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The stars I was seeing were not in outer space, they were sparkling lights emitted by the mixed signals from the pain receptors in my brain. I’d just taken another digger, my body was aching, my mouth full of dust and I was only a few miles from the end of the trail. Hurting, embarrassed and a wee-bit ticked-off, I staggered over to my still-running bike and hit the kill switch. I can’t remember the last time I crashed on a fire road, but then again, it’s been a while since I’ve been riding where the scenery caused me to lose concentration like this. I had been moving along at about 20-30 mph, standing up and surveying the ridge adjacent to me, with its rough red rocks in contrast to the bristling blue sky and the dark, snow-capped mountains on the distant horizon. It would’ve made an awesome picture. The truth is that the sun was setting on our final day at the 26th Annual Nevada 200 Trail Ride and I was trying to soak in all these epic desert vistas before calling it a wrap.
After being off a dirt bike for almost six months I didn’t mind the aching parts so much. It was just great to be back on the trail, riding with friends, visiting yet another location I’d never ridden and participating in an event that had eluded me for many years. The Nevada 200 is considered one of the top trail rides in the US of A, but it’s more than just a ride. It’s an opportunity to take advantage of access to the Nevada wilderness that is normally reserved for Best in the Desert off-road races. It’s a hell of a ride, and it’s been fulfilling the lives of a few lucky off-road riders for over a quarter of a century. The story behind the 200 is that longtime friends Scot Harden and Casey Folks came up with the event as an excuse to get out of the office, return to their roots and hang out once a year in one of their favorite riding areas throughout the
The Nevada 200 only accepts 200 invitations, and those lucky enough get to choose between the A-course or the C-course.
Clover Mountain Range outside of Caliente, Nevada.
This is a place that was once the hub for railroad traffic connecting the coasts. Over the years it has slipped away from the public eye and evolved into a throwback of sorts, small town USA. For off-road riders though, this town is a perfect place to escape from the fast pace of the more famous cities like Las Vegas and Reno. Caliente has embraced the Nevada 200. People here have become an integral part of it and along the way they have all played some role in the ongoing popularity. Harden and Folks are quick to point out that their affinity for this place may have began with the desert, but over the years friendships formed and like-minded souls were brought together through a common bond. This applies to more than just the organizers because participants come together as well. It’s an opportunity to meet people from all around the US who like to ride and are willing to go through great measure to do it. There were groups from Nevada, Michigan, California and Oregon, hell one pair actually made the trek from England to get a taste for riding on the desert. At the time they didn’t even know what a sand wash was.
The scenery along the ride is best described as real desert with brownish-khaki dirt, red rocks and scrub brush in the background.
The Nevada 200’s recipe is simple in its finite form. There are no-more than 200 invitations accepted and those fortunate enough to be in attendance choose between participating in an A-ride or a C-ride. Motorcycle Hall of Famer, Baja 1000 champion, Dakar Rally veteran Scot Harden, prepares the A-course. It focuses on terrain he enjoys, like endless single track strung technically through the trees, challenging horse trails leading to places few humans have been before and an assortment of other difficult routes are what await the A-riders. If that worries you, no problem, choose the C-ride. But be warned, just by calling it the C-ride implies it will be easy, but the fact is, this is a route organized by long-time desert racer Casey Folks. He puts on the most demanding desert races in the United States and the C-ride follows his tried and true recipe. He likes sand washes, rocks, whoops and fast roads. The more sand the better, and if you want to go slow you’ll be fine, but pick up the pace you’re going to have some serious fun. So pick your poison. Either way we guarantee that you’ll be put to task.
Since we had some greenhorns in our group we chose the C-ride on the first day in an effort to break them in slowly. We invited our pal and devout motocross rider Bobby Ali, the Technical Products manager for a little company called Alpinestars. He’s been riding his entire life but until this weekend had never turned a wheel off-road. He was joined by On the Trail TV host Stephen Anderson. Steve runs guided ATV tours in West Virginia but grew up on a dirt bike so he knew he was eager to sample the desert from the seat of a dirt bike. The ride was around 70 miles long so it wasn’t too bad. Though the washes were grueling, the terrain was more spectacular than hazardous. We rode out of town toward Antelope Canyon along dirt roads and through the infamous southern Nevada sand washes on our Husky TE450, TE310 and Honda CRF450X enduros. The scenery is best described as real desert with the brownish-khaki dirt, red rocks and scrub brush in the background. Its fun to ride new trails and Folks is adept at finding them. We navigated barely discernible routes through dusty, rock-infested fields and climbed hills, descended into valleys and hit a road or two along the way for good measure. After not riding a dirt bike for a few months it was nice to knock out the cobwebs. Highlights included a pass through the Trilobite area located by Barrow Pit just before our scheduled snack and fuel stop about 50 miles in. From there we crossed the highway and headed to the hills.
We navigated barely discernible routes through dusty, rock-infested fields and climbed hills, descended into valleys and hit a road or two along the way for good measure.
About 10 miles from the fuel stop, our pal Anderson realized his helmet camera had fallen off, so we backtracked to find it. Of course that’s not a great idea so when the sweep riders met him headlong he took a little heat for going backwards on the course, but was allowed to proceed with his search. He would pay the price later during the annual Nevada 200 roast. Long story short, we rode and extra 40-miles round trip and found the camera 100 yards away from the fuel stop. Once we were back on the trail things started to get fun again. That 10-mile stretch we’d ridden three times included a wonderful little canyon. Tall, vertical walls were pocked with bowling-ball-sized holes etched by eons of exposure to the elements. Staring at the scenery occasionally resulted in a surprise bar-jarring bump, but as you know, I didn’t heed the warning. Eventually the canyon gave way to the red, rocky plateau and a long, dusty rollercoaster of a road that ushered us back to the foothills and some of the highest elevation we’d see on the ride.
This is what we came for. Miles of fast, hard-packed dirt trails that snake through the mountains as we climbed higher and higher to the 6243-foot peak at Oak Springs Summit. The ascent reminded me of an unpaved Pikes Peak with endless bermed turns switching back and forth on the climb like some type of uphill snowboard run. It’s simply badass and more difficult and rewarding than any of us expected from the C-ride. Once at the top we could see what appeared to be all the surrounding mountains in the Silver State. This endless visibility presented by the perfect blue skies gave us the chance to soak in the surrounding area and get our first feel for just how immense Nevada’s expanse really is. From a geological perspective this place is unique as vast reaches of flat desert floor separate tall, jagged peaks of the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the west and the Wasatch Mountain range to the east. It’s a real shame to leave a place like that, but we were getting hungry and a catered dinner awaited us back in Caliente.
After a long day's ride we returned to the Shady Inn Motel which was centrally located to most of the Nevada 200 festivities.
We met an assortment of characters during drinks and dinner at the Knotty Pine Bar & Restaurant, just a few minutes walk down the street from our Shady hotel. We tortured our waitress with endless requests for water, steak sauce salad dressing and whiskey then got our tails whipped during a few rounds of billiards for good measure. It was a nice opportunity to break bread with Harden’s family, his long-time friend and indentured photographer Scott Cox as well as our first opportunity to meet with Brandon and Ed from Motion Pro, title sponsors of the Nevada 200. By the time last call came around, Anderson and I were the last men standing, although we were getting taken to school by Frank, the local pool shark, so we dragged our butts back to the hotel for a few minutes of shut-eye.
Everyone in our group felt good at the start of the second day so we decided to tackle the A-trail. As we huddled around the Red Bull tent in the freezing morning air, listening to the riders meeting, we were vaguely paying attention as Harden warned us about avoiding the right-side line on some random hillclimb. We were shivering so hard it didn’t register at the time. Moments later the riders queued up at the start and we were off in a cloud of dust. We crossed a creek right out of the gate so it was even colder with wet gear. We rode into a sand wash replete with deep whoops, hidden rocks and loads of shrub brush, and that really got the old arms pumped up early. That dry stream bed gave way to wider, deeper washes which fed us into a field of dense six-foot-tall bushes with trail marking ribbons tied to their tops. This was a trail but you could barely see the ground. After winding back-and-forth for a few minutes with no clear idea of where we were going, it eventually dumped us into a wooded area. We had gone through so many different types of riding in such a short period of time, it was wild and it’s only 10 minutes into a 100-mile ride.
From there we entered a huge, dry riverbed that consisted of deep gravel, loads of river rock and an opportunity to hold that Husqvarna TE450 wide-effen-open for about 15-20 minutes of ass-hauling fun. On the horizon were some tall,
In the dunes there are no hidden rocks, but in the desert these little land mines are just a part of the experience.
round hills with an occasional canyon stretching out of sight. Eventually, the course headed towards them and the first truly technically obstacle of the day. We stopped at the base of a very narrow and even steeper game trail that crept along the canyon wall. We were near the front of the pack so we got to see some of the fast riders navigate their way up. A few of them struggled for a moment along the cliff edge before recovering. I was next and as I approached that difficult point, the trail forked. To the right was a three-foot tall granite rock face with a rutted approach, to the left was the edge of that same rock, protruding out treacherously over the narrow trail. This was where the previous riders had an issue and in the split-second I had to choose a line, it seemed like the threat of falling off the edge looked worse, so I went right. Turns out, that route was actually more difficult as the TE450 jumped straight up, front wheel high in the air and came back down on the rear wheel. I landed upright with one foot on the peg and the other on the boulder so I stayed on the gas. With the tire spinning on the rock face. Eventually I built up some rubber, grabbed traction and crept up the hill, thankful I didn’t fail in front of the riders below.
In the end, it wasn’t death-defying, but it did test a rider’s mettle. Clearly that was the place Harden had suggested we should stay to the left. Unfortunately, that side gave more than a few riders fits. For every handful that made it without drama there was a couple who would struggle. A few even fell and were forced to bulldog their bikes down the steep face. It would’ve been funny if it wasn’t so dangerous. The canyon went back a few hundred yards and the trail continued along the edge of a nearly 100-foot crevasse. It was really amazing to look at, so we stopped and dug out the cameras so we could capture the carnage for posterity. A climb like that is no BS. Surveying the scene below you could see what seemed like a hundred riders funneling to the trailhead.
It took a few minutes to make our way out of the canyon and then worked through a series of fast washes and more of our beloved branches and brush. Following our predetermined fuel stop it was back to the action. More sand, more rocks, more ass-hauling fun as we had to make it to lunch on time if we wanted to beat the mad rush. Anyone who likes riding a dirt bike at the dunes will be the first to agree that while sand sucks without a paddle tire, it’s also kind of fun. As long as you keep momentum and stay on the gas you can carve and glide through it with relative ease. In the dunes there are no hidden rocks, but in the desert these little land mines are just a part of the experience. Avoid them if you can, that’s the goal. Washes gave way to roads which gave way to trails. Before long we were back in the pines where snow-covered patches served as a reminder that it’s still dang cold, despite that we were physically hot from working so hard. There’s a lot of snow on the ground this time of year, and that means there’s mud too. Yep, we slogged through a few slippery hillclimbs before the last mile or so of single track. It seemed like a long-ass ride just to eat some lunch, but we made it intact.
After checking in and getting a steaming-hot washcloth, both the A-riders and the C-riders ate a lunch of pulled-pork BBQ sandwiches, homemade potato salad and brownies.
Our upscale picnic-style dining experience started as soon as our helmets came off. First was check-in and receive a steaming-hot washcloth to wipe the dirt and muck off our grimy mugs. Both the A- and C-ride groups were here and it looked like some type of family reunion with nearly 200 bikes and supporting staff converging on the campground. Campfires and the ever-present hint of burning pine provided ambiance while the catered meal of pulled-pork BBQ sandwiches, homemade potato salad and brownies assured all of us that this was no ordinary trail ride. This is a ride for the discerning off-roader. You want the best, you ride this ride. Eventually the shindig had to come to an end as the start to what is arguably the most scenic portion of the day awaited us. Following Harden on the A-ride is cool, but following him quickly through tight, technical trails gives mortals a real glimpse at how fast the pros really are. This is about fun, but keeping a Dakar Rally veteran in sight for more than a few minutes proved impossible. I guess that’s why they mark the trails, right?
After an hour of rough-and-tumble ridges and some rocky climbs, we crested a small hill in the vicinity of Rattlesnake Point. The sight that opened up ahead of us will stop a person in their tracks. In the foreground is a deep canyon with a series towering rock formations that stretch a quarter-mile from the ridge. Protruding out of the valley floor are steep ribbons of decomposed granite that make up the Big Hogback. This stunning formation is something you have to see
For many people these types of desert events are a great bonding experience.
to appreciate. These larger than life images represent the natural beauty many people find alluring about the desert. Just knowing that this was once an inland sea, transformed into a barren, arid wasteland slowly whittled into a monument like this is awe-inspiring. As the waters receded the land transformed into rock, the rock eroded away over time and the formations have been presented for our viewing pleasure.
On the distant horizon are the snow-capped Sierra Nevada peaks. Behind us, the mountains of the Wasatch Range and between here and there, one of many flat, endless expanses found in the Great Basin Valley with the former Mormon settlement town of Panaca barely distinguishable in the valley below. These long distances between the mountains create a natural barrier that keeps individual ecosystems diverse and unique. This is part of what makes Nevada so intriguing for outdoorsmen.
For many people these types of desert scenes are cathartic. Here, you are surrounded by the beauty and inspired by the danger. It’s a sentiment that many off-road riders share and certainly the impetus behind an event like the Nevada 200. It’s funny that such a desolate, unforgiving place is able to stir a person’s soul, inspire them, humble them or help them feel complete. But it does…
“The reason I love the desert so much, and in particular the high desert around Caliente, is that it puts things in perspective,” explains Harden. “The relationship between man and God and this amazing home He has given us is stripped to the bare essentials. I never feel closer to God than when I am in this environment. It gives me space, and most important of all time to reflect on all His great gifts. He reminds me that we are free spirits roaming the face of the earth and that our time spent here is just a small layover on the way to something greater. The mountains and desert around Caliente are eternal and part of me and always will be. I also like Caliente because it seems to be caught in some sort of time warp. Nothing ever changes, and thankfully so. It’s a good place to check your bearings, recharge you spirit and best of all the riding experience is absolutely amazing. I’ve logged over 250,000 miles riding off road in my lifetime and have ridden on almost every continent on the planet. My favorite place remains Caliente.”
After an hour spent reminiscing, play riding and soaking in the scenery we geared up and made tracks to the final foreboding obstacle, affectionately named the Ho Chi Minh trail. A long, challenging trail that follows the path formed by a creek bed descends down a steep, narrow, rocky ravine. This final section claimed more than a couple engine case covers, handlebars and surely stretched a tendon or two.
After reminiscing, play riding and soaking in the scenery it was time to take on the big obstacle: Ho Chi Minh trail.
Since this route is meant for experienced riders, it was definitely a task. It felt more like a trials course compared to the wide-open washes and dirt roads we had been on earlier. If you take your time and pick good lines, the descent is sure to get into your head a bit because you can over-think it. Take a digger here and you’re looking at a losing some blood and the very real possibility of a broken collarbone. Big drop-offs, sharp rocks and stone walls all seem even more intimidating when the trail is so steep. I found the best way to make through these conditions was to carry some speed. Just blip the throttle on the face of the drop-offs and you can bunny hop down them. Of course in this instance it seemed like there were boulders, ledges, walls and more rock piles waiting at the bottom of every one, so it does make for a challenging ride. Keep in mind, our group included a rookie off-roader and an ATV rider who hadn’t been on a dirt bike in quite a while – let alone in conditions like this. These guys handled it like seasoned vets. They kept the bikes in one piece and only lost a few points here and there for a dab or two. By the time we made it to the bottom I could tell they were just happy to have survived, and honestly, I felt the same way.
Once we were back at the base camp it was time to share our personal recaps of the day’s events. Both Bobby and Steve had successfully ridden some of the most challenging trails in Nevada. We spent the next few hours bench racing and swapping tales while decompressing and getting ready for the big dinner hosted at the Caliente Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 7114. Since most of the weekend is supposed to be a non-competitive atmosphere, the Nevada 200 includes an Easter egg hunt where 20-30 light-footed participants volunteer to be publicly humiliated in the hopes of winning something of value. They line up along the first-base line of the local baseball field and sprint toward the plastic eggs containing nifty prizes from the event sponsors. Only a few people got hurt, but everyone had fun. Our photographer, Ty Maddox, volunteered to represent our clan; he won some M&Ms.
Across the street at the VFW our hosts grilled up a choice of chicken or steak along with all the accoutrements, and the bartenders were pouring stiff drinks. It’s all part of the plan of the Nevada 200 crew. They use this opportunity to lull you into dropping your guard, dull your senses and dig up the dirt before subjecting you to their annual post-ride roast. Anyone who did anything particularly stupid or annoying, crashed, hurt themselves, told a lie or looked like a dumbass would be subjected to a light-hearted verbal lashing by the silver-tongued devil, Casey Folks. Awards of endearment were handed out to each of the dozen or so roast victims and it came as no surprise that we earned a few. Not as many as the guys from Nebraska, one of whom waited so long he was approached by a census agent somewhere out on the trail. He obliged her and filled out the form. First up from our team was Bobby, our conduit to everything Alpinestars related, who took his lumps for being a newbie and mentioning at dinner that he had gained respect for off-road riders after years of simply not getting it.
By the time we made it to the bottom of the ravine we were just happy to have survived.
We threw Steve under the bus for admitting that the years of riding ATVs had made him soft, so he was victimized accordingly for being out of shape and being one of “them quad guys” – even though he swears he likes bikes better. Then, in a surprise twist he became the first double-award recipient in the 26-year history of the event when he was also nominated by the sweep riders for going backwards on the course on Day 1. What can I say, we made our presence known. The list of victims only grew from there as we were far from the only gang that had a jackass or two. One guy locked his keys in his truck then spent hours trying to jimmy the lock only to realize the passenger window was down the whole time. Another rider got a good lashing for almost taking Casey out on the trail while riding his ass – despite the warning in every rider’s meeting to keep your distance from the trail leader. Awards were presented to sponsors and supporters and a few egos were bruised along the way, but it was all in good fun. That really did set the tone and from that point on, lots of boozing and bench racing ensued, well into the wee hours of the morning…
The 6 a.m. wakeup call was more annoying than normal on Sunday. It was Day 3 and Tyler, who is arguably the best rider on the team and certainly in the best shape, was all fired up and ready to ride. The rest of us weren’t moving quite as fast as we limped down the sidewalk to the VFW for our buffet-style breakfast like a trio of zombies. Ty and I convinced the other two that we had to tackle the final day despite that they could barely walk, lift their arms or blink their eyes. If only Harden hadn’t divulged the route, we would have gotten them to go.
Our planned route would start off with a return visit to the cliff climb from yesterday and finish with the Ho Chi Minh once again. Between those two were a hundred miles of specially selected single track trail intended to break the will of even the most determined riders. Bobby and Steve took about two-seconds to call it a wrap and hang around at base camp instead of pushing their luck. In their defense, less than half of the riders opted to give it a go. We hit the trail with the intention of getting those few photos that had eluded us and a bit of apprehension about having another shot at the two most challenging obstacles from the day before. Maybe those places were going to get another shot at us?
The cliff climb was much easier when you stayed to the left. The new terrain that connected that region rewarded us with some spectacular technical riding through the
Nothing you could see would make you expect to find civilization nearby. Hills rolled on and on into the distance, all the terrain looked difficult and uninhabited. Make no mistake, this place is remote.
forested foothills. The trails were so tight that branches and brush banged my arms all day, leaving me looking a bit beat-up. I found myself on the ground a couple times throughout the afternoon as we were riding faster and harder since we were only a two-man show. All of the things I enjoyed in the first two days were a part of this one, plus the single track – it is what off-road riding is all about. This is close-proximity riding at its best, nerfing off stumps, ducking low-hanging branches, railing rutted berms and scything through the washes, all while eating a sand-spray sandwich from the rear tire of Ty’s TE450. We had swapped bikes on the final day with him giving up the venerable CRF450X so he could check out the Husqvarna.
The riders who skipped the final day should regret the decision because it’s not often you get to be one of the first people to ride on a single track like this. We made it our mission to soak it all in, while we searched for that one image which would sum this place up. It fueled our drive as we sojourned through the raw wilderness and impending second date with the Ho Chi Minh. We soldiered on, enduring the onslaught of branches, boulders and roost until we finally found ourselves back on familiar ground with less than 10 miles to go. We stopped atop a tall ridge and took survey of our location. Nothing you could see would make you expect to find civilization nearby. Hills rolled on and on into the distance, all the terrain looked difficult and uninhabited. Make no mistake, this place is remote. Yet, there we were, wishing we had more time to explore and soak in this vast expanse of riding area. We have it pretty good in Oregon, but every year the access diminishes a bit at a time. Meanwhile, Nevada is one of the few places left in the West that features this much land accessible to OHV enthusiasts.
Dwindling land access is a fact not lost on Folks. His BITD racing series focuses on Nevada and his efforts as both a revenue-generator for this region and a real enthusiast have helped to maintain OHV access that has increased the popularity of off-road riding in this place through his endeavors.
“I’m from Nevada, it’s my home state, the state I love,” reveals the race organizer. “I’ve been here almost my entire life. I know it backwards and forward. I’ve ridden 90% of the roads that are in Nevada. We have the last frontier of off-roading as we know it. We have probably the last state that would allow us to put on something like Vegas to Reno: 550-miles across the entire state? It would be impossible to do it anywhere else. There’s plenty of other states with vast expanses of land but there’s not any that recognizes what we do.”
As we made our way towards the Ho Chi Minh and those infamous last few miles of the course I found myself enamored with the whole scene. I was thinking about how great this place is and who I can bring with me next time. The fact that we had all made a few new friends, ridden with legends, formed even tighter bonds with our pals and then right about that time is I got caught daydreaming about the vista. Everyone knows you need to keep your eyes on the road and I became the poster boy for that old adage as I found myself facedown in the dirt and seeing stars. It took a while to straighten out the bars and levers with my newly acquired Motion-Pro Trail kit so that I could get the 450X back on the road. With my leg aching and confidence dwindling I followed Ty down the rocky trail, bouncing, scraping and barely surviving it for the second time in as many days.
Everyone knows you need to keep your eyes on the road and I became the poster boy for that old adage as I found myself facedown in the dirt and seeing stars.
I started thinking about something other than riding, but I had learned my lesson and kept my eyes on the trail. The last time we rode together was over a half-decade ago while pre-running in Baja. It’s also the last time Ty had rode in the desert and yet he’s looks like a mountain goat, deftly choosing lines and making the hard stuff look easy while I stumble along. It seems we only ride for work these days yet everywhere we go, it’s another epic destination. That’s the consolation prize. Almost everyone at the Nevada 200 was there for vacation. They wanted to experience the best this place has to offer so they floated, flew and drove thousands of miles to ride for two or three days. The locations we’ve turned a wheel on have been spectacular in their own right, but Harden has a point, there’s something extra special about this place. It combines desert scenery and its unforgiving terrain with the wilderness feel of the mountains surrounding it. Add into the mix a slice of small-town home-cooking and you will understand why when it comes to off-road riding, the area around Caliente, Nevada might truly be the last frontier.