July Adventure, Up North

As Brian works his magic and the SAAB remains a situation.

We left before the car was loaded on the truck, feeling an extreme need to get on with our lives. We backtracked on CA-222 to Cedarville, where we turned south onto Surprise Valley Road. According to legend, Surprise Valley got its name from the surprise the pioneers felt when they came over the mountains after crossing hundreds of miles of desert to find a land of streams and green grass. As we get into open country, the road is called Modoc County Route 1.

surprise valley

Brian alerted me as we approached the California Nevada border, and since there was not a vehicle in sight, we stopped to closely observe the border crossing. The California road we’ve been driving on has been resurfaced very recently… doesn’t even have lines yet. Land alongside is privately owned and fenced. Land in Nevada where the route changes name to NV-447, is open range, where sagebrush proliferates, and not privately owned. The border is where the white traffic lines start and fences end.

California Nevada border

We pressed on for a while; time passed and miles were traveled. Brian said, “see that pointy peak way up ahead? That’s Granite Peak, it caps the Granite Range at 9080 feet. That’s where we’re going. My study site is in the shadow of Granite Peak when the sun is low in the morning. We have a ways to go.”

granite peak

Time passed and miles were traveled. Just around that bend and downhill is Brian’s Study Site where we’ll stop and have a look.

the study site is just around the bend...
shift into four-wheel drive
bump along for about a half-mile, most of the site is about a mile in

Brian has “6 sites in NE California & NW Nevada, with 6 transects/site (3 transects in thick medusahead and 3 not; each transect has 6 cups, of which 3 are open at any given time.” He showed me one non-medusahead transect.

At each Transect, a hole is dug, collection cup inserted and covered. Insects out on a stroll and looking for food can fall into the cup and are unable to get out.

Collection cup with bugs. The liquid is dilute antifreeze which preserves the bugs and doesn’t evaporate. Cups are collected at each site every three weeks. Bugs are taken to the lab and identified.

Here, the collection site with its flag and covered cup. All plants within the square-meter centered on the cup are identified and counted when they flower.

Brian on the site

The reddish grass is “cheatgrass,” the green grass is good, juicy grass, the sagebrush-looking-stuff is sagebrush.

Good, green grass is mostly squirreltail, Great Basin wild rye, or other native perennial grasses. In fact, virtually all plants native to the Great Basin are perennial — this left a wide-open ecological niche for exotic annuals to invade and spread. Cheatgrass is an annual grass, which makes it such a fire hazard from the tinder of dead, dried plants that builds up. Medusahead, too. All the pink on the mountain in the background is cheatgrass. It is virtually everywhere in the West.

While one cow can graze on 2 acres of pasture, if cheatgrass takes over, it takes 13 acres to graze a cow. In terms of fire, natural wildfires in pastureland occur about once in 75 years, where cheatgrass is present, the fires occur about every four years. Not good. So cheatgrass might be called annoying and wasteful of the land.


Medusahead’s main problem is not that it’s harmful or w/o nutrients. The biggest thing (aside from contributing a fraction of the fire hazard that cheatgrass presents) is that it sequesters unusual amounts of silica in its leaves and this makes it unpalatably crunchy to herbivores (like chewing sand). The seeds are indeed covered in microscopic barbs and can work their way up animals nostrils and under skin.

lets get back to the truck (left center)

I’m hot enough and dusty enough to get on back to the truck. B thought ahead and packed a couple of cold ones — a Sam Adams Blackened Hops contest winner and a Friar Hop contest winner. That will hold us until we go for lunch and a cold one in Gerlach.

road to Gerlach

Down the road about 20 minutes is Gerlach NV. It thrives by being the unofficial headquarters for Burning Man. which is in the Black Rock Desert on the other side of the Granite Range. It has a few bars, cafe’s and saloons suitable for our purposes. Brian’s favorite is Bruno’s.

Bruno's Cafe and Saloon

The guy in shorts, there, approached me and wondered if my car was alright. Puzzled, I said, “Well, we had to have it towed.” He said he saw me in the bar last night at The Brass Rail. Small world. That was a hundred miles away in another state. Brian said, “Yeah, but it’s still pretty much the next town over. Cedarville and Eagleville hardly count, even up there.”

Brian's grilled ham and cheese. Yum.

We leave Gerlach and just the other side of this dry lake is Empire, a company town for U.S. Gypsum. Unfortunately, U.S. Gypsum closed their plant and with it the town, leaving about 150 homeless families.

Empire NV gypsum plant and company town

We exchanged the truck for Brian’s Subaru in Reno, took a short break, and returned to Surprise Valley just in time for sunset. With no time to dally, we collected Carol and Natasza and headed to Cedarville to try and find dinner.

sunset in surprise valley

Driving down the main drag, we saw many CLOSED signs, but figured that the town hot spot, Woody’s Cafe .22 would be welcoming and welcome. A sign in the window said CLOSED, but we kinda hoped they kinda had it there by mistake. A guy sat at the bar as I walked in. “Kitchen open?”

“Nope,” said the bartender. “Cedarville closes at 8 on Sunday, no matter what.”

Guy at the bar said, “There was a pig roast goin’ on out back, with a band and everything. I still hear the music, so they must still be there. It’s for donation. You might try that.”

We could hear music in the distance and we followed the sounds around the building. A few people were there and the band was still playing and most important, the food was still there; paper plates, napkins, the works. No one was around to say how much or what, so we followed the obvious path from the donation can, “DONATIONS WELCOME, Dr. Roberts Fund,” whatever that is; to the pot of chili to the potato salad in a carton, to the pork, and to the soda and water on ice. (Back at the ranch, I Googled “Dr. Roberts Fund.” Turns out her — its a her — favorite team is the Raiders and she saved the Surprise Valley Hospital in time of need. I’m glad we were able to contribute.)

donations, pork and chili
my plate o food (no bowls available)
woo ha!... the band played on

That was good. Not just that it was there good, but it tasted better than it looked. And yes, it satisfied. I don’t know what we would have done otherwise. The Surprise Valley Spa prides itself in being remote and without amenities. You go there to GET AWAY. I guess those who go often prepare themselves for Sunday night in Cedarville.

Woody’s bar was open, and judging by the number of vehicles around, well populated by good ol’ boys.

Monday morning I wanted to take a walk early, before it got hot. I decided to walk out the arrow-straight lane to the road and get a good picture of the sign. As I walked, I thought about where else I would go to get my 30 to 40 minute walk in… it can’t be more than 5 minutes to the sign. After 15 minutes I finally made it to the sign at the road. Distances are deceptive out here. All the objects to relate to are larger than life… the mountains in the distance, the flat land stretching away under the big sky. This is not a usual experience for a city boy. We’re used to going block by block.

looking back back back to the spa

It’s about time to pack up and head back to Reno. While Brian and I were out on our Study-Site-touring and Subaru-fetching trip, Carol had a meeting with herself and decided that she really didn’t have to go back to San Francisco. Like it or not, her school could get along without her for a week, so we could wait in Reno, pick up the SAAB on Thursday and drive to SF on Friday.

Cattle guard and open range means we’re on our way to Reno, Carol at the wheel of the Subaru. And except for our 19th nervous breakdown, we experienced a swell weekend featuring new territory and new experiences. Gotta give it that.

We stopped for a stretch and refresher in Gerlach and switched drivers.

We didn’t exactly plan it this way, but we were in Sparks in plenty of time for their celebrated downtown fireworks. Brian found a perfect viewing spot as if he did this every year.

more to come…

July Adventure, Homeward Bound


3 thoughts on “July Adventure, Up North

  1. Either you mixed and matched, or thems some Fava Beans in your Dr. Roberts Fund chili? What an adventure; glad it all worked out and you got to Reno in time for the fireworks. I would like a little more info on the timing of all these drives — how long between Surprise Valley and Gerlach? And Reno? Is it just empty in between, or are there little towns along the way?


  2. About 80 miles Cedarville to Gerlach. Pass Eagleville, which is even smaller than Cedarville, after about 15 miles. After that it’s nothing but sagebrush and scenery. Gerlach to Reno is about 100 miles with only Nixon (little more than a general store) before you hit Wadsworth and I-80 after about 75 miles.


  3. I finally found time to read “the rest of the story.” Probably, because I’ve been a city girl for so long, reading about all the nothingness in CA & NV made me anxious. If Brian hadn’t been your guide around the area would you ever attempted that trip?

    I guess nothing noteworthy happened between seeing the fireworks, retrieving the car, and home. The story ended before you reached SF. That made me feel as if I was abandoned in the middle of nowhere.


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