A road trip to ‘Nomadland’
THE STAGE ROUTE from Portland, Oregon, to Lake Mead, in southern Nevada, cuts a jagged line over 1,000 miles southeast across the Great Basin Desert. The largest endorheic watershed (the type that doesn’t flow into the sea) in North America is a hard, empty land of mountains and plateaus, ranches and mining sites. It also encompasses vast amounts of open public land that attracts modern day nomads, people looking for a long-term, off-grid lifestyle, as anyone can camp anywhere they want until ‘two weeks before moving on to the next one.
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I had no weeks to spare. Instead, I set out to explore the area in a week, only to find myself at a Lake Mead on the Nevada-Arizona border. My first leg was intimidatingly long – a 550 mile drive through the Oregon Outback Scenic Byway and the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge to the Airbnb room I rented on a ranch near Winnemucca, Nevada. I left my house in Portland at 5 a.m., my VW Tiguan packed with a kayak, rolled up foam mattress, tent, sleeping bag, gallons of water, box of food, wheel of spare and five extra gallons of gasoline. Most of these articles were just in case I got stuck. I had spent a few nights trying to figure out ahead of time if gas pumps in tiny places like Valley Falls, Oregon and Denio Junction, Nevada would actually be open and decided not to count them. I refueled in La Pine, Oregon, and calculated that with my 15 gallon tank, I could get all the way to Winnemucca – 346 miles – as long as I didn’t take the wrong turns. .
The scenery I passed was spectacular monotonous.
Heading east along Highway 140, I crossed the Oregon-Nevada border into the desolate Sheldon Refuge, through a high desert sagebrush steppe punctuated by Guano Ridge, a cliff top formidable without security barriers. I was thankful that I didn’t drive there in the dark. I drove to Winnemucca just after sunset and had dinner at a Basque restaurant at the Hotel Martin, a historic downtown landmark that originally housed sheep farmers. Winnemucca is a hub of Interstate 80 and, had I continued west, it would have led me to Fernley, where the Amazon warehouse is located in Jessica Bruder’s essay “The End of Retirement â, then his non-fiction bookâ Nomadland â. adapted into this year’s Oscar-winning film. Ms. Bruder shed light on an often overlooked workforce of what she calls âdownward mobile older Americansâ who hold temporary jobs, live in RV parks and, during the months of welding, camp for free on federal lands administered by the Bureau of Land). Nevada, already one of the least populated states, also has the highest proportion of public land in America, in its case amounting to 48 million acres, or 67% of the total land area.
South of Winnemucca on Highway 50 in the Toiyabe Mountains, right in central Nevada, sits Austin (pop. 197), referred to by tourism promoters as a “living ghost town.” I pulled into Main Street, which looks like a western movie set, at noon, passing a saloon and a few shops behind pretty Victorian brick and wood facades. Everything was closed because of the pandemic. Once the center of the state’s thriving silver industry, Austin declined in the 1880s. Empire, Nevada, suffered the same fate ten years ago: the entire village, then owned by the company. US Gypsum, closed during the 2007-09 recession, forcing the cancellation of an entire zip code. In the film version of “Nomadland,” the closure of the Empire factory is the catalyst that forces the character of Fern (played by Frances McDormand) to leave her home and start migrating to various temporary jobs across Nevada. and other states.
Right after the junction of freeways 50 and 376, long after my cell phone signal disappeared, I drove 10 miles east along a partially leveled dirt road to Spencer Hot Springs. Someone had kindly installed a large circular tub, with mineral water, among the handful of small natural pools. They were all located on the side of a valley, surrounded by snow-capped mountains. The only other vehicle was a VW Beetle that belonged to a long-lived camper van. I sank into the artificial tub, reveling in the boiling water and the view, before quickly tasting the others. Another time, I thought, that would be a good place to spend a few days. A two hour drive south led to the town of Tonopah. Along the way, the scenery was monotonous and spectacular: thin roads crossing valleys covered with a mug of sagebrush gave way to wildly rugged and seemingly endless mountain ranges on either side. My windshield offered even more spectacular views over the next two hours to Ash Springs, where Freeways 6 and 375 skirted the Area 51 nuclear test site as the Red Mountains of southern Nevada beckoned.
I arrived at Lake Mead after dark, so it wasn’t until the harsh light of the next day that I saw my surroundings, a 1.5 million acre playground of mountains, valleys , canyons and the lake itself, where I took my kayak. I spent several days hiking the slot canyons and giant boulder fields in nearby Valley of Fire State Park and discovered a nomadic tribe from 4000 years ago who fearfully called the Gypsum people. Impermanence, it seems, is the rare constant in this strangely beautiful landscape.
THE LOWDOWN / Exploring the desert of the Great Nevada Basin
In Winnemucca, Airbnb has three great options, including “Ranch and farm house,” a two bedroom and one bathroom offer for $ 50 per night just outside of town. (airbnb.com). On Lake Mead, Stewarts Point Campground offers free camping for up to two weeks in several miles of space and stunning views (nps.gov/lake/planyourvisit/campgrounds.htm).
The menu at Hotel Martin in Winnemucca is wide and varied, with several Basque specialties, including solomo (pork loin) and sweet breads, as well as turkey fondants, seafood pasta and several kinds of burgers. . The restaurant also offers a dinner menu starting at $ 25 per person (themartinhotel.com). In Overton, near Lake Mead, Lin’s Fresh Market is a good place to stock up on camping and picnics (350 South Moapa Valley Blvd., linsgrocery.com). The Inside Scoop serves burgers, sandwiches and ice cream (395 South Moapa Valley Blvd., insidescoop.online).
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