Endless opportunities for solitude

  • Hwy 50

    the loneliest road in America

No place on earth has anything quite like the roads of the Great Basin. Maybe the most distinctive recollection of my life 15 years ago at Deep Springs College along the California-Nevada border, was dropping off Westgard Pass into Deep Springs Valley driving a ratty Chevy pickup truck whose sole virtue was a passable sound system.

It was night. Actually, it was beyond "night" and into the dark post-midnight hours, and already I had paused at the margin of California Highway 168, where the road crossed the unaqueducted Owens River: There were the huge radio-telescopes and a slice of the desert in repose.

Another 20 minutes of driving east put me at the summit of a 7,241-foot pass where, despite the May date, water was frozen in the thunderstorm puddles of Cedar Flats. Since to stay awake I was chewing Skoal and driving with every window open, my sense of reality took on a vivid blue chill. I stopped, switched off, and listened. And hearing nothing, breathed in piûon pitch and absorbed the cold, the silence, and the rich presence of absence.

After a rest, it was back to the cab of the pickup. Engine and heat on. In gear. Open the glove compartment, known to me then as the "jockey box," and slip a waiting cassette into the tape machine. In no time, I was rolling downhill, with the music starting. Dah DHUNT, Dah Dah Dah Dah whee whomp.

With the first note of "Jumping Jack Flash" the wheels squealed careening around a blind turn, and, high on cold and hard-won road knowledge, I recited sotto voce verses of the Westgard Pass mantra: downshift before the third drop or it's airborne ahead, add gas into the next turn, punch it now to coast over the rise, cows sometimes around this bend. The sacrament was complete. Here was the Great Basin, truly home.

John McPhee tells us in Basin and Range that it is the closely alternating mountain and valley physiography that defines the Great Basin. John C. Frémont, exploring the area for himself and the United States government in the middle of the 19th century, defined the area by its absence of an outlet to any ocean.

Clarence Dutton, a great geographer accompanying John Wesley Powell's epic survey of the American West, said the mountains resembled "an army of caterpillars marching toward Mexico." They were every one of them right, naturally. But for some of us, for very sensible reasons, it is roads that define the Great Basin.

What college student worth spit has failed to feel a quickening pulse when the words "road trip" are spoken? A Westerner knows the feeling. I plead happily guilty to a reverence for the auto (or truck) in the Great Basin. Here I drive and love almost every second. Concern about gas and waste and conservation in this land is born only of doubts about running out of fuel before the next tiny town looms. And then?

If the Interstates are bland rectitude, what rates? Simple: Highway 89 is a great road. It goes from Nogales, Ariz., to Glacier National Park in Montana, passing through all of Arizona and Utah, a teensy bit of Idaho, and all of Wyoming and Montana. On the way, it passes through the Grand Canyon, the Hopi-Navajo reservations, traversing all of the Sanpete Valley, the cultural core of old Mormon Utah, along the Wasatch Front, and north where it dodges into the Cache Valley of Logan, Utah, the Snake River Plain of Idaho, and all of Teton and Yellowstone national parks.

This is no shrinking-violet road; it's the guts of the best of the West of America.

Or consider Highway 95. It moves north from Laughlin, Nev., to Jordan Valley, Ore., along the western edge of Nevada, eastern Oregon, and then into Idaho. It offers towns in Nevada like Beatty, Goldfield, Tonopah, Coaldale, Mina, Hawthorne, Fallon, Winnemucca, and ever-exquisite McDermitt. More important, though, Highway 95 goes through some ultimate, perfect, Great Basin country: It cuts into or near every major vegetation type of the valleys of the Great Basin.

Highway 50 risked destruction when it was hyped as "the Loneliest Road in America," but doesn't seem to have picked up a whole lot more traffic on its west-to-east traverse of central Nevada and Utah, from Stateline at South Lake Tahoe to Carson City and Fernley, to Fallon, and on to Austin, and then into Eureka, the greatest cowtown in the United States, past Great Basin National Park, and across the Sevier Desert to Delta, Utah, and eventually, Payson and Provo.

"Fifty" is a roller coaster ride: eight or nine (I forget) passes over 6,000 feet, from Carson City to Delta, Utah. It's somewhere out here that Gary Snyder wrote the perfect desert poem, a "Hitch Haiku': "Jackrabbit eyes all night, breakfast in Elko."

But the all-time favorite for me is Highway 6, in Nevada. It crosses the California border at Janie's Ranch, a whorehouse, ascends Montgomery Pass near Boundary Peak, and includes the metropolis of Tonopah (last gas for 145 miles). Beyond is the entrance to Nellis Air Force Base, Warm Springs, Currant, and, eventually, Ely. Highway 6 even goes into Utah, where it dips into Price and Wellington, ending in the Green River, Utah, country so beloved by Edward Abbey.

For every mile there's the adrenaline rush of desert driving. You never know, especially at night, when you might swoop over a rise and into a cow absorbing warmth while sleeping squarely amidships on the pavement.

Open Range: Hit her and you've bought her. Aside from desert cattle, which Wallace Stegner correctly described as having "the look of rightness," there is along this road, simply put, almost nothing special to see. That is spectacle enough. Listen, and hearing nothing, learn what that means.

There are other roads, of course. Consider Nevada 376, from Austin to Tonopah, a 107-mile defile between two huge mountain ranges, each with 12,000-foot peaks along the crest. Or Highway 30 in Utah, which curls around the northern end of the Great Salt Lake. Or conjure with a track that runs off, north, south, east or west, from any highway. These are the "ranch roads' whose presence is occasionally noted by understated highway signs. These graveled or washboard dirt paths are the sole link between rural ranchers and towns, with civilization and big city life represented by places like Eureka or Modena or Orovada or Riddle or Arock or Fredonia. No easy life, though beloved by its practitioners. There's a line in Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It: "One thing about a ranch road - there is less and less of it the closer it gets to the cows." Indeed.

In Great Basin travel, there is something for everyone. The question is, what do you want?

Paul F. Starrs teaches geography at the University of Nevada, Reno.

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