The Loneliest Road in America
Qantas: The Australian Way, 2012
In July 1986, Life magazine visited US Route 50, a stretch of road that crosses Nevada east to west. Life found the experience desolate and empty; its story was headlined The Loneliest Road in America. It wasn’t intended as a compliment.
But oh, it really should have been. Because in our modern, city-jammed, suffocating existence clogged with people and sullen drudge, what could be better than a bit of solitude, an utter emptiness? We all need a bit of loneliness at times, to take stock. Nevada’s officials aren’t stupid: these days, The Loneliest Road in America is a marketing slogan. Come and be lonely.
Entering on the eastern side from Utah, Route 50 joins Nevada very near to the Great Basin National Park. This is well worth a visit in itself. Out of nowhere, from the floor of the desert, rises a more than 13,000 foot mountain, Wheeler Peak; this sudden shift in altitude brings a stunning range of vegetation and wildlife in a relatively small space. The park has numerous treks, a beautiful scenic drive, and some stunningly located campsites.
Desert or no desert, it gets cold here; The Australian Way camped here in June, at the Wheeler campsite at 9,800 feet, and woke to find the temperature at 20 Fahrenheit, well below freezing. But as a consequence of its height and the total absence of light pollution, it is considered one of the finest places in America, perhaps the world, for stargazing.
Returning to the desert floor, the first thing you realize about the loneliest road is that it’s not what you expect. The loneliest road should be straight, hot, flat, empty, but it’s none of those things. For hundreds of miles west of here, there is a pattern: flat barrenness; then a winding pass over a north-south ridge. Between here and California you’ll repeat it perhaps a dozen times, with some of the passes close to 8,000 feet and even the desert towns at the eastern end well over 6,000. Wholly unlike the searing desert around Las Vegas to the south, even in mid-summer daytime temperatures here are typically around the 50s Fahrenheit, or the 10s centigrade.
As the miles tick by, scrubby brush and stunted trees surround the highway, and little else. There are signs warning for deer and elk, and occasional incongruous signs saying “school bus stop ahead”, begging the question where the school could possibly be. You tune in to the local stations, invariably country music. Altogether now: “Hey, Mr Bartender, please don’t be so slow…” “Trying to love two women is like a ball and chain…” And, if you’re lucky, the holy grail of American country music lyrics:
“Well I was drunk the day my mom got out of prison
And I went to pick her up in the rain
But before I could get to the station in my pickup truck
She got runned over by a damned old train”
Suitably restored by the music, you eventually roll into Ely. One of the largest towns on the loneliest road, it has a population of 4,255, and at least six churches to provide this modest flock with spiritual sustenance. Its high street is dominated by two casinos, filled with stag heads mounted on the wall alongside a trove of Americana. It hosts a steam train too.
The section west from here is really the bit that is considered the loneliest road; here, you see the first sign that uses the title, with some pride. Heading onward, there’s little to see for more than an hour before the next town, save for a sign encouraging you to “report shooting from the highway.”
Next is the town of Eureka, which looks the part. Immaculately sober red-painted buildings with Western-style white balconies, like the Eureka Opera House and Jackson House hotel, rub shoulders with the agreeable ruin of the Eureka General Store, not obviously repainted or refurbished since the days of Billy the Kid. At the local Nevada State Bank it would be little surprise to find Butch Cassidy in the queue, checking out the vault. Eureka knows what its visitors want, and gives it to them.
And why not? This route has further heritage well beyond the Life slogan. Along here, you’re on the routes of the old Pony Express, and at several points can pull off to see the old foundations of the original 19th-century stations. Nevada used to host 43 of the Pony Express’s 157 stations back in 1860, most of them along the line of modern route 50, generally about 10 miles apart – the distance a horse could gallop before getting tired. At each stop, the rider would take his mail pouch and change to a fresh horse.
The next stretch, between Eureka and Austin, is punctuated by the Hickison Petroglyphs, with ancient Native American rock sketches carved into the rocks; they’re not amazing, but the area offers a beautiful panorama over the rolling desert topography before you move on to Austin. Like Eureka, Austin’s main street combines the solid brick stateliness of its civic buildings with the practised ramshackle tumble of its bars, wagon wheels bolted loosely to the sides. Austin is a big outdoor centre – it has its own roping arena – and can cater for your chosen form of locomotion whether it has hooves or wheels.
It’s the next stage that is the emptiest. The town of Middlegate is, in its absolute entirety, a motel and a gas station. There is nothing else there. Not far from here used to be one of the road’s relative landmarks, a tree upon which tradition required people to throw their shoes to hang off the branches; clearly upset by this reckless liveliness, someone cut it down last year.
Leaving Middlegate, you see a sign saying US Navy Centroid Facility, which raises two questions: what is a centroid, and what the hell is the navy doing in a place that could not be less redolent of water if it was on Mars. But then you pass a Navy B-17 range too, and the closer you get to the town of Fallon, the more you feel the presence of the military. That’s because Fallon is home of the Naval Air Station where the Top Gun program – yes, it’s real – has been based since 1996. Driving towards Fallon, it’s common to see pairs of jet fighters overhead, peeling and swooping, and landing parallel to the road.
Before you get to Fallon you see the Sand Springs Recreational Area, an incongruous huge Saharan set of white dunes, normally populated by people on trail and quad bikes hooning up and down them. The dunes look like they’ve been dropped there among the scrub, their impossible whiteness reflected in the nearby miles of salt flats. It’s warmer here.
After Fallon, the route is anything but lonely; it continues in to the state capital of Carson City before entering California at the town of Stateline on beautiful Lake Tahoe. Those who still have a thirst for Americana, though, might want to take a detour to Virginia City, a kitsch but fun town very much built around a Wild West theme.
Perhaps by virtue of being named the loneliest road in America, it’s no longer anything of the sort. Indeed, it’s no longer the loneliest road in Nevada, if it ever was. You certainly wouldn’t call the traffic heavy, but you do see plenty of other cars. By comparison, further south on US375 – the so-called Extraterrestrial Highway, which is as close as you can get to the notorious Area 51 military facility - I saw two cars in a forty-mile, one-hour stretch of road.
But still, Route 50 is all the emptiness and solitude that most of us could need. The lack of things to see is exactly what you come to see, and in that respect, it delivers in spades.
Five things to do in the Southwest that aren’t Las Vegas or the Grand Canyon
1. When in Vegas… get out of it. In a single longish day, you can check out the wonderful sunrise colours of the Red Rock Canyon, just west of the ring road; drive down to the iconic Hoover Dam, and even go inside it; and maybe drive alongside beautiful Lake Mead, which rises behind the dam, and the wild red colours of the Valley of Fire State Park at sunset.
2. Antelope Canyon, Arizona. Between the north rim of the Grand Canyon and the impossible rugged majesty of Monument Valley is this weirdly carved canyon of vivid yellows and oranges, rendered still more beautiful in the middle of summer days by shafts of light that penetrate from the ceiling to the floor. A photographic dream.
3. Sedona, Arizona. Between Phoenix and Flagstaff, and not at all far from the highway, is this beautiful combination of searing red stone and brilliant blue skies. If you do nothing else, drive towards the airport, which is built on top of a mesa; the views just a few hundred feet from the side of the road are magical.
4. Utah’s parks. Zion? Bryce Canyon? Arches? You’re in road runner territory and it’s impossible to separate one from another in this glorious part of the world.
5. Area 51. Since this doesn’t technically exist you can’t really go there, but you can stay at the Little A’le’Inn and absorb the cover-up spirit. You can drive to the edge of the base, which oddly is marked but not fenced; go over the line and you get to spend a nice long evening in a Nevada prison cell. The base is near Rachel, Nevada. Alternatively, go to the UFO Museum in Roswell, New Mexico – perhaps during the annual UFO festival in July.