The Loneliest Road


U.S. Highway 50, also known as the Lincoln Highway, stretches across the nation in an unbusinesslike sort of way, clearly not in any hurry to get from Maryland to California. It occasionally hops a ride on a freeway, but not very often, and not at all as it crosses Nevada. For that stretch, Highway 50 has even acquired a more informative handle; the ‘Loneliest Road in America’. I believe it was Sunset Magazine that first came up with that title in the late seventies, followed by Life Magazine cautioning drivers to avoid it if at all possible unless they were “confident in their survival skills”. Nevada’s tourism commission initially recoiled in horror, but then they reconsidered; it may have been an insult, but, by George, looked at properly it was a flattering insult. So they put up roadside signs proclaiming ‘The Loneliest Road in America’ and handed out Highway 50 Survival Kits to tourists, thereby ensuring that it would never, ever, again actually be the Loneliest Road in America. Other than the highway itself, and the occasional power lines crossing it, it’s true there aren’t many signs of civilization out there on that 300-mile stretch from the Utah line west to Fallon. There are only the towns of Ely, Eureka, and Austin. Amazingly, all three were county seats right up until 1978. Ely and Eureka still are. But Austin; therein lies so many tales a man could get weary, but it isn’t the county seat anymore. When I moved to Austin in 1974 it would still be the county seat for four more years. The town itself was, personality-wise, vastly different than what it is today, and the loneliest road wouldn’t become capitalized for several years, although the mile or so that wound through Austin has always been relegated to Main Street. It funnels back into Highway 50 at the hairpin turn on the east end of town, and then snakes its way up the side of Pony Canyon to Austin Summit a thousand feet above. In the summertime that portion is a beautifully scenic drive, but in winter it is not. In winter it was my worst nightmare, which is probably why I ended up driving it eternally. First as a welder on call for breakdowns at the now-defunct Frontier Tavern 12 miles east, then as a truck driver delivering fuel to ranches and mines out that way, and then as a deputy sheriff responding to wrecks and breakdowns up there and also answering ambulance calls in that direction, and then as a postal service route contractor running mail out there six days a week. I got to where I really didn’t care much for Highway 50 east. On the other hand Highway 50 also runs west, pretty sedately really, 112 miles to Fallon, where Austinites do most of their shopping. It takes about an hour and twenty minutes to drive to Fallon, and then two or three hours to shop and get a haircut etc., and then another hour and twenty minutes to drive back, so by the time you pulled back into your driveway the day was pretty well shot. However, I noticed that happened whether you went to Fallon or not, so you may as well have a fresh loaf of bread and a haircut to show for it. The road from Austin to Fallon isn’t as desolate as the sign implies though. Unlike the highway east to Utah, which has no facilities between distant towns, there are three between Austin and Fallon...er, were three; although there are still good burgers to be found at Cold Springs (50 miles from Austin) and Middlegate (65 miles), Frenchman’s Station (80 miles) vanished a couple decades ago. The U.S. Navy bought it and leveled it. I always thought joining the Navy only to be stationed in the Nevada desert would be missing the point, but I suppose it makes sense when you learn it’s a Naval Air Station where Top Gun pilots train. Based in Fallon, there are nearby bombing ranges—one of which was right next to Frenchman’s Station—and they tend to attract passing motorists, who often stop to watch the show. I can see why a nearby gathering spot might make the Navy a little nervous while dropping bombs in the area. Still, it was fun for us gawkers while it lasted, but without the sandwiches and beer there are far fewer in attendance these days. Makes the Loneliest Road a little lonelier, you might say. Just what it needs, huh? And while it goes without saying that most traffic through Nevada travels either Interstate 15 through Las Vegas or Interstate 80 in the north, which offer both speed and convenience, those travelers miss experiencing the heartbeat of the Great Basin Desert. And what would be the best way to experience that unhurried, measured heartbeat? Get behind a slow-moving hay truck trundling up Austin summit on the Loneliest Road in America.