Summer Road Trip: Winnemucca

Downtown Winnemucca on June 24th, photo by kajmeister.

If we had planned out the messenger relay stops between San Francisco and, say, Denver or Chicago, would we have put one in Winnemucca? It doesn’t have the feel of “oasis” or “tavern” — it barely feels like an elongated rest stop.

Winnemucca is 2.5 hours–as the Subaru cruises–from Reno, which is 2 hours from Sacramento, which is 2 hours from the Bay Area, which is our starting point. There are effectively only two ways out of California. You bomb south on I5 to Los Angeles, then either go “up” through Las Vegas and maybe the Grand Canyon, Zion, or Bryce and head up to Utah or “down” south of Death Valley, toward Flagstaff and Albuquerque.

Or, you head north and go through Donner Pass and down into the wide, wide, wide plain of Nevada, which is not even as interesting as the deserts of Arizona and the hills that bracket the central valley of California.

Only two ways through California.

I suspect that no one has Winnemucca as an ultimate destination.

Post-Pandemic Wanderlust

It’s still raw to go on a long driving trip of this magnitude since before COVID. We had a couple of two-day jaunts up and down the coast, and one long one, masked whenever we walked through the lobbies of the Holiday Inns. We also ventured out on a cruise this past February, and –guess what?–I did get COVID on the airplane flying home, where I was fully masked but the heavy breather next to me was not. I brought masks on the trip, but I am a little put off with the bother, given the circumstances. I am vigilant, never fear.

Donner Pass still had snow in late June! Our water supply is partly back! Photo by kajmeister.

I am far more worried about these cars with the tinted windows that seem to think they are in a movie, racing in and out of the trucks on these crowded byways. On the other hand, the speed limit out here is 80. Now that the car has a table that will show your average MPG, it’s kind of fun to see if you can drive it upward without slowing down to much. Our red Subaru–O’Hara she is named, though we call her the “Fun Car”–is not even a hybrid, but her six-year average mileage of 27.9 is pretty good for an SUV. The goal for this trip is to see if we can get it up to 28.0.

The kajmeister car.

It took us 45 minutes to pack before we left yesterday. We are going to a writer’s conference, so there are panel-sitting clothes (hotel air conditioning) and banquet fancy duds (KK had to rank her shoes). Her fans will be happy to know that she is bringing five boxes of books to sell; I am bringing one box, you never know. Then, there are all the books I need to READ, crossword puzzles for the car, all my swim/pickleball/hiking gear. We have STUFF. Let’s not even discuss the layered series of pills, vitamins, medications. You laugh now, but we took the ten hour drive down to San Diego last week for my son’s graduation (Dr. Kaj woohoo!) and he took us to the best birria taco place. And, on the drive home, we quickly found the Tums and the Immodium, so that was handy! Not the first rodeo for these gals!

Canterbury Tales, design from Roxbury Latin School

Pilgrimages and the Yam

I was thinking earlier that vacations are a super recent thing, in the historical time frame of things. American road trips started some time after they built these super highways in the 1940s and 1950s, with the whole idea of vacation being new for people who worked regular schedules. Peasants and laborers didn’t take vacations; though there was a growing leisure class or aristocracy. They did. The European trip, the Grand Tour, as they called it was a fairly standard thing. Jane Austen’s characters–even the less wealthy ones–were always going down to the coast or to Bath for the summer or whatever.

So then I realized, thinking about ye olden Middle Ages, wherein I spend a great deal of my thinking times these days, they didn’t vacation but they did travel! I just finished a fantastic audio lecture series on the Black Death–Great Courses, Dorsey Armstrong, one of the best!–and she talks about the writing of Boccaccio and Chaucer who were responding to the Black Death. People left the cities to flee the plague, or they went out on pilgrimages to try to atone for whatever sins they thought might be causing this pestilence. Pilgrimages were their version of vaccination, I suppose. Even before and after plague, there were a lot of pilgrimages and merchants. The rag man was always wandering–there were fairs across Europe where artisans brought their wares.

It meant a lot of traveling. They went in packs for safety. Taverns, wells, going from one town to the other. Lots of fleas, maybe a little dysentery, but telling story after story to keep each other company, the way we’re listening to podcasts and audiobooks now. What’s the Canterbury Tales version of a Big Gulp and Cheetos do you suppose?

The Mongols built a series of messenger relay stations, which they called the yam. They didn’t invent the postal system–I believe that existed in Egypt and probably in Sumeria–all the way back. But the Mongols created a chain of stations across Asia such that, in the time of Khubilai (1280), supposedly you could send a message out 2000 miles and get a response in 30 days. No GPS, satellite, phone, telegraph, electricity… imaging messengers riding all day from post to post.

The postal yams of Asia, from Houttakin italo.

Ogodei Khan, Chinggis Khan’s son, raised a temporary tax (which became a permanent tax) to provide food, fodder, horses, and stationkeepers to maintain the upkeep of the stopping places. He said they needed to fund it publicly because, without the stations, messengers are just riding through regular towns, causing a nuisance asking for food from random passers by, and being slowed down. What would it be like, do you suppose, if we publicly funded much nicer way stations for us to stop at on our passing-throughs? In America? I can’t even imagine such a thing. Clean, with fresh fruit and vegetables, and no casinos.

Good Sushi, Bad Sidewalks

Winnemucca, being the only substantial town between Salt Lake City and Reno (or California), is a strip of hotels, travel center/gas stations, and restaurants. The sidewalks were pretty chewed up, the roads a bit treacherous with patches of potholes springing out of nowhere. If you go out for a walk after dinner, there is nothing but parking lots and sidewalk, lots of gravel. There is a cemetery, but no public park. Of course, the casinos–every hotel is a casino, every casino is a casino.

The Pig BBQ across the street smells pretty good under the circumstances, but we opted for sushi. And Bambu Sushi lived up to it’s positive Yelp reputation, though in high summer travel rush, the place was packed with families and kids like a McDonald’s with only one beleaguered server. Luckily for us, the fellow with four sons who came in ahead of us just could not make up his mind what flavor of boba tea to order, so that led us to slide our order in first.

Bambu Sushi, Winnemucca. Worth the destination? Photo by kajmeister.

I was thinking that 20 or 30 years ago, you would not have had sushi in downtown Winnemucca, that it was probably barely a wide spot in the road, with a few taverns and barns for people to stop for a bit. If you are going to have sushi, boba tea, chai, birria, or any manner of foods invented by people who don’t come from northern Nevada, then they have to get here somehow.

Someone taught these folks to make very good sushi, and they had to wander over here to Nevada and decide to stay for some reason. Maybe it’s serene in the off season. Maybe there’s green somewhere but not on the map, so we hordes of travelers don’t go stampeding through. Maybe Winnemucca was a great destination for somebody, away from the hustle and bustle of some crowded city. It is a matter of perspective.

Time to go now. We have to get to Rock Springs, Wyoming by nightfall, and that’s eight hours across the salt flats of Utah. KK has her eye on a Japanese steakhouse, with highly-rated bento boxes.

8 Replies to “Summer Road Trip: Winnemucca”

  1. I’ve stayed at the RV park in Winnemucca a few times, all I can say is thank god there was a casino to eat at.
    Enjoy your journey through the salt flats, try to stay awake.
    See ya in Denver 🙂.
    Alicia Gael

  2. Would you believe my son and I stopped for lunch in Winnemucca on our way from Massachusetts to San Francisco on a road trip in a U-Haul 14’ truck. In 2010. Here’s what I wrote in a post on my old blog dated August 8, 2010:

    “The areas of civilization between West Wendover, where we stayed the previous night, and Reno near the California line, are few and far between. We ended up stopping for lunch at a town called Winnemucca, which, according to Wikipedia, was the location of a vibrant Chinatown in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This enclave was home to many of the Chinese workers working toward the connection of the Central Pacific Railroad and Union Pacific Railroad in 1869.”

    1. Everybody stops at Winnemucca, of course. Love that characterization. The Japanese may have come up from LA or even been relocated after internment–I heard that happened. Or came west in recent decades and went to Nevada because it was cheaper, like other people do. (Sorry I got snarky about being blocked, clearly I’m being read, so thank you for that!)

  3. Excellent travelogue! Question: Why not a hybrid? I ask becuase we are headed in the that direction (our cars are 17 & 20 years old).

    No public park! that is sad,

    8 hours on the road today – that was our regimen 10 years ago, not any more – now it is 6 (steak house or not), but I am guessing there isn’t a Winnemucca 6 hours away today.

    Cheers Lainie & Lee

    1. Subaru didn’t have a hybrid–we’d upgrade in a heartbeat. Our Kia is a hybrid, and I highly recommend it. The Priuses are overpriced. Definitely go hybrid!

  4. Winnemucca, NV is a popular spot it seems, or just conveniently located between miles and miles of nothing. Gregg and I will be staying at an RV park overnight in Winnemucca on August 10th. I have to admit I am not really looking forward to it. Will probably skip the sushi since parking a 30 ft land yacht is cumbersome. It has the one advantage though of being able to take EVERYTHING with you… including the kitchen sink! It will be our first time taking this beast on an extended road trip. Wish us luck!

    1. Winnemucca was not as bad as I had heard. If anything it’s like Grand Central Station in Nevada. Be wary of the chewed up sidewalks, but the food was ok and the gas was Nevada prices.

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