Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Vanishing Point

Good morning from my last hour in California! I had an amazing time there, 5 days of fun, but it was time I crossed Nevada. You're wondering why I didn't take the conventional route going along I-5 through northern California into Oregon? The answer will be fully revealed in the next day's post, but it really only takes one word of explanation: Bonneville.

I'd been to Tahoe before with my parents in 2008, and had of course loved the mountain scenery. I liked my little hotel, surrounded by lots of pines and fresh air, which I checked out of around 11. I went to the local Starbucks to enjoy the nice weather, get a doubleshot and an apple fritter, and do some more reading about the road I was about to tackle. It's called U.S. Highway 50, and it's officially tagged as the Loneliest Road in America. I found out about it in a Top Gear UK episode where the boys take a road trip from San Francisco to...Bonneville. If I were British, after this part of the journey, I'd say "I see what they're on about!"

First, the view down Main St. in South Lake Tahoe, near the state line:

For some reason, I forgot to take back a Redbox movie I'd rented the night before, so I had that with me all the way to Utah. Good job Matt.

Ok, I set off around noon, going east on US 50 over the state line, past the casinos on the Nevada side, and caught some brief, oh so brief, glimpses of the smooth surface of Lake Tahoe through the pines:

Too bad I didn't have time to stay in the area, but I had to keep to the schedule, so into the tunnel I went:

And I popped out on the other side, the eastern slopes of the mountains near Tahoe, as US 50 heads downward toward Carson City, NV. It was fun to keep the car in 3rd or 4th gear and coast down toward the desert city, with a long sightline along the way:

Carson City isn't too big, so I drove straight to the center of town to fill up the tank with gas, for I would need every drop today.

Here's the problem that arose though: I had been absolutely chomping at the bit to start driving fast immediately. I mean, it's the Loneliest Road in America, why couldn't I just take off like a bullet across Nevada? Well...the speed limits on US 50 are conservative all the way from Carson City to Fallon, which is 62 miles to the northeast. I'm already not a patient person, and I couldn't justify breaking maybe 55 mph through these rural areas that still had some civilization along the way. Cops could be hiding behind some buildings or other cars, since there were a decent number of vehicles driving on this wide, 4-lane "highway" which was just a big avenue crawling toward Fallon.

Once I got to Fallon, I was starving, so I loaded up on a double patty burger and tots from the local Sonic (which had been lacking in Morro Bay, CA when I needed it late at night!), and then things opened up, and I saw why the highway had gotten its name in 1986:

Ahhhh yes. Unlimited vision, unlimited space. 111 miles of empty terrain between Fallon and Austin, Nevada. The boys in Top Gear got super bored on this highway, like most ordinary people. But I'm not ordinary, am I? I'm from Midland, and I'm very used to driving hundreds of miles in desert and open sky, like this part of Nevada, except this area's even better, because it's got mountains all in the distance. Right by the road, however, it was just sand:

Ooooohhhhh man! I set the cruise control up in the 80s, with no worries, and began tearing down the highway toward Austin (not Texas). Why no worries all of a sudden? The wide open visibility lends itself to being able to see every vehicle for many, many miles up and down the road. Exhibit A:

You know who did have worries, and probably fatigue and dehydration? This guy:

No, not the Duckie, the cyclist! That would suck to have to ride that long. It wasn't blazing hot, but it was far from chilly. This was one of the warmest days of the entire trip in fact. Not that that's any surprise given my surroundings.

I started to make a game out of seeing how fast I could get between towns in Nevada; I felt like the normal expected travel times could be steamlined and improved upon on this empty road. 111 miles certainly took less than 1.5 hours to reach Austin:

Austin is a very small town, so I had to slow down from 80+ to 25 mph, and wind my way up some hills and back onto the flatlands.

In the next two pictures, you can clearly see why I felt justified in passing the rare truck I did come across at 100mph, and sometimes well over that speed mark. In fact, on the fastest occasion, I managed, uh, 191 feet per second (in case the US Government is reading this):

Crazy thing was, as I was zooming along at 191fps, I saw a truck in the distance that, at the beginning of the speed blast, looked like it was maybe 5 miles away. I was going extra fast for a good minute or two, and by the end of that span, the truck was no closer than it had appeared before. I caught up to it 10 minutes later, and it was a Tahoe that was going about 70 mph. In other words, the perceived distances were greatly distorted out there in the wild wild West.

Now, back to how I was loving driving fast, listening to INXS really loud, and then revisiting the comedy of my high school years: Dane Cook's Retaliation album. I was racing the 147 miles from Austin to Ely, which would put me in Ely right around dinnertime. I got a lot of quality thinking done on that sunny Wednesday, aided by the scene of the mountains of the Toiyabe range in the distance:

After another 2 hours of driving, I arrived in Ely, which would be the eastern terminus of my route on US 50. It had been pure fun once I got past Fallon. Ely is a town of about 4,000, and it's still in the top 15 largest towns in Nevada. Outside of Vegas and Reno, not many living people hanging around Nevada. I'd suspected the next fact driving from Carson City to Austin, but it was confirmed in Ely: every Nevada town, no matter how big or small, has a casino. No matter how out of place the casino looks with the rest of the town, which could be small and ghost-town-like, there it stands. Not that I have a picture of said Ely casino, just a memory that there was one.

Another interesting fact - because Ely is in the Great Basin and sits over 6,000 feet above sea level in the nation's driest state, it is listed as one of the coldest places in the continental US. The town experiences extreme day-night temperature swings, and thus averages 218 days a year with a low temperature below freezing. Thank God I didn't have to experience that!

I stopped for some gas and snacks first, and then drove down Main street to All American Pizzeria, where I sat down amongst Italian decorations and dove into the buffet to satisfy the big appetite I'd built up that afternoon. Mmmm...

A final note on how this all relates to the Top Gear episode - I'd feverishly looked on Google maps for the winding road that the presenters described as "incredible" in the mountains east of Ely that took them off the long, straight highway to I-80 and Bonneville in Utah. Try as I might, I couldn't find the road before I'd left Tahoe that day. This frustrated me, and it was already getting dark by the time I pulled out of Ely, so I relented on the other road and turned north on Highway 93 heading to Wendover, Utah. It also looked stormy above the mountains on either side of the road as I began the rest of the evening drive:

But then, a light appeared at the end of the cloudy tunnel...

And then a light, a bright light shone forth over the mountains:

Wow...check this out: on the west side and above me, the sky was like a curtain of fire:

And to the east, the mountains lay in shadow below thick, iron gray clouds:

Then the sky turned from orange toward pink and red, and the spectacle got even more grand, for miles on end:

If you're thinking that the pink clouds look like Martian dust, I totally agree with you. But wait, it gets still better...

I loved the many layers of clouds stretched out toward the horizon, and of course the fading but still very hot sunlight over the ridge in the first picture. And now, the grand finale!

I concluded that that was perhaps the best, and longest sunset I'd ever had the pleasure of seeing. I was just playing with the camera's exposure settings on the really dark pictures by the way. After the sun finally sank below the horizon, I fired up an hour of Jerry Seinfeld on the ipod and cruised through the inky blackness to Wendover, the small town right by the Bonneville Salt Flats. I pulled into the motel (not true hotel) for the night, and took a picture of the big casino across the state line that basically makes up the majority of the property in West Wendover, Nevada:
Any irritation I'd felt coming out of Ely had long faded from my mind as I began snapping pictures of the sunset. It was so good, I found myself thanking God for breaking out the heavenly paintbrush (like the holy hand grenade from Monty Python) and producing this tapestry in the sky for a solid hour in the lonely reaches of eastern Nevada, including once again my favorite two images of the day:

Yeah! God is awesome. I didn't miss the road the Top Gear blokes had found at all after that amazing sunset. So good night, as I publish this post exactly one year after the epic road trip began :)