By Ron Bernthal
In 2006, Nevada’s Route 50 celebrates its 20th anniversary as the “Loneliest Road in America.” It is a beautiful stretch of highway, almost 400 miles across central Nevada, crossing dessert terrain and mountain passes, through old mining towns and growing suburbs, past country brothels and prehistoric cave drawings. In this piece by travel writer Ron Bernthal, this “lonely” highway is beginning to attract crowds.
For most American and overseas visitors flying or driving, into Las Vegas, the state of Nevada is narrowed down to Las Vegas Boulevard, a 24/7 strip of shining neon that draws attention to its 4,000 room casino hotels and everything bright and sparkling and new that surround it.
Distant residential suburbs are visible from the hotel windows high above the city, along with shopping centers, busy highways, and the vibrant green golf courses that stretch out into the desert for miles on all sides of the city.
Technically, this is all Nevada, but beyond all this, beyond the brown mountains that border the north and western parts of the city, beyond the purple heat haze behind the mountains, is another Nevada, a quiet and majestic open desert region, so breathtakingly beautiful and out of time that it is almost surreal. And crossing straight through the middle of the state, through the middle of this 7th largest state in the country, is Route 50, once known as the Lincoln Highway, one of America’s earliest auto routes across the country, and now often called the “Loneliest Road in America,” a nickname that a writer for Life Magazine gave to this desert highway in 1986.
The highway stretches for almost 400 miles, from Nevada’s small but lovely capital of Carson City, to the Utah border. And for visitors wishing to leave the bright lights of Reno behind them , a journey along Route 50 will certainly get you into the dark nights and small towns of a Nevada that existed before there was casino glitter or suburban “McMansions,” or 24-hour all your can eat buffets. Route 50 is still lonely, you can drive for hours without seeing another car or person, and winter crossing can be dangerous, especially through the high desert passes, but changes are coming to the small towns along the route, as rural Nevada begins to feel the push and pull of the state’s population explosion.
In Fallon, an agricultural and retirement community about an hour east of Carson City, the Lattin family has been farming the desert for over a 100 years.
“The area is known for its succulent Hearts of Gold Cantaloupes,” said Beverly Ann Lattin, known around here as B-Ann. She said that her husband’s descendants were one of the first farmers in the valley. “The Lattins came here in the early 1800′s, settled right here where we are standing now, and have been farming cantaloupes and other fruits and vegetables ever since.”
Today, most of Lattin Farms’ 200 plus acres is in alfalfa and feed corn, and the Lattins run a popular farm stand with a small caf�, bakery, fruits and vegetables in season, and a three acre corn maze, a popular activity for kids. If you want fresh Hearts of Gold Cantaloupe, however, you can only get that during the short fall harvest, from late August through September.
Even here in Fallon, however, the modern world and politics is not very far away. Agriculture is being threatened by big new residential developments for retirees, and limited rights to the Truckee River water. Water is the crucial element here in Fallon, and it has been since the early settlers came in and diverted Truckee water into their fields for irrigation. But now the demand for water—from Reno casino hotels, farms, and a booming housing market, has every one on edge.
Recent court battles between farmers and the nearby Pyramid Lake Paiute Indian tribe for water rights has not gone well for the local growers, and old resentments have resurfaced. This has made long time growers like the Lattin family concerned about the future of agriculture here, and some of the younger Lattins probably won’t stay in the business.
Drive Route 50 east out of Fallon and within a few minutes the irrigated farm land surrenders to an wide expanse of desert and salt flats, and in a half hour the area’s number one attraction comes into view. Known simply as Sand Mountain, it is a 600-foot tall mountain of yellow-white sand, a phenomenon of nature that, on most weekends, brings hundreds of campers and their dune bikes and buggies to this isolated spot in the middle of nowhere.
Sitting outside his 30-foot RV at the base of the mountain, was a bearded, middle aged biker in a leather vest, jeans, boots, and a red bandana. “We ride in spring and fall, when the weather is real good, and I bring my sons and my dog, and plenty of food and drinks, and it’s a very special place to just relax and ride,” said Keith LaPaille, a retired UPS driver from South Lake Tahoe, who comes out to Sand Mountain about a dozen times a year.
After drinking a cold soda on a warm fall morning, Mr. LaPaille asked me to go for a ride with him up the mountain, and we jumped onto his dune buggy with the huge engine, which he called a sandrail. In less than a minute we had sped straight up the hill and stopped abruptly at the top, a narrow, sandy precipice that afforded a spectacular view of the Nevada desert. As a warm wind blew across the peak, LaPaille seemed to revel in being in the middle of this huge empty space, yet still having the comfort of his air conditioned, food and drink-filled RV at the end of an afternoon of riding.
“During the week there may be only a few RV’s camping out here, but on weekends this place is like a little city, with hundreds of campers coming out here from California,” LaPaille said. Sure enough, when I passed Sand Mountain on a weekend several days later, the entire base of the mountain was filled with white campers, and the side of the mountain was crawling with dozens of little vehicles, noisily cutting tracks across the sand like motorized ants on a mound of sugar.
Two hours later and I am in Jan Morrison’s 4-wheel drive Jeep, bouncing around the dirt roads of central Nevada near the old mining town of Austin, about 80 miles east of Sand Mountain. These un-named dirt tracks, including sections of the original Pony Express trail, are spread over thousands of square miles and often lead to ghost towns, former mining camps, now with just a few wooden cabins still standing amid the stark beauty of pinions and sage.
This road takes a turn up a rocky hillside and leads us to ghost town of Amidor, a rocky outcropping with a few old stone foundations and a half-destroyed 19th century pioneer cabin. “I’m always impressed with the way these cabins and foundations were built,” Morrison says, as we walk through brush and prickly bushes to inspect the structures. “They were built for function, and notice the old square nail heads in some of the timbers over there. And look at that view!” she said, pointing to the dry Reese River Valley and, beyond that, to the hazy outline of the Shoshone and Toiyabe Mountains.
It was difficult to imagine a little town being here, populated with men, women and children, stores and brothels, saloons and a stage coach stop, as nature had reclaimed just about everything. Aside from these few stone and wood remnants of the past, only the open cut mine shafts remain, little scars on the mountain side where men worked long and hard to realize their dreams of riches and an easier life.
Ms. Morrison herself lives in Austin, a nearby town, and one of the few towns you’ll find on Route 50. Austin had about 8,000 residents in the 1880′s, but the it’s now down to 270. Morrison runs a combination gift shop, art gallery and caf� in town, her business located, like all the other shops, within a historic building, one of about two-dozen that line Austin’s three-block long segment of Route 50, known here as Main Street.
The town is quiet, real quiet, and lacks a hospital, movie theatre, supermarket, and most other modern village amenities. But the air is clean, with the scent of black sage in the breeze, folks are friendly, and even here, in the isolated geographic center of Nevada, old 19th- century Victorian houses, with great views are being sold to young couples from Reno, and cities in California, who are attracted to a place with no stoplights, plenty of hunting, fishing and hiking trails, few taxes, and where the dream of a small heritage tourism industry is just getting off the ground.
The closest town to Austin is Eureka, 70 miles east, on the other side of two 8,000-foot mountain passes, a pleasant and scenic drive most of the year, but treacherous during winter snow storms. Eureka, with 435 people, is bigger than Austin, has the Owl Club Restaurant and Casino, and, shortly after its founding in 1869, was called the “Pittsburgh of the West” because of the heavy smoke belching out of its many lead and silver smelters. Today, the town jewel is the 1879 Eureka Opera House.
The present opera house was the third to be built in Eureka, and the only one still standing and used for live performances. “The historical society in Eureka decided to get involved in trying to save the opera house,” said Wally Cuchane, Facilities Director for Eureka County, a job that includes maintaining the popular Opera House building.
“The house showed silent films after opera left in the early 1900′s, and we were showing films here until 1958,” Cuchane said as he toured me around the interior of the building, with its original woodwork, stage, and massive 1920′s-era curtain that was shipped out here by train from Chicago.
“In the 1990′s the county received money from new corporate mining claims and we were about to afford to restore and even add a new conference center to the Opera House. We have performances here all the time,” Cuchane said. Indeed, the interior was beautifully restored, as was the outside fa�ade, and its preservation and ongoing success has become somewhat symbolic of central Nevada’s recent economic resurgence.
Across the street from the opera house is the Eureka Sentinel Museum, located in the newspaper’s original 19th century building, filled with the old presses, desks, and artifacts that depict Eureka’s boom and bust history. The 1879 county courthouse, next door to the museum, has also been restored and its original steel jail cells, right behind the beautiful 19th century wood trim courtroom is testament to the rough and rowdy early days of Nevada’s mining history.
In the locker room of White Pine High School, in Ely (pronounced E-lee), Nevada, Coach Roy Goodell gives his Bobcats a final pep talk before the Friday night game football game against the Mustangs from Las Vegas. Ely, with about 5,000 people, is bigger than Austin and Eureka combined, but closer in miles to the Utah border than it is to Las Vegas. Like the other towns along Route 50, mining booms created early prosperity, and its proximity to Great Basin National Park, with its striking scenery and 13,000-foot Wheeler Peak, have meant a continuing influx of summer tourists.
Just before game time the setting sun turns the surrounding countryside into mountains of crimson, and the Nevada sky streaks purple and orange. In town, about two miles from the high school, the football field is a luminescent green under the lights, and the stands are filled with about half the town’s residents. White Pine is a blue collar school, and the team on the field has kids whose fathers are farmers, or miners, or work the ranches miles outside of town. Some students come from the Shoshone Indian reservation nearby. The Las Vegas team is from a private school, and the fans from both sides sense that there is more on the line here than just a football game.
Things look bad for White Pine in the first quarter as the Las Vegas team scores quickly, but the half ends with the score tied 6-6, and Coach Goodell tries to get the Ely team motivated for the second half by trying to persuade them to play harder, and not give up any more touchdowns. When the team runs back onto the field for the second half, the school band plays louder and Ely cheerleaders dance around the players, trying to transfer some of their youthful energy onto the team, which looks tired and dispirited even with the score tied against a bigger and stronger Mustang team.
The second half, however, doesn’t go well for the Bobcats. They score again, but the Las Vegas Mustangs score two more touchdowns and win the game 22-12. Desert nights in eastern Nevada get cold in the fall, and after the game fans and players leave the field quickly, disappointed by the loss, and perhaps feeling a little inferior to the boys from Las Vegas. It’s a feeling that many in Ely had for decades as Las Vegas, 242 miles south of here, grew from a small desert outpost into one of the most visited and glamorous cities in the world. The millions of visitors and all the excitement never made it this far north, however, and Ely settled into being a small agricultural and mining town, with many of its residents moving down state, getting jobs and houses, and raising families in busy Las Vegas.
But to many of those transplants, Vegas became too big too fast, and today, with a small but steady reverse migration under way, Ely’s young people are moving back. Despite momentary lapses of jealously over a football game, the residents here are proud of their town, with its new residential developments in the desert outside of town, and its historic 1929 Hotel Nevada, once the tallest building in the state, and now a thriving casino hotel property with an old fashioned charm. The local Renaissance Society commissioned twenty huge murals, depicting Ely’s history, that have recently been painted on the sides of downtown buildings, and the highway outside of town is now lined with new shopping centers and chain restaurants. Even the town’s two brothels have proudly advertised their name in the White Pine County Chamber of Commerce brochure.
Between Ely, on the eastern end of Route 50, and Carson City, anchoring the western end, the “Loneliest Highway in America” crosses the middle of Nevada, a region that is rich not just in silver and gold or casino payouts, but rich in its surprising diversity. What looks empty on road maps is filled with forests, rugged mountains, ghost towns, and living towns whose boom and bust cycles have not only kept them alive, but on the way up again. And throughout rural Nevada there are people–ranchers and historic preservationists, miners and shop keepers, football coaches and casino workers, all of them choosing to live along what is still called a “lonely” highway.
But that name, invented and publicized by the AAA and Life Magazine twenty years ago as a stigma, is now drawing more people than ever to the quiet towns along this long black ribbon of asphalt in the Nevada desert.