Triple lattes on the rugged road

In Eureka, Nevada, elevation 5,954 feet, my teens and I tour derelict cemeteries and observe crusted heaps of black mining tailings throughout the town. We eat tasty Mexican food at D.J.'s Diner and Drive-In on Highway 50, which also serves as rec center and video rental store.

Fed and feeling adventurous on our road trip across central Nevada, we pull out maps to plan the best route to the ghost town of Hamilton, elevation 8,058 feet. We drive out of Eureka, singing along with a Bouncing Souls song from the How I Spent My Summer Vacation CD: “We live our life in our own way, never really listened to what they say. The kind of faith that doesn’t fade away. We are the true believers.”

We almost drive by the sign: “Hamilton 10 miles.” The dirt road looks OK, so off we go. Up a hill. Down. Uh-oh, does that look like a deep puddle at the bottom of the gully?

“What do you think?” I ask.

“Do it,” my teens urge.

“If you get stuck in the mud, we can lift the car out,” my son Jesse promises. The family joke is that Gabbo, my Chevy Aveo, weighs 50 pounds dripping wet. I pick up speed going down the hill and stay in a low gear. Seconds before we hit the water, my daughter Steph yells, “Roll up your window!” But it’s too late.

Good news: We make it through the mud. Bad news: The mud makes it through the car. A little wet muck never hurt anyone. We’re on the road to Hamilton, which takes us first to Illipah Reservoir, elevation 6,840 feet. We park. No other humans in sight.

“We could come back here in the summer and camp,” Steph suggests, spotting an ideal place to pitch a tent at the water’s edge.

After wandering around the lake, we launch Gabbo onto the narrow one-lane path to the ghost town.

“I don’t think I can turn around,” I warn. “So if we don’t make it, we’re backing all the way out.”

Our spirits are high. The road’s dry and flat for more than a mile. Then we crest a hill and see what’s in store for seven more miles—deep ruts, multiple muddy gashes.

Finally, a real excuse to own a high-profile SUV—or even better, backpacking gear.

Disappointed, I begin our retreat, reversing slowly. My neck gets sore. The desert levels.

“Think I can turn around here?”

“Looks pretty flat.”

Even a tight y-turn attempt puts me into the sage, with a hardy desert bush under my back bumper. I won’t be turning around. When I pull back onto the path, my bumper goes “thwung!” and my son sees chips of green paint fly. I get out and look. My car’s bumper is bowed, partly pulled off.

“Is the plant OK?” Jesse asks.

The flora appears unharmed.

“We can go to Hamilton another time,” Steph says.

Yes, another time. Nevada, with much to explore, is home.

“I love the smell of desert,” Jesse says as we wind our way back to the reservoir. We inhale and nod.

By late afternoon, we’re in Ely, elevation 6,427 feet. When we moved here from the Midwest in 1990, it seemed odd that elevation rather than population was announced on city signs.

“This is a cool little town,” Jesse says as we park mud-coated Gabbo in front of the Hotel Nevada, the tallest building in the state when built in 1929.

I’ve promised rich history to my traveling companions—a glimpse of the rural West where time stands still.

We walk into the Nevada landmark.

“Look, they sell Starbucks,” Steph notes.