The Loneliest Road In America 

Heartbreak and redemption on Route 50

Thursday, May 13 2004

Route 50 is a capricious, two-lane highway running through the middle of Nevada and western Utah like a sclerotic artery. It has the audacity to call itself The Loneliest Road in America.

Nevada, at least, has a sense of humor about Route 50 (does Utah have a sense of humor about anything?). When you gas up at either end of the state, they give you a survival map and a passport to stamp at each of the towns separated by long empty stretches along the way. West to east it goes: Carson City, Fallon, Austin, Eureka, Ely. If you make it to the end you get a certificate saying, “Congratulations! You Survived The Loneliest Road in America.” I’ve survived the trip many times. In fact, I’ve more than survived it. At various points in my life, I’ve embraced it, scoffed at it, and challenged it to hit me with its best shot.

The first time, a willful act of separation led me there. You know the drill — heiress girlfriend decides to get serious about life, goes off to business school, marries and leaves you to your own devices in the big city. Once the doctors recommended a change in lifestyle, I beat a retreat for Vail, Colorado, to become a ski bum and find myself. I found Route 50.

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It was the spring of ’91, after my first winter in Vail when the ski season had melted to a halt. Work gets hard to find during the off-season, and cash becomes scarce. Folks start drinking too much and hitting each other too often. Running out of money myself, I sold the ’85 Jeep I’d arrived in and bought a ’78 Subaru wagon. Subarus don’t win many style points, but this one, tan with a deer guard in front, had a mutt-like charm and was just as game. I liked to imagine that if everything fell off that car except the steering wheel, I’d only have to hold on and it would drag me forward.

With the cash left over from trading the Jeep, I decided to road-trip out to San Francisco and swing down the coast. If you’re heading to the Bay Area, conventional wisdom says take Interstate 70 to the middle of Utah and then jog north on I-15 to I-80. That way you never go more than 50 miles without gas, food or lodging. Looking at the map, though, Route 50 seemed the straighter shot. I saw that for most of the way only two towns, Ely and Fallon, were marked in bold, and there was a long way between them. I noticed also that Ely and Fallon were in smaller lettering than, say, Carson City or Sparks, but from the looks of the map, they were bustling metropolises compared to Eureka or Austin, which were noted in the tiniest and thinnest lettering. No matter. I was a loner-seeker, and my mysterious aura would be enough to keep highway robbers, lobos and loons at a safe distance.

When you’re not exactly screaming down the road at 65 mph (the wagon’s top speed), the great basins of south-central Utah stretch out like an endless Road Runner storyboard. It’s beautiful country, but it feels rigid and formal, lacking in human impulse. Entering into the burnt, red terrain of Nevada, though, my heart rose. It was just as vast and empty as Utah, but for some reason seemed more inviting, like a giant hearth. The time between oncoming cars increased to the degree that I thought I might really be the only traveler out there, but it wasn’t a scary emptiness that confronted me. It was nourishing. I drove my Subaru hard through the desert, rising and ascending plateaus and plains, desert brush clinging to shady pockets in the mountain passes. I drove and drove, thinking unoriginal thoughts about life and what it had and hadn’t turned out to be. I was aware that family and friends wondered what was wrong with me — leaving behind New York, career opportunities, relationships and other things I wasn’t ready for, becoming hard to track down, disappearing into the West, setting off on uncharted courses . . . Sometimes I wondered, too.

In the middle of nowhere, with a hundred miles to the next stop, the Subaru overheated. I pulled over to the side, got out my guitar, lit a cigarette and played a few cowboy songs just to let the desert know I came in peace. Something happened out there in the dusk on that road with the sun setting down on foreign lands and everything turning purple. I could smell poppies in west China. I could taste fruits from the South Seas. I could sense time moving like a faraway swell in the ocean: It was out there, but I wasn’t yet caught in its wave. I realized everyone I knew before was already a memory and that this wasn’t just a phase. My life was somewhere out here. After a while, I put some coolant in the engine and pressed on.

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