the Oregon welcome center were just as concerned, in a wonderful motherly way, that I see all the sights in their wonderful state. Although one lady was horrified that I wanted to travel on Rte. 20 which can vie with Nevada’s 50 for The Loneliest Road in America.
Best thing about traveling with a dog: instant conversation opener — or ender. Most people approached me, like the cowboys I met at a gas station/general store in Nevada, to say, “Well, what the hell kinda dog is THAT?” But it got the conversation rolling and I was able to talk to and get tips from locals — which was crucial since most of the time, I was out in the middle of nowhere. And I definitely gave a lot of people their chuckle for the day as I set up my camera and tripod, pulled Lucy out of her crate, posed her next to various things and snapped roadtrip shots. There were also a few incidents where I saw someone approaching that I wasn’t sure I wanted to talk to. Lucy is a somewhat naturally grumpy dog, and she picked up my nervousness and flashed those terrier teeth. Problem solved.
Worst thing about traveling with a dog: where you can’t go. That includes everywhere in a National Park except for parking lots and campgrounds. That means Lucy and I missed the Bristlecone Pines at Great Basin National Park and the mudpots, fumaroles and weird landscape of Bumpass Hell in Lassen Volcano National Park. Luckily most of the parks do have a scenic drive where you can hit the scenic highlights by moving from dog-allowable pull-out to pull-out. But in the West, those parking lots will be scorching hot on dog paws. So there is another challenge. I’ve got a whole Traveling with Dogs post coming.
Least dog-friendly rest stop encountered: outside of Red Bluff California. Most rest stops have a grassy area marked for dogs, many complete with doggie poo bags and a water spigot. At Red Bluff, we saw green lawns. Not for dogs. The dog area was a field of stones. Not just difficult terrain, but not a fun place for a dog, especially finicky Lucy, to do her business. We won’t even talk about how hot those stones were on dog paws. We defiantly peed on the grass (well Lucy did) and left.
Best dog-friendly hotel: Silverland Inn and Suites, Virginia City Nevada. I have to say all my hotels were great. My go-to dog-friendly hotels are always Best Western and La Quinta who keep most of the hotels in their chains open to dogs. The rooms were consistently clean, conveniently on the ground floor (for those midnight potty breaks) and in several, we got a doggie treat bag. When you are traveling with a dog, you tend to judge a hotel on how well it caters to your dog. But I loved the Silverland Inn. Maybe it was the setting on the mountainside terraced Virginia City. The Silverland sat on the lowest terrace so as I walked Lucy on their postage stamp green lawn, I had unobstructed 180 degree views across Nevada. I saw a great sunset and a great sunrise. The hotel was withing walking distance (steep hill walking distance) to all the sights of Virginia City, but felt quieter and more peaceful than the main drag. So as well as being dog-friendly, Silverland was very owner friendly.
Smartest thing I did: take a cooler and keep it packed. I knew I would be traveling along some pretty lonely roads where services would be thin on the ground. I took a cooler filled with water, juice, fruit and cheese (plus dog food). It was a lifesaver in several instances. Especially on some of the roads in Nevada, I’d arrive in a town where my guidebook had said there was a cafe and it would be closed. It also let me stop at farmstands. Surprisingly, Fallon Nevada is a major melon growing center with the best-tasting honeydew, cantaloupe and watermelon I’d ever tasted. I was able to stock up and survive hundreds of miles of restaurant free travel.
Scariest surprise: no cell service for hundreds of miles. It wasn’t just Nevada, well into Idaho, Oregon and Northern California, a combination of isolation and mountain ranges had me sometimes driving all day and only getting connected to the outside world when I landed at a Wi-Fi equipped hotel. Sometimes, the GPS on my car couldn’t even get a signal. Always carry a good road atlas for backup!
Would I do it again? Yes, in heartbeat. In fact, the experience made me realize, despite a lot of roadtripping and a peripatetic childhood as an Army Brat, there are still large areas of the US I need to visit or revisit. I’m already planning up more trips and resolved to do at least one, if not two per year. Certainly with a theme. I could follow Lewis and Clark. I could do a Teddy Roosevelt in the West tour. I could trace Kit Carson’s expeditions. (Well, maybe not that one. Dude went everywhere and it would take a lifetime.)
So expect me to saddle up Old Roany sometime in the near future. And I might even take a terrier with me again.
In case you are just joining us, Lucy, my Smooth Fox Terrier, and I have been doing a themed roadtrip — The Road Less Traveled — circling a section of the West on two lane highways and visiting some overlooked sights.