I had just crossed the state line into Nevada and crested a hill when I saw them – dozens of red blinking lights – off in the distance. Without another car in sight, I thought, this was the perfect opportunity for aliens to snatch my family and me into the dark night sky.
We were, after all, travelling on the stretch of US 50 dubbed “The Loneliest Road in America”.
The two-lane road stretches for almost 644km across Nevada, up and down elevation, through the Shoshone Mountains and White Pine Range and then across miles of white salt flats. Only a handful of towns dot the road, some more than 161km apart.
The highway got its name when Life magazine published a 1986 article about the desolation of the road and quoted an AAA employee saying there were no points of interest along the road and there was no reason to drive it.
Our Thanksgiving-break destination was Pollock Pines, California and our family of four – my husband and me, along with our daughter, age 14, and son, age 11 – chose to take The Loneliest Road because it was the easiest way to get there.
And as I drove closer to the flashing lights, I thought about all the close encounters you see in the movies, until I realised it was just a giant wind farm.
Maybe the road wouldn’t seem so lonely in the daylight.
Although The Loneliest Road designation doesn’t start until Nevada on US 50, the distinction should start in Delta, Utah.
After a day hiking in Arches National Park in Utah, when it was my turn to take over the driving at 8pm in Delta, I counted only 15 cars passing me in the opposite direction and only two cars travelling in the same direction for the next two-and-a-half hours.
Once the sun rose the next morning, we left the Prospector Hotel & Gambling Hall in Ely, Nevada, and hit the road again. It was a good thing we had topped off our gas tank at a service station when we left Ely because as soon as we passed the last building on the outskirts of town, we saw a sign: “No services for 77 miles”.
And then it was up and down mountain ranges through the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest and across the flat lands in between. Much of the route intertwines with the old Pony Express route, and it’s easy to imagine a single rider with the mail, galloping among the hills.
The small towns of Eureka and Austin were five-minute speed bumps along the road. It isn’t until you reach the outskirts of Fallon, Nevada, home to a naval air station and the Navy’s Top Gun programme, that you feel as if you’ve returned to civilisation.
Looking outside the car window at breathtaking mountain scenery and the occasional deer or cow is entertaining for about 15 minutes. Then you have to figure out what to do the rest of the six-hour drive across Nevada.
Forget turning on your radio to sing along with your favourite songs. We tried that at one point, and all we heard was FM fuzz. The AM stations tended to be very soft, and about half of them were Spanish-language stations.
And posting pictures of the lonely road to Instagram or Facebook was also out of the question, as cell service cut in and out for most of the drive. That meant the online games my teenage daughter likes to play on her iPhone weren’t working either.
Luckily, we had packed enough entertainment into our Toyota Camry to keep our kids occupied while my husband and I tried to stave off highway hypnosis.
The portable DVD player was plugged into a charger we had attached to our car’s cigarette lighter socket, so our son could watch all of the Avengers movie without worrying the battery would run out. Our daughter’s iPhone was also plugged in, so she could listen to her boy-band favourites with her headphones on for hours on end.
They also had the adult colouring books, which – lucky for us – are popular right now, along with a stack of coloured pencils and a word-find puzzle book to make the miles seem shorter.
I counted cars, which were more plentiful during the daytime than during the evening drive. (We passed at least 30 during the first two hours of the drive.) And, as my husband and I continued driving down The Loneliest Highway, we talked about what we thought it would have been like to travel the same road in a covered wagon during the 1800s.
We agreed it was a journey neither of us would have been adventurous enough to take.
Travelling through the windy curves of the mountain ranges, we encountered a lot of summits. Robinson Summit (2,313m). Little Antelope Summit (2,267m). New Pass Summit (1,932m).
Then, there was my favourite: Pancake Summit (1,988m). There was no syrup on the hillside, and I’m not really sure why it was given the name Pancake. But because it was about 8.30am when we passed it, I probably had breakfast on my mind.
The road takes travellers through high-desert flats in between the ranges, and we wondered what the names of the mountains in the distance were. Some of the peaks are more than 3,048m high (including Summit Mountain) and, because we couldn’t access Google Maps, my kids learned how to read a road atlas to figure out if we were looking at the Toquima Range or the Shoshone Mountains.
About four hours into our daytime drive, we were finally out of the mountains and it looked like a dusting of snow had fallen on the flat land ahead of us, about 80.5km out of Fallon.
It wasn’t snow. It was salt.
For miles, all we could see were crusty salt flats. My son thought we should pull over to the side of the road so he could taste it. But when we saw the sign for the Naval Electronic Warfare Range Centroid Facility that led to a dirt road with a gate, I told my son that we would not be stopping the car.
And we didn’t – not until we got to Fallon for a late lunch, thereby ending our adventure on The Loneliest Road in America. – Fort Worth Star-Telegram/TNS/Andrea Ahles