Other Rides

Mormon Crickets & US 50, The Loneliest Highway

by Brian Norrie

We’d just finished filling our 2005 Yamaha FJR1300 in Eureka, Nevada located on Highway 50, known as “The Loneliest Road in America” (a name provided by Life magazine in 1986) when the young girl working the station asked if we’ve seen Mormon crickets. Being from Calgary which is as close to bug free as you can get we replied with a cautionary “uhhh no”.  She began regaling us with stories of these enormous smelly, oily, sticky bugs that measure 3 to 4 inches in length, endowed with a long spike on one leg and will be covering the highway as we continue west to Reno.  Stories she told that got my attention include a tractor trailer rig that was unable to get up a hill due to the greasy migrating mass and how the locals spray Pam cooking oil on the front of their cars to help with the removal of the bugs.  What really got my attention was the mention of “several” motorcycle crashes that occur each year mostly at night when the crickets are almost impossible to see.  Then in her southern drawl she casually mentions “sometimes they get so thick the snowplows are sent out to remove them…but I haven’t seen a snowplow today…yet!”   I was “half” convinced that she was teasing us”.

The couple we were touring with pulled in on their Gold Wing and while Len was filling his tank I filled him in on the details of what “may” lay ahead.  As I repeated the young girls stories I had this eerie feeling that we were part of a B grade horror movie, the setting was perfect all that was missing were the crickets, some weird music and movie cameras.   My 62 year young riding partner Len and his wife Max were new to motorcycling and my imagination was starting to envision all kinds of nasty scenarios with us crashing in an endless mass of enormous marching bugs which would no doubt be thrilled with some human nourishment as they continue on their journey.  Or would the Director yell “CUT” as we finish crashing and sliding through the (fake) bugs?   Or will I wake up soon…..

As the saying goes “there are 2 kinds of riders, those that have been down and those that are going down” I’m in the first category and plan on keeping it to one occurrence.  I was not interested in having my partner and his wife join me in this elite group especially when thousands of kilometers from home and on a near deserted highway.  My partner had been looking forward to traveling this highway for many years and was not the least bit concerned about what I’d just finished telling him….or maybe riding without ear plugs was finally taking its toll and he heard me say something like “we’re in luck they don’t give tickets in Nevada”!

Ten of us riding 7 motorcycles had ridden from Calgary to Salt Lake City for the inaugural AMA motorcycle races being held at the new Miller Motorsport Park located in Tooele, Utah.  This long anticipated trip would take us from Calgary to Great Falls, Butte, Montpelier, Salt Lake City, Reno, San Francisco, Crescent City, Kennewick, Kalispell and finally back home, a total of 14 days and almost 6,000 kms.  Did I mention it was HOT!  Temperatures were consistently in the high 90’s.  The combination of the hot sunny weather and the heat rising up off the bikes engine made me crave an icy winter day.  All I could think of was the DJ Adrian Cronauer in “Good Morning Vietnam” yelling out the weather forecast “It’s hot! Damn hot! Real hot! Hottest thing is my shorts.  I could cook things in it.”I don’t think we ever saw the temperature drop below 85F.  Highway 50 was the hottest section of the trip but the elevation changes would provide relief, the higher we climbed the cooler the temperatures.  We drove slow when the road gained altitude and as fast as we dared as the road dropped to sea level. Do not travel this road without a few bottles of water in your tank bag!

Just as we were getting ready to leave Eureka 2 motorists pulled into the station and came right over to ask us which direction we were heading.  When we explained that we were heading west to Reno they collectively started preaching about being careful and that most of the creatures were in the west bound lane. Naturally they included several descriptions regarding the size of the insects we would soon encounter.  One last questioning glance at Len sitting on his Gold Wing assured me we’d be riding to Reno on Highway 50…no detours!

First thing we pass as we leave Eureka…a snowplow!  My wife Kathy and I just pointed and laughed loudly into our helmets wondering what Len and Max would be thinking.  I’m sure I heard the director yell “great job folks Scene 2 is a wrap”!  We only went a few kilometers before we started to see the occasional thing hopping on the road, must be frogs or mice or…..leaves, yeah leaves, must be leaves. Then things started to smell a bit strange….then something big smashed into my right shin…then Kathy started to point out groups of things moving on the road…and that the road ahead was all red and looked a bit furry!  AND most of the red stuff was in the west bound lane, obviously more vehicles travel west on this road.  A few more hit my boots and all I could think was “thank God these things can’t fly”! We slowed the bike down as we drove over the red carpet of smashed crickets. The road was covered with live crickets snacking on their dead buddies and we could feel them popping beneath our tires.  Our nostrils were invaded by the smell which we later agreed was a combination of fish oil and cow dung.  There were millions of HUGE Mormon Crickets all over the road. We looked for a place to pull over to take some pictures as I was convinced no one would ever believe this story. The other members of our group had taken Highway 95 direct to Reno, we would definitely need some photographic proof.

We pulled into a rest area that was crawling with crickets, Kathy stayed on the bike with her feet as high as possible while I hopped off and tried to get a couple photos, they move fast and hop out of the way as soon as approached.  It was my intention to pick one up and photograph it in my hand so people could relate to their size…people are going to have to take my word that they are 3 to 4 inches in length and too gross to pick up!   Looking back across the road was an endless army of crickets crossing the road and grabbing pieces of their dead pals as they moved along.  I couldn’t help thinking “we need more cars on this road for a few days”!  Walked back to the bike, squashed a few with my boot, yup definitely slippery!  Hopped on the bike and took off just as Len and Max were approaching on their Gold Wing, looked like Len was grinning from ear to ear.

The closer we got to Austin the thicker the hoards became at times slowing us to a crawl and forcing us to ride in the other lane, not a problem on this deserted highway.  I expected to see Agent “J” and Agent “K” speed past in their black nondescript government staff car looking for the alien bug causing all the excitement.

It took almost 2 hours to drive the 70 miles from Eureka to Austin, we arrived hungry, stressed and thirsty….not necessarily in that order.  Austin only has two places to eat and one’s not open on Monday and its Monday!  After filling the bikes we proceeded across the road for lunch at the International Hotel Café which apparently served their first drink in 1863, 96 years before I was born.  The Café was doing a booming business despite the exterior appearance. Austin looks like a ghost town and the International Hotel fit in perfectly, when we walked up to the door I expected to see a “condemned” sign.  The entire town is a moment in history and one we enjoyed immensely.  We “Big City” folks expected the Café to be a cricket free zone.  The crickets were lined up at the door so we did our civic duty and squashed a few as we entered the café.  We sat down and watched the crickets wander around inside while we waited to be served.  I walked out of the men’s room and used the toe of my riding boot to squash a few wandering in the hallway. People seem to take things in stride here barely noticing the crickets.  Not me though, I asked our waitress if they ever tried to batter and deep fry them or anything…her reply was a firm “GROSS”!  The locals do not find the crickets to be the least bit amusing, they just want them gone. My parting suggestion was to start a rumor that eating their hind legs would increase the male libido, should be good for an economic explosion.

Despite our expectations for a substandard culinary experience we were pleasantly surprised to have been served the best club house sandwich ever and we expressed our gratitude to the chef!  The staff in the Café were extremely pleasant, good humored and very helpful.  We certainly enjoyed our brief visit to Austin as well as the other fascinating towns along Highway 50.

We met several other bikers heading east but you could tell they were already familiar with the crickets as we all watched in fascinating horror as the bugs covered the streets.  We squashed a few as we made our way back to our bikes but no one had the balls to pick one up for a comparison photo.

After 11 hours in the saddle we arrived in Reno hot, tired, hungry and badly in need of a cold beer!  We would spend 2 nights in Reno to see Mark and Shannon (also riding two up) tie the knot.  Mark’s cousin Barry and his wife made the trip from jolly old England to Los Angeles where they rented a cruiser and rode to Reno for the wedding.

The next morning Len, Max, Kathy and I continued on our way heading to San Francisco for 2 nights then up the coast with a brief stop in Napa Valley where the temperatures would best be described as scorching.  We were stopped by California’s finest for doing 80 in a 60 but he was kind enough to let us off with a warning, the FJR speedo is in metric only and I quickly pointed this out playing as dumb as possible.  We continued to race from gas station to gas station in search of cold water.

We saw some incredible sights on this trip as we tried to stick to the less traveled highways.  Experiencing these back roads on a motorcycle is the best possible way to travel.  If anyone plans on taking a trip through Highway 50 make sure you get a copy of the “Highway 50 Survival Guide” which you can get stamped at the 5 major towns and then submit the verification form to Nevada Tourism who will then send you a souvenir and certificate commemorating your trip.

AND don’t forget your camera!


El Presidente’s Note:  Brian is an AZRATPacker that lives in Calgary, Alberta Canada and often flies down just for our rides.  This article was originally published in June 2006.