US50 – not such a lonely highway anymore (but still very cool)

After leaving San Francisco we drove to Sacramento and then on to Lake Tahoe, which is huge and beautiful but horrendously busy. We’d planned to have a late picnic lunch but when we drove in the carpark it was full and, as we’d already been freaked out by the crowds, we turned around and kept on driving.

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We stayed the night at Fort Churchill State Park in Nevada and when we arrived just before dark (8.30 p.m.) it was a beautiful balmy night. We hadn’t figured out where anything in the van was so we had a meal of bread and cheese (and wine of course) before crashing out. We woke early and were up by 6.00 a.m. re-organising the van so that it could comfortably fit us and our supplies. By 8.00 it was hot and the sun was merciless when we walked around the ruins of the Fort. Fort Churchill was built in 1860 after the local native Americans retailated against bad behaviour by white settlers. More than $10,000 was spent building a large complex which really is in the middle of nowhere. It was abondoned and sold for $750 in 1869. The heat was intense and we had great sympathy for the people who built it and the regular soldiers who were stationed there – the officers had it pretty sweet with a two storey dwelling each.

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After stopping in at Walmart in Fallon for more supplies (!) we started out on the ‘Loneliest Highway in America’. US50 through Nevada was negatively described as this by a travel writer in the 1980s but Nevada State Tourism began promoting this as a positive and now the tourist traffic is such that the title of ‘loneliest’ is debatable.

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It is a fantastic drive with long open stretches of road and endless vistas. The speed limit it 75 mph which makes it pass faster too. We loved Austin, a small town of 300 people with an old courthouse which now serves as visitor info centre as well. On the wall was a fascinating story about someone who had allegedly shot a man, was arrested and was awaiting trial. During his first night in custody vigilantes broke into the jail, subdued the sherrif and hanged him. The surprise was that this happened in 1880 when I would have thought the lawless days of the West were past, but apparently not. Eddie lost patience before I could read the story about the man who was hanged three times.

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We stayed the night at Ward Charcoal Ovens State Park and had the newly renovated camping ground to ourselves. It had been as high as 94 F while we were travelling but thankfully it was cool during the evening. The ovens, which look totally alien in the landscape, were built in 1876 to supply charcoal for smelting silver from the nearby mines. Each oven needed 34 cords of wood (each cord is 4 ft x 4 ft x 8ft) to make a load of charcoal and this took 10 days.  They operated for 3 years after which time they had run out of wood locally (what a surprise).

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After leaving the ovens, which were on a gravel side road, we came across a pronghorn lying on the road. It got up when we got closer but didn’t move too far away. Pronghorns can run 97 kph and have 3x the lung capacity of most mammals. They are pretty attractive too.

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We drove along more of the highway to Great Basin National Park which we loved. We camped at the Wheeler Peak Campground and lucked on a site with a view of Wheeler Peak itself. The campground is at an altitude of 10,000 feet and we coastal dwellers suffered accordingly but we still had a wonderful time and enjoyed seeing the world’s oldest living trees – bristlecone pines. While doing this walk the weather closed in and a ranger advised us to go back as there was a high chance of lightning – so, of course, we carried on. Obviously we didn’t get hit but it did get a bit spooky.

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From Great Basin we went on to Delta (which was the loneliest section of US50 that we drove) and then left US50 and headed to our next experience – the desert.

About Julia Bradshaw

Historian and writer living in Hokitika, New Zealand. Special interests are the goldrushes, the West Coast of New Zealand, crime and the stories of women and Chinese on the goldfields. Also keen on tramping (hiking) and involved in the Mt Brown Hut Community Project.
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