Great Basin Biker’s Corner: There’s no place like Ely

 

Times photo by Marty Bachman A highway sign in Bishop marks the start of Highway 6 in the west. The road travels 3,205 miles, ending in Massachusetts.

Times photo by Marty Bachman
A highway sign in Bishop marks the start of Highway 6 in the west. The road travels 3,205 miles, ending in Massachusetts.

Anyone who’s ever rode a motorcycle down Highway 6 south of town through the mountains and the Humboldt-Toiyabe Forest, knows it’s one of the most beautiful places on earth to ride. It’s everything you want a mountain ride to be; curves like a woman, vistas worthy of selfies, and the aroma of fresh pines that if bottled, would sell for a small fortune.

When I left San Bernardino last week to ride back up to Ely, I had looked at the map of Highway 395 cutting between the eastern Sierra Nevada mountain ranges, then Highway 6 jutting off toward Ely out of Bishop. In my mind it was almost 550 miles of beautiful landscapes and forests like Highway 6 is south of town. Boy, was I wrong!

But it looked so good on the map and even though it was 50 miles farther than the 500 miles I would have to ride if I went through Vegas, I figured it would be worth it because I would avoid much of the big city traffic while enjoying the mountains and pines.

I headed out at 6 a.m. on a Sunday, cutting through the Cajon Pass just days before a major fire broke out, causing it to be shut down for days, then took the Highway 395 fork into Victorville, Calif., heading north.

I stopped for gas once I got on 395, then I rode probably another 100 miles before I took a break. The desert road was stop and go for the first few miles while I navigated through the growing communities that line the historic highway. It then stretched out into hay-colored hillsides, rolling up and down as far as you could see. The two-lane road was tight and often slowed as passing lanes were rare and struggling semis often blocked the road as they made their way uphill. The cool morning air soon gave way to dry desert heat as the sun tanned my arms and wind burned my lips.

I took a break at a gas station in the middle of nowhere just outside of Ridgecrest, Calif. on 395. There was a nasty hand-written sign on the door that said “Bathroom for paying customers only,” and while I didn’t need gas, I figured I’d buy a coffee and make them happy. The place inside was abandoned though, no one at the register, no coffee brewed, just a rat shack of a store with hardly anything in it. There was another hand-written sign on the bathroom light switch that read, “You turned it on, now turn it off,” and a hand-written sign by the cash register warning thieves that they were being watched by video camera, which I doubted because it didn’t look like they even had money enough to buy product to sell, let alone a video camera.

I used the bathroom, read a framed letter that had probably been hanging on the wall by the front door since the 1960s about a National Geographic article about the place, didn’t buy anything because there was no one there to take my money, then I just hopped on my bike and rode away. I did turn out the bathroom lights though.

The traffic thinned as I approached the “Eastern” Sierra Nevadas. While I had dreamed of grand mountains, thick, lush forests, and garden like scents, it was anything but that. The mountains were barren rocks jutting out of the earth, and if there were forests, they weren’t anywhere near the highway. At points the road turned into a four-lane race track, built to accommodate the Southern California skiers that frequent Mammoth Mountain in the winter. It wasn’t that it was bad at all, it was just not what I had expected. It damn sure wasn’t Ely and it was a long ride up, 250 miles from where I started in Berdoo.

There were a number of small towns along the way, towns with minimal services that I just passed by. The farther north I got though, the greener the hillsides became, though the mountains that lined the highway were still mostly bland and unimpressive. I guess you have to ride through here in the winter when the peaks are covered with snow to really get a feel for the beauty of the place.

The first city of any substance I hit was Lone Pine, a pretty little town in Inyo County with a movie museum — I guess a lot of old cowboy movies have been shot in the area. My butt was getting sore after some 200 miles on my bike, but I kept moving along figuring I’d try to make it to Bishop where I planned to visit a friend and rest for a half hour.

I rode through Independence next and then up to Big Pine where I just couldn’t take anymore wear and tear on my rear end, so I stopped for gas and coffee and just rested, watching the tourists make their way up and down the fancy western-themed main street.

It was a cool little town and probably one I’d like to stay in sometime when I have some time. Not today though, as soon I was back on my bike to Bishop, another cool town, though a little too busy for my tastes. It was a Sunday and the place was packed with tourists crowding every tourist-themed restaurant and bar along the main strip.

I visited with my friend and then stopped at a gas station to use the facilities and get something simple to munch on, seeing as I hadn’t eaten all day. I talked to a girl and told her to get on my bike and I’d take her home with me, and she got a look of interest in her eyes, but when she asked me where home was and I said Ely, she said “No, no, no” and made all kinds of hand motions like it was somewhere bad. Probably wouldn’t have worked out though, seeing as I love Ely and think it’s gorgeous — especially compared to Bishop.

I then took the fork in the road onto Highway 6. Again, I was all excited, thinking of the highway south of town and expecting this beautiful ride ahead of me. It was pretty nice at the beginning, riding close to some rolling hills and mountains to the east through green farmland and cattle ranches. But the roadway soon gave way to the harsh Nevada desert landscape, plenty of grass but hot, arid and empty of life. This is where the ride became brutal.

I had rode 250 miles already but I still had 285 more miles to Ely and it was mid-afternoon, so the desert was getting hotter and my old body was getting more sore. It’s 120 miles from Bishop to Tonopah, the only stop between Bishop and Ely. The wind was gusting through the empty landscape and while there was little in the way of oncoming traffic, the wind always seemed to blow me toward it whenever there was any cars coming. It was a grueling ride and a happy moment when I finally rolled into Tonopah.

After fueling, I rode deeper into town and saw a brewery, so with my mouth drier than the desert dirt, I stopped in for a beer just like the cowboys must have done some 150 years earlier. The Tonopah Brewing Company was the perfect place at the most perfect time. I was tired of being seated so I stood at the bar and ordered a porter and a glass of water, and they both quenched me like a river. I didn’t really want to eat but I decided to order some “nachos” that weren’t chips but instead made with flat french fries and BBQ pork. It was a real cool place and if it wasn’t so far away, I would probably go back.

I hung around for awhile until I felt rested enough, and then I got back on my bike for the final 165 miles to Ely, a ride with no stops in between. While that might not seem like a lot of miles on an ordinary day, when you’ve already ridden some 370 miles or so and you still have a 165-mile ride ahead of you, your mental gears can really hit depression mode. “Be grateful,” I told myself. “You’re on a bike doing what everyone wishes they could be doing.”

As I approached the 80 mile mark of this last leg of highway, it felt like I had bed sores and my body was screaming in pain, but there was nowhere to stop. I thought to myself that I could just park in the middle of the highway for 20 minutes and no one was going to come by. I finally pulled over next to a sign that read, Ely, 75 miles.

I looked all around me at this stop and it was a crazy feeling, the remoteness, knowing there was no one and nothing for maybe 80 miles in any direction; that I was all alone in the middle of the earth. I felt I was one of very few people in the world at that moment, existing far from any kind of civilized society or any human contact. It was eerie but special. I can’t remember ever being so far away from the world as I was that day.

From there it was 25 miles to the abandoned town of Currant, and when I reached the corner where 379 turns off of 6. I just parked there for awhile, staring at the long forgotten motel and diner, their paint chipped, doors open and windows empty.

I lit out again for the final 50 miles of Highway 6 and within minutes arrived in the beautiful mountains and forests I had been seeking since I had set out that morning. I realized then that while there’s plenty of country between here and Southern California, there are few places in the world that offer the beauty and isolation you’ll find in Ely and White Pine County.

Marty Bachman is editor of the Ely Times and an avid biker. He can be reached at elytimes.marty@gmail.com or 760-550-3943.

Marty Bachman is editor of the Ely Times and an avid biker. He can be reached at elytimes.marty@gmail.com or 760-550-3943.

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Comments

  1. Dave Shaver says:

    I really enjoy this article as it brought back both brutal and bright memories. It was the summer of 1958. I had just lost my summer job near Azusa, CA where I was attending college. My decision, with consequences I couldn’t have ever even dreamed of, was to hitch hike home to Ely. 36 hours, and 13 rides later I reached home. Each ride was a different story (one which was with an actress who claimed to be Rosalind Russel’s stand-in). The worst was also the strangest. I was 12 miles out of Tonapah and was stranded there for 6 hours before I got a 5 ,mile ride to the only place, not closed up, where I could get something to drink. I told the proprietor I was going to Ely. He asked me my name. I told him and he said “Oh, I know your Dad.” He told the next customer that I was safe to give a ride and they took me aboard. About 140 miles further and I was in Ely. I was let off by a motel whose owners knew me and they called my folks, who then took me home.

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