Lonesome Highway

The View Is Desolate, Prostitution's Legal, And The Trees Are Wearing Shoes -- Welcome To Nevada.

By Kevin Franklin

THE CAR SKIDS to a halt. A hippie jumps out. He runs across the road and into the snow. Pulling out a camera, he flicks his hair back and snaps a photo of a road sign.

Just as quickly, he jumps back in the car and speeds off. He's the third guy to do that within a half hour.

Review I've been watching this unfold from under the hood of my truck while making minor repairs in my friend Bob's driveway in Ely, Nevada. Bob's driveway is the first step along "The Loneliest Road In America."

I know it's lonely because that's what the road sign says. Life magazine writers were the first to give the road this name. They suggested anyone traversing the virtually civilization-free 300-mile stretch of desolate sage brush would need a survival kit. Taking the warning as an endorsement of sorts, the Nevada tourism board decided to promote it as a tourist attraction. They even package a "survival kit" of brochures and maps, and they post signs, beginning at Bob's trailer, along the route.

You can stop at various businesses along the way to get the form in your kit stamped, receive a "Silver State Survivor" certificate and jump on the opportunity to receive junk mail from the Nevada Commission on Tourism.

I've driven from Tucson to Ely, and I'll go with Bob from Ely to Salinas, California, in order to pick up a utility trailer from his grandfather. Several people questioned my sanity. It's a 2,700-mile round trip--the same distance as driving from London, England, to Tehran, Iran.

But hey, he's selling it cheap.

"Yeah, but your're spending $250 in gas, driving for a week and whiling away most of that time in Nevada," my chief critic said. "The government nuked the place, for crying out loud."

"Well, he's selling it real cheap," I replied.

I never was much for economic reasoning. But I'm usually up for an adventure. Bob and I load up the truck and set out from Ice-Station Zebra. It's a balmy eight degrees with a modest 30 m.p.h. wind from the northwest.

The stereotypical Nevada desert is all searing hot plains and sparse cacti, or white trash dressed as Roman centurions and retirees blowing their pensions at Caesar's Palace in Vegas. But the high desert of Nevada shares nothing with either of those. It's more like Mongolia.

Like the desert around Tucson, precipitation is low, but Nevada's also cold. So cold people get thick frost on the inside of their windshields. Then it gets hot. This has a dampening effect on the plant life. For as far as you can see, there's nothing but squat sagebrush. Nevada's a botanical low-rent district. A sagebrush ghetto.

It's appealing in its own way, really--if you're into desolation.

Geographically it's a strange place, too. Mountain range after skinny mountain range runs due north-south, with equally skinny basins in between. It's like driving across the corrugated rooftop of the Southwest.

Just in case we didn't notice this, the Nevada Highway Department has put up signs: "Antelope Summit," "New Pass Summit," "Pancake Summit." After awhile they run out of names and seem to dub them after guys on the road crew.

In his time here, Bob's noticed the road crews tend to focus their efforts on certain sections of highway. Gambling isn't the only legal thing in Nevada. Various "guest ranches" cater to the, er, "lonely cowboys" of the region. It just so happens there's a brothel on either end of Highway 50, presumably to aid one in traversing the loneliest road in America. I wonder what their survival kits have...and what kind of stamp you get.

Just east of the sprawling intersection of Middlegate, people have taken to throwing pairs of shoes into the branches of a cottonwood tree. Sneakers, high heals, boots, penny loafers. I even saw a pair of Wellingtons.

We stopped in the local bar to investigate.

"It's only been going on a few years," the bartender informed us. "I've seen all kinds of things--bike rims, roller blades. We used to go after work and shoot 'em down."

Hey, it's not the symphony, but you gotta take what you can get on America's loneliest road. TW

Next week: Sea monsters in the Nevada desert?!

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