*Photo taken near Ely, NV, showing cloud formations before precipitation falls.
**Important Notice! My website is getting a face lift, and will be moving to a new server beginning Thursday, March 7, 2018. For a few hours, the website may be down while it gets transferred to a new address. It may take time over the weekend to finalize all the changes, and then the whole look will be refreshed. Get ready, readers! Please bookmark my URL (elainersnyder.com) so you can still find me, just in case the current server doesn’t link you to my site directly from here. I am so excited to get a new look and feel, and to streamline the whole website to make it easier to find what you need. See you on the other side….
It’s hard to believe that it was almost two years ago when Michael and I bought our Airstream—sight unseen—and drove across the country to Ely, Nevada. We had already spent six months in New Hampshire on Michael’s first travel assignment as a nurse, and Ely would be his second. Little did we know what we were getting into when we drove to that small mining town after spending only a week in our Airstream. Our lives would change so much over that time, in some ways for the better, in other ways for the stranger. I’ve written about bits and pieces of our time in Nevada, particularly the time we spent in the Carson-Tahoe region, but I don’t think I’ve really written much about living in Ely. Bear with me while I describe the town itself until I get to sharing some of the hiking and parks we visited while we lived there. When we arrived in Ely, it was already dark, and we had come from Moab, a place we both adored enough to wish we could stay. Moab, the small and unique town in Utah near Arches National Park, was warm, nestled against a red rock mountain, and had just begun blooming with spring flowers. Our delight with Moab gave us cause to have a good outlook for living in Ely. What we didn’t realize was how very misguided we were about where we were headed.
Despite the darkness, our drive through the town was not encouraging when we first rolled into Ely—even the dark of night couldn’t hide the decrepit buildings and outdated facades of businesses. When we arrived at the RV park, it seemed slightly forlorn. Nevertheless, we parked for the night and got the Airstream hooked up to the electric, water, and sewer, and then settled in for bed after doing all the chores of getting the RV stabilized and battened down. At that point, we still didn’t know where we were or what we would find, and it wasn’t until morning when we ventured out to find a grocery store that we realized we were in for a rude awakening. The town appeared to be trapped in the 70s, as if time stopped in that decade and froze all the businesses from attaining modern progress. We found a diner downtown that had such an old interior the Formica laminate on the tables was nearly worn away. The food was mildly edible, and I think we may have eaten there only one more time before leaving town. Finding a grocery store didn’t happen on that first trip to town, as even Google didn’t seem to exist there, and all we could find was a ratty old shop with broken shelves inside the coolers holding the milk and eggs, and the vegetables appeared nearly rotten. We didn’t dare purchase anything perishable, so we picked up a few things wrapped and canned and headed back to our Airstream in despair.
Later we discovered a real grocery store, but even the more updated interior did not deliver the goods. Consistently during the time we lived there the store would be out of things for weeks at a time, even staples like bread, milk, eggs, or butter. Often after such a long time of being out of certain items, people would then buy large quantities of whatever was shipped, leaving the shelves bare again. One had to be lucky to arrive at the right time to get groceries. Just as disturbing as the lack of food in the grocery store was the lack of restaurants. I don’t eat out much, but I like to have a meal out occasionally to have a break from cooking. Nothing fancy, but at least once in a while I like not having to cook and clean. We tried a few places, and rapidly gave up on eating out, other than having the occasional pizza from the one half-decent place in town. Everything else we tried was either cooked poorly or the place was filthy. It’s a sad state of affairs when a town brochure puts the local Shell station on a list of places to dine. That’s an actual fact. The final and most frustrating aspect of shopping and eating in Ely was the prices. Everything was priced double what you would expect to pay in most places, even cities. In fact, we could go to Vegas and buy cheaper groceries and food. So, we found that aspect of living in Ely difficult, but we knew it was temporary. The isolation was a whole other ball of wax.
Ely is located on Route 50, which is dubbed “The Loneliest Highway in the World.” I don’t think that’s actually true, since there are a few small settlements along Route 50, even if they are spread hundreds of miles apart. That’s the way it is out on the West Coast when you drive through the interior of the country. You never leave town without a full tank of gas, and you’d better have tools in case you break down—there are a lot of long, long stretches of desert where you won’t get any cell service at all, and it may be a long time before another car drives through. So, living in Ely meant it was fairly isolated from other towns. It took several hours of driving to get anywhere else where a large enough population lived to support grocery stores, movie theaters, restaurants, and shopping of other kinds. This dismayed us at first, especially when we learned that not only was Ely a mining town, but also the home of the state penitentiary, where all the most dangerous criminals of several states would be sent. We learned that the lights we could see across the desert from our RV park belonged to that penitentiary, a sobering thought. I didn’t dare ask if anyone ever escaped, preferring to remain ignorant and blissful when I brought my garbage to the dump at night. All this disappointment was only compounded by the fact that it was just as cold in Ely as it was back in Western New York, not at all what we expected after the pleasant stay in Moab. Well, we didn’t take into account that Ely is 6,500 feet. And that caused us other problems.
For the first six weeks of living in Ely, both Michael and I struggled with energy. We both felt so tired all the time, especially at first. Just making the bed was a horrible chore which left us huffing and puffing, as if we had just run uphill full tilt. Regardless of all these drawbacks, I quickly found the places where I could get out and hike. Egan Crest is a trail system on BLM land owned by the government, and became one of my favorite places to take the dogs for walks on the undulating desert hills. Michael and I rode our bikes there once or twice and discovered a surprisingly vast view of the valley behind the hills. Walking on those trails I saw my first antelope, a real treat for me, and also jackrabbits that were big enough to be kangaroos. I never saw any snakes, but I did find evidence of a wild cat of some sort, whether it was a lynx or a mountain lion I won’t ever know. There was, however, a mountain lion that had been skulking the area for a while, according to the locals. I also fell in love with nearby Garnet Hill, another recreational area made up of government land, but open for anyone who wanted to go mine for garnets. We never bothered to try, since the area looked fairly picked over already, but I met a few people who had enjoyed digging there and had actually found some nice gemstones.
Really, my favorite place came to be Cave Lake State Park, an absolute gem itself. The park, just outside of Ely, also had a lovely set of trails, one of which ran along the stream where people often fished in the valley, and others which led over the mountains to allow for a view of the scenic chains of Nevada peaks. Though it stayed cold in Ely for much of the time we lived there, right through May, I still made regular trips to local spots for hiking. At least it was usually sunny, even if the air was cold. We did enjoy the view of the mountains all around us, too. Though Ely is at 6,500 feet, there were still peaks that ranged 2,000-3,000 feet above the flat desert steppe. It was a strange and alien place at first, with the lonely stretches of empty desert, little color to be seen from a distance, and then the odd mountain weather that could whip up in minutes. On many occasions we would observe the cloud formations sweeping across the steppe, hugging the sides of the mountains like veils of rain or snow, often accompanied by high winds of 60-70 mph. Curtains of precipitation would race toward you from miles away, and suddenly envelope the area for a short time, usually passing almost as quickly as they came. Rarely did the snow stick for more than a couple of hours, as the sun would immediately melt it away as soon as the clouds dissipated. The rhythms of a place begin to reveal themselves slowly, but taking the time to observe the weather, the plant life, the animals, all of it began to seem familiar after even a month.
Since we’ve left Ely, I actually miss certain things about hiking there. Typically I had the trails to myself when I went out into the wild spaces, and it was unusual to run into other hikers. It was peaceful to get out onto the slopes of the hills and wander for an hour or two, usually in the sunshine, being able to stop and enjoy the surprising bright flowers and plants which grew in the sandy soil. What looks lifeless from a distance will light up your senses up close in certain desert biomes, particularly in Nevada. It appears barren and brown while driving through it, but get out and look at the plants growing close to the ground, and you can discover dozens of small flowers, colorful leafy succulents, and plenty of juniper and other evergreens. One of the best surprises about living in Ely was driving what was called the “Success Loop,” a 30-mile road which traversed a mountain pass through some of the most beautiful scenery I ever had the privilege to see. Aspens robed in brilliant green, wildflowers in bright orange-yellow and purple, streams winding through the trees, and bright lush grass all defied logic at that elevation. One must wait until the end of June or early July to drive this loop, since the snow keeps it inaccessible until then, but once the snow melts, the whole mountain is alive in an idyllic dreamy scene. Michael and I could hardly believe the beauty, and we were so grateful to have discovered it after the length of cold days and biting winds, not to mention the drabness of the desert. We were starved for green by then.
While we lived in Ely we also made a trip to Great Basin National Park, which I wrote about in a blog post a long time ago. It was nothing more spectacular than what we had already been seeing in Ely, but we were glad we went anyway. We made the mistake of going in May, which meant the snow still had Wheeler Peak locked up in snow and ice, and we were unable to go up to enjoy the full view. Also unfortunate was the typical factor of dogs not being allowed on the trails (which is true in all the National Parks, sadly), which meant we could not get out to hike there because it was too hot in the car to leave the dogs behind. Our attempt to get out to the one place where the dogs were allowed on a trail was foiled by a washed-out road. If you happen to be driving through Nevada and will pass close to Great Basin in the summer, it’s worth a trip to get up to Wheeler Peak (we were able to get most of the way up before encountering the road block) and to hike the trails. Snake Valley was especially lush and green due to the river there, and is a pleasant spot to walk. The visitor’s center is excellent, and will offer up the usual fantastic educational material about what you can expect to see and discover when you go out into the park, so get there first. Be forewarned that Great Basin is very remote, and you should prepare to come with a fully stocked cooler, along with any other supplies you may need during your stay. There is virtually nowhere to shop for many, many miles around—in fact, Ely might be the closest town with any sort of actual grocery store at an hour away. Also to be noted, the campgrounds are primitive, so prepare to boondock.
Honestly, we were glad to leave when it came time to go to Carson Valley, but now in retrospect I actually miss the hiking. I don’t miss the weather, but I miss the sunshine. I don’t miss the shopping, but I miss the mountain view. Maybe one day I’ll pass through that area again. If I do, I’ll be sure to stop at Cave Lake or Egan Crest for a hike. I might even go see a movie in the cute old theater that a local family has kept preserved in its original 1920s décor, a classy era if ever there was one. If you’re passing through Ely, spend the night and enjoy a visit to some of the trails or special scenic spots. Have a pizza. Go see a flick. Just don’t go shopping. And save your visit for summertime, when it’s easier to enjoy some time outside. You might even see a herd of wild horses or antelope if you’re lucky.
*Remember, bookmark my URL: elainersnyder.com to be able to link to my blog and resources after my move!