Like 99% of the people who have been to Nevada, I’ve only been to Las Vegas. For this trip, I wanted to see a different Nevada. And there is nothing more different than old Route 50 which was part of The Lincoln Highway, but originally was the Pony Express route and Emigrant Trail to the mining towns and beyond. It was dubbed “The Loneliest Road in America” after Life Magazine, in 1986, dissed the route with the words of a AAA travel guide:

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 are confident in their survival skills.

Nevada’s Tourist Board struck back with a promotion that involved a Highway 50 Survival Guide in the form of a passport. Drivers could get their book stamped at each town, send in a receipt and get an official certificate signed by the Governor confirming the accomplishment. I got the book and today I got the stamps from Fernley, Fallon, Austin, Eureka and Ely — the only towns on the nearly 300 mile stretch across the middle of Nevada. As the Tourist Board promises, Route 50 in Nevada is not empty. You’ll find mining towns, history, petroglyphs, weird geological formations and big skies. The Road Trip USA site does a great job of outlining what you’ll see here, so I won’t repeat them. But I will confirm that this is not a trip for sissies. It is, however, a great way to discover Nevada. Because Nevada is NOT what you think it is.

1. Nevada is NOT flat. Admit it. You thought Nevada was just mile after mile of sagebrush-filled plains. Nope, Nevada is actually the most mountainous state in the nation. I know, I didn’t believe it either, so I checked it against three sources. I’m sure it depends what you mean by “most mountainous” which I think the Nevada Tourism Board is defining as “most mountains”. Nevada — at least the Loneliest Road section — is also high. I spent the day traveling over plains at 4000 feet, then up through mountain passes of over 7000 feet. All the while, I was gazing out at mountain ranges in the distance that looked to be several thousand feet higher. The effect is that of climbing up the rim and down into an interconnected series of soup bowls.

along Route 50, Nevada
Here I am coming out of a mountain pass about to head over a high plain and back into another mountain range in the distance. Multiply this by at least 10 and that was my day’s drive.

2. Nevada seems to be filled with guerrilla eco artists. All along the route — even a hundred miles from anywhere — there were found-object sculptures, usually made with pieces of rusty metal or old car parts. Unfortunately, the best metal sculptures were in areas where I couldn’t pull off the side of the road to photograph them. Which made me wonder if the artists trekked over to the road from the desert. But I could photograph what must be one of the most innovative forms of graffiti. More than 50 miles of the route was lined with “tags” made in the beige sand with pieces of the black volcanic rock.

rock graffiti along Rte 50 Nevada
Even something as banal as “Jim loves Betty” or “Go Wildcats” looked profound rendered in rock.

3. Nevada is a little scary. It’s not just the isolation. Although, I will warn anyone attempting this route that some of the the side trips — even those marked as tourist destinations — immediately devolve into sand roads that should only be attempted by 4 wheel drives or ATVs. I went to the “Singing Sands Mountain” and had a moment of concern that I might not get out. Especially given that budget cuts seem to have eliminated all the rangers from these parks. I reluctantly had to bypass some of the petroglyphs as I didn’t think Old Roany (my Prius) could make the detour. But, frankly, it’s not the isolation that is the scariest thing about Nevada. After I did a drive-by yesterday of the infamous Moonlite Bunny Ranch, I cottoned on to the fact that a grouping of doublewides surrounded by fencing probably signaled a brothel. Then, as the clusters of trailers tapered to one or two every mile, I started seeing large signs warning people to “Report Bad Smells Immediately” to a toll free number. What? Are old mines outgassing poisonous or possibly explosive fumes?

meth sign in Nevada
Then I started seeing these signs and the penny dropped. (And I’m not talking about the political poster!)

Apparently meth and crank are a big problem in rural Nevada. I spent the rest of the journey avoiding stops at any areas with trailers. Luckily, that seems to be confined to Carson City on one end and the outskirts of Ely on the other. The interior towns are tiny, friendly and consist almost entirely of buildings from the 1800s.

4. Nevada is not as deserty as you might think. When the miners arrived, they called the Paiute, Shoshone and Washoe natives “diggers” because they had ingenious ways of finding water and edible roots underground. I don’t think the miners meant it as a compliment, but I also wonder how difficult that survival skill would be to learn. Even on what looked like a dry sagebrush filled hill, there would be sudden patches of intense green. In addition, some of the arroyos were still filled with water — not something you’d see in the arid parts of California. I also drove through an intense short thunderstorm toward the end of my drive, again something you don’t have in arid or semi-arid parts of California. A further tip-off: many of the Pony Express sites had names such as Cold Springs. All of which leads me to believe Nevada has some water percolating under that sagebrush.

sage of a different color
Can you guess where the water is?

5. Nevada seems to be empty of animals. Either that or they are very good at hiding. I passed dozens of signs warning of open range cattle, wild horse and burro habitat, and elk breeding areas. I barely saw any cattle and I never saw an elk, burro or wild horse. Not only that, I didn’t see one jackrabbit, coyote or bird of prey. Even stranger, I didn’t even see any roadkill. Most of the recreation areas and park areas are unstaffed due to budget cuts. Are BLM and park officials cleaning the roads? It was odd and spooky. Or maybe I was paying too much attention to determining where water might be and scouting out dodgy trailer clusters.

So did I enjoy the Loneliest Road? Yes, I did. There were sections where the landscape seemed unchanged from Pony Express days. As I glanced up in the hills, I saw dozens of mineshafts — the old movie style ones with the wooden entrance supports. More often than not, when I pulled off to the side of the road to photograph something, I’d see the foundations of a town that had sprung up with the boom, then crumbled into adobe dust when the gold and silver ran out.

What didn’t I enjoy? The massive number of slag heaps that were left by the miners. All of the interior Loneliest Road towns are bracketed by huge piles of dirt and debris that thousands of miners dug out of the mountain. Some have sagebrush covering them, but more than a hundred years later, some are still just bare dirt.  I’m amazed they don’t erode down and bury the towns. I didn’t even want to think about all the mercury slurry the miners used to sluice the dirt to separate out the valuable minerals. Needless to say, I’m buying bottled water on this trip.

slag heap outside ely, nevada
Here’s an absolutely massive slag heap outside Ely. Compare it with Mount Wheeler in the background which is Nevada’s highest peak. This heap looks fresh rather than something miners in Mark Twain’s day piled up.

More photos from today here.