ELY, Nev. — It’s hard to miss the Hotel Nevada. It has bright, colorful lights, neon and if I’m not mistaken it’s the biggest place in town. It was the tallest building in the entire state when it opened in 1929.
Ely is a former mining town along the Central Overland Route, the mail delivery trail between Salt Lake City and San Francisco first used in 1858. This path across central Nevada, which was later followed by the Pony Express, can trace its origins to a man looking to win a bet.
According to The Overland Mail, LeRoy R. Hafen’s 1926 authoritative history of mail delivery in the American West:
[A] Utah pioneer, Howard Egan, had explored a direct route from northern California to Salt Lake City which followed very nearly the fortieth parallel, north latitude. In September, 1855, he retraced his steps and won a wager by riding a mule back from Salt Lake City to Sacramento in ten days.
When the Lincoln Highway came through Nevada, it followed the old Central Overland Route, bringing crosscountry travelers right through Ely. But when the Interstate Highway System was planned, I-80 tracked north along the Humboldt River, leaving Ely isolated on the so-called “Loneliest Highway in America.”
Every town out this way is an oasis since the distance to the next sizable human settlement along the road can be as many as 168 miles away. In this isolation, such a showy establishment like the Hotel Nevada certainly stands out. But for all the glitz and glam in the center of town, the rest of Ely felt like a very lonely place when I drove into town.
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Just down Aultman Street from the Hotel Nevada there’s evidence that Ely used to be a much livelier place. I came across a darkened Mr. G’s Villa, an Italian restaurant that clearly has seen better days. A harsh Yelp review from 2007 painted a very sad picture of the place, including marinara sauce that apparently tasted metallic.
Its windowless mint-green façade was clearly meant to put “Mr. G” front and center. To an outsider driving through town, it’s unclear from afar who this Mr. G fellow was, but he was clearly a big deal at some point. Why else outline the “Mr. G’s” lettering in lights?
Sadly, Mr. G’s bright-light days were over when I came through Ely but I bet that at some point in the 1980s, his sign was a sight for sore eyes after driving through desolation.
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Annie’s Restaurant Casino and Lounge, with its cursive-lettered sign, was also dark. A streetlamp made part of its sign shimmer with a yellow-silver glow, giving a hint of its former glory. The building next door was for sale. Other buildings downtown looked vacant or underutilized. There was plenty of on-street parking available.
The evening I drove by the Hotel Nevada, a woman with big hair and leopard-print leggings got out of a sports car. There were other people milling about outside the neon palace. There was life here but the rest of Ely’s main drag was fairly deserted. The lights were on at the Silver State Restaurant, but the place looked pretty dead. Granted, I was perusing the center of Ely just after sunset and not all places can be lively all the time, but I got the feeling that this was the norm for Ely.
I was tired, hungry and wasn’t in much of a mood to explore. I decided to head back to my hotel, a La Quinta Inn, on the edge of town, where there’s a hub of fast-food joints, gas stations and other standard strip-mall fare.
My choices were limited. I picked Arby’s primarily because two huge tour buses had pulled into McDonald’s. This Arby’s was attached to a Conoco gas station. Pulling through the drive-thru, I got some sort of roast beef sandwich combo with fries. This would be my first Arby’s sandwich in years.
I pulled up to the pick-up window where there was twentysomething guy with big pierced ears to greet me. I handed him a $10 bill. “Here you go,” he said, giving me my change and my gigantic soft drink, the kind that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg hates. “Do you want sauce?”
I hesitated a moment, thinking back to college, which was the last time I’d been to an Arby’s. “Horsey sauce?” I assumed Arby’s still offered its signature horseradish-tinged mayo.
He threw a few packets into the bag and handed it to me. I could smell the combination of seasoned potatoes and grease. I pulled into a parking space to enjoy my dinner under the glow of a mercury-vapor parking-lot light. I rolled down the window to get some fresh air, but there was a faint odor of gasoline from the Conoco station. A semi-truck rolled by on the Great Basin Highway headed out of town. This wasn’t really where I wanted to be, but here I was in Ely.
As a kid looking at my Rand McNally atlases, I was always curious what was out in this empty section of Nevada. Now I knew. And I still more than 500 miles from San Francisco.
A mother in an oversized pink T-shirt with two young boys waddled out of the Arby’s to her car, which was parked a few spaces away.
She approached me. “You’re from Virginia? You drove all the way out here?”
“Actually Washington, D.C.,” I replied.
“Washington? I’ve always wanted to go there,” she said. “But I’m stuck out here.”