Jan 17, 2010 | Eureka, NV
Jan 17, 2010

Today I drove what is officially called "The Loneliest Road in America."

Originally constructed to connect old mining towns, Highway 50 twists across desolate northern Nevada, flowing up and down mountains, shooting across valleys, cutting through high desert elk pastures, and finally spilling out into western Utah, all of the time drifting lazily from one Christian radio station to the next.

As advertised, the road is indeed pretty lonely, at least in the sense of there being very few cars. But the loneliness of this loneliest road doesn't begin to approach the kind of loneliness that cities can stir.

The open road invigorates, and makes you feel free and strong and loose, because when you and your landscape are constantly changing, there is no static self to get lonely, nor any neighbors to covet. The loneliness you feel on the road is different from the loneliness you feel in a city. City loneliness is about the instant and terrible need to fill up the void as soon as possible, with anyone or anything that can do the job (and cities are happy to offer many suggestions). Road loneliness is more of a slow ache that comes and goes, like craving chocolate cake or coconut, or thinking about trimming your toe nails.

Road loneliness often means trying to imagine who might be able to complement and complete you. You cycle through all of the people you have known and loved and left, and you conduct the strange mental experiment of trying to envision each of them with you today in your life, replacing your loneliness, which by now has become your trusted costar. It is an empathetic situational carousel, replaying the same experiences again and again with an ever-changing but always familiar cast of understudies for the one supporting role. This retroactive auditioning process rarely leads to clarity (only new experiences can do that), and usually produces regret and confusion, which only fuel the loneliness even further. At this point it is good to stop driving, get some gas, and squeegee your windshield, which is a good way to refresh your perspective.

Luckily there is the International Drinking Club, started by a Serbian man named Victor and his capable and portly wife, who together run the oldest hotel in Nevada, in the small mining town of Austin up at 6,600 feet. Their walls are plastered with notes and dollar bills from lonely travelers who sought and received comfort there at the bar. Victor has the slow and steely cadence of someone who has learned how to deal with loneliness, and to shepherd those who haven't. Unfortunately for him and for us, Victor is very old and there are many sheep.

When you are driving this or any road for long distances, you become familiar with the other cars that are traveling your way. The less congested the road, the more kinship you feel for the other drivers. If there are sufficiently few, you might even start waving to them. Sometimes, if there is just one other car for several hundred miles, and if the driver is young and pretty and female and by herself, you might start to include her in your auditioning process, even though her take would be more hypothetical than historical, which in some way gives her an advantage because at least there would be a fresh start.

You might even think of speeding past her, and then braking sideways on the road so she would have to stop to avoid a crash, there on the high desert plateau with the elk silhouettes all around, and you would get out of your cars and the only light would be the light of the headlights which have made you both silhouettes like the elk, and your shadows are long and they spill out in front of you onto the asphalt until they meet each other, and your breath comes up in clouds at regular intervals because you are breathing heavy but not talking, because what could you possibly say at a moment like this except, "Congratulations, you got the role."