Finding solitude in the desert

There is something magical about lying down on the desert floor with a thick blanket of stars above you. Millions of shining stars, the milky way arching bright stretching from the mountain silhouette on my left on up into the sky directly above me. Life is stripped down to the bare essentials—food, warmth, clear air, a night sky, silence. Not a breath of wind, only the soft sound of my breathing. Nothing else. 160 miles in the car, then 26 miles of riding to get to this wide open, empty, wonderful place. It’s my second time this year to the Silver Island Mountains just outside Wendover on the border of Utah and Nevada. I can’t seem to get enough of these lonely desert landscapes.

On Friday afternoon, five of us drove out in Brad’s van, three bikes inside, two outside on the rack. Good company, mostly the usuals on this trips. Matt R is the new guy along this time; he’s a mechanic at the Provo Bicycle Collective and has impeccable taste in bikes and classic cycling culture.

We park at the truck stop, Exit 4, off I-80. We load up the bikes, and head north on the short paved road, past the turn off to the Bonneville Speedway, and on up toward Leppy Pass. We’re riding the opposite direction this time, tackling the climb at the beginning. It’s a short climb. At the top, we turn off onto dirt and begin the real fun, descending down into the desert on the far side of the Silver Island Mountains. There’s no one around, no cars, no OHV’s, just one lone guy on a motorcycle. The only other person or vehicle we see all day.

The sun is getting lower in the sky behind us. We’ll ride until the sun sets, then find a place to camp. There are no formal campsites out here, but plenty of places to camp. Simplicity. Find a flat spot, set up camp. Anywhere you like.

The riding is so pleasant, rolling across the gravelly roads, smooshing through occasional sand traps, crossing sandy washes, up and down, mostly smooth, fast riding.

There was a gravel race out here last week. But this is our ride, no racing, lots of lingering, slow cycling, party pace.

The sun is sinking and the shadows grow longer as we ride on, the sun seemingly gently pushing us from behind, the deepening shadows pulling us forward.

We’re keeping an eye on the sun, trying to estimate how much time we have before we need to start seriously watching for a likely camping spot, when suddenly, the orange sun winks once, then drops behind the mountains, flaring up orange and yellow as it sinks in the West.

And in the East, before us, a lovely pinkish skyline welcomes us into a beautiful desert evening.

Time to find a place to camp. We aren’t as far along as we had anticipated, but that’s okay. It’s good to be flexible, let things evolve as they will. We ride on for another mile or two, then find a spot up off the road and begin to set up camp, cook dinner, settle in for the evening.

Photo by Jason White

Since this is a pretty mellow ride, I decide to bring real food and cook. I am not disappointed. Fresh produce at camp is a wonderful luxury. We spend the evening talking, sharing stories, eating dark chocolate, laughing, planning future adventures. Good company, warm friendships, no posturing, no bravado. The stars are thick and bright. Kira has binoculars and with their aid we can easily see Jupiters moons. The constellations are spread out above us like a celestial map and we gaze heavenward identifying those we know. It’s a pleasant, tranquil night in the desert. It gets down into the low forties; we all stay warm and comfortable.

The sunrise. Wow. It’s not dramatic, but the silhouettes are striking as I roll over and see Jason ambling about camp, preparing his breakfast. Then Kira emerges from her tent.

Photo by Brad Slade
Photo by Brad Slade

Breakfast is a leisurely affair. The warming sun feels glorious and we linger around camp longer than is necessary. This isn’t a race. Our bikes wait patiently for their burdens of gear. We’re savoring the rising of the sun and the complex colors of the desert. Until reluctantly we pack up the bikes and begin pedaling.

Photo by Jason White

We round the far end of the mountain range and take a break. Wine Gums, peppered beef jerky, salt and vinegar almonds, waffles, a cucumber.

Now we’re on the Bonneville Salt Flats side of the range. More pleasant riding, the road undulating between mountain and salt flats, up and down curving here and there. We stop for another break and climb up onto a volcanic dike, following it up to the highest point. The views of the desert below are breathtaking. So much wide open land. We scramble around exploring the rough, sharp basalt outcrops.

Photo by Kira Johnson
Photo by Jason White

More lingering, then riding, then another break.

We’re starting to feel the mileage a bit, and there’s Indian food at the truck stop. We round the last corner and are at the end of the dirt. We pause for a photo or two, then continue onto the pavement back to the van.

We load up the bikes and gear, then head to the Indian Restaurant for a well-deserved meal. The truck stop is run by Punjabys and there is a steady stream of Indian men in and out of the gas station and restaurant. Most are truckers. There is no indoor dining, so we sit outside on the sidewalk and eat. The food is decent and we enjoy this unlikely meal on the edge of the desert before we drive back to our lives in the city.

And here are the bike portraits.

Kira. Rivendell Sam Hillborne. Swift and Revelate bags.
Matt R. Soma Grand Randonneur. 42 mm Panaracer Gravelking tires. Carradice bags.
Brad. Rivendell Appaloosa. Carradice and ILE bags.
Jason. Surly Wednesday. Salsa and DIY bags.
Matt. Early 90’s Trek 950 (repainted). Swift, Roadrunner, Seagull, and DIY bags.

4 thoughts on “Finding solitude in the desert

  1. Your story, the white desert and sunrise pictures totally got me- not least the bikes. (I have a Homer and now an Atlantis.)

    A number of years ago, I was touring the States with a well known Scottish band who would “Walk 500 miles”, and for whatever reasons, I ended up driving the tour bus- overnight- up the I 80.
    Thank goodness that road is so flat and straight since I had zero experience of driving a 42ft, stick-shift Eagle Bus with 14 others, asleep on board… (Pause for thought).

    Around 04.30 am, the sun began to rise and being adjacent to the flats, I pulled over as the sun turned the white desert rose-pink. I didn’t hesitate to wake the sleepers and we all embraced the sunrise, chucking around an american football to keep warm as it was really cold.

    Anyway, your blog absolutely resonated with all my memories of that night ride and has given me a chance to tell a story that none of my friends back home truly appreciate…but I hope you can?

    Thanks again, Steve B.

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