Nevada Overland Trip (EXBRO5), Day 1: Alkali Flat Hot Springs To Pine Creek

For four years I turned down my son’s invitations to join him, his girlfriend Andrea, and some friends on their annual EXBRO (Expedition Broverland, a word play on the tv series Expedition Overland) trips with the excuse I don’t have a suitable vehicle. But when I heard that this year’s trip was going to be in the wilds of Nevada, an area I’ve long wanted to explore, I decided that life was too short for that lame excuse anymore. So I impulsively decided to modify my xB to make it suitable, hopefully. I’m coming!

It was one of the best decisions I ever made. The trip was fantastic, fulfilling multiple aspirations: spend days driving off-road; see splendid sights, endless vistas, ghost towns and superb scenery; enjoy the company of my son, Andrea, Jim Klein and some new friends; and do it all in a silly little FWD box that I modified myself to take on the challenge. Would it make it?

The plan was to meet on the evening of June 19th at Alkaline Flat Hot Springs, 20 miles south of Tonopah, NV. That’s some 700 miles from Eugene, so I broke up the drive into two pleasant days, with my first overnight on a hilltop pull-off from Hwy 447 about 80 miles north of Gerlach, NV.Β  It was a scenic preview of things to come.

It was also my first night sleeping in the xB, which I turned into a self-contained microvan (this was shot before my final packing). With the front seat removed, I have a full length foam mattress;Β  food and utensils are stashed in bins just ahead of the bed. The cooler is underneath, supporting the front of the bed. With its high roof, it’s quite easy to climb in via the driver’s side rear door, to change or whatever. It’s a comfy, one-person camper, and it’s exceeded my expectations in that regard.

I already detailed here the many changes I made to the xB to make it as suitable as possible for the job at hand. For those who missed it, here’s the highlights: lower bumper sections removed/cut, sill body “kit” removed, suspension raised 1″ with polyurethane spacer blocks, softer springs, struts and shocks from a Toyota Echo/Yaris, front sway bar removed for better articulation, larger 205/65R15 HD 6-ply Firestone Winterhawk commercial tires, which combined with the spring lift created a total lift of 1.5″ and a bit over 9″ of ground clearance. Hopefully that would be enough.

The roof rack carried a full-size spare, two 2-gallon gas cans and my recovery kit (recovery bolt, snatch strap, tow strap, and folding shovel). All the rest of my gear easily fit inside. Total outlay: about $500. A cheap price of admission.

The final touch was a suitable mascot.

Front and rear.

I was the first to arrive at Alkali Flat Hot Springs. There are two hot pools of different temperature that we enjoyed in the cool of the evening and again in the morning. The views across the vast valley were soon to be very familiar. Nevada has numerous mountain ridges running north-south, and broad valleys in between. The mountains typically look much closer than they are due to the exceptionally dry clear air.

The large pool was perfect for cooling down afterwards.

There was a welcoming committee of about a half dozen wild burros in the middle of the road as I drove in.

Ted (Ed) and Andrea arrived in their Tacoma TRD, sporting its new swing-away carrier out back.

A bit later, Jim “Cannonball” Klein arrived in his Jeep Wrangler looking remarkably fresh after the long drive from Colorado, and only a day after he had returned home from Minnesota, also driving.Β  Two other participants also arrived; Josh from Idaho and Randy from Eugene. It was to be the first of many lovely evenings eating and socializing, with the inevitable spectacular sunset over the distant mountains to the west.

There were also two ponds, visible here on the left. The closer one was populated with bullfrogs, whose repetitive deep and plaintive pleas for a mate became a sort of semi-pleasant white background noise as we went to bed. One frog would start, and the others all repeated his rap.

But the curious braying and other indescribable sounds that two burros made on thefar side of the pond was too loud and obnoxious, so Josh climbed down from his roof-top tent and walked over to have a very frank conversation with them: Shut the fuck up! Which they did, after a few mutterrings only two burros can make. Thank you Josh!

As we ate breakfast we were treated to a series of visits by small groups of wild horses that came to drink at the pond.

The groups appeared to have regular scheduled times at the pond, as there was a constant coming and going with very little overlap. Another group is barely visible, awaiting their turn in the distance.

There were several young foals to be seen. It was superb breakfast scenery on the go; sure beat watching or reading the news.

After the horses were done, some pronghorn antelope took their turns. This one locked eyes with Josh.

We stopped in Tonopah for ice and gas. When Ted looked across the parking lot and saw this old Corolla Liftback with two giant antennas sitting there with a person inside, he almost fell over: he had seen the very same car in a parking lot on a previous EXBRO, two years ago, somewhere in Eastern Oregon. What are the odds? Is he following and monitoring us?

Ted ambled over to talk to him. Turns out he has lived mostly out of his Corolla for many years, and spends much of his time hanging out in the wilder areas of this part of the world. Just a coincidence; and one involving a very genuine CC at that.

I had stopped in for a bit of poking around in Tonopah the previous afternoon, so I’ll add a couple of shots of the town. Like so many Nevada mining towns, Tonopah was once a bustling and prosperous place.

Three famous silver mines, including the Silver Queen (above) produced very profitably for several decades before finally shutting down.

The Mizpah mine was another, and its name also was given to the biggest hotel in town. The mean-looking flat black Viper’s license plate reads “ASSAYER”.

Since there was an assayer’s office just a few doors down, so I assume it’s his Viper. Just the thing to take out for a fast spin on the mostly deserted highways around Tonopah.

Maybe the Tesla Model S is his too. The two quickest American cars of their times.

As we headed north out of town on fairly easy dirt roads, we couldn’t help but see the Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Project off in the distance, lit up with an almost unearthly brightness. As so many things in the dry and very clear desert air, it was actually a lot further away than it initially seemed; it was in our view for some twenty minutes.

The plant, built in 2014, uses 10,347 mirrors to focus the sun’s energy on its central tower to heat circulating molten salt (sodium) to just over 1000 degrees Fahrenheit, which is then stored in a tank and used used to heat a steam generator, allowing it to also operate all night unlike solar panels. But the plant was overly expensive and suffered several technical setbacks, including a leak in the sodium tank. It went bankrupt in 2019 and has been offline since then, although there is talk of restarting it in 2021. Photovoltaics (solar panels) have dropped in price dramatically, making this technology essentially obsolete.

We stopped for a group photo shoot a little ways down the road. To the right of Ted and Andrea’s Tacoma is the most serious off-roader of the group, Josh’s prior-generation Tacoma. It’s got a front winch, and Josh carries a chain saw, Max Trax, and other recovery items to cope with just about any obstacles he might encounter. At the far right is Randy’s Toyota 2011 Sequoia, which he just bought and outfitted for this trip to replace the 4×4 Econoline 350 extended body van that he used on past EXBRO trips. That van was a bit unwieldy and rode roughly due to very stiff springs. Randy removed the middle and one of the rear-most seats, making room for a full-length bed and plenty of storage. Jim also figured out how to sleep in his Jeep, which he will show us later in a post and video.

We skirted the Tonopah Test Range.

And lots of free-range cattle, which vastly outnumbered the humans we saw on this trip.

Stops for route consultations were not uncommon. We used the Gaia app, in which we had uploaded maps of the area as well as the Nevada Backcountry Discovery Route (“NBDR”) route points ahead of time, as cell coverage was very intermittent. But we didn’t always stick to the NBDR, in order to explore points of interest or other reasons.

We all carried cheap but very effective little two-way radios so that we could space ourselves out to avoid driving in the inevitable clouds of dust kicked up behind each vehicle. That’s both for comfort as well as safety, as driving into a thick dust cloud is dangerous as well as unpleasant.

Page 2 continues with ghost towns and some video of the xB tackling some challenging terrain:

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