Laura and I ride together on the GS from home south into Nevada on our way to tiny Tuscarora for a high school trip. We stop to sleep at Wild Horse Crossing campground before continuing through mountains and across desert to our destination.
I was not enthusiastic when Laura invited me to accompany her to Tuscarora. What would I do for three days in a Nevada ghost town having only a few residents, no stores or restaurants, and many miles from anything else?
Recognizing the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to spend time with a teenage daughter, I decided not to dwell on that. Yes, of course I would join her high school¹ art class in their annual three-day pilgrimage to learn from the artists of Tuscarora.
I began to share Laura’s enthusiasm as plans took shape. We would leave a day early, traveling by motorcycle and camping wherever the end of that first day brought us — an adventure!
This would be Laura’s longest ride. Initially I wanted to travel Battle Creek Road,¹ a 45-mile dirt track running north-south across the Owyhee Uplands, but unrelenting rain ruled that out. I’d seen before how it looks when wet² — no place for two people astride a Bavarian platypus.
Instead of Battle Creek, we cut across the gravel roads of the military practice area from Boise down to Grand View for a little break at C.J. Strike Reservoir. Neither of us had been there. I was glad to finally see the dam and park along the water that I’d heard others talk about.
Laura and I sat in the shade and enjoyed a snack of banana chips and honey-roasted nuts while ants began to congregate nearby (I warned Laura not to sit there) to receive manna from above.
We had already been riding for an hour. I asked Laura how she was doing, knowing extended time in the saddle can become uncomfortable, especially when you aren’t used to it. She had to remove her headphones to hear me. “Just fine,” she answered. Her mind was elsewhere. She was listening to a medical podcast, she explained, a subject of keen interest lately.
While quite proud of her academic endeavors, I hoped she would also free some attention to savor the view and experience of riding through these wide open lands. “It might be nice just to listen to music,” I suggested.
“I listen to music, too,” she assured me. We sat in the shade a little longer until motivated onward by the many miles ahead of us.
We continued around the reservoir on some twisty pavement over to Highway 51. I saw a few patches of tree and trail that would have been good camping along the water but I wanted to get a lot farther before we packed it in for the night. Miles of sagebrush rolled by as we clicked into top gear and pointed south on the highway.
I had read of the ghost town Grasmere along that stretch of road. As the first thing to adorn the horizon for quite some time, we were glad to pull in to investigate. Once the only stop for food or fuel along the 76 miles between Bruneau, Idaho and Owyhee, Nevada, it nonetheless didn’t amount to a viable business. The owners left and put it up for sale.¹ After years of abandonment, it has become a home to tumbleweeds, barn swallows and not much else.
Calling the abandoned cafe and pumps a ghost “town” could be a stretch since there were never streets or homes. And we saw no ghosts so it seems undeserving of that label as well. A wistful feeling did well up in my wallet at the sight of the prices on the old gas pumps, making it a possible psychological thriller, if nothing else.
We stretched our legs and rummaged around a little in Grasmere before settling back on to the Euclidean asphalt. As we reached our cruising altitude, I took note of the fences lining the road, keeping the emptiness from spilling over into the nothingness and meaning that our lowest ranking campsite options (off the side of the road in a gully as seen from space) were effectively precluded.
Riddle came and quickly passed on our right at eighty miles per hour, another wisp of a town where we would have emerged from the Owyhee Uplands if we’d come down Battle Creek Road. I gave it a little stare to memorize the layout in case we wanted to try Battle Creek on the way home.
Fuel is a rare commodity in those parts, so although we had plenty left, I thought we should pull over and top off the tank when the Owyhee, Nevada, gas station came into view seventeen miles later. A sign on the pump warned us the station would be closed over the next two days for maintenance. It already appeared deserted. The next gas station is in Elko, 97 miles down the road and 52 miles beyond Tuscarora, so I was glad the pumps still delivered fuel. I wanted a full tank to explore the mountains in the coming days.
From the undulating sagebrush plains of the previous few hours, the road from Owyhee curved and climbed into the Humboldt National Forest mountains along the course of the Owyhee River. It was a welcome change of pace and scenery. Trees lined the river and slopes bared their rocky interiors to the sky. The tight turns and inspiring landscape possessed me to roll on the throttle. I could feel the big knobs of the TKC-80 tires flexing in the corners and dialed back to a merely thrilling pace.
I had done my best Internet searching to find campsites that might have trees. From what I could tell, those mountains south of Owhyee were our best bet. We were making haste toward a GPS waypoint I’d dropped on the Wild Horse Crossing campground. A Flickr picture¹ I’d found proved it had at least three trees. I wanted to make sure we arrived before dark.
When the campground appeared around a bend on the right side of the road, we pulled in and immediately circled through the campsites. The one pictured on Flickr was available and the best of the eighteen others, I think (the camp host occupied one). Laura and I set about putting up the tent and gathering wood for an evening fire while we still had daylight.
As I was chopping wildly with a hatchet at a gnarled piece of tree Laura dragged from an adjacent site, the host pulled up and eyed me from his truck. He was an older fellow of average build with white hair and eyes liquid from allergies or age. I couldn’t tell by his solemn expression if he thought I might be dangerous or if he simply didn’t care to spend the energy on a smile or greeting.
I dropped the hatchet as I stood to say “hello.” He remarked at how light we were travelling, something I knew might amuse the Idaho Adventure Motorcycle Club¹ riders who see the world on bikes half the weight and without a coffee percolator. Though anxious to prepare for nightfall, I stayed to hear the story of how he came to be there. Having always wished to work outdoors, a divorce in December set him on course to work alone at the remote campground. Although he didn’t say so, I sensed he was still reeling from a world turned upside-down.
His face lit up a little as he recounted the story of recent visitors who wanted to explore nearby mountain roads but were low on gas. Could he point them to a gas station? He smiled at their folly. It looked like it might take all they had just to reach the nearest gas station, miles down the highway, leaving mountain roads well behind. You don’t come out here without a little planning.
After a couple false starts, he backed out and continued his patrol of vacant campsites. My eyes followed the red tail lights of his truck for a moment and I couldn’t help but wonder about his kids or other family. Did he have any? What leads a man in the twilight of life to desert solitude?
Laura filtered water from the snow-fed creek that formed a boundary between our campsite and the next, a small tributary to the Owyhee River. I brought the water to a boil on our little camp stove and poured it into spicy cups of noodles we would enjoy while seated on oak and nylon folding chairs. We were set for the night.
As we sat around the iron-ring fire, it seemed as if the embers had spread across the sky. I hadn’t expected sunset views from the campground ravine but cotton clouds briefly burned pink and orange in the oblique rays of the sun. Laura agreed: it was a beautiful evening.
Settling in for the night, I plugged an episode of “This American Life”¹ into my little travel speakers on the ground near our heads. The only other sound was the soft song of the creek. Laura was asleep before half-way through the radio story.
Awakening to daylight, I zipped open the vestibule and was met with the realization it had been a colder night than expected. Our wash basin was a Lilliputian ice rink and frost made the motorcycle sparkle like a twelve-year-old’s nail polish. I cleaned up and brewed coffee while Laura slept.
I enjoyed the absence of urgency. We had traveled most of the way to Tuscarora and had only a short distance left to cover. After Laura awoke, we were able to spend a couple hours maintaining a lazy fire while slowly packing up.
Nevada Highway 225 loops south around the high mountains¹ before giving an opportunity to return north on 226 to Tuscarora. I fiddled with the GPS to find us a route west through the mountains. It obliged with Forest Service Road 473.²
We headed out with an optimistic line on a tiny screen to lead us. The highway continued to entertain with tight curves for several more miles until we were surprised to encounter Wild Horse Dam. That’s a benefit of minimal trip planning: the joy of surprises.
A Harley rider passed as we stopped to look at the little dam. Apparently he wasn’t the waving sort. The dam marks the southern edge of the Humboldt National Forest mountains. We followed the highway above the dam into the open space around Wild Horse Reservoir. Bright wildflowers filled lush meadows leading to snow capped mountains. It was a beautiful stretch of road.
The GPS said to turn onto a nondescript gravel road running perpendicular to the highway on an unwavering course into the mountains — our shortcut. I shed the speed we’d accumulated on the straight-stretch when I noticed cows loitering along the roadside. A cow impact could ruin the day.
Laura and I enjoyed the ride upward very much. We stopped here and there to explore the adjacent creek swollen to a frenzy by snow-melt. The air was crisp but not chilly. Spirits were high as we drew near to the summit. It would be a quick descent to Tuscarora from there.
Patches of snow clung to life in shaded areas but nothing to impede our ascent.
And so it was only as the final summit seemed to be in view that the road appeared lost to a lingering winter snow drift. Not ones to give up easily, we parked and walked ahead to see if we might skirt the edge and pass by.
Verdict: the snow only deepened around the corner — maybe doable on a smaller bike but the risk to us and our camping gear was too great to justify an attempt with the GS. We didn’t mind having to ride back to the highway. It was still a beautiful day and we were still making good time.
Like thousands of Jerusalem’s deserters eviscerated for the gold coins they were thought to have swallowed when the city was besieged by Rome in A.D. 70,¹ we were faced on our return to the highway with mountains disemboweled for their treasure.