Alone, and on the Loneliest Road in America

 

Ellie S. Thomas   

© Copyright 2011 by  Ellie S. Thomas

 

Photo of a stretch of Highway 50.

Tourism is one of the most important industries in Nevada and loneliness may be the second biggest attraction. When Life magazine called route 50 'The Loneliest Road In America' they made it sound like an ideal place if you wanted to get away from it all.

And there are times when you need to be alone. You might not want to see another face, a person, a newspaper, a vehicle ...anything that might remind you of your job or your daily routine. It's not an unusual feeling; Greta Garbo, that gorgeous Swede, made a fetish of it and her 'I vant to be alone' was parodied in social situations for years; later on, John Updike commented on his travels in Africa, saying 'the most majestic feature of this continent is the relative absence of mankind'. Yes, being alone can be real nice but it's not without its risks and may actually point up the fact that other people are necessary once in awhile. We decided to test out the theory and see if the peace and serenity of the Loneliest Road In America balanced out the lack of manmade attractions and services.

Traveling route 50 Nevada is undoubtedly an eerie experience, riding it's ups and downs, it's curves and it's windings; perhaps meeting one car, maybe two, and some days, none at all. Views to the side reveal sparse dwellings, few animals, and no people. Your initial thought is 'where is everybody?'

Even the landscape seems harsh to eyes conditioned to the green tones of the East. Now and then, we saw flocks of birds, unobliging creatures that refused to stay still long enough for identification. The first impression is that they're blue- A check of the 'Guide to Birds of North America' shows that they aren't Dave Barry's 'hoodwinks' after all but the state bird of Nevada, the mountain bluebird.

Further along, herds of cattle graze the verges, but there are surprisingly few for a Western state, understandable in view of the scantily grassed tracts. What is there for them to eat? Obviously, they're finding something but the landscape explains why many vast acres are required for ranching.

Less than a quarter mile off the highway, time has stood still. Nothing much has changed since Nevada lay under the huge Lahontan Sea back in Pleistocene times. It left an area dear to geologists; huge gorges, tremendous canyons, and caves rich in fossils. Later came the historic days of mining, Mormons, gamblers, wagon trails, explorers, and trappers. And then the Pony Express, the Overland Stage, and the railroads.

A Nevada day begins with the welcome comfort of a coat and it may be necessary to scrape the windshield. Like most desert areas, daytime warms to a blazing sun and at night, there's nothing to hold that warmth close to the earth and the temperature drops alarmingly. Sometimes there are traces of snow. We'd left interstate route 70 west of Green River, Utah and picked up route 50 west. Signs warned us not to expect any services for the next hundred miles and it's a warning to be taken seriously. At first, the land was completely flat and then your eye was stopped by immense buttes along the horizon. The road wound gently through scenery turned suddenly gorgeous with great sculptured rocks of varied color. They seemed gouged out of huge, towering buttresses colored a delicate pink. Traffic was now two-way and we climbed past clumps of snow, then through miles of fluted rocks on the descent to Loa; the rocks palisading the roadsides resembled the Painted Desert, sculptured and peaked. An ice cream sundae landscape.

Down, down, down we plunged for 1500 feet reminiscent of Meteor Crator and then there were exits for Emery and Price which were off to the north. Trees were scattered along the mountaintops and we climbed and descended until 16 miles east of Salina, Utah the scattered traffic picked up and there was snow in the ditches. Deer signs were frequent but how they ever got through the fierce walls barricading each side of the highway was impossible to imagine.

We climbed a Jacob's Ladder of construction through Fish Lake National Forest, now travelling a four-lane and then just as abruptly down through crazy, stupendous mountains into Salina Creek.

It was great to discover that Salina offered real food- not that plastic stuff one is so used to these days. The owners of the small cafe felt a need to chat and strangely enough, by now we were ready to forget our isolationism and talk a little, too. Perhaps the great distances and rolling vistas were changing our attitude towards avoiding people and talking?

At Scipio we were back in two-way traffic again, through wide fields with an occasional raven perched on a post, then there was more snow. It's intimidating to imagine being winter-bound along route 50. The winds would howl and the snow would fill nook and cranny. You couldn't even talk to the cattle because they're so few and far between. A person could certainly be alone out here. The land is desolate with tiny settlements off in the distance but there's an emerald expanse, dazzling the eyes- The next sign says it is Longridge Reservoir and it is surely green, greener than Irish.

Route 50 is certainly a quiet, lonely way but by now it was clear that it possesses a grandeur all its own. The far-reaching vistas provide an austere landscape for inhabitants who must surely be independent individuals. They would have to be resourceful and innovative to live out here, surely they're fashioned from the same molds as those who first settled our country.

The wind gathered speed over the flat wastelands and blew tumbleweeds along before it. Some caught in the top strands of the fences, others bounded through the ditch and banged against the side of the car. Between the weeds and the blowing sand, it was doubtful if there'd be any finish left on it. A trucker assured us that those who regularly drive this way do have their vehicles all but sandblasted bare by the windstorms.

The sign in Ely stated that there'd been no services the past 80 miles...a definite truism we can testify to. Another sign advertised Budweiser at $13.00 a case. Immediately, we got thirsty. And how could our bladders be so full when there's been nothing to drink? And, anyway, where? What happens to those who break down on this lonely road? We'd foolishly carried no water jug, nor food and it would be beyond us to change a tire or a fan belt even if we'd been bright enough to carry a spare, and we didn't dare think about running out of gas!

Ely was mostly mobile homes in a cup shaped basin. Elevation is 6435 feet and it was the most important copper mining area in the state. There was also a Nevada Northern Railway Museum there and fifteen miles south was the Ward Historical Monuments, huge bee-hive shaped structures where early settlers made charcoal. There were also signs of a prison close by and hitchhiking was strictly prohibited.

Then more signs for eateries and... casinos. And why not? Nevada is one big gambling casino, Boulder City is the only town in the state to prohibit the sport. High on the mountain top, we saw a big WR- probably a point to orient the local ranchers. Many of them have branding rodeos from mid-May through June, while others offer riding and hunting, or dude-ranching and it's as common for some to fly in and out as it is for us to drive through.

It was open range again and the edge of the Humboldt National Forest. 7154' elevation...a pass 7723'...346 miles to Carson City. And, here was the sign announcing THE LONELIEST ROAD IN AMERICA- how would you christen such an anomoly? Hit it with a can of beer? Sorry, fellas, we're fresh out. Looks like somebody did the next best thing and shot it full of holes.

Signs identified the remains of old copper mines. The next 70 miles were more open range, Antelope summit was 7433' and again, open range.

By the time we reached Eureka, we were ready for a cuppa but it didn't seem promising. Fierce winds hurled grit and bits of litter down the street and packs of nondescript mutts had taken over the main drag. There were big dogs, little dogs, lame dogs and friendly dogs, and en masse they were intimidating.

The first coffee shop read closed. Another a short distance away said for sale. The dogs came onwards and we sought the car.

The Toyabee National Forest provided more ups and downs, 7484' at the summit and sheer drops off to the side with no guard rails. The way curved down an agonizing mountainside where there was an birdseye view of the valley far below, and then Austin.

Austin was a boom town long ago. Now, it presented a ghost-town ambience of crumbling old-time store fronts, tilted sidewalks, and huge windows lined with antiques and lovely plants. And best of all, a restaurant. A restaurant, did you say? The heat from the old Round Oak heater in the middle of the floor felt wonderful. The place had an 'old-tyme store' effect. There were canisters and crocks, kerosene lamps and lanterns and the menu offered... what else? Steak-

The next morning, back to scrapeing again while a tiny, crescent moon pinned the sky back like a velvet drape. Along Mount Airy Summit the grasses and weeds stood in stiff white needles along the roadside. Route 50 appeared to be the only paved road because those leading off to the side were buff-colored sand.

We drove under a blank wall of fog for several miles. Mountain tops floated eerily in the air as the rising sun lit their tops. They seemed suspended over the fog-shrouded roads as we climbed. Finally, we surmounted the layers of fog to confront piles of fleecy clouds stretching from horizon to horizon. A golden sun was just peeping over their tops, tinting the billowing cotton balls with shades of rosy-gold, mauve, mint green, and lavender. We could have driven on and out over the springy mass clear into infinity. This was the moment of truth, the time for decision. Curiousity drew us on-

We plunged back into the blanketing fog that coated the windows with heavy condensation. It felt claustraphobic and visibility extended just to the end of the radiator. We continued on down, down, hoping there was no one, no cattle, no deer, nothing on the highway before us, and prayed no one would overtake us from the rear. We shot through into the town of Cold Springs.

Cold Springs looked ancient but clean...and best of all, the food was very good. $6.10 for breakfast. The rancher/proprietor had two prices, daytime and wake-me-up-in-the middle-of-the-night ones. Questioned as to why the road signs were all shot up, he denied that any local person would waste money on such a thing.

"It's those foreigners who come in from other states", he said, half smiling.

We drove on towards Hazen and what were those gigantic, pea-green suck-holes surrounded by flat scrub on all sides? The ubiquituous litter blew along the edges, and we saw more painted rocks and looked down again from a scenic ledge- way down into the valley. We were almost to Truckee with its red soil and pine trees, then downward again to Donner Lake.

At Donner summit there was a monument to the immigrants who'd died there, people very much alone, and what they would have given not to be. It's a lovely place but down grade for 40 miles.

Tahoe National Forest leads downwards to 3000 feet and we began using the air conditioning with just a bit of heat to offset the chill and entered Home space... 49 miles to Sacramento.

Driving route 50 was undeniably different. It was a drive through time, or a state of suspended animation; actually it's the state of Nevada, the 'only state where it rains mud', so an inhabitant told us at a truck stop where the grit carried by blowing wind and driving rain sandpapered our faces and made us wince.

And now we know: this lonely road can be a treat, or not, depending on your approach. Mark Twain wandered various parts of Nevada and he called it the 'loneliest place on earth' but loneliness can be a state of mind. We're told that 'no man is an island' and no matter how surfeited one becomes with people, with togetherness, few of us can live entirely alone. So we made a resolution: loneliness should be a sometime thing and route 50 may be a good place to defer the pleasure.

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