Mining towns to bristlecones
We arrive in Austin only to be greeted by a lineup of red neon "No Vacancy" signs hovering in the darkness, thus necessitating another 70 miles of driving to Eureka and inspiring a discussion of the deeper symbolism of America's loneliest road having too many people on it.Eureka is the most appealing of the Highway 50 towns. Its restored opera house still hosts occasional productions. The curtain displays, somewhat improbably for this most landlocked of towns, a vaguely Venetian harbor scene. The backstage is filled with performers' inscriptions, some pecked into the walls like petroglyphs. Folk musician U. Utah Phillips wrote, "Good bed, good food, good company, good hall." In other words, just about everything a troubadour could ever want.
While it's fun to explore the highway's historic towns, our real goal is the high country of Great Basin National Park. Towering above Spring Valley, 13,063-foot Wheeler Peak looms ahead, its alpine terrain unimaginable from the sagebrush flats. We spend the afternoon hiking through aspen groves to mountain lakes and stands of ancient bristlecone pines, pushing through a late-season snowstorm to the foot of Wheeler Peak's glacier. By the time we get back to the truck, the day's light is pretty much gone; unbeknownst to us, so too is the truck's electrical system.
Somewhere between Baker and Ely, we finally limp up to a rough-looking roadhouse to be greeted by a long-legged dog and a "Welcome Hunters" sign. Inside, two other dogs chase each other around, while at the bar, some Basque sheepherders and ranchers debate how many tons of rock need to be mined to extract an ounce of gold.
Waiting for our tow, we shoot pool, play slots, and talk with the bartender, a onetime truck driver from Tennessee, about the inner workings of the Chevy 350 V-8 engine. We're there for a couple hours, anything but alone on the loneliest road in America.