Last known location: London, England

Route 50: The Loneliest Road

Upon leaving San Francisco we began our slightly epic journey across America from coast to coast. Our plan was to follow the old Route 50, through California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia and Virginia before finally arriving in Washington DC. It’s a journey of over 3,000 miles and we had about 3 weeks to do it! Although Route 50 was replaced by multi-lane interstates in most places during the 1970’s, the majority of the single lane road is still intact, so it shouldn’t be too hard to follow.

We left San Francisco over the enormous Bay Bridge to Oakland; around the busy Bay area Route 50 has been buried under the interstate, so we had an hour or so of motorway driving past the collegiate town of Berkeley and the state capital Sacramento before the road gradually narrowed from 10 lanes to 4.

Our first stop of the day was in the small country town of Coloma, notable as the site of the first discovery of gold in the west in 1848 which sparked the great gold rush of the following years – one of the largest migrations in human history (according to the museum in Coloma at least!). As well as the interesting museum we also saw the site where the gold was discovered, by the river that runs through the town; It was a boiling hot day and we excitedly put our swimming stuff on hoping to have a cooling dip – however the water was absolutely freezing, and after 30 seconds of paddling our feet were numb and we had to give it up! It can’t have been fun for the original gold pioneers in there all day sifting for the valuable nuggets, although it made a few of them very rich. Slightly sadly, the two men who made the first discovery died penniless a few years later, so it didn’t work out so well for them! The rest of town consisted of a few tiny houses and old shops, and after a tasty ice cream we were back on the road.

Shortly afterwards we began to climb into the Sierra Nevada mountains and entered the Eldorado National Forest, where the dusty scrubland was quickly replaced by Alpine forest. After an hour or so, winding our way up through the pine trees, we came to a magnificent view of Lake Tahoe, America’s second deepest lake, which straddles the border of California and Nevada. We decided to stay on the California side of border – the Nevada side is like a mini Vegas with a few huge casino/hotels, and we’d had enough that! After finding a motel we drove up the western shore of the lake and stopped off at Emerald Bay, which offered spectacular views of the inlet below and the lake beyond. At the bottom of the cliffs lies a Scandinavian castle built in the 1920’s by a Norwegian woman who thought the bay the reminded her of a fjord.

After a quiet night and a Thai dinner we were back on the road early the next morning and into Nevada. After passing by the state capital, Carson City, we took a diversion to the Virginia City, another gold rush town. After gold and silver were discovered in the area in the 1850’s more than a billion dollars worth (in Victorian money) of precious metals were extracted from the local mines. The place boomed and by the 1860’s it was the third biggest city in the country. These days the population is down to under a thousand and the town seems to survive on the passing tourist trade, and the well preserved buildings are packed with saloons (eg. The Bucket of Blood), souvenirs, and slot machines. It was fun wandering around the Wild West town, but we still had quite a few miles cover and moved on after an hour.

Continuing east on Route 50, we reached the section known as ‘The Loneliest Road’. The term was coined in an slightly derogatory article in Life magazine in 1987, but was soon taken up by the Nevada tourist board. The single lane road passes right across the empty centre of the state, passing through more mountain ranges (12) than towns. For long stretches the road was completely straight through the desert, and we became very familiar with the cruise control – during one stretch Gem didn’t touch the pedals for nearly 20 minutes! During the early 90’s the American AA suggested that only those trained in survival skills should attempt to drive this route; their warnings did seem slightly over the top, but we did make sure we had plenty of water and filled up on petrol every time we reached a garage, which was every hundred miles or so. The road also didn’t seem to be as lonely as you might imagine, with plenty of bikers and the odd huge camper van to keep us company.

As well as the ever changing mountain and desert scenery, there were a few stops along the way including Grimes Point where many of the huge boulders strewn around are covered in Petroglyphs (ancient stone carvings), which no-one seems yet to have deciphered. We finally called it a day in the tiny roadside town of Eureka. After doing a runner from the over-priced Best Western we checked into a Mexican run motel, where the staff seemed to be a big fan of English heavy metal bands! We then went to explore, and found that it was well on the way to becoming a ghost town – there were plenty of empty shops and hotels. The town did boast a slightly out of proportion court house and town hall, and after covering the whole town (about 5 minutes), we found the Keyhole bar, and went in for a cold beer after a long day of driving.

We received quite a warm welcome and were quickly chatting with a woman called Pam who worked in a local goldmine, and the owner, who insisted that we call her ‘Mom’. They were advertising Karaoke later that evening, and as we were leaving to find somewhere for dinner Gem rashly promised that we’d be back to have a go! After a Mexican meal at the only restaurant town, during which the hugely overworked waitress actually quit and walked out, we did return to the bar. There were several new arrivals who were very intrigued by our presence in town, and couldn’t understand Gem at all, but were very forthcoming in buying us drinks! Soon enough Pam (who was still there) was giving us both dancing lessons and roping Gem into her rendition of ‘I Never Promised You a Rose Garden’. The newly unemployed waitress also made an appearance! We eventually managed to leave at a fairly respectable time with a lot of driving ahead the next day, but we’d had a fun time and met some interesting people (to say the least!)

The next morning we were back on our way through more desert and mountain ranges until we reached the town of Ely which marked the end of ‘The Loneliest Road’, and the start of the next stage of our long journey to Washington.

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