Thursday, August 8, 2002... Greetings from Salt Lake City, Utah, home of the 2002 Winter Olympics and the 1998-2001 Massive Traffic Snarls From Pre-Olympic Road Construction. Like Sacramento, Salt Lake City is on both the Lincoln Highway and Route 40, but 40 and the Lincoln take different paths to get here.

I followed the path of old 40, which has officially been decommissioned west of Park City, Utah. The old route remains as the Business Loop through every town along I-80 in Nevada, as well as the Donner Pass access route to ski lodges in California's Sierras. Today's radio highlight: Etta James' cover of Randy Newman's "You Can Leave Your Hat On," heard on a community-funded radio station in the Sierras.

Now that I'm headed east again, the sun is in my eyes for two hours every morning instead of blinding me in the late afternoon (Note to self: More north-south routes, please.) Time changes reduce my days to 23 hours instead of expanding them to 25, which could be a problem as I try to cover as much ground as possible before Sunday evening's flight home.

Even with modern cars and roadbuilding technology, the Sierras present such an imposing obstacle that in 400 miles, only a half-dozen roads cross them. I-80, the only Interstate to make the crossing, still closes during major winter storms. Yet 150 years ago, pioneers were able to haul their possessions across the mountains in wagons, and by the late 1860s the Union Pacific Railroad had also crossed.

As I crossed, I couldn't help noticing how many vintage autos were on the road with me. The explanation became clear when I reached Reno. This was part of Reno's annual "Hot August Nights" festival, attracting souped-up T-Birds, Mustangs, Corvettes, etc., from hundreds of miles in all directions. Several shopping-center parking lots were cordoned off to serve as staging and judging areas for the various hot rods Cruising music was also available: the Beach Boys, the Fabulous Thunderbirds and George Thorogood are all playing Reno between now and Saturday night. Alas, there must be 100 "car people" for every "road person" like me.

Hi-Way 40 Motel, Reno, NV After photographing about two dozen motel signs along old 40 in Reno, I stopped for a quick pit stop at Sierra Sid's Truck Stop before setting off across the desert. Alas, while Sid still displays a wall-ful of guns, he seems to have sold "The Guns of Elvis' collection he bought from Vernon Presley soon after the King's demise. (The 25th anniversary of Elvis's death is next Friday, August 16. August 16 is the blackest day on the American pop culture calendar: not only Elvis, but Babe Ruth and blues legend Robert Johnson died on that day, while Madonna and Kathie Lee Gifford were born August 16.)

The rest of the way across Nevada, I-80/US 40 traverses endless miles of desert broken every fifty or so miles by a small town. Each of these towns has some distinctive feature. Lovelock, the first, has a round courthouse and "Two Stiffs Selling Gas," a station founded in the 1920s by two brothers named Stiff. Elko hosts an annual midwinter Cowboy Poetry Gathering, while until recently Winnemucca promoted itself through a series of humorous billboards. But Battle Mountain is the only one officially designated the Armpit of America by a major metropolitan newspaper.

Last December, the Washington Post ran a long feature article explaining how Battle Mountain defeated the likes of Elizabeth, New Jersey, Butte, Montana, and East St. Louis, Illinois to win the title of Armpit of America:

"Take a small town, remove any trace of history, character, or charm. Allow nothing with any redeeming qualities within city limits -- this includes food, motel beds, service personnel. Then place this pathetic assemblage of ghastly buildings and nasty people on a freeway in the midst of a harsh, uninviting wilderness, far enough from the nearest city to be inconvenient, but not so far for it to develop a character of its own. You now have created Battle Mountain, Nevada."

Battle Mountain reacted by renting a billboard just west of Winnemucca to proclaim its status.

Wendover Will, West Wendover, NVThe last town in Nevada is West Wendover, just across the state line from Wendover, Utah. As the closest Nevada town to metropolitan Salt Lake City, West Wendover is booming, while Wendover is slowly dying. Anyone making the drive to West Wendover has earned the right to rink and gamble, for the road between Salt Lake City and the border includes THE dullest 100-mile drive in America, bar none. No hills, no curves, almost no services, virtually no changes of scenery -- all a driver can do is crank the stereo and switch his brain to autopilot.

That won't be such a good idea tomorrow, when even a sober driver can see a bright pink dinosaur before heading up and down the Rockies. Later!

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