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Travel: The Great Nevada Road Trip - Day Three - A Detour to Boise

Travel, Photography, HistoryTrey TakahashiComment

Day 3

The Boise sky.

The Boise sky.

Beautiful morning at the Hostel, just as the sun was breaking.

Beautiful morning at the Hostel, just as the sun was breaking.

            The morning started off with a literal bang. The hostel had a new roof being installed and the roofers were well on their way driving in roofing nails early in the morning as the sun broke. It was not the most pleasant awakening but one that was needed to shake our weary bones out of bed and get ready for a day in Boise. Still the only two people in the hostel, we slowly rose out of bed, showered, dressed, brushed, and loaded up the Explorer knowing that we would most likely not return until well past the evening. Boise, much like Twin Falls, is a city that I had always wanted to explore more having only previously passed through. I had known about it being a growing hub of youthful liberal spirits and a hub for a community effort to create a blossoming city of self-sustainability. Being both a college town home to a few different universities as well as an age old farming community—this little hub of the west always comes up on various lists of “Best Places to Live” or “Best Communities.” With that image of Boise in mind, we headed into town right around 8 a.m. to get ourselves a cup of tea for some much needed morning fuel.

We Drive into Boise

A look down Capitol Blvd. in downtown Boise.

A look down Capitol Blvd. in downtown Boise.

            Just before coming into town, a long-time follower of mine on Instagram reached out to me (@oh_miss_lady) when I earlier made mention of coming into Boise for a day. Madeline, as her real name would be, texted me her grievance that she was unable to participate in the day’s activities but ensured me that she’d be eager to join Celeste and I in the evening and visit her favorite places in the downtown area. With a local in close contact, she gave me her highest recommendation of the ‘must-see’ site of Boise: The Old Idaho Penitentiary. Researching into the place further instantly made it jump to the top of our itinerary. But after studying the location and hours we noticed we still had several hours to kill before finally making it to the site. Looking at a local map, however, showed us that next door to the Penitentiary was the Idaho Botanical Garden which would be open in time for our arrival and would be an excellent place to start our morning with a stroll and some photographs.

            Our drive to the site took us right through the center of downtown Boise and had us driving along historic homes built long before Idaho gained her statehood in 1890. After a 30 odd minute drive from our hostel in Meridian out to Old Penitentiary Road where both the gardens and the old pen sit. The road twists up for a brief moment before giving sights of some the old prison walls along with a copious amount of signs pointing you to all the museums down the small tow lane road. We pulled up to a large dirt lot, assumed to be the designated parking area for the Idaho Botanical Gardens, and began to suit up with our cameras and gear to go explore the site for a couple of hours. As I strapped on my cameras, Celeste was quick to point out the large gaggle of young parents and children gathering outside of the admissions area—and there were several staff members standing around with large signs marked “Ticketing” and “Admissions.” Assuming nothing of it, we continued on our way just as a young mother and her child did who were in the parking space adjacent to ours.

Change of Plans, Kathryn Albertson Memorial Park

            “Are you working the show?” the gal under the “Admissions” signs balked upon our approach. “Um, no,” we were quick to retort albeit a little confused, “we’re here for the gardens.” “Sorry, the gardens are closed today, we have a concert.” Unbenounced to us, it was apparently the day where both Willie Nelson and Don McLean were going to entertain a large mass at the gardens and the general public were barred during the setup. Only slightly cursing myself for not conning my way in with professional camera gear as a journalist, we turned back to the car where the young mother too had a look of disappointment as she strapped her young child back into her car seat missing a nice day out at the gardens. “I always forget they close when there is a concert…” She murmured to us. We both expressed our disappointment and started our engines gearing into reverse just as she rolled down her window, “You know, if you’re wanting to see a great park, the next best place is the Kathryn Memorial Park. They have beautiful lilies in blossom and it’s a great place to walk and take pictures.” Thanking her, we both nodded in agreement that this was probably the best place for us to kill some time. We promptly headed out to the gardens.

The lilies were surprisingly beautiful. 

The lilies were surprisingly beautiful. 

            After another 15 minute drive back across the downtown hub of Boise again passing historic homes that had been there long before statehood, we arrived to very large sign carved out of sandstone marking the park in all its grand opulence. Coming from Henderson, NV we are familiar with a great deal of park, as it is a city always ranked as having the largest density of them, but we both were amazed at the amount of parks with Boise, and even more so, the grand size of them. Katherine Memorial Park features larges ponds and scenic walkways twisting around large trees and creeks that serve as protected nesting grounds for a large duration of the year. It was, just as the young mother had described it, a remarkable place to walk and take pictures to kill some time in the morning. As Celeste wondered off to capture some Pokémon, excited for the return of her cellular data, I wandered the gardens taking pictures and enjoying a peaceful stroll.

            Along the concrete pathway that takes you under awnings of large trees and through relaxing water features, we also found several birds making the park their home, including much to our amazement, a couple of majestic roosters standing tall in their strong morning pose as you’d expect to find on any image of a morning farm scene. This park was the perfect recommendation to visit in the early morning. The weather reports had the day as being humid at hot, approaching a high of nearly 90F, but here under the shade of greenery and nearby water features, it was like a small cool sanctuary from the heat. Still, despite our ability to spend a few more hours here, we had a schedule to keep—and so after taking the last couple of pictures we headed back to the truck to head once more back through downtown Boise and those homes that were built long before Idaho became a state.

            Apparently my estimations were wrong for the opening time of the Old Penitentiary. That, or there was some conflicting information posted between Google, Yelp, and other travel sites. Estimating that the place opened up at noon, we still had a couple more hours to kill—so we began once again to search for something to entertain our time for what was panning out to be a pretty poorly planned charade. “Ah!” I thought, “what about the history museum?” I had long taken pride in the amount of capital museums I’d visited including Alaska’s which is a little difficult to get to. “Closed for renovations” Now growing a little irritable and tired for this mis-mashed day, we decided then we should just see what we could find downtown, and at the very least get a close up of the Boise Capital building which we were now driving past for the third time. Parked, paid, and once again strapped up with camera gear we headed up to Boise’s capital building which to my amazement is much larger than most I have seen.

We Explore the Idaho State Capitol

The basement levels stretch out in both wings to empty halls.

The basement levels stretch out in both wings to empty halls.

            Standing at 208 feet tall, the capitol building towers above the whole of the Boise Downtown and is visible from just about every direction. It’s a brilliant building, featuring sprawling symmetrical gardens out front with several statues commemorating famous people in Boise’s history. Fixed atop the dome is a large copper eagle adorned in gold leaf making it shine and sparkle under the mid-day sun. We made our approach to front of the building and instead of heading up the massive staircase, we followed the signs for the “gift shop and visitors information” that lead us through a small basement entrance on the east side of the building. Immediately we were greeted with massive marble hallways in what was a building of grand opulence. Contrary to other capitol buildings I have seen in the west, usually simple buildings of concrete, granite, and stone sourced from local quarries, this place was designed with architecture inspired by grand classical Roman and Greek architecture.

The opulent capitol dome.

The opulent capitol dome.

A look at the center of the capitol building from the top floor.

A look at the center of the capitol building from the top floor.

            Constructed in 1912 based off the design work of John Tourtellotte, the building was built to meet the demands of a true capitol building after the old territorial legislature buildings were becoming obsolete for the growing population and government. Different marbles from around the United States and even some as far away as Italy were used. Inside of her halls on the basement level, we were greeted with silence and long empty white halls—it was as if the building was empty and we weren’t supposed to be inside. Still, we explored some of the exhibits they had on display for visitors in the basement level, before finally being greeted by an older gentleman who provided us with some additional information about the building and informed us that everything was open to the public unless posted otherwise.

The state legislature meets in both wings and is accessible to the public when not in session.

The state legislature meets in both wings and is accessible to the public when not in session.

            Up the curved marble staircases (quite literally everything seemed to be made of marble), we ventured up to the other floors to visit the different parts of the capitol building. Aside from the Idaho Supreme Court, which had been moved to a new building the 1970s, the other branches of government continues to operate within this massive 200,000 square feet building. The building was largely empty due to the Idaho legislature being out of session, leaving us the ability to explore both the floor of both houses along with their upstairs viewing galleries and their recess chamber. These two wings (which were added after the original building construction) were evidence as to why this great capitol building was one of great expenditure costing over 2 million dollars upon its original construction, and costing tens of millions to restore and upgrade to its current condition. After seeing all the different halls and our eyes nearly blinded with white marble adorned with more white marble, we made it a point to see the painted gold statue of George Washington on a horse (one of the major selling points I was told). And, having seen all there was to be seen, we snaked back down to the basement level, picked up a few postcards from the Capitol Gift Shop and were finally on time to head to the ultimate destination we had intended, the Old Penitentiary.

Downtown Boise from the top of the Capitol building.

Downtown Boise from the top of the Capitol building.

 

Imprisoned in Purgatory

The sandstone walls of the old prison were cut from a quarry overlooking the prison.

The sandstone walls of the old prison were cut from a quarry overlooking the prison.

The guard towers still maintain their ominous presense over the facility.

The guard towers still maintain their ominous presense over the facility.

            By mid-day, the sun was beating down pretty hard and the heatwave was making life a little miserable. We had escaped the over 115F weather in Las Vegas, but here in Boise the added humidity made life a little more difficult. Still, without skipping a beat we headed further down the main stretch of downtown back over to the Old Penitentiary where we had originally started our day and drove up past the gardens and off to a dirt lot where we parked next to some old sandstone buildings and disembarked for what was our main destination from the start. Cameras in hand, and bags on our backs, we ventured inside the prison walls into the original intake gates to pay admission and explore what was already looking to be an amazing place.

            Two incredibly friendly volunteers greeted us, both older ladies with gray hair looking to be at least in their late 60s, talking up the site and all the wonders it had. With a smile, they provided us with a map of the site while my credit card transaction was processing and before we headed on our way, one of the gals informed us they would be doing a walking tour of the site in approx. 15 minutes which would start from the intake area and proceed through the main buildings. Nodding our heads that we’d return, we proceeded back outside of the main halls to explore some of the sites not included on the walking tour.

The Woman's Ward stands outside of the main prison walls with its own building, and surrounding walls.

The Woman's Ward stands outside of the main prison walls with its own building, and surrounding walls.

Cell doors in the old Woman's Ward are flat works of iron riveted together.

Cell doors in the old Woman's Ward are flat works of iron riveted together.

            The Old Idaho State Penitentiary is a pretty remarkable place, as it is one of only three still standing territorial prisons, and one that was in use well into the 1970s before a prison riot caused a fire which burned down several of the original buildings such as the mess hall. Completed in 1872, this old prison has the look of a place that had been almost abandoned after the prison riots, being preserved as it was left almost into decay. Just outside of the main walls, we walked along part of the path that twists up a hillside where the sandstone quarry is that was used to cut the stone to build the prison. Here several old prison buildings could be found that had been re-renovated into storage facilities for maintenance and care of the grounds. Regardless, it gave us the ability to see the outer walls up close and the rusting steel and iron rails for the guard towers that cast a shadow over the clear skies.

And old shed, possibly abandoned built outside of the walls.

And old shed, possibly abandoned built outside of the walls.

The original mess hall for the prisoners burnt down in the prison riots--destroying the first floor and giving people a clear sight of the basement.

The original mess hall for the prisoners burnt down in the prison riots--destroying the first floor and giving people a clear sight of the basement.

            Removed from the main grounds, just to the rear of the prison, is the Woman’s Ward. Constructed by prison inmates in 1920, the small housing block only features a handful of cells, a garden on the outskirts of the building and primitive flat iron doors riveted together—a place clearly not in use for very long, or at least not updated as we would find in other parts of the prison. Along the white and blue walls we read information about many of the female prisoners who were housed within these walls with some of the ridiculous cases including one woman who was arrested for adultery despite being legally separated from her husband. This case, as with a few others we would read and hear about, gave us some interesting insight to some of the prisoners who lived and died within the prison.

The walls of the mess hall and chapel still stand, with the charred marks of the fire visible.

The walls of the mess hall and chapel still stand, with the charred marks of the fire visible.

The weapons cache for the guards has many replicas on display.

The weapons cache for the guards has many replicas on display.

            Back at intake just before the tour started, we gathered around a host of young families and a few older tourists sporting their walking shoes and cargo shorts ready to explore the grounds with one of the volunteers for a walking tour. She opened with a grand greeting to all of us, and immediately dived into the history of the intake area and some of the main talking points of the two main gates of the prison. Within just a few minutes, she waved us outside and took us over to some of the charred ruins of a couple of the buildings and continued talk about the prison. While clearly knowledgeable about the history, her speech was neither compelling nor very interesting and before long standing under the unrelenting sunlight Celeste and I grew weary of her tour and silently departed to explore the grounds on our own with the map provided and informational placards scattered about being our guide and resource.

Despite the age of the exterior, parts of the prison were modernized as the prison was used until the early 1970s.

Despite the age of the exterior, parts of the prison were modernized as the prison was used until the early 1970s.

In buildings where the fire broke out, the scars are still very visible.

In buildings where the fire broke out, the scars are still very visible.

            Madeline was correct in her recommendation—this place was spectacular. A dream of abandoned photographers, many of the old buildings still carried the graffiti left by prisoners and even the old peeling paint was left to flake off the walls. We moved from cell block to cell block, looking in awe toward some of the different buildings and seeing the change over the years with the facilities and how they were upgraded and retrofitted to make this age old prison last for over 100 years before its closure. Some of the spectacular sites included the laundry facilities along with some of the cells used for prisoner grooming. Even the old gallows and death row were still available for viewing, giving us a near haunting view of the room eyelet hanging above the trap door directly below.

The laundry and shower facilities are open and much of the original equipment remains.

The laundry and shower facilities are open and much of the original equipment remains.

The old barbers cell, left to deteriorate as it was.

The old barbers cell, left to deteriorate as it was.

            Perhaps one of the most interesting stories of all was the tale of one of the most famous prisoners Harry Orchard, who was an assassin responsible for the murder of the 1905 governor Frank Steunenberg. As time passed in the prison, Orchard became more and more repentant of his crimes and an active member of the prison community. Eventually, the Steunenberg family forgave Orchard of his crimes and accepted him as a newly reformed member of their church and eventually became friends. Working on repealing his sentence after showing his reformed state, Orchard protested insisting that the prison had become his home and he wished to carry out his life long sentence on the grounds. Still, because of his status with the prison and his history, the family built him a cottage just outside of the prison walls, and Orchard was able to work the grounds of the prison and was one of the only prisoners able to freely leave and return to the main halls as he pleased. This little anecdote, gave us a wonderful little insight to perhaps some of the humanity found in some of these early prisons and certainly life in smaller communities such as those in Idaho.

            By now the sun had all but drained us of what energy we had. It was hot, muggy, and the buildings lacked any sort of relief aside from the shade. Nearing our point of physical exhaustion and much needed food (we had hardly stopped to eat), we began to make our final round of the grounds and stopped by the J. Curtis Earl Memorial exhibit at the rear of the prison grounds. This is one of the largest weapon collections in the US. Although seeming a bit out of place to have such a nice air conditioned building in the back of the grounds of ruined buildings, we both strolled into the museum to gaze at one of the most complete arms collections I have seen. Celeste, not quite as interested, took a rest and began to plot our next moves, while I casually strolled through the exhibit as it took me through ancient firearms throughout the ages and wars leading up through World War II. Right upon my finished walk, the volunteer informed us it was closing time, and with that we left. Tired, hungry, and dazed, we left the Old Pen and went back into town to refuel our bodies and plan for the final part of the day.

Many of the jail cells are left with paint peeling and the interior decaying with age.

Many of the jail cells are left with paint peeling and the interior decaying with age.

Finally some Potatoes and Rest

Old brick buildings in a historic downtown never get old.

Old brick buildings in a historic downtown never get old.

            After driving ourselves to exhaustion at the prison, and just needing time to decompress we ventured back into town to look for a bite to eat and a cool beverage to quench our thirst. Celeste however did have one requirement for whatever the choice of food may be: it must have, in some form or another, locally sourced potatoes—after all Idaho wouldn’t put “Famous Potatoes” on their license plate for nothing. On that very note, we took to the internet as many of us millennials do searching through various review sites to see what we could find. Finding many morning joints closing or lacking vegetarian options we finally discovered two potential places that offered up their own house made veggie burgers with a side of, well you guessed it, locally grown French fried ‘tators. The first place that came to mind had rave reviews for a great veggie burger and was close to our hostel so we could rest and wash up after our hot day in the sun, but after calling them we came to found they no longer served it. So, it was onto the second on our list which was only a few blocks away and was called the Boise Fry Company.

            House made veggie burgers, house made soda pop, and what was one of the greatest things to our surprise was their offering of a massive variety of French fries in various cuts using tubers of all types well beyond your simple russet or golden Yukon potatoes, with offerings even stretching out into the sweet potatoes variety. Locally grown, locally sourced, this place looked like just the place—and for added confidence (in something that you would find in Idaho) they had proudly framed awards designating them as having the Best French Fries in Boise. What more could you ask for? The man behind the counter helped us out with our selection and we each got our own choice of burger and fries, and washed it down with some of their unique soda pops such as the Kiwi Coconut blend and tried some of the other oddities including their blueberry ketchup. Satisfied and full of fries, our guts were full and it was about time to start exploring downtown a little bit with just under and hour left on our parking meter.

A wonderful quinoa veggie burger with russet fries. House made ketchup, chipotle sauce, and blueberry ketchup to dip into. 

A wonderful quinoa veggie burger with russet fries. House made ketchup, chipotle sauce, and blueberry ketchup to dip into. 

            The sun continued her relentless assault on us as we walked the streets—adding to the fatigue of already being drained from an early day and now digesting a very filling meal. We continued to move forward and pushed onward to a few local shops including one that offered locally made goods—but aside from a few postcards and a variety of novelty shirts nothing quite caught the eye leaving us to move on and trying to find something new. We must’ve come to the wrong neighborhood; aside from a few shops, most of the businesses were either restaurants or office spaces that were of no particular interest. With the time quickly expiring on the meter we made our meter run and decided that it was time for a much needed rest.

We Meet With Madeline

The night is alive with people and characters wondering the streets.

The night is alive with people and characters wondering the streets.

Many of the buildings are beautifully illuminated when the sun goes down.

Many of the buildings are beautifully illuminated when the sun goes down.

            The previous night while talking to Madeline we made the plans to meet up in the evening, after she got off of her work at a local boutique so that we could explore a little bit of the Boise night life, this gave us at least some time to wash up and recoup some energy from our exhausting day out. Rarely the mid-day napping type, I still was having a hard time keeping my eyes open by the time we hit the road back to our hostel, and by the time we arrived we nearly both knocked out for a little over an hour. Resting up came easy, and gave us the energy for what we both knew would be quite a late night out. Unfortunately for us, again with our miss planned visit to the city, we happened to be in Boise on a night were just about nothing was happening in the city—sometimes that’s just luck. Taking in a second wind of air and throwing on a fresh shirt with a washed face, we turned off the light for our room to make the drive back into town. It was about 7pm by now, and we still were not scheduled to meet with Madeline until about 11. Either way, we’d find something to do.

            By the time we were back into town it was already dusk and the city lights and neon signs were beginning to turn on and cast their colorful glow onto the old brick buildings of downtown. As with many of these small, quaint downtown districts, there is a dazing affair of tungsten lighting that creates for a warm glow on the faces of those of us who would rather walk the streets at night. Still trying to navigate our way, I continued to ask Madeline for recommendations as we still had ours to kill. Goldy’s Coffee shop was the first that came to her mind, a small quaint tea and coffee shop that was attached to a rather large bakery producing oversize treats that even the hungriest of men would second guess. With that in mind we wondered inside, grabbed ourselves some tea, coffee, and one of these gargantuan scones, and headed back around the city to wonder and take a few photos where we could.

In alleyways or parking garages, there are art decorating the walls creating dazzling displays amongst decay.

In alleyways or parking garages, there are art decorating the walls creating dazzling displays amongst decay.

            By 9:30 I was beginning to grow weary and hungry—I didn’t partake in the scone, and aside from the burger that filled me up hours earlier I was beginning to sputter out. Wondering around in circles we came upon a small shop called Pie Hole, a little local punk pizza-by-the-slice joint that was serving up some interesting mixes. With walls covered in age old bumper stickers, a few old mannequins with funky wigs and glasses, and several signs informing customers that they do not have water cups I ordered their slice of the day, a ravioli pizza and a water up (and promptly felt like an idiot for it). The eccentric young man behind the counter whipped it up into the oven, tossed me a bottle of water from the fridge and called up the next customer. And just as we took our seat outside with the two of us sharing the slice, a text chimes in from Madeline suggesting we meet her at the Pie Hole in just a few minutes.

Posing for a few portraits, Madeline at the Old Chicago

Posing for a few portraits, Madeline at the Old Chicago

            Here, at night, sitting outside on the benches waiting and watching the people pass by was all that I’d hoped for to pass the time. This was the time to see many of the local groups come out en masse to talk, dine, and laugh—the sight I always preferred to see over many other novelty attractions of a city. Here we had a wonderful mixture of people who were discussing matters of agriculture from the outskirts of town, local college students who were discussing the music scene, a young group of punk kids out for a late night snake while skate boarding the streets. It was the gathering of everything that I had found Boise to be, a growing community blossoming with life and pride to make a great city. Something found too in many college towns across the country, but not always with a positive aura that could be simply felt in the air. And here, things just seemed alive, even if it was one of the more quiet days.

            Soon after finishing our pizza, we both met up with Madeline and began to walk and stroll—a fun gal with a great sense of humor and a great laugh circled the city and took us to some of the local graffiti spots so we too could leave our mark on some tiles on one mural like hundreds of others had before us. Our evening walk continued with us passing by some of the dark alleyways and bustling bars, when our path was interrupted with Madeline spotting a small praying mantis crossing the sidewalk. Immediately she stopped to pick it up and bring it to safety, setting him down in a small garden off to the side—a small act of kindness but one that shows someone’s true heart.

            Quickly growing to be good friends, we found ourselves heading over to the Old Chicago bar for their late night post-11pm happy hours to enjoy some cheap bar food and drinks before calling it an night. With many of the other bars closing, and lights slowly shutting off down the streets of downtown Boise. We all were growing weary, as it had been a long day for all of us, be it a day full of exploring or earning a day’s worth of pay in Madeline’s case and by now it was beginning to show. Despite the bags under our eyes and frazzled hair, the conversations were dazzling over greasy pub food and a couple rounds of drinks. Time, as it were, stood still and it wasn’t until I glanced at my watch that I had noticed it was now approaching 2am and we had an early day on the road the next morning. Knowing the conversations would soon have to be over I was a little saddened to not have more time here as it was, without a doubt, one of the highlights of the trip as I have always found great comfort illuminating new faces and building new friendships.

            Before saying our final goodbyes, I took a few old Polaroid photos using some of my beloved Fujifilm FP-3000b film with my trusty Polaroid 250. For these occasions I always try and document the memory, the moment, and place the photograph down in my trust travel journal to catalog the event.  Boise, as it seems, came and went almost too quickly. This small quaint town often overlooked in a state only talked about when it comes to talking about potatoes. Our detour here was well worth it, even with our setbacks, and it only makes me thirst for returning to the city to explore the rest of what it has to offer and to partake in many more new experiences and, just perhaps, make even more new friends along the way.

A scan from one of the Fujifilm FP-3000b shots. Memories to hold onto.

A scan from one of the Fujifilm FP-3000b shots. Memories to hold onto.

Travel: The Great Nevada Road Trip - Day 1 - The Road to Great Basin

Travel, Photography, Culture, History, NatureTrey TakahashiComment
US-93 Sign and all the destinations long faded and abandoned. 

US-93 Sign and all the destinations long faded and abandoned. 

Setting Off

The sun breaking over I-15 heading North

The sun breaking over I-15 heading North

All the bags were packed and resting by the door early in the morning before sun broke over the horizon. Setting off as the sun broke was our best plan if we wanted to hit all of our destinations along the way, passing through several towns and parks along the way such as Pahranagat, Alamo, Caliente, Cathedral Gorge, and our final destination being Great Basin National Park. Our route would take us up US 93, around Mount Wilson Scenic Byway, and up on a short stint of Highway 50 taking us the town of Baker and the gateway to Great Basin National Park. So, at 5:30am we hopped in Celeste’s blue Ford Explorer Sportrac to push on our long drive north.

Celeste, excited for the drive ahead.

Celeste, excited for the drive ahead.

A small interchange and a truck stop, easy to miss on the drive.

A small interchange and a truck stop, easy to miss on the drive.

In order to get to US-93 we had to drive through the whole of the Las Vegas metro area up I-15 with the sun in our eyes. Leaving now was a symbolic gesture for us. The sun was breaking over a new horizon, shining light into a new part of me. Now, I was setting off on a new adventure to see the heartland of the state I called home, but was also gearing up for a path of self-discovery and exploration on someone that I knew I always could be deep down inside. Watching the golden sun rise over the desert was a beautiful site, an awaking appropriate for a new start and a drive to push forward. For Celeste this would mark her first journey through every county in Nevada, a place full of various environments and people with a heart of gold (or silver)—and I was proud to be able to guide her through this place and show her just what Nevada is. Before long we hit the interchange to head off onto US-93 heading north, and with the turn off and passing a truck stop our journey official began now there was no turning back.

US-93 runs straight for miles with only a few turns in between.

US-93 runs straight for miles with only a few turns in between.

US-93 cuts straight through the eastern part of Nevada running north-south up through Idaho and beyond with very few curves along the way. Much like the famous Highway 50, this long stretch of road passes through much of the arid parts of the state with long stretches of abandonment along the way. Passing through sweeping arid deserts and large parts of the Great Basin, the land here is hot and void of much activity. Here only a few shrubs in the form of sagebrush and cactus exist with only trees sprouting up in the mountains and occasional meadows along the way. Aside from the noise of infrequent motorists, this land is quiet and isolated; throwing you into the thralls of intimate thoughts as the highways stretches off into the horizon line leaving you with the image of a mirage. Its easy to lose yourself along this great length of roadway; drifting off into a daze is a frequent problem when driving these stretches of road. With time and a few stops along the way, it suddenly becomes less monotonous and a much more rewarding experience.

Pahranagat and Abandonment

Our first stop was at Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge, a small lake protected by the Department of the Interior for nesting of regional birds in the dry basin. By now the sun was already beginning to crest and we were both in desperate need of stretching our legs after just over an hour of driving. We pulled up and walked through the meadows, seeing birds and insects in a meadow sprawling with life. There were a few cars there too, but there was a complete absence of people, just us and the sound of the wind slowly blowing through tall grass and the trees surrounding the basin. We sat in silence for a while, stuck in a moment of inner reflection before taking a few photos and then setting back on the road. We had a long drive still, lots more stops, and a booked tour at Great Basin National Park at 4pm.

We drove through the small towns of Alamo, Ash Springs, and Crystal Springs, looking at abandoned buildings and a few hubs of life. Each of these small hubs began to shine a light into what Nevada is all about—unique spots where the Wild West thrived but never really died. Each of these ‘ghost towns’ containing a small but lively community calling them home. Still empty shells of a glorious past of railway construction and mine booms, but nonetheless representations of the strong and rich heritage of the great Silver State and her importance in settling and ultimately conquering the west.

Abandoned signs from a business long shuttered.

Abandoned signs from a business long shuttered.

Caliente and Kershaw-Ryan State Park

Caliente was our next stop, a small town whose name in Spanish directly translates to “hot,” appropriately named due to the hot springs surrounding the area. Now only a small town with just over 1,000 people, it used to be a thriving railroad town that was built up as a destination stop along the Union Pacific railroad. Much of the downtown was abandoned, with boarded up shops and businesses that had long since died, but even on a Sunday, the community was still gathering for church services and family gatherings. The largest defining feature of the town that stands out above all else in the old Spanish railroad depot built in 1923 that now is home to all of the major town services including city hall, public library, local museum, a small church, art gallery, and a mental health clinic. We greeted several people outside of the great white building as they headed into church services. 

The Spanish railroad depot built in 1923 is now the central hub of town.

The Spanish railroad depot built in 1923 is now the central hub of town.

 A train passes by Caliente without so much as a stop, only halting traffic for a brief moment.

 A train passes by Caliente without so much as a stop, only halting traffic for a brief moment.

This town like many others along this route slowly died with with the urbanization of major cities and the modernization of the railroad. Where this used to once be a stop along the way for passengers and crew to relax and refuel boilers, it is now simply a small hub where trains pass right through with diesel engines that can run far longer and more reliably than any steam engine ever could. With once a population over 5,000 the town died, and as we waited at a light and watch a modern train hauling cargo along the great Union Pacific Railroad it was clear that the need for this town has long passed, 

One of the old downtown shopping areas of Caliente

One of the old downtown shopping areas of Caliente

Buildings from the original ranch site and those built by the CCC are still present.

Buildings from the original ranch site and those built by the CCC are still present.

Beautiful gardens of flowers in full bloom decorate the landscape.

Beautiful gardens of flowers in full bloom decorate the landscape.

 As we drove around the town we stopped off at Kershaw-Ryan State Park which was marked on our detailed Nevada map, small but just a few miles off of US-93 it seemed like a great destination to check out before we left the area entirely. We instantly became amazed with this little hub, coming into it with complete ignorance of its very existence. The area was once a small ranch that looks like a blossoming oasis in the arid landscape. Founded in 1873 and built up by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) during the Great Depression it stands as one of the older Nevada state parks. We walked through well maintained flower beds and along a wonderful path that took us through lush greenery and old buildings that had fell into ruin throughout the years. This small little place was a wonderfully relaxing place to spend a day, evening, or just a few minutes to explore and escape. A young couple came up too and were playing with their small child in the swimming pool that glowed a florescent blue, and coupled with the birds singing their songs, this small oasis seemed like the perfect escape for anyone looking to take a load off, if even just for a minute.

Lush green paths are carved out creating an awaises in the arid desert

Lush green paths are carved out creating an awaises in the arid desert

Cathedral Gorge State Park

 A look into the twisting canyons of the Cathedral Gorge formations

 A look into the twisting canyons of the Cathedral Gorge formations

Caused by volcanic ash mixed with other regional sediment, this unique clay erodes with the rain leaving breathtaking structures behind.

Caused by volcanic ash mixed with other regional sediment, this unique clay erodes with the rain leaving breathtaking structures behind.

After leaving the great small hubs of Caliente and the much needed stroll through Kershaw-Ryan, we continued our journey on US-93 to Cathedral Gorge State Park and Pioche where we had agreed to stop for lunch before continuing on the final leg of our journey. By now, it was just before noon and we were still making excellent time on our drive. Both of us were full of anticipation for Cathedral Gorge. It is a state park that I hadn’t been to in such a long time that I had forgotten much of its beauty. I have often heard people call the park a place almost rivaling parts of Zion National Park, just on a smaller scale. Having been sold on the unique formations that exist there and knowing the other beauty of Nevada state parks such as the Valley of Fire, we headed into the park to see the formations up close for ourselves.

As we entered from a distance, we could already see the strange formations along a large plateau. As if the walls of the plateau were simply melting away, spires of a clay like substance stretched up into the sky. The formations stretch on for miles and in many parts look like they cut right into the hillside. We pulled up to a parking spot and had to get a closer look into the melting Earth, stepping inside what appeared to look almost like a cave, it felt like we were quickly heading onto a science fiction film set on a very distant alien planet. The formations twisted and turned, with the sun only highlighting various portions of the path, the earth was soft to the touch, leaving a trace of silt on our hands and clothing brushing past—it was if the walls were made up of clay, long hardened earthenware that had never been fired, just dried up in the hot sun above. We had never seen anything quite like this, and it was staggering in its beauty. There are many places in Utah that offer unique formations of rock that are famous monuments of natural beauty, such as the (famous) rock formations of Bryce Canyon, but here there was something truly magnificent that I had never seen before.

A close-up of the unique spires and the earth build up. Alien in their look and texture.

A close-up of the unique spires and the earth build up. Alien in their look and texture.

A view looking upward from the spires of clay.

A view looking upward from the spires of clay.

The cause for these formations comes from a combination of erosion, water formations, and interestingly enough, volcanic activity in the area. As ash from active volcanoes in the area settled down millions of years ago, it created a unique clay like substance that collected up into piles hundreds of feet high. Along with mountainous changes and the creation of the valley, the area filled up a lake which later dried up, leaving with it a unique clay like substance that stands today, continually eroded away by rainfall and dried by the intense sun. We were fascinated by this place not just for the geologic formations, but also for the historic buildings that remained within. Just as we saw with the Kershaw-Ryan state park, the CCC too had built structures here to house people travelling through and provide refuge in this harsh landscape. Many of those structures are still standing. We stopped to rest under the old wooden shade structure before continuing onward to the historic center of Lincoln County, Pioche, NV.

 

Pioche

The old mine bucket tram still stands with cables stretching over parts of the town. 

The old mine bucket tram still stands with cables stretching over parts of the town. 

Just a few miles ahead, the small town of Pioche rests in the center of Lincoln County, Nevada. Acting as its largest city, and at one point the largest destination on the Eastern part of Nevada. Standing long before even the great city of Las Vegas was in her infancy. Both a major railroad destination and an even larger mine town, this town has become an infamous ghost town along US-93, showing just how far a town can go into decline. The main highway cuts right through the center of town, leading you down the original downtown district where the local museum and historic buildings still sit. We parked the truck, gathered our gear for exploring the town, and began to walk toward the museum.

Old mining buildings like this one still stand. Though long abandoned, wooden structures like these are historic landmarks for ghost towns across Nevada.

Old mining buildings like this one still stand. Though long abandoned, wooden structures like these are historic landmarks for ghost towns across Nevada.

A look at the downtown strip, as a man who grew up in town explores his roots.

A look at the downtown strip, as a man who grew up in town explores his roots.

Inside we met a nice retired fellow who was jubilated to see fresh faces walking into the museum. Growing up in Chicago, as he said, he eventually retired to Pioche to live in a quiet and peaceful community away from it all, “You’re either the young rif-raf or a retiree” he stated in his description of the town, and in his way he was correct. Nevada is unique in that many of the small ghost towns in decline are kept alive by passionate retirees who often return to their hometown to keep the place alive in the small ways they can, but there are still working families and young children who are stuck with not much to do aside working on the ranches and mines in the areas—causing slipping graduation rates and unfortunately an increased use of substance abuse in rural Nevada.

Closed and abandoned since a roof collapse in the early 2000s, the Gem Theater once showed films for over 100 years since its original construction in the late 1800s.

Closed and abandoned since a roof collapse in the early 2000s, the Gem Theater once showed films for over 100 years since its original construction in the late 1800s.

Despite the sad decline, Pioche is still very much alive with people clamoring to restore the many historic sites that exist. We continued to walk down the main street to visit the historic Gem theater which had shuttered after losing part of her structure in a strong windstorm in the early 2000s. Next door however, was the town’s visitor center were we met another older volunteer, a retired school teacher from Southern Nevada, who was eager to show us around and give us a tour of the building. Unknown to us, we had stepped inside the historic Town Hall and Opera house. Built in 1873, the original building acted as both a general store and a town meeting haul for the booming mining community. Upstairs stands the Thompson Opera House, meeting the demand to bring culture to the mine community by demand of the womenfolk of the town.

Recently restored and rebuilt after an accident destroyed much of the Opera House, it still puts on many acts and shows throughout the year.

Recently restored and rebuilt after an accident destroyed much of the Opera House, it still puts on many acts and shows throughout the year.

The changing rooms remain largely unchanged from their original state.

The changing rooms remain largely unchanged from their original state.

The entire facility was small, but carried with it that unique charm of a the fine arts in the center of a working mine town. Recently restored with grant money and run by volunteers, the staff look at filling the building with acts from around the country to perform for the local community. Much like the small opera house in Amargosa Valley, this small theatre lives on with the love and support of the local community. Unfortunately, without the draw from tourists, it still struggled to maintain. Regardless, the entire building shows just how much the local people of Pioche want their town to succeed and be more than just a ghost town long forgotten in the books of history.

Recently renovated and open for just over a year Ghost Town Art & Coffee Co. is the go-to hub in town.

Recently renovated and open for just over a year Ghost Town Art & Coffee Co. is the go-to hub in town.

Still containing the original workbench to the side of the kitchen the interior gives a certain charm of the building's former history.

Still containing the original workbench to the side of the kitchen the interior gives a certain charm of the building's former history.

Both our newly acquainted locals both pointed us to a new burger and coffee joint that had recently opened up by a couple of local artists called Ghost Town Art & Coffee. Here we decided to grab ourselves lunch before hitting the road once more. The small eatery was built into an old 1800s workshop where the original wooden interior could be seen along with the workbenches that were in service until it was renovated and turned into a restaurant. Serving up fresh veggie patties and some wonderful iced tea, we chatted with them about the town and the people who pass through it. Their art decorated the walls, creating a spot for both tourist and local alike to stop by and grab a bite. Stopping by we had our same guide of the opera house getting lunch along with a gentleman and a young woman visiting the town again where he told everyone he had grown up. This is the charm that these ‘ghost towns’ have. There is a heart and soul here that never really dies. Despite the isolation, despite the remoteness, there are hard working people looking to keep the place alive.

Despite new and restored buildings, there are still many old abandoned structures from the mining days constructed in the 1800s.

Despite new and restored buildings, there are still many old abandoned structures from the mining days constructed in the 1800s.

The Mount Wilson Scenic Byway

Along the byway are beautiful sights of the mountains spanning across the Great Basin

Along the byway are beautiful sights of the mountains spanning across the Great Basin

Spring Valley State Park is beautiful in its own way, alge has taken over parts of the reservoir as it lacks many outlets.

Spring Valley State Park is beautiful in its own way, alge has taken over parts of the reservoir as it lacks many outlets.

Leaving Pioche we checked our maps with a few locals to make sure we were on track. We had a couple hours to get to Great Basin National Park in order to go on our tour of the Lehman cave systems. Eager to make it on time, we looked at our route with the Mount Wilson Scenic Byway and decided that there was plenty of time to make the drive and be at the caves before the tour started. The byway looked to start along NV-322 and cut along Echo Canyon and Spring Valley State Park, allowing us to see more the beauty of Nevada instead of just continuing along US-93 as we had been doing. With some advice from locals, a Nevada map, and no cell service we turned off onto NV-322 for our scenic drive.

The ranger station remains abandoned on a Sunday afternoon.

The ranger station remains abandoned on a Sunday afternoon.

The road passed through the two state parks which are both reservoirs used for nesting for local wildlife and also a place of recreation for locals of the surrounding towns, and it was at Spring Valley state park where the road suddenly turned to dirt and all signs stopped giving any helpful information. A little lost but not undetermined, we followed the signs to the ranger station on the road ahead hoping to get pointed in the right direction to ensure we were driving along the right road. Unfortunately, being a Sunday afternoon, the ranger station was not manned and we hand no choice to push on. We had driven a little too far to turn back, but we remained confident that we were on the right stretch of road. Still lost, I waved down the next car on the road to see if I could get some much needed information.

"No way you'll make it in time buddy..."

"No way you'll make it in time buddy..."

An older couple hauling an RV with their dog in the rear seat pulled off the side and rolled down their window. Missing a few teeth with a camouflage bandana on his head he said the words we dreaded to hear, “You’re a long way from US-93 buddy, you’re not going to make it to Great Basin by 4pm.” Recommending we turn back the way we came was the smartest idea, he told us that the byway cut through the top of the mountains ahead and the road was rough, narrow, and difficult to drive. On that note he had to head out and drove off ahead.

We weighed our options, if either way we weren’t going to make it, we could at least enjoy the drive over the mountain. The truck, while old and full of character, was equipped with four wheel drive and had tires good enough for an off-roading drive. With both of us in agreement, we pushed on into the mountains, passing our friendly RV guides and took off into the hills.

Cave tour aside, missing it meant seeing some spectacular views climbing up Mount Wilson.

Cave tour aside, missing it meant seeing some spectacular views climbing up Mount Wilson.

The road was rough, tight, and lacking signs but an adventure to traverse. I took the wheel for this leg of the journey, slipped on the four wheel drive, and accelerated up the mountains bending around the pass. With each turn the truck swerved out, drifting around corners while trying to hold tight with all four wheels. Maybe, we thought, maybe we just might make it if we push hard enough. In no time at all the road began to climb higher and higher with steep drop offs of thousands of feet on the sides as we climbed over Mount Wilson. Adrenaline rushing through my veins, I continued to push that blue pickup across the dirt, admittedly a bit too faster than I should have.

After over two hours of mountainous dirt roads and the new front breaks smoking from the heat, we made it over Mount Wilson and could see US-93 ahead. We missed our cave tour, that much we knew, but we took pride in the fact that while that part of the trip was now lost, we had just made up for it with an awesome mountain off-roading drive that filled the day with excitement and showed us another part of Nevada we probably would have never seen.

Great Basin National Park

Baker Creek is home to hikes and trails in a park that is bustling with life.

Baker Creek is home to hikes and trails in a park that is bustling with life.

We arrived in Great Basin around 5pm, and were greeted at the visitor center by a red-eyed ranger who looked to be in desperate need of sleep just as much as we did. He pointed out a couple of campsite locations that were available and told us that we better get rolling because the spots fill up fast, especially during the summer months. So we chose to head out to Baker Creek, a camp site not too far of a drive that was said to have a few spots left. Maps in hand and saying goodbye to our red-eyed ranger, we headed through the park and into the campsite.

The creek cuts through vegetation just near the campsite making the place the perfect place to relax and enjoy the evening.

The creek cuts through vegetation just near the campsite making the place the perfect place to relax and enjoy the evening.

Nestled along a gorgeous grey rocked cliff, Baker Creek cuts right through the center of the park and camping is available right along its shores under the cool foliage surrounding it. Crystal clear and cold the water trickled down the rocks leaving an always peaceful sound around the campsite. This small creek was the peaceful place where we would rest our heads for the night before making another long drive up north on a detour to Idaho, and we broke camp early for much needed rest.

There is a motto for Great Basin National Park that goes, “Half the park is after dark.” Due to the remoteness of the park in the great vastness of the Great Basin, the park is home to one of the clearest night skies in the country. We rested our heads and looked toward the night sky through the mesh of our tent (to fend off mosquitoes) to view the stars slowly shining in their brilliance as the sky darkened. Excited for the show, we stayed up late well past 11pm gazing in awe of it all… until the moon breached the mountains and blinded us with its brilliance. Glowing like an orb in the night sky, we decided it was then we should lay our heads in rest. Tomorrow would be an even longer drive, and have just as many memories to carry with it.