Over the past century, the Bureau of Land Management, the federal department of leftover land, inherited control of the Basin and Range region, while the Forest Service and multiple other agencies grabbed the trees, mountainsides, and crests. Together they own 84.9 percent of Nevada.

If you don’t know this country from experience, you should watch the Oscar-winning Nomadland. In between the pieces of story line, it features acres and vistas of western landscape, and it stars the underclass of people who did not cash in on the dot-com boom—who instead washed to the edges of our society, wandering the high desert in vans and temp jobs, working the Christmas rush at the Amazon fulfillment center in Reno-Sparks (called Empire in the film).

The film’s director of photography, Joshua James Richards, born in England, becomes a kind of poster boy for our journey. A New Yorker piece says: “He wanted to go to America to find out how the story of the Western expansion ends.”

If you start at the California border and drive right across the heart of Nevada, you’ll follow U.S. Route 50. About 35 years ago, Life magazine christened it “the Loneliest Road in America,” and the state’s tourism board turned that phrase into marketing gold.

In 1913, the road was part of the first transcontinental motor route. Extending from San Francisco to Times Square, it was known then as the Lincoln Highway. It’s not so lonely at first, cutting past casinos along the southeast shore of Lake Tahoe before diving down the east side of the Sierra to Carson City, the state capital. And the next 40 miles east is a mélange of straggling suburbs, brothels, and scattered old shacks. The urgent traveler will shoot past here, without a stray thought of slowing down or setting a folding chair by a front door in the twilight.

This article appears in the Summer 2021 issue of Alta Journal.
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The Lahontan Reservoir breaks the spell. Any body of water would, on a sizzling desert, but these acres of mirrored surface surprise and delight. Its name is a throwback to ancient grandeur. Once, there was a bigger lake here, as far as the eye could see—running clear over the curve of the earth to lap at the slopes of distant mountain ranges.

Prehistoric Lake Lahontan stretched back all the way to Carson City, ahead to Austin, and north to the Oregon border with an arm hooking west into Northern California. Standing here on today’s reservoir’s shore, you would once have been fathoms underwater.

Ten thousand years ago, at the lake’s deepest, its surface was 500 feet overhead, a reminder that Nevada was not always desert. Lush green meadows met the shoreline of the prehistoric lake. And above, nestled in shadowy ravines, glaciers oozed down the mountainsides.

feral horses, wild, nevada, highway 50
Feral horses can be spotted frequently while driving the “loneliest road” across Nevada.
Charles Post

WILD HORSES

As we gallop eastward, we run across cowboys. Real ones, not the guys they refer to as “all hat and no cattle.” Consider the bar in Austin. You can walk in looking like a tourist—that’s fine, you are. The locals know their town is courting mountain bikers, with miles of trails and dirt roads unspooling in every direction, maintained by volunteers. Still, you might want to ditch the Cardinal Zin ball cap and order a local IPA instead. Try Ichthyosaur (“Gimme an Icky”) from Great Basin Brewing.

Cowboys are the eternal icons of the West. Rivaled only by mountain men. What do they have in common? Horses. Even from our modern perspective, with our kilowatt land rockets, with our digital everything, with GPS precisely navigating wide-open spaces, and with our habit of staying (too closely?) in touch, always connected—I wonder who among us has been close enough to a hayburner to feel its whinnying hot breath?

I think of horses as the central processing unit of early human technology. Riding to hunt was certainly an improvement over running barefoot after deer. And the stirrup. It created a crucial military advantage beginning about 1,700 years ago. Fierce barbarians, fit and ruthless, riding down from the steppes… If you’re going to wield a weapon from horseback, steadying your feet gives you a powerful leg up, a better platform for unleashing force. Another metaphor built around the advantage of horsemanship.

We think of agriculture, appearing 12,000 years ago when the Pleistocene ice was retreating across the globe, as the biggest accelerant on our march toward the modern. Cities and countries, both new ideas, arose out of farming, as well as long-distance trade (I think of Marco Polo bringing silk and spices clear across Asia on camels and horseback).

Hunting and gathering is a much, much older human technology than planting and growing. So we cling to horses as a symbol—living and breathing, trussed up in leather. Even Ralph Lauren knows that backpacks and duffels that recall saddlebags, elegant in distressed leather, complete with nickel-plated buckles on their cinch straps, are archetypes of history and fashion.

Wild horses, too, are a feature of Nevada’s Empty Quarter landscape. With luck, you will catch a glimpse of a herd, grazing in the distance among the sage, then galloping away with tangled manes. Nevada is home to more than half of the country’s 95,000 wild horses and burros. All of them are descendants of animals brought to this continent by Spanish conquistadors in the 1500s. The chances of a sighting are best in the first 50 miles of desert east of Carson City. They’re at home out there; they proliferate. It’s a problem, because humans believe they can manage the wild creatures. And the problem becomes polarized even though we love horses so much.

Arguing about wild horses is worse than trying to convert Republicans. Horses and cowboys are practically a religious aspect of the West. Who would want to change that?

pony express trail, nevada
The Pony Express trail in the Reese River Valley, with the Toiyabe Mountains in the distance, as seen from Highway 50 west of Austin.
Witold Skrypczak/Alamy

TWO-RUT TRACKS

The Pony Express is another cherished part of western history, even though it lasted barely 18 months, from 1860 into 1861. History accelerated fast in those years as communication improved. In many ways, that story is an analog of the digital revolution. A bold technology suddenly replaced by a newer, cheaper, less animal alternative.

The Pony Express trail, the last link across the continent, which carried the U.S. Mail from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California, crisscrosses the Loneliest Road throughout western Nevada and runs right along the highway for nearly 50 miles from Sand Mountain eastward. You can visit its vestigial way stations in a few turnouts.

Even today, there are some places where, stepping off the pavement, you won’t find single-track horse trail but rather the remains of a crude two-rut: the Central Overland Trail. It was less than 10 years from the ’49ers plodding along in ox-drawn wagons (they followed the Humboldt River on their way west) to the bumpy but scheduled ride in a stagecoach. Little sign is left except those two-rut tracks and the occasional stone ruin of a stage station.

In fact, the Overland Trail didn’t last long either. It was replaced in 1869 by the iron horse on steel rails, the transcontinental railroad. What put the Pony Express out of business in 1861 was the telegraph. The last link across the continent was constructed through this country by the Overland Telegraph Company and was completed on October 26, 1861.

ichthyosaur fossil model at berlin ichthyosaur state park in nye county
Ichthyosaur fossil model at Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park in Nye County.
George Ostertag/Alamy

SEA MONSTERS

Speaking of dinosaurs, a 50-mile detour from Middle-gate (south on Highway 361 toward Gabbs, then east on 844, most of it paved) will take you to Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park.

But gas up first; this is the outback. Sea monsters, up to 70 feet long, lived here before the dinosaurs. Their remains are displayed at the state park. Nearby Berlin is a ghost town, but worth a visit. There’s a picnicking pullout and a shady campground just off the roadway.

This was once near the edge of the continent Pangaea, lush and tropical. As whales sometimes do today, ichthyosaurs beached themselves right at this spot. They have been excavated—left in place, fossil evidence of history—resting under a huge roof protecting the skeletons.

If you take this detour, remember that most of the back roads out here are gravel or dirt. You can often drive 50 miles an hour on them, but 52 is sometimes too fast. The county grader is your friend. They smooth the inevitable washboard from cowboy pickup trucks, with their distinctive small flatbeds. The washboard is at its worst on hills and corners, where it can flip an unwary car. Don’t end up on your roof out in the sage. After a while, you’ll know where it’s prudent to slow down.

The dinosaur detour will give you a taste of the truly loneliest country. Next, drive east, back onto Highway 844 (out here even the gravel roads have numbers), over Ione Summit, and then north on Highway 21 toward Austin. It’s lush here, with marshes full of birds and green alfalfa fields. A little water makes all the difference in the desert.

FRONTIER TOWN

Austin is the heart of this country, at pretty much the geographic center of Nevada. You climb into hills dotted with old mines, past a dynamite cache dug into a bank, and glimpse Stokes Castle, a long-ago trophy home. Here you rejoin Highway 50, which now roughly follows the old Pony Express trail. In Austin, you’ll find that outback mix of run-down and rugged; it’s still a frontier town. Plus a couple of motels and the old hotel, with a saloon and dining room perfect for mixing with the locals.

austin, nevada
The town of Austin was founded in 1862 and is located along Highway 50 at an elevation of 6,605 feet.
Tristan Brynildsen/Alamy

PREHISTORIC MESSAGES

When I was a young climber, I moved from San Francisco to the east side of the High Sierra where fine granite runs clear up to the edge of the sky. The Owens Valley is a corner of the Great Basin desert, and there I met the first person I got to know from the interior of Nevada.

Dave Sharp taught high school civics, and my new climbing partners in Bishop were drawn to sit in a circle at Dave’s feet. Bishop was a sleepy oasis that couldn’t decide whether it was more of a ranching center or a tourist town—catering to fishermen from L.A. by stocking trout in the mountain streams.

To my friends rounding out their high school educations, Dave was an exotic font of information and attitudes from a wider world that trickled in from beyond the peaks that surround the Owens Valley, one of the deepest in the country. A little too much outside world must have been seeping in, since the town elders eventually ran Dave Sharp out of town.

But not before I could glean from him a few tantalizing glimpses of the secret Nevada wilderness he came from and then vanished back into.

He talked about a prehistoric site he had come upon while hiking, above 10,000 feet on top of one of the innumerable parallel mountain ranges that punctuate the state. The site was unknown to archaeology, so Dave was reluctant to reveal its exact location. He also knew that most of the remote ranches around where he came from had a collection of obsidian arrowheads and other prehistoric artifacts casually displayed on the mantel. Their crucial context was lost to archaeology once they were picked up and carried home in a jeans pocket.

But to my youthful ears, the mystery, the mere (possible) existence of such an ancient hunting camp—or was it a sacred ritual site?—was enough to fire my imagination for decades. This was the real hidden West, a direct link to a wilder past, and I’ve been seeking that connection ever since.

Traveling east from Austin, you soon come to the remains of a more accessible prehistoric camp. At Hickison Petroglyphs Recreation Area, the record of habitation scratched into the rocks stretches back 10,000 years. Park (or pull into the campground), and it’s a short walk to the ancient panels.

After musing over the petroglyphs, you begin to notice their context. The rocks face south, blocking desert wind and catching winter sun, sheltering a small valley. A creek runs below, providing water, now only seasonally. An ideal camp for every generation.

The drawings are messages? Their meanings are still up for grabs—etched onto soft rock, they proclaim, for starters, “We were here.” It’s an interesting location, seemingly a random place. But when Indigenous people settled here, it was lakefront property.

Prehistoric Lake Jonathan lapped its shoreline just here and stretched halfway to Eureka, still over 40 miles away. Later, as the climate gradually warmed and dried out, this favorite campsite remained. A clearing big enough for your close kin, a small clan. Piñon pines nearby. You would get sap in your hair every autumn harvesting pine nuts, roasting them at the edge of your family hearth, a campfire. Up higher, bighorn sheep you might take down with your advanced weaponry: bow and arrow. The hunt is an event worthy of carving into these rocks, adding to the message panel. These hunters called themselves “the people.”

The people’s nearest neighbors were, say, about two miles north, situated likewise along the base of this escarpment. There would be a woman there who could teach you to make baskets so tightly woven they would easily hold the water you’d bring up from the creek; you would boil tea in them by dropping in rocks scalding hot from the fire.

A deliciously minty pungency would arise from the steeping of flowers and leaves—from a plant we call pennyroyal—gathered higher up the mountainside. It was a favorite on chilly evenings as you snuggled into a rabbit-fur robe.

Some of the drawings on this wall were already old before the people added more images, to commemorate the bighorn sheep hunt. The elders like to say they show a visitation from the sky. Certainly they invoke mystery and wonder. Maybe even visions from eating the bitter round cactus (peyote, we call it now) that traders brought there.

There is a world wider than you can see, and wonders abound. Two days’ hard walk on a trail to the east yields coppery rocks so malleable you can pound them into ornaments. A day to the southwest, hot water bubbles out of the earth. There you meet a cute neighbor who comes from bigger mountains lying farther west. She walks with you, follows you home.

CALIFORNIA CONDORS

“Yet my mind…can never rest for more than an albatross’s glide upon the slopes of the past.” Coleridge? The Rime of the Ancient Mariner? Nope, Aleister Crowley, the notorious occultist-magician (and climber, which is how I encountered him). He shocked an England still struggling to shed its Victorian mantle years ago.

Crowley was ruminating on what went before. Personally, I have seen gulls on Mono Lake, but I have not spied an albatross anywhere. But seeking out the soaring of great birds that once lived here propelled me, during the 1980s, to hike for miles along a stream canyon through thick brush—and even thicker federal regulations—to a ridgetop blind in the last stand of California condor country.

There, at dawn—and in the company of a certain intrepid editor—I caught sight of one of the eight birds then remaining in the wild, perched on a branch and drying its great wings in early sun. About an hour later, as thermals began percolating, the great soaring commenced. With a swoop from that branch, the bird made a smooth glide seeking rising air, finding it, and spiraling the lift to 9,000 feet before beelining off toward Bakersfield.

I counted only eight flaps of its wings in an hour of soaring.

TERATORNIS INCREDIBILIS

The Loneliest Road proper doesn’t really begin until we’re fully immersed in the sage. And it doesn’t quit until two states later, when the sage finally gives up against the Rockies. The true line follows the road past its vanishing point into red sandstone country.

It’s easy to imagine this country from the vantage of Google Earth. But I prefer to wonder about the view from a Teratornis, the great soaring bird, ancient ancestor of the condor. What did their eyes see?

There was no road then. And the country is unchanged only a few yards off the highway.

Maybe in a hundred years, the Nevada Empty Quarter will be settled, with golf courses and imported water like Palm Springs. But for now it is still, quiet, almost silent.

Not a hidden West, but a West seen mostly from 30,000 feet in the air, rarely visited on foot.•