Travels in the American Southwest

US 50: America's Loneliest Highway

As usual, was up well before the dawn on this chilly Sunday. Burning Man festivities had concluded the night before with the burning of "The Man". Quickly loaded the van tossing in an extra 5 bags of trash which I'd accumulated during the week and headed for the exit onto SR447. South to Fernley where three overriding concerns were remedied. Found a McDonalds for some non-dusty food, a self-serve car wash to clean a weeks worth of dirt and dust from the car and more importantly, the car's windows. The final concern was the trash bags. Thought of filling someone's dumpster but remembered that Fernley has a trash transfer station. For the cost of $4.00 for a cubic yard, they accepted all my trash including a carpet which had come from the Golden Nugget. Suddenly I had lots of extra room in the van. Fernley is a growing community only 30 miles east of Reno. It is quickly becoming a bedroom community. One business in Fernley that hasn't caught on in the east is a "Suds & Soap". This establishment allows you to do laundry and have a beer at the same time. And since it was 10:00 AM Sunday, I got to watch NFL football!

An hour later I headed east on US50 with a full belly, clean clothes and a semi-clean rental van. Made a quick stop in Ragtown, the first place pioneers had access to good water after crossing the Forty Mile Desert to the north. This area got its name from the pioneers who would bath and wash their clothes in the "sweet water". Clothes were hung on bushes to dry giving rise to the name Ragtown.


Continued east to Fallon, home to America's "Top Gun" school where I restocked my supplies in anticipation of a long two day ride back to Las Vegas. Continued east to Grimes Point, location of hundreds of boulders containing petroglyphs dating back thousands of years. Brochures and an interpretive trail point out the different types of 'glyphs as well as giving a bit of history. 'Glyphs are easily seen here and I was delighted by a couple of young children who would race from rock to rock taking pride in showing their parents the 'glyphs they'd "discovered".

Petroglyphs at Grimes   Petroglyphs at Grimes
More Photographs of Grimes

A mile north of here on a dirt road is access to "Hidden Cave". Tours of the cave are given only on the second Saturday of the month so access to the cave was locked when I visited. There was a very nice trail which contains plaques describing points of interest. They included ancient history when the area was beachfront property for Lake Lahontan some 12,000 years ago. Of course the lake is gone, but evidence of it's passing is readily apparent. Other plaques touch on early humans who populated the area such as the Cattail people who provided for all their needs from the nearby marshes. Vegetables and materials for building structures were all provided for by the marsh. Fresh meat was obtained from herds of migrating deer and antelope.

LeBeau GraveA few miles east of Grimes Point, just to the north of US50 is a sad reminder of the pioneers who traversed this desolate and barren landscape. It's the LeBeau grave. Over 100 years ago, the three young LeBeau sisters along with three year old Wilson Turner died in their wagon as they headed west. The four children were buried about 1/2 mile north of the current grave site. In 1940, flashfloods dislodged the two skeletons of the two older sisters. The girls were reburied on the site where their remains washed down near the highway. Since then, nearby residents have erected a small fence around the burial spot and a sign giving a brief history as related above. People stop along US50 and trek to the gravesite, many leaving small toys and stuffed animals. Others leave coins along the white-washed fence, coins which quickly develop a patina in the alkali environment. Were the skeletons the remains of the LeBeau sisters? Some folks don't think so but irrespective of who lies beneath, it is a monument attesting to the harsh environment which couldn't stop humanity.

Further east is Sand Mountain, a landmark for the early pioneers. This 600' tall pile of sand is a favorite for off-road enthusiasts and on this Labor Day weekend, the hill was being crisscrossed by dozens of ATVs. Located at the intersection of the access road and US50 is America's Loneliest Telephone. This is a microwave telephone - No phone poles or wires anywhere. Unfortunately, there's something in the air out here that causes testosterone laden yahoos to shoot bullet holes through any man-made object. Traffic signs; Blam! World's Loneliest Phone; Blam! Ghosttown remains; Blam! Morons.

Stop Sign Target   World's Loneliest Phone

Just west of SR121 to the south of US50 is a bank vault which once was surrounded by the town of Fairview. Between 1905 and 1917, Fairview moved twice. The first move was made because the town was too far away from the mining operations. The town picked up and moved to the canyon by the mine, but the too heavy safe was left behind. Within years, the canyon became too crowded and the town was again moved, this time nearer to the stampmill which processed the mined ores. The safe can still be seen in the distance from the highway, but access is prohibited by the US Navy. The area is now closed and a spot a couple of miles east of the safe is used for bombing practice. (The targets can also be seen from US50.) Signs are posted every fifty feet along the north side of US50 prohibiting access beyond.

Shoe TreeAs noon approached, so did the small community of Middlegate at the intersection of US50 and SR361. Antiques for sale surround the old wooden building which houses the local restaurant and gas station. Stopped in for a thirst-quenching beer and sandwich. I was enjoying my meal when  I realized what made Middlegate such an enjoyable stop - No slot machines! No obnoxious ringing bells or computer generated "Wheel of Fortune" noise. This allowed great interaction between visitors and staff.  Though busy with a dozen or so tourists, the family operating the restaurant took genuine joy in detailing the area's history. A big attraction is the Shoe Tree, a large cottonwood tree a couple of miles east of the restaurant. Legend has it that a couple (some say on their honeymoon, others say returning to California from vacation) were arguing while driving west. They stopped and continued the argument under the cottonwood tree. "I'll walk home before I drive with you", she said. "Then you'll walk home barefoot," he replied as he threw her shoes in the tree! He hops in the car and takes off west, stopping at Middlegate. Over a beer, he confides to the bartender who strongly suggests he return to the Cottonwood tree for his wife. He does, apologizes and is forgiven...But he couldn't get the shoes out of the tree. They stopped again in Middlegate, then drove off into history leaving a legacy. To this day, travelers stop at the tree, many adding their contributions. A sign indicates that if you have an extra pair of shoes, toss them up; If you need a pair of shoes, help yourself. Hundreds of pairs now hang from the tree's boughs making it the largest Shoe Tree in the world...And yes, I made a contribution, too. Some wag launched a pink plastic flamingo into the tree where it sits surveying this off-beat attraction.

Shoe Tree   Shoe Tree

Forgot to mention that outside the restaurant is a well tanned local who burns designs into wood using a magnifying glass. Travelers watch as he turns a piece of wood into a western landscape. Before finishing my meal, I asked the cook which route she'd recommend for folks traveling east to Austin, US50 or SR722 (which is known as the old US50). She said SR722, definitely and she was right. I did head east on US50 as far as Cold Springs Station, a John Butterfield Stageline and Pony Express stop in the 1860's. All that remains are fallen stone walls, protected by a chain link fence. Backtrack on US50 to SR722. Skirting the Humbolt-Toyabie National Forest, this road climbs through peaks and valleys affording views of rural Nevada at its best. Over Carrol Summit and through Railroad Pass, SR722 snakes through territory once reserved for wildlife and the railroad. Large parcels of pine cover the upper hillside giving the traveler a beautiful rich green landscape rather than the usual sagebrush brown. SR722 is ruler-straight as it approaches Austin. Maybe fifteen miles, straight as an arrow.

Cruised through Austin enroute to the night's camp located at Hickison State park. A primitive camping area providing campsites with all the amenities accept water, it was here I met a retired teacher named Dave while I was flying my kite waiting for the barbeque charcoal to be ready. Like most folks I ran in to, he loved to talk about his native Nevada. I told him of my travels and he told me of places I had to see before returning Las Vegas including Spencer's Hot Springs. We wished each other a good journey, he returning to his camp as I tossed a slab of beef on the grill. Caught up on the latest news from a newspaper I had gotten in Fallon as the sun slowly set bringing a too-early end to the day. With a roaring campfire, I closed my eyes trying to remember all the details from a most information packed day. I awoke hours later with the Milky Way overhead wondering why I was asleep in my lawn chair instead of my bed! Crawled into bed and knew nothing else until the next day.

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