As we crest Harrison Pass on the Pony Express National Historic Trail and begin our descent into Ruby Valley, the route is clearly visible, winding across the treeless lowlands and ascending the Maverick Springs Range. The sense of openness is almost overwhelming and gives pause as I wonder what went through the mind of a horseman speeding from Sacramento, CA, to Saint Joseph, MO, carrying a precious cargo of mail in 1860.
After two years of planning, maps strewn on the kitchen table, and endless Internet searches, the Nevada Ghost Town Tour is under way. Tracking the weather for the weeks prior to the trip revealed atypical conditions: showers and thunderstorms with abnormally low temperatures. Our rendezvous location and the start of this trip is Burns, OR, a midpoint for me coming from Portland and my friend John coming from Boise, ID. During the ride to Burns I experience rain, thunderstorms, and questionable all-weather roads. John and I arrive in Burns within minutes of one another and share similar weather stories. The adventure begins!
Off to a Rough Start
We head south into cool air and threatening skies. Our first detour occurs when the gravel road through Anderson Valley turns to goopy mud. We quickly realize that our big dual sports aren’t going to make it far so we turn around, returning to gravel with our wheels barely turning. After some cleaning we continue through rain as thunderstorms churn all around, making us feel small in this vast sagebrush prairie. John comments about our fine start, “It’s 9:30 a.m. and we’ve already been stuck in the mud and seen lightning. What does the rest of the day hold for us?” After turning onto Highway 78 we encounter a short segment of BB-sized hail about a half-inch deep and feel very fortunate that we missed the storm.
Motorcycles & Gear
2002 KTM 640 Adventure
2008 Kawasaki KLR 650
Helmet: Arai XD
Sixty miles of sweet gravel roads along the east side of Steens Mountain takes us to Fields, OR, a former stagecoach stop between Burns and Winnemucca, NV. The Fields Station Cafe is noted for its terrific burgers and milkshakes; we check for ourselves and agree! Folks say that our next segment into Nevada should be passable with only a few muddy spots so we ride on, enjoying great views of wildlife and desert scenery. We emerge from our dirt-road bliss onto Highway 140 near the border of Oregon, California and Nevada. Our next leg takes us through Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge to Cedarville, CA, and Alturas.
Taking It Easier – We Hope
Today’s target is 215 miles of tame gravel to Winnemucca with visits to two ghost towns. Higher temperatures and sunny skies greet us as we head east into Cedarville, CA. Our GPS guides us to the turnoff for Leadville, NV, a former mining town that dates to 1887 and where a few ruins remain today. As we descend back to the main gravel road toward Gerlach, NV, rain clouds engulf us again. Several miles down we pass a herd of wild horses, with a stallion standing boldly, looking at us as the rest of the herd stays back. He has taken a stand and we ride on, leaving him alone.
The weather warms as we drop into Gerlach, the headquarters of the Burning Man festival, the great annual counterculture party on the playa in the Black Rock Desert. We stop at Bruno’s, famous for its homemade ravioli, then we’re off to Winnemucca on the Jungo Road, a 100–mile, all-weather gravel road. Several miles in we pass Sulphur, the former site of the biggest sulphur mine in the United States, where a few foundations still exist straddling the Union Pacific Railroad mainline. Next we pass the HyCroft Gold Mine, which is restarting operations after a recent shutdown. Trucks traveling back and forth have pushed the aggregate below the surface, leaving a thick layer of mud. We wallow in the muck for several miles on our loaded motorcycles. I barely make it through on my KTM 640 Adventure, and John gets stuck trying to get to a side road. A passerby fishtails to a stop and helps us get John’s Kawasaki KLR® 650 back on the road. We roll into Winnemucca about 7 p.m., tired and muddy.