Monday, September 20, 2010

The Loneliest Road in America

Fort Churchhill’s remaining buildings are in ruins, the adobe walls remaining in a state of arrested decay.

Highway 50, dubbed in 1986 by Life Magazine as “The Loneliest Road in America,” may be lonely but the sights are many.

On a sunny June day, with our truck and camper, we travel west on Highway 50 through north central Nevada, from California to the Utah border.

Carson City, the first major stop along Highway 50, is a wonderful introduction to what is yet to come. Crammed with history, Carson City, Nevada’s capital, was founded in 1858 and was indirectly named after the famed scout and frontiersman, Kit Carson.

We stop at the Nevada State Museum in the old U.S. Mint building to pick up brochures and walking tour information. From there we stroll down tree-lined streets and view beautifully preserved homes and churches, many with plaques describing their place in history. Colorful, quaint flower beds decorate the yards of these historic homes.

In Carson City we learn the story of the famous Pony Express riders. From April, 1860 to October, 1861, dozens of hardy young men braved the 1,800 miles between Sacramento, California and St. Joseph, Missouri. They faced extreme elements, Indians, desperadoes and sheer exhaustion to deliver their mail pouches in a mere 10 days time. Stopping at Pony Express stations along the way-–some still visible today--a rider could quickly dismount, grab a canteen of water and a fresh horse to resume his dangerous ride.

Even back then, this colorful chapter in Old West history fell victim to technology, when, just four days after the completion of the first transcontinental telegraph, the Pony Express was out of business, closing a short, but never to be forgotten chapter in the history of the Old West.

Fort Churchill State Historic Park offers a historical glimpse of Nevada’s first military post. The Visitor Center shows the story of Fort Churchill through interpretive boards, pictures and displays.

The desert environment appears to be devoid of life, but one of the exhibits at Fort Churchill demonstrates how many species of plants and desert wildlife flourish in that area alone, each dependent on certain conditions of moisture and soil.

Beginning at Silver Springs, the highway now takes us through Carson Desert and into the heartland of the Great Basin, the great interior sink of the western United States.

The city of Fallon, a community surrounded by farms and ranches, is also known for Naval Air Station Fallon, one of the premier training bases in the country and home to the famous Navy Fighter Weapons School, “Topgun.”

Back on the highway, we visit Grimes Point, one of the largest and most accessible petroglyph sites in northern Nevada. The petroglyphs cover 150 or so basalt boulders and date from between 5000 BC and 1500 AD.

Whoa! What’s that? As we round a bend in the highway, a 600-foot tall, 2.5-mile long, glistening sand dune looms, beckoning us to stop, look and listen. Sand Mountain changes its shape every day as the prevailing southwest winds deposit new sand while pushing and pulling the old. Did I say “listen?” Yes! This strange and wonderful mountain sings! The dry, polished sand particles produce low, booming sounds as they shift. It’s dry and hot at this wayside–we’re thankful to have a good water supply in our rig.

At Sand Springs we stop to look at a Pony Express station and walk the interpretive loop trail. This station was rediscovered by archaeologists in 1976, and subsequently excavated and stabilized. We walk through the station and its various rooms separated by thick stone walls.

Near Middlegate we see a silly sight–a large cottonwood tree draped with hundreds of pairs of shoes. Apparently a fight between lovers resulted in her shoes ending up in the tree and a tradition was born. We move on, our own shoes intact.

We pass a sign “Toiyabe National Forest” but there’s not a tree in sight, just big sagebrush and ricegrass. Our rig climbs to the 7,484-foot Austin summit. Almost the entire state of Nevada is in the Great Basin which also includes sections of California, Oregon and Utah. Although to me the word “basin” suggests lowlands, much of it is higher than 6,000 feet, even in the valleys. Daytime temperatures are high; nights are refreshingly cool.

Tonight we’ll camp at a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) camp, Hickison Petroglyph Recreation Area. Armed with an interpretive brochure, we view petroglyph panels along a cliff face. At an overlook we gaze at the Toquima Mountain Range to the left, the Big Smokey Valley straight ahead, and the Toiyabe Mountain Range to the right.

We pass through Eureka, one of the oldest mining towns in the state. This town has made a supreme effort to restore its buildings and, in fact, has won a prestigious award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation for renewal of the Eureka Opera House.

Next comes Ely, another historic mining town with many interesting restored buildings and museums. Five miles east of town, the Ruth open pit copper mines show mounds where waste rock was removed to uncover ore. These mines produced nearly $1 billion in copper, gold and silver during the first half of the 20th century.

Great Basin National Park, created in 1986, is Nevada’s newest treasure and the last stop on Highway 50. Of the five campgrounds in the park, we choose Upper Lehman – it’s cool and comfortable in a forest of shimmering quaking aspen. While there we visit Lehman Caves. The Caves, at the base of 13,063-foot Wheeler Peak, are chilly and we’re glad we brought light coats. From our guide we learn about the fantastic display of geologic decorations, including an array of stalactite and stalagmites developed over hundreds of years.

True to its name, “The Loneliest Road in America” has very little traffic–at times we’ve traveled hours without encountering another vehicle. We’ve loved this leg of our Nevada journey. What an adventure!


joyce4books said...

Mary -- Your blog articles are amazing! Did you ever read the newsprint magazine "Out West" in the 90s? It often had articles about the stretch of road your describe. Yours brings it to life in a new way. --Joyce

Robin Martinez Rice said...

Mary, This is perfect timing for me! I am leaving Oct 5, on my way to the Women Writing the West convention, taking the long route, and HWY 50 is on my travel itinerary. Thanks. Robin Martinez Rice

Heidiwriter said...

Great travelogue, Mary! It certainly is an fascinating stretch of road. I didn't know there was a Sand Springs NV. Sand Springs, MT was where our family ranch was, where I grew up. I knew there was one in OK. Interesting!

Lani Schonberg said...

Hi Mary,
Great article about an an area of our Country I've never seen. It sounds fascinating. I would love to hear the shifting, singing dunes you describe. And, I would love to travel some highway sans the traffic. Thanks for sharing!

Irene said...

Oh, I want to go! My husband has to read this. Thanks, Mary.

Kathleen Ernst said...

It's now on my to-drive list. The name alone got me, even before hearing what one could see!

An Average Teenager said...

your articles are really cool.
I love the images, very cool ^^
perhaps look at mine?