Western Originals

As the Sweet Chariot Tour rolls toward the California coast, I am constantly awed by the great open spaces of the American West.  I have not visited this part of the country in about 30 years. Living in the East my whole life, I had quite simply forgotten the scale and majesty of the Western landscape.

Repairs to the Mustang’s disc brakes were completed on Monday, September 24 in Denver. I had hoped to explore the downtown area and visit Central City, where Jack Kerouac experienced a few adventures during his layover in 1947; but the brake issue with the Mustang interfered with my timetable, as I had to be in Salt Lake City by Wednesday for a book event. I left Denver on Tuesday morning hoping to follow the old roads that Kerouac covered by bus (after borrowing money from a relative for a ticket to San Francisco), but the route has disappeared under the concrete of Interstate 80. I did enjoy a scenic climb through the Rockies on US 287 to Laramie, Wyoming, where I had to join the heavy trucks that rumble along I-80. Fortunately traffic was light, and I was able to soak in the sights of the high desert landscape, often aiming my Canon camera through the windshield or out the driver’s window. Dark clouds threatened, but the rain fell on the mountain slopes rather than in the valley. One impressive sight, after miles of unpopulated land, was the big oil refinery in Sinclair, WY. I had mistakenly thought the company was defunct, because the brand disappeared from the east years ago; but there are quite a few Sinclair stations in the Midwest and Far West. That afternoon I made a brief side trip at Rawlins to see the sinister-looking Wyoming Frontier Prison. I did not go inside: a few photos of the imposing exterior were enough for me.

After overnighting in Rock Springs, WY, I continued to Salt Lake City on Wednesday. Just past Green River, I saw a long train down in a valley below the highway. Pulled by five big Southern Pacific locomotives and climbing slowly around a curve, the train looked for all the world like a toy because of the dimensions of the nearby mountains. The highlight of the day’s run was a stop at the Fort Bridger State Historic Site in the small town that shares its name–an interesting and nicely maintained site well worth visiting. The weather cleared up by mid-afternoon as I drove through spectacular mountain passes on I-80, including Cottonwood Canyon between Park City and Salt Lake City, Utah. I had a most enjoyable book-signing event that night at the Barnes & Noble in Sugarhouse, where I was joined by my nephew, Cedric, a member of the Park City ski patrol in the winter months.

The main museum at Ft. Bridger, in the old commissary building.

As terrific as the scenery had been in Wyoming, I was in for even more visual treats while driving from Salt Lake to the coast. On the Road reveals only that Kerouac’s bus passed through Reno, NV, making the exact route from Salt Lake City a tossup. I decided to get off the interstate and follow US 6 again, that old companion of a highway that my friend Al and I had started on some three weeks earlier. In eastern Utah, south of Salt Lake City, both US 6 and US 50 share the same pavement. In the desert valleys, the two-lane blacktop runs as straight as an arrow for miles on end, with nothing taller than telephone poles in the foreground and craggy mountain ranges in the distacnce. The road then snakes through narrow—and spectacular—mountain divides with mystical names, such as Skull Rock Pass.

One of the many mountain passes on US 50.

During a stop at the Nevada state line, near Garrison, Utah, I encountered one of the most interesting people I’ve met during the trip. While I fueled up the Mustang, a short-bodied school bus pulled alongside a nearby pump. The driver, a slim woman in classic western attire, expressed her admiration for the convertible, which started up a friendly conversation. For the past 20 years, Ruth Eldridge has driven a bus for the White Pine County school district in Nevada, making a round trip of 260 miles every school day. Now that’s driving—and it’s not her only job. She and her husband have a ranch where they raise livestock and grow their own vegetables in a large garden. To me, Ruth is the personification of a rugged Westerner.

Ruth Eldridge drives her bus 260 miles every day that school’s in session.

About sixty miles into Nevada, US 6 turns south at Ely (pronounced Elee). Route 50 continues west, roughly following the path of the historic Pony Express, most appropriate for a Mustang cruise. It’s well worth noting that the section in Nevada has been officially named The Loneliest Road in America—and there was nary a structure beyond Ely for 80 miles. I knew my decision to take a 45-year-old car across that stretch was a calculated risk, but the Mustang ran like a mail pony at the 70 mph posted speed limit. Mile after mile of extraordinary scenery was our reward for choosing the path less taken.

It’s an understatement to call this an empty stretch on the Loneliest Road in America.

I stopped for the night in Eureka, which boasts a nicely appointed Best Western. The next morning, while I headed down Main St. for gas, a bright yellow Corvette of mid-70s vintage approached from the opposite direction. I could hear the loud rumble and loping cam of a racing setup, and the driver and I mutually waved as we passed. A few minutes later, the same Corvette pulled into the gas station. My jaw must have dropped as a police officer climbed out wearing a classic two-tone brown uniform. He stuck out his hand and introduced himself as Ken Jones, the Eureka County Sheriff. I had just met The Most Interesting Man of my journey thus far. Ken’s real passion is hotrods. He organizes an annual car show and drag races in Eureka, and his yellow Corvette has the goods, with a race-built engine putting out some 450 horsepower. After posing for a photo with me, Ken fired up the ‘Vette and lit up the rear tires in a half-donut while pulling out onto Main St. He headed up a steep side street, but was soon back at the gas station, this time driving his “government vehicle,” an Impala cruiser that looked every bit as bad-ass as the Vette. “I’m 70 years old and I still haven’t grown up,” Ken admitted. He sincerely wished me a safe trip, and we bid farewell.

Sheriff Ken Jones and his hot-rodded Corvette in Eureka, NV

The day’s trip across Nevada measured about 240 miles. There was only one tiny town, Austin (population 192), between Eureka and Fallon. It was a lonely highway indeed, and I saw exactly one car going my direction along that stretch. It was almost strange, afterward, to enter a thriving metropolitan area as I drove through Sparks into Reno.

They call US 50 the Loneliest Road, but between the fascinating folks and the unparalleled scenery, I would rate my trip across Utah and Nevada as one of the best drives I’ve ever experienced.

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