Oh, God! You should have been with me yesterday when I finished my ham and eggs and knocked back some whiskey and picked up my Weatherby Mark V .300 Magnum and a ball of black Opium for dessert and went outside with a fierce kind of joy in my heart because I was proud to be an American on a day like this.
– Hunter S. Thompson, “Fear and Loathing in Elko”
Out in the middle of the Great Basin Desert, in the remote mining town of Elko, Nevada, there’s a little, side-street bar called the Stray Dog, where I like to drink whiskey and beer. In addition to its 20 taps, the Dog has the advantage of being just a block from J. M. Capriola’s, the most historic and respected bit, spur, and saddle maker in the Great Basin. It is not uncommon for a buckaroo rolling out of the Stray Dog full as a tick to wind up in Capriola’s, from which they often leave with a larger hat and a smaller wallet. Most important to me, the famous saddle maker is conveniently located 300 miles east of my home, which gives me an excuse to hit the open road.
My goal for this road trip was as inspired as it was arbitrary: I’ve never owned a pair of pointy-toed boots, and I decided it was time to head out to Capriola’s and fix that for good. Hunter S. Thompson, hippie cowboy and patron saint of road trippers and trippers alike, observed that “freedom is something that dies unless it is used.” Even more astute and succinct was his observation—one that inspired my career as a writer—that “when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.” These are the sorts of insights that launch spontaneous pilgrimages across the sublime emptiness of Nevada in search of rye whiskey and pointy-toed boots.
Traversing the Great Basin Desert is one of the most remarkable experiences in life, one that must be repeated occasionally to be fully appreciated. This is strange country, in the best sense: inhuman, terrifying, remote, alien, inspiring, wide open. I think the proper speed at which to cross it is a tad over the limit, at about 90 mph, though Thompson, who once sold his Cadillac El Dorado to Texas musician Lyle Lovett, recommended avoiding anything below triple digits.
Sweeping crosswinds rip at my old, green pickup as I head out into the open desert. The temperature climbs from the high 80s to the high 90s, peaking at 106 degrees. With its 314 individual ranges, Nevada is among the nation’s most mountainous states, and as the land rolls out before me it is shattered by range upon range receding in broken waves to an infinite horizon. Thirty or 40 miles away a thunderstorm struggles to gather, dark fingers of virga reaching for but never touching the baked earth. While the valleys remain hidden behind ridgelines, I can see them in my memory and imagination: immense, shining, blindingly white saline and alkali playa basins, sparsely vegetated with sage, rabbitbrush, and saltbush, scoured by the twirling gyres of towering dust devils 3,000 feet tall.
My route is along Interstate 80, which follows the railroad, which follows the old overland California Trail, which follows the Humboldt River, which back East might be regarded as a creek. Although little more than a shallow, meandering stream, the Humboldt is the sole lifeline for anyone crossing this blistering desert. My easterly journey cuts a path perpendicular to the dominant, north-south basin and range geological formation: up into a canyon mouth, over the top of a treeless, windswept crest, down a rocky eastern slope, then out across another expansive playa basin, shimmering otherworldly in the intense heat. Up, over, down, across. The Virginia Range first, then all those rolling east beyond it: the Pah Rahs, Truckees, Hot Springs, Trinitys, Humboldts, Easts, Sonomas, Osgoods, Sheep Creeks, Argentas, Tuscaroras, Adobes. Up, over, down, across; up, over, down, across. A movement as rhythmic as breathing.
This nearly unpopulated land is dotted with mines, both abandoned and active. Boomtowns still come and go out here, and failed mining communities like Beowawe, Midas, and Tuscarora have long since played out and are now ghost towns. The colorful names of the old mines dot my map: Desert Queen, Gooseberry, Evening Star, Velvet, Silver King, Stud Horse, Lucky Strike, Irish Rose, Copper King, Snowstorm, Red Devil, Tip Top, Big Six, Golden Eagle, Four Sisters, Blue Bell, Lone Wolf, Cumberland, Rip Van Winkle, Buzzard. Not all the mines are old. This is Barrick and Newmont country, and while unemployment and the housing bust once devastated this state, the soaring price of gold pumped fast money into the few towns along this route—towns where Western Shoshone land rights have long conflicted with the profit motives of the global mining corporations that dominate Nevada’s rural economies.
My favorite spots along the route of the pilgrimage to the pointy-toed boots are those that are most surreal. Leaving the Truckee Meadows eastbound from Reno, I first pass the turnoff to the famous Mustang Ranch brothel, a venerable establishment which is immediately adjacent to a different kind of ranch: McCarran Ranch, one of the Nature Conservancy’s major riparian restoration projects in the region. Here, then, are two kinds of ranches, neither of which is a ranch and each of which features a kind of artificially produced wildness. Next, I cruise past the little Northern Paiute community of Wadsworth, where the Truckee River bends north toward its spectacular terminus in the stark beauty of Pyramid Lake, passing as it does the 30-mile long Winnemucca Lake, which, like most lakes in Nevada, contains no water. For millennia a shallow, tule-rich expanse of water that was a haven for migrating waterfowl, this wetland oasis was reduced to alkali dust following major water diversions during the early 20th century. The plan was to force the desert to bloom and fructify as in promises of old—which worked out well only if you consider it a wise use of scarce resources to eliminate a giant desert lake in order to grow water-intensive agricultural crops in a place that averages less than six inches of rain per year. That’s too high a price to pay for a cantaloupe, however sweet.
Leaving the little town of Lovelock behind I pass the state prison, ominously isolated behind massive fences festooned with concertina wire, its tall guard towers dwarfed by the lurching crest of the desert mountain that looms behind it. In 2008 this joint became home to disgraced football star O. J. Simpson, after he was rung up in Vegas on a dozen felony counts, including assault, kidnapping, robbery, and use of a deadly weapon. And if the idea of The Juice incarcerated out here in the remote high desert isn’t weird enough, this is also the prison where they locked up Paul Addis, the San Francisco playwright whose heinous crime was prematurely igniting the grand effigy at the Burning Man festival in 2007. It strikes me as ironic that burning the man at Burning Man constitutes countercultural performance art, unless you’re the person who burns the Burning Man man at the wrong time, in which case it’s just old-fashioned felony arson. In case you’re unfamiliar with Burning Man, it is an “annual art event and temporary community based on radical self-expression and self-reliance.” That’s the self-congratulatory gloss. The reality is that the stunning, isotropic landscape of the Black Rock playa is annually overrun by 70,000 “Burners,” who pay up to $1,200 each to run around naked in the desert—something I do often, alone, and at absolutely no cost.
Barreling up I-80 another 40 miles, I make a ritual stop at the busted railroad town of Imlay, which now consists of little more than the dilapidated, long-abandoned Thunder Mountain Park. Here, in 1968, survivalist Frank Van Zant began to prepare for the apocalypse. Calling himself Chief Rolling Mountain Thunder and claiming questionable Creek Indian heritage, Van Zant prophesied the end of the world and planned to weather it in a trailer which he covered with ton after ton of concrete. Not only was there no apocalypse at Thunder Mountain Park, there is in fact no thunder, no mountain, and no park. None of this stopped the self-declared Chief from spending two decades constructing a bizarre array of concrete sculptures, each twisted into impossibly pretzeled shapes that he meticulously studded with the detritus of interstate commerce: refrigerator doors, manual typewriters, exhaust pipes, steel cables, car hoods, and hand-painted signs admonishing passing Great Basinians to prepare themselves for the millennium. “I’m using the white mans’ trash to build this Indian monument,” he explained. The compound was once adorned with sculptures of naked women without hands, but with long, feathered Indian headdresses. Even today, a giant, grinning concrete devil head stands watch here, gazing out across the high desert for a perpetually imminent apocalypse that seems never to arrive. Despite his obvious insanity, Chief Rolling Mountain Thunder was once declared “Artist of the Year” by the State of Nevada, which apparently recognized the genius behind the Chief’s placement of scores of plastic baby doll heads in the trees around his bizarre compound. In response to a question about the otherworldly, confectionary loops of concrete that adorn the central edifice of the compound, the Chief once explained that “in the last days, the Great Spirit’s going to swoop down and grab this place by the handle.”
After another 35 miles I pull off to fuel up and recaffeinate at the mining and ranching community of Winnemucca. It says plenty about the central Great Basin that the biggest town on the 300-mile stretch of highway between Reno and Elko promotes itself as “The City of Paved Streets.” During the 19th century the town was home to a vibrant Chinatown, whose residents’ backbreaking labor brought the Central Pacific Railroad to this point just after the Civil War. But not much has happened here since Butch Cassidy robbed the First National Bank of Winnemucca in 1900. The town may be best known for a reference to it in Johnny Cash’s memorable version of “I’ve Been Everywhere,” in which the original Man in Black growls:
I was totin’ my pack along the dusty Winnemucca road,
When along came a semi with a high and canvas-covered load.
“If you’re goin’ to Winnemucca, Mack, with me you can ride.”
And so I climbed into the cab and then I settled down inside.
He asked me if I’d seen a road with so much dust and sand.
And I said, “Listen, I’ve traveled every road in this here land.
I’ve been everywhere, man.”
Cash’s point seems to be that you don’t get around to Winnemucca until you’ve been everywhere else first, as the song’s subsequent litany of places the speaker has visited suggests.
The savage remoteness of this road out of Winnemucca was hauntingly captured by Hunter S. Thompson in his fragmented, hallucinogenic, surrealistic 1992 Rolling Stone piece, “Fear and Loathing in Elko,” which describes a wild, high-speed, late-night drive across the same long stretch of Great Basin I am now traversing. Thompson called this road “a straight lonely run across nowhere, with not many dots on the map except ghost towns and truck stops with names like Beowawe and Lovelock and Deeth.”
“Jesus! Who made this map?” asks Dr. Gonzo. “Only a lunatic could have come up with a list of places like this: Imlay, Valmy, Golconda, Nixon, Midas, Metropolis, Jiggs, Judasville—all of them empty, with no gas stations, withering away in the desert like a string of old Pony Express stations.” This incisive critique is courtesy of the man who meticulously orchestrated his own funeral (paid for by his on-screen persona, the eccentric actor Johnny Depp), at which his ashes were—along with red, white, and blue fireworks—fired out of a cannon that was mounted atop a 150-foot-tall tower of his own design. It is impossible to bomb this desert crossing without thinking of Thompson’s frenetic, nocturnal, tripping traverse of this inhumanly vast expanse of wild American outback.
Winnemucca is a flourishing metropolis compared to Battle Mountain, the next wide spot up the road. Depending on the market price of precious metals, Battle Mountain fluctuates between being crushed by poverty and being awash in fast cash. The town is doing well lately, having come through a thick patch when the price of gold was down and the town was reviled in the Washington Post Magazine as the official “Armpit of the Nation.” Post writer Gene Weingarten—whom I feel obliged to call a cowardly, elitist son of a bitch, even as I concede that he is a brilliant humorist—wrote the following about the town that has a giant, whitewashed rock “BM” on its neighboring hillside: “Take a small town, remove any trace of history, character, or charm. . . . Then place this pathetic assemblage of ghastly buildings and nasty people on a freeway in the midst of a harsh, uninviting wilderness, far enough from the nearest city to be inconvenient, but not so far for it to develop a character of its own. You now have created Battle Mountain, Nevada.”
Misunderstanding Nevada completely, Weingarten opined that in Battle Mountain there is “a brothel but no ice cream parlor. There were at least seven saloons, but no movie theater.” His futile wish is only to have this place be familiar to him, which, as Hunter Thompson well knew, is to squander the inspiring strangeness that is the Great Basin’s greatest gift. I’d say, in fact, that Weingarten lacks ambition, for what is a more certain sign of intellectual sluggishness than to judge the unknown only by the known, when all the delightful weirdness of the alien beckons? But the last laugh was had by the Battle Mountaineers, who, after having their hometown designated the arm crotch of the nation, wasted no time in launching the “Festival in the Pit.” This annual event includes a beer chugging competition, a “beauty” contest in which the ugliest contestant wins, both-sexes boxing matches, inebriated rappelling off the town water tower, and the sustained participation of a “certified massage therapist” (in place of ice cream, presumably). The Festival in the Pit even garnered official corporate sponsorship from . . . wait for it . . . Old Spice deodorant.
Leaving the immense, whitewashed BM behind me as I roll east toward the ghost town of Beowawe, I pass through the invisible “town” of Dunphy, whose 171 legal residents are out in the mines or on distant ranches, some of which comprise a quarter of a million acres. I crest the 6,100-foot Emigrant Pass and blast through the mountain tunnel near the Carlin Trend, a Paleozoic gold belt that has produced more than 70 million ounces since its discovery in the 1870s.
At last I roll into Elko, Nevada, the destination of this pilgrimage and the home of my rye whiskey and pointy-toed boots. Elko, which the Shoshone call Natakkoa (“Rocks Piled on One Another”), has a population of around 20,000 and is by far the largest town on the 520-mile open run between Reno and Salt Lake City. It is also the buckle on Nevada’s gold belt, and since this state produces more gold than all but four countries in the world, oro is the name of the fast game out here. Although the town is home to the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering and the National Basque Festival, on most days Elko looks like what it is: a desert outpost set up to meet the needs of miners coming in from the field for a good time. At the moment Elko has nine churches and four brothels, though that ratio varies from year to year, according to the fluctuating tastes of saints and sinners alike.
For desert rats like me, Elko functions instead as a base camp from which to strike out for some of the most spectacular montane landscapes in the intermountain West. Just southeast of Elko are the glacially sculpted Ruby Mountains, with glistening domes over 11,000 feet, while northward rises the East Humboldt range, whose 10,000-foot crest is a sparkling necklace of glacial tarns. Farther north out of Elko, up on the Idaho border, is Owhyhee Canyon country and the magnificent, remote immensity of the Jarbidge Wilderness.
As soon as I hit town I roll up in front of the Stray Dog, where I wash down 300 miles of flour-fine alkali dust with a Ruby Mountain Hotel Nevada IPA brewed in nearby Clover Valley. From here it is a one-block stroll to Capriola’s, unmistakable because it has a giant horse projecting from its roof. At the heart of the Capriola’s story is the inimitable leather and silver working tradition of Guadalupe Garcia, who learned his craft from the Mexican vaqueros (the term from which the anglicized word “buckaroos” morphed) of his hometown of Santa Margarita, California. In 1894 Garcia moved his operation to the booming cattle town of Elko, where he became famous for creating beautiful bits and spurs, as well as the hand-tooled saddles that were used by working buckaroos, and also by screen cowboys including Douglas Fairbanks and Will Rogers. Garcia’s protégé, Joe Capriola, continued the venerable Garcia tradition when he set up his shop back in 1924. Capriola’s has been outfitting Nevada’s working cowboys with quality gear ever since.
I’m fascinated by this old place, with its large, bright front windows and creaky board floors. Up a narrow, turning staircase, the shop’s second floor is packed wall to wall with artisan saddles, some dating back to the 19th century, others still in the process of being painstakingly tooled for new customers. There are bits and spurs, bridles and reigns, silver-trimmed chaps, stiff new lariats, each a beautiful reminder of a lost world in which things were made by hand and built to last. Downstairs are cowboy hats of all shapes and sizes, and four long shelves of cowboy boots, the toes of which all seem to be pointing at me.
“Just rolled over from Reno to have you outfit me with pointy-toed boots,” I say to the weathered old cowboy who is working the place alone today. He doesn’t appear at all surprised.
“Us old timers like a long-toed boot,” the man says, with a slight nod. “Reckon I can get used to square toe, but only if I don’t look down.”
I spend a pleasant hour trying on boots of various designs, talking with the man about deserts and mountains, learning some things about Great Basin buckaroo culture. During that hour nobody else enters the store, save for one large man wearing a black cowboy hat, which he asks to have stretched. I watch as the hat is steamed, placed on the stretcher, and then handed back to the big man, who settles it onto his head, smiles, and walks out the door. No charge for stretching.
Eventually I score the long sought after pointy-toed boots, my first. Cash and handshakes are exchanged, and the deed is done. I clomp out of the shop into the searing sunlight, pausing at the street corner just long enough to drop my shredded old tennis shoes into a green garbage can. Tomorrow at daybreak I’ll be westbound on the 300-mile dead run to home, but tonight there will be time for a stroll down old Idaho Street in my stiff new boots. A couple of ritual picon punches and Basque dinner at the Star. A stop by the Commercial Casino to wonder at White King, the world’s largest dead polar bear.
Back at the roadside motel, long past midnight, I settle in with a bottle of whiskey, which I open, and a book of poems, which I do not. I lift my heavy feet, place my horseshoe-shaped Cuban heels on the windowsill, cross the shaft of my left boot over the vamp of my right, and gaze at the pointy silhouette of my new boots against the moonless Nevada sky. Slowly, the room fills with the sweet, earthy smell of old whiskey and new leather.
I’ve been everywhere, man.
Crossed the deserts bare, man.
Breathed the mountain air, man.
Of travel I’ve had my share, man.
I’ve been everywhere.
In the darkness I picture that bright, inhuman expanse of gleaming basin and range country out beyond the edge of town, and the long, dusty Winnemucca road that snakes homeward through it. I think of Chief Rolling Mountain Thunder and Hunter S. Thompson, strange artists who found my alien home landscape worthy of visions. We three weird pilgrims, just passing through on our way to some shimmering apocalypse or deliverance. I think of all the souls that speed across this vast, incomprehensible desert, looking for something, or for anything. Or looking for nothing, and finding it, suddenly, everywhere.
Header photo of Nevada’s Great Basin Desert by Michael P. Branch.