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Thody's American Adventures

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Taking the Even-Lonelier Highway across Nevada

by Peter Thody

After enjoying a wonderful life in the gambling town of Ely, Nevada, Peter Thody pushes wife Carole's patience to the limit on a spur-of-the-moment and probably ill-advised eight-mile dirt road adventure. Join them as they follow the Nevada section of U.S. Route 6, America's second longest highway.

Great Basin Sculpture

A long-dead horse drives a long dead car - one of a number of bizarre sculptures that line the road leading into Great Basin National Park.

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Photo by Peter Thody

A few hundred yards west of the town of Garrison, Utah, State Highway 21 turns into Nevada Highway 487 and we enter the eighth and penultimate state of our month-long drive from Chicago to San Francisco.

This is desert country, the last place on earth you'd expect to come across streams, lakes and an abundance of wildlife. But within minutes of arriving in Nevada we're greeted by signs directing us towards Great Basin National Park, home to pronghorns, deer, coyotes, eagles, the 13,063-foot Wheeler Peak and a grove of 4,000-year-old bristlecone pines, believed to be among the world's oldest living organisms.

Its remoteness makes Great Basin one of the least-visited parks in America - there can't be many people who find themselves "just passing by" - so we drive up to the entrance to see whether there's a through road to Ely, our destination that evening. Frustratingly, there isn't, so we're forced to make do with a fleeting glimpse from the outside. However, the drive up to the park entrance does give us the opportunity to ponder the artistic merit of a number of frankly weird sculptures that line the road, including the rusty skeleton of a car being "driven" by the very real skeleton of a long-dead horse.

Ely's isolated position - 100 miles of desert to the east, more than twice that to the west - has persuaded us to call ahead and book a room at the historic, six-storey Hotel Nevada and Gambling Hall, the state's tallest building until well into the 1940s. Actually, after checking the room rates, we've treated ourselves and splashed out on a suite, which we got for the princely sum of $61.05, including tax. When you're paying so little, there's always the risk that the hotel may not be worth any more. But to our delight, not only is our room perfectly clean and comfortable, but it's actually the Jimmy Stewart Suite, complete with themed movie posters and suchlike. It really is a wonderful life.

After getting to grips with the vagaries of the plumbing (OK, not everything's perfect), we make our way back downstairs, past the obligatory collection of stuffed bears, wolves and moose, and order a couple of drinks. The entire ground floor of the hotel is given up to slot machines, beer and cheap food, so we go with the flow and slide a dollar bill into a one-armed bandit. Another four dollars later we win a $1 silver token stamped with the hotel's name. Deciding that this a fair price for such a quality souvenir, we walk away happy.

If we're left in any doubt as to Ely's desire to extract as much of our hard-earned cash as possible, the uncertainty evaporates at Mr. G's Villa pizza restaurant across the road, where our bill includes the words: "For Your Convenience You May Use This Optional Tip Calculator" and then lists our choices. All it was lacking was a description of each option: 10%: Seriously? Get real. Are You Naturally Mean Or Just English? 15%: C'mon. You Want My Kids to Starve? 20%: OK. That's More Like It. 25%: Thanks. You Can Come Again.

Ely is a mining town that, like many others, has experienced its ups and downs. At one point it was home to the largest open-pit copper mine in the world, and it was to provide access to those valuable deposits that the Nevada Northern Railway was built. Today, the railroad and old locos form part of a railroad museum - run mainly by volunteers - that in 2008 tied with Lake Tahoe for the title "Nevada's Favorite Attraction." When the copper market collapsed in the 1970s, the mines closed and the industry survived by turning its hand to the extraction of gold by means of the environmentally unfriendly-sounding process of "cyanide leaching". Since then, copper mining has resumed twice, once in 1999 and again in 2004, but these days the ore is hauled by truck.

Even if, like us, you're not into either gambling or old steam trains, Ely is still a quaint and interesting town, full of friendly people and marvellous old buildings and blessed with the wonderful light of the desert sun. You're unlikely to make a special detour to visit the place, but if you're passing through, you'll be made very welcome. [Editor's Note: Ely is one of our favourite towns in Nevada, home to an extraordinarily good restaurant, for more tips check out this article.]

The next day is The Big One: 260 miles of rocky desert between us and California.

Our original plan was to follow U.S. Highway 50, the self-styled "Loneliest Road in America." But we'd been told that U.S. Route 6 - the Grand Army of the Republic Highway - was even emptier. So off we set.

And, my word, it's hard to imagine a lonelier road. Occasionally the scrubland turns slightly craggier but for the main part, the Nevada section of America's longest highway (3,652 miles from Provincetown, Mass., to Long Beach, Calif.) makes its way through a stony, wind-swept desert with only the occasional sun-bleached skeleton for company. Two months after we completed this drive, adventurer Steve Fossett failed to return from a flight over the Nevada desert and (at the time of this writing) has yet to be found. Had I not made this drive, I wouldn't have believed this to be possible in modern-day America.

If you stick to the main highway, of course, you're pretty safe. Other cars may be few and far between but you're not going to be stuck without help for long. Turn off the paved road though and it gets a bit more serious. So when I take the unilateral decision to hit a dirt track 75 miles east of Tanopah and explore the Lunar Crater National Natural Landmark, I can sense that, had she been consulted, my wife Carole might not have lent her full support to this unplanned detour. And as the few hundred yards I'd envisaged driving turn into a five or six miles, and as the condition of the track suggests I should soon consider making use of the low ratio gearbox, I too begin to question the wisdom of this decision. It would certainly be a very long, very hot and, I suspect, very tense walk back to the main highway were we to break down.

But no, deciding that admitting any doubt would only make my wife more nervous (aren't we men brilliant?), I drive onwards and upwards, through the ash hills and past the cinder cones and lava outcrops. After all, if it wasn't 100 percent safe, there wouldn't be a sign pointing this way, would there?

As it happens, after eight miles we do arrive at the foot of the 430-foot-deep Lunar Crater. For a brief moment I consider walking up to the rim to peer over the edge but the heat outside, not to mention the atmosphere inside the car, suggest that this particular adventure has probably run its course. So we turn around and make our way back to the relative safety of Route 6.

The solitary refuelling point on today's drive is Tonopah, once one of the richest silver-mining towns in the West. Today its survival owes much to the tourist dollar but the discarded mining equipment and rusting trucks that litter the town give it a gritty authenticity. [Editor's Note: Tonopah hosts one of the finest mining museums in the west, and there are still a number of active mines in the area. In addition, a variety of top-secret military installations within a few miles of the city bolster the local economy. Goldfield, just south of Tonopah, was once the home of Wyatt and Virgil Earp and interest in the historic mining towns continue to attract thousands of visitors each year.]

Fuel and water replenished, we begin the final leg of our drive across Nevada: 80 odd miles of desert which, if anything, is even rockier and harsher-looking.

There were times before we reached Nevada when we'd look at the map and wonder at the sense of going some distance out of our way simply to drive across a desert. I am so glad we did. Next time though, I will get to see inside the Lunar Crater. And then I'll go back to Ely to collect Carole.

Peter Thody


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