Another series as part of this road trip will be American Highways, where I’ll examine some famous American roads, their history, and what it’s like to take them. Up first, U.S. 50.
It starts with a Life Magazine article from the mid-80’s, proclaiming that this stretch of road was the loneliest one in America—a rambling strip of two-lane blacktop through tough, unforgiving, mind-altering desert vistas that followed the old Pony Express route and offered only limited salvation at a few old mining camps. It was supposed to be a perjorative, but the State of Nevada ran with the phrase, attempting, with surprising success, to turn the highway into a tourist attraction.
Today, there are signs all through the state that proudly declare the highway’s “lonely” status. There are even mock passports that you are encouraged to have stamped in each town along the way, containing information on local landmarks. It’s a strange kind of tourist that would get excited about a barren highway in the desert. The kind of person with a few screws loose. A person, I like to think, kinda like me.
Provided by the State of Nevada.
The Nevada section, particularly between Ely and Carson City, is known as the Loneliest Road, but it’s the section in Utah between Delta and the Nevada state line that feels truly lunar. The stretch that runs through the Sevier Desert and the Confusion Range in southwestern Utah makes everything in Nevada look like a flea market. Just outside of Delta, there’s actually a sign that reads: NEXT SERVICES—83 MILES. This is not encouraging.
Two words of advice for crossing Highway 50. First of all, keep alert. It’s nothing but flat ribbons of asphalt extending to the horizon most of the way and several sections have no shoulder. Sagebrush creeps right up to the edge of the road like it wants to ambush you. It can be easy to lose focus and start to drift over the line (this is the only road I’ve been on with billboards advising travelers to take breaks so they don’t fall asleep).
Secondly, do not drive at night. Critters start to creep up the edge of the highway and birds start coming out of the bush, dive bombing around your car in their evening dance. I almost hit a couple of birds. Or, I should say, they almost hit me. I also spotted jackrabbits, antelope, deer, and a badger. Which is fine, except when you’re doing 70 miles an hour in encroaching darkness on a two lane blacktop. I’m not a big fan of roadkill, especially when it’s me.
In Ely (pronounced EE-lee), I spent the night at the Hotel Nevada, a huge neon beacon that was once the tallest building in the entire state. There’s a casino in the lobby and plenty of photos on the walls of the place back in its wilder days. It doesn’t get the kind of traffic it used to, but it’s still the crown jewel of throwback hotels in a town full of them. For those who are used to the consistently predictable franchise motels off the nation’s interstates, Ely feels like it’s still in the era of road trips in big fat Cadillacs and Chevy’s the size of tanks. All the motels have an old school vibe and art deco signs. There’s even an old fashioned soda fountain and drugstore called Economy Drug (where I had a milkshake for breakfast), as well as the Cell Block Steakhouse, where you can have dinner inside an old jail cell. Because Nevada.
My dinner, behind bars.
The first thing you see as you roll out of Ely is a sign advertising the road’s lonely status. And after that you don’t see much except desert with the occasional mountain pass for about 70 miles until you hit Eureka. Where Ely trades on a stock of fading glamour and Austin (we’ll get there) feels completely left behind by modern progress, Eureka seems to be thriving. Clean and well-kept, but still very much a historic town, Eureka is the one spot on this side of the state that feels like an oasis.
Like all the towns on this road, Eureka was a mining camp (the name means “I’ve found it”), but now makes its living as a retirement community and tourist attraction. The town’s old Fitzcarraldo style opera house serves as a community center, the original courthouse still functions as a courthouse, and the main drag is lined with false front buildings.
It was starting to get hot by the time I made Eureka, but I was in no position to complain, because right before I left, I ran into a pair of cyclists.
“Where you coming from?” I asked.
“We started in Virginia three months ago.”
These two Norwegians are more badass than you.
Seems these two ladies came all the way from Norway to ride the breadth of the USA on a pair of touring bikes. Flat tires, high temperatures, aching muscles and all, they’re a slow motion Pony Express running all the way to San Francisco (they anticipated they were about two weeks away). We talked travel for a while, and they snapped a photo of me in my cowboy boots and hat leaning against my pickup truck with a copy of Walt Whitman in my hand, which I believe is the most American pose I could’ve struck.
A junkyard greets you as you roll into Austin, which is about the halfway point on the Loneliest Road. Dangling off the side of a mountain and at the end of a long series of switchbacks, Austin has an air of abandonment about it. It once housed a thriving community when silver and gold deposits were easy to find all over the state. But the mines dried up, and so did the towns. Austin still rolls along, and includes an interesting little museum of local history (on the left, as soon as you come into town), so it’s a far cry better, I believe, than some of the possibly abandoned towns around the state.
But that’s the thing about a lot of the towns off Highway 50. There’s no telling what’s going on in many of them. As you cruise open stretches of sun blasted highway, you will see turnoffs with signs that say there’s a town just 30 miles this-a-way. And you look out on an unpaved road, stretching to the horizon, and you think to yourself, who in God’s name lives out there? There’s something to be said for scale. Austin, Nevada might seem a bit abandoned, but out in this place it’s a metropolis.
There are plenty of signs along the road advertising roadside attractions (mostly historical markers), and I realized I wasn’t stopping for any of them. And I thought, why not? I’m not in any hurry. Why not check out the next attraction that comes up? So when I saw a sign with a big arrow pointing left that said EARTHQUAKE FAULTS, I decided to see what the planet’s tectonic plates were up to.
I like to believe that, for the most part, I’m an intelligent man. But on every trip I take, I will have at least one moment of towering stupidity. I once spent ten minutes trying (unsuccessfully) to enter a bathroom in Costa Rica. But this was at a different level. Here I was, in the middle of nowhere, in a 24 year-old truck with a slipping transmission, on my way down the crappiest road in the state. Or so I thought. About four miles down, there was another arrow, pointing off to the right, setting me onto an even crappier road. I mean, I’ve driven some bad roads (I live in New Orleans after all), but this stretch was on the level of a bombing range. I bounced along for a half a mile, then realized that there was a crack in the middle of the road, which was getting wider. It hit me then how totally screwed I would be if I got stuck out here. I was half a mile off a nearly abandoned rock-strewn road, which was in turn four miles away from The Loneliest Road in America, which was in the middle of the Nevada desert. I’ve seen The Hills Have Eyes. I did not want to be stuck out here.
And then, on the final incline, my truck started to stall. I slammed it into the lowest gear and gunned the engine, my tires spun, caught, and the whole truck hurled itself onto the final rise. I put it in park, got out, put my hands on my knees and caught my breath. I was shaking. At first with exhaustion, and then with rage, because there were NO FUCKING EARTHQUAKE FAULTS ANYWHERE. Or maybe there were, but I couldn’t see them because I’m not a geologist. Maybe I’ve seen too many disaster movies. Maybe I thought there would be some massive fissure in the Earth with Dwayne Johnson hauling himself over the edge. I don’t know. But something dramatic would’ve been nice. All I got was this:
Plenty of rocks. No sign of The Rock.
I bumped back onto the highway and turned west again, covering about thirty miles before I saw another turnout sign. This one was for a Pony Express Station, and considering I probably still had a little bit of stupidity to spare, I made another turn off the highway.
Considering how short lived the Pony Express was, it certainly occupies a sizable space in the American imagination. Maybe it’s the sheer audacity of the operation. Riders, many of them no older than 20, crossed the open expanse of the plains, switching horses at a series of stations spaced about fifteen miles apart, for more than 2000 miles, simply to deliver the mail. Through deserts, mountain passes, in snow up to their horses’ flanks and sun baking down on them in temperatures over 120 degrees Fahrenheit, they would ride, switching out horses at every station and switching riders every hundred miles or so. It was a brutal, fast, and sometimes deadly existence. Even more so for the station operators, who were frequently all alone for months at a time in the harshest of conditions, and completely vulnerable to attack from Native American tribes that didn’t care for the incursion, roving bandits, or any predator or venomous creature that had a mind to make them into a snack.
I took a walk out to one of the stations. It gives a whole new meaning to desolate. The remains of the station’s walls are still there, but there’s not much to speak of in the area. Just a massive alkaline lake, salt flats, and a huge sand dune whose grains “sing” in the wind, emitting a low moan that is said to be the sound of a giant snake that birthed the world moving across the desert.
It’s a lonesome place to have an office.
The remains of a Pony Express Station.
An hour west of here is Fallon, and the beginning of the end of the highway’s loneliest stretch. Things turn green, gas stations appear at regular intervals, and the road widens to a four lane byway. Cell phone signals return and civilization again makes itself known. Beyond that, depending which way you go, sit Carson City and Reno, modern towns with modern casinos that serve as scaled down versions of Vegas. And beyond that, the high, cool peaks and lush pine forests of California’s Eastern Sierra. It’s a far cry from the desolate feel of the rest of the highway. But you’re still on U.S. 50. You’re still in America.
You’ve just left the last few centuries behind.