Travelling the Loneliest Road in America
by Julie Miller (Guest Blogger)
The US state of Nevada has two major hubs - Las Vegas and the smaller, more retro but equally gaudy city of Reno. In between there’s a whole lot of nothing, just desert that stretches for miles...
At least, that’s how it appears on the map. And with flights between the two casino cities taking just 41 minutes, it’s little wonder that few holiday-makers tackle the lonely highways of America’s ninth least populace state.
Driving through rural America, however, does have its charm, and the old west is still alive and kicking in small-town Nevada. The eight-hour drive between Reno and Las Vegas is best taken slowly; along the way you’ll discover towns oozing with history, fascinating archaeological sights and austerely beautiful desert scenery.
Out here in the middle of nowhere, the air is clean and the night sky littered with stars. Take time to look up - here you’ll find the darkest skies in the country, offering the best star-gazing opportunities. And while you’re gazing towards the heavens, you may well be in for another surprise - there’s good reason why Highway 375 is known as the Extraterrestrial Highway, with more reported UFO sightings than anywhere else in the country!
Picking up your rental car in Reno, head east along Highway 80 to Fallon, passing the intersection to Highway 447, which travels through Pauite Indian territory past Pyramid Lake to the Black Rock Desert. Once a year, this little-travelled road becomes a bumper-to-bumper traffic jam as 60,000 people converge on this desert for Burning Man, a festival celebrating the arts, creativity, self-sufficiency and self-expression.
On the surface, Fallon appears to be just another country town struggling to survive economic hard times; but just outside of town is one of the most important archaeological sites in the US. I meet with Donna Cossette from the Churchill County Museum for a quick look around this very well appointed facility, before heading off to Hidden Cave, where some of the oldest Native American artifacts - dating back to around 2,000 BC - were discovered stored in underground caches. Free tours of this cave are available very second or fourth Saturday by BLM guides, or by appointment.
After exploring the cave, Donna - who was the first female chairperson of the Paiute tribe and whose ancestors were important Indian warriors - takes me to Grimes Point, where are around 1,000 ancient petroglyphs dating back as far as 8,000 years can be found on granite boulders on the scorching hillside. “You are about to enter the oldest church in the US,” she tells me, explaining that the meanings of the simple squiggles and etchings on the rocks is open to personal interpretation.
Hearing the perspective of a Native American woman about the land its spiritual connotations really adds another perspective to the desert surrounding Fallon. At Sand Mountain - a massive sand dune which has become a popular recreational site for quad and dirt bikers - Donna tells me this is a sacred site for her people, the ‘groaning’ sands shifting in the wind the actual utterings of a giant serpent-god that dwells underground.
Heading east from Fallon, Highway 50 has been dubbed the Loneliest Road in America; and indeed, you’ll be lucky to pass another vehicle on this desolate stretch of road traversing desert valleys and salt pans. In a 1968 Life Magazine article about this road, motorists were warned “not to drive there unless they’re confident of their survival skills” ... and while this route today is not so challenging, it is still an anomaly in such a densely populated country.
The historic mining town of Tonopah was once a mining boom town, known as the Queen of the Silver Camp in its heyday of 1900. While it’s a shadow of its former glory, some sympathetic renovations by passionate locals has breathed new life into this sleepy town, while the Tonopah Historic Mining Park offers a fascinating insight into the town’s mining past, with many of the original mines left in a state of “arrested decay”.
From Tonopah, you can take the fast route to Vegas - a 3-5 hour drive down Highway 95 - or follow the Extraterrestrial Highway for 98 miles via Rachel, the closest town to the infamous Area 51 top secret government testing facility.
A sign featuring little green men welcomes visitors to the A’Le’Inn - “Earthlings Welcome”. And if you believe the hype, the Alien Burgers served up at this roadside inn are “out of this world”...