Tuesday, April 20, 2004

The Loneliest Man 9/7/1998 Part 1

On Sunday, day two of my extended Labor Day trip, I started heading east out of South Lake Tahoe in the early afternoon along highway 50. After a slow start in a traffic jam near the south end of the big blue lake, I finished driving through the rest of the Sierras. A pang of grief surprised me as I came down from the fir, pine, and cedar forested mountains into the plains at the west edge of Nevada's Great Basin. I didn't know where the grief came from. I observed it and just kept on driving. I only had a week to get to Taos New Mexico, visit my 26-year-old daughter Sunshine at what she called an "intentional community" named Lama Foundation, and then turn around and drive back to my technical writing job in San Jose the next Monday morning.

A co-worker who lived out that way, who commuted to his home in Fallon Nevada by automobile and small plane every weekend, had warned me against taking route 50 beyond Fallon when I had been planning a road trip to Colorado the previous winter. Fallon is in an agricultural area and still is pretty green. Dick thought I wouldn't like highway 50 the rest of the way east because there are no cities or towns of any size, nothing to see but desert. His warning had deterred me that first time, but on this trip my curiousity spurred me to see for myself whatever there was to see.

Like the artists who had embraced the name impressionist when it had been first applied to their work as an insult, the people of Nevada have embraced Life magazine's designation of a 284-mile section of U.S. highway 50 as the loneliest road in America in a 1986 article. Gas stations sell tee shirts with the highway 50 sign and the slogan, "I survived the loneliest road." That was a pretty cool way to respond I thought.

So, I stayed on 50 past Fallon left the agricultural oasis of that part of the state, and headed out to the desert. By mid afternoon, I stopped at the Cold Springs--Pony Express exit because I had to find a rest room. About a quarter mile off the two lane highway, I found a mini-mart from an age before the phrase was invented, in a small unpainted gray weathered building. Someone had propped a wooden wagon wheel against the log railing on the old-west-styled front porch for effect. A small weathered gray man, who looked like he had been hand-picked as another rustic prop, was sitting on the kind of wooden bench you can imagine they put on the porch for you to imagine that old timers had sat on it in the old days. This old-timer didn't look up when I greeted him.

Only later did I discover that there really had once been a Pony Express stop at that location, and there was a self-guided tour of the foundations that I hadn't noticed.

Inside the gray building, a trim grey-haired woman in blue jeans, red Indian shirt, and large bright silver belt buckle was standing near stools at a bar talking to another more-nondescript woman. The rest of the room was filled with restaurant tables and chairs. When I inquired, the flashier-looking one pointed me to the woman's bathroom and resumed talking. They continued to talk together after I came out. "It's hot and dry out there," I said. I got an inspiration. "Can I fill my water jug in your sink?" "Okay." I went back to the van and brought in the gallon Thermos jug, and an empty spring water bottle, and filled them at the restaurant's faucet.

While I picked out a bottle of iced mocha coffee from the cooler, a quirky guidebook, called Hermit Lady's Guide to Route 50: Part II from Fallon to Ely and Beyond caught my eye. The spiral bound book was made on a copier, with hand printed lettering (with the occasional missing letter), and sketches on every page. I put it on the counter with the coffee to buy mostly as a thank you for use of the john. Before I left, the trim woman told me that the hermit lady had lived at a nearby ranch and used to make her living selling the books. Her friend kept nodding and adding details. She waved her arm to indicate the direction of the ranch where the hermit lady had lived, in a direction where I hadn't noticed anything but scrubby plants.

It started to dawn on me that this vast empty space was populated. If Life's reporter thought highway 50 is lonely, what would he think of living in one of those isolated manufactured homes on unnamed roads that branch off the main highway into the desert and the surrounding hills way out of sight of the passing cars?

I passed the weathered man again on the weathered porch next to the wagon wheel for the fourth time, and he persisted in ignored me.

Back out in the heat in the front seat of my van, I gulped down the iced coffee drink and started reading the Hermit Lady's book. It does a remarkably effective job of using details to make what appears to be the barren desert landscape along Route 50 come alive. I especially liked that she listed the mountain passes, their elevations, and their histories, and noted all the points of interest that were hidden from speeding cars along the road. One sketch is a kind of graph that illustrates the mountain passes between each of the cities on the route and their relative heights compared to one another.
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