The lone ranger

Nevada's stretch of Highway 50 is called 'The Loneliest Road in America'. Victoria Summerley finds out why
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The Independent Travel

If Highway 50 had hired a better agent, it might now enjoy the cult status accorded to Route 66. US50 is one of the longest highways in America, bisecting the country and linking the Atlantic with the Pacific Ocean. At its starting point in Ocean City, Maryland, there is a signpost telling you that Sacramento is 3,073 miles down the track, via Washington DC, Cincinnati and St Louis. But one of the most magical sections of US50 is the bit that runs across the state of Nevada. And this bit doesn't need an agent, because back in the Eighties, the clever Nevada tourism people named it "The Loneliest Road in America", rendering it irresistible to anyone with a sense of adventure.

If Highway 50 had hired a better agent, it might now enjoy the cult status accorded to Route 66. US50 is one of the longest highways in America, bisecting the country and linking the Atlantic with the Pacific Ocean. At its starting point in Ocean City, Maryland, there is a signpost telling you that Sacramento is 3,073 miles down the track, via Washington DC, Cincinnati and St Louis. But one of the most magical sections of US50 is the bit that runs across the state of Nevada. And this bit doesn't need an agent, because back in the Eighties, the clever Nevada tourism people named it "The Loneliest Road in America", rendering it irresistible to anyone with a sense of adventure.

To drive US50 across Nevada is to travel in the footsteps of some of America's bravest men. John Wesley Powell, who led the first exploration of the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon, also led his expedition across the Great Basin Desert, which covers most of Nevada. The men of the Pony Express, the courier service that was short-lived in more ways than one, rode along part of this route, too, between April 1860 and October 1861.

Today, the Great Basin National Park is one of the first stopping places you'll find if you enter Nevada from the Utah side. There are hiking trails and camp grounds, as well as a wealth of information about the plants and animals that scratch out some kind of survival here, such as jack-rabbits and sagebrush. One of the most popular attractions are the Lehman Caves, a series of spectacular limestone formations.

The Ruth Open Pit Copper Mines, near Ely, are not as pretty as the Lehman Caves, but they give you a clue as to why there comes to be a big town in this stark region, especially one with a spectacular restored railroad. Ely is a typical western town, built around a stagecoach station and a post office in the 1870s and swelled by the profits of copper mining. The Nevada Northern Railway was built in 1906 and thanks to an army of volunteers and enthusiasts, still runs excursions pulled by majestic locomotives to Ruth and other destinations.

Next stop is Eureka, which began its history with high hopes and a romantic name. It wanted to be a silver boomtown, but Eureka found there was more money to be made from smelting, which earned it the dubious sobriquet of "the Pittsburgh of the West".

The profits from this unromantic industry were used to build, among other things, no fewer than three opera houses. One still stands today. It is used as a convention centre, but it retains its chandelier and curtain and horseshoe balcony. But my personal favourite in Eureka is the Sentinel Museum, the former home of the Eureka Sentinel newspaper, which has a press room, complete with a linotype machine amid a welter of printing artefacts. There are mining exhibits, too, and even a barber's shop with an old barber's chair.

The towns on Highway 50 are strung out like beads on a sparsely threaded necklace. The tourism people will give you a map that you can get stamped at each one, which gains you a certificate that states you have travelled "The Loneliest Road in America", and a gift pack.

Next one along from Eureka is Austin, and halfway there, you'll pass over Hickison summit. At 6,500ft, this is a good place to stop and take the air, but leave yourself time to look at the ancient petroglyphs drawn by Native Americans who lived in these mountains centuries ago. When you reach Austin, you'll be right in the centre of Nevada and smack in the middle of Nevada's Pony Express territory. The Pony Express provided communication between St Joseph, Missouri, on the western edge of East Coast civilisation, and the goldfields of California - a route of 2,000 miles, which could be accomplished in 10 days in summer, 12 days in winter. A typical advertisement for riders reads: "Wanted: young, skinny, wiry fellows, not over 18. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred".

You can still see ruined Pony Express stations without going far from Highway 50, notably at Cold Springs, 65 miles west of Austin, and Sand Springs, about 25 miles east of Fallon, the next town. There are signs that explain their history, but if you don't want to stop at both, make a point of visiting Sand Springs because you'll want to see Sand Mountain, an unpretentious name for an astonishing geological phenomenon. The legacy of an ancient sea, it is a heap of soft sand 600ft high and nearly two miles long. It will probably be crawling with dune buggies and other off-highway vehicles. If you're lucky, and the wind is in the right quarter, it may even sing you a song.

The Sand Springs station is mentioned by the explorer Sir Richard Burton, who travelled with the Pony Express riders in the autumn of 1860 and wrote of Sand Springs: "(It) deserves its name ... the land is cumbered here and there with drifted ridges of the finest sand, sometimes 200ft high and shifting before every gale".

As you come out of Fallon and on towards Reno, Carson City and Lake Tahoe, the landscape becomes greener and more hospitable, culminating in Tahoe itself which is beautiful, winter or summer. If you haven't succumbed to the lure of Highway 50, you may even feel relieved to be back in what seems like civilisation. But if you've fallen under Nevada's spell you'll be nostalgic the rest of your life for those huge, wind- scoured spaces, guarded by mountains with jagged teeth.

For more information on Nevada, call 01564 794999 or go to www.travelnevada.com. Nevada Northern Railway (001 775 289 2085; nevada-northernrailway.net); Eureka Sentinel Museum (001 775 237 5010; www.co.eureka.nv.us).

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