Life on the ‘Loneliest Road’ : 287-Mile Stretch of U.S. 50 Is America Minus Tourist Traps
John Raisbeck, 54, and his wife, Barbara, 50, rolled their motorcycle to a stop a few miles east of this tiny old gold and silver mining town.
“We’re taking a break to inhale the clean, clear air, to gaze at the gorgeous purple mountain. We don’t see this kind of country where we’re from,” Raisbeck said.
The Raisbecks were from Hookstown, Pa., riding across the heart of America on their motorcycle to visit their children and grandchildren in Sacramento.
They were on U.S. 50, along a 287-mile stretch of narrow two-lane pavement slicing through high desert and mountains from Ely to Fernley, Nev.
They could see for miles in all directions. The road disappeared like a straight pencil line east and west.
It was so quiet you could hear the blood rush through your ears.
This is the section of highway that Life magazine and the American Automobile Assn. called “the loneliest road in America.”
“It’s totally empty. There are no points of interest. We don’t recommend it. We warn all motorists not to drive there unless they’re confident of their survival skills,” the July issue of Life quoted an unnamed AAA counselor as saying about U.S. 50 in Nevada.
But for the Raisbecks the ride on U.S. 50 was the thrill of a lifetime.
“We have seen wild horses, antelope and deer along the road. It’s God’s country. The wide open spaces of Nevada are the best part of the trip so far,” Barbara Raisbeck said as she and her husband hopped back onto their bike.
They were off for an 11-mile side trip on a dirt road to Hamilton, Eberhardt, Treasure City and Sherman, all 19th-Century ghost towns.
Ten thousand people lived in huts and caves in the boom camps dotting the 8,000-to-10,500-foot slopes of Mt. Hamilton, working the rich diggings more than a century ago. Now there are only occasional ruins and foundations, lost dreams and no people.
Up the road at Eureka, population 600, at the town’s tiny bank--it was once a brewery--janitor Estell Genzoli, 82, was sweeping out the place, as she has each late afternoon for the last 30 years. The sprightly widow has also been the reporter for the weekly Eureka Sentinel the same length of time.
A photo of Edna Covert Plummer adorned a plaque in the bank. The first woman district attorney in the United States in 1918, Plummer founded the bank with old-fashioned lattice-like iron teller cages in 1920.
As for U.S. 50 being “the loneliest road in America with no points of interest,” Genzoli retorted bluntly:
“What a ridiculous statement. It makes my blood boil. Whoever said that must be blind. Take Eureka. It hasn’t hardly changed in the last 100 years. It isn’t a tourist trap. It’s for real. It’s unique.”
Well, Eureka is definitely different.
The tiny town claims to have more cemeteries than any other town in America. There are separate cemeteries for the well-to-do and for those who died from contagious diseases. Neither is used today, however.
There are Indian, Chinese, Oddfellows, city and county, Masonic, Catholic, Jewish and Protestant cemeteries. There are more dead than alive by a long shot in Eureka.
The town is undermined with a network of tunnels, dug by early day Chinese miners as gambling and opium dens, later used by bootleggers during Prohibition.
In Ely, population 4,500, at the eastern end of the “loneliest road in America,” Mayor Barlow White, 52, echoed the storm of protest by residents, ranchers, miners and businessmen in Nevada’s White Pine, Eureka, Lander and Churchill counties.
“Wide open spaces. Last frontier. No crowd pollution. That’s the beauty of this country. That’s what we’re all about,” White said.
Businesses in this high-desert country are dependent upon highway traffic for income. U.S. 50 is the shortest route from Denver to San Francisco.
White told how chambers of commerce for five towns and four counties along the road joined with the Nevada Commission on Tourism in seeking to capitalize on the “loneliest road” designation. They have launched an “I Survived Highway 50" program.
The state has prepared “I Survived Highway 50" kits with maps, descriptive information about scenic attractions and lists of services and facilities in the five towns.
The package contains a form with spaces for an “I Survived” stamp available in Ely, Eureka, Austin, Fallon and Fernley. On completing the drive motorists may send the form in to the Tourist Commission and receive in return an “I Survived Highway 50" certificate signed by Nevada’s governor.
“Sure the ‘I Survived’ kit is tongue-in-cheek,” admitted Richard Moreno, public affairs officer with the Tourism Commission. “But we’re trying to attract people, not discourage them from using the highway.”
Moreno called the long stretch of U.S. 50 “a journey through a land where cowboys are the genuine article. The dust on their boots, the smell on their clothes and the sweat stains on their hats were earned. This is one of the last opportunities to experience and see living reminders of the vanishing American West.”
At the assay office in Ely, a boom town since the recent opening of a dozen gold and silver mines in the area, Ed Spear, 37, chairman of a five-county historical study group called Pony Express Territory, mentioned the glacier at nearby 13,061-foot Wheeler Peak.
“No places of interest? How many states in the country have a glacier?” Spear asked.
U.S. 50 through Nevada parallels the old Butterfield Pony Express trail. Rock walls of the old stagecoach stops still stand along the road.
Ely is the gateway to Lehman Caves National Monument in Nevada’s bristlecone pine country. Forests of the ancient trees grow on local mountains. Congressional hearings are currently being held to consider the creation of Great Basin National Park out of Lehman Caves, the bristlecone forest and Wheeler Peak.
This is America of yesterday. Turn-back-the-clock America. At McGill, a “suburb” of Ely, the walls of the town tavern are still covered with photographs of 145 servicemen and women who left the tiny mining town to fight in World War II.
It is true that settlements along U.S. 50 are few and far between. It is 77 miles from Ely to Eureka, 70 miles from Eureka to Austin, 111 miles from Austin to Fallon and 27 miles from Fallon to Fernley.
The entire distance except for the town limits is open range for cattle grazing on U.S. Bureau of Land Management terrain, desert country more than a mile high all the way with mountain passes as high as 7,588 feet.
Towering mountains, much of them forested, embrace the road. No billboards or traffic jams. No traffic.
At Austin, population 600, Clara Williams, 78, was dealing cards at the blackjack table in her Golden Club, as she has done practically every night since 1943. It is the only 21 table in town.
“Whoever tells people to avoid this part of Nevada because the road isn’t safe has a screw loose,” Williams snorted.
Austin has three of the oldest churches in Nevada, stately brick structures. Austin boasts an 1896 castle modeled after a medieval Roman tower. The town is often called the turquoise capital of the West.
“You can see the Milky Way and a sky full of stars people in cities haven’t seen since the 1940s,” Williams said.
Along the 111 miles between Austin and Fallon is a 600-foot-tall, two-mile-long sand dune. Old Ft. Churchill, now a state park and still intact a century after its last soldiers departed, is 10 miles south of the highway. From Fallon to Fernley isn’t lonely at all. It’s like driving through the Midwest with farms on both sides of the highway.
Ken Walker, 45, district manager of the Bureau of Land Management, said: “I can name you a dozen other roads lonelier than Highway 50 and much more monotonous. I’m astounded by the Triple A. This highway happens to cross through some of the most interesting and scenic country in the West.”
Tom Rohner, spokesman for the California State Automobile Assn., the AAA affiliate for Northern California and Northern Nevada, sent a letter of apology to businesses along U.S. 50.
The Auto Club affiliates sent a letter to Life magazine complaining that the “loneliest road” designation has done a great disservice to the people in the area and “does not reflect the view of the American Automobile Assn.”
But Bob Wildman, 34, manager of approved accommodations at the AAA regional office in Denver, told The Times that he had been contacted by Life magazine and did tell the publication that it was the loneliest U.S. highway so far as he knew--and that he had driven highways throughout the West for the AAA.
“Life wanted to know which U.S. highway was the loneliest as for lack of services and facilities. There are a lot of state and county roads that may be lonelier, but the magazine specifically asked for a U.S. highway,” Wildman said.
Corky Pope, 49, an Internal Revenue Service officer, was driving her mobile home west on U.S. 50 midway between Austin and Fallon en route to her home in Prather, Calif. She had been visiting relatives in Carnegie, Okla., and was accompanied by her mother and two sisters.
Going to Oklahoma they drove a southern route, the interstate from Barstow to Las Vegas. “That road was boring, boring, boring,” Pope said. “We’ll take Highway 50 without hesitation. This is a beautiful road.”