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Highway 50 in Nevada: ‘America’s Loneliest Highway’

Originally Published in MotorHome Magazine

Not far from Cold Springs Station, Nev., once a stopover for riders of the Pony Express, there is a sign that dramatizes the hardships these young men once confronted. It does so in a few lines and the words sing out in a way that can get your imagination working mighty quick:

“Wanted! Young, skinny, wiry fellows not over 18. Must be expert riders willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred.”

In those days, some of the risks came from marauding Indians, but certainly some of it derived from the lonely country made so by vast prairies and isolated mountain ranges. Hurt yourself out here and before long the vultures would be circling. Well, times have changed – a little – but small wonder the highway that stretches across this portion of the state has attracted such a cult of followers – and that it has served as the backdrop for major motion pictures.

Still, it remained for Life magazine to endow Highway 50 with the most telling description. Back in July 1986 it dubbed the segment through Nevada “America’s Loneliest Highway”; and if you’re looking for a region that has resisted change, Highway 50 is the road to ride.

Recognizing the tourist potential, the Silver State has capitalized on the image, offering a “Survival Kit” complete with maps. Nevada also designated the route as an official state scenic byway. If you are an RVer searching for open spaces and easy driving conditions, you’ll want to check out this corner of America. We did, and in our zeal to never bypass anything of interest, my wife Janie and I lingered on this 350-mile-long highway for about 10 days, taking in all the highway offered and many of the easily accessible attractions. During our travels I climbed Nevada’s second-highest peak and we toured such places as petroglyph sites, local theaters, giant sand dunes, an old military fort – and even a genuine working brothel – concluding that Nevada certainly goes its own way.

For most, the attractions offered from Highway 50 begin near Carson City, and while there you might want to tour some of the town’s historic homes, including Orion Clemens’ old Victorian mansion. In 1861 Orion induced his brother Samuel, who was back in Missouri, to join him. Traveling two weeks by stage, Samuel (soon to be known as Mark Twain) joined Orion but found what he was really looking for in nearby Virginia City, also accessed from Highway 50.

Twain arrived looking for adventure – and quick riches – which he found in Virginia City, albeit briefly. Though he was disgruntled at the time, he later joked that he was wealthy but “for an hour,” explaining he had improperly filed his mining claim. After his failed venture, Clemens turned to writing, which he had first tried in high school. Reporting for the Territorial Enterprise, Twain found an abundance of story-filled characters, and today, many of their clones haunt the old taverns and mines of Virginia City. On a mining tour with a man whose ruddy face suggested he’d spent a life in the mines, we explored a portion of the town’s 700 miles of underground tunnels. Another day we listened to David John and the Comstock Cowboys in the Bucket of Blood Saloon.

Focusing on such types of people, Twain began developing his great literary humor. Twain witticisms, in fact, are posted throughout Virginia City. Of course it was wealth associated with the Comstock Lode that lured miners to Virginia City, and to many of the other towns along the highway.

Not far from Virginia City is the former mining town of Dayton. However, Dayton – immediately off Highway 50 – became famous not for gold and silver, but for its role as a backdrop for “The Misfits,” a 1961 movie starring Clark Cable, Marilyn Monroe and Montgomery Clift.

In the movie, Mia’s restaurant in Dayton was used, and if you take a little time to visit the restaurant’s contiguous bar, you’ll see life-size photographs of Marilyn Monroe. Knowing about the movie’s impact on the area, we camped one night in Dayton and then watched the movie on DVD. With a little direction from the bartender, we found the setting for a major scene in which Marilyn Monroe had sat on a pile of trash, listening as Montgomery Clift poured out his tales of broken-hearted loves. Clift played a masterful role as a cowboy working rodeos, and Gable had the role of an aging cowboy determined at times to lose himself in the empty space of Nevada. Here, we soon discovered, you can easily do that better than most any place else in America, definitely making Highway 50 the road to ride.

The road lends itself to isolation. In the course of our journey, we traveled over six passes exceeding 6,000 feet in height. Then, just west of Austin, we entered the Reese River Valley and drove through a vast saltpan, which Twain elaborated on in his book “Roughing It.”

“… we crossed the Great American Desert – 40 memorable miles of bottomless sand, into which the coach wheels sunk from 6 inches to a foot.”

Space and distance; distance and space. On and on went the lonely road for a total of about 350 miles through an unchanged land – peaking at 7,484 feet near Austin Summit, where at high noon we clocked but one vehicle in a 20-minute period.

In addition to transporting us to lonely places, Highway 50 has preserved part of its interesting past. One such area is Fort Churchill, established to protect settlers from Indians. Another is Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park, located to the south of Highway 50. We camped there and the next morning we toured the old mining site of Berlin. Here, at the park, we also joined Robin Riggs and listened to his explanation of the finds resulting from a major archaeological excavation at the Ichthyosaur site. Riggs showed us intact specimens of fish-like dinosaurs that dated back 40 million years. Then we returned to Highway 50 proper and found the famous “Shoe Tree,” which seemed to scoff at the notion of loneliness. We drove an additional 10 miles to the Cold Spring Pony Express Station.

“Throwing thousands of shoes into a tree,” said manager Barbara Chappell, “is just one of those things people do in a lonely land to break the sameness and get a chuckle.” She also told about some of the hardships endured by Express Riders, focusing on Bob Haslem, a rider in 1861. His story sheds light on why young men were chosen for their skills as riders, and, yes, on their short-lived lives.

According to Chappell, Bob Haslem rode from Lake Tahoe past Cold Springs to Smith Creek Station. On his return he found that Paiutes had killed attendants at Cold Springs, so he kept on going, finding a fresh mount at the next station. He kept going to Lake Tahoe, making it a 300-mile horseback trip completed in just two days.

We digested the story, then asked Chappell to sign our Highway 50 “Survival Guide,” which was definitely a tourist gimmick. Still, we cheerfully subscribed, for upon completion you realize that there is an element of “major achievement.”

Though the old Pony Express way stations were fascinating, it was the towns with their bars and signs bragging of “GIRLS, GIRLS, GIRLS” (not noted or advertised in the survival kit) that seemed to offer such a potpourri of characters. Near the end of our journey in a town called Eureka – across from a filling station that had labeled itself “The loneliest Chevron in the loneliest town on the loneliest road in America” – we met Ken Sanders, a self-styled city promoter whose beard – but no mustache – made him appear to be a church patriarch. Then, just down the street, we met Wally Cuchine, a relaxed and comfortable silver-haired man whose efforts as director of the Eureka Opera House have attracted some of the nation’s most recognized entertainers. Several graffiti-filled walls in the house list the names and include Juice Newton, Dan Seals, Eddie Rabbit and such locally renowned entertainers as Paul Zarsyski, a cowboy poet. Over the years, most have performed at the Opera House.

The last town along Highway 50 was Ely, Nev., in White Pine County, and with a population of about 4,790, it was the largest. It also seemed to be the most likely to have an answer to a question that was beginning to loom large. Prostitution, we suspected, was legal outside of Las Vegas, and we learned from the town’s convention director that, in fact, the world’s oldest business was alive in all but five of Nevada’s counties and that White Pine County was not one of the five.

“We’re open about it,” said the director, Ed Spear. “In fact, the madams here are much respected.”

He went on to say that visitors can ignore the distractions, for there are so many family attractions. He said that from April to January, you can ride the Ghost Train of Old Ely (part of the Nevada Northern Railway) and take in the railroad museum. “These ‘Queens of Steam,'” he said, “played an important part in our mining history.”

Also in White Pine County is the McGill Drug Store, which we took in, and six 35-foot-high beehive-shaped brick ovens built to produce charcoal for the smelter serving the nearby gold and silver mines. They were built around 1876 and we found them to be extremely well-preserved.

As we had learned, one of the things that Highway 50 does so well is place you near major attractions, most of which are natural ones. In fact, many emphasized Great Basin, saying it was a national park everyone should see.

We made the 68-mile drive from Ely to Great Basin in about an hour, despite the fact that our general route climbed, though not precipitously. Soon, we found ourselves passing a series of assemblages that reflected the humor of a lonely valley – in particular, a horse-skull “driving” an antique weathered car.

Naturally, we stopped at them all, then docked at Lower Lehman Campground, elevation 7,000 feet. Later we adjourned to a small café where we learned that the many props along the entry to Great Basin had been created by “Doc” Sherman, a local humorist now deceased. Sherman, several people said, was not trying to lure tourists; rather he was trying to initiate conversation in a lonely land.

We included Great Basin as one of our major stops because this national park, located along this isolated highway, contains specimens of the world’s oldest living tree, the bristlecone pine. Ranger-guided tours of Lehman Caves are also a popular attraction. The park contains Nevada’s second-highest mountain, Wheeler Peak, elevation 13,063 feet, and for added perspective, I wanted to climb it, and did so with a 70-year-old man named Frank Rappold. If you’d prefer to drive the Wheeler Scenic Drive, it’s worth noting that it’s closed to vehicles over 24 feet in length at the three-mile mark.

During our time along America’s Loneliest Highway, we found a surprising number of things to do and interesting people to meet. Out here in this part of Nevada – where mountains are high, prairies deep and wild horses still range – RVers can still taste a part of an unencumbered America.

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