Traveling Through Time on America’s Loneliest Road

Written by BlackbirdGo December 19, 2018
The History

There’s something truly special about a good road trip. Maybe it’s the curve of the road disappearing around the corner. Maybe it’s the balance between focus and zen you reach from watching the white lines slip one by one underneath your car. Maybe it’s the carefully selected music that makes you forget where you are going and why you’re going there—just for the moment. Maybe it’s all of the above.

Growing up, I spent a good portion of my life on the road, which is probably what inspired me to take on my current lifestyle of living in a van. Every spring break, summer vacation, and holiday getaway, we would hitch up the travel trailer and hit the pavement. While I felt so alive and free during our road trips, I would have never imagined that years later I would be cruising down these same highways to the same destinations.

One of these roads is U.S. Route 50 that runs from California to Maryland and passes through the center of Nevada. It’s also fondly known as the Loneliest Road in America. That nickname, credited to Life magazine from the 1980s, was given because the road appeared to be devoid of civilization. While, yes, signs of civilization are pretty few and far between, the road is unmistakably full of history and life.

I’ve ridden shotgun on this highway many times before as a kid, but it felt surreal driving this barren road alone and, in my adulthood, to visit my parents. I started my excursion through Carson City and pointed my van east.

Even though it’s considered barren, Route 50 has played an integral part in Nevada’s history. It was along the very same area where Native Americans traveled across the state regularly. The Pony Express traveled along it. Old mining towns were the connecting dots between the eventually carved dirt roadway. It wasn’t until the 1920s that it became an actual highway that stretched across the country, and yet it still remained the road less traveled. Those mining towns hidden in the high desert remained quaint, and Route 50 remained lonely.

As I continued my drive, I passed through hills blanketed in sagebrush, impressive reservoirs, wild horses, and worn-down ranches. I felt as if a John Denver song had manifested itself into my reality. The sky was a soft shade of blue, and the clouds that once looked threatening to me had faded away at least fifty miles back. I sped through several spaced-out towns until I hit the epitome of the roadway: loneliness.

The next decent town I was to come across would be Fallon. Back in the day, pioneers viewed the desert expanse as the perfect place to build ranches, and promises of irrigation from the Truckee River gave hope that fertile soil and farming would be possible. Fallon was projected to grow much greater in population. It clearly never did but remains an important piece of Nevada’s history, present, and future through its agricultural industry.

The faint smell of manure faded as I persisted east. The open range ahead of me felt nostalgic yet fresh. It made me wonder how those traveling this way in the 1800s, without the occasional traffic sign, made it anywhere without falling victim to insanity or misdirection.

Like an anti-oasis, sand dunes appeared on the horizon. I had reached Sand Mountain, a small expanse that looked like a piece of the Sahara had been randomly misplaced. The sand originates from the extinct Lake Lahontan that dried up thousands of years back. A few ATVs could be spotted popping over the peak, creating splashes of sand behind them as they raced away.

The dunes disappeared behind me as quickly as they had appeared, and I was once again alone. Cell phone service quickly dissolved away, leaving me with my own music library and thoughts. After several songs and even more miles, I slowly approached Middlegate.

I clearly remembered Middlegate and the excitement I felt driving through as a child. My parents told me all about the “Shoe Tree” that stood tall in the desert. It’s exactly what it sounds like: a cottonwood tree with an impressive number of pairs of shoes hanging from its branches. It started long ago when newlyweds got into an argument and the wife threatened to walk away. The husband proceeded to throw her shoes into the tree, thus accidentally starting a beloved tradition for all of those who would come across it.

Heartache hit once I remembered it was cut down by vandals in 2010. I never got to throw shoes into it to leave my mark, and I still curse those anonymous hooligans for ruining something great. That’s when it appeared: a young Shoe Tree. I got out and stood at the base. I had no shoes to throw, but it made me happy to know that just because it’s not the original doesn’t mean tradition can’t live on.

I climbed back into the van to resume my journey. I passed only one other vehicle on my way toward Austin. It started to get lonely.

I almost regretted taking this particular route home until I eventually approached Austin, Nevada. I’d never spent any more time than a quick lunch here, but I’d passed through countless times before. I thought of the story my dad told many times. Decades back, he had arrived here in the depths of an awful snowstorm with his travel trailer. He parked it in the trailer park and lived there for a while as he worked at the nearby mines, and that park is still running today. He never failed to point it out when we passed it.

I straightened up and turned the music down to make sure I wouldn’t miss my turn north toward civilization. I could have kept going to complete the entire Nevada stretch, but that would defeat the purpose of my trip. The sun was beginning to slip down toward the horizon, and I didn’t want to be on the Loneliest Road in America in the desert-level, nighttime darkness that was coming.

I almost felt sad as I took my journey in a new direction. There was a part of me that wanted to keep going. To me, solitude is different than loneliness, and U.S. Route 50 celebrated solitude. There is history. There is life. All we have to do is drive.