America Wild West Roadtrip

Published 31 May 2017   

A wedding in cowboy country, a 2500-mile American road trip and an upgrade to a Mustang Convertible

Written by: RACHEL LOVE


The lonely road through Black Rock Desert

It’s not every day that you get invited to a wedding in far north east Oregon, but when it’s the wedding of your favourite niece then of course you’re going to accept the invitation, even when you’re on the other side of the world. This is wild high-desert cowboy country where there are no towns, no airports, no trains and no public transport; just cattle ranches and horse properties, and a handful of small settlements. So the first decision we had to make was how to get there. We had the choice of flying either to San Francisco or to Seattle, and from there we had no choice but to rent a car. Thus the plan was conceived for a road trip from San Francisco through California and eastern Nevada to Oregon and back.

Our first surprise was waiting for us at San Francisco Airport. We had booked a bog-standard Chrysler convertible ‘or similar’ and to our astonishment we got given the keys to the ‘or similar’, which proved to be a brand new white Mustang convertible. It was a free upgrade and the rental value was worth more than three times as much as the Chrysler. Fearing that we might have been given someone else’s car by mistake, we rapidly exited the car park, hit the freeway and headed east towards the walnut and almond orchards of Modesto.  With the wind in our hair, we relished the joys of the wide almost-empty American roads and the extraordinary contrasts of scenery from expansive sweeping plains to pine forests, valleys, lakes and mountains.


View of Mt Shasta from Sunriver

Although some of our accommodation had been pre-booked, we had decided to wing the rest and embrace some of the all-American motels, casino hotels, and 24-hour diners. Our first casino experience was at the Biltmore on the north shore of Lake Tahoe, which straddles the states of California and Nevada. Despite its sticky threadbare carpets, rickety elevator, and elderly hostesses, the Biltmore still retains a faded glamour and the nostalgic atmosphere of a glitzy era when Sinatra, Kennedy, Monroe and Mafia mobsters frequented its tables. This old granddame was built in 1946, and even has a resident ghost, a showgirl called Mary who was murdered in her room. The biggest jackpot in Lake Tahoe history was won at the Biltmore, and we even came away with a few winnings of our own.

And the casinos didn’t stop there! Just 35 miles away, Reno – ‘The Biggest Little City in the World’ – is the cooler calmer alternative to Vegas. Despite its bad rap as Sin City’s trashier cousin, we found it to be exciting, vibrant and fabulous, a destination in its own right. Our two nights there cost only about a third of the amount we would have spent amid the crowds, lines, and velvet ropes of Vegas.


Crater Lake and Wizard Island in the Cascade Mountains of southern Oregon

Leaving Reno, we opted to drive though the Black Rock Desert, a wilderness of treeless mountains, rugged canyons and dry lake beds, where a final warning sign reminded us of just how far and remote we were from anything:  “Fill up with gas. Bring plenty of water and all the necessary supplies you need, plus extra, in case of an emergency. Be aware that there is no cell-phone service. Drive a high-clearance vehicle, preferably a four-wheel-drive, with off-road tyres. Have maps of the area before setting out.”  Indeed, this hostile desert is susceptible to climate extremes: scorching days, bitter cold nights, all accompanied by regular dust storms reaching zero visibility. The adventure was a singular opportunity to immerse ourselves in an environment largely unchanged from when the pioneers struggled through it in the 1800s.  Standing on the blinding white playa – famous for Burning Man and speed tests – and taking in the 360-degree view is a truly humbling experience. During the 82 empty miles from Gerlach to our re-entry into California at Alturas, we saw only one other vehicle and, to our delight, a pair of wild horses. We then headed north and crossed the border into the State of Oregon, skirting Mt Shasta to reach the stunningly beautiful, cobalt-blue Crater Lake, which is the deepest lake in North America; we even found some old, dirty icy remnants of snow to play with. By the time we reached Sunriver, we were one step closer to the purpose of our journey, because it was there that we hooked up with ten other family members who had travelled from England and California for a joyful reunion before the wedding. Here, we enjoyed a wonderfully relaxing stay in a gorgeous riverside holiday house with a snow-capped mountain view and a very cold river to swim in.


On the road in Black Rock Desert


The Tahoe Biltmore Lodge & Casino


A Wild West Wedding

After five fabulous days at Sunriver, we got back in our Mustang and headed north for our three-hour drive to the wedding destination.  We knew we were getting close when we reached the Painted Hills, where millions of years of history are revealed in the layered mountains of earth, one colour at a time. The hills get their name from the delicately coloured stratifications in the soil ranging from yellows and golds to blacks and reds. Oregon’s wind-seared high-desert country then slowly unfolded before our eyes. This is the Wild West – a juniper and sagebrush covered land tinted by wildflowers, with enormous honeycombed cliffs and giant buttes hovering overhead. We finally arrived at the middle-of-nowhere tiny town of Spray, where we were staying, before heading to the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it hamlet of Kimberly, where my niece and her partner’s home sits surrounded by peach orchards, complete with its front terrace resting on the banks of the John Day River. What a spellbinding view to wake up to every morning. In fact, only two hours before the wedding, the bride and groom and a fair number of their wedding guests, including us, were jumping off a 20-foot cliff into the river’s refreshing waters.

The ceremony took place at the Diamond Hitch Ranch; the bride carried a bouquet of wildflowers, and the couple made their vows under the gaze of the mighty ‘Wedding Cake Rock’. We showered them with lavender buds, toasted them with sparkling mead, and feasted on delectable local fare served from a covered Wild West wagon before gorging on a wedding cake dripping in the honey that they collect from their own beehives. After music, merriment and laughter until the early hours, the bride and groom spent their wedding night floating down the John Day River on a homemade raft.

It sure was a wedding and a road trip that we will never forget!

1 Comment

  1. That’s a cool story. I want to drive aMustang through cowboy country now!

    Posted by Michael Travers on 01 June 17 at 10:24am [Comment]

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