Nevada hits both ends of multiple spectrums. Las Vegas, the city of excess. Lights. People. Glitz and glamour. It’s an otherworldly place. Big wins and losses sit next to each other at slot machines that look like they were designed by Lisa Frank during her cocaine years. The sights and sounds are loud, and gamblers sit stone-faced and beady-eyed. Everything is in your face. Immediate. Wild.
The rest of the state is large swaths of emptiness. Quiet, dark nights. Hard winters, and living hand-to-mouth. Wild in a completely different way.
Area 51. Depending on who you ask, it’s a whole lot of something or a big plot of nothing. It’s a place of excess in its own way, with lots of conspiracies, stories, and question marks. Just like Vegas, it’s otherworldly, but for its own reasons.
At the suggestion of my friend Leslie, a group of four of us decided to explore Nevada. Over the course of three days, we were in the car for 24 hours, driving nearly 1,000 miles, and we still didn’t see half of the state. But we saw a lot… and not a lot.
From excess to… nothing.
Jessica, Leslie, and I set out from northern San Diego to meet our friend Kathryn in Primm, Nevada, a one-exit town just west of Las Vegas bedazzled by three casinos, flashing marquees, and a rollercoaster. Once you’re within 50 miles of Vegas, especially on a Friday afternoon, traffic gets antsy. The speed limit is 70, but cars rocket down the fast lane or weave their way through traffic at Nascar speeds.
Then, when you’re within the Las Vegas city limits, you sit in traffic, no matter what time it is. The billboards, lights, and sights keep you somewhat entertained. One billboard, selling blinds, features a man dressed as a old-timey gangster. He’s holding an assault rifle. If you’re selling window treatments in Las Vegas, I suppose an AK-47 is one way to set yourself apart.
As we escape Vegas, I nearly miss the exit for Highway 93. We gas up before we start our final leg to Ely; in rural Nevada, you want to keep your gas tank above half-full. Even signs warn you to fill up. You don’t want to get caught with your gas light in the middle of nowhere.
We start north on 93. The sun is low in the sky, and traffic has thinned out dramatically. We see signs for all kinds of animal crossings and pass small lakes and pretty landscapes. Soon, it’s dark, and the scenery gives way to black.
It seems not much lives out here. There are campgrounds, a few blink-and-you’ll-miss-them towns, and poorly lit motels and closed restaurants. The hours feel longer at night, and my eyes tire from others’ high beams and from straining to see animals on the shoulders of the road. The last thing I need is to hit an elk while driving 70mph.
Then we’re driving through a low mountain pass. We see lights. We’ve stumbled into Ely (Ee-lee), a town of roughly 4,000 people, and it’s the most life we’ve seen in hours. Google instructs us to turn left at a stoplight, and we find ourselves on a very wide street that bumps into a train station at the end. Our inn is near the train station on the right.
Parking is in slanted slots in front of the building. Lines have all but worn away, so I try my best to mirror the other car a few spots down. I fail, but it doesn’t matter. Ely doesn’t care.
We’ve landed 240 miles due north of Las Vegas. That doesn’t get you to within spitting distance of the Idaho border, or any other border. It’s a small town, but there’s a Family Dollar right down the road, so we haven’t left civilization behind.
We’re greeted by the inn’s staff outside, next to my car. They kept the attached cafe open late because they knew we were en route, but we’ll be their last customers. It’s 7:30pm. We eat quickly, then check in to our rooms. It’s a quiet night. Jessica and I joke about reading the romance novels available on the inn’s communal bookshelf, but the draw of sleep is too strong.
We wake up the next morning to the sun painting the nearby mountains. There aren’t foothills here: it’s either flat ground stretching for miles or short mountains jutting up, a dash of snow sprinkled here and there. Trees are random, mostly where they’ve been planted, I think.
Nevada is a lot bigger than I’d given it credit for, and a large part of that is because it feels big. This realization hits me as I look out our room’s window. I can see a plain that stretches for miles, but the horizon is interrupted by short mountains on more than one side.
The mountains squat, bold and mostly untroubled by people. Mostly. Locals apparently dump unused items wherever they want.
You get the feeling life here is hard sometimes. Out here, you probably don’t worry about what’s happening in Washington unless it directly affects you. Most cars are in working condition, but you won’t find Teslas. Many buildings and houses are in need of upkeep, though for a town so isolated, you can get what you need. Within reason.
The Shoshone, who built their lives in the basins and valleys around Ely, are now tucked into their “designated” plots of land. The original settlers now live in uniform housing and communities marked by green signs: “Entering Ely Shoshone Indian Res.”
When you leave Ely, or travel along Highway 50, which is known as the Loneliest Road, you make sure you have plenty of gas, as it’s likely over 100 miles until the next gas station. The landscape is often large swaths of land with nothing but free-roaming cattle and a solitary two-lane road slicing through it. Cell phone signals are generally weak or don’t exist.
But if all you need is a wide-open road, mountains on the horizon, and space, you’re right where you need to be. For the four of us, it’s an opportunity to hike, hang out, and be off our phones.
Great Basin National Park and Lehman Caves
At 9am on Saturday, dressed in long underwear and layers, we pile into my SUV and drive down the Loneliest Road to Great Basin National Park. The road is a lazy curve through a deceptively wide plain with mountains along its ridges. Rows of windmills take up a small portion of the flat, and I have to drive with both hands on the wheel to keep control when the gusts turn my car into a sail.
An hour and a few turns later, we’re climbing into the wild of Great Basin National Park. There are finally trees, and it’s a scene of green trees, white snow, blue skies, and dusty brown roads. The main trails we had planned to hit are cut off by thick patches of snow, so we improvise.
Our hike is through knee-deep snow, uphill. Wild turkeys, their large footprints marking both the snow and the mud in a series of random curves and lines, wander nearby. After a quick out-and-back, we leave for the Lehman Caves, which are a five-minute, slow drive to another part of the park.
We join a group of 12 others and a park ranger intern, who leads the tour.
As the system had been found by a citizen (as opposed to a government employee or scientist) in 1923, then used for profit for many years, the caves are damaged: stalactites and stalagmites snapped off, initials burned into low ceilings by candles, and sections damaged by low-budget movies looking for sets that looked like other planets.
Nevada is a wild state, but we humans still make our mark on it, for better or worse.
On the way back to Ely after the tour, we stop by the Baker Archaeological Site. There’d been a small Fremont Indian village there that was excavated, then backfilled. It had been remote, as most settlements back then had been, I suppose. At the mercy of the elements.
The afternoon was growing old, so we return to Ely and decide on the Jailhouse Casino-Motel Cellblock Steak House for dinner. Jailhouse is in downtown Ely across the street from a casino with a large cutout of a man swinging a pickaxe. A very suggestively placed pickaxe.
You can take the casino out of Vegas, but you can’t take the Vegas out of the casino.
The conspiracy in the middle of nowhere
Sunday morning we make our way to Garnet Hill just outside downtown Ely. It’s an appropriately named place where you can search for your own garnets. En route, we end up off-roading and finding ditches full of old, rusted cars, trucks, school buses, and anything else you could possibly want to ditch. It’s like a rusty way of humans marking their territory.
After a quick, successful search for garnets, we make our way back to the Love’s Travel Stop in Ely, top off the tank, and start for Rachel, by way of Warm Springs.
Highways 6 and 375 are mostly bold gray lines surrounded by brown. They would look tired if it weren’t for the brilliant blue and crisp white of the sky and clouds above, and the snow-drizzled mountains in the distance. Plants that eventually become tumbleweeds dot the landscape, but it doesn’t seem like enough for the grazing cows.
We don’t pass many other cars.
Next services in 156 miles. Next services in 111 miles. Free-roaming cows. Low flying aircraft. These are the signs we see. 14 miles outside the single right turn to enter Rachel, you can see the entire community: you enter the valley from the lip on the north side, and Rachel looks like an afterthought near the other end.
The man behind the counter at the A’Le’Inn Cafe holds my gaze when I ask how he ended up in Rachel. “I set out from Atlanta and meant to stay here just a night. I’ve been here ever since.”
He raises an eyebrow. “I must be part of some CIA conspiracy, right?”
If you’re in Rachel long-term, you have your own story. You never meant to stay, but here you are. Or you’ve been abducted by aliens. Or you’re part of a CIA conspiracy. The government’s up to something. No one can tell you your story isn’t true. You’ve seen things. Visitors assume you’ve seen things, too, which perpetuates it all.
…or your gas light just came on. That’s what happens to one patron of theA’Le’Inn Cafe while we’re there. There’s no gas station in Rachel. He asks the man behind the counter about his options, and the man shrugs. “The nearest gas station is 47 miles that way,” he says, pointing down the lone road. The man curses, tries to make a phone call. If he’s like the four of us, he doesn’t have cell service. He eventually settles in for a drink.
That’s how it goes. There’s not much out here, save for a lot of stories and theories and a cafe with a well-stocked bar. The man behind the counter knows a number of the patrons by name and welcomes them when they walk in.
The cafe sells maps that show where you can find Area 51. They’re hand-drawn and copied on printer paper. Rudimentary. $0.37. Visitors need it; it’s not like there are road signs telling you how to get there. The locals know, though, as do the government employees who saunter around in imposing white dually trucks.
Many of the government employees look like slightly overweight bros in douchey shirts tucked into their jeans. No Men in Black here. They act like they know more than you do. They probably do.In the cafe, there’s a flyer next to the door with two pictures of a wrecked car. “Cows and Cars Don’t Mix,” it says. The cows, unrestricted by fences, cross the roads, unbothered by the potential danger. At night, with the 70mph speed limit, wide open spaces, and drivers’ need to get somewhere, the unfortunate cows meet their metallic doom. According to the flyer, they sometimes take drivers along with them.
As if it was foreshadowing, outside of Rachel, we pass a cow that’s laying on the side of the road. It’s unnaturally round. Bloated. “Ready to explode,” Leslie says with a grimace.
What are you going to do with it, though? No people or houses or tow trucks for miles. So you let nature take care of it, I suppose. Or the government. (Allegedly.)
Past the bloated cow, we reach the part of highway 375 just east of Area 51. Twelve miles is the closest you get to this “secret base” unless you take an unmarked dirt road west. The area suddenly looks bucolic. Green. Gentle, rolling hills. These treeless mounds are out of character for the area. As soon as we’re past Area 51, they’re abruptly gone. The more familiar brown, flat landscape takes back the scenery.
We’re disappointed we don’t see the “low flying aircraft” the signs along the highways promise. We have no stories of our own about Area 51; even if we did, we have hours to drive in either direction to have cell service again.
The lack of service is inconvenient for travelers, but convenient for parties that want what happens in Area 51 to stay in Area 51.
The roads and sights become familiar again when we exit the Extraterrestrial Highway and rejoin Highway 93. As the sun sets and we get farther south, the snow-topped mountains become rocky juts of land, and the low sun turns the rocks fiery red and the clouds above them brilliant pink. It’s a wild sunset, quickly overtaken by the dark and stars, though the sprawl of Las Vegas soon glitters in the distance.
Nevada fits the Las Vegas and the Ely and the nowhere. It’s a wild state with countless untold tales, some of them true. While you can get to know Las Vegas well within a weekend, the rest of Nevada only divulges its truths to those who are resilient enough to stay.