Five hours in bristling Nevada heat. Five hours of drivers whipping past, unsmiling and unwaving. Five hours of suffering on US50, the “Loneliest Road in America.”
Half the vehicles that passed me were semi trucks or white work vehicles with emblems on their sides, driving thirty miles between mining facilities and ruled by their company’s no-rider policy. In no other area have I found such an even ratio of commercial to personal traffic. As for those few personal drivers, at least those from Nevada—they don’t like hitchhikers.
Bafflingly, Nevada, the state of legalized prostitution and rampant casinos, the state of radical libertarians and military-grade personal arsenals, outlaws hitchhiking. Nevada’s residents evidently support this law, based on their glares and “don’t expect me to trust you” shrugs. It was worse than when I thumbed without a sign.
One water bottle remained, and I knew I was already dehydrated. I had a can of tomato soup and two cups of ramen, but my larger problem was time. Time and distance. My friend would get married in three days in Wenatchee, Washington, nine hundred and fifty miles away. And three hundred of those miles stagnated in Nevada.
Eureka’s gas station gives out “I survived Highway 50” certificates. It should give a medal to anyone who thumbs it, but I’m afraid the locals would stone any hitchhiker who tried to claim the prize.
After five miserable hours, two Californians saw me: Steve, a middle-aged owner of an aviation software company, and Bill, his retired father.
Steve glimpsed the “Traveling” part of my sign and flew past. “No one’s going to pick that kid up out here,” he said to his father.
“We’d need to make some space.”
Camping gear filled their rented minivan, and the back seats were collapsed to leave enough room for sleeping. They drove a quarter mile more, and then Steve pulled over. The two of them rearranged food, clothes, and sleeping bags and made a U-turn.
“We cleared a seat for you,” Bill told me, after they pulled onto the shoulder. “Sorry about the mess.”
“After this wait, a mess doesn’t bother me at all.”
“The only parts we planned ahead of time were the train and the flight festival,” Steve said, describing their trip of the past three weeks. “We’re big aviation buffs, and we thought we might as well extend it into a full vacation. This is the first vacation I’ve been able to take in five years.”
The two rode a train from the Bay Area to Chicago, where they rented a van and headed to AirVenture Oshkosh, “The World’s Greatest Aviation Celebration.” After that, they improvised each day. A visit to Yellowstone, then the Tetons. Many small detours to local airports. They had spent the day before at Bonneville, watching homebuilt cars race in Utah’s salt flats. Salt still littered the floor and hung in clumps behind the wheels like snow.
All along the way, they stuck to three rules:
1) No interstates
2) No chain restaurants
3) No chain motels
Sometimes the rules put them into diners that were long on history and short on flavor, and in motels that were barely better than sleeping in the back of the van. But even the bad experiences, they said, added to the trip.
“It looks like the next excitement is the junction with 361,” Bill said, pointing to a road atlas.
He commented on significant landmarks as we went, which along Highway 50, include any and all junctions. He pointed out a handful of mining towns, a few brothels, and not much else. Steve spent more time remarking on the road’s straightness than he did describing the nonexistent sights.
Even the freeways avoid Nevada. I-15 dodges most of it, and I-70—which begins all the way on the East Coast—stops in Utah, as if some planner thought the country should end before Nevada begins. I had to agree with him.
But I will admit, Nevada has a certain barren beauty. Ridges of mountains run north to south, divided by swaths of wind-blasted sagebrush. Between ridges, the roads really do run straight, so much so as to make a Roman roadbuilder envious. The sheer emptiness was awe-inspiring.
“We going to stop in Fallon tonight,” Steve said, “and then head to the Bay Area tomorrow.”
“If you could let me off at the far edge of town, that would be great,” I said. “If I can’t catch another ride before dark, then I can just pitch my tent off the road.”
Steve glanced at his father. “We’re going to buy you dinner and put you up in a motel for the night.”
I’m used to people inviting me to dinner. I’m used to staying on a stranger’s couch or sleeping in an RV. But a motel offer was unprecedented.
“I’ll be fine in my tent—you don’t need to—”
“No, I want to. Just as long as you don’t mind a crappy, non-chain motel. Fallon isn’t exactly a tourist destination.”
We ate at Jerry’s Restaurant, and the food was one of those bad experiences that added to the trip.
“I’ll tell you why I’m buying you dinner and a motel room,” Steve said between bites. His roast beef looked more like a cow pie than a piece of meat. “I traveled a lot in my twenties, and I met a lot of good, generous people. I went to Hawaii, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand—all over. But what really inspired me happened in New Zealand. Well, I guess it started in Hawaii.” He took another bite, grimaced, and thought of where to start.
“When I was in Hawaii, I ended up meeting this guy who was a housesitter, but he wanted to take off and keep traveling, so he offered to pay me to finish his job. I didn’t have a place to live, so I took him up on it and moved in. A while into it, the owners called.
“‘Who are you?’ they asked.
“When I explained how I was the housesitter’s housesitter, they were fine with it. They said they’d be home in three weeks, but I could keep staying there when they came back. I ended up doing that. I stayed in their home—with them there, too—for three more weeks, and at the end of it, they invited me to this big wedding party. That’s where I met this New Zealander who said I should come to his country and travel around there.
“I ended up doing it, and that guy—who I had just met randomly at a party—let me stay at his house with his family for the whole month I was in New Zealand. But it gets crazier. He let me use his car for two weeks to drive around the whole island and explore. That was his family’s only car. The guy was walking to work in the rain while I was off sightseeing.
“That’s why I don’t mind helping you out. I couldn’t reciprocate with him, because he got caught with marijuana and can’t come to the US, so now I’m paying it forward. There’s a good community of travelers out there, and I’m just putting my share back into the general fund.”
I nodded. “It’s a damn good community.”
“Just pay back into it when you can,” Steve said. “You’ll get opportunities.”
I nodded my agreement.
“So what’s your plan from here?” he asked.
“Get out of Nevada.” I laughed. “I’ll hitch in to Reno, and take 395 north all the way to Washington.”
“Reno’s not the best place.” Steve grimaced. “We can take you in to Carson City tomorrow. It’s smaller, and you can still get a ride on 395 from there. And we’ll buy you breakfast, too.”
Back in my motel room that night, I showered, washed a change of clothes in the sink, and enjoyed air conditioning—all welcome luxuries in Nevada. What had began as one of my worst days—stuck on America’s loneliest and least friendly highway—ended up as one of my best. And I couldn’t help but appreciate that it had been Californians, not Nevadans, who had finally picked me up.