No traffic jams on this road

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Snaking its way 3,100 miles across the middle of America is U.S. Highway 50, sometimes called the Heartland Highway.

It begins in Ocean City, Maryland, and slithers through Virginia, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, Utah and Nevada before it sheds its skin in Sacramento, just 100 miles from the Pacific.

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U.S. 50 is not a well-known route, has never had a television show or song named after it like Route 66, and doesn’t even qualify as a national interstate highway. It conscientiously avoids teeming population centers, preferring to wind its way past rural outposts and quaint villages that preserve an American heritage endangered by urban modernization.

The road’s closest brush with prominence came in 1986, when Life magazine and the American Automobile Association named a section of it, “the loneliest road in America.”

Now, aloneness may have its foreboding connotations, but for some, only solitude can soothe the soul. A few years ago, feeling restricted by the mushroom-on-steroids growth of Las Vegas, I decided a day of loneliness might be in order. My plan was to drive up Highway 93, pick up 50 at Ely, and drive as far as Austin, 142 miles due west.

I rolled out of Las Vegas under the cover of night — 4:35 a.m.to be precise — and reached Ely just before 9. I made a gas stop midway on Highway 93 at Caliente, where the attendant assured me I really ought to be writing about his highway.

“It’s much lonelier than 50,” he insisted. “Doggone 50’s gotten so much attention with that magazine article that you’re liable to run into a caravan up there.

“So it isn’t really lonely out there?” I asked.

“‘Course it is,” he said, “but it used to be much lonelier.”

I had never given much thought to the varying degrees of loneliness, but was forced to acknowledge it is not an absolute condition like death.

As I pulled into Ely, there was nary a car or person in sight. The first road sign said, “Reward for poachers,” and the second warned about deer. I wondered if the resident deer population hadn’t put up the sign themselves. Just then, as if on cue, a pair of white-tailed does appeared from a dip in the road, and just as quickly darted into the wilderness.

Further up the road, a railyard showcases several historic locomotives and the station house of the Nevada Northern Railway. It is one of the country’s last remaining and best preserved short-line railways. A crowded cemetery with about 500 tombstones clustered on a rolling hillside rests in the center of town, just up the street from a row of service stations, restaurants, a music center, and in a concession to the times, a tanning salon.

Although its most prosperous days are behind it, Ely is far from a ghost town. There is an even flow of commerce, the kind that exists when folks in a common struggle pull together to help one another balance the supply of goods and services. Nonetheless, the irony of Ely’s slipped status from once booming to simply surviving brushed me again, on the edge of town, where the official “loneliest road” designation is clearly marked.

The 70 miles from Ely to Eureka offer a pleasing panorama. The dominant pattern is a mosaic of sand and sagebrush set against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains. But there are many surprises along the way: a field of off-white Brahma bulls contentedly grazing on verdant farmland; the long climb to Antelope Summit, with an elevation of 7,433 feet, patches of snow and green trees instead of cactus; a convention of more than a dozen hawks feasting on a rabbit that had mistimed his highway crossing the night before. The birds adjourned just long enough to let me pass, then immediately swooped back to their prey.

This may be the loneliest part of the drive, but it’s also the loveliest. I encountered only four vehicles in an hour, and all looked indigenous.

On this mid-winter day, nature’s forces were in perfect harmony and the sound of my tires humming over the asphalt was apt accompaniment. An occasional set of skid marks told of a sleepy traveler, or one whose odyssey was interrupted by an obstinate cow.

Soon I was in Eureka, an area identified in a Harvard study as among the poorest in the country. Like Ely, Eureka’s only wealth lies in its century-old memories of prosperous mining. The boom reached its peak in the 1980s, when Eureka’s population exceeded 9,000 and the history-laden Eureka and Palisade Railroad connected it to the transcontinental line 90 miles north.

Eureka was the one spot along my drive where I felt real sadness and a longing to return to that time when immigrants flocked to Nevada with dreams of mining their fortunes.

In a few short hours I was on my way back to the bustling city I call home. It was good to get away, to get in touch with my feelings and gain respect for the vastness and history of my state. But it was oddly calming to get back to the madding crowd. When I missed three stoplights in a row, I didn’t even cuss.

About the Author

Jack Sheehan

Vegas Vibe columnist Jack Sheehan has lived in Las Vegas since 1976 and writes about the city for Gaming Today. He is the author of 28 books, over 1,000 magazine articles, and has sold four screenplays.

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