The Loneliest Road in America: Highway 50, east from Reno straight across Nevada. At least, as straight across Nevada as is possible. You very quickly get into a rhythm on Highway 50. Cross broad, flat valley, climb mountain range, descend mountain range, cross broad, flat valley. The rhythm lulls you into a kind of peaceful, meditation-y state. The few diversions stand out like welcome mirages.
The road is a smooth ribbon with a 65 mph speed limit. Often the power lines disappear for miles at a time. I was passed by all five other vehicles on the road. At first, the landscape reminded me of Death Valley — no vegetation, muddy hills, salt flats, sand dunes. The mountains looked like silk-draped forms — smooth and shadowy. Then we started to notice the odd sagebrush here and there. The mountains began to take on the appearance of a nubby, neglected sweater. Then a few trees appeared on the mountain passes. Soon the passes were fully treed and there were signs for major deer crossings and some of the valleys looked downright lush and green. Then we arrived at the edge of Nevada and all turned back to desert again.
The lack of cities, of anything, allows you to appreciate the crazy geological forces that shaped this area. And the sky. I love the desert because I love the sky — you can just see so much of it. And the air…the air had a rich, honeyed smell, almost like the almond tree blossoms we enjoyed in California earlier this year.
Usually we share our favorite things that we’ve found along a section of drive, coast, city, etc. But these are more like the only diversions we found along lonely Highway 50*.
First, towns. Well, there’s Fallon, Austin, Eureka. There’s also Ely (say it like: ee-lee), which could qualify as a legitimate city. That’s it. Austin was our favorite. It’s got all our favorite qualities: it’s an old mining town filled with historic buildings (including a “castle”), a few saloons, and that friendly-surly small town vibe that’s impossible not to love.
Next, history. Highway 50 follows an old Pony Express route, so there are a few mail station ruins. There’s also petroglyphs. Stop at Hickison Petroglyphs Park and tell me what you think those petroglyphs look like. Tell me they don’t look like vaginas. I don’t understand why they can’t just admit it.
And, like I said before, there’s visible geology. You can look at the skeletons of mountains. You can stare at an earthquake fault, daring it to move. You can rockhound for garnets at Garnet Hill outside Ely. If you find one, you can keep it. We didn’t find any, but we didn’t really try too hard either.
And at night: the stars are unbelievable. These were by far the best stars we’ve seen on this trip, and probably the best I’ve seen in my life. The combination of low-moisture desert air and distance from cities and lights of any kind is a magical combination.
I loved the calm solitude of Nevada — it made me fall in love with the state. But it just made Paul feel lonely.
*If you are the lucky owner of a rugged vehicle and lots of water, there’s plenty more interesting stuff to do along 50. Most of Nevada is some type of public land — as long as it’s not a military reservation, it’s open for exploration. We stared wistfully down the many dirt roads that branched off 50…true, you can see down the dirt road for about 25 miles, but there’s always a point in the distance where you lose sight, where the road bends behind a bluff or climbs into the mountains to check out a canyon, an earthquake fault, or a life-saving spring. That’s when it would get really interesting.