Welcome to America’s Loneliest Highway

“You can just pull over to the side of the road and camp anywhere…” explained the park ranger, as I told him about my plans to cross Highway 50, the loneliest highway in America. “…It’s generally accepted,” he continued.

He pulled a map out from under his desk. It was folded like a standard brochure, but he unfolded it again and again, until the whole state of Nevada covered his desk. I had taken the advice from the little placard on the table in the cafe the day before which read, “Ask a park ranger about Nevada ghost towns. The ranger had explained how to get to the abandoned town of Hamilton, and he pointed out another place on the map. “That one is on private land now. There’s a mining company that owns it, but you still might be able to see some of the building.”

My plan was to cross Highway 50 to Lake Tahoe on the far west side of the state. I wanted to camp at Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park to break up the journey and see the ghost town that park preserved. I was asking the ranger if there were any other ghost towns worth a stop along the way, and if he thought I’d be able to find a vacant campsite at Berlin-Ichthyosaur.  He was an older, friendly man, who equipped me with the you can do this-  it’ll be an adventure kind of spirit.  So, out of the Great Basin National Park visitor center I left with my map of Nevada in hand along with some exclusive knowledge on ghost town. I was excited to have them both.

This morning I had gotten up early and took a stroll through the Bristlecone Pine forest in Great Basin National Park. The park is home to the oldest trees in the world Pinus longaeva, the Bristlecone Pine. The oldest one was removed from the park in 1964 at 4,900 years old. Today still many ancients stand in the grove next to Wheeler Peak. They only grow at an altitude between 9,00 to 11,500 feet. Here they have found their niche, where they aren’t disrupted. They are slow growing, and often, as the National Park Service puts it “out-competed.” So they have, in a sense, retreated to conditions in which other trees can’t survive.

A short interpretive hike, tells you the  names and ages of the the trees. What fascinates me about such old trees is putting them in context of history, and considering all of the things they out date, such as all modern wars and the birth of Jesus. They precede the rise of the Roman empire. They might have been standing back during the rule of King Tut. These trees have stood through much of the milestones tumult of the world.

DSC05975Looking at them, you wouldn’t guess their age. They are rather girthy, but not that tall in comparison to something like the Sequoia or Redwood, which we often equate with age. Their branches are unique as they twist and curve like strings of warm taffy.  Once you fully consider how old they are, they start to look elderly. Their exterior is painted many different shades of brown, and the trunks and limbs are brushed with indentations and grooves, like a wrinkly old man who’s spent too many days out in the sun. At the same time, the way they look is almost fanciful. Although extremely still and sturdy, the dramatic twisted growth and exotic posture make these trees appear frozen in mid-dance, manipulated by some strange sorcery.

Nevada, never ceases to amaze me. I wouldn’t have thought the world’s oldest trees resided in such a place. As I closed my car door and spread out my new map on my drivers seat, I was gearing up to see what other surprises this state held in the middle of its expanse. I buckled up, programed my gps, plugged in my camera to charge, and…realized I needed gas.

As a courtesy of the National Park Service, the park map labeled the location of the nearest gas station- or might I say, the only gas station around. It was in Baker Nevada, the town in the desert at the foot of the park. When I arrived I was very skeptical. There was no building nor sign. There was just a single pump next to an old lamp post and a garbage can in the middle of a gravel lot. It looked to me like the remnants of an old gas station that used to stand here. Maybe I could mark this off as my first ghost town experience of the trip. Maybe this gas station predated the Bristlecone Pines.

I double checked my map. This was it. I pulled up to the pump and got out of my car into the oppressive heat and dead silence. Sure enough, there was a credit card reader. The pump was functional. I was sincerely surprised, and found the whole situation comical. This part of Nevada was truly a foreign place to me.  I filled up, knowing that while traveling across what’s called “America’s loneliest highway,” gas would be sparse.

This little gas station, if we so generously permit it such a term, is the most fitting post and right of passage to Highway 50. Many places have their iconic monuments upon entry. The United States as a whole has the Statue of Liberty, San Francisco has the Golden Gate Bridge, Yellowstone has Roosevelt Arch, and Highway 50 has this gas pump.  It sums up the whole Highway 50 experience: Get ready for a whole lot of nothing, but a few really genuine surprises.

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Read the previous entry “Summiting Wheeler Peak,” here: https://joshthehodge.wordpress.com/2018/03/25/summiting-wheeler-peak/

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