February – April 2022
To prove they’re not boring, two friends set out on The Loneliest Road in America.
BY REBECCA ECKLAND
At night, sounds from the desert can be unsettling, especially if you don’t camp often. This is especially true when you realize just how thin tent walls are, or how far away civilization is. It was September in a rare, lingering golden summer when the rabbitbrush hasn’t bloomed and the air is still warm. It was a moment I might have enjoyed from my back porch in Reno—with amenities like indoor plumbing, internet and cellphone service.
Yet, there I was: camping with my friend Abby in the middle of nowhere with none of those things. We were sleeping in a tent, and something was out there in the darkness. Tent walls are hardly thick enough to keep out ghosts, let alone a wild burro.
I’ll admit I’m not really the camping type. But when Abby, who is even less outdoorsy, wanted to experience Nevada’s hot springs to get over a bad dating experience, I decided I could pretend to know something about camping.
Here’s the backstory: this summer, Abby met a guy from L.A. on a dating website. They had a brief fling that ended after he told her she was “too boring.” Our summer of adventures soon commenced with Abby popping up on Instagram stories filled with paddle boards, mountain bikes, tents, and parachutes, all to tell the world: I am sooooo not boring!
Abby had gear but no guide, so that’s the partnership we formed. For our next adventure, we were headed out to Austin and Spencer Hot Springs.
INTO THE DESERT
Abby’s car, a Honda CRV, was nearly bursting with our inefficiently packed gear. Thankfully, I had connections with Great Basin Bicycles in Reno which let us borrow a bike rack. That made room for a tent that smelled like new plastic, two folding chairs, a camp stove, two coolers filled with gluten-free, vegan fare, plenty of water, a box of red wine, and—much to my dismay—a portable toilet that was more like a folding chair with a hole in the middle of the seat. No matter what I said, she insisted on bringing it because “making in the bushes” wasn’t—and would never be—her forte.
When we merged onto I-80 headed east, I had a premonition that this was going to be an adventure.
By noon we’d arrived in Fallon and stopped at Walmart for the items we had forgotten. I felt out of place carrying my bundle of wood, sunscreen, and bean-chips to the self-checkout while wearing salmon-colored hottie-hot shorts and a black top, but I knew this was what I signed up for.
We left Fallon, and the landscape opened into an alkali salt flat. We passed Sand Mountain, Earthquake Faults, Fairview Peak and a bombing range, all of which sit near the Old Pony Express route that spanned the 1,800 miles from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California. The Pony Express was only in operation for 18 months, and now Abby’s CVR sped past the remains of that brutal relay of horse and human.
The landscape is long and wide, and always framed by mountains. It’s not hard to imagine how difficult it must have been to get across Nevada before there were conveniences like cars, tents, camp stoves, paved roads, cellphones, and boxes of wine.
THE MOUNTAIN CASTLE
Three hours later, we arrived in Austin, which sits in a narrow winding canyon up the Toiyabe Range. The town has only around 300 residents, but you’ll find a bar or two, a couple of breakfast places, a courthouse, two churches, a gas station, and old residences looking down from surrounding hills.
I made Abby take the dirt road to Stokes Castle: a great spot for Instagram photos. Strange and unexpected, the tower was occupied for only one summer in 1897. Today, it’s this odd stone medieval throw-back to Nevada’s weird past of wealth and luxury.
I tried telling Abby about the plan pitched to investors back East to create a shipping company that would send barges down the shallow Reese River, but she just looked at me like I was on drugs.
We weren’t alone on the lookout by Stokes Castle. Two women sat at tables under tents just beyond the tower. Abby, the extrovert, asked them why they were sitting there.
“Today’s the wine walk,” they said: magical words to women trying to be excited about camping—one of them nursing online heartache.
AN UNEXPECTED PARTY
Where else can you roll into town and participate in a wine walk, a hayride, and a dinner? I didn’t plan it that way, but hot damn if Austin didn’t deliver the most awesome road trip experience to date: show up and mingle… with wine! The entire town (and then some) turned out with wine tables that lined the winding street that climbs toward Austin Summit. As soon as we parked the car, we were given branded wine glasses and a map, along with smiles and invitations to fill ‘er up and get started.
They didn’t have to ask us twice.
After nearly every step on Austin’s Main Street, we turned to each other and laughed. Live music played. A few men flirted with Abby. I talked to locals who told me stories about how the town had once been one of the state’s largest and how a sack of flour started was carried through Austin then made a national fundraising tour to benefit Civil War soldiers.
Maybe we were seeing the world through wine-colored glasses, but there was definitely no way we were boring. We were adventurers. Brave and beautiful and fabulous, and, for that afternoon anyway, a part of a community where history, alcohol, and live music created a rare form of happiness.
Maybe the wine had something to do with how we ended up camping not at Spencer Hot Springs as we planned. Instead, we ended up on our own private bluff near an abandoned mining camp a few miles beyond Spencer with a wide and unobstructed view of the Toiyabe Range. Our tent was joined by two folding camp chairs, and a cooler doubling as a table. A fire pit was already there, and I used it to cook our dinner.
After we worked together to build the tent, each of us turned to tasks to which we were the best suited. I set up a cutting board on top of the cooler-table and chopped vegetables and chicken sausage that I’d fold into foil packets for an easy campfire dinner. Abby set up a Bluetooth speaker, donned designer sunglasses, and posted updates to Instagram while wearing an orange swimsuit and some sort of fancy, fur-lined robe.
The one thing we shared was the box of wine and we set up her folding-chair toilet right dab center of a clearing with a full view of the Toiyabes in the distance. I felt like those Dada artists in Paris around the turn of the century that made art of out of frivolous things. Abby and I laughed as the sunset turned brilliant umber and red.
BURROS, COFFEE, AND SUNRISES
I realized that friends are one of the universe’s rare and precious gifts (right up there with impromptu wine walks)—gifts that we don’t often take the time to recognize.
The moment brought to mind something I’d read in Wallace Stegner’s novel “Crossing to Safety”: “Through friendships, we spark and inspire one another’s ambitions.” Abby and I camping, who would have thought? The sunset, the silence, the dinner cooked over an open flame. I had to admit, there hadn’t been much adventure in my life to match it.
Granted, I did wake Abby up by screaming at a burro after midnight, but still. Even in the terror of that moment, it was nice knowing that she was there.
Dawn came soon enough, and with it, the part of the camping trip I was looking forward to the most: using a percolator to make hot coffee as the dawn turned from pink to yellow and sky blue, and that particular silence you can’t experience in any other place but Nevada.
As I hunched over the silver percolator on the fire, the burro from the night before wandered through camp once more as if he knew us. And maybe he did: this was the land of adventure, wide and colorful skies, hot springs, and those wild souls who are brave…and definitely not boring.