CHEYENNE, Wyoming—Ahh summer. Time to take a couple of days or a couple of weeks and get away from it all. The problem, of course, is that nothing is open, and the places that are open probably shouldn't be. Coronavirus numbers are spiking worse than they did in March. If you like (or at least don't mind) driving, then there is one thing you can do. Hit the open road.
There's no better example of the open road than U-S Highway 50 in Nevada. The highway actually starts in Sacramento and runs 3017 miles to Ocean City, Maryland. The Nevada portion from Carson City to Ely was dubbed my Life Magazine in 1986 as the 'Loneliest Road in America'. No worrying about social distancing here. Making that drive was nowhere near the top of my bucket list, but was always something I wanted to do, so, with no job, nowhere else to be, and nothing else open, what the hell.
The biggest worry about a trip like this, is of course, what if I get stuck in the middle of nowhere? That almost happened (more about that later), and my suggestion is even if you have a reliable automobile, it might be a better choice to rent one. If you can find a cheap rate, unlimited mileage, and a way to play your tunes along the way, you're set. Comfort is also a key, and that's why I decided to take my own 2016 Ford Focus and set off.
I will say that the highway is not quite as lonely as advertised, or at least imagined. That's a good thing. It's not like you didn't see anyone else on the road for hours on end, but most oncoming vehicles were every few minutes—most I'm guessing being locals commuting from their land to some kind of store or something. I did pass a motorhome called the Arctic Fox several times, so at least I know I wasn't the only one making this journey.
Most of the time, I didn't even bother with listening to my tunes. I was enjoying the vast nothingness of mountains and flatlands that look like a moonscape. It is widely believed that Nevada is all flat, but after driving over the speed limit of 70 miles an hour on a two lane road for what seems like forever, you have to slow down through a brief but somewhat windy mountain pass. Then it's back to desert again.
The highway follows the same path that the Pony Express riders took in 1860 and '61, and there are signs to mark that fact. Not much else, though, other than the tiny towns of Austin and Eureka before finally reaching the bustling city of Ely—population 3944. Ely is not the end of the highway, but rather serves as a junction. You can head north to Idaho, south to Las Vegas, or continue east toward Utah, and prior to that, the entrance to Great Basin National Park.
I stopped to fill up with gas in Ely, which turned out to be a bad idea. I needed gas, but I got, as I always do, the cheapest available. After filling up, I started the car, and it didn't turn over right away. The next turn of the key was fine, and I didn't think anything of it at first, but as I was heading toward Utah and it was getting dark, I noticed my 'Check Engine' light had come on. Still on the Loneliest Road, I proceeded nervously. I noticed that the temperature gage was fine, there were no horrible sounds, and everything else was normal. Still nervous, I kept driving, ending up in Beaver, Utah for the night.
The next morning, the car started right away, but the Check Engine light was still on. Still nervous, but more confident that it was just the gas and everything else was okay, there was more nothingness to traverse. Interstate 70, at least from its western terminus in southern Utah to Denver, Colorado, has got to be the most beautiful interstate in the country. It starts with plenty of red rock formations with several national parks nearby (Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, and Zion). The picture below doesn't do it justice.
Just after you cross the state line into Colorado, you get to Grand Junction, where the Colorado River crosses. It's not a lonely road anymore at that point, but still plenty of scenery. While essentially following the river upstream for about 130 miles. You learn in a hurry that while carving the Grand Canyon is the Colorado's masterpiece, it has created many other canyons and valleys worthy of being displayed in the Louvre. While some may see a freeway along its banks as an eyesore, it's actually awe inspiring. The roadway through there was completed in the early 1960s, and while its main purpose was to get truckers through the West, its engineering marvel can be appreciated, as well as the access to the river and the land around it.
I had gotten gas again in Grand Junction, and this time, the result was a little worse than in Ely. I got the midgrade gas instead of the cheapest, but the engine wouldn't turn over when I tried to start it. This happened several times, and while I probably flooded it, it did eventually start up. The engine light was still on and everything else seemed normal, so I proceeded. It was getting to be late afternoon on a Friday, and figured continuing on was the best option.
When I-70 leaves the Colorado River, it climbs over ten-thousand feet to the ski resort town of Vail. This was where my fear of breaking down in the middle of nowhere almost came true. Climbing that grade in the thin air, less than a quarter-mile from the sign that says that you've reached the summit, the engine stalled. I was at least able to get out of traffic, but repeated attempts to restart the engine were unsuccessful. Then, on what seemed like the thousandth try, it started up, and I was back on my way, although certainly more scared than nervous.
This is a trip about social distancing and avoiding people, but I did break one rule. I'm staying with a friend in Cheyenne. It's just the two of us (and two very playful dogs), but probably prohibited and certainly not advisable under the letter of the health codes. Not a large gathering, though, by any means.
Anyway, Saturday morning, I took my car in to have it checked. I'm told it's a fuel-related problem. First possibly a valve, now it seems to be a fuel pump. I don't know if it's directly connected to the lower-grade gasoline, but it won't be ready until tomorrow (Tuesday) afternoon. I was only planning on staying in Cheyenne for two nights, but it will turn out to be four. At least my schedule is flexible and I've been repeatedly told that I'm welcome to stay.
I actually know a few people in the Intermountain West, as the area is often called. I have a cousin in Salt Lake City, a former Grass Valley co-worker in Twin Falls, Idaho, my former boss in Idaho Falls, and a co-worker from there who now lives in Helena, Montana. Again, this trip is really more about avoiding people, but seeing my cousin would be nice, and I would have liked to have spent a day or two in Montana. Since my new fuel pump has put a dent in the trip budget, I'll be heading home.
Combining two song titles, the Long and Winding Road to Nowhere will be a little bit straighter on the way back. Interstate 80 all the way, and although it's a route I have traveled a few times, there's still some things to see. Green River, Wyoming is a beautiful town, and when I lived in Salt Lake, I decided it would be where I would want to live if I was ever placed in the Witness Protection Program. No one would ever look for me there. Between Salt Lake and Reno is more of a bunch of nothing, but it still can be considered scenic nothing. There's the Great Salt Lake, salt flats, and the bustling metropoli of Battle Mountain, Lovelock, and Winnemucca, Nevada.
I think it's been like this on all the long drives I've taken. Take your time getting out there, but when it's time to go home, it's time to go home. I promise I won't be getting the cheap gas on the way back.
Catching up: Let me get this straight. Major League Baseball's Covid Edition has given us 30-man rosters, the universal designated hitter, and a man automatically at second base in each extra inning. Then, hours before the first pitch of the season, the powers that be expanded the playoffs so that even a team with a losing record gets in. And now, as if that weren't enough, one week into the season, it's been decided that doubleheaders will feature two seven-inning games instead of nine innings? This isn't Major League Baseball! What's next? How about all after the game, all the players do a '2-4-6-8, Who Do We Appreciate' chant, throw their gloves in the air, and then go to the snack bar for free snow cones? Good grief.
Nevada's idea of a Rest Area. There were actually two of these, but no restrooms, no
historical markers, and no people. This is about an hour from the Nowhere, Nevada location.
Utah's version of nowhere feels like a National Park, but it isn't, although there are many
nearby. This is Miller's Canyon, along I-70. There were many more, but I didn't stop.
When you get to Grand Junction, Colorado, you pick up the Colorado River for quite awhile.
It may be known for the Grand Canyon, but it impresses long before it gets to Arizona.
The state capitol in Cheyenne, Wyoming—the easternmost part of the trip. It was closed,
of course, but still pretty cool from the outside. Even in Covid times, still lots to see.