The final few days of our journey could be characterized by dramatic extremes. From the neon lights and glitz of Las Vegas to the intense barrenness of the Mojave desert. From the greens and blues of Lake Mead to the crystal brilliance of new snow in Oregon. From the dry salt basin at 282 feet below sea level in Death Valley to the 4,400 ft. wintry heights of Reno. From the military testing grounds of Nevada to the first Washington road sign with “Penticton.” We experienced all the seasons several times across days and sometimes even over a few hours. The only non-dramatic part was a quiet crossing back into Canada which felt like the best “welcome home” possible.
Las Vegas, Lake Mead/Hoover Dam & Red Rock: camping on Lake Mead allowed us to complete the challenging 32-mile Rivers Mountain loop on a paved bike path. The challenging part was the grade of the hills and the lack of shade. Luckily we brought along enough water. A visit to Hoover Dam was thwarted by lack of bike parking (even though the bike path extends there) and a dismissive attitude by staff. Had to make do with an overlook of the dam. (It is also the only dam that charges a rather hefty fee for their tour.) We also camped for a few nights right next to a casino resort in Vegas. We took a free shuttle to the strip for one day’s wandering, with a glass of wine overlooking the fountains of the Bellagio and a little blackjack at Caesar’s Palace. On the shuttle bus back to the campsite, the bus driver regaled us with the economic woes that is today’s Vegas as apparently, there is not enough gambling happening and new ways to draw visitors are in development. Another day was spent exploring the casino resort next door as simply signing up for a players’ card scored us a free buffet brunch. Bowling and a little more blackjack with very friendly dealers and a convivial atmosphere that was markedly different than on the Strip rounded out our first camping-at-a-casino experience. After spending a whole afternoon at an outlet mall, we left the city to camp in the quiet of Red Rock just to the west. Had we known what this area offered, we would have planned a little more time to cycle the 13-mile scenic loop.
Death Valley: we hit the best time to visit as much of the basin’s services shut down in the next couple of weeks. Only high-elevation camping is available from May to October as Death Valley is known as the “hottest, driest, and lowest” place in North America. Part of the Mojave desert, it makes the Sonora desert look like a tropical oasis. Stark beauty abounds amidst dramatic and harsh conditions. We walked on the sharp salt boulders that make up the floor of the basin, got sand-blasted in the sand dunes, and managed to stay upright on a 6-mile hike where the regular windy conditions were punctuated randomly with take-me-to-the-heavens gusts. The 7% humidity level makes one feel the atmosphere sucking the moisture out of one’s body disrupting our sleep for periodical nighttime hydration (along with the incessant wind rocking the van). For a few dollars, however, we were able to access the lodge’s pool and showers, highly welcome after near self-dessication. The drama of Death Valley continued as we eventually climbed out to the west. With each 1000 feet elevation gain, the temperature changed with the topography, until about an hour north of the west exit, we entered rain followed by flashing warning lights that the highway ahead (towards Lake Tahoe) would require carrying chains and might be closed shortly. We left the valley in shorts and sandals, with the A/C on and a few hours later were scrambling to find our fleece jackets and long pants. California was definitely messing with our heads!
Reno: we chose Reno as a good spot to spend a day where we could do some final shopping (it’s large enough to have 2 Costco’s, a Trader Joe’s, and an REI). We camped at another casino resort so once the van was re-organized, we had a fun evening at the on-site casino. Reno is a mountain city ringed by snow-capped mountains and in fact, it started to snow lightly as we walked to the casino. Our heater ran throughout the night and kept us cosy where just two nights prior, we would have run the A/C had we an electrical hook-up.
The final stretch heading home took us through vast areas of nothingness in northern Nevada (military space for arms & bomb storage and testing)…
…and through western Idaho (increasingly green)…
…then through the high mesas of eastern Oregon (awakening on our final day to several inches of snow)…
… and finally through the familiar coulee area of central Washington to a very quiet and uneventful border crossing (although we did see a familiar white and green border control truck that were everywhere along the US-Mexico border).
Driving up to Penticton, we reflected on two things: how clean and bright everything appeared and how 26,000 kilometres on the road alters one’s sense of place. And now, after living in a 100-square foot space for almost six months, we can’t remember where we put anything in the house 🙂