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desert road in winter
Typical desert highway.

On the Road again: Palm Springs to Reno

by the Phantom

I love Nevada, some parts more than others. Like Reno and Las Vegas, for example. But there’s a certain charm to all that sand and sage brush, high desert, big-sky country. In Nevada you’ll find lots of lonely roads. But Highway 395, which runs along the border between California and Nevada through a whole lotta nothing, is another one of those lonelier American highways. If you’re not in too big a hurry, you might just see something interesting, especially if you like ghost towns, deserted mines, military bases, and other geological oddities .

In January Dale and I drove from Palm Springs to Reno. We were on a quick 10-day road trip, part of it in PS for a little winter sunshine and then on to Reno to meet up with some gambling pals. We needed to be in Reno by six in the evening so we started out around eight in the morning figuring we’d have more than enough time to make it. We thought it would be about an eight-hour trip. Dale had checked with friends who’ve made that PS-Reno trip before (yes, people actually do make that drive occasionally) and they assured us it would be easy.

We picked up Highway 395 around Victorville, a high desert community of about 78,000 hardy desert souls. You just gotta love the Mojave to live in a place like Victorville. I'm hoping not to offend the desert dwellers, but I think life must be more difficult out there than in Silicon Valley. Blowing sand, high winds, unspeakably high temperatures, freezing winters, sage brush and rock for gardens -- awfully bleak, if you ask me. 
desert blooms
Here's a stock photo of the desert in bloom. Unfortunately that's not the way it looks in January.

There wasn't much traffic once we left the "greater LA area". We noticed lots of military installations (why do they call them installations?). The Mojave is off the beaten path and sparsely populated, the perfect location for weapon centers, training facilities, bases and so forth. (By the way, the Navy has a huge presence there. Doesn't that seem odd? -- there's not all that much water...). 

When we reached Olancha, population, 134 (!), the scenery took a turn for the better. The town has a website with some photos of the Sierras. Take a look at them. The mountains provided a beautiful backdrop for this part of of our trip. Our car cannot be equipped with chains so mountain travel in the winter is a little dicey. We tooled right along, watching the mountains seeming to grow larger and more menacing the further north we drove. We passed through Owens Valley, which is starkly beautiful. Then we came across the Manzanar War Relocation Center, one of the World War II Japanese Internment Camps, which is now a national historic site run by the U.S. Parks Department. Unfortunately, we didn't have time to stop and pay our respects.

We had lunch at Bishop. It's a pretty mountain town. The cafe where we stopped was run by friendly people and we had a good lunch of homemade soup and tuna sandwiches. This was where we'd have to make some decisions. Hwy 395 goes over a mountain pass and we needed to know the road conditions. I called for a road report and was told by recorded message that the roads were clear. However, a woman at the table next to us overheard our conversation and said she's just come down off that road. She described it as having an ice cap covering the pavement. So we'd have to drive for 90 miles without touching the brakes if we didn't have chains. We decided that didn't sound like a good idea. So we headed east on Highway 6 out of Bishop. It would take us to Hwy 95 north to Fallon, and then we'd need to backtrack northwest to Reno. A big detour, which would add more time and miles to our trip, but we'd skirt the snow and ice.

By the time we caught the turn onto Hwy 95, it was well into the afternoon. Dale was napping and I was driving along at a pretty good clip. The road is a narrow two-laner, and there was snow along the berm but the lanes were clear. At one point as I rounded a curve, I ran into unexpected on-coming traffic. Apparently they didn't expect to see me either as they were traveling in my lane. I had to step on the brake quickly to slow way down to give them time to move over. It was a close call. Now I understand better why there are head-on collisions in that part of the world. Nobody ever expects to meet up with passing traffic on those roads. 

It's just a brown world out there with little change in the scenery. I snapped off lots of photos from the car window as we sailed along but none of them turned out to be worth a darn. By the time we got to Fallon it was dark. And unfortunately we didn't have a map of that section of our trip so we missed the sign to Reno and kept heading due north on 95 out of town. About five miles out we figured we'd missed the turn, Hwy 50, but knew that if we just kept going north we'd eventually hit I-80 and could take it back to Reno. 

That's what we did, but we figured it might add another hour onto our trip. By then we were very tired travelers and it was after five. We'd been in the car nearly non-stop for nearly ten hours, way too long for us. But we made it to town in time and found our friends. We have a reputation for always being on time, so our record was still safe, but it had been a close call.

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