Nearly two decades ago, when Life magazine rather condescendingly labeled part of U.S. Highway 50 in Nevada as "The Loneliest Road in America," people didn't get mad. They got even.
The state used the dubious distinction as a promotion gimmick, creating a "Highway 50 Survival Kit." It has maps and information about stops to make along the nearly 300-mile, two-lane stretch of road between Ely and Fernley through Pony Express territory and the Great Basin. If you present the map at designated locations for validation and send it in to the Nevada tourism department at the end of the trip, you get a bumper sticker proclaiming "I Survived the Loneliest Road in America," along with other goodies.
U.S. Highway 50 actually runs from coast to coast for 3,200 miles; I've traveled on bits and pieces of it in Maryland, Missouri and Utah. But I couldn't resist its "loneliest" stretch. For me, solitude is part of the romance of a real road trip, and I can find something interesting no matter where I go. And there's plenty to see on "The Loneliest Road" if you know where to look.
Ely has a colorful past and has had its share of ups and downs. But the town has found a unique tool for economic development - outdoor art in the form of murals. There are about a dozen of them, privately commissioned, on the sides of stores. At V&S Variety is a mural titled "United By Our Children," a celebration of the ethnic groups in the area. The Cruise-In Car Wash is the site of the "Basque Mural," a depiction of the sheepherders who came to the region from the Pyrenees Mountains of Spain and France in the early 1900s.
After crossing high desert country for about 75 miles, you come to Eureka, a 19th century mining town with restored historic buildings. About a half-hour from Eureka is Hickison Summit, where you can stretch your legs with a half-mile, self-guided tour of the site of rare American Indian petroglyphs - early history carved in stone.
An hour or so west is Austin, also a historic mining town known for its frontier churches. It's two hours to the next town - Fallon - but the oddities along the way make the trip interesting.
A Bureau of Land Management sign points the way to an earthquake scarp about five miles off Highway 50. It is a rough, dirt road that isn't the greatest if you don't have the proper vehicle, but I drove it anyway. You can see the fault exposed by a 1954 earthquake that measured 7.3 on the Richter scale.
Along with remains of several Pony Express stations, there is Sand Mountain. The 600-foot-high, two-mile-long dune - a recreation area for off-road vehicles - was created after the inland sea that covered the region 10,000 years ago receded. At the entrance to Sand Mountain is a modern-day contraption - a solar-powered pay telephone dubbed "The Loneliest Phone." And not far down the road, a centuries-old form of communication can be seen at Grimes Point, where you can walk another site dotted with American Indian petroglyphs engraved on basalt boulders.
I spent the night in Fallon, then headed toward Fernley, where I picked up Interstate 80 for the trip back to South Dakota - but only because I had to make up some time. Whenever possible, I avoid interstate highways - "The Loneliest Road" is definitely more my speed.