Day 53 – The Second Loneliest Road in America
US 50 through Nevada is famously known as the “Loneliest Road in America”.
I tend to disagree.
Sure, a description like “loneliest road” is a somewhat open to interpretation. How do you measure loneliness? What makes a road, in particular, feel lonely? Is it a lack of traffic? The distance between towns? The fact that your girlfriend left you for Interstate 80?
Still, in just about any way I could think of to measure such a thing, highway 50 was not the loneliest road I had driven on. It wasn’t even the loneliest road I had driven on in Nevada. I would nominate highway 140 for that honor. On 140, I remembered seeing 8 vehicles over the course of a couple of hours. On 50, I saw 8 vehicles in the first 6 miles. Though the traffic did eventually drop down much closer to zero, and though I was comparing a Saturday on 50 to a Thursday on 140, I still think 140 ranks as the lonelier road.
After leaving Elko, I traveled south to Eureka, and then took US 50 west toward Fallon—a distance of 180 miles on that highway. This gave me a fairly good comparison, because it is also 180 miles on highway 140 from Lakeview, Oregon, to the intersection with US 95 in Nevada. A comparison of the two stretches of highway:
US 50 was still a very lonely highway, however you measure it. And, in terms of being a worthwhile drive, 50 is the more scenic of the two routes, hands down. It just doesn’t quite live up to its name. Perhaps it ranks as the Second Loneliest Road in America.
Pam had drawn out a map of highway 50 for me, listing the sights to see along the way. The first of these was the Hickison Petroglyph area.
Petroglyphs are like cave drawings, only here there were no caves. A short hiking trail looped around rock outcroppings and boulders, where natives millennia ago had left their own brand of graffiti scratched into the rocks.
The petroglyphs were a bit hard to find, though. The multiple sites were not marked well, and the promised brochures that would have mapped out the drawings were absent from the trailhead box. It also did not help that there were many modern petroglyphs scratched into the rock walls, with various initials and peace signs and UFOs competing for attention. There is a slight chance that a caveman would have been named Al, but I seriously doubt he would have autographed his work using our modern alphabet.
The authentic petroglyphs had a few thousand more years of weathering, so they were easy enough to distinguish from the modern imposters. They were not, however, all that easy to distinguish from the natural texture of the rock. Part of the problem was that the drawings, or writings, or symbols did not really look like anything. They were just scribbles.
This reminded me of some similar drawings I had seen on a family vacation years ago. I had been struck not by the history or the mysterious meaning of the cave drawings, but rather by their poor quality. I’m not expecting the Mona Lisa, but even the simple stick drawings were done so poorly that I could not tell what they were supposed to represent. This seemed to work against any suggestions that the drawings were important methods of storytelling or a form of written history. They looked like something I drew with crayons when I was 4.
That led to my own theory of petroglyphs/cave drawings: they were drawn by cave kids. Think about it: in your house, who is it that scribbles and draws on the walls? If your answer is “nobody”, you must not have any kids.
I can picture it now: while cave mom is busy cooking and cave dad is out working on his next Geico commercial, the little cave kids busy themselves by scribbling on the walls. The cave mom discovers the drawings, and gives the cave kids a timeout. Since soap has not been invented yet, and the drawings are scratched or painted into rock, the scribbles are impossible to clean off. Cave dad comes home and gives the kids a good stern grunting to, but the drawings remain on the wall.
And so they remain today, until the erosion of time or the nonsense scribblings of modern Neanderthals wear them away.
I drove right by one unofficial “attraction” on US 50, but noticed it as I passed and made a quick U-turn.
It was a tree covered with shoes.
There are no signs announcing the shoe tree, or any interpretive centers or brochures. It is just a tree, in the middle of nowhere, that people have decided to throw their shoes up in.
Another car was parked there, and the two male occupants walked around it taking photographs.
“Pretty crazy, huh?” one of them asked me.
“Yeah. Do you have any idea…why…?” I gestured at the tree.
“Not a clue.”
“Did you know there are some hooves up there?”
“Some hooves,” he said, pointing to one of the closer branches. “Like, cow hooves. Legs and all. Someone chopped them off, tied them together, and threw them up there.”
“Huh. That’s unusual.”
A little farther down the road, I came across Sand Mountain—a giant sand dune just north of the road. It might have fit in perfectly in the deep Sahara, but here it looked very out of place. It was the only sand dune anywhere in the area, and it was huge.
It was also home to more human activity than I had seen anywhere else along the lonely road. RVs and trailers parked haphazardly on the plain below the dune created a makeshift town that was at least the second-biggest population center on the 180-mile stretch of highway, and may have come close to ranking #1, ahead of Austin. Dark specks zoomed up and down the sides of the dune with unexpected speed, and as I pulled closer, I could make out that they were 4-wheelers and ATVs.
I would think that driving up and down the dune would get old pretty fast, but judging from the number of people camped there, it must remain interesting for a couple of days or more.
At the entrance to Sand Mountain was a pay phone labeled as the Loneliest Phone in America, though some of my dateless friends might argue that title. The phone number there is (775) 423-0904, in case you want to call it and make it feel less lonely.
© 2007 by Kevin McConaghy. All rights reserved.