The hum of the van's tires on the highway dropped in pitch as I slowed for the exit, lowering from whine to hum then decreasing in volume. As I swung south, the smooth pavement was replaced by the crunch of gravel as the van headed toward the mountains thrusting up out of the sagebrush a few miles distant. This empty exit of Highway 80 in Nevada somewhere between Winnemucca and Wells, with a lonely dirt road angling toward those beckoning mountains, had been gnawing at me for a couple decades, itching to be explored. But, being a creature of habit, and on road trips my habit is generally to keep the foot on the gas pedal and get from A to B as directly as possible–complete the mission so to speak–I have driven past this exit without stopping maybe three dozen times over the span of those couple decades. This time, rolling from California to Idaho with two spare days in my pocket and no heavy deadlines forcing the pace, the come-hither whisper of this dirt road pulled me off the highway without any conscious decision being made.
‘This empty exit of Highway 80 in Nevada somewhere between Winnemucca and Wells, with a lonely dirt road angling toward those beckoning mountains, had been gnawing at me for a couple decades, itching to be explored.’
Within a couple miles the road deteriorated enough that the van was parked and the bike unloaded. Shoes and helmet were rummaged and donned, can of beer was fished from the cooler and stuffed into the back of the shorts that I was already wearing, and car-heavy legs began slowly pedaling the knots out. My fascination with Nevada is something that has been ongoing for as long as I have been riding mountain bikes. It consists of me poring over maps in the downtime and pondering the existence of some unheralded El Dorado of singletrack hidden in the mountains that corrugate the state from end to end. I've ridden the growing fun loops in the piñon and juniper outside of Ely, traced the ghostly remains of trails already succumbing to abandonment and nature in Austin, been completely destroyed by goatheads in Winnemucca, been paced by herds of Mustang on stashes of trail between Gardnerville and Yerington, and been completely skunked in trashed-out dead-end doubletracks more than I care to admit. But the quixotic hope refuses to be stamped out.
The dirt road eventually angled away from the mountains and south into a long valley, but a crude doubletrack probably cut by hunters on quads veered left and up out of the dusty heat into a green crease on the flank of the range. It climbed gently at first, alternating sand patches with a base of chunky rock. Then the trail jacked upward steeply. Click, click, click, click down into the easiest gears, spin, then grind, then walk. Soon enough, the trail petered out entirely in a camp circle that was strewn with shell casings and empty Keystone Ice cans. Quads and Keystone Ice are the unsung refrain of Nevada's backcountry. A faint trail, maybe trod in by deer, maybe by the same rednecks who'd come out here looking for deer or Chukar, continued to climb up the range into an aspen grove not too far uphill. I ditched the bike, hiked up into the cooler air of the trees. The trail died there. I sat and drank my beer, a few miles distant downhill the windshield of the van glinting a tiny semaphore in the late afternoon sun. Crushed the can, stuffed it in my pocket, walked down to the bike, started coasting back the way I had come. Skunked again.
Two days later, I was in Sun Valley for the Ride Sun Valley festival. Looking to shake my legs out before a weekend of enduro racing, I stopped by Surtevant's, bought a map and asked for a good "couple hour ride" recommendation. The guy behind the counter laid out a fun looking route out Greenhorn down by Hailey. Sounded perfect. So, instead, I headed east from Sun Valley, straight out from rarified air of the lodge, in the opposite direction from lift accessed riding on Baldy and the known goodness of Adams Gulch or Fox Creek. The trails I was chasing looked on the map like they'd chew up about three hours, which would get me back in town right in time for the rider's meeting and race packet pickup. Other than that, I had no idea what to expect.
Some five hours later, I crested the second of a pair of heavy climbs, 5500' of uphill about half of which had been either pushing or carrying my totally inappropriate 6-inch sled. I was drenched in sweat, being eaten alive by horseflies, and the blazing sun even at this late hour was burning holes in my soul. I was out of food, out of water, and it dawned on me that not only was I still about an hour from where I started, but I had just missed the race registration and rider's meeting. Nobody on earth knew where I was, and aside from a hiker and her dog about two hours earlier, I hadn't seen any other humans since I started riding. As I pondered the ramifications of that while looking out across an expanse of wildflowers and golden light on this saddle 9,000 feet above sea level, my rear tire sighed and quietly deflated.
Still, I had a map, it looked mostly downhill, and much as the ride had completely kicked my race plans for the weekend to pieces, I had stumbled across sections of trail that rate as some of the most spectacular singletrack I've ever ridden anywhere. We're talking trail maybe six inches wide arcing across meadows of handlebar height wildflowers, cutting down into cool forested creek drainages, etching across jaw dropping mountainsides above timberline; primitive, barely used, incredible dirt.
I felt like I had discovered gold.
This article was originally published in the September/October issue of 2015.