Yesterday’s drive wore me out, and after a Mexican combo plate dinner weighing my gut down, I fall into a deep slumber instantly upon laying down in bed. Unfortunately, I bolt wide awake around 4 am. Sunrise is still hours away and I want to experience some daylight for the first stretch of road. US Highway 50 west of Delta, Utah into Nevada is a mind-blowing place. The very first time I drove it was on the aforementioned Cannonball Classic with my father in 1999. It is an enormous, austere, and desolate landscape unique to the American West. LONG stretches of arrow-straight asphalt, flying off to the distant horizon. Very little flora, and almost no fauna. Mountain ranges rising as if to block your path, and then the road rises directly into them, and snake through, over and down again into the expansive basins, only to resume the arrow-flight westwards. The experience is visceral and very visual. Driving there is a challenge and an adventure. I long to do it again, which is precisely why I chose this route. I could have continued north on US 6 and Utah 36, on to Tooele (a section that remains UN-highlighted in my atlas), but US Highway 50 is beckoning me back. Night driving is unsatisfying however. When your vision is limited to only what your headlights reveal your world shrinks to that minute speck. It is just asphalt, stripes, reflectors and roadsigns. Without those wide open vistas there is nothing at all special about any road, much less US 50.
But here I am, wide awake. Unable to go back to sleep. My rational brain grasps the distance I have set out before me and is itching to get going. To move. To strive forever forward. My aesthetic brain wishes my rational brain would just STFU and go back to sleep just … ninety minutes more. It’s eighty-nine miles from where I sit to the Nevada border, and sixty-two more miles from there to Ely, where I’ll turn off of US 50. If I sleep just ninety minutes more I’ll have some twilight soon after departure, and a brilliant backlight of dawn as I approach the first big range ahead. “It will be BEAUTIFUL” says my aesthetic brain. “Let’s go… NOW!” says my rational brain, with a slight jolt of adrenaline.
A slave to rationality I turn on a light, brush my teeth, toss my things in my bag, and head out into the cold and darkness to the car. There are about four times a year I actually turn on a seat heater, and this is one of them. This car has seat cooling along with heat, and being a person who vastly prefers being cool over being warm, I’ve been running the cooler pretty much non-stop since we left Houston. Not this morning. The outside temp is 24ºF. The car has frost all over it when I step outside. The little bun-warmer is a welcome change from the frigid leather… for about two minutes, at which point I shut it off. I’m really frustrated with my rational brain right now however, because it is dark.
I’m quite comfortable driving fast, but not at night, and not in bad weather. So here I am, plodding along at a moderate pace, through the darkness, NOT seeing what I came here to see. Stupid rational brain. To me, it always feels as if you’re driving downhill when you’re in limited visibility such as fog, or darkness. I don’t know why. But eventually the sensation reverses as it is clear I’m rising up through that first north-south mountain range. Sure enough the speed limit drops from 75 to 55, to 35 and the road kinks onto itself slowly from the arrow straight basin normality. Of course these mountains have the appropriate appellation “Confusion Range.” They demark the end of the big valley at the southern end of the Great Salt Lake Desert, and the beginning of the true heart of the Basin & Range territory ahead. It’s still dark and I’ve seen nothing but what my headlights illuminate. I’ve seen maybe three other vehicles.
Slightly after I cross into Nevada the twilight begins behind me, and I can just begin to see the surrounding landscape. In the basin between the Snake and Schell Creek ranges a huge wind farm has sprung up where there was nothing when I first went through here in 1999. The light increases to where I can comfortably pick up the pace along the valley floors, but the day’s beginning has brought out more “traffic” as well. I hesitate to use the word traffic, as in this instance it is just the occasional pickup truck or semi trundling along, but my personal code of conduct dictates that I keep speeds reasonable when there are any other vehicles within sight, and sight lines here stretch for tens of miles in every direction.
Traffic increases as I approach Ely, and when I pull into town I stop for some refreshment and caffeine-to-go. Dawn breaks as I head through the town of McGill fourteen miles north of Ely on US Highway 93. This is a section of highway I can highlight. I’ve driven other parts of it before, but not this stretch through the Steptoe Valley.
Us 93 splits at a fork in the road out in the middle of nowhere, with “Alt 93” going up to Wendover at the western edge of the Bonneville Salt Flats, but I’m taking regular old US 93, north-northwest. This stretch of road is utterly empty, as it seems most of the traffic is on the Alt route today. I’m totally fine with that, and I’m enjoying the solitude and focus of intentional driving. Stretching the car’s legs as it were. When Nevada Highway 229 appears, I take it up and over the mountains and into the beautiful Ruby Valley. I’ve been here before with my father, in his old Jaguar XK 120. It was on the La Carrera Nevada car rally, now almost twenty years ago. It is an amazing place among amazing places, and it is a bit nostalgic to be here again, in another of my father’s cars. The vast majority of Ruby Valley is only accessible on unpaved roads, and just this very northern edge of it contains pavement. The Ruby Mountains are wearing a dusting of fresh snow.
The roads of course are utterly devoid of any other vehicles. I see one delivery truck and one other car in fifty miles of driving. As I ascend to Secret Pass, the car tells me “hey buddy… I need gas!” The range calculates to around fifty miles and I’m about forty miles from Elko, so I just settle down and put the car in “Eco Mode” and cruise control once the road unwinds to see how it does. When I arrive at a Sinclair station in Elko (for more no-Ethanol gas) it says it reclaimed over seven miles of range. Not sure if I believe it, but okay.
From Elko my route is another new to me highway, Nevada 225. Terra Incognita. This is very remote. It sits between US Highways 93 and 95 in a rather large and empty part of the map. You could likely fit two eastern states and the entirety of the Los Angeles metropolitan region within this area and have some space left over. As it is you have this vast region with barely a handful of people living in it. This whole situation fascinates me in a small way, but the primary benefit at the moment is space to drive purposely.
I’m caught by surprise by the narrow, twisting, and plunging road just north of Wild Horse Reservoir. It is a great place for a roadster or small coupe, but swiftly shows the limits of this big sedan. I give up trying to manhandle the car, and just sort of coast down the canyon and don’t bother trying to drive hard again until I’m well past it, and the only real signs of humanity on this whole stretch of highway, the villages of Mountain City and Owyhee. Crossing north into Idaho the road changes to Idaho Highway 51. I intuitively know that I’ve left the Great Basin and am heading into the Snake River Valley, but I’m not prepared for the drastic topological change that I’m experiencing. The road keeps going down, down, down. falling through at least three different geological zones, to finally arrive in the familiar basalt-infused Inland Northwest landscape.
I seriously consider unhilighting a several new to me highways such as Idaho 78 and a section of US 95 in Oregon, but fatigue starts hitting me hard between Bruneau and Grand View, Idaho. Discretion prompts me to abort this southern route and angle toward the Interstate and Boise to take the tried and true US 20 home. I merge onto the superslab just west of Mountain Home, Idaho and cruise control my way to somewhere past Boise, but shy of the Oregon border, where I exit to refuel, both the car and the driver. I look for a nice sit-down, table-service restaurant without any luck, and frankly my desire to get out of the car is so strong that I pull into the first place I see which is a Burger King.
I just sit and rest my brain, both aesthetic and rational sides of it, and contemplate the three or so hours of driving before me to get home. Sipping a cold drink, and munching on (frankly terrible) onion rings, and perusing my Facebook news feed on my phone (I’ve been largely offline since Texas) serves as a gentle respite from the hyper-focussed state I’ve been maintaining throughout this mini Cannonball Run. I while away an hour or so just sort of doing nothing. Sometimes a guy just needs to take his brain out and let it rest for bit.
The break serves its purpose and I hop into the car refreshed enough to power through the remaining miles. That section of US 95 will have to wait for some future trip towards southern Idaho and points eastwards. I follow the well-worn track to home, and catch the last minutes of a hockey game on my Roku before collapsing into my welcoming, familiar, and blissfully restful bed.