It’s not a metaphor. US Route 50 (Highway 50) stretches from Sacramento, California to Ocean City, Maryland. It would also be our route from its most westernmost reaches to Ely, Nevada. The road out of sunny Sacramento steadily climbs higher toward Lake Tahoe. Earlier in the season, we had taken the same route for a long weekend and I braced myself for the stretch of Highway 50 which crosses an unwalled summit met by steep cliffs for both directions of traffic. To my relief, snowfall by mid-December had already closed this harrowing pass leading us on a small detour. Still, we were in awe of Lake Tahoe’s beauty blanketed in white.
The snow-covered evergreen stretches of California slid into Reno. Even the biggest little city in the world would swiftly be behind us. Ahead there were a handful of ranches and some RV parks, but it wasn’t long until we were on the stretch of Highway 50 known as The Loneliest Road in America.
More than 80 percent of Nevada is government-owned. Homesteading — a practice for early frontiersman to acquire land for free or at little cost — was not viable in Nevada given its arid climate. The plot of land which would have been needed to possess a natural spring would have been far bigger than the law allowed for. Instead (and still to this day) farmers homestead near a natural water source and their livestock graze on the public lands that are unsuitable for agriculture.
Barren Nevada eventually became a testing ground for nuclear weapons until 1962. Underground testing would continue for another 30 years.
The road is truly far, far away from everything else. More often than not, the road was all ours. It’s a strange feeling, a mixed bag of desolation and absolute freedom. I could imagine if this were a regular commute or if I were driving solo, Highway 50 could be lonely. It was so novel; it was so strange to be a guest in this vast landscape.
I was struck when we did finally reach a town. Eureka stands isolated at 6,500 feet above sea level with a population little more than 600.
The frontier settlement dates back to 1864 and boasts an opera house and hotel. It’s the first reminder of civilization after several hours of empty stretches on route to the larger, nearby Ely, Nevada, a retired station on the Pony Express.
In a blink, we had passed this charming mountaintop town taking the last bits of daylight to arrive at our final destination.
The next morning we headed for Moab, stopping at Great Basin National Park.