Last month our travels took us through central Nevada, on a stretch of what Life magazine described as the “Loneliest Road in America” back in 1986. U.S. Route 50 is indeed a sparsely populated stretch of roadway, and we were happy to find a place to overnight.
The next morning, we got up and headed west, making the steep climb toward Hickison Summit. Suddenly, the normal asphalt of the highway took on a surreal appearance. The driver commented that some errant gravel truck driver must’ve allowed some of his load to tumble onto the roadway. Trouble is, that “driver” must have had more than a few yards to lose—the “gravel” went on and on for miles. But a closer look showed we were driving through what appeared to be walking gravel—the stuff was moving on its own.
Ambulating gravel? Nope! Mormon crickets!
After many miles, the appearance of the walking gravel changed. On some areas, there’d be just a few “pebbles.” Drive farther, the road was practically awash. We finally found a wide spot in the highway, safe enough to put the truck and trailer over for another look. By this time, we were in one of those “scarce” spaces with just a few chunks here and there. Walking gravel? Hah! Those ambulating gravel chunks were insects! We must have passed over and squished thousands of the things.
A look at the leading edge of the travel trailer agreed. The normally white, spic-and-span fiberglass front cap was a mass of brownish-yellow goo. The sides of the trailer were splattered here and there, and the leading edges of the practically new awning arms were no longer “polar white,” but now best described as “bug splat brown.”
Walking gravel aka Mormon crickets
What were these waves of insect invaders, these walking gravel chunks? In proportions suitable for a re-creation of Egypt’s Eighth Plague, they weren’t grasshoppers but, instead, were Mormon Crickets. They aren’t really crickets, but rather a shirt-tail relation to the katydid. But they’re big, ugly, and apparently common in rangelands like Nevada’s. They can’t fly, but they can travel rapidly, over a mile per day.
When that traveling takes them to roadways, things can get a bit sticky. Well, actually, the opposite. Mormon crickets for the most part don’t hang out in large groups. But for reasons not yet explained by science, occasionally huge bands, hundreds of these insects per square yard, begin migrating. Such was the specter of walking gravel. Last month, parts of Nevada reported huge migratory masses, with equally huge migratory messes. America’s loneliest road suddenly wasn’t. Hordes of these characters began marching across it.
Perhaps these things move fast out of fear. Mormon crickets subsist on grass, brush, sunflowers and their kin—other Mormon crickets. Yep, they’re feasting little cannibals, and if a dozen Mormon crickets play walking gravel and get mooshed on the roadway, a dozen more will stop to feast on the carcasses. This leaves room for still more to be splattered, until, reports say, roadways can be quite literally slick with the smooshed bodies. One motorist is said to have hit a curve, well-lubricated with Mormon cricket remains, lost control, and thoroughly mooshed his car when he ran off the road.
Shades of 2006
This wasn’t the first time this area of Nevada was hit with a Mormon cricket invasion. Back in 2006, swarms of the insects invaded the area. Residents in Austin, not far up the road from where we “ran into” our walking gravel, recall blankets of the creatures that took over the town park and overran the swimming pool. The 2006 invasion is pictured in our opening featured image.
Perhaps we should’ve had an inkling of what we were seeing when we surmised that an errant dump truck driver had lost his load. The night before our strange encounter on U.S. 50, we were camped off the highway. In the early twilight, a funny-looking bug approached, in all appearances reminding us of an oversized stink bug. One of us fluffed out our arms and waved them like wings. The “stinkbug” stopped, turned, and scuttled off in a hurry. Mormon cricket.
Cleaning bugs off your RV
By the way, Mormon cricket remains actually do come off fiberglass with a small amount of coaxing. Rinse the dried remains with a jet of water. Let stand a few minutes, then take after it with a non-abrasive scrub pad like you might use on coated cookware. Rinse again. Our suspicions are that a pre-application of a spray cleaner like Simple Green might make the process even easier. We’ll try to remember to report back. After all, we have several square feet of trailer frontage to restore to original.