Loneliness on Nevada’s Highway 50

You may already have heard about this stretch of interstate asphalt. It’s touted as “The Loneliest Road in America.”

I don’t find driving particularly lonely. In fact, I rather enjoy long solo drives through western states – especially on two-lane highways surrounded by sagebrush.

I know I drove Highway 50 through Nevada a few times in the 1990’s, but on recent drives between California and the intermountain west, I’ve been avoiding it in favor of I-80, its far more efficient northern neighbor. Recently, however, a friend mentioned stopping in Austin, NV – one of Highway 50’s “living ghost towns” – on her summer cross-country drive. I couldn’t picture the place, so I knew it was time to make a return trip. On a drive last week from Moab, UT, back to my home in Santa Cruz, CA, I took a little detour.

The whole “Loneliest Road in America” slogan is the cornerstone of a rather elaborate marketing scheme. Apparently, Life magazine bestowed this nickname on Highway 50 in a 1986 article.  In it, the author presented central Nevada as a desolate wasteland wholly lacking in cultural significance. County and state officials seized on the publicity opportunity that this rather insulting piece generated by adopting the catchphrase to promote driving the road.

Evidence of this promotion is widespread. Not only did I see highway signs boasting the “Lonliest Road” status, I also saw “get your Route 50 passports stamped here!” posters in nearly every commercial establishment along my drive. The state of Nevada issues “Highway 50 Survival Guides” which can be stamped at locations along the route and then sent to the Governor. He (or more likely, one of his interns) issues and signs a certificate that attests to the traveler’s “survival” of the journey.

I can’t say that the trip felt all that arduous to me, but then I like ghost towns and their near-ghost-town cousins. There are only three settlements in the 409-mile stretch of road between the Nevada-Utah border and Fallon, NV, where Highway 50 comes close to I-80 again. Those three sparsely populated habitations are Ely, Eureka, and Austin. All three were boom towns that sprang up during Nevada’s mining heyday and were abandoned once the supply of ores had been exhausted.

Ely is the largest of the three towns, and its mining booms were most recent. Copper was discovered and extracted beginning in 1906, and gold was mined through cyanide heap leaching as recently as the 1990’s. Ely also has been a railroad center at various points in history, and it still hosts a historic railroad line and an associated museum.

The centerpiece of Ely’s small downtown is the Hotel Nevada and Gambling Hall, a six-story Prohibition-era structure that was once the tallest building in he state. It has a great collection of both outdoor murals and indoor posters (the latter mostly connected in some way to motorcycles) and is just a block away from a curious welded-metal sculpture park. For $42, I got a cozy room with a four-poster bed, a welcome drink, and access to a $1.25 coin-op washing machine, so I was quite happy to hang my hat there for the night. I also managed to spend less than $5 on a huge plate of eggs, pancakes, and what they call “Those Potatoes” at Ely’s only 24-hour café down in the lobby.  I was well-nourished for a morning spent snapping photos of Ely’s aging downtown and driving through Highway 50’s Basin and Range topography.

Eureka, the next settlement to the west, is much better preserved than its neighbors. Brochures describing all of the town’s historic buildings are available from a box on Main Street. Eureka’s boom was short but dramatic; when silver lead was discovered in 1869, the population grew from 700 to 9000 in just five years. Sixty percent of those residents were foreign born, with the majority being Irish, Cornish, German, Italian, and Chinese. In the process of smelting the silver lead, a procedure that requires burning charcoal, these residents managed to burn every tree within fifty miles of town before many of them left for greener pastures.

Austin is the smallest of the three towns, with only 300 inhabitants. After Pony Express riders found silver in the area, miners began to flock to this village surrounded by mountains, and the population peaked at 10,000 in 1862. For being so small, the town has quite an elaborate website. Its tagline is “So much to do!” but under the “restaurants” tab, only three are listed. Two were closed when I drove through, and the third was adorned with “Make America Great” signs and enormous pictures of Donald Trump. I snacked on some rice cakes and kept on going.

I had stopped earlier at the grocery story in Eureka hoping to find a deli sandwich (and came up empty). There, I had been greeted by large red letters stenciled on the sliding glass door.  They informed me that both open and concealed weapons were welcome inside the market.  And, come to think of it, in Ely I had paused to look at the Hotel Nevada’s community bulletin board and noticed more than a few of the postings were related to guns.

Suddenly, this rush of images brought on an uncomfortable feeling. It took me a minute to identify it, but then I realized what it was.

I felt lonely.

It wasn’t the empty serenity of the high desert landscape that provoked loneliness on the Loneliest Road in America. It was this feeling that my political beliefs might not be welcome here, and that there was a good chance the people I passed on the street were armed.

Yikes.

I don’t think our physical spaces are what cause us to feel alone in the world. I suspect it’s the social ones that create real loneliness.

 

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