Anyone who has ever driven across Nevada on U.S. Highway 50 never forgets it. Dubbed the “Loneliest Road in America” there are few people or animals for days, and yet it boasts of western desert character.
From the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California west to the Rocky Mountains in eastern Utah is the Great Basin, a vast region occupying approximately 200,000 square miles. This area includes all of Nevada, much of western Utah, parts of California, Oregon and Wyoming. What makes it unique is that all precipitation that forms here does not flow to the sea; it is the biggest such area in all of North America. Here precipitation flows into the basin and distributes only by seepage or evaporation. Read more about the Great Basin here.
The big cities that border it are Reno in the west, full of casinos and gamblers; and Salt Lake City in the east, full of churches and Mormons. In between these two extremes are ghost towns from the silver mining days, a few lonely military installations, and numerous wavering oases on the empty road ahead.
The Nevada desert is also broken up by 17 mountain passes. When you’re not driving on flat roads surrounded by sand and sagebrush, you’re rising up through a mountain pass on steep grades and hairpin turns.
One day we came upon a large white sand dune. We were due for a rest break, so we exited the highway at a recreation area called Sand Mountain. Apparently this 600 foot high dune makes a singing sound when wind is passing over it, if conditions are right (sand grain size, humidity, and silica). For us there was no sound. No sound anywhere.
Every once in awhile we would see a sign on the roadside indicating a Pony Express station was nearby. From 1860 to 1861 this stretch of the U.S. had the Pony Express line running through it. It’s an interesting tidbit of American history that I’ll tell you more about very soon.
Wildlife was sparse, especially when traveling at 80 miles per hour. I know there were a lot of bugs because whenever we stopped to fill up the tank, we were literally scraping layers of dead bugs off of the windshield. Of less abundance were a handful of pronghorn, and some jackrabbits disappearing into the sagebrush.
This highway was magical. I suppose some folks would find it lonely, but everyone we talked to loved it. Passing through 10,000 foot mountains and descending into salt pan basins, surrounded by borderless highway and vast, open skies. As long as you had gasoline, freedom was yours.
Photo credit: Athena Alexander