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October 21, 2014

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Highway 50 Revisited:

An introspective travelogue across Nevada’s obscurity

Image

Leila Navidi

The Border Inn on the border of Nevada and Utah on Highway 50 on Sunday, Aug. 7, 2011.

The Loneliest Road: Travelogue

An adventurer rides an off-road vehicle up the dune at Sand Mountain Recreation Area on Tuesday, August 9, 2011. Launch slideshow »
J. Patrick Coolican

J. Patrick Coolican

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Twenty-five years ago this summer, Life magazine named U.S. Highway 50, as it crosses Central Nevada, the loneliest road in America. A photo of a straight stretch of empty highway fixed it in the national imagination as a symbol of the state's vast emptiness.

Editor’s note: Twenty-five years ago this summer, Life magazine named U.S. Highway 50, as it crosses Central Nevada, the loneliest road in America. A photo of a straight stretch of empty highway fixed it in the national imagination as a symbol of the state’s vast emptiness. To mark the anniversary of the Life photo, columnist J. Patrick Coolican and photographer Leila Navidi drove the length of U.S. 50 in Nevada to examine issues important in the rural communities along the highway, meet its people and explore loneliness in the hyper-connected age.

I drive at only-in-Nevada high rates of speed on U.S. 93 so we can make a midafternoon appointment, and I’m thinking about the road, a central metaphor of all American storytelling.

From “On the Road” to “The Road” to “Roadtrip,” from the romantic to the dystopian to the caricature cliché, the road is perfect for two key modes of storytelling: A stranger comes to town, and a hero goes on a journey.

Gasoline, Great Basin Foods on U.S. 93: $3.69/gallon.

I’ll spare you a cheesy passage from Jack Kerouac, who really could have used a more aggressive editor, but I’ll freely admit that I bought into the glory of the road, the idea that vitality and wisdom could be found if only you got in the car and despite the two bucks in your pocket drove the length of the country. During the decade before this one I drove from one coast to another six times with five different driving partners, and one time myself.

I drove I-90, I-80, I-70 (until it ends), I-10. Sometimes back roads. Appalachia, the Rockies, the Sierra Nevada, the Cascades, and the undulating plains of the Midwest.

It sounds great and it was, but as I drive toward U.S. 50, past pinon pine and Utah juniper, it inevitably leads to thinking about roads not taken, about how friends and siblings were busy becoming lawyers and executives and marrying and having children while I was driving in search of something or other. And to think about roads not taken is to think about David Foster Wallace’s banal but still painful observation that every choice we make — or to put it another way, every road we take — means there’s a nearly infinite number of choices or roads suddenly closed off to us. This is probably just an overcomplicated way for me to complain about feeling old and not necessarily any wiser.

•••

We reach Baker on the Utah line.

We’re at T&D’s, a tavern where the locals are explaining their opposition to a plan by the Southern Nevada Water Authority to pump water from the Great Basin aquifer and send it to Las Vegas.

A guy walks in: “How do we get a hold of Tom? His door is open and the TV is on, but he’s not there. My brother’s truck is heating up.”

Living in Baker, with its 100 or so residents, is a “quality of life decision versus a quantity of life decision,” Terry Steadman says.

At T&D’s, they tell stories of old-timers who recalled going to Ely, which was the big city, twice a year — horses pulling wagons — to get supplies. We’re a very young country.

ZZ Top was once here.

Gasoline, Baker: $3.89 per gallon.

•••

We climb Mount Wheeler, the second-highest peak in Nevada, to find the bristlecone pines, the oldest trees in the world. We see trees that are 3,000 years old, shaped by wind and cold and heat and the thinnest of soil. Bristlecones remind me of humans — twisted, weathered, defiant.

At night, the isolation from any major cities gives Great Basin National Park the best star-viewing anywhere I’ve ever been. It’s impossible to describe, except to say that I better understand why astrology and cosmology were such a focus of ancient peoples — they looked up and must have figured, “Well, that must mean something.”

In the morning I try out the first of what will be many excuses made to the photographer, who wants us up early to catch the soft morning light. “Altitude sickness,” I try on this one. No dice.

We see pines and mule deer and a pleasant couple on an alpine lake before getting a tour of the park’s famous caves. I’m not a cave person.

Gasoline, Border Inn: $3.89 per gallon. (Denys Koyle: “It’s the only service station within 150 miles. That’s my claim to fame.”)

•••

At Arts in the Park in Ely, everyone is carrying an enormous reddish drink called a “Texas Twister.”

Me: What’s in the Texas Twister?

Concessionaire: Fresh lemons, limes and oranges and a fruit base.

Me: What’s a fruit base?

Concessionaire: Everyone loves our drink.

Hotel Nevada has a cork board advertising a home and a gun for sale, an elderly man gone missing, a rib cook-off and ads for Ely’s two museums. Their museum-to-people ratio is far better than ours.

Across from the Hotel Nevada is the “Pure Talent” dance studio, heavily promoting its hip-hop class. What a great country.

Inside the casino: Free pasta bake and green salad. When traveling U.S. 50, order the dressing on the side.

Pat Rogers, our docent at the Nevada Northern Rail Museum is a great ambassador of both the museum and Ely. I particularly like how she refers to the locomotives as women, like, “She’s 102 years old.”

Until the railroad, getting to and from Ely involved a 70-mile trek on horseback over four mountain ranges.

•••

In Eureka, Raine’s Market has a nice selection of ammunition in a case right below a Jesus jigsaw puzzle. The giant game heads on the walls suggest some skilled hunters.

Hamil Ma is an art teacher from Alexandria, Va., doing paintings of the Great Basin, here with a friend who is a bat scientist. He does beautiful, impressionist water colors. As for U.S. 50, “It gets a bad rap. I’ve seen lonelier roads.”

At the Eureka Opera House, a nicely restored theater from 1880, behind a door behind the stage, a stairwell is lined with notes/graffiti: “Wally — may happiness, like your shadow, follow you closely, all the days of your life. Your friend, Robert Bluestone.”

•••

Times are good in rural Nevada, mining country, as the price of gold has soared to above $1,800 an ounce. The signs of prosperity are everywhere: The football field is a dazzling green turf. They’re painting the light fixtures on Main Street, working on the roads, serving a decent-sized crowd on a Monday night at the Owl, a bar and restaurant.

Out at the Ruby Hill, owned by Canadian mining giant Barrick Gold, 135 workers are going around the clock to pull out 100,000 ounces of gold per year. Do the math.

The mine is a thing to behold, a giant pit 2,000 by 2,800 feet, a monument to the genius of human innovation, as well as folly. People like to look at gold, I guess, although there are better things to look at. And they like to hoard it — excuse me — invest in it, when they get scared.

As a friend says, when the aliens come down, they’ll be baffled by the whole gold thing.

•••

Stokes Castle just up the hill from Austin was completed in June 1897 as a summer home for the sons of Anson Phelps Stokes. They lived in it part of one summer, and it’s been unoccupied — now surrounded by barbed wire — ever since. And I can see why. It’s basically just a granite tower, not really a castle at all — and who builds a summer home in Nevada that isn’t at Lake Tahoe? The Echelon of its time.

•••

Gasoline, Austin: $3.89 per gallon.

“Free Beer Tomorrow” is a favorite sign of U.S. 50 proprietors.

In Cold Springs, a little motor home community between Austin and Fallon, a two-seat horse drawn buggy is for sale for $3,500.

The Cold Springs encampment burned to the ground four years ago nearly to the day, the charred gas pumps are still there, but the rest is rebuilt.

John Ferreira is the owner, and probably the guy you’d want to go to a Jimmy Buffett concert with more than anyone else on U.S. 50.

After the fire, he left for Central America. There was no insurance because you can’t get insurance when you’re this far from anything, but he rebuilt anyway. “The name of the game — enjoy yourself because life is too damned short.”

He’s had eight wives.

•••

Nearing Fallon, we come across the felled “Shoe Tree,” the giant cottonwood on U.S. 50 that everyone threw their old shoes into, until a guy cut it down because a woman cheated on him, or something.

Parts of the tree have been chain-sawed and taken away, but much of the corpse rests in a ravine, along with hundreds of shoes and dozens of beer bottles. They’ve already started a sequel shoe tree next to the felled one.

What will archaeologists think when they unearth this in 1,000 years? “They seem to have been a shoe-worshipping people.” Which is sort of true.

Not far from the shoe tree is Sand Mountain. Glaciers in the Sierra Nevada crushed granite and when the climate warmed and the winds blew we got this mountain of sand, like what I imagine the Sahara is like. Great for four-wheeling.

•••

Once in the basin that is home to Fallon, it’s clear this is the bread basket of Nevada. You can smell it and see it. Manure and mulch, corn and cattle and a real farmer’s market. This is because of the most subtle changes in geology, topography and hydrology that wind up meaning people can live in some places, and not in others.

Navy fighter jets fly overhead from Naval Air Station Fallon, the real “Top Gun,” a movie that, as my brother the former Navy pilot notes ruefully, “hasn’t held up very well.”

Gasoline, Fallon: $3.59/gallon.

We drive past a giant glowing cross up on a hillside outside Fallon. Through Carson City, where it’s cool in the shade and green and leafy, then up to Lake Tahoe, where the jam band Phish is playing and have attracted their hoards.

At the MountBleu Resort on the lake, a guy lights up his marijuana cigarette before he even gets outside.

Yes, 415 miles later, we’re just about to California.

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  1. "I drove I-90, I-80, I-70 (until it ends), I-10. Sometimes back roads. Appalachia, the Rockies, the Sierra Nevada, the Cascades, and the undulating plains of the Midwest."

    Coolican -- sounds like you once read "Blue Highways" by William Least Heat-Moon.

    If 50 is the "loneliest highway" what about 6? On the map it looks just as lonely.

    "Today's weirdness is tomorrow's reason why." -- Hunter S. Thompson

  2. Blue Highways is a great book as the author is an artist nonpareil. We should all spend at leas 3 months driving around the US in a camper as part of a authorized public education plan.

    Heat-Moon is also a commentator in some of Ken Burn's movies.

    I think that movie was called "Horatio's drive : America's first road trip". It's about the very FIRST road trip across American in 1903 by Horatio Nelson Jackson and is on DVD at the Clark County Library. It was very well documented by Jackson, as he was a doctor who wrote prolifically and could afford cameras and film along the way.

    The car was a Winton, without windshield or canopy. His only mechanic was a professional cyclist and riding between them was a Bulldog named "Bud". Just amazing.

  3. Is that Holly Madison standing out there on that rock?

  4. haven't read "Blue Highways" by William Least Heat-Moon but thanks for the suggestion. thanks for reading our series.

  5. I've never been on 50 but up 95 instead, on the way to Idaho in a 1953 Volkswagen with two burlap bags on the bumper. We used a church key to open the steel cans of Shasta because we were too young to use them on beer. Good thoughts create interesting links. Arriving the following day sounds like it may be more rewarding.

  6. Great series Patrick. In my Automotive Technology classes I ask the first year kids to read Blue Highways but it's a struggle. Better for them is the movie "Cars" whose subtext is the loss or rural community by means of the Interstate highway system. Most kids have no concept of the rural experience. I require my seniors to plan their road trip....destination, budget, companions, music, car, tools and spare parts. Some kids still have an imagination, a few talk to their parents and that conversation brings out memories. I remember mine....New Jersey to Montana in 1966 before the interstate in a 59 Ford wagon that got 100 miles to a quart of oil.

    Thanks