Monday, 1 October 2012

Nevada ending story

One of the reasons I came on this trip was to get unstuck. To shake things up a bit. To see if things could be a little different by doing things a little differently. Already I have seen things a little differently. And yet last Sunday somewhere in the middle of the Nevada mountains I felt stuck. Partly because I was. The weather was cold and raining with threats of snow on the mountain so we stopped cycling and sheltered for a day.

We were taken in by Mike who runs Major's Station - a bar in the middle of nowhere. And Nevada can feel like nowhere.

To cross the states we had decided against the northern mountains and instead opted for desert. Highway 50 was named the Loneliest Highway by Life magazine in 1986. The towns and services are sparse - sometimes 80 miles apart. After reading various bike forums my major concern was having enough water. 6 litre plastic bottles later and I had a reservoir ready for the Sahara.

Nevada is a reassuringly ungodly place in contrast to Mormon established Utah. Unlike Utah which has state liquor stores or Kentucky where we stopped in many dry towns, here you can drink, gamble and it is easier to get married and divorced. It is remote, so many communities have moved here to be away from others as we found when we stayed at the Border Inn.

The Border Inn is, as the name suggests, on the border of the two states. A genius location that means customers can enjoy Utah's gas prices and Nevada's slot machines and alcohol. But there was more fun going on last Saturday. The locals had organised a pot luck dinner, a band and The Baker Boys show - drag queens from Salt Lake City. Apparently the key hot shots couldn't make it this year so the performances were variable but Tracey made a good effort in four different costumes.

The fundraiser was attended by people from the nearby Hope Farm - a hippie commune, one of the many established in the Californian out spill in the 1960s. It was also supported by students from Eskdale - a neo Mormon community whose members broke away from the Mormon church in the 1930s. The House of Aaron is a community who celebrate education and communal eating - right up my street. They traditionally wear blue shirts embroidered with the word 'Levi'. They refuse to wear Wrangler.

At the same party I also met Delaine. I asked her if she lived in Border.

'My family has lived here over 10,000 years. We live in the Great Basin.'

One of the few native Americans at the do, she told me about the massacre which her grandmother survived as a child. She fled and was raised by a Mormon couple. I asked her what she would teach the world. She said she would teach the world to act whilst thinking about the next seven generations. She directed me to her son's blog - a native American and general political campaigner.

The big issue in the Great Basin is that Las Vegas, where the majority of Nevada's population lives is trying to buy the land they need to construct a water pipeline to take the water to Las Vegus. America will you not learn? The project would take water from an already arid area.The fate of the project is likely to be decided by the Supreme Court.

In Fallon, Nevada there are more water concerns. This time it's arsenic. The state government has forced the town to build a purification plant. It's shared the cost with the nearby naval training base - think Tom Cruise in Top Gun. As to why there are so many cases of child hood lukeimia here, no one is entirely sure.

The desert is where you do things you don't want others to see. Nuclear testing - above and underground. In Delta, Utah was the location of the biggest Japanese internment camp - Topaz. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in Hawaii, the event that drew America into World War Two, Roosevelt ordered for all Japanese Americans to be rounded up and put in camps. This did not happen to people of German heritage. 110,00 people from the Pacific coast were rounded up - one of the most shameful episodes in recent American history, President Reagan apologised for the action in 1988 saying it was caused by "race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership".

So there I was, stuck - at Major's Station feeing like a school child on a rainy Sunday afternoon. It was Mike who first spotted the neon caped figure cycling from across the valley. It was Jonny the Swede. Here to brighten up the desert with his unintentional Swedish quips.

Since we saw him at the start of his journey in Kentucky he had seen 2 bears, broken his collar bone and fixed 15 punctures. Yet he was still going. He joined us, or rather he joined James as they raced up hills together and in Ely we were joined by 18 year old Francisco. Francisco was surprised that I was 36, old enough, in fact the same age as, his mother. The desert crossing was beginning to feel more like a school trip. Have we got everyone? Cookie anyone? Anyone need the loo?

That said It was good to have their company for a few days. Thanks guys.

After a week of cycling up, then down mountains then across flat valleys all the time looking out for mountain lions, I am ready for more people. But what the desert has taught me is that never mistake nothing for no history. And don't think just because you can't see it, it's not there.

The Pony Express ran for less than 2 years between delivering letters to the west coast ending in 1861 with the advent of the telegraph. There were 157 stations around 10 miles apart. This was around the distance a horse could comfortably gallop. The Pony Express advertised for young men who had to risk their lives riding through hostile Indian territory. The Pony Express is a great example of a story that is loved and highlighted in American history and along Highway 50 which follows its route. The story has everything: Risk takers, business men, horses, dangerous Indians and a journey westward cementing California into the union. One recent historian has argued that in fact this flop of a business has been blown out of all significance because of these factors. We look for the history that says something about us.

I also talked with Jonny about the native people of Finland and Sweden. The Sami, or Laps as they were named by the white people, were targeted by both the Norwegian and Swedish governments. Their lands were, what Americans would call homesteaded. In Norway they had to change their names to own land. In Sweden the Institute of Racial Biology, set up in 1922, spent its first years trying to prove that the Sami were racially inferior. The tale of poor treatment of native peoples is not exclusive to the States. In fact it is very dangerous to start looking for heroes and villains of our past.

Perhaps the reason why I asked Jonny about the native people of Finland or my desire to seek out the other side of the American story is my own Welsh heritage. I certainly feel more Welsh being away from the UK and much more than I do when I am in London. I think it is important to seek out different histories and remember that the history of a country is only one interpretation and certainly not inevitable.

I am always fascinated by the capacity of all of us to use our own identities and stories to shape our understanding. Be it the story of a bad day that just gets worse or the story of a country. The important thing to remember is that truth is fluid and always shaped by perspective. So one woman's stuck could be another woman's opportunity of a life time.

It is not just winners who write history. We all do.


  1. Mari, James. Good to hear from you again. Enjoyed the WWII history of the Japanese internment camps. My mother taught school in an internment camp at Heart Mountain Wyoming during WWII. She passed up a teaching job in Des Moine Iowa to teach at the camp. She was in touch with several students for years and years after the war was over.
    I've been across Highway 50 several times. It's easier on a motorcycle. Stopped at the Border Inn for gas and food. Keep riding, keep writing.
    Mark in Colorado

    1. Thanks again for your comment Mark. Always good to hear the stories of people who stood up for things at the time.

      Will never forget Highway 50 and all its passes.

      Nearly finished next blog so do keep reading.

  2. Mari, I was directed to your blog by fellow members of the Davis Bike Club, whom you met in Winters, California. I wish I'd found this sooner. What a delightful treat to read and view your pictures! Echoing Mark Herring's comment, your observations about Topaz were poignant for me: My father was interned there during WW2 as a young high schooler (My mother was in another camp in Arizona, Gila Bend). You're absolutely right about the desert being a place to hide things: There's still very little around Delta. I've visited both places and found them stark and desolate. I can't imagine living there.

    Enjoy cycling New Zealand. Safe travels, and I hope to read of your further adventures.

    1. Thanks for sharing your story. I always think it is amazing how many stories pass so close but we never hear. Incredible that a boy of high school age would be seen as a national security threat.
      Do keep following.

  3. Fascinating stuff. Well done on making it across. Such a big, big place. I miss it. I heard you have an I Loves The 'Diff t-shirt making its way out to you (or was this Twitter misinformation?). If you want anything, let me know!

  4. Cheers I Loves the 'diff. Do keep following. Maybe it was rowing on Roath park lake that inspired my travelling spirit.