Friday, July 2, 2010

THE LONELIEST ROAD IN AMERICA: US 395 – BURNS TO LAKEVIEW, OREGON

“Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra -
explaining why he no longer patronized Ruggeri's,
a popular St. Louis restaurant in 1950-something.


I’D BEGUN THE TOUR taking US Route 50 through Nevada. Touted as “the loneliest road in America,” I remember when it was. Ten years ago, traveling west to east from my father’s old stomping grounds in and about Milford, Utah, my wife and I motored in our Mazda MPV, awestruck by the subtle nature of the high desert. Towns and former towns were listed along the corridor. I remember dust and vistas and getting gas in Austin, a postage stamp sized outpost about halfway across. The only other patron was a gentleman with Alaska plates on a 70s era BMW R-75.

I looked at his plates and asked, “Going or coming?”

“Goin’ home,” he said. “Thought I’d take the scenic route home from the reunion in Minnesota.”

Gotta get me another Beemer, I thought being without bike at the time.

My impression, that day, was that we might have seen a dozen and a half vehicles over the entire 400-mile course of Highway 50, making the Alaskan’s trip even more tantalizing.

Then, four years ago, my buddy from Washington and I engaged in a road trip from California to Missouri. Our mission was to deliver my 1997 Toyota pickup to daughter and son-in-law back in KC. This time heading west to east, the road was still desolate, but in Fernley, Fallon, Austin, Eureka and Ely, one could buy an I Survived the Loneliest Road t-shirt or commemorative pin at any gas station or mercantile. I succumbed in Baker, lugging a coffee mug with me for the rest of the trip.

The promotion worked. More cars – still not many – used this alternative to I-80. And each of the towns seemed to have just a bit more bustle and a little fresher paint.

I began my 2010 Wyoming loop strongly urged to have accommodations reserved should I care to stop for the night along US 50 in the Silver State. To be sure, lonely ain’t what it used to be.


SIX DAYS LATER, I link up to US 395 in Oregon around the town of Burns, about 100 miles west of the Idaho state line. I will follow it all the way to Lakeview, then, tomorrow, into Alturas, in California. The eastern Oregon air is pure. Bug hatch is minimal in the high desert so I open the face of my Arai helmet in order to enjoy the morning freshness. The subtle undulations of the rolling landscape punctuated by the occasional dry wash make for a mesmerizing ride. A trio of Harley riders roars past at some point forcing me to close the lid for a moment.

US 395 turns south at Riley. I’d been there twice before each time knowing I’d need gas. Each time passing the first business establishment in search of a nicer set of pumps. Each time turning back around to discover that the first business establishment was the only business establishment in Riley. The sales person at A&S BMW in Roseville reported that he’d done this turn-about as well. Twice.


TWENTY-EIGHT MILES SOUTH is the former town of Wagontire. (For the uninitiated, at wagon tire is the steel band that rings the wooden spokes and rims of a covered wagon.) In 1983, while riding an R-65 north, I’d hope to find a restroom at this place. Sorry. Closed. Then, two years ago, on the R-1150, same thing. Why would today be any different? Interesting thing about the bar/motel/gas station complex: In the window of the bar is an advertisement for Coors Lite. But Wagontire, the town, has been only a place name since long before Coors ever brewed a light beer. Go figure.
The trio of Harley riders – two men and a woman – had parked in the wide spot, smoking. One drank a beer pulled from a side case. Across the highway, a worn out sign comically points to a flat strip of land declaring: Wagontire International Airport. Sage chokes the strip.

“I hear tell,” I tell the Harley trio, “that when the daily flights ceased, the whole damn town just sorta dried up. Killed the place.”

The woman snorts, trying to withhold a laugh. Her man shoots her an evil glance.


SEVENTY MINUTES further down the road, blessedly, there’s a rest stop. I pull in. Leaning on the back of his early-90s era Ford F-350, a gentleman with twenty years on me drags on a Marlboro. He eyes my bike, asks where I’m going and where I’ve been.

“A case could be made,” I mention in the course of conversation, “that Highway 50 ain’t the loneliest road in the country. Not when you see all this… this… nothing.” I make a sweeping arms-length gesture at the endless steppe of sagebrush.

“Yep,” he says. “You see up there where the color of the road changes?” He pointed south. “One time, back in ’85, I was drivin’ a diesel Cadillac down that hill behind us,” he pointed north, “and was doin’ about 110.”

“110?”

“Allafasudden, I seen a light bar come on ahead o’ me up there. Cop stepped out right into the lane and held up his hand. By the time I stopped, I had my license and registration ready to hand him. I tol’ him, ‘Damn. You must not get much bid’ness out this away.’ He laughed and said, ‘that’s shore true, but when I git one, I git a good one.’”

The old gent drops his cigarette butt and steps on it. “Only wrote me up for 78.”


THROUGH ALKALI LAKE and Valley Falls, there’s not much of anything but some fine geology, signs warning of jay-walking antelope and old wooden poles with power lines lacing across section upon section of sage.

Turns out, I didn’t need those reservations I’d secured for the Best Western in Lakeview. I only hope they don’t start selling t-shirts and coffee mugs.

© 2010
Church of the Open Road Press

4 comments:

  1. This post seems to get a lot of "hits." More than any others I have posted. Since you have stumbled across it, would you mind telling me, in this here comment section, where're you're from, and what you might have been looking for?

    Thanks. It will salve some of my curiosity.

    By the way: US 50 across Nevada is great. It just isn't quite as desolate as US 395 in Oregon.

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  2. I'm from Rochester NY. I plan to check out US 50 this fall and now after seeing this I will try US 395 s well. But unlike you I will be in a car. Like your page.

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  3. Thanks "Rochester." Coincidentally, we'll be out your way this summer for the first time - like you, in a car. Hope to see "upstate" and tour into New England for our 25th anniversary.

    Pleased that you like the page.

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  4. I have just ridden 50 in Nevada and OR 395 but I rode from Lakeview to Burns. Picked up a nail in my tire Riley and had to plug it. BMW R12GS. You are correct 50 is not near a lonely as 395!

    ReplyDelete