On the morning of Saturday, September 25, 2010, I waved goodbye to Santa Cruz, cut across the Bay Area, shot north along the I-5 to Redding, and dog-legged right onto California Highway 299. We join the action slightly upslope, in the foothill town of Burney, where I acquired the necessary high-energy rations from the last Mickey Dee’s along my route…
You know you’ve ordered a lot of McDonald’s when the nice lady behind the counter asks: “Do you want it in a box?”
That’s two Quarter Pounders With Cheese, three Large Fries, two Apple Pies, a Hamburger, Big Mac, 10-Piece McNuggets, Large Coke, Medium Orange Juice, and a Caesar Salad – hold the chicken on the Caesar, please.
According to McDonald’s handy nutritional chart, my $31.50 had purchased a whopping 5,000 calories. God forbid, should I lose my trusty steed, this forty-walking-miles-worth of portable McOomph would power my hoof back to civilization.
Nevada Or Bust
I made a right turn out of the Micky Dee’s parking lot and into the McFrontier. From here, every mile east was a mile drier, and Burney’s towering ponderosa pines steadily faded to the bushy junipers of next big town Alturas. Half an hour later, in the arid lee of the Warner Mountains, I passed through the final organized settlement along the way: quaint Cedarville, California, population 849. Ahead, bona fide desert spread to the horizon and beyond.
At the Nevada state line, the asphalt ended, and on packed gravel, my car barreled noisily through forty miles of sagebrush steppe:
With a zig-zag up the dirt switchbacks of Route 34A, I reached the high country of the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge, and – OMFG antelope! A pair of pronghorn passed me on the right, jumped across the road, and bounced effortlessly uphill to join a herd of their compadres.
Visions of antelope still dancing in my head, I turned onto the five-mile spur road that led to the vicinity of the McFarthest Spot. The refuge map calls it jeep trail, and an indignant army of basalt boulders began to gouge that fact into the tender undercarriage of my hapless minivan. Gingerly, I guided her back to the safe harbor of the main road.
Now, with an hour ’til sundown, it was on to Plan B: camp just around the bend, return here tomorrow morning, and ride my mountain bike out to the McFarthest Spot.
I’d bed down at nearby Catnip Reservoir, in one of the scattered sites that dot its southern shores. Spot found, I hastily pitched the tent, built a fire circle, unfurled a lawn chair, then took some time to survey my surroundings. Nearby was the typical smattering of camper rigs and pickup trucks, but what was that across the lake? I raised the binoculars for a better look…
On the opposite shore, smoke puffed from a curious structure that appeared to be made of rough-cut sod and animal pelts. Parked nearby was what I dubbed the Dark Desert Sedan: a black Crown Victoria with tinted windows – the same kind that FBI agents might drive – except jacked-up to eighteen inches clearance on huge, nubby tires. Fascinating!
As the sun set, campfires lit up like stars. Hootin’ began at one end of the lake, then Hollerin’ from the other. Horns honked, generators revved, brewskies popped, and there was copious belching and farting. From somewhere in the darkness, Elton John began to belt out the tunes, and Dolly Parton soon joined him in a piano-pounding, honky-tonk duet. Clearly, Nevada knows how to party.
Gradually, the effects of alcohol melded with the hypnotic glow of hot coals, and the mood mellowed to “campground philosophical.” Time had come to ponder the questions that truly mattered:
Could any animal possibly be more graceful than an antelope?
Had Dolly Parton and Elton John ever met?
What is the opposite of Grimace?
A creeping chill nudged me tentwards, where a cozy pile of wool blankets seduced me to slumber.
I awoke to an electric blue sky, patchy ground fog, and ice in my water bottle. On tenacious embers, I stoked a small fire and toasted an apple pie and skewer-full of McNuggets.
“You here to hunt?” a passing camper asked. “Well, not exactly.” Turns out she was a Burning Man regular, so I told her the truth: this was “an elaborate piece of performance art,” and in an hour from now, I’d be riding my bike out to the McFarthest Spot. She belly-laughed, we had a nice chit-chat, and she wished me a heart-felt “best of luck” as we parted. Same to you, kindly Burner woman!
I packed the car and headed back to Jeep Trail Junction.
The biking kicked off with a cakewalk coast, and in a few minutes, from the rim of Guano Valley, the McFarthest Spot came into view. I carefully descended the steep, rocky double-track to the bottom, crossed Catnip Creek, and headed west over rolling terrain. With a mile to go, my smile spread ear-to-ear; 1500 feet out, I ditched the bike and left the road; and at 70 meters, on went the video camera to capture the imminent McNothingness:
Eureka! At precisely 10:15am PDT on Sunday, September 26, 2010, I humbly placed my own two feet upon the McFarthest Spot. From here, the hungry antelope (*) with a McHankering would have to bounce 115 miles to one of three equally-distant McDonald’s at Klamath Falls, Winnemucca, or Hines, Oregon.
Except for the faint whistle of wind through the sage, it was completely silent. A brief canvas revealed the solitary sign of intelligent life: a knee-high mound of pebbles, akin to a giant ant hill, twenty feet east. Quite possibly, no other person had ever stood in this exact place, and I fancied myself an intrepid explorer of yore.
Presently, I needed to get some food in my belly, so I unpacked my McMeal and prepared to chow down. Out of the corner of my eye, I thought I saw something move, so I whipped around and – clink. Fiddlesticks! The toppled flask dribbled all 16 fluid ounces of Coca-Cola Classic onto the thirsty earth:
My solid eatins were still intact, although desert dryness had boiled away most of their precious McNectars. The dessicated hamburger was surprisingly palatable, but the fries’ mouthfeel slotted midway between overdone brownies and deep-fried strips of felt. Blech. The McFarthest Spot had already been baptized in high-fructose corn syrup, so why not add some genetically-modified potatoes and partially-hydrogenated vegetable oil?
I fashioned the leftovers into a tiny McX:
After guzzling the last of the agua, I picked up my McMess and began the short hike back to the bike. Cresting a sage-covered hillock, an unexpected dust cloud appeared, and at its source, the Dark Desert Sedan tore off into the distance. What was it doing out here?
The return ride was only five miles long and 600 feet of vertical, but also rough, at elevation, sun-baked, and bone dry. Near the end, teetering on the brink of heat stroke, I thought of my precious boys, lovely wife, and the confounding headlines they’d have to endure if I didn’t make it. Man Dies In Nevada Desert After Finding No McDonald’s? Must. Push. Harder…
Upon reaching the car and its seven gallons of spare water, I did my best “Oktoberfest chug” and “bird in bath” impressions. My lone remaining McFoodstuff, the Caesar salad, went down better than I ever imagined vegetables from McDonald’s could.
It was a straight shot back to Cedarville, except for a brief country traffic jam:
Then, as I rolled out of town, a car blossomed in the rear view. In mere seconds, the Dark Desert Sedan hovered five feet off my bumper, and through my dusty back windshield, I could clearly read the letters VISIT SD on its personalized South Dakota license plate.
On the outskirts of Alturas, the Sedan began to honk and flash its headlights, and as I paused at the stop sign near downtown, it lurched in front of me and cut off my escape. The passenger door opened. A bear of a man – 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds, with 50 years of tough living etched into his suntanned face – got out. He held one hand behind his back, and with the other, he tapped-tapped-tapped on my window.
Well, shoot, I might as well get this over with… so I cracked the glass… just a little. The big man smiled, boomed “Thanks for all the publicity!” and produced a gigantic Great Plains Gift Basket!
Ten minutes later, me and my newfound friends happily slurped lamb stew at Alturas’ Brass Rail. I’m under NDA now, so I can’t reveal much… except that those folks drink like fish, they spin a mighty-fine yarn, and come Hell or high water, the Mount Rushmore State intends to get its McFarthest Spot back!
Disclosure: This article contains fictionalized portrayals of South Dakota residents.
Footnotes: (*) “Hungry antelope” vehicle courtesy of writer Steve Chawkins, used with permission.