At some point in the not so ancient past — July 1986 — Life magazine off-handedly dubbed U.S. 50 across Nevada “the loneliest road in America.” The picture caption that included that phrase also quoted an auto club official as saying of the highway: “It’s totally empty. There are no points of interest. We don’t recommend it. We warn all motorists not to drive there unless they’re confident of their survival skills.”
The road already had a reputation as a sort of an outback adventure. Life’s portrait of the highway drew the curious and prompted Chamber of Commerce types to embrace the “loneliest” title and try to turn the highway into an attraction. Somewhere at home we have a passport booklet full of stamps we collected during a trip across Nevada in 2007 — part of a promotion for U.S. 50 travelers. It turns out there are plenty of attractions, including the experience of being out in the middle of shocking expanses of sky and sage and mountain ranges stretching out to forever.
Among the features that U.S. 50 shares with many highways in the back-of-beyond West are long, long stretches of perfectly straight road — stretches that run away across a limitless expanse of valley, then rise up a distant ridge and disappear. And one of the many highways that shares those attributes is U.S. 6, which starts east across Nevada a bit further south than U.S. 50, then makes a turn to the northeast and meets 50 in Ely.
There is a whole story about why roads go where they go, why they take the paths they take. I’m not telling that here. What I do want to relate is how remarkably empty Route 6 was Friday once I left Tonopah in west central Nevada. It started with the sign just outside town saying, “Next Gas: 163 miles.” And it continued, across mountains, road summits and long intervening valleys. I was carrying a camera with a long lens, and occasionally I’d pull over on the arrow-straight sections to try to capture a sense of the scene. Most of the time, no other vehicles were in sight, so I could stand on the center line and shoot away. On one piece of highway, I stopped at the top of the rise and looked back across the valley I had just crossed — the valley pictured above. I had been watching my odometer, and I was staring down the middle of at least 17 miles of pavement. There wasn’t a single vehicle in sight.