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Life on the 'Loneliest Road' : 287-Mile Stretch of U.S. 50 Is America Minus Tourist Traps

August 25, 1986|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

EUREKA, Nev. — John Raisbeck, 54, and his wife, Barbara, 50, rolled their motorcycle to a stop a few miles east of this tiny old gold and silver mining town.

"We're taking a break to inhale the clean, clear air, to gaze at the gorgeous purple mountain. We don't see this kind of country where we're from," Raisbeck said.

The Raisbecks were from Hookstown, Pa., riding across the heart of America on their motorcycle to visit their children and grandchildren in Sacramento.

They were on U.S. 50, along a 287-mile stretch of narrow two-lane pavement slicing through high desert and mountains from Ely to Fernley, Nev.

They could see for miles in all directions. The road disappeared like a straight pencil line east and west.

It was so quiet you could hear the blood rush through your ears.

This is the section of highway that Life magazine and the American Automobile Assn. called "the loneliest road in America."

"It's totally empty. There are no points of interest. We don't recommend it. We warn all motorists not to drive there unless they're confident of their survival skills," the July issue of Life quoted an unnamed AAA counselor as saying about U.S. 50 in Nevada.

But for the Raisbecks the ride on U.S. 50 was the thrill of a lifetime.

"We have seen wild horses, antelope and deer along the road. It's God's country. The wide open spaces of Nevada are the best part of the trip so far," Barbara Raisbeck said as she and her husband hopped back onto their bike.

They were off for an 11-mile side trip on a dirt road to Hamilton, Eberhardt, Treasure City and Sherman, all 19th-Century ghost towns.

Ten thousand people lived in huts and caves in the boom camps dotting the 8,000-to-10,500-foot slopes of Mt. Hamilton, working the rich diggings more than a century ago. Now there are only occasional ruins and foundations, lost dreams and no people.

Up the road at Eureka, population 600, at the town's tiny bank--it was once a brewery--janitor Estell Genzoli, 82, was sweeping out the place, as she has each late afternoon for the last 30 years. The sprightly widow has also been the reporter for the weekly Eureka Sentinel the same length of time.

A photo of Edna Covert Plummer adorned a plaque in the bank. The first woman district attorney in the United States in 1918, Plummer founded the bank with old-fashioned lattice-like iron teller cages in 1920.

As for U.S. 50 being "the loneliest road in America with no points of interest," Genzoli retorted bluntly:

"What a ridiculous statement. It makes my blood boil. Whoever said that must be blind. Take Eureka. It hasn't hardly changed in the last 100 years. It isn't a tourist trap. It's for real. It's unique."

Well, Eureka is definitely different.

The tiny town claims to have more cemeteries than any other town in America. There are separate cemeteries for the well-to-do and for those who died from contagious diseases. Neither is used today, however.

There are Indian, Chinese, Oddfellows, city and county, Masonic, Catholic, Jewish and Protestant cemeteries. There are more dead than alive by a long shot in Eureka.

The town is undermined with a network of tunnels, dug by early day Chinese miners as gambling and opium dens, later used by bootleggers during Prohibition.

In Ely, population 4,500, at the eastern end of the "loneliest road in America," Mayor Barlow White, 52, echoed the storm of protest by residents, ranchers, miners and businessmen in Nevada's White Pine, Eureka, Lander and Churchill counties.

"Wide open spaces. Last frontier. No crowd pollution. That's the beauty of this country. That's what we're all about," White said.

Businesses in this high-desert country are dependent upon highway traffic for income. U.S. 50 is the shortest route from Denver to San Francisco.

White told how chambers of commerce for five towns and four counties along the road joined with the Nevada Commission on Tourism in seeking to capitalize on the "loneliest road" designation. They have launched an "I Survived Highway 50" program.

The state has prepared "I Survived Highway 50" kits with maps, descriptive information about scenic attractions and lists of services and facilities in the five towns.

The package contains a form with spaces for an "I Survived" stamp available in Ely, Eureka, Austin, Fallon and Fernley. On completing the drive motorists may send the form in to the Tourist Commission and receive in return an "I Survived Highway 50" certificate signed by Nevada's governor.

"Sure the 'I Survived' kit is tongue-in-cheek," admitted Richard Moreno, public affairs officer with the Tourism Commission. "But we're trying to attract people, not discourage them from using the highway."

Moreno called the long stretch of U.S. 50 "a journey through a land where cowboys are the genuine article. The dust on their boots, the smell on their clothes and the sweat stains on their hats were earned. This is one of the last opportunities to experience and see living reminders of the vanishing American West."

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