February 20, 2004, Friday Late Edition - Final

Section F Page 1 Column 1 Desk: Escapes Length: 1694words

DRIVING; Love Notes And Ghosts on A Lonely Road


PRECARIOUSLY straddling a ridgeline atop the nation's tallest sanddune, Rick Seth takes a moment to explain his addiction to dunebuggies. ''I like to call it anger management,'' he says. ''It's likea roller coaster that never quits.'' With that, he guns his muscularVolkswagen-powered sand rail buggy, and we fall 600 feet down thegritty, black-diamond slope of Nevada's Sand Mountain at 70 miles perhour. Then we turn around, and do it again -- only faster.

Rising above the dry bed of prehistoric Lake Lahontan, SandMountain is just one of many extraordinary stops along Nevada'sportion of Highway 50, a transcontinental road that, in the era ofthe interstate, stands largely forgotten. The 400-mile-long stretchfrom Carson City to the Great Basin National Park (one of America'sleast visited and most remote National Parks) has been nicknamedAmerica's Loneliest Highway. But what it may lack in traffic it morethan makes up for in uncluttered vistas and a sense of driving closeto history and natural wonders like Sand Mountain, one of seven dunesin the country known for ''booming,'' resonating like a kettle drumor a pipe organ when it is hit by strong winds.

According to historians of the road, like Jamie Jenson, whose Website, RoadtripUSA.com, features a trip along Highway 50, thedesignation dates back to a mid-1980's Life magazine article thatwarned of the road's lack of services and sites. Though locals wereat first incensed by it, said June Shaputis, a historian with theWhite Pine Historical and Archaeology Society, in Ely, Nev., theysoon adopted it as a marketing gimmick. These days, drivers can ordera Loneliest Highway Survival Kit from the Nevada Tourism Commission,including a kind of scavenger hunt map that merchants and museumswill stamp for visitors as they cross the state. According toestimates for 2002 by the Nevada Department of Transportation,Highway 50's loneliness is actually a function of where you are onit. In downtown Carson City, an estimated 24,000 cars pass daily.Farther east, in Eureka, the number drops to 2,150 per day, while onthe long stretches in between, as few as 580 cars might drive by in agiven 24 hours.

I didn't bother to pick up a Loneliest Highway map when I leftCarson City, rolling through the historic downtown and then through avast, barren desert valley pocked with trailer homes. Not far out oftown I took the turnoff for Virginia City, once a booming mining townof more than 30,000 (the Comstock Lode was discovered in the hillsthere in 1859, eventually giving up over a billion dollars inbullion), now home to fewer than 1,000 people. The town got a boostin the 1960's when ''Bonanza,'' though filmed in California, was setnearby, but these days the main attraction is a shop- andsaloon-lined Main Street, and a quirky diversion called The Way ItWas Museum. There, visitors can follow the town's rise -- Samuel L.Clemens came here in about 1861 to work for The TerritorialEnterprise newspaper; Piper's Opera House (a must-see) opened in 1863-- and its decline in the early 1900's after the gold ran out.

After a night at the Gold Hill Hotel, Nevada's oldest, I headedeast again. Outside of town, Highway 50 passes a disintegratingdrive-in movie screen and lonely dirt roads with names likeBreak-a-Heart Lane, and then climbs through the 6,000-foot Dead CamelRange before descending onto the vast basin of Lake Lahontan and thetown of Fallon. Home to the Navy pilot-training program known as TopGun, and a quaint main street, Fallon stands as an oddly bustlingdesert outpost. Just east of town, the Grimes Point HistoricSite/Hidden Cave Archaeological Site rises along an ancient,wave-splashed shore. There, Indians once hunted for antelope and lefttheir mark on the black basalt rocks in a series of petroglyphs, somemore than 7,000 years old.

A FTER hiking a few miles through the area to admire the etchingsof turtles, birds and strange symbols -- and jumping at the odd sonicboom -- I watched as a monstrously wheeled black pickup truck roaredup to the site. Its driver, Steve Price, 26, was soon joined byseveral friends. Why had Mr. Price jacked his $30,000 truck up sohigh? ''I just got bored,'' he said. ''The longer you live aroundhere, the bigger your trucks get. We like to run over rocks with them-- though preferably not ones with pictures on them.''

Heading toward Sand Mountain, Highway 50 runs along the route oncetraveled by the Pony Express, and in the shadow of the huge dune liesthe remains of the Sand Springs Pony Express Station, now aninterpretive site run by the Bureau of Land Management. Despite itsendless lore, the Pony Express ran only from March 1860 untilNovember 1861, when it was driven out of business by thetranscontinental telegraph. Though this quiet way station was laterused as a stagecoach and telegraph outpost, it lay forgotten untilbeing rediscovered and excavated in 1975.

Modern communications are carried by the rocks along the alkaliflats east of Sand Mountain, where stones have been arranged intomessages like ''Mike and Shelley,'' ''I love Sara'' and ''Jack andJudy,'' along with a hundred more. Through the Desatoya and ShoshoneMountains, I drove through endless vistas until the road dropped intothe vast, salty nothingness of the Reese River Valley. In thedistance, the snow-covered peaks of the Toiyabe Range rise to morethan 11,000 feet.

Climbing into the range, I reached another old outpost calledAustin. Once a bustling Pony Express stop, mining center and home tothousands, Austin is now quaint and tiny, populated by about 250people. I met a few of them at the International Cafe & Bar, inthe second-oldest hotel building in Nevada. I asked Jamie Bullington,24, a high school teacher who was sitting at the massive hardwoodbar, what he thought of Highway 50's ''loneliest'' tag. ''You know,''he said, ''sometimes you can stand on the 50 in the middle of townand not see another car for a half-hour.''

That night, I pointed my four-wheel-drive Volkswagen camper up asnowy side road and found a deserted spot to sleep beneath Orion'sbelt. The cold sky was astonishingly clear. Through my windshield, inthe weak light from town, I just made out ski tracks running throughthe virgin powder on the expansive, treeless hill across the highway.\

From Austin east, the remarkably maintained highway was clear,despite a landscape blanketed with snow, a reminder of human activityI was all the happier for when -- about 45 minutes outside of Austin-- I turned off the main road to visit the Hickison PetroglyphRecreation Area. As the snow-covered mile-long road to the sitesteepened I worried that the van might not make the climb, andstopped to put chains on my rear tires. Rolling to the parking area,I got out to find that the van had flung off both improperly fastenedsnow chains, one of which had wound itself tightly around my rearaxle, threatening to snap the brake line. Heart pounding, and utterlyalone, I said a prayer to the Great Spirit and climbed under the van.Somehow, I managed to uncoil the chain. Then I hiked along thepetroglyph trail, through a silent forest dense with pinyon pines,and along a valley pass that is thought to have been a migratory pathfor antelope -- a perfect spot to set up an ambush for game. That maybe what some of the rock drawings represent -- or maybe not. No oneknows.

Over the next 80 miles of snowy vastness, I encountered five othercars before rolling into another beautiful old mining town, Eureka,at lunchtime. I stopped at the Owl Club Steakhouse, where a friendlycook named Lola Alanis fixed me a chicken sandwich topped with a mildpepper, a local specialty. On the wall hung a huge photograph of ahapless antelope that had tumbled into a ravine and gotten stuck,suspended by its antlers in the narrow gap. Ms. Alanis said shethought hunters had chased him there. ''The antelope come down in thewinter, you know,'' she said. ''They're fearless. The big ones, too,with the huge antlers. They walk through the middle of town, and looklike princes. You don't see that in the big city.''

In 1878, Eureka had a population of 6,500. Today, about 400 peoplecall the town home. In the offices of the meticulously restored oldEureka Opera House, I found the caretaker, Patty Peek. After 16 yearsin town, she was preparing to move to Reno with her husband, Bob, whohad left ahead of her.

''We've been in mining since we've been married,'' she said.''Every mine we've been to has shut down. There's no future in it.I'm ready to go somewhere where there's a 24-hour store.''

I asked whether she and her husband would have stayed if themining work had been steady. She said probably.

''The thing my husband hates about leaving,'' she said, ''is thatyou can go where you want out here. We get people who come in andask, 'Where can you go and ride motorcycles?' I say anywhere. Theysay 'No, really.' I say anywhere -- anywhere you want to go. You seea gate, and a sign says 'Close the gate,' well, you close the gatebehind you.''

Images: Photos: LOTS OF NOTHING -- Highway 50 west of Austin, Nev.(Photo by Chris Dixon)(pg. F1); MAKING TRACKS -- Rick Seth's dunebuggy can go where he points it on Sand Mountain in Nevada. Bottom, apay telephone nearby is mounted to a post along Highway 50.(Photographs by Chris Dixon)(pg. F10)

Map of Nevada highlighting Highway 50. (pg. F10)