The view of California from Nevada Beach in Zephyr Cove, Nev. (Photo by Michael E. Grass)
ZEPHYR COVE, Nev. — I’ve been truly lucky to have visited some wonderful beaches so far this year. The standouts have been Kailua on Oahu’s Windward coast and a private stretch of sand I had mostly to myself near Mahogany Bay on Barbados this past winter.
While my ultimate destination for my Lincoln Highway trip has been San Francisco, I feel like this beautiful view has been my reward for my long journey across the United States. This beautiful spot is Nevada Beach on Lake Tahoe. I’m in the middle of the Sierra Nevadas. Across the lake is the great state of California.
Nevada Beach, near the Nevada-California state line on the southern end of Lake Tahoe. (Photo by Michael E. Grass)
After crossing the great expanses of the Great Basin and the Great Plains, it’s nice to see a sizable body of water that’s not salty. Earlier on this trip, I listened to this National Public Radio report featuring a group of crazy swimmers who battle brine flies and endure pickled tongues while swimming in the Great Salt Lake.
A lake that’s saltier than the ocean with water that’s corrosive to bare skin is not appealing to swim in. I breezed right by the Great Salt Lake a few days earlier.
Lake Tahoe is a different matter. I happily went for a swim here.
A historic Lincoln Highway marker stands alongside the Loneliest Road in America. (Photo by Michael E. Grass)
FALLON, Nev. — In my trek westward toward San Francisco on the Lincoln Highway, my earlier travels across the grand emptiness of the Great Plains may have spoiled the so-called “Loneliest Road in America.”
Along U.S. 50, the so-called “Lonliest Road in America,” near Austin, Nev. (Photo by Michael E. Grass)
Sure, the distances between towns on U.S. 50 in Nevada can be quite far, but I was never truly alone out in the middle of nowhere like I had been, for instance, for most of U.S. 30 near the Medicine Bow Mountains in Wyoming, a stunningly beautiful place that made me feel blissfully alone under the endless mountain-framed skies.
On the Loneliest Road in America — that description for this stretch of U.S. 50 came from a 1980s Life magazine feature and is now used for regional marketing — I encountered a car or truck every few miles — sometimes even more often than that. At historic markers and other points of interest, there had been other tourists, including those seeking to get souvenir Loneliest Road travel passports stamped along the way.
When it comes to central Nevada, Lincoln Highway enthusiasts often talk about the older, more desolate alignments that roughly parallel and intersect the modern road along the way. Those who are more adventuresome might want to attempt those rougher alternative routes less traveled. While those roads may be more historically accurate, adhering to the original 1913 Proclamation Route, I didn’t want to test the limits of my rental car out in the desert.
The vastness out here hasn’t made such as big an impression as I thought it would. Yes, this territory has a rough beauty, but it’s not stunningly beautifully. But that’s not why I came out all this way.
At the corner of Treasure and Main streets in Eureka, Nev. (Photo by Michael E. Grass)
EUREKA, Nev. — This place might be the best example of an old mining town anywhere along the Lincoln Highway.
Heading into town along Main Street, the names of the crossstreets are inspired by mining — Gold, Silver, Treasure, Bullion and Mineral streets.
A historic marker on the way into town succinctly describes Eureka’s boom and bust. Naturally, a miner yelled “Eureka!” when a rich vein of silver-lead ore was discovered here in 1864 and that’s how this place got its name. (In ancient Greek, “Eureka” means “I’ve found it,” a saying that’s been attributed to Archimedes.)
Back in the days of plenty, Eureka had plenty of smelters — 16, to be exact. And saloons, too. One-hundred of them.
As Pete Davies noted in American Road, Eureka was once home to 9,000 people and with an abundance of smelting, it was called the Pittsburgh of the West, “with toxic air to match.”
By the early 1890s, Eureka’s glory days were waning. But the legacy of that late 19th century prosperity remains, with hints of the good, the bad and the dangerous.
ELY, Nev. — Maude Flanders was not pleased. The plain-looking woman who was sitting two tables over from me in the breakfast room of the La Quinta Inn reminded me of Ned Flanders’ wife from The Simpsons. So as a breakfast activity, I named her Maude.
Maude, who looked like she recently became eligible for AARP discounts, was finishing the remainder of whatever up-and-at-em morning liquid was inside the diminutive disposable cup positioned next to her half-eaten muffin. Was it coffee or orange juice? I couldn’t tell. It didn’t really matter because more importantly Maude was irked.
The stocky mustachioed man sitting next to her — I assumed that was her husband — looked like one of Bill Swerkski’s Chicago Superfans from the classic 1990s-era “Saturday Night Live” skit. He had just used his finger to spoon up the last of the grayish-white country gravy from his now-devoured biscuits. He seemed quite satisfied as he sucked his index finger clean and finished breakfast with a clean plate.
But the finger sucking by Maude’s gravy-loving companion didn’t seem to bother her. I don’t think she even noticed since something on the flat-screen television across the way had captured her undivided attention.
By the time Moos had found a reason to resurrect and recycle Joanna Rohrback’s strange exercise routine for CNN’s infotainment purposes, prancercise was weeks-old news. It had gone viral back in May. As Maude stared at the television in the neutral-toned breakfast room off the lobby, it was now June 20.
Maude shook her head in a most decidedly sour manner. But I doubt that she was reacting to CNN’s lame attempt to extend the shelf life of the stupid and stale prancercise story. Perhaps it was Maude’s way of lamenting the current state of CNN or the cable news industry as a whole. Did Maude find Carol Costello particularly abrasive to the ears and eyes? Maybe Maude was completely sheltered and prancercise was just too much to handle. Or perhaps Maude just saw a little of herself in the quirky prancercise lady. They did share a strange resemblance to one another.
Like Joanna Rohrback, Maude Flanders was wearing a similarly citrusy-colored top — in this case, a pink-lemonade-colored sleeveless golf polo — white pants and white tennis shoes. Their hairstyles were both big and wavy. But I got the sense that Maude would be horrified to see herself on YouTube flailing her arms and prancercising her way through a local park. Maude was a wonderful mystery best observed from a few tables away and not to be disturbed in this mundane setting.
As I pressed west along the Lincoln Highway, I never knew quite who, or what, to expect in the hotel breakfast room morning after morning. It was always a surprise. Prancercised-shocked Maude was an absolute gem, but there were other random hotel guests along my trip who were just as delightful to observe. I found the breakfast room at the La Quinta Inn — or Holiday Inn Express or Courtyard by Marriott — always a strange spectacle even if nothing truly notable happened.
A historic marker near the ghost town of Ward, Nev., notes how the “vigilante committee and the hanging rope” helped keep the peace. (Photo by Michael E. Grass)
WARD, Nev. — In Travels With Charley, John Steinbeck wrote that “those states with the shortest histories and the least world-shaking events have the most historical markers. Some Western states even find glory in half-forgotten murders and bank robberies.”
For such an empty place, Nevada is full of historic markers. Many of the ones I encountered in the central part of the state — and I suspect elsewhere, too — celebrate the state’s rich mining heritage. The sign marking the ghost town of Osceola, northwest of Mount Wheeler in Great Basin National Park, notes how the nearby mining operations there once produced a gold nugget valued at $6,000. (I’m assuming that was a big deal at the time but nothing like the Comstock Lode.)
The abandoned charcoal ovens at Ward, Nev., are open to the public. (Photo by Michael E. Grass)
Closer to Ely, a marker off U.S. 93 celebrates the mining heritage of the ghost town of Ward, a place which was “booming from 1876 until 1882” before it was abandoned. Ward was a lawless place and from its description sounded like the type of settlement that could have inspired a John Wayne movie.
“Early killings did occur, but justice was meted out by the vigilante committee and the hanging rope,” according to the marker.
For the most part, there’s nothing left of these ghost towns. In the case of Ward, the roadside marker was miles from the actual site of the town, off-limits on the property of the modern-day mining operation. But Ward’s beehive-shaped charcoal ovens beehive-shaped charcoal ovens are certainly worth checking out.
The Bristlecone Pine Trail on Mount Wheeler in Great Basin National Park (Photo by Michael E. Grass)
BAKER, Nev. — As I’ve been traveling along the Lincoln Highway from the East Coast toward the Pacific, there have been few moments where I’ve felt truly alone.
Yes, I’ve been traveling mostly solo, but with my smartphone — and with it, Facebook, Twitter, text messages and email — the normal life I would ordinarily be living back in Washington, D.C., has been within easy reach even as I’ve been thousands of miles away. For better or worse, that’s the world we live in today.
When I set out for Great Basin National Park, about 62 miles from Ely, I entered truly unconnected territory. There was no cellphone reception.
I had a momentary panic attack. Not a real one of course, but I was slightly uneasy as I drove deeper and deeper into the desert. I scanned for local radio stations. It was the first time I’ve ever pressed “Scan” on a car radio and it turned up absolutely nothing.
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.
Later, the Central Pacific Railroad, part of the first transcontinental rail link between California and the East, bypassed this route for one through northern Nevada along the Humboldt River.
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. Continue reading →