“The Earth can be a quiet place, if you find the right place to be.”
— Youtube user ejvideos07, commenting on “Timelapse Drive – US Route 50, Nevada, Loneliest Highway“
I rub my eyes and sit up in the tent. Above me, the Milky Way skirts the short leg of the summer triangle. The stars are bright. Though it is a new moon, the trees outside cast shadows on the rocks.
Tonight is a silence I’ve never before experienced, so strange and complete that it wakes me.
But before I’ve time to ponder the sensation, I’m rising from another dream about sage. It’s morning.
Nearby Wheeler Peak gleams silver in the sun. At 13,065 feet, it’s the tallest mountain in the Snake Range and the second-tallest peak in Nevada. Today, I plan to drive across almost ten more mountain ranges, and about as many flat, sage-speckled basins.
Most of Nevada is part of the Great Basin, 200,000-square-miles of desert bounded in the west by the Sierra Nevada and in the east by the Wasatch Mountains. The region is so named because any water that falls on the basin has no outlet. What little water there is either evaporates, goes underground, or flows into lakes.
But the Great Basin’s name has a major shortcoming—the landscape doesn’t resemble a smooth-bottomed sink at all. Nevada, which makes up the bulk of the Great Basin, has more mountain ranges than any other U.S. state.
The road from Wheeler Peak Campground down to Baker, Nevada descends 4,500 feet in just 10 miles. Above 10,000 feet, the landscape is alpine. There are no trees—just grassy meadows and rocky slopes. From 10,000 feet to 8,000 feet, Engleman spruce and aspen blanket the sides of the mountain. From 8,000 to 6,000 feet, gnarled pinyon pine and juniper cling to the sandy, dry soil. Bristlecone pines—the world’s oldest living things—are tucked away in their isolated groves. Below 6,000 feet, the trees again disappear, and only sagebrush and snakeweed keep the earth from blowing away.
I glance at the car’s thermometer. In coming down out of the Snake Range and into the Snake Valley, the outside temperature has increased by over 20°F. According to the displays at Great Basin National Park, every 1,000 feet in elevation is roughly equivalent to 600 miles of latitude, climatologically speaking.
I pat the dashboard. “Good job, car.”
On my map, I trace US-50 from here in Great Basin National Park to Middlegate, Nevada, where I’ll turn south for a 150 mile detour to Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park and then on to Mono Lake, California.
“Only 300 more miles to go. There are a few towns, even…”
A whopping total of five, to be exact. (The count would be considerably higher if I included abandoned mines and ghost towns…) Ely, with a population of 4,255, is practically a metropolis. Ruth, seven more miles down the road, is home to 440. Eureka, another 70 miles away—population 610. The next 150 miles? Austin, 192. Middlegate, 12.
It’s no surprise that US-50 in Nevada is often called the “Loneliest Road in America.”
“The Loneliest Road” is a moniker that came about in 1986 from a brief piece in Life magazine. “It’s totally empty,” a AAA travel counselor told the magazine. “There are no points of interest. We don’t recommend it.” Those few statements would have been enough to dissuade most tourists, but the AAA representative kept on going: “We warn all motorists not to drive there,” he said, “unless they’re confident of their survival skills.”
Upon reading that last sentence, literate adventurers everywhere rushed to their vehicles, ready to make a previously ignored road a bit less lonely. Survival skills? Yee haw, sounds fun!
The state of Nevada embraced Life‘s insulting piece, turning the “Loneliest Road” into a marketing campaign. On its highway signs, Nevada proudly touts US-50’s nickname. The state even publishes a free brochure, titled the Highway 50 Survival Guide. Visitors can get their guides stamped in the towns along the road, and upon obtaining at least five stamps, they can mail in their proof to the state to receive an official “survival certificate.”
Among geologists, the Great Basin Desert is often known by its tectonic stamp—the Basin and Range Province. Ahead of me, the road continues for at least 20 miles, flat and without a single turn. This is the basin. Near the horizon, the road appears to vanish at the base of a several-thousand-feet-tall wall of rock. That is the range.
As I cross the valley, I realize the highway doesn’t vanish. It zigzags up into the mountains. There’s a pull-off for chaining up in the case of snow. Climbing the road’s switchbacks, my car’s wimpy 4-cylinder struggles to break 45 mph. Finally, I reach Connor’s Pass—at 7,729 feet, it’s the highest point on US-50 in Nevada. And then back down again I go.
The highway continues for another 20 miles, flat and turning only once. Again, the road disappears where more mountains rise from the flats. These are the basins. These are the ranges.
With a total of 17 mountain passes and one tunnel, US-50 in Nevada is a geologic rollercoaster. (See it all in less than ten minutes in this time-lapse video of the entire drive, from west to east.)
The formation of these mountain ranges might seem a bit counterintuitive to a non-geologist. Many of the world’s great mountain ranges were raised upward as places in the Earth’s crust were pushed together, or compressed, by the forces of plate tectonics, but the Basin and Range is the product of extension—over the past 17 million years, the crust here has been pulled apart and stretched thin.
But how does thinning the crust make mountains?
As Nevada was ripped apart from east to west, north-south trending faults fractured the landscape into long, narrow blocks. As the region continued to pull apart, these blocks rotated along the hinges of their bounding faults. Buried rocks were tilted high into the air. Ranges. Immediately, weathering and erosion begin their work on these newly created mountains, filling the gaps between ranges with fresh sediment. Basins.
In the Snake Range, much of the currently exposed rock was formed in Cambrian seas.
But it’s not that simple. Because of the way they formed, the ranges are a geologic mess. Once-complete rock sequences have been chopped up and strewn about by faulting. Formation thicknesses are distorted by faulting and erosion. Older rocks rise above younger rocks, circumventing the simplest tenants of geology via the obtusest of loopholes: low-angle detachment faults. The south end of the Snake Range, with its much older, metamorphosed Precambrian rock, is a core complex, a term which many students believe refers to the inherent difficulty many geologists face in clearly explaining such features.
And because of all the faulting, tilting, and erosion of these extensional blocks, there’s no guarantee that the jumble of rock formations in one mountain range can be reliably correlated with those in an adjacent range, just 20 miles away. Most of the dots for connecting the Snake Range to the Schell Creek Range, one basin to the west, are buried under intervening Spring Valley.
I check my phone. I check my map. No service. No services. A hundred miles down the road, my final destination waits—Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park, where the skeleton of an abandoned Nevada silver mine lies next to the bones of a 225 million-year old-Ichthyosaur.
Basin floors continue for miles to the north and south. Ranges rise thousands of feet above the basins. Somewhere among the sage, petroglyphs, imagined by native peoples many years ago, adorn lonely boulders. Somewhere among the pines, the maws of limestone caves wait for a rare bit of rain. Snakeweed blooms next to the road.
Even after I leave this place, I know that the silence of the desert will pull on my ears, as my brain, starved for sound, experiences the struggle and the joy of creating something from nothing.