On the Lonliest Road in America: US-50

At a time when urban sprawl is a hot-button topic in many cities and Starbucks has run out of places to put up new storefronts, the 311-mile stretch of US Highway50 between Ely and Fernley, NV, is more than just out of place in 21stcentury America. With only five towns of any size along the way and few stopsalong the road, the route earned the title of “the loneliest highway inAmerica” from a Time article in the mid-1980s. But does that description stillstand up? There is only one way to find out: Gas up my compact car, get adecent collection of CDs together, and try to avoid speed traps.

11:05 a.m.: I knew I was out of my element during the descent into Ely. There are allof four FM radio stations that reach the town: A National Public Radioaffiliate, a religious station and two competing country channels. It’s goingto be hard to hear the new Common single here.

11:10 a.m.: I arrive at the White Pine County Visitor’s Bureau in Ely and meet Nancy,a kind woman who seems quite surprised to see me or, for that matter, anyone.The bureau shares space with the Ely Convention Center (a big community room)and all the information has been pushed into a back office to accommodate theChristmas decorations and a tree-selling fundraiser for the town’s “outdoorart” project; Ely commissions local artists to paint murals on the sides ofbuildings throughout town.

Nancy hands me a large stack of brochures, mostly on outdoor trails and other naturalattractions, then gives me “the most important thing”: A manila envelope,stamped “Highway 50 Survival Kit” on the outside. It seems the NevadaCommission on Tourism has a pretty decent sense of humor. The envelope isfilled with the “survival book” (actually just a pamphlet on roadside attractions),a map of the state, and a foldout poster with the five towns noted, and a spacefor travelers to collect stamps in each town indicating that “I survived.”

11:30 a.m.: I’ve lost reception on all radio. The tuner is just scanning around thedial over and over again. Take that, Clear Channel.

12:20 p.m.: After four mountain passes, I arrive in Eureka. I look for the locallibrary, both to get my “survival guide” stamped (hey, if I get all of them, Iget a certificate!) and to get information about local culture.

12:22 p.m.: The library is only open between 4 and 8 p.m. on Mondays.

12:25 p.m.: The Chamber of Commerce is not only closed, but looks quasi-abandoned,with equipment in boxes and paper files everywhere. It is about this time thatI notice something: I have been in Eureka for five minutes and have not seen asingle person. That’s enough to get me into my car and get out of town – savingmyself but losing the chance at completing the “survival guide.”

12:55 p.m.: There’s a funny little rest stop on the west side of Antelope Peak, maybe30 miles from Eureka. The bathrooms and parking lot are in the middle of agiant field that has no significance. It’s just a flat field. So, what kind ofsignage goes with such a “display”? Easy – it is an “Elk Watching” post.

1 p.m.: No elk sighted. However, I turn down my CD player for a moment and justlisten. I hear nothing at all. There are no cars anywhere around, no people, noanimals (or at least only quiet ones). I can’t remember the last time that Iwas surrounded by such absolute silence.

1:45 p.m.: Stokes Castle is the highlight of Austin, the third of the five-towntour. It is not a full castle, of course, just a tower. But the absurd part isthis: It was used for a very short time as a summer home, but otherwise hasserved no purpose. No one else has lived there or used it for anything. Builtin 1897, it’s an architectural anomaly.

2:45 p.m.: The Cold Springs Pony Express stop is wonderful for two reasons: It is areminder of just what kind of work traveling was before the invention of theautomobile (the stop is in the middle of a 111-mile stretch between Austin andFallon, the longest stretch between towns on US 50), and it is something todistract me from myself. One of my CDs is stuck in the player, and the onlyother sound I’ve heard is a fuzzy, static-laden broadcast of an NPR interviewwith the author of a new biography on Carl Jung. I prefer the static.

3:11 p.m.: I pass a Honda Civic heading eastbound.

3:30 p.m.: I arrive at Sand Mountain, about a half-hour east of Fallon, to find thatNevada takes truth in advertising very serious: It is, in fact, a mountain ofsand. It’s about 600 feet tall, according to the roadside sign, and stretchesfor two miles. More importantly, it is the most obvious landmark stillremaining from the prehistoric era when most of Nevada was an inland sea.

3:37 p.m.: I pass a Mercedes heading eastbound. It is the first sign of life I’vespotted since the Civic.

4 p.m.: Fallon is, according to the brochure, “the bread basket of Nevada âÂ?¦ oneof the state’s most agricultural areas.” The rest of the state is either adesert or lit up in neon, but small victories count, too.

4:30 p.m.: Fernley resembles Small Town, USA more than any of the other cities,where one can imagine looking down main street and seeing miners returning froma day underground searching for goal. It’s got every fast food restaurant onecould want (it sits at the intersection of US 50 and I-80, the main east-westroad in the state), a community center and, yes, flashing neon signsadvertising for “the loosest slots in town.” In another half-hour I’ll be inReno, a thoroughly modern city with even more neon. But for one afternoon, Itruly got to do what most vacationers say they want to do: I got away from itall.

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