Route-ing around Nevada's historic Pony Express
Nevada: I'm on the road again – this time discovering that this state is not all about casinos and mining. Think Top Gun, Pony Express, petroglyphs, hiking, biking... and Alice ("in Wonderland") at the end of The Loneliest Road in America (US Highway 50).
Thank goodness for the rumble strips keeping drivers alert on US 50. This hot-enough-to-fry-an-egg-on-the-road desert highway slicing through the heart of Nevada actually crosses the country from Sacramento, California to Ocean City, Maryland. Like the Pony Express riders, I'm riding it (true confession: not on horseback) out of Carson City.
With the occasional stop throughout the morning, I'm reminded that mountains (such as the Sierra Nevada) plus prairie, pastoral land, and desert, decorate this feisty frontier state.
A lone launderette on a hillside outside Austin marks where we leave "Lonely." Why the launderette? Perhaps for truckers who make the highway less lonely.
Legend has it that a rock clipped by a Pony Express horse coming through Austin kicked off the silver rush of 1862. True or not, the ghost town in the shadow of the Toiyabe Range is quietly cashing in on the tale while offering a classic example of a frontier mining town.
Ducking out of the blazing sun into a cool gloomy tavern which is clearly a local hangout, I discovered three coffee-drinking gals shooting the breeze and clearly not open for business. Unfazed and welcoming, they tell me the owner is off in Reno, they're keeping the doors open and all were born in Austin.
"I left, went to Vegas, didn't like it and came home," one tells me.
The other two have never left.
"Why do you like it here?" I ask.
The question obviously mystifies and yet amuses them. Contemplating momentarily they exchange grins and (apparently) subliminal signals. With a 'go ahead' nod from the other two, one explains: "Everyone knows each other here. It feels like you're in your own little world."
I couldn't have said it better myself.
Over in the Turquoise and Silver Shop are plenty of good deals, local jewelry worth the drive... and Alice (in Wonderland, she says). Alice is worth the drive, too. She has nothing but time, so if you're in a rush, keep on truckin'. This owner is absent, too. From what I could gather he's off prospecting for semi precious stones in the surrounding hills – or, with luck, hit the Mother Lode.
In the meantime he has a treasure in Alice, who has enough folklore to entertain you for hours (or at least until you load up on more turquoise and silver). "I have lots in my head," she informs me matter-of-factly. "I need to get it out."
After a quick look at St. Augustine's Catholic Church (currently being restored as a cultural center for Central Nevada), and the International Hotel (reputed to be Nevada's oldest hotel), I head for nearby Grimes Point.
Over 8,000 years ago, Native Americans left their marks at Grimes Point in the form of petroglyphs, or rock art. The self-guided interpretive trail here makes its own rather haunting impact. Wandering among the etched stones overlooking ancient Lake Lahontan, I was conscious of the warm sun, a gentle breeze, and a tranquil silence. Call it imagination, Karma, or soul medicine, but I left with a hint of having connected with the spirits.
Returning to the Pony Express route, a three-hour drive landed us at the California Trail Interpretive Centre near Elko.
I was surprised to learn that the fabled Pony Express made an indelible mark in history during only 18 months. Beginning on April 3, 1860 and ending in October 1861, riders raced in stages over mountains, deserts and plains crossing over 1,800 miles of wilderness from Sacramento, California to St. Joseph, Missouri. They covered the territory in 10 days – half the time of the stagecoach.
Throughout North American history, I am always conscious of courage, but particularly of pioneering women. Space here doesn't allow for more than to recommend visiting the California Trail Centre while in the area. It's new, it's free, and it is worth the time, if history intrigues you.
If you go, you might to do the following research:
*Ursula Maxwell-Lewis is an active member of the Society of American Travel Writers. Travel is in her DNA