The wilderness of Route 50 in Nevada provides the perfect backdrop for appreciating the great drive and wonderful comfort of the new Mazda3
Story by Gavin Conway, Photography by Mark Skovorodko
Vanishing Point, a movie from the early 1970s, became a cult hit that remains popular to this day. It’s about a rebel Vietnam vet on slightly the wrong side of the law who sets out to drive his car from Denver to Los Angeles in the shortest possible time. Like so many movie protagonists of the time, our hero is introspective and mysterious to the point of annoyance (get over yourself, fella). But the narrative is refreshingly simple. There are only three elements; the driver, the road, the car.
The landscape that our man navigates is desolate, bleak and at the same time, movingly beautiful. There is nothing to distract him and no reason to slow down. The roads are impossibly straight and, as the title suggests, dissolve to nothing on the horizon in front and behind—the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “vanishing point” as “lines converging to a vanishing point in a pictorial perspective.” In other words, a road so long and straight that it appears to disappear into the horizon.
Large chunks of Vanishing Point were filmed on Route 50 in Nevada. It’s a transcontinental highway that strikes eastward for 3,000 miles from Sacramento, California and meets its terminus in Ocean City, Maryland on the east coast. Route 50 was constructed in 1926 as part of America’s original highway system—the road was eventually supplanted by the construction of the Interstate Highway system. In modern times, I-80 (Interstate 80), I-90, I-40, and I-10 all run from coast to coast.
But it is the section that traverses Nevada that was dubbed “The Loneliest Road in America” by Life magazine back in 1986. At the time, this wasn’t meant as flattery; quite the opposite in fact. It’s a 400-plus mile stretch with virtually no signs of civilization and a vaguely threatening vibe—a mechanical failure on Route 50 could have pretty dire consequences. There are just three small towns on the route: Austin, Eureka, and Ely. The vast, empty distances between them are truly humbling. And the focus is laser sharp: driver, road, car.
Fallon is the last large(ish) town that we encounter as we head east out of Reno, Nevada. The place is a seemingly endless sprawl of fast food joints, car dealerships, motels, hardware stores, churches, convenience stores with names like “Liquor and Smoke” and, of course, casinos (after all, we’re in Nevada where such vices, among others, are legal).
I feel a frisson of excitement as we leave Fallon and Route 50 drops from four lanes to two. Technically, this is where the Loneliest Road truly begins. Indeed, we’re getting a foretaste of what is to come as we survey scrubland that runs to the foothills and mountains beyond. Navigating a cut through the first mountain range of our journey, we emerge to a stunning sight—amid the muddy-colored brown and gray hills, Sand Mountain rises incongruously. Its golden dunes sweep and dip gracefully as though deliberately crafted by the hot winds that are a Nevada feature. Sand Mountain, which is some two miles long and 600 feet tall, was formed by the dry lakebed of Lake Lahontan, which dried up about 9,000 years ago. It’s the first of many surprises that the Loneliest Road holds.
The Mazda3’s outside temperature gauge tells us that it is 97 degrees Fahrenheit outside—triple-figure temperatures at this time of year aren’t unusual, but when we step out of the car at Middlegate Station, it still feels like the air has been sucked out of my lungs. The faded wooden saloon and restaurant that constitutes Middlegate appears much as it would have 100 years ago—it originally served as a stop for the Pony Express in the 1800s, and today, it has the only gas you’ll find for 50 miles in either direction. A plaque on the door announces “Middlegate: the middle of nowhere. Elevation 4,600 feet. Population now 17 (was 18).” Tough place.
And then, something I’ve never encountered. Leaving the saloon, I drop into the Mazda’s black leather seat, yelp, and dive out of the car. Thanks to Nevada’s relentless sun, the seat is too hot to touch, let alone sit on. Only after a colleague loans me a towel for the seat can we depart. It’s a not so subtle reminder of just how harsh this environment is—I’ve never been more grateful for the Mazda’s powerfully effective air conditioning, which cools things down within minutes.
And so we settle into a rhythm, navigating through a mountain range and then emerging onto a vast plain, sometimes highlighted with massive dry riverbeds, other times bookended with mountains that look like they’ve been silk-screened in various shades as they march away from us. We’ll repeat this routine at least a dozen times, and each reveal is too stunning to express in the pictures you see here. It just isn’t possible to capture the majesty of this place in a digital frame.
At one point, we stop and climb out of the car, the only sound the crunch of gravel underfoot, the only sight the empty road. I look west and the road vanishes. I look east and yes, the road vanishes. Photographer Mark and I smile—we’re having the same thought. Is it possible to feel any more alone than we do at that moment? Pretty sure not.
Apart from a couple of tiny towns, there is simply no reason or incentive to get out of the car on Nevada’s Route 50. Feel like a little stroll on the desert flats? I’ve got two words for you. Heat. Stroke.
It often seems to me like Route 50 was created for one reason only, the car and the drive. It’s as though the Mazda3’s windshield has become my own personal movie theater and all I have to do to keep the next amazing scene coming is drive on. Wrapped in the soothing, cooled air and luxuriating in supportive, comfortable seats, the Mazda is the perfect haven in an environment that wouldn’t hesitate to kill you in the wrong circumstance. The Mazda would never let us down and I feel safe in here, while the fuel tank never has less range than will get us back to civilization.
You’ll need good tunes, too, so we put some John Mayer on—tracks more toward the country end of his oeuvre—and it is just the perfect complement to this journey. And the clarity and perfectly modulated bass of the sound system does Mr. Mayer justice.
“The most evocative building in Eureka is the old opera house; the town almost looks like a Hollywood western set with faded wooden buildings that have been left to rot. But it’s the perfect place to stop before we continue our journey on Route 50”
We overnight in Eureka, a historic mining town that is now home to just over 600 people, down from a boom-time high of 10,000 during the late 1800s. It looks almost like a Hollywood Western set, with faded wooden buildings left to rot because locals think they look cool that way. The locals are right.
Up before dawn the following day, we park in front of the most evocative building in Eureka, the old opera house. There isn’t a soul about and in the soft, warm breeze, the only sound is the bell-like clang of a lanyard on the town hall flagpole. Image captured, we head out east on Route 50 as the sun begins to rise.
Breaking out of yet another craggy-faced rock canyon and onto a vast plain, the sun crests over the far hills. Yet another mesmerizing vanishing point road that appears literally endless, fantastic cloud formations that seem unique to the west and a sunrise to rival anything Hollywood has achieved combine to deliver a spellbinding Route 50 moment. At this early hour, it also feels like we are the only car on the planet.
But we’re not. Nevada’s tourism department has long made a virtue out of what was originally an insult, touting the “Loneliest Road in America” as a unique destination for tourists. It’s a campaign that has worked—because of the vast distances and lack of services, you can indeed find yourself properly alone on Route 50, but if you wait 10 or 15 minutes, you’re likely to encounter a passing vehicle. Especially during summer vacation months.
Towards the end of our journey, we ascend the Wheeler Peak in the Great Basin National Park, which will take us up to around 10,000 feet elevation, affording us an incredible view over the landscape we’ve been traversing. We see countless dirt roads crisscrossing the plain like veins, mountain ranges marching off in all directions and a horizon so distant that it makes the term “big sky country” suddenly make sense.
Coming off the mountain to rejoin Route 50, we drive past a restaurant in Baker called Kerouac’s, named after one of the greatest American authors of his time, Jack Kerouac. His defining work was On the Road, a spiritually inspired novel about searching for something beyond one’s own immediate existence. We know that Kerouac drove across Nevada in one of his many transcontinental journeys. I’m not sure he drove this highway, although that is highly probable.
If Kerouac was looking for a little more inspiration beyond the corporeal, I guarantee he would have found it out here on Route 50.
2019 MAZDA3 HATCHBACK
The endless roads and mountain passes of Nevada’s Route 50 called for a fine balance between performance and efficiency—the Mazda3 delivered on all fronts, with its powerful 186hp 2.5-liter Skyactiv-G four-cylinder engine and a six-speed automatic transmission with well-judged ratios. In the lower gears, the Mazda3 has the punch to climb twisting Alpine-style roads, but delivers a relaxed pace in top gear for cruising comfort and a long range on a full tank. The ride quality is also superb, which is a must-have feature if you’re taking on 14-hour drives in one hit. And in the pizza-oven heat of Route 50, the Mazda3’s powerful dual-zone air conditioning felt like a lifesaver.