The Lincoln Highway in Basin And Range – Chapter Four – Consider the Desert

‘In the Unites States there is more space where nobody is than where anybody is. That is what makes America what it is.’ – Gertrude Stein

The real adventure on the Lincoln Highway in the Great Basin begins in Fallon and ends near Salt Lake City, or vice-versa. Up until now on the Lincoln, everything was comfortable and familiar – Interstate highways, four-lane paved nothingness, strip malls. Upon leaving Fallon I felt both a sense of relief and of sadness.

“There was no point staying on; what I’d come for was gone, replaced by things available all over the United States.”  – William Least Heat Moon – Blue Highways

U. S. 50

Now the road is now a two-lane blacktop but for the most part has little shoulder, just five foot slopes into the ditches that were excavated to raise the roadbed above the bog (wet or dry it’s still a bog) of the Fallon Sink ( 39° 21.168’N 118° 32.746’W). This area east of Fallon was the bugaboo of the early travelers since the surface could turn from dry to mud wallow with a passing isolated thunderstorm. The banner photograph at the top of the page is of the Fallon Sink; it’s supposed to be there anyway.

(Numerous routes were tried to bypass this obstacle. Eventually the roadbed was raised as you see now and the journey became less burdesome.)

The Complete Official Road Guide of the Lincoln Highway 1916 noted:

“Sand Springs . . . Westbound tourists should stop and inquire best road to take.”

and

“Salt Wells . . .Make inquiries here if in doubt.”

Mud

Still there are those who don’t pay attention; the best advice out here is the one most often given: “Don’t stray out on the flats. At any moment the flats can turn to the most sticky mud you can image. Even four-wheel-drive vehicles can become bogged down.” That was the advice I received from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and they know the state well.

"Failed to take advice"

Now do as I say, not as I do: don’t get off the pavement unless you are turning onto a well-traveled and well-graded road. Generally don’t go off road unless you have company. Cell phones don’t always work out here. CB seems to be as dead as it ever was. A tow truck, if you can get one, is going to charge a huge “recovery fee” because you aren’t on a paved road. You could be seventy miles from the nearest help.

I was stuck as above for five hours trying to get the vehicle out, and I know a lot of tricks. Eventually I exhausted all the possibilities and myself. The rancher nearby came and extracted me.

Expanse

Those who have not traveled in the western deserts will be surprised and delighted at the openness of the landscape.  It is enticing and you just want to head out there, throw up your arms, and sing and dance, like in old hippie era road movies. I love it, every little grain of sand, the curious lizard, the clear air, and at night the stars such as city people never see them.

Emptiness

Once again, here’s William Least Heat Moon:

“The uncluttered stretches of the American West and the deserted miles of roads force a lone traveler to pay attention to them by leaving him isolated in them. This squander of land substitutes a sense of self with a sense of place by giving him days of himself until, tiring of his own small compass, he looks for relief to the bigness outside – a grandness that demands attention not just for its scope, but for its age, its diversity, its continual change.”William Least Heat Moon – Blue Highways

It’s a wonderful scene: the road looks well graded and traveled. The reality is that there is nothing there – no gasoline, no help, no hospital, no communication. And if you get lost your troubles are immense.

Navigation

GPS devices can be good or bad. I have several and only one of them could keep up with the nature of the myriad trails out here. The other one, with spoken routes “turn right here,” was downright dangerous and would have led me off into nowhere had I not known better. I always have a couple of different maps with me. The topographic maps available from the BLM are very good as is the advice from their rangers. You can also inquire of the local County Sheriff. Just don’t go blindly off into the hinterlands.

Free advice is worth what you pay for it, nonetheless let me codify mine:

  1. Don’t go off the highway unless you have experience in going off the highway.
  2. Use maps and a gps, but trust the maps.
  3. Do the usual desert preparation: extra food, water, even warm clothing.
  4. Let someone know where you are going.
  5. Inquire locally.
  6. Carry a shovel. Pieces of carpet can help you get out of a slippery situation.
Here’s a good checklist: Tips for Traveling in the Desert with some additional items.

Next Up: Sand Mountain and Sand Pass

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