We're out in Rainbow Canyon off U.S. 93, taking pictures of rabbit brush and cactus set against the pink and red volcanic cliffs that gave this wash its name. A car stops in the middle of the road, and the driver, looking both curious and baffled, asks us what we're photographing.
His name is Earl, and he's driving an old Dodge with a Slant Six engine and a factory four-speed. Here in the Las Vegas outback, things like that matter.
I explain that we like the play of color, the weathered rock, and the iconic Western-ness of the scene ― all of which, by the look on Earl's weathered, iconic, and Western face, is far more novel to us than it is to him. "Don't mean to be rude or nothin', but I just never seen anyone taking pictures of brush before," he says.
With that, the conversation turns to water, rangeland politics, and Earl's engine ― subjects more appropriate than photographic aesthetics when you're talking on a remote Nevada road. We go on for a stretch before he declares, "Well, I done talked your ear off by now. About my opinions and all." Earl looks around. "Glad you're enjoying this country." Then he drives off.
While Earl may not be convinced of this area's tourist appeal, a spring or fall drive up U.S. 93 into Lincoln County offers a chance to see how much of the West once was. Within a few hours north of Vegas, you'll find historic towns, Nevada's greatest concentration of state parks, and hidden surprises, from lush grottoes and dramatic geological formations to long-lost glimpses of pioneer days and Native American sites.
Although the stretch of U.S. 50 that runs across Nevada is still dubbed the loneliest highway in America, its growing popularity has created a conundrum that only a Zen master, or perhaps Yogi Berra, could appreciate: There's nobody there, so now that's where everybody wants to go.
U.S. 93 is a road for those who think the loneliest highway isn't quite so lonely anymore. Known simply as the Great Basin Highway, it conjures images of sagebrush flats and isolated mountain ranges. Which there's no shortage of.
From the highway, you can follow the gravel road into Pahranagat refuge.
But there's variety, too, and about 100 miles from Vegas at Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge, the valley is green with stands of cottonwood and spring-fed lakes that draw flocks of ducks and Canada geese. Outside the old railroad town of Caliente, Kershaw-Ryan State Park suggests the discoveries waiting at the area's five state parks. Natural springs support junglelike thickets of wild grapes frequented by darting dragonflies and buzzing bees.
And at Cathedral Gorge State Park, tawny prehistoric lake-bed deposits have been eroded into a mudstone labyrinth. Passages narrow to no more than a few feet across, hemmed in by columns and delicately textured walls. In places, the passages lead to semicircular chambers called slots, which are almost closed to the sky. The effect is like standing in a tiny chapel in a gothic cathedral ― a splendid feeling of being shut off from the outside world.
PORTRAITS OF PIOCHE
For all its isolation, the U.S. 93 corridor has long been a major route. A branch of the Mormon Trail came through here, as did a spur of the Union Pacific Railroad between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles. Designed by noted Los Angeles architects John and Donald Parkinson and built in 1923, the impressive depot in Caliente speaks to the town's prominence in the steam-engine era.
During its silver boom in the 1870s, the mining town of Pioche had up to 10,000 residents ― and a reputation as one of the country's most lawless communities. It's said that more than 70 people were buried in the town's cemetery before anyone died of natural causes.
A cable with old mining buckets runs over the town's Boot Hill Cemetery, and the restored burial markers hint at the local mayhem: "Morgan Courtney/Feared By Some/Respected By Few/Detested By Others/Shot in Back 5 Times from Ambush."
Another remarkable record can be seen at the Million Dollar Courthouse (so named after cost overruns inflated its price from $16,400 to $26,400): watercolors of Pioche that were painted from 1887 to 1913 by Englishman R.G. Schofield. The paintings sat in the artist's former residence for decades before they were rediscovered and displayed at the courthouse. While in Pioche, Schofield worked as a sign painter, jeweler, and French tutor. His ad read, "will give instruction to a few young ladies and gentlemen desiring to acquire a pure Paris accent." No doubt a vital social skill on the Nevada frontier.
Museum staffer Louis Benezet told us Schofield's story during a visit to the courthouse; then he told us about himself. Benezet has lived in Pioche since 1980, after moving from San Francisco. His Nevada roots run deep. Benezet's grandfather was a mining engineer in Pioche, and his mother, who drew pictures of wild mustangs as a girl and later became an illustrator for Hearst Newspapers, grew up here.
Benezet remembers visiting Pioche as a boy in the 1950s, when the mines were prospering following a World War II-era boom. Active in local environmental issues, which range from wilderness management to nuclear-waste storage, Benezet most appreciates the area's open terrain and uncomplicated ways.
"You're not fenced in," he explains. "There's peace and quiet and no traffic. I've always been someone who didn't have to keep up with the latest gadget. My idea of a computer is a pencil with a good eraser. I prefer simple approaches. This is a good place to try them."