MAD DOG: Fear of Loafing Outside of Las Vegas

If you look at a map you might get the impression that outside of Las Vegas and Reno, Nevada is one huge wasteland. Well, it is. When you compare it to say, San Francisco, where finding a vacant apartment is cause for sacrificing a case of Rice-a-Roni to the Gods of house hunting, driving through a state where the people to desert ratio is 1 part per billion starts to look like there's a lot of wasted space.Certainly Nevada has a lot going for it, like the slot machines which are in every convenience store, gas station, beauty parlor, and mortuary. (Remember the state motto: "You can never be too poor or too dead to play the slots.") And of course there are the euphemistically named ranches -- like the Mustang Ranch, the Bunny Ranch, and the We'll Do Anything For Money Ranch -- which offer up sex like another order of chicken fried steak in gravy, the state dish. But that's pretty much it.Before all of the 20,000 legal Nevada residents -- and the 2 billion head of cattle -- get their cowboy hats in an uproar, let's not forget who it is that advertises Highway 50 as "The Loneliest Road in America." No, it isn't Maytag, it's the Nevada Department of Tourism. And it is lonely. At times it goes a good 90 miles between towns, and even then we're stretching the definition of the word town farther than last week's laundry money at a nickel video poker machine. Highway 50 is an east-west road that pretty much parallels the original Pony Express route. The Pony Express, you might remember, was the precursor to our Postal Service, except they had a good excuse for the mail being late and they didn't carry guns to work nearly as often as mail carriers do now.Actually, there are a lot of unique things to see along this road. For one, there's the Nugget casino in Fallon, which may be the only casino this side of Manila with a Filipino restaurant. And a good one, at that.Fallon is also the home of the Naval Fighters Weapons School, or TOPGUN, where young fliers train hard and learn to imitate Tom Cruise. Hopefully the one from Top Gun, not Cocktail. The good thing about having them there is you get your own private air show as you're leaving town, which keeps you occupied for the 20-mile drive to Sand Mountain, the karaoke of natural wonders. Sand Mountain is a big dune that's advertised as one of the few "singing mountains" in the country. This is because the shifting sands and wind can cause it to audibly moan, much like the audience at a Brendan Frasier movie. It really is amazing! While I was there the dune was singing a very credible version of the Flight of the Bumblebees, though that might have been the barrage of dune buggies zipping up and down it that I was hearing. (Remember the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's motto: "Never let a natural wonder get in the way of wasting fossil fuel.")One thing you have plenty of while driving down the Loneliest Road in America is time to think. Time to think about who put the fencing up along every road in America when there's nothing living or breathing within a hundred miles. Time to ponder why the U.S. Navy Centroid Facility is sitting in the middle of the desert, 600 miles from the nearest ocean, not to mention what a Centroid could possibly be. And time to think about the self-proclaimed "World's Largest Shoe Tree" which sits in the middle of absolutely nowhere and has hundreds of pairs of shoes tied at the laces and flung over its branches. Or for that matter, why they haven't gotten an endorsement so they can put up billboards along the side of the road screaming: 50 Miles to Nike's Air Jordan Shoe Tree!There's no question that Nevada is The West. Everyone has a pickup truck. The metal grates you run over in the road are designed to keep the cattle from crossing it, not to wake you up before a toll booth. And then there are the signs along the road that say "Report Poachers" -- and you know they weren't put there by the Fried Egg Council of America.The tumbleweeds are a tip off, too. And there are plenty of them. Tumbleweeds are the homeless of the plant world. They wander around, amble across the street, and have no roots. On the other hand, tumbleweeds don't accost you for money, hold up signs that say "Will tumble for food", or sleep in doorways, but that's only because there aren't many doorways along this road.One thing you do have plenty of time to do on Highway 50 is listen to the radio. Well, when you can. The mountains have a way of interfering with radio reception, which brings up an interesting Rule of the Road: If you're in a remote part of the country and can only get one radio station, it will always be broadcasting Rush Limbaugh.Finally, don't let it be said that Nevadans don't have a sense of humor. Outside of Austin (not related to Texas, Minnesota, or Jane) is an expanse of unbroken land as far as the eye can see. Not a road, house, building, or anything to be found. Yet sitting on the side of the road is a real estate sign advertising -- get this! -- a 10-acre parcel of land. They better watch it. If they keep selling off land like this, the Loneliest Road in America may not be so lonely much longer.

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