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Traveling Will & Robin

Current travels: Three months in the wilderness of Siberia, Mongolia, and the South Pacific

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Fri
25
Jun '10

A goodbye to 50

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Goodbye, Lonely Road!

I would like to use this space to memorialize a good friend of mine who is no longer with me: US-50, The Loneliest Highway in America.. 10 miles after my summit I turned right – the first turn in nearly 400 miles – and said goodbye to the most incomprehensibly-empty road I’ve ever been on. In all that time I only passed through four towns but saw some of the most beautiful scenery of my trip.

Much of US-50 follows the Pony Express trail, and all along the highway you’ll see both references to Such-and-such Station and historic markers pointing out the remains of some of these posts, where horses were changed before the mail couriers galloped off again as breakneck speed to get the post from St Joseph, MO to Sacramento in only 10 days. The route was a desolate place then and it remains to now, but this is a unique place in America because the places that were far outnumber the places that are. The rest of the historic markers (and Nevada has proven to me that it is nothing if not a student of its own history – mostly, I believe, because there would be nothing here were it not for the occasional historical marker) point out into the open desert at the imagined location where some town or mine once stood. Nevada must have been a very different place in the mid-late 1800s as prospectors and miners swarmed to the state with all the same impulses as the 49ers to California. Towns sprang up, some got rich and may died. The difference is that the California gold rush took place in a fertile and coastal region, whereas Nevada’s resources were locked away in the midst of a god-forsaken nothingness. Unsurprisingly, when the Pony Express went out of business in 18 months, mines slowly dried up, and trails were rerouted through more hospitable cities, this area of Nevada slowly evaporated, leaving only the ghost of its former self for drivers (and cyclists) to marvel at.

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True

This stretch of asphalt earned its moniker in a 1986 Time magazine article in which the author warned readers not to take it unless their survival skills were honed. In general, the description is eerily accurate. The few actual sights along highway 50 include Sand Mountain, a 600-foot sand pile just sort of… sitting there. I stopped and gawked but didn’t actually climb it because of the $40 entrance fee (except on Tues and Wed, for some reason), and more so, because it was 5 miles from the road. Interestingly, it didn’t use to be 5 miles away, or on the north side of the road; apparently it used to be a mile on the south side of 50, until it, well, blew across, as sand is wont to do.

Most of the time, your only entertainment option is to watch the plants and mountains. While descending from a pass one morning I spied two giant yellow construction vehicles ahead of me producing a seemingly impenetrable cloud of dust across the road. I could only see through it when I was nearly in it, so I filled my lungs with air and barreled through as fast as I could. When I breathed in on the other side, however, my throat was filled with one of the sweetest, most lovely smells I’ve encountered in nature. The trucks were mowing the sage brush that is the sole and ubiquitous plant for most of the highway, and the cloud smelled like the best parts of a Christmas tree crossed with fresh sage from the garden. It was delightful.

As I’ve mentioned before, the land never stops its “Range, fault, basin; Range, fault, basin” routine, but I loved watching as both the mountains and the valleys slowly changed flavor and character. By Ely in the east, I could feel that I was in mining country, whereas the equivalent space in the west of the state would have been used for sparse cattle grazing. Some stretches had beautiful pink salt flats, and a few had water. With over 300 individual mountain ranges, the Great Basin has enough character to keep you on your toes, provided your sense of scale and time is slow enough.

I’m looking forward to being able to reliably buy vegetables and find water. I’m looking forward to being able to talk to people more than once every 8 hours. But I will miss you, highway 50 of Nevada. You may be The Loneliest Road In America, but you’ll always have a friend in me.

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The long and winding road.