Friday, April 17, 2015


 Tonopah, Death Valley, Bridgeport Loop Tour
An epilogue

Two great pleasures of taking to the open road are the things you are bound to see and the lessons you might draw from seeing ‘em.  The recent trip to the west’s vast Basin and Ranges through Tonopah, Death Valley and Bridgeport provided much to see and much to think about.

At random, here are some photos that didn’t fit any of the trip’s narratives and some possibly unrelated thoughts that occurred while in the saddle.

If old trucks could talk, they’d have interesting stories to tell.

50s era Tonopah Commute Vehicle
Wonder how much he'd take for that '64 Bronco?
Gold, silver, talc and borax: it’s easy to think that mineral wealth is endless.

Playa - just dig here...
At Badwater

A town of 1,100 inhabitants is considered large, but a town of about 200 may support a radio station.

Back streets of Goldfield, NV
Every pair of ruts that leaves the highway and heads over a distant hill goes to someplace where something happened.

Whether in the Mojave...

...or on the Modoc Plateau

When personal transportation consisted of a burro carrying one’s grubstake, people still got around.

Keep stuffing what?
In the sparsely populated region east of the Sierra and west of the Rockies, if someone to whom you were related lived in town for a spell, someone in that town still remembers ‘em.

Nearest neighbors
It takes longer for scars to heal in the Basin and Range, but the scars tell us interesting things about the grit of those who settled the region.

People out this way seem not to simply get tired of something and toss it out; rather, they wear stuff out, sometimes leaving it where it dies.

The power of sunrise is incredible as is the voice of the hills in the sunset and the depth of the starry night sky.

Sunrise over the Mojave
A small town museum is not a place to pass by.

When the environment doesn’t provide enough moisture to support thick, green and beautiful forests and meadows, one becomes aware of how subtly beautiful the bedrock of our plant can be: colorful, spacious, clear, yet forever in constant, sublime change.
In bloom

Panamint Valley

History fades, but not quickly.

Detritus along the T and T

The first dozen and a half years of my father’s time were spent growing up and roaming the gritty extents of Utah, Nevada, Arizona and the Mojave – our continent’s great Basin and Range.  After his stint in the Army during World War II, he found himself Californi-ized: landing first in the LA Basin and later relocating to the northern Sacramento Valley where he and Mom raised two boys.

The Old Timer
Dad always seemed to itch for something.  I couldn’t understand what.  We had lakes and trails and meadows and forests; blossoming orchards in the spring, cool mountains to retreat to in the summer, ripened fruit during harvest and warm, wood-fueled heat during our dank, foggy winters.  What more could you wish for? I wondered.

One of the missions of this tour was to walk in ‘the Old Timers’ footsteps from seventy years ago.  In that effort I was totally unsuccessful, except that now, I think I know what that itch was all about: the recurring, seductive call of the desert.  That wistful call will serve as this trip’s principal lesson.

© 2015
Church of the Open Road Press

Thursday, April 16, 2015


The Tonopah, Death Valley
and Bridgeport Loop Tour – Stage 3

I’d been to Death Valley decades ago, when I was a kid, but never did I recall seeing the luxuriant display of wildflowers that springtime promised.  Having hustled down US 95 in two days, I was looking forward to a couple of days off the bike to explore the wonder of this national park and check out the foliage.  Friends joined me, arriving in a rented 2015 Chevrolet Impala – all in all a bit more wind resistant than the big GSA.  I would be happy about this.

Entering the park, I stopped for the perfunctory look-where-I-am photo.  A rider on a bike very similar to mine was kind enough to snap my picture, if I’d snap one of him and his eight-year-old son: the youngin’ enjoying a Spring Break adventure far more exciting than any of his classmates.

At a first view of the valley’s panorama, I am reminded of a region west of Sonora, California known as the Red Hills, where scientists had found no evidence of any human habitation prior to we Anglos arriving.  The area in front of me looked far more foreboding.

Dawn, our first morning, came up like thunder over Stovepipe Wells.

On the agenda was a trip to Scotty’s Castle.  The last time I was there, I was forced into mini-socks that were worn over my scuffed and raggedy US Keds.  

I recall my brother and me being scolded for sliding around on the castle’s smooth tile floor in those sock-ettes and looked forward to engaging in this activity again.  However, being 60 years mature and all, and the fact that they didn’t provide us socks this time…

Interior and exterior aspects of the castle are nicely preserved.

A special underground tour explores the clever and creative mechanicals of 1920s era desert construction.   

A diagram of an electrical component had been drawn on a concrete tunnel wall by the engineer serving as an installation instruction for a worker.

Outside, a timeworn Model A truck has found its deserved, final resting place.

A contact at Stovepipe Wells told us that his favorite spot in the park was Ubehebe Crater.  A short jaunt off the road near the castle affords a view that reminds us that volcanism is not exclusive to the high mountains in California.   

A nasty upslope wind peppered us with cinders and loess.  We’d be seeing more of this.

Unlike Tuolumne County’s Red Hills, people did inhabit this area of the Mojave.  The first was a succession of “Native Americans.” I use quotation marks here because even the Indians here had migrated from Asia several thousand years ago.  Our direct ancestors pushed them out when mineral wealth was discovered in the area.  Borax, a residual salt found in dry lakebeds, looked like a business opportunity.   

Successful?  Abandoned borax mines and mills are spotted here and there.

Bad Water has boasts an elevation of minus 282 feet, lowest in all of North America.  With my pals I considered booming out a chorus of I’ve got friends in low places, but like the whole sock thing back at the castle, being 60 years mature and all…

The salt crystals at Bad Water speak to the mineral wealth those early whites found in the area.

Brunch was scheduled at the Furnace Creek Inn, a lovely, albeit a bit chichi, oasis in the midst of this forbidding landscape.  Best eats in the park, however.

A loop through Artists Canyon followed the meal.  The fact that the climate does not support the thick forests of the western slope of the Sierra lays bare the subtle and dramatic colors that lie beneath those forest floors.   

Here we see what to many is unexpected.  Just stand in the parking area and listen everyone who exits his or her vehicle exclaim: “Wow!”

Finally, the reward at the end of the drive to Dante’s Point is a mile-high panorama of Death Valley’s sublime beauty.  Directly below us is Bad Water.  

From our vantage point we can see tinier-than-ant people walking on the salt floor 5,500 feet below.  To the north, a sand storm – we’re in sand storm season, we’ve just been told – through which we’ll shortly be plowing in that ’15 Impala, kicks up more than prodigious amounts of dust.  Glad I’m not bracing 30 mph sandblasting crosswinds on the GSA.

And those fields of wild flowers?  Easter week is supposed to be prime wildflower season.  But only a few yellow this's and a few red that's are spotted in sheltered areas on the road to Dante’s Point.  As it turns out, Death Valley averages about 1.5 to 2.5 inches of precipitation annually.  This year, the area received lower than the low amount, and at the wrong time.  The seeds from who knows how long ago must lay in wait for another year before sprouting and blooming.  It has been a dry spring in these parts.

Still, I wouldn’t mind passing this way again…



The Park Service provides a lot that one might want to know about Death Valley National Park.  Their link?  There are plenty of other web sites that highlight this magical and enchanting corner of California.  Ply your favorite search engine…

Rider Magazine contributor and – although he may not know it – honorary Church of the Open Road member, Clement Salvadori has visited Death Valley many times on motorcycles he’s been asked to review.  Tough gig.  Here’s a link to one of his previous posts: Rider is a great magazine for those of us suffering from two-wheeled wanderlust.  And Clem is a very entertaining writer.  See your local news stand…

© 2015
Church of the Open Road Press

Monday, April 13, 2015


The Tonopah, Death Valley
and Bridgeport Loop Tour: Stage 2

Railroads are fascinating constructs.  They appear as solid and permanent as a hydroelectric dam or a high-rise office building.  Their power seems indomitable as you race next to one on a highway paralleling the tracks.  The mournful cry of a distant whistle at dusk can tug at the emotional, romantic wanderlust in many, but in a fracas involving a locomotive and a truck or car or cow or human, there will always be a winner it will always be the same one.  Yep, railroads are permanent and powerful fixtures on the landscape.

Or are they?

US 95 runs north south splitting the state of Nevada.  The desert terrain includes subtle rises and falls punctuated by uplifted ridges of ancient rock.  With a careful eying of the territory to the east and west of the route one will find man-made ridges and fills that run counter to the dry washes and low-lying hills that define the desert floor.  These routes have gentle curves and gradual slopes.  Pausing along the highways to walk one, it is a short time before you run across a derelict spike, rusting in the high desert sun.

Railroads are anything but permanent.  Short lines were constructed from the mill to the timber stand or from the crusher to the mine or from the refinery to the oil field.  When the timber or the ore of the oil played out – or when a world war prompted a repurposing of steel – the tracks were pulled leaving little more than a man made slug’s trail to melt back into the landscape.

Along US 95, Goldfield is a near-abandoned settlement that owes its existence to both the rich veins of silver and gold found there and the railroad that moved ore out and goods, machinery and people in.  The grand hotel suggests that the economy was lively at one time.  The boards across her windows indicate that her time has passed.

A Dodge Brothers truck’s carcass helps us to carbon date those glory years.

And like a ship ashore, an aging “crummy” indicates that, although the tracks are long gone, rails once serviced this community.

This day’s trip had two purposes.  I needed to arrive at Stovepipe Wells in Death Valley to meet up with friends, but I also wanted to walk a stretch of the Tonopah and Tidewater Short line that Dad had worked in the thirties.  Time being my enemy, when I reached Beatty, I opted for a quick jaunt through town before deadheading it into the park. 

While the Tonopah and Tidewater never made it to Tonopah, a mural on the side of a cinderblock building indicated it had made it here.

Four miles west of town on NV 374, the BLM has posted a sign inviting me to visit Rhyolite, less than two miles off my route.

Skeletons of buildings make Goldfield, back up the road, seem like a still-thriving community.

At the top of the hill, cordoned off with a cyclone fence stands the impressive hulk of what used to a depot. 

The Spanish-style architecture suggests that this building wasn’t simply tilted up in a day or two.  Rather, it was to be a bustling hub of industry and culture. 

Across the way rests a caboose that didn’t make it out of town before the mine played out.

Back down the hill about three hundred yards, a tiny museum perches with a distant view of the highway that leads west to Death Valley.  Stopping in, I ask the curator if the station supported the T & T.  “No,” he said. “Originally, that was the Bullfrog and Goldfield.  I don’t know much about the Tonopah and Tidewater, but I’ll be they can tell you a lot back at the museum in Beatty.”

“My father worked on the T&T with a buddy named Ralphie Fairbanks back in the late 30s,” I said to the young woman at the counter of the museum back in Beatty after my hello.  “Can you direct me to any information about the old route.  I’d like to walk a bit of it.”

She pulled a volume from a shelf, opening it to a page with a map.  As I poured over it, an older-than-me gentleman, who’d been nursing a Styrofoam cup of coffee at a table in the back asked: “Did you know Ralphie Fairbanks?”

“No,” I replied.  “My Dad grew up in Barstow – Baker, actually – and he and his best buddy, a guy named Ralphie Fairbanks, went skinny-dipping in the Barstow High School pool the day before its grand opening, loaded talc into boxcars and eventually spent time working as gandydancers on the T&T…”

“Well, hell,” the gent said.  “I used to work for Ralphie Fairbanks when I was a kid, before he became a (Nye) county commissioner.  What’d you say your name was?”

As it all turned out, I wouldn’t be walking in Dad’s footsteps this trip.  He and Ralphie, living in Baker, had probably worked for the T&T out of Ludlow, California – too far south for me this time around.  The grade to Rhyolite had been assumed by what would become the T&T, but the tracks of the old Bullfrog and Goldfield spur were pulled out in the 20s.

I did purchase a copy of the book wherein one finds the T&T route map.  In it also, I found a picture of Dad’s buddy Ralphie, standing with some of his many siblings beneath the shadow of his grandfather, area pioneer and patriarch, Ralph “Dad” Fairbanks.  I could not determine which kid in the shot was Ralphie, and wish now that I’d asked the gent in the museum for a hint.



Serpico, Phil.  Tonopah & Tidewater Railroad: Nevada Short Line.  Omni Publications, Palmdale, CA.  © 2013.  $60.00.

The little museum at Beatty:  (Little museums are such great places to stop and visit with the locals.)

© 2015
Church of the Open Road Press

Friday, April 10, 2015


The Tonopah, Death Valley
and Bridgeport Loop:  Stage 1

Tonopah is a dusty Nevada town perched in the high desert about halfway between Reno and Las Vegas.  Its tired Main Street is rimmed with vacant buildings.  The town is an easy one to pass through traveling north or south on US 95, unless one has a reason to stop. 

I did.

Just out of high school and having dropped out of Cal a half-semester in, Dad had lived in Tonopah, or so I thought.  A visit to retrace ‘the Old Timer’s’ footsteps had long been on the list prompting this journey.

A year ago, I’d driven through, pausing long enough to walk a few yards along the old Tonopah and Tidewater right-of-way north of town and swiping a rusty spike.  Dad and his buddy Ralphie Fairbanks had tamped ties on the T&T as gandydancers, the story goes.  Perhaps he’d hammered the very spike I’d found.

Rolling into town, I took a room at the historic Mizpah Hotel.  Dating back to the earliest tents of this windswept mining outpost, the Mizpah survived Tonopah’s growth, decline, resurrection and yet another decline.  The hotel soldiers on today thanks to the efforts of Sonoma (CA) County’s Cline family.  This winemaking family purchased the vacated and crumbling hulk some years ago, intent on returning the hotel to its days of glory.  They’ve done a nice job.  On the premises they’ve established a great little bar and a fine restaurant called the Pittman Café.

Among the first things I do when entering a berg for the evening is spend an hour or so walking around.  A “city” block back of the hotel, the Tonopah Historic Mining Park’s arched entrance invites.  Entering at 4:55, I was politely shooed out at 5:00, closing time.

Across the street from the Mizpah, I discover that Jimmy Dean’s classic song “Big Bad John” was grounded in reality.  A bronze statue commemorates the heroic actions of a miner named Bill, whose name, sadly, doesn’t resonate musically as well as “John.”

His story:

The used bookstore stays open until 6:00 and there I purchased a copy of the local history.  Reading at dinner, before shut-eye and again at breakfast, I discover tales of drama, grit and despair that the weary buildings hide behind their plywood-boarded windows.

Jack Dempsey fought here twice – though never a championship bout as I’d thought.

The silver in the hills once supported this town, which, for a time was bigger than Las Vegas.

The Army built an air base east of town breathing new life after the silver played out.   
A mural depicts the cavalcade of activity there, but no mention is made of the “Right Stuff” boys training which purportedly happened there.

And the T&T never made it to Tonopah.  The T&T had branched off the Santa Fe at Ludlow, California making it only as far as Beatty some 120 miles south.  Dad hadn’t driven that spike I’d purloined a year ago.  I should have been disappointed.

Instead, I just headed for Beatty.


Note: Prior to my morning departure, I am seated at the Pittman Café counter reading through the final few pages of the book I’d purchased.  Sidling up and taking the stool a couple of seats down, a younger fellow chats up saying: “That’s a pretty good book, idn’t it?”  “Seems to cover the history pretty well,” I reply.   
The engaging young gent shares a little more about the town and the history and I tell him I’d just discovered that Dad hadn’t lived here, although I thought he had.  He chuckles and asks me to crack the book open to page 6.  “The baby in the picture?  That’s my grandpa Al.”  The caption read in part:  Tim Hooper on the left, Jenny Crow Hooper holding baby Albert Hooper.  August 15, 1902.  “I’m still livin’ on the property he homesteaded…”


Resources:  McCracken, Robert D. “Tonopah: The Greatest, the Richest, and the Best Mining Camp in the World.” Nye County Press. 1990.  $20.00.

For info on the Mizpah Hotel, the place to stay in town, check out:

© 2015
Church of the Open Road Press