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The Road Dog Tour
By Thomas D Schueneman
Wednesday, July 09, 2003
This road dog rediscovers the joys of the open road and the beauty of the American West. A true life travelogue.
The Return – Day 3 and 4
Ely, NV to San Francisco, CA
The Loneliest Road in America:
Part 1 – Into Ely
I study the clock with barely open eyes – 4:45AM.
Dawn comes early to Ely, just a few dozen miles west of the boundary between Mountain and Pacific Time. It will take another a few more minutes for the gray light outside my window to reach San Francisco, 550 miles further west.
This is my goal today, San Francisco, and I am eager to reach it. I will drive all the way to Reno on US route 50, and then hook up once again with Interstate 80 for the ride through the Sierra Nevada, the Central Valley, and home.
As I have suspected since finding it yesterday, US route 50 is officially “the loneliest road in America” - which is, of course, a reason to love it.
Yesterday’s drive from Moab had been interesting, despite the brief episode of confusion resulting in wayward travel.
Starting in Moab with it’s high desert canyons of the Colorado River Plateau, then hooking up with Interstate 70 west through Green River, the San Rafael Reef (with the Capitol Reef National Park to the south), and then over the Fishlake Mountains and Fishlake National Forest - a combination of desert and mountain.
Through the flat land, the ground is grayish-brown and dotted with light green shrub brush. Then as the mountains ahead grow closer, jagged canyon walls draw in toward the edges of the road, eventually falling away to rolling hillsides covered with tall pine trees.
After leaving Interstate 70 and finally getting set on Route 50, the road northwest out of Salina skirts the north eastern edge of the Pahv Ant Range through a valley carpeted with green grass.
West of Interstate 15, the road starts to tell more of its lonesome ways; the narrow two-lane road stretching for miles through flat, desolated plain covered in tall grass; the one car visible in the rear view mirror disappearing down some lonely side road.
Passing through the small agricultural town of Delta, I cross over the Sevier River; soon the tall grass is gone and the road heads straight out into the gray and brown alkaline desert. A dozen miles later I pass a sign directing me to a historical marker for the “Gunnison Massacre”, this grisly sounding event the last reminder of other humans I will see for many miles, save the ribbon of two-lane road on which I ride.
About 70 miles later I notice in the distance to northwest whirlwind swirls of dust rising from the desert floor, like ghostly apparitions – dust devils.
My attention is next drawn to a shimmering on the horizon to the southwest; a white expanse of salt flat reminiscent of the Great Lake Desert region to the north: the Sevier Lake Bed.
Just beyond the lake bed, the landscape begins to change and TLTTC begins to climb. I pass through high canyon walls, the road winding its way through the House Range and Confusion Range.
And then finally it dawns on me: I’m driving through the Wild West! To help enhance this realization, I put the album “Desperado” by the Eagles on the CD player. Listening to musical tales of Wild West adventures gone bad, I ride my mechanical steed through desert and mountain, just looking for a place to lay my head...
On through the Nevada border, and off to my left sits a life size painting of tall, white-capped mountains; around the peaks hang massive cumulous clouds, a billowing mountain in the sky. The contrast of sun and shadow on the tall mountains reaching up to the clouds is like a perfect painting - but of course it’s real, even in the almost unreal beauty of this moment as land and sky, light and shadow play out its silent drama to my great fortune and delight.
Ely is close now, through the Humboldt National Forest and Conner’s Pass topping out at 7722 feet, down the other side passing roadsigns of what looks like a tap-dancing deer to my road-hypnotized brain, and on into the sad little town of Ely.
The highlight of this day is certainly the journey, and not the destination.
Part 2 – Ely to Reno
And so it is morning, the empty streets from last evening are still quiet. I make the crucial left turn onto US 50 west down the street from my hotel (and cheerless little casino), a bit relieved to find that there is a little more to Ely than was apparent to me last night.. The first two miles of my 550 mile journey pass by green parks with tall oak trees; a stately, columned courthouse with small golden dome, brick storefronts with stenciled lettering in the windows and cloth awnings in muted colors over the sidewalk.
Okay, maybe my second impression of Ely, in the clean light of morning, is better than my first impression from yesterday; but I am still glad to be leaving and heading home to San Francisco – and glad to have one last long drive on the Loneliest Road in America.
Soon I see the last of Ely fading in my rearview mirror and the surrounding terrain rises and falls like a crumpled blanket. Hills of gold scattered with the typical low, green shrub brush cover the landscape. The road goes through a small canyon carved out of the rock and off to my right an old railroad track tunnels through the hillside, perhaps a remnant of the old Nevada Northern Railway that came to Ely in 1906, converting it from a sleepy silver mining camp to a bustling little town. When Ely converted from silver mining to copper mining, things really took off, with the population jumping from 500 residents to 3500 in only one year.
Right now, however, other than an occasional pick-up truck or RV speeding by in the other direction, I am the only human for miles.
I have entered the “lonely zone” of highway 50.
A pattern soon develops as I trek across Nevada; Low land, usually desert, sometimes grassland, alternating with a series of mountain ranges and passes. I make notes as I pass through each range – ever the Road Dog.
Robinson Pass through the Grant Range - elevation 7607 feet - at 7:05AM.
Little Antelope Summit through the Butte Mountains - elevation 7438 feet - at 7:25 AM.
Pancake Summit – elevation 6517 – at 7:40AM,
Pinto Summit through the Diamond Mountains – elevation 7376 – at 7:50AM
Passing through the small town of Eureka (at 8:00AM), a sign announces that I am now in “the friendliest town on the loneliest highway in America”. I can attest to the later, but not to the former. Slowing as directed through the center of town, I look for signs of friendliness. A green park with clean benches along the edges and a whitewashed gazebo in the middle, red brick buildings with tall, neatly trimmed windows, the Eureka Opera House, a museum... Take away the paved road and the cars and parking meters, and put up hitching posts and I’d think I had gone back in time 100 years...
Okay, why not? Eureka is the friendliest town on the loneliest road – at least it’s a handsome little town, so I decide to give their claim to friendliness the benefit of the doubt as I slip past the center of town toward the next mountain pass.
Between Eureka and the next rise of mountains I pass across an expanse of desert; in the distance on all sides are mountains, in front of me the mountains rise to white-peaked summits. But right here is straight road and flat desert.
Soon enough the road begins to twist and turn a little as TLTTC chugs up the increasing elevation. Once again the mountain passes come:
Hickinson Summit through the Simpson Park Mountains – elevation 6546 – at 8:35AM
I climb into the most scenic pass thus far today, in the Toiyabe Mountains and Toiyabe National Forest. The snow-capped mountains I saw in the distance outside of Eureka are now off to off to my immediate left as the road twists and turns through forest and rolling green hillsides. At 8:47 I make Austin summit - elevation 7484 – and navigate the hair-pin twists and turns into the town of Austin.
Eureka may have some competition as the friendliest town on this desolate highway; making a pit stop for gas, I am greeted by a smile and neighborly wave from the local sheriff as she pulls in next to me – no one in Eureka smiled and waved. Of course, I didn’t see anyone in Eureka either.
By 9:00 I am pulling back onto the highway and pass the first confirmation of what until now has been purely anecdotal (and hinted at in Eureka): A colorful highway marker stating “US Route 50, The Loneliest Road in America”.
Now it’s official.
Outside of Austin I am in the Reese River Valley, which I learn later has a well documented fault line running through it. The road skirts along a ridge with desert valley falling away on either side of the road.
But it isn’t long before the road ascends and mountains rise up around me:
New Pass Summit – elevation 6438 - at 9:20AM.
Just over the summit the road cuts through high canyon walls of red rock, reminiscent of the landscape around Moab, about 200 feet high.
Ever onward for this Road Dog, the next range of mountains, the Desatoya Mountains, looms ahead; they’re getting taller now, more snow-capped peaks. It’s 9:35AM.
Avoiding the highest mountaintops, the road veers to the southwest toward the lower mountains:
Drum Summit – elevation 4600 – at 10:00AM
Looking back in my rear view mirror to the east I see the land through which I have come this morning; Wave after wave of undulating mountain ranges, purple in the morning light.
As a kid, I’d always thought the lyrics to “America the Beautiful” a little odd when it mentions “purple mountain majesties” - and now here it is, spread out in my rear view mirror. Perhaps I could stop and turn around to get a better look, but there really is no place to do that on this narrow, lonely road; and besides, I am a Road Dog on a mission – Reno by noon.
The mountain passes between Ely and Reno are now behind me. The desert turns a little more barren with less shrub brush. I pass through the Fallon Naval Target Range, an expanse of salt-white, table-flat dry lake bed. I wonder what it is they would be shooting at in the vast expanse of white flatness... “Hey look Charlie! I got this little blue pick-up truck in my crosshairs! HA! That guy’s a sitting duck!”
Shortly I hit the eastern edge of the town of Fallon, a military and agricultural community of 6400 residents. This is where, instead of heading into Carson City, I hook up with the short spur of Route 50 that takes me to Interstate 80 about twenty miles east of Reno. It is also where I realize that I am no longer on the loneliest road in America, as my solo journey across the great landscape of the West becomes crowded with stoplights, cars, campers, and eighteen-wheelers.
For a Road Dog, this morning’s drive was a blast; through flat desert, rolling green hills, deep canyons walls, and high mountain passes – and mostly all by myself. A marvelous way to spend the morning of the last day of this Road Dog tour.
I make Reno at 12:05 – right on schedule for the ride through the Sierras and toward the cool Pacific coast.
Part 3 - Reno to San Francisco - The Conclusion
I complete the circle and rejoin Interstate 80, soon passing a worn-out mile marker, humorously altered, that tells me “Mustang 1 Smile” before I realize that the best part of the drive is now behind me. The desolate two-lane blacktop is history for this road trip.
Crossing the Truckee River and rounding a bend in the wide road to the northwest, Reno swings into view, and just beyond it, the Sierra Nevada range.
Truckee Meadows – now Reno - is the place where early settlers rested and fortified themselves for the grueling trip over the mountains
I try to imagine what the small, isolated groups of pioneers that arrived here must have felt when they “rounded the bend” and saw the Great Mountains looming before them. After all they’d been through to get this far, and now faced with this:
“Oh, Damn”, or some such sentiment, many a pioneer must have said under their clenched breath as the realization of what lay before them sunk in.
As I make my way out of Truckee Meadows - er, I mean Reno – and up into the mountains, a kidney-rattling bump in the road brings my attention back to the present. Still, a lesson in history can sometimes be a lesson in gratitude; I am grateful for this great ride through the mountains, in spite of the traffic and lumpy road.
Coming down the other side, the green, mixed with occasional white, turns to gold passing through the old mining towns of Placerville and Auburn, then down into the Sacramento Valley.
Huge arteries of traffic swell through metropolitan Sacramento and doesn’t let up as I pass through Dixon, Vacaville, and Fairfield – a great migration westward.
In keeping with my quest to end the journey crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, I leave Interstate 80 at Vallejo and take route 37 through the tidal marshes of Solano County, over the Sonoma River and a small corner of Sonoma County, into the fields and meadows of Marin County.
In Marin I join US route 101 in Novato for the trip south through San Rafael, Tiburon, Mill Valley, and Sausalito.
My Nissan “Little Truck that Could” is surrounded by Volvo wagons, Lexus sedans, and all manner of SUV’s – Marin being too hip for its own good.
I emerge from the Waldo Tunnel and the north tower of the bridge looms into view as San Francisco shimmers in the late afternoon sun across the bay.
Just as on the day I left it, the City basks in clear blue sky and warm sunshine. I am glad to see home.
The rolling Pacific Ocean is on my right and the picturesque City-by-the-Bay is on my left – and the toll booth is up ahead; I get my $3 ready for the toll...
A flashing red neon sign reminds me that the toll to cross the Golden Gate Bridge is now $5, something I had forgotten since it was enacted some months ago.
Five dollars! To cross a bridge!?!
Ah, well, if there ever was a bridge that I’d pay five dollars to cross, it’d be the Golden Gate Bridge; nobody said living in San Francisco was cheap.
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