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Open Diff: What was your favorite road trip?

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Sunset on Highway 50. Photos courtesy Travel Nevada, unless otherwise noted.

Some old friends drove up for a visit last weekend, and though our Vermont home is a mere three hours from theirs in New Jersey, we don’t see them as often as we’d like. My friend and his wife, it seems, both lack the gene that makes one yearn for a combination of open road, semi-reliable automobile, extra-large travel mug and paper maps (these days, just as a back up to the smart phone or GPS).

Their children, including a college-age son and his older sister, both have the road trip gene. She was unable to join us, thanks to a prior commitment with friends a few states away, but he drove over from the Boston area to spend the weekend with us. It didn’t take long for the conversation to turn to road trips, since he’d driven from New Jersey to Chicago over Christmas break just to visit a friend and, I suppose, eat some deep-dish pizza and hang out in the kind of dingy blues bars his parents are best not knowing about.

At that age, one needs only an appetite for regional food and enough pocket money to pay for gas to justify such a trip, but things get more complicated as we age. Road trips may still be frequent, especially if friends and relatives live in nearby states, but epic road trips, the kind you remember with a grin in the early morning hours between sleep and the first cup of coffee, become fewer and further between.

In college, in the days when renting a car was still both easy and affordable, a girlfriend and I spent a spring break visiting San Francisco, bookended by the trip from Colorado and back again. Eschewing interstates, we opted to drive Highway 6 across Utah, which joined with Highway 50 in the western part of the state. Today, Highway 50 in Nevada is actively marketed as the “Loneliest Road in America,” but back then it was just a thin line on a map, the shortest distance between Ely, Nevada and Reno, Nevada.

Nevada map

Nevada map image courtesy Nevada DOT.

We hit western Utah as the sun began to fall below the horizon, and I remember the sandstone mesas painted in a surrealistic orange glow. Night falls quickly in the desert, and once the sun is gone the darkness is all-encompassing. Distance is an abstract concept in the desert at night, and those lights on the horizon, the ones that appear to be descending from the sky, are just another automobile still miles away. In the days before satellite radio, any music was self-provided, though I do recall tuning in to an AM station out of St. Louis. There’s science behind this, radio waves bouncing off the troposphere (or is it the ionosphere), but at night the desert plays tricks with the mind.

One needs an appreciation for solitude to enjoy such a trip, because distractions are few and far between. Hours passed without us seeing another car on the road, and once, a distant speck on the horizon morphed into a herd of cows stretched across the road, blocking our progress westward. Thankfully, having a roommate from Montana teaches one how to cope with such things, and the disruption was temporary. Route 50 climbs numerous passes along the way, and the ghost towns and derelict buildings on the route are an eerie reminder that few things, aside from the desert itself, are truly permanent in this harsh environment.

Highway 50

The sign says it all.

The beauty of the desert is what stands out about this particular road trip, although I do recall a blizzard chasing us over the Sierra Nevadas, and most of the way into Colorado, on the return leg. I swore to myself that one day I’d repeat the crossing, preferably as part of the environment on two wheels instead of comfortably isolated from it on four. Three-plus decades later, it hasn’t happened, but one day, “if the accident will” to quote Vonnegut, I’ll re-cross Nevada on Highway 50.

So, do you have the road trip gene? What road trip, including starting point, ending point and route, stands out in your mind? What routes are still on your “must drive” bucket list?