As food servers go, Nicole is young, sweet and attentive. She tops off my ice water as I ask sheepishly from below heavy eyelids, “What time zone are we in?” The long day’s drive along the rural Nevada/Utah border sent all phones, clocks and GPS devices into a Bermuda Triangle-like tailspin and I cannot confirm where we now stand on the matter in Ely, Nev. My copilot, Colton, is in the restroom; otherwise I would have been too embarrassed to even ask.
“Pacific,” she answers without even so much as a hint of snark. Colton returns and Nicole stops pouring as she considers what slumps before her: my windblown hair, Colton’s surburnished face, our road-weary eyes, our muddy pants and boots—a sort of crunchy granola new “American Gothic.” “So, what you folks been up to today?” she asks. I do consider telling her. About the six-hour drive from Las Vegas to Great Basin, one of America’s least-visited national parks; about our wind-whipped arrival and our decent into the dark, winding Lehman Caves; our snowbound hike in Pole Canyon; and our maybe-sorta encounter with a mountain lion.
“We’re driving Highway 50,” I say instead. She nods with implied understanding, then fetches our steaks.
U.S. Highway 50, a 287-mile stretch across Nevada between Ely to the east and Fernley to the west, was deemed the “Loneliest Road in America” by Life magazine in 1986. Despite its passage through countless well-preserved 19th-century mining towns, the road—which also retraces the Pony Express and Overland Stagecoach trails—was panned as a destination: A rep for AAA warned Life’s reporter, “It’s totally empty. … There are no points of interest.”
My close friend and colleague Jack Colton agreed to accompany me on my four-day drive on a portion of Highway 50 partly out of guilt (“My father will kill me if I go alone,” I told him), and partly in ignorance of the fact that I’m a totalitarian vacation dictator. I’m the gal who skipped the beach to visit Puerto Rico’s rich historical sites during college spring break. AAA can’t touch this.
Colton and I departed at precisely 6:30 a.m. in a cherry-new Subaru Outback with a full tank of gas and a 1 p.m. date with a cave that was 300 miles ahead of us. Also along for the ride: a week’s worth of water, a registered firearm and eight bullets, and a set of rosary beads on the rearview mirror—I had been cautioned, only somewhat jokingly, not to get caught being Jewish in Northern Nevada.
Before I knew it, U.S. Highway 93 had whipped us off into the hinterlands. Scrub brush and sage gave way to Joshua trees, which gave way to shrubby pines. Soon we passed marshes and lakes, meadows and inky black cows. “We’re only 100 miles out of Vegas and this looks nothing like Nevada,” Colton said.
Our first big stop was Great Basin National Park, where we were met by fierce winds that finally abated while we checked out the work of hundreds of thousands of years of dripping water in the Lehman Caves. We emerged to a brisk, clear day and took off for a two-mile hike in Pole Canyon. Only after returning to the car—now nicknamed the “Super-ru” and charmingly filthy—was I willing to admit that the “dog” I caught out of the corner of my eye was more likely the mountain lion recently spotted right in that area.
As we headed to Ely, Colton dozed in the passenger seat and I crossed the wide, grassy Spring Valley and gasped aloud at nature’s raw, uncontainable beauty. I was too tired to find words to describe it while we ate two tough, rustic steaks at the Cell Block Steak House, or even when we got drinks at the Liberty Club. And when finally we crashed in the historic Hotel Nevada—at six stories, the tallest building in 1929 Nevada—it was two thuds louder than a mining blast.
Dry eyes, dry sinuses, a tongue like a spent sponge—that’s what you get for waking up in dry Ely, elevation 6,435. Gold and copper deposits have defined her highs and lows; today, vast public art, outdoor sports and rich mining-era tourism sustain the largest city in White Pine County.
We ate a hearty breakfast at the Silver State Restaurant, where more of the patrons wore cowboy hats than not. An hour and a half away, in the silver boom-and-bust town of Eureka, Wally Cuchine, recently retired director of the Eureka Opera House and Eureka Sentinel Museum and Eureka County director of cultural tourism and economic development, was waiting for us on Main Street.
Surpassed only by Wally himself, the opera house is a jewel in Northern Nevada’s crown. Built in 1880, the stone and brick building contains the remarkably preserved chandelier, stage curtain, wood floors and horseshoe balcony, as well as the graffiti backstage of cast members who long ago exited and the mar of a fire that broke out when an actor kicked over a kerosene lamp.
We spent the whole day in Wally’s world, one of art, history and humor. We perused deeds dating back to 1873 in the vaults of the Eureka County Courthouse, and we toured the preserved Sentinel pressroom in the museum.
Next, we set off for Austin, on Highway 50, a two-lane ribbon of a road that spanned great flat swaths of gray-green spread in every direction to meet a horizon of snowcapped hills and mountains. Exactly halfway, we turned off onto Belmont Road, and drove 14 miles on a pitted dirt road occasionally interrupted by cattle guards, looking for a small mound of dirt recently robbed of its sign—the geographic center of the state.
Along the way, deep blue twilight settled around us and snow started to fall. Twice, herds of wild horses stopped their frolicking to chase the Super-ru, Colton speculated, because they might be used to receiving hay from the back of ranchers’ trucks. Having entirely forgotten my hay, I floored it, nearly taking out a massive herd of mule deer thundering across the road, the rosary swinging wildly on the rearview mirror, smacking the glass.
We found Nevada’s center upon a small hill. In the advancing dark, we got out, took photos and watched the last shreds of light disappear. Not a soul on earth, nor building, light or car was visible in any direction. We backtracked to Highway 50 as steady snowfall made the windshield resemble a screensaver. I was white-knuckled and wobbly-kneed when we pulled into Austin’s Union Street Lodging Bed & Breakfast. After a few healthy shots of Jack Daniel’s and way too much talk about ghosts for my liking, we passed out and let the snow fall where it may.
After a breakfast of French toast and bacon, and a tour of Dee and Kip Helmings’ 1860s boarding house, we set out to discover the rugged old silver town, a haphazard collection of streets stacked up the hillsides. At Jim’s Trading Post I picked up a vintage Asparagus Gin bottle dating back to the 1890s; Colton bought lots of very pretty rocks and minerals for a song. We murmured respectfully over the weathered stone and wooden grave markers in the town’s two cemeteries, and paid a cursory visit to the fenced-in granite monument to 1897 boomtown eccentricity, Stokes Castle.
We backtracked over Austin Summit to reach Route 376, where we bade adieu to the comparative luxury of Highway 50 and rode straight down the spine of the Big Smokey Valley. At a tiny turnoff, we headed west on a yet-tinier road to the semi-conscious silver and gold mining town of Manhattan, something this New Yorker insisted on seeing with her own two eyes. Population? “Oh, around 40,” said Dawn, the pleasant enough bartender of the Manhattan Bar & Motel.
I should note at this point that virtually everywhere on this trip—even here!—boasts Wi-Fi, and thus far my Sprint coverage had only sputtered on Belmont Road. Dawn poured Colton and I two double-shots of Knob Creek ($8 total) and left us alone with the furniture, which included venerable Manhattan resident Tony and his pup, Cricket. While the “town” looked all but forsaken to us, Tony said that even 40 people is too much for his liking. But there was an even smaller town on our itinerary.
Where state Route 377 ends, we picked up a dirt road and drove through the forest for about 10 miles, eventually emerging in dusty Belmont, the most remote place I’ve ever been. Maybe four people live here full time. We found the courthouse in a state of arrested decay, remarkably intact from the front, folding into itself at the back. Inside, the walls supposedly bear graffiti by the Manson Family, who skulked around this town before reaching their ultimate infamy.
We, too, skulked around, walking down a main street flanked with collapsed and collapsing buildings—a true ghost town, save for the curl of sweet smoke emanating from the chimney stack of the town’s B&B. A porch dog looked positively ecstatic to see us. We scoured the cemetery for the grave of a stealth-fighter pilot allegedly downed in a training mission crash here, but a sun shower shut down further investigations.
Back on the road south of Belmont, now a crippled, forgotten snippet of pavement, we stopped for the hundredth time to soak in the scene, sitting in the road, delighting in the roar of silence. More than once on this trip we got the feeling that had we broken down, it could be days before anyone chanced to find us. This, we decided, the 27 miles of Route 82 between Belmont and Route 376 en route to Tonopah, is actually the loneliest road in America.
We pulled into the comparatively bustling town of Tonopah, home to the Tonopah Historic Mining Park, and the too-eerie-to-be-true neighbors of the Tonopah Miners Cemetery and the Clown Motel. The motel is outlandishly blue, with clowns in the lobby, clowns on the doors and—my dear lord—clowns over the beds. The last thing I recall before slipping into a thick slumber was Colton holding up his phone with a photo of Pennywise the clown from the Steven King film adaptation of It. The bastard.
On Easter Sunday, Tonopah itself was closed, or so it seemed. Going 25 mph through the notorious speed trap that is Esmeralda County, we visited the tiny, historic hamlet of Goldfield, which we found to be on the verge of a comeback thanks to some incredible preservation efforts and the recent addition of a plucky pair of businessmen who opened Barbarossa & Bear, the gold-panning equivalent to a bait and tackle shop.
After that came the popular destination of Rhyolite, a boomtown gone really, really bust that is now dotted with large-scale art installations. We somewhat reluctantly rejoined society over burgers and beers in biker-friendly Beatty. Concluding the four-day escapade, we made the final push back to Vegas, which emerged suddenly, like a parachute swelling to vast, colorful life.
So, what did you do this weekend?
The Place: Central and Northern Nevada
The Way: Interstate 15 north to U.S. Highway 93; north to U.S. Highway 50; west to Route 376; south to Route 377; east to Route 82; south to Route 376; south to U.S. Highway 6; west to Interstate 95 south. Total distance traveled: 957 miles.
The Wheels: 2011 Subaru Outback 3.6R Limited, courtesy of Subaru of Las Vegas; $35,800 with navigation package; 25 mpg highway. Overall, incredible cargo stowage and possessed of incredible zip, perfect for powering up mountain passes in driving snow and wind, and peeling away from an advancing herd of wild horses.
The Gas: Depart Las Vegas with a full tank, then top off in Caliente. Fill up before departing Ely, Austin and Tonopah as there isn’t much gas in between.
The Sound: KNPR where possible, country where appropriate, DJ Kaskade where entirely inappropriate.
The Eats: Dine in a re-created Western jailhouse at Ely’s Cell Block Steak House (211 Fifth St.). In Eureka enjoy a cup of chili at the Owl Club & Steakhouse (61 N. Main St.); do not miss the chicken-fried steak at Tonopah’s newest restaurant, Sidewinders (222 Main St.); and in the home stretch, sip suds and try the barbecue alongside bikers and cowboys at the Sourdough Saloon (106 W. Main St.) in Beatty.
The Lodging: In Ely, stay at the historic Hotel Nevada and Gambling Hall ($45, 50 Aultman St., 775-289-6665); in Austin, Kip and Dee Helming welcome you into their historic home at the Union Street Lodging Bed & Breakfast ($65-$95, 69 Union St., 775-964-2364); and in Tonopah, forgo the chain hotels with a stay at the Clown Motel ($36.50 double occupancy, 521 N. Main St., 775-482-5920), which is exactly as awesome as it sounds.
While You’re at It: Have your Official Highway 50 Survival Guide stamped along the route at historic locations in Ely, Eureka, Austin, Fallon and Fernley. To request your guide, call the Eureka Opera House (775-237-6006) or download it at TravelNevada.com.