For a brief 18-month period between April 1860 and November 1861, the east-west route across central Nevada was the busiest it had ever been. Spurred by the looming civil war, California Senator William M. Gwinn proposed a fast mail service from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, provided the mail could be delivered within ten days. The Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express Company won the contract; but the service that resulted is better known by its operating title: the Pony Express.
"The station was a wretched place half built and wholly unroofed, the four rough boys ate standing. Our animals found good water whilst we supped upon excellent steak from a freshly killed beef."
So wrote English adventurer Sir Richard Burton, in 1860, when he rode west with the Pony Express across Nevada. Pony Express stations were roughly 10 miles apart - about as far as a good horse could run at a gallop - and the horses were changed at each station, although the riders could expect to spend at least 70 miles in the saddle during a shift. Fortunately, my steed has more pace and endurance than even the fastest of postal ponies: a Ducati 1000DS Multistrada, on loan from Southern California Motorsports.
Cold Springs Station was located near modern-day Austin, Nevada, on US Route 50, "America's Loneliest Road." There's no correspondence on-board for the Multistrada to deliver, but I'll be putting it through its paces nonetheless, riding Highway 50 from Ely to Carson City. But first I need to get to Ely from Boulder City, which is just a house-ante cab ride from the Las Vegas casinos.
Day 1: Boulder City to Ely
NV 564 to Lake Mead; NV 167, 169 and 168 to US 93; US 93 to Ely: 330 miles.
I sometimes wonder if The Weather Channel really helps in my travel planning: I have to remind myself that what I'm watching is "info-tainment." So when the TV in my charming art-deco room at the Boulder Dam Hotel warns of a nasty barrage of wind and rain rumbling down from Canada, I check with NOAA for confirmation. Yes, there's bad weather coming, they say, but thankfully the brunt of it is heading for Utah and Colorado.
I leave Boulder City's neat and tidy downtown, turning north from US 93 along the west side of Lake Mead under harsh sunlight, with a roaring tailwind shoving me like a linebacker. The strong inflows powering the deep low-pressure system from the Great White North scour the scrub, whipping up a dust storm. Ahead of me, the road cavorts around huge dunes and the azure waters of Lake Mead (named for Hoover Dam's construction chief, Elwood Mead) gleam between the brush-covered hillocks.
I'm glad to have the blustery wind mostly at my back, though side gusts occasionally whip the Multistrada across the lane. At Overton Beach, I turn inland, entering a bucolic valley, as lush as a golf course, along the way toward Overton. Through Loganville and Glendale, 168 is an entertaining two-laner that bucks and weaves across arid scrubland designated "open range," though I'm not sure if a single cow could find enough to eat there. With distant convoys of 18-wheelers spinning north, US 93 appears in front of me like a pencil line drawn across the desert. I tag along.
The road is indeed as straight as a ruled line, and the tailwind pushes me through more broad valleys of open range. As far as Caliente, my last gas stop before Ely, the skies remain clear; but as I'm climbing toward Lake Valley Summit, the clouds are building, growing heavier and darker. North from Pioche, bands of rain swaddle the hills and great swirls of cloud boil in the skies above. Most worrying are the charcoal veils obscuring the valley directly ahead. As I get closer to Mount Grafton's bulk, I can feel the crosswinds intensify, tilting the Multistrada from side to side at chaotic angles. Although rain is falling all around in the hills and clouds of mist are tumbling into the valley, I manage to dodge the worst of it, enduring but one short shower and a salvo of hailstones that sting my legs through my leather pants.