"A Mask and a Minivan" - Our Pandemic Road Trip (Part 4 - Going to California)
Updated: Dec 14, 2022
This is the fourth post about the 5-month road trip my wife, daughter, and I took earlier this year in the middle of the pandemic. You can also go back and read a little of the background/ context behind the trip, or read about our time in Asheville, Lawrence, Kansas, and Moab.
When we left Moab we felt like we'd turned a corner. My shingles were crusting over, I no longer felt like garbage, and our daughter's vomiting spells had subsided. Also, my childhood home in California was finally within reach, which would mark the completion of the first half of our journey (with the return being the other half).
The Drive/ Our Stay
Rather than take a major highway through Nevada, our plan was to stop for two nights in Baker, Nevada where we'd be able to visit Great Basin National Park, before taking the "Loneliest Road in America" across Nevada and then cut down north of Lake Tahoe before finally making our way to the Bay Area.
The drive from Moab to Baker was probably my favorite of the entire trip. Through much of the day we were up and down dramatic snow-capped mountain vistas. At the top of one of the stretches of mountain highway we ran into a brisk (if brief) snow storm. By the time we crossed the border into Nevada, it felt that we'd left much of civilization and were truly somewhere remote. It felt good.
There are towns and there are small towns and there is Baker, NV. Near the Utah border, Baker is not much more than maybe two restaurants, a gas station, and a smattering of houses out in the desert and in the shadow of the mountains to the west. Pretty much the only reason anyone would go to Baker is because it's the gateway to Great Basin National Park, which itself is one of the more remote and less visited national parks. I hesitate to even call Baker a village. Instead, I would more call it an outpost.
When we arrived, we decided that in order to optimize for our daughter's nap schedule, we'd go directly to the Great Basin for some short hikes before checking into our Airbnb.
Great Basin National Park is a dry, mountainous park overlooking a desert. It is known for its ancient bristlecone pines, one of which is said to be some 5,000+ years old. The entrance to the park is located some miles up a long uphill road from Baker. The day we visited the park, Baker was relatively warm, whereas it was snowing up in the mountains of the park. Given the time of year (it was April) the road up to the top of Wheeler Peak was closed, so we instead settled for some hikes along some of the lower elevation trails.
Given the remoteness of Baker, there were very few options for accommodations. Despite the nearby national park, there were scant hotels to speak of and only a few Airbnbs. I was a little wary of the Airbnb we'd booked because the host, a somewhat elderly woman by the look of her profile picture, had initially declined our request on account of us having a baby in tow; however, after some back and forth the host decided to make an exception for us because we "seemed like responsible parents."
Earlier in the day when we were approaching Baker, my wife had texted with the Airbnb host to let her know our timing and happened to mention our daughter's name (Eowyn, yes, from Lord of the Rings). Apparently, the host knew the reference, because when we arrived late that afternoon, she commented how she'd seen a wild horse out on the plain just a few minutes prior and saw it as a sign we were near. She was clearly the same woman from the Airbnb picture, but her eyes were a striking blue and belied a sort of depth of character. I suppose anyone who chooses to live in such a remote place must have an interesting backstory.
Our Airbnb was perfectly charming, yet that evening we decided to stay only a single night rather than two so that we could do the 12 hours remaining of our drive in two stints rather than in a single day. We were disappointed to not be able to stay in this magical-feeling place longer, but given everything we'd been through, knew better than to push ourselves.
We'd read a lot about how the nighttime stars in Baker/ Great Basin were amazing given how little light pollution there is. Unfortunately the night was overcast and we couldn't see much. The next morning we woke up to watch the sunrise. We'd only been there a night, but I felt strongly that it was a place I wanted to return to one day.
On our way out of the Airbnb we had a conversation with our host from our car. She came over and told us that even though she wasn't typically a baby person that she was somehow drawn to our daughter. "She has an old soul, I think," the woman said.
We talked awhile longer. It turned out that the woman and members of her family had a rare eye condition where the optic nerve calcifies. I wasn't sure if that was related to how striking her eyes were. Once her vision had gotten to the point where she could no longer drive she moved out here to Baker, a place she described as the "beating heart of the country."
We all agreed it was a special place.
On our way west that day we took a highway that has been dubbed, the "Loneliest Road in America." For the first few hours it seemed as if the road would follow a similar pattern: we'd drive up into some wooded mountains, then down into an enormous scenic valley where you could drive 100 miles per hour and no one was there to care. After some miles you'd hit another set of mountains to climb up and the pattern would repeat. Out in a place like that it felt good to be so disconnected with the rest of the world.
Eventually the landscape changed to the more barren terrain I thought of when my mind conjured up images of Nevada and we made our way through Carson City and up into the Sierra's before stopping for the night at Lake Tahoe. I'd grown up only 3.5 hours from Lake Tahoe, but I couldn't remember ever spending much time there. It is obviously an incredibly beautiful place, yet the number of people there – in their Teslas and other luxury vehicles – reminded me that we were back to civilization and jobs and money and the grind.
We stayed in a hotel room just across the street from the lake. The next day, we had an uneventful drive to the Bay Area where my dad and his wife awaited us.
Next up: our stay in California, and more unexpected problems...