John Wayne would be turning in his grave

Published: 26 May 2000

I’M at the top of a 10,000ft mountain, the equivalent of a third of the way up Everest. It’s May, but there are deep snow drifts all around and miles of narrow, rocky trails bordered by sheer drops. Somehow, I managed to ride here. But that was the easy part. Now I’ve got to get back down without taking any untimely short cuts.

The way up was tough. Some of the climbs were so steep the mountain goats were giving me an " are you mad? " kind of look. The only way to make progress was to nail it and keep changing down whenever the gradient began to get the better of the gearing.

But while the problem then was struggling not to lose too much speed (and negotiating the boulders strewn across the lunar-like landscape) now it’s going to be a matter of not gaining too much.

Some of the other riders are telling me I should just let it roll and ride it, and they’re probably right. But at this altitude, with this many drop-offs and with rocks this size to avoid, my survival instinct is telling me to push the thing.

Then again, I’m on the Nevada Motorcycle Tour led by blokes who chew rocks instead of gum. They’ve already tormented me since my arrival for my " Milky-Bar-viewed-from-the-side " legs and I’m not prepared to give them another excuse to take the proverbial.

It’s only a couple of miles to the bottom, but on this terrain it feels like I’m riding to Pluto – across a meteorite bridge. My internal organs feel as if they are being shaken out of my ribs as I dodge rocks the size of elephants and gullies the size of small English villages.

By the time I get to the bottom I want to drop the bike and kiss the ground, Pope-like. I’m exhausted, but jubilant, even though the other guys are sitting around smoking their fourth cigarette and shouting " hey boy, don’t you die now or we’ll have to leave you out for them there buzzards " . Cheers, fellas.

We still had about an hour to ride through hills, forests and open plains before we reach the back-up vehicle, but the views – and the thought of a cool Bud while soaking in a natural hot spring – seem to make the home journey far more manageable.

It’s the fourth day of a six-day trek and so far I’ve spent most of it tailing the other riders, all of whom have more off-road experience than me. Earlier today I got ahead of most of them for the first time on a twisty, woody hill climb, but they soon caught up to find me on my back and my bike parked in a tree. I got away with a bruised backside thanks to all the protective kit I was wearing, and amazingly my Suzuki DR350 escaped with the odd scuff. So once my companions helped me prise it from the branches I leapt back on and tried to keep up the same pace. I was spurred on by the adrenalin from the crash and the feeling that I was beginning to get used to the front and back wheels never being on the floor at the same time.

As often happens when you think you’re improving, I binned it again. This time my companions found me tangled in some branches and the bike several metres down the track.

After my encounters with the undergrowth, I decided I might go a little faster if I went a little slower, so I adjusted my pace accordingly and seemed to be coping well – until I hit a giant rock at about 30mph. It was in a deep rut and the long shadows of the early evening had obscured it. By the time I saw it there was no time to brake or avoid it, so I just had to stand up, take some weight off the front and hope the bike went over it.

The result was a spectacular, though unintentional jump. The bike reached a height of about four feet, I reached a height of six, and we were reunited about 15 feet farther down the track. Somehow I managed to save it. Unbelievable!

So far the trek had taken me through some of the most extraordinary places and spectacular scenery I’ve ever seen, but it’s not a place to get all bleary-eyed and sentimental. This is a man’s land, where cowboys are well hard and their horses are worried. Maybe that’s why we’ve got a shooting trip and a visit to a brothel on the itinerary...

To say the hot spring is a welcome respite is quite a major understatement. It’s a steaming rock pool offering a reprieve from what has become a decidedly chilly evening.

Sean, one of the other trekkers from Britain, positions a camcorder so it films us all getting in, leading to a chorus of obligatory moonies.

After we’ve all been in there for about half an hour, gradually getting hotter as the steam rises around us, snow starts to fall on our heads.

Nevada is a State of contradictions, the temperature fluctuations being just one of them. During the day the dry, stifling sun bakes the spartan landscape with temperatures of over 30°C. Yet at night, when the chorus of crickets, coyotes and drunken off-roaders pierce the gloom, a jumper is a must as the air cools.

The landscape is also at odds with convention. Thousands of square miles of featureless " sagebrush " is bordered by one of the most awesome mountain ranges in the States, the Rockies.

Even the laws are weird. You’ll get done for speeding if you go 2mph over the limit and you can’t legally drink until you’re 21, yet brothels and spending an afternoon blasting the hell out of things with automatic rifles are perfectly acceptable. Our hosts were particularly keen to show us both these facets of Nevada life...

The following day is dubbed " fun day " , and it will comprise a morning and afternoon session in the desert with large guns and an evening at the Sagebrush Red Light Ranch. Hmmm.

As we’re driven out to the " range " , I can’t help but think what’s contained in the two padlocked metal cases in the back of one of the trucks. But it’s not long before I find out as, seconds after stopping, leader Matt Ernst says: " Well boy, what do you want – AK47, M16, Magnum 357? " Er... The only thing I’ve ever shot is a pellet gun at the fair and a water pistol, so when I was handed a machine gun capable of several hundred rounds a minute and some serious damage I’m a tad apprehensive. But hey, it would be rude to refuse, so I slip on my stetson (a compulsory purchase at the airport) and mosey on over to the rest of the group, who are by now enthusiastically blowing seven shades out of anything in sight.

My first attempt saw me off my feet and the bullets – which incidentally were real, killing ones – going somewhere towards the sun. Raucous laughter meets this pathetic show, and I have half a mind to turn the barrel on to their prized pick-up. Then again we’re in the middle of nowhere and they all have serious weapons, so maybe that wouldn’t be such a great idea. Instead, I try and get my eye in on the thousands of targets around us. My particular favourites are the cactii, which give off a reassuring squelch whenever they get hit. I am having fun.

However, I’m told this activity isn’t a patch on the evening’s entertainment at Sagebrush. As we arrive back at the motel, our leader hands out menus containing exotic descriptions of what’s on offer. There are appetisers, entrees, ranch specialities and desserts, ranging from the Frappe French with whipped cream to the lingerie show. You can choose basically anything. I bottled it and opted for a beer at the only bar in Luning. This town wouldn’t look out of place in a western movie. It’s the sort of place you’ve seen a thousand times before, but never in real life. I half expected Clint Eastwood to be sitting there as I ambled through the swinging doors.

Luning has a population of just 43. According to the landlord, it had been 45 but two people have just died. Through boredom?

The landlord also told me that everybody turned their lights out and went to bed at nine every night. That way, if anybody was heard moving about, or if any lights were on after that, they knew there was trouble brewing. Not that they get much trouble in these parts. " Everyone knows we’re crazy round here, " he said. " We don’t call the police. We sort things out ourselves. If everybody has guns and everybody knows we’re prepared to use them, who’s going to f*** with us? " I believed every word, and not just because he had a Magnum behind the bar, next to the dusty bottles of whisky and gin.

Even the major cities are like a different world. Virginia City is a sprawling metropolis compared to Luning, yet the people are like nothing I’ve ever seen anywhere else. Apart from maybe in the Norfolk fens.

We stopped there on the first night and went to see a band playing traditional country music. All the locals were dressed in their Sunday best and that meant cowboy hats and boots, leather waistcoats and holsters – with guns. The band members seemed to be celebrities. They even had groupies.

Towards the end of the performance, after a number about the glory of being American, a theme which seems to crop up with some frequency, a woman dressed in a Wild West costume stood on a stool and demanded silence from " the gunfighter section " . We looked around, expecting to see a bunch of stubbled match-chewers ready to draw, but everybody was just sipping their Jack Ds. The woman handed out U.S. flags to everybody in the bar, who waved them and sung along with the band’s final number, which seemed to be about General Custard or something. Then, as the song wound up to its crescendo, the behaviour of the locals grew more alarming. Almost everyone drew their guns and proceeded to fire them at the ceiling. I looked up, expecting bits of plaster to come crashing down, before being informed by the tour organiser that the rounds were blanks. Phew.

The morning after my " night out " in Luning I felt terrible. The novelty of downing whiskies in an authentic Western saloon had taken its toll, and I couldn’t face breakfast. No, what I needed was a real blast – and we were due to go to a dry lake called Smith Creek for a session of high-speed shenanigans.

With more than eight miles of bone-dry mud to go at, it wasn’t long before my hangover was a distant memory – as were my colleagues. To be honest, I was bored senseless of hearing about the previous evening’s sexual activities for the umpteenth time, so I just picked a spot on the horizon, opened it to the stop and disappeared in a cloud of dust. There are times when you just need to get away from people, and Nevada offers more opportunities to do that than anywhere I’ve been before. They can keep their guns, bravado and brothels – just give me the scenery and a bike and I’ll be happier than a punter at the Sagebrush Ranch.

Steve Farrell visited the States with Nevada Motorcycle Adventures. The six-day trip cost £1360, which included accommodation, bike hire and activities such as shooting. Details: 001-775-359-4380.

DON’T FANCY THE WILD WEST?

WHETHER you yearn to ride off-road in the Rockies, take a Harley from coast to coast or tour the Scottish Highlands on a Honda, there’s a holiday to fulfil your fantasy.

Every year there are more and more riding trips to choose from, and almost all sort out the hassle which prevents many of us doing it on our own. Hotels are sorted, routes mapped out and luggage taken on ahead, so all you need to worry about is riding the bike and soaking up the experience.

And you don’t even have to be loaded, because prices start at less than £200 for a UK break, though you’ll have to pay for your own flight on most of the overseas trips. Here’s what’s on offer this year:

•South African Motorcycle Tours is running a 12-day trip around the country on BMWs, stopping to appreciate the odd deserted beach. Accommodation, bike hire and vehicle backup are included in the standard price of £2365. Details: 0027-2179-47887.

•Rocky Mountain Holidays organises trips using Triumphs all over Canada. Prices, which include accommodation, meals and backup, range from £875 for five nights to £3065 for 12 nights. Details: 001-604-938-0126.

•Coastline Motorcycle Tours also runs trips to Canada, but at a more leisurely pace on Harley-Davidsons. You can hire a bike for a day for £100 or enjoy a week touring Vancouver Island and Calgary for £1770. Details: 001-250-338-0344.

•For a more challenging holiday, Moto Tours runs the Alpine Adventure in France. The roads are twisty enough to satisfy even the most committed scratcher, but you can

only do it on your own bike. The trip costs £600 for nine days, which includes hotels, insurance and ferries. Details: 01832-735326.

•If you want to stay closer to home, Euroexplorers organises guided tours in, er, Europe. A variety of bikes are available, or you can take your own. Prices range from £185 for three days in Cumbria on your own bike to £2360 for 17 days on a hired machine in Spain. Details: 01635-628503.

• And if you don’t want to leave the UK, Highland Rider runs tours all over Scotland, ranging in price from £195 for three days in the Grampian mountains to £435 for five days in the Islands and West Highlands. Details: 01506-846616.