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When we first heard about driving the Loneliest Road in America—otherwise known as U.S. Highway 50—that crosses the barren hinterlands of central Nevada, we were intrigued. In a 1986 article for Life Magazine, the American Automobile Association had this to day about it:

“There are no points of interest. We don’t recommend it. We warn all motorists not to drive there unless they’re confident of their survival skills.”

Yikes! They make the road sound like something from a Hank Williams song. Well, once we heard that, we just had to see for ourselves if their description was true . . . or perhaps prove it wrong.

Nevada state tourism has embraced the once-derogatory moniker of "The Loneliest Road" with special road signs

Historic road through mountain passes

Decades before the Interstate Highway System was built,  two-lane U.S. 50 was the primary route across Nevada, linking its Utah and California borders. It’s also an historic road: it was once part of the Lincoln Highway—America’s first transcontinental route—that was proposed in 1913 to connect New York and San Francisco. Fifty years earlier the Pony Express also crisscrossed this path.

Crossing from Utah into Nevada on US Route 50 at a desolate gas station.

We started out at the Utah/Nevada border, at what may well be the “Loneliest Gas Station in America,” and, like all good pioneers, headed west. We were tracing the path of the early settlers who passed in Conestoga wagons without the benefit of power steering, GPS or extra horsepower under the hood. Tumbleweeds and the remnants of scattered vegetation provided some color as we set off into the Great Basin Desert.

Unexpectedly we started climbing over a 7,000-foot elevation mountain pass in what became a pattern on this roller coaster drive. Stone markers indicating a portion of the historic Lincoln Highway that shares the Loneliest Road in Nevada were installed by the Boy Scouts in 1928 to aid motorists and commemorate America's first transcontinental route.Upon reaching the peak the straight, two-lane road swooped down into a vast prairie before disappearing into the next mountain range 30 miles down the road. In total the drive undulates through seven high desert valleys, providing an array of earth tones and sage greens that form a soft contrast to the vivid blue Nevada sky dotted with stark white cumulus clouds.

The Lincoln Highway joins Highway 50 in the former railroad hub of Ely, 65 miles west of the Utah state line. You can still see remnants of that historic route in the form of concrete signposts marked with an “L”; the Boy Scouts of America placed them there in 1928 to guide motorists while commemorating the road’s namesake, Abraham Lincoln. However, with the vast desert stretching to the horizon on either side of the road, it would take one very confused driver to get lost here.

Old trains, vintage opera houses and mid-century neon

Ely hosts one of the biggest attractions along Highway 50: the Nevada Northern Railroad Museum. The 56-acre historic train yard and depot have been restored to how they looked in 1907, when local copper mines filled the burgeoning need for telephone and electrical lines in America. Visitors can even ride on a train powered by a circa 1910 Baldwin steam locomotive that was built in Philadelphia.

Two "campers" who spend their vacation tinkering with trains at the Nevada Railroad Museum in Ely, Nevada along the state's Loneliest Road

An elderly gentleman clad in striped denim overalls, sporting a glorious white beard and hoisting a giant monkey wrench mentioned he was one of the campers at the museum. Somewhat confused, we found out the museum offers its own version of a “fantasy camp”: a weeklong session where adult train geeks can tinker on actual equipment.

The Hotel Nevada, along Nevada's Loneliest Road in the town of Ely, remains little changed from 70 years ago.

77 miles farther west, the silver-and-lead mining town of Eureka bills itself as the “Friendliest Town on the Loneliest Road.” In the 1880s, when the smelters were cranking out at full speed, it was named “The Pittsburgh of the West.” With an ornate circa 1879 opera house and museum in the former offices of one of Nevada’s oldest newspapers, The Eureka Sentinel, which was founded in 1870 during the mining boom, Eureka could easily serve as a Western movie set.

The Victorian-era buildings that line the main street of Eureka, Nevada are a well-preserved testament to the once-bustling commerce along the Loneliest Road

Ghost towns and ancient stones

Lovers of ghost towns—and all things abandoned—will love this drive. All along the Loneliest Road, just over the hill to the north or south intrepid souls will find the vestiges of life once lived with gusto. Two miles outside of Eureka, the former mining hamlet of Ruby Hill lies abandoned to the elements. Some of the corrugated tin-roofed buildings scattered along a small gully still house the furniture of prior residents–a sobering reminder of why these are called ghost towns. Among the silvery juniper bushes and piñon trees, cactus flowers blooming in bright fuchsia provide vivid splashes of color.

The abandoned ghost town of Ruby Hill lies just off the Loneliest Road outside of Eureka, Nevada

Midway across the state, Route 50 shakes hands a few times with the path of the old Pony Express. A handful of crumbling stations are still hunched over by the roadside. This area is desolate even now, imagine the plight of the lonely mail rider galloping through during the service’s brief life?

On the eastern outskirts of Fallon, the desert yields an archaeological surprise close to the road. At Grimes Point, a quarter-mile walking trail reveals rust-colored basalt boulders marked by geometric petroglyphs of circles and wavy lines, some of which were struck almost 3,000 years ago by indigenous peoples. Even more remarkable considering the parched desert environs, going back 12 millennia this spot was 400 feet below the surface of a lake.

Petroglyphs from 3,000 years ago offer an intriguing diversion at Grimes Point, along Nevada's Loneliest Road

F-18s and freedom ringing

The town of Fallon is perched at the western terminus of the “lonely” portion of highway that Life magazine referred to in 1986. Known as the oasis of Nevada (which admittedly isn’t saying much), Fallon boasts a rare patch of green in the state and is famous for its luscious cantaloupes and as the home of Fallon Naval Air Station, where the pilots made famous in the movie Top Gun now train; it’s not unusual to see (or rather hear) a pair of F-18 Hornets roaring overhead.

Sand Mountain, a 600-foot tall sand dune, sits alongside the Loneliest Road, just east of Fallon, Nevada.

Nearing the California state line, motorists will note an incongruous sight in the capital of Carson City. In front of the Nevada State Museum there’s a full-sized replica of the Liberty Bell. In 1950 one was given to each state as part of a U.S. Savings Bond drive. But why does the bell look so much different than the original that is displayed in Philadelphia? This one lacks the famous crack.

A replica of the Liberty Bell--from a 1950s US Savings Bond drive, occupies pried of place in Carson City, Nevada along the Loneliest Road

At this point, we were ready to let freedom ring ourselves. We had driven the length of The Loneliest Road and lived to tell the tale. Though there were indeed some desolate stretches, there’s a particular beauty in the landscape along with haunting sights of a bygone era. It’s well worth the journey.

Pick up a "passport" to chart your progress along Nevada's Loneliest RoadNote: Rather than grouse at the slur on their character, the towns that form the bone-dry vertebrae along the spine of the Loneliest Road chose to make the best of it. They created a passport-like “Official Highway 50 Survival Guide” that highlights points of interest on the route. Intrepid travelers who have it stamped at stations along the way qualify for an “I Survived Highway 50” certificate and souvenir upon completion. Now what could be better than that?

Like it? Share it . . .Pin it!US Route 50 across Nevada--the so-called "Loneliest Road in America"--offers a glimpse into the past, along with stunning scenery

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The expression that there are two sides to every story is never truer than at the Battle of Little Bighorn, the site of Custer’s famous Last Stand. Even the site has had two names; it was originally named after the vanquished George Armstrong Custer. In 1991, recognizing modern sensibilities, President George H. W. Bush signed into law the name change to its current one: Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. Custer’s rash decisions that day cost the lives of all 209 men (including two of his brothers and a nephew) under his immediate command. It didn’t really make sense for him to be honored for his actions.

I’m surprised that such an overwhelming defeat hadn’t happened to Custer sooner. He had been a risk taking soldier earlier in his career in both the Civil War and the Indian Wars. His prior actions in battle led to a few close calls. His continued success despite long odds led to a sense of hubris and destiny on his part.

He also had political aspirations and hoped that further success on the battlefield would be a springboard to a successful candidacy. In typical audacious Custer fashion, he had designs on being president someday. His father was almost a century ahead of Joe Kennedy in pushing for one of his boys to occupy the White House.

Battle of Little Bighorn

Last Stand Hill

I spent two days touring the battlefield. Dominating the area is Last Stand Hill. The headstones of Custer’s men are scattered about like a boxer’s broken teeth and enclosed by a Victorian wrought iron fence. The rest of the battlefield looks much as it would have looked on June 25th, 1876; basically a vast windswept prairie. However the devil is in the details. The tours give you the opportunity to listen to the story of the battle from the vantage point of both the winners and the losers.

On the first day I attended a talk by a Park Ranger about the battle. He gave such a vivid presentation that with the presence of a few war whoops and rifle shots you would have thought you were there during the fight. He spoke of how the Indians had been repeatedly pushed off their lands as American expansion led increasingly further west. How they had finally settled in the Black Hills area of eastern Wyoming. Here they were granted a permanent reservation by the government in 1868.

Unfortunately for the natives, gold was discovered in the Black Hills in 1874. This was all fine and dandy except that the location of the gold strike was also in the middle of the newly formed reservation. Initially the army tried to keep out the hordes of gold fevered settlers but it was just too much. The Indians left their reservation and started raiding the interlopers. In 1876 the Indian Wars resumed in full.

I was at Little Bighorn at the start of the annual motorcycle rally in nearby Sturgis, South Dakota so there were many bikers at the ranger talk. Hearing this tale of constant betrayal by the American government, one biker turned to another and said, “You can only kick a dog so many times before it jumps up and bites you.”

Not to compare the Indians to dogs of course, but to point out the obvious. You bully someone enough and they come back to bite. The evidence of those teeth marks lies all around the battlefield in the form of stone monuments to fallen soldiers.

The next day I returned for a different tour. Native American guides who are students at nearby Little Big Horn College take visitors on a one hour tour of the battlefield. After boarding the van our guide Brian said, “There are many versions of what happened here that day. Today you are going to hear my version.” As the van drove slowly through the battlefield Brian used an arrow (minus the sharp tip) to point out various sites along the way.

This tour was told more from the Indian’s point-of-view. Brian recounted from the oral legend of Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho veterans of the battle. Things I learned the day before from the Park Ranger were placed in a different context.

Custer headstone Little BighornThe Park Ranger recounted how the bodies of Custer and his men were mutilated, Custer having an arrow shoved into his private parts. From my readings I knew that this was a delicate way of saying that he had an arrow thrust into his penis.

He also had two knitting needles pushed into his ears. Legend has it that this was done by Indian women because Custer had refused to listen. Pretty gruesome stuff. Without any background it further paints the warriors as savages; lending further credence to the belief that they were a foe who deserved their eventual fate at the hands of the US government.

During the tour the next day Brian addressed this issue and pointed out why the soldiers had been mutilated. The Indians believed that the afterlife would be pretty similar to one’s life on earth. Therefore they needed their body to continue their same lifestyle. They cut off the soldier’s trigger fingers so they would not be able to fire a gun and hunt in the afterlife. The mutilation of his penis was so Custer would be even further hobbled and not be able to create offspring. Okay, it’s still gruesome but at least now I understand it in context.

As famous as the legend of the battle has become to American school children, the main part of it was over in about 45 minutes. Even when it ended, the rest of the American army that was dug in on a nearby hill didn’t know of Custer’s fate until the next day, after the smoke had cleared.

As heartbreaking as the sight of Last Stand Hill is, even more so is the trail leading down to the Deep Ravine. Here 28 soldiers of Company E broke away from the group on the hill. A Lakota Sioux named Respects Nothing stated “The soldiers at Custer Hill were all killed before those down along the ravine.”

The soldiers made a mad dash for the perceived safety of a ravine by the Little Bighorn River. It was a desperate move made by desperate men. At this point in the battle their fate was already sealed.

Another Indian veteran stated that it was like a buffalo hunt as the soldiers frantically ran down the hill, only to be cut down by the Indians circling them on horseback. There was to be no escaping the ferocious onslaught. I think they probably knew that but gave one last valiant effort to save their lives.

Little Bighorn Deep ravine trail

Looking up at Last Stand Hill from Deep Ravine Trail

Little Bighorn is one of the few battlefield sites in the world where the headstones are placed where the soldiers bodies were found, not lined up in neat rows. At the top of Last Stand Hill the soldiers’ headstones are clustered relatively close together. On the Deep Ravine Trail there was no such modest comfort of dying among your comrades in arms. On the trail the headstones are scattered in ones and twos along a half mile stretch; a literal monument to the killing frenzy leading to the deaths of the soldiers of Company E.

Even when touring such bloody battlefields as Normandy, Verdun and Gettysburg, where men died by the thousands, I haven’t been as touched as I was while walking along the Deep Ravine Trail. As I reached the bottom of the trail I saw a grown man in tears as he looked out over the ravine. I was starting to puddle up myself. He gave me a knowing nod and moved on.

While the tribes won the battle, they realized that in the long run they would lose the war.  A year later one of the battle’s heroes, Crazy Horse, was dead; the night he turned himself in to military custody he was killed by an army guard.

Update June, 2017: Since our visit to North Korea in 2011, the recent death of American tourist Otto Warmbier, who was detained while visiting the country, is a tragic situation that is inexcusable. Accordingly, despite our feelings that tourism in North Korea has positive benefits by exposing the North Korean people to visitors from the outside world, we can no longer recommend that Americans visit the country. It is too easy for the DPRK to make them pawns for continuing tensions between the two countries.

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Despite the fact that ancient history in North Korea goes back more than 4,000 years, the country’s rich culture is often masked by current events. It seems that we can’t go more than a few weeks without news of saber rattling from the current regime about missiles, nukes or some other threat.

During our visit to North Korea, we were mostly shown sights related to the iconography of the modern era: monuments and museums propping up the cult of personality related to the dynasty started by Kim Il Sung, passed on to his son Kim Jong Il, and now perpetuated by Kim Jong Un. But that leadership has been in place for only 75 years, the blink of an eye in the Korean peninsula’s long history. 

A recent monument to Kim Il Sung--definitely NOT part of the ancient history of North KoreaStone soldiers guarding a 100-year old tomb-part of the ancient history in North KoreaMonuments from two very different dynasties in Korea’s history. 

The day was hot and sticky as we trudged up the steep hill on Tongil Street to gaze upon yet another massive, gilded statue of the country’s founder, Kim Il Sung. We were in the industrial city of Kaesong, fresh off a visit to the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas, which is only three miles south. The city is laid out in typical DPRK fashion with wide boulevards leading to the city’s high point where we found the gold monument to the nation’s founder. But the Korean peninsula also holds fascinating treasures hearkening back to a different time.

From 918 to 1392, Kaesong was the capital of Korea (which of course was united back then) and the home of the Koryo Dynasty, the source of the name Korea. We left modern-day Kaesong in a bus to visit a rural area that held royal tombs from that era. Along the way we passed verdant rice paddies with farmers harvesting their crops while soldiers on patrol, a common sight near the DMZ, strode nearby.

Hyonjongrung royal tombs from the 14th century. A bit of ancient history in North Korea

After the bus climbed a narrow hillside path, we approached the Hyonjongrung royal tombs, the 14th-century burial site for King Kongmin and Queen Noguk.  The tombs are typical of burial architecture of the era, two large grass-covered mounds set atop the hill with a commanding view over the valley below.

We hiked up several flights of steps to the tombs, passing stone statues of men wearing robes and traditional hats. They are the king’s advisors, placed there to provide eternal guidance to the deceased royals. Seven-ton stone slabs mark the entranceway to each tomb. Gray stone statues of tigers and lambs, representing strength and compassion, guard the tombs in perpetuity.

A soldier guards Hyonjongrung royal tombs-a rare bit of ancient history in North KoreaGuarding the Hyonjongrung royal tombs-a rare bit of ancient history in North KoreaOur guide, Mrs. Lee, was proud of her country’s long history, but in a country like North Korea, current events usually cast a long shadow over the past. “These tombs represent a time when Korea was one country. But as you can see, it is now divided. One wonders whose fault that is?” Mrs. Lee intoned, giving the official government line that the United States and its South Korean “lackeys” are preventing the reunification of the two Koreas.

Despite the message, it was refreshing to view a site in North Korea that truly was historic, not something newer built after the rise of Kim Il Sung. Similar tombs on the South Korean side of the DMZ have been recognized by UNSESCO as World Heritage sites.  The North Korean sites are unblemished by mass tourism and can be seen in their pristine ancient setting.

Temple in the museum in Kaesong-a bit of ancient history in North Korea

Unfortunately, the interiors of the tombs were plundered by Japanese troops during their early 20th-century occupation of Korea. However, some relics were saved and are now preserved at the Koryo Museum back in Kaesong. Housed in a former Confucian Academy that trained the children of nobility, it displays relics of the Koryo Dynasty that include several royal tombs and statues. The museum, flanked by a pair of 500-year-old gingko trees, is a revered link to the past set in a green oasis slightly removed from the city.

At a wedding in Kaesong, where the bride's costume reflects ancient history in North KoreaOutside one of the temples we watched a wedding couple as they posed for their official photos, the bride resplendent in a traditional Korean choson ot dress in a scarlet red fabric, while the groom wore a Western gray suit and the slightly dazed expression exhibited by grooms everywhere on their wedding day.

As we saw at Kaesong, the Korean peninsula has been ruled by centuries-long dynasties. We drove out of town and passed once more under the shadow of the statue of Kim Il Sung. One wonders if that icon will still be standing and venerated centuries from now.

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Despite all the hype of the current regime, it's still possible to find ancient history in North Korea

We’re global nomads who’ve been traveling the world full-time since 2011 seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive monthly updates and valuable travel tips subscribe here.

Visiting the Nixon and Reagan libraries

When Ronald Reagan finished his second term he rode off to his ranch in California, atop a wave of popularity that helped his vice president get elected to succeed him. Our last image of Richard Nixon was quite different. Read more

jimmy carter preaching churchThe piercing blue eyes which compelled Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat to sign the Camp David Accords were only five feet away from me and staring keenly into mine. Their owner had just asked me where I was from and, for a moment, I was speechless answering this simple request. Such is life when meeting former president Jimmy Carter. At 88-years-old he’s a bit more slight than I remember but still boasts the commanding presence of a world leader and Annapolis graduate.

Despite once being the most powerful person in the world, he and First Lady Rosalynn are down-to-earth globetrotters building homes for Habitat for Humanity, monitoring elections and fighting disease in developing nations through the Carter Center and winning the Nobel Peace Prize. Yet he still keeps a regular appointment teaching Bible studies at the Marantha Baptist Church in his boyhood home of Plains, Georgia.

Jimmy Carter teaches Sunday school prior to the main service. Afterwards, under the vigilant watch of a Secret Service detail, he and Rosalynn pose for photos with churchgoers basking in the glow of history. No tickets are required for this unique opportunity to witness and hear the thoughts of an American president up close.

jimmy carter rocky statue

The Carters were kind enough to pose with the Rocky statue after the service.

While the lesson is a highlight of a trip to Plains, it is not the only activity. The town now hosts the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site which encompasses the turn-of-the-last-century Main Street, Carter’s boyhood home and farm, the model railroad-sized wooden train depot he used as his campaign headquarters for both presidential runs, and a museum dedicated to his life in the old Plains High School which he, Rosalynn and their three sons attended.

For the full Plains experience it’s best to stay right on Main Street at the Plains Historic Inn. The seven rooms are each decorated to match a decade of Carter’s life; from the room filled with furnishings from the 1920s to mark the decade of his birth to the 1980s room marking his return to Plains. Mrs. Carter helped select the antiques for each room while her occasional carpenter husband pitched in building walls and refinishing the wooden stairs.

Historic Plains Inn Larissa (625x497)

With its 7-inch black-and-white screen nestled in a large slab of blonde-wood furniture, it wouldn’t have been surprising if the authentic TV in the 1950s room blared an episode of I Love Lucy out of the tweed-covered speaker. For those with higher aspirations, the 1970s room with its formal furniture and vibe could have been cribbed right from the private quarters of the White House.

“Miss Jan” the innkeeper is a friend of the Carters. She revealed, “My husband’s known him his whole life.” Just about everyone in this close-knit farming town of 685 people claims such a connection.

plains georgia main street

Only a block long, the well-preserved Main Street resembles a movie set. Most of the businesses, including a well-stocked antiques mall, political memorabilia shop and snack bar, cater to tourists. Since Carter was the country’s most famous peanut farmer before his 1976 victory, the shops continue with that nutty flavor.

Try Plain Peanuts at 128 Main Street for all things peanut including homemade peanut ice cream, peanut fudge and boiled peanuts, a Southern delicacy that you must try at least once; but make sure they’re served warm. You can’t miss the shop since it’s located in the former Carter peanut warehouse that is now emblazoned with the famous 10-foot-high red-white-and-blue striped sign that proudly proclaims Plains, Georgia as the home of “Our 39th President.”

jimmy carter home in plains georgia

Carter’s boyhood home and farm is a 2.5 mile drive out of town. It’s been restored by the National Park Service to its appearance when the future president lived there. A park ranger at the entrance was boiling up some peanuts in a crusty iron pot suspended over burning wood to prepare boiled peanuts for visitors. We each accepted a bag and sat on old wooden rockers in the screened-in front porch to munch on our snack.

The view from the porch is unchanged since the 1920s so this brief respite from the heat felt like a ride in a time capsule to a simpler era. The bright orange clay that nourishes the peanuts blends land and sky at sunset into a fiery tableau. Mr. Carter lives just up the road and occasionally rides his bike over to the sight, surprising visitors whom he regales with stories of his upbringing, while underscoring the unique opportunity to visit a National Park devoted to a living president who still resides in the area.

jimy carter national historical site

Back at the church I finally managed to blurt out “Pennsylvania” in response to Mr. Carter’s request for my home state as he continued to work the room. Satisfied that he knew where everyone in attendance was from, Mr. Carter began his lesson on the day’s theme, which was discovering how to pray. He interspersed passages from the Bible with side trips visiting topics ranging from the Iranian hostage crisis to the current kerfuffle about the NSA monitoring the phone calls of ordinary Americans. Somehow he managed to seamlessly weave a theology lesson with his thoughts about world events and political history.

giant peanut plains jimmy carter smileMr. Carter also tied in stories from his youth recalling, “the two or three sweethearts I had, well, you don’t need to hear about that. That was before I met the love of my life, Rosalynn” he chuckled, while flashing his famous toothy grin. It is clear that faith has always been very important to Jimmy Carter. So important that a man with one of the busiest schedules on Earth still takes time to teach Sunday school at his local church. Just make sure you remember where you’re from when he asks you.

Visitor Information 

President Carter’s speaking schedule is available on the Marantha Baptist Church web site.

If you’d like to stay in town when President Carter is speaking, book a room at least a month in advance at the Plains Historic Inn & Antiques: http://www.plainsinn.net/ Other options for lodging are in nearby Americus.


28581550060_131210d7e7_mLarissa and Michael are your typical middle-aged couple from Philadelphia who’ve been traveling the world full-time since 2011, seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive our free quarterly newsletter with updates and valuable travel tips subscribe here.

In February, 1942 President Franklin Roosevelt signed an Executive Order placing all people of Japanese ancestry into relocation centers. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor had occurred only two months before; the two events were related. Read more