Riding the Loneliest Roads in America.
By Glen Abbott
“I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.”
Henry David Thoreau: Walden (1854)
It feels like I’m in the middle of freaking nowhere: terrain so remote, so inhospitable, at one time the government set off above-ground nuclear explosions here. Maybe they hoped no one would notice. It’s an area inhabited by space aliens and harboring secret UFO landing sites, if you believe conspiracy theorists.
Sounds like the ideal place for a motorcycle ride. When you get past the glitter, girls, and gambling of Las Vegas, Nevada is primarily high desert. Its population density is less than 20 per square mile (although I imagine the census figures don’t include rattlesnakes or space aliens) – despite being the seventh-largest state in land area. That’s a whole lot of lonely desert. Which makes for lots of lonely highways – the best kind, in my estimation.
I’m riding one of Harley-Davidson’s top touring machines – a 2011 Road Glide Ultra. Cool Blue Pearl, to match the state’s endless blue skies. 103 cubic inch motor, for tackling those long stretches of remote highway. ABS for safe stopping, no matter what the desert throws at me. Six-gallon fuel tank, for peace of mind between isolated gas stops. Frame-mounted Shark-Nose fairing, for cutting through crosswinds like a hot knife through butter. Oh yes, the desert can be a harsh mistress, but I’m prepared.
I’m tooling along at slightly extra-legal speeds, rolling east on the “Loneliest Road in America” – U.S. Highway 50, cutting through the middle of the state. I’m just outside Fallon, Nevada – home of the U.S. Navy’s Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program, better known as “Top Gun,” where the country’s best fighter pilots go for training (“Low Flying Aircraft” is a warning sign you’ll see a lot here). It’s 110 miles to the next town. Twenty-five years ago, a story in Life magazine referred to this 287-mile stretch as containing “no points of interest,” and recommended motorists not drive the road “unless they’re confident of their survival skills.”
Excuse me? As we would have said where I grew up in Rhode Island, “What are you, a moron? (usually, though, we used a stronger word than ‘moron’).” In any case, what could have been a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day for denizens of the isolated region led to a public relations bonanza; astute tourism officials promptly erected signs promoting its lonely mystique. Unlike the smoke and mirrors of Las Vegas, Highway 50 is the Real Deal, a bikers’ dream – mile after mile after mile of isolated blacktop cutting through Nevada’s high desert: mountains, valleys, sand dunes, sagebrush and yucca as far as the eye can see, with liberal doses of coyotes, jackrabbits, field mice, rattlesnakes and an occasional mountain lion thrown in for good measure.
“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.”
Hunter S. Thompson: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971)
Let’s start at the beginning: Las Vegas. It’s where the Atomic Age came to Nevada – the U.S. military began testing nuclear weapons in the desert outside the city at the Nevada Test Site in 1951. Crowds gathered to watch the mushroom clouds billow into the sky. After 1963, atomic testing went underground, continuing all the way through 1992. Casinos – not mushrooms – had started sprouting in the desert somewhat earlier, after the re-legalization of gambling in 1931 (which been outlawed in the state after 1910). Tourism grew to become Nevada’s No. 1 industry, drawing visitors in droves to the “City of Lost Wages,” “Sin City,” or “Glitter Gulch,” among its various nicknames. I didn’t come to gamble, however. I’ve arrived here on a two-wheeled mission to explore some of the desert’s most deserted highways.
First day on the ‘Glide, I head west out of Vegas, jewel of the Mojave desert, the morning sun setting the snow-capped mountains in the distance ablaze with color and warming me through my leather jacket. A stiff desert wind is blowing. I’ll be shedding the jacket soon, however, as I ride into Death Valley, one of the hottest places on earth. I’m cruising north on State Route 160; at Pahrump I go west and cross into California. At the border, a sign welcomes me to Inyo County, California, near the tiny town of Death Valley Junction, site of the historic Amargosa Opera House and Hotel. It’s a beautiful yet bleak area; the town’s entire population would likely fit inside a VW Microbus.
From the Junction, I ride into Death Valley National Park, air temperature going up as the elevation drops. Vegetation is sparse, the terrain rocky. Death Valley’s average July high temperature is 115° (highest ever recorded was 134° in 1913). No worries today, since it’s April, and a relatively brisk 94°. I ride through aptly-named Furnace Creek – elevation sea level – and continue the descent to Badwater. The air becomes thicker, the heat more and more oppressive – kind of what I’d imagine sticking your head into a blast furnace feels like. I’ve arrived at the lowest point in the U.S – 282 feet below sea level. A small pool of water in the sand is covered by a salty crust (hence the name). Visitors park and hike a quarter-mile or so to adjacent salt flats. Borax – a mineral used as a cleaning agent – was successfully mined nearby in the 1880s, hauled out in giant wagons by 20-mule teams.
From below sea level, I ride up and out of Death Valley, back into Nevada. Climbing, curving and winding on S.R. 374 toward Beatty, the temperature drops again as elevation increases.
Outside Beatty, I stop in Rhyolite, a ghost town that boomed in 1904 with the discovery of gold and went bust within a decade when the ore played out. Today, several buildings remain, including a “bottle house” constructed of 50,000 empty beer and liquor bottles – the most imaginative use I’ve seen for empties.
At Beatty, I check into The Atomic Inn and walk over to the Happy Burro Chili & Beer for, uh, chili and a beer. Crystal, the bartender, insists I visit the bathroom when she finds out I’ve ridden into town on a Harley. “You’ve gotta clutch it, that’s all I’m gonna tell you,” she says. Inside the men’s room, a pair of ape-hanger handlebars is mounted on the wall above the urinal; the clutch lever is rigged to the urinal’s flush mechanism. Clutch it, indeed: Genius!
On tomorrow’s agenda: Goldfield and Tonopah – towns less than thirty miles apart which produced fortunes in gold and silver, respectively, in their glory days. Goldfield was founded in 1902, eventually becoming the largest city in Nevada with 20,000 residents. Its biggest saloon employed 80 bartenders to serve thirsty patrons. The now-shuttered, reportedly haunted Goldfield Hotel was said to offer the finest lodging between Chicago and San Francisco.
“This was the last and one of the biggest gold strikes in the U.S.,” David Ashe, owner of Goldfield’s Barbarossa & Bear Vintage Wares & Classic Motorcycle Shop, explains. “Now we’ve got two and a half million acres and 1,020 people left in the county.”
Tonopah up the road fared only slightly better. Once known as the “Queen of the Silver Camps,” its mines yielded a rich bounty of ore from 1900 through the 1920s. Tonopah boasted its own high-end hotel, the Mizpah, built in 1907, which is now closed and also said to be haunted.
In Fallon, at the junction of U.S. 95 I turn east onto the state’s official “Loneliest Road,” U.S. 50. The route parallels the original Pony Express route, and is also part of the Lincoln Highway, the nation’s original cross-country road.
In the distance I spot what looks like a giant sand dune with ants crawling all over it, seemingly out-of-place in the scrubby terrain. As I get closer, I see the ants are actually dozens of dune buggies, ATVs, and dirt bikes, emitting the collective sound of a million angry bumblebees. The dunes are a naturally occurring and constantly shifting feature, part of Sand Mountain Recreation Area.
East of Sand Mountain, it’s just me and the ‘Glide – miles of open road, open range, and high desert with the snow-capped Toiyabe Mountains in the distance. I spend the night in the remote former silver-mining town of Austin. “This is wide open country here,” Kip Helming, owner of Union Street Lodging in Austin, tells me. “You get up in these mountains, you can see 50, 60 miles or more.”
In the morning I dodge snow flurries as I ride out of town, but they don’t last long. The snow has dusted the mountains in soft white powder, reminding me of those little powdered sugar donuts – I think they were called Gems – we scarfed down as kids.
I ride through Eureka, and come to Ely in late afternoon – silver and copper mining their claims to fame. As I approach Ely’s downtown, the skies open up – a full-on, Katie-bar-the-door thunder, lightning, snow, and hailstorm, which forms a thick slush on the city’s main street. I safely pull into the Hotel Nevada and Gambling Hall. The six-story brick hotel/casino is a genuine – but updated – remnant of old Nevada; when it opened in 1929, it was the state’s tallest building. Ely’s other attraction is the “Ghost Train,” an original 1909 steam locomotive from the Nevada Northern Railway used to haul copper ore.
Next morning dawns bright and sunny, and from Ely, I ride south on U.S. 93 toward Pioche, an 1860s silver-mining town that retains much of its old West character. The local Boot Hill cemetery reportedly buried 72 gunshot victims before a single resident arrived from natural causes. “This town made Deadwood and Tombstone look like kindergarten,” guide Jane Humphrey tells me on a tour of the original courthouse and jail, now a museum. In 1873, tax records listed 78 saloons and 34 brothels in the thriving town, Humphrey says.
“The Truth is Out There”
The X-Files (1993-2002)
From Pioche, I’ve got just one more stop on these lonely trails, and it’s a doozy. Rachel, Nevada sits almost precisely in the middle of nowhere: “Next Gas 150 Miles” reads the sign on S.R. 375. This road has been officially designated the “Extraterrestrial Highway;” running along the edge of the Nevada Test Site, and home to super-secret Area 51, the rumored hub of U.S. government interaction with space aliens and their spacecraft.
In Rachel, I stop at the Little A’Le’Inn, pretty much the only place in town: a bar, restaurant, and gift shop specializing in alien tchotchkes– T-shirts, shot glasses, coffee mugs, and blow-up alien dolls –your usual alien memorabilia. I lunch on a “World Famous Alien Burger,” drinking a Diet Coke and shooting the breeze with the bartender – who is decidedly noncommittal about alien sightings in the area, shrugging his shoulders when I ask if I’m likely to see any. “Guess it depends on how much tequila you drink,” he says.
Visitors from space notwithstanding, Nevada really hasn’t changed a whole lot since its Wild West days. In now-deserted boomtowns, you can almost feel the presence of grizzled prospectors who rode in on their burros, and picture the thriving gambling halls, honky tonks and bawdy houses that catered to their wants and needs. You’ll find ghosts – real or imagined – and relics of the past here. Mining detritus, rusting car parts, and shattered fragments of old whiskey bottles dot the high desert, remnants of hopes and dreams realized but ultimately lost. There’s only one officially designated “Loneliest Road” in the state, but most all Nevada’s roads are lonely. Happy trails on a Harley!
-Photos by Glen Abbott
Featured products, services and/or travel arrangements may have been complimentary in part or in full; this affords the research opportunity but does not sway opinion.