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A walk on the wild side: Hiker blazes new trail through Nevada’s mountains

Eric Poulin noticed it early on: Rural Nevadans rarely paused when they spotted him and his backpack along paved roads, but they always stopped on the more neighborly dirt tracks.

That’s how he encountered the old rancher, who slowed his diesel pickup as Poulin trudged west between the Monitor and Toquima mountain ranges near the town of Belmont.

When locals encounter pedestrians way out there, they’re usually in trouble, their vehicles disabled somewhere nearby. They need water, directions, medical assistance or at least a lift to the nearest telephone.

Poulin needed none of that. Sure, he’d take a bottle of cold water if you had one to spare or, better yet, a cheeseburger, but he was just fine, thank you.

When the rancher asked where he was headed, the 38-year-old Michigan native described a circuitous, half-mad 950-mile expedition across some 17 mountain ranges in central Nevada, a scant part of the route along established trails.

Poulin was bushwhacking across a veritable lost world, through hidden box canyons, seas of prickly sagebrush, dead-tree thickets and imposing walls of thorns. He’d been disappointed by numerous false mountaintop peaks, discovered places where only wild horses make the trails. He slept cowboy-style under wondrous star-filled skies you didn’t see back home in Michigan.

And he was recording it all on video, plotting the coordinates of a new route he christened the “Basin and Range Trail,” so that other intrepid through-hikers might one day follow in his footsteps.

“You’re doing what?” the man asked.

The exchange was typical of Poulin’s meetings with farmers, campers and freewheeling townsfolk during his two-month trek. Some would scratch their heads and chat him up, while others didn’t seem the least bit phased at such hubris.

Like the rancher that day. He listened, nodded, and then drove off after a few minutes, but not before mentioning that he’d once ridden horseback across the Toquima Range.

Pretty country, he said.

‘Why Nevada?’

Last summer, Poulin embarked on a solo adventure few hard-core backpackers have ever attempted, crossing the vast, largely unpeopled Nevada backcountry, along the way finding a hearty brand of residents who remain a mystery even to their cousin city-dwellers not that far away.

In the end, the trip changed his impression of rural people here. They weren’t all the tight-lipped political conservatives he’d imagined, but generous and engaging, proud of their corner of provincial Nevada and the little-known natural beauty it had to offer.

Poulin chose Nevada for its supposed physical impenetrability. His research said it was the nation’s driest state, with more mountains than every other but Alaska, with few established hiking trails for a place of its size.

Nevada’s mountain ranges run predominantly north to south, separated by vast basins. Traversing the region would amount to a wild, two-legged roller-coaster ride.

In nearly a decade, Poulin had already hiked across the American West, completing the 3,000-mile Continental Divide Trail in 2018. By then, he’d quit his desk job, sold his house and began looking for new hiking challenges that were off the beaten path.

Friends and fellow through-hikers were baffled by his eventual choice.

“Why Nevada?” they asked. “There’s nothing out there. You’ll die out there.”

That settled it. Poulin decided to set off on foot and find out.

Freedom to roam

The start of Poulin’s hourlong 2021 documentary film, “Pioneering Nevada’s Basin and Range Trail,” shows the 180-pound hiker donning his heavy backpack, traversing the difficult rocky scree that tumbles off a mountainside, pushing his way through a field of chest-high range grass, crossing streams, winding through copses of white aspen, all as big clouds slowly move across the vast landscape.

His breathing is measured as he narrates his journey, describing the personal allure of the great outdoors, the difference between mere hobby and real passion. He discourses on his own mortality, about getting too old to have such adventures, and striking your own path in life while you still can.

“Trails take you places, and you follow them,” he said. “Without a trail, you’re free to roam as you please.”

And he answers the doubters. As he scooped from a lingering snow patch at high altitude, he almost gloats. “People said it would be too hot in the summer,” he said. “They said there wouldn’t be enough water, that the rattlesnakes would get me.”

Poulin gave wide berth to the two rattlers he encountered on his journey and marveled over sightings of elk, bighorn sheep, badgers, wild burro and mustangs. He slept in a cave that he figured from the strewn animal bones was once the lair of a resident mountain lion.

“Nevada is crazy wild. You will seldom be ‘the first person to walk here’ but you will often feel like it. There aren’t many places left like that,” he wrote on his website, seekinglost.com. “The towns are small and isolated, often 100 miles from the nearest anything. Things are spread out here on a scale that you must see to comprehend.”

Beginning in Ely, he began traveling clockwise across Nevada’s midsection — with food drops and rest stops in small towns. He passed Belmont to the south, then went west to Tonopah, north to Austin, Eureka and Wells, and south again toward Baker.

But Poulin’s personal compass navigates by geographic features, not towns, so he plotted his courses by rivers and mountain ranges. Through it all, he felt thirst, exhaustion, blistering pain, both inner peace and elation, often screaming from the tops of mountains. And every now and then, he felt loneliness.

He documented a chance meeting with an abandoned mustang colt, showed off isolated signs that are “no match for the local shotgun,” as well as his cheeky faceoff with a fenced-in cow.

“What are you lookin’ at, T-bone?” he asked the munching animal.

The cow looked away.

“That’s what I thought.”

He found that the desert has its own vibe, one that’s both raw and spiritual, and that mountaintops, if you make the slightest mistake, don’t give you a second chance.

When you’re off the map, and you need to get from here to there, you sometimes have to put up with the worst hiking of your life — at one point dunking your head in a fresh mountain spring, and the next wincing from nagging foot blisters.

Along the way, Poulin swatted at countless cursed bugs, faced lightning, wind and sandstorms, endured boot-sucking mud and filtered swamp water for drinking.

He learned to differentiate between plants and thickets that are mere scrapers from the stabbers that draw blood. Tending to a wounded shin, he wondered, “What kind of nightmare awaits me next?”

Bushwhacking through dead branches, he scoffed at nature’s indifference.

“You see this?” he asked. “This is the only way. This is what I’ve been going through.”

He paused.

“I’m about to lose my mind.”

But he didn’t. He moved on to scale isolated, unsung ranges with names like Kinsley, Antelope, Shell Creek, Diamond and Goshute. He ascended map points like Baker Peak and Mount Jefferson before descending into the next basin.

And he met the folks who live in between, people who like to be called locals. Like the motel clerk who drove him an hour out of town to his pickup point, or the rancher on the ATV who offered him a bed and a hot shower, and then spent the next day hiking by his side.

“Most rural Nevadans I met know the valley they live in like the back of their hand, but one valley over, not so much,” Poulin said. “The knowledge is good, but local.”

There was the curious woman hiker from Reno he met on the Ruby Crest trail. “I could tell by looking at Eric that he just wasn’t out for the weekend,” Marlene Hild said. “So I went over and said ‘What’s your story?’”

She did more than that. When Poulin was finally done with his adventure, she made the nearly 400-mile drive across state from Reno to the town of Baker to pick him up, and then drove him back so he could catch a plane to fly home.

Around July 4, Poulin bumped into Cody Terras and his extended family. The 27-year-old gold mine worker had left Elko for the family cabin near Belmont.

Terras admitted that he was surprised to find such a vagabond on his familiar turf. “It was like ‘Are you kidding me? There’s somebody out here? What are you doing here?’ He was tan as all heck, wearing shorts, his shins all scabbed up.””

He and his father, Travis, invited Poulin to take a break from his traveling.

They cooked steaks, went fishing, drank beers, and found they’d made a new friend.

Later, Terras took time off from work to hike with Poulin. “He became part of the family,” Travis said. “We gave him some good old Nevada hospitality — what we have you have.”

Cody said the visitor made him appreciate his rural home all the more.

“Most homegrown folks out here are proud of Nevada,” he said. “It’s not always an easy life out here, but after a rain, the land always smells good.”

He paused.

“I’ve never not been proud of this place,” he said. “For me, home means rural Nevada, home means the hills.”

From mystery to memories

Months after his trek, Poulin was finally able to process all that he’d seen across a state people said wasn’t worth visiting.

Writing on his website, he concluded, “I discovered numerous caves, countless creeks and waterfalls. I dodged lightning strikes, saw the oldest living things on earth (Bristlecone Pine trees,) swam in hot springs, walked the pony express trail, visited a nuclear test site, found arrowheads and Indian artifacts.”

He went on: “I had 6 a.m. wake-up calls from the sonic boom of military aircraft, explored forgotten mine shafts, battled 102-degree temperatures across dried lake beds, bushwhacked my way to hell and back and nearly got swept off a cliff by a dislodged boulder. I feel incredibly lucky to have seen and experienced what I have, and to have returned relatively unscathed.”

At the end of his hike, before walking into Baker and a ride home, Poulin stopped on a two-lane road and howled like a wolf he might have met on the trail.

“The first time I looked out from one of Nevada’s peaks, I saw mystery,” he said. “Now I see memories.”

Memories of a wild land, and the generous people who live there.

John M. Glionna is a former Los Angeles Times staff writer. He may be reached at john.glionna@gmail.com.

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