Tuesday, May 11, 1999...

Today's travels began with a visit to Reno's National Auto Museum -- easily the most impressive of the half-dozen auto museums I've visited. Founder William Harrah didn't settle for buying rare models and restoring them to showroom quality; he sought out one-of-a-kind items like the 1907 Thomas Flyer which won a land race from New York to Paris via Asia; a DeLorean with gold-plated shell; and a Rolls (or similar model) with solid copper body.

Then came almost 500 miles of emptiness. There are two ways east from Reno: the main road, Interstate 80, which follows the Humboldt River in a northeastern arc to Wendover, on the Utah line, and the Lincoln Highway route, which follows US 50 across a stretch Life Magazine once dubbed the " Loneliest Road in America." From Fallon, an hour east of Reno, to Wendover, 370 miles away, the Lincoln passes through three towns: Austin (pop. 370), Eureka (pop. 650) and Ely (pop. 4000 or so).

As the route traverses a series of north-south mountain ranges, the pattern becomes familiar: up a hill, across the summit, down into another valley 30 or so miles wide and 100 or so miles long. The Pony Express also followed this route, and the desert here is so arid that more than 135 years later, the path of the Pony Express remains visible when it crosses the road.

Stokes Castle, Austin, NVAustin, the smallest and oldest of the towns, was formed around a mine which flourished in the 1860s and 1870s. Its International Hotel, a dilapidated wooden building in the center of town, is more than 125 years old. Stokes Castle, perched atop a hill on the west side of town, is a four-story building which was occupied for two months in the summer of 1897 and has been slowly decaying ever since. Eureka's mining boom came a few years later; its elaborate courthouse dates to 1879. Both towns "welcome" travelers with "Loneliest Road in America" signs; Eureka goes further, describing itself as the Loneliest Town on the Loneliest Road.

Ely is by far the most prosperous of the three, located at the junction of three main routes: US 6 and US 50 across Nevada from east to west, and US 93, the road from northeastern Nevada to Las Vegas. As the largest town for 100 miles in any direction (200 from the west or south), Ely supports many more gas stations, motels and restaurants than its population would otherwise warrant.

Between Ely and Salt Lake City, the Lincoln Highway was held hostage to Utah politics. There's no easy way to head west from Salt Lake City: the choice is between driving straight west across 75 miles of Great Salt Lake desert, or heading southwest across a combination of desert and swampy springs. The Lincoln originally took the southwestern route, but the state of Utah refused to improve these roads, instead paving a path due west across the desert. The Lincoln was ultimately re-routed -- and its original route has never been paved. Forced to choose between 100 miles of badly marked dirt roads or 180 miles of paved but boring routes, I opted for the latter.

From Ely, the route heads north 110 miles to Wendover, on the Nevada-Utah border. The actual border is easy to spot: a 40' illuminated figure in front of a casino on the Nevada side points right to it. Quite a contrast: anything-goes Nevada to the west, Mormon Utah (one of only two states which still bans all forms of gambling) to the east. As the closest Nevada town to Salt Lake City, Wendover has long profited from Utahns seeking a little forbidden pleasure.

They certainly don't derive any of that pleasure from the drive to Wendover -- ninety of the dullest miles in the known universe, across the south side of the Great Salt Lake Desert. This terrain is so flat that from a nearby hill it's possible to perceive the curvature of the earth. As a result, the desert sands are perfect for the Bonneville Salt Flats Speedway, site of many attempts on the world land speed record, which sits just to the north of the Interstate. The speedway won't be drivable until recent rains have evaporated, though, which may take months. (In 1992 I took my Mazda out on the flats, topping out at 116 MPH. Not bad for a car with over 90,000 miles on the odometer, which hadn't been tuned up in months.) Not only is the route flat, but for 50 miles it's dead straight, too.

Stopped for the night in Salt Lake City. Tomorrow I'll be exploring long-bypassed routes across Utah and Wyoming...
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