Monday, February 7, 2011

Single Digit Highways

722 sign
Nevada S.R. 722 sign near its western junction with Highway 50.

As I mentioned in Why Highway 8A?, single digit highways in Nevada became a thing of the past during the 1976 Nevada highway renumbering program:
"when all ... single digit state highway numbers were replaced by harder to remember three digit numbers. Hence, my stretch of Highway 8A is now S.R. 376. The Austin to Battle Mountains segment of Highway 8A is now S.R. 305."
Those of us who were around in those days often still use the old highway numbers of single digits when giving directions. We tend to remember those numbers and do not always know the new three-digit numbers that came along just about the same time the state had another bright idea: get rid of license plates designating county of origin.

As it turns out, even Nevada State Route 2 — "old" Highway 50, the alternate route to Austin that takes off from “new” Highway 50 just east of Middlegate gap and then squeezes through Eastgate and switchbacks over the Desatoya Mountains — is now designated by an unmemorable three-digit number, 722. It takes almost as long to remember Route 2’s new three-digit number as it takes to get to Austin on Route 2.
junction 50 + 722
Junction of 722 and 50 looking eastward, with Eastgate barely discernible and the Desatoya Mountains in the background.

The distances to Austin on Highway 50 and Route 2 are similar, but the sharp switchbacks over the Desatoyas and the back-then invariable condition of complete disrepair made the drive take a little longer. (During the 1970s and 1980s, the state was always just on the verge of letting Route 2 — excuse me, Highway 722 — go back to dirt by allowing the asphalt to erode. Conditions are now generally improved, but don't count on crossing in winter.) That longer time to Austin, however, was well worth it then, and is still worth it today: it’s the scenic route, after all. Please take it at least once.

Those single-digit, Route 2 days were back before the Fernley-to-Ely portion of Highway 50 was dubbed “The Loneliest Road” by some passing-through reporter working for Life Magazine. The epithet came out in Life’s July 1986 issue.
NOTE: Life Magazine claimed the 287-mile stretch of Highway 50 from "Ely to Fernley" as The Loneliest Road, although Highway 50 doesn't go through Fernley; only Alt 50 goes through Fernley. Highway 50 takes off east of Fallon about half way to Fernley, and heads straight for Silver Springs, Dayton, and Carson City.
The label of "loneliest" was at first rejected, even jeered at, by those who lived and worked along the second-most heavily traveled east-west road in Nevada. (There are exactly three east-west roads that span the entire width of Nevada: I-80, Highway 50, and Route 6. Parts of two or three others combine to make it eastward from Tonopah to the stateline near Panaca, and I'm not counting that partial, multi-road crossing, nor am I counting I-15, a mostly north-south route that makes a short northeasterly cut through Nevada's southern tip.) Later, after its initial rejection, "Loneliest Road" was picked up and turned into a tourist attraction, thereby creating more traffic and making the road even less lonely.

I never understood the “loneliest” appellation. It wasn't lonely to drive across Nevada on Highway 50, or on Route 2 aka old Highway 50: it was open, free, beautiful, and at times exhilarating. In the summer, when all the geologists and prospectors were out in the field, the small mountain town of Austin was crowded. Motel rooms were booked in advance, although an unsuspecting traveler might be able to find an empty room on a weekend, when some of the working crowd had left town. And I swear, every single time I drove through Austin on this “loneliest” road, I ran into at least one person I knew, someone not from Austin — and this phenomenon continued well into the 1990s.

In these days of increasing complexity, there are only two single-digit routes left in Nevada. One is a disconnected section of Highway 8A that is still left in the northern part of Washoe County in northwest Nevada. Although the most recent state highway map no longer shows that route number, Nevada 8A signs were uploaded to Flickr in 2007.

The only road that has maintained its single-digit integrity — its integer — is Route 6. That’s because Route 6 is a U.S. Highway, not a Nevada Highway.
NOTE: There are still some Nevada highways that have their original double-digit designations. I won’t be going into the double digit routes much, because they aren’t as distinctive to me, and didn’t play as large a role in my personal geologic history.
Route 6 is a strangely incomparable, unparalleled highway that starts (ends?) in Bishop, California, on the east side of the Sierra Nevada — the side that most rightly belongs, in terms of geological and political temperament, inside the boundaries of Nevada, as clearly as Las Vegas most rightly belongs inside the confines of southern California. From Bishop, Route 6 heads east into Tonopah, Nevada, northeast into Ely, Nevada, east into that variably muddy and dusty town of Green River, Utah, and farther east into Grand Junction, Colorado. From there, it crosses the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, where it officially leaves the geologic and physiographic province of the West and enters the geologic and physiographic province of the Midwest and the city of Denver, Colorado, simultaneously. From Denver, Route 6 goes through Lincoln and Omaha, Nebraska, Des Moines, Iowa, Gary, Indiana, Cleveland, Ohio, Scranton, Pennsylvania, and Providence, Rhode Island. It then juts out to Provincetown, Massachusetts, ending (beginning?) at the very northernmost tip of Cape Cod. Along its meandering journey, this obscure highway mingles with some of the great ones: U.S. Highway 50 and Interstates 70, 76, 80, 84, 90, and 195. The Sierra Nevada, which arose as a geologic block a few million years ago, long before Route 6 was conceived or constructed, seems to have prevented its attainment of sea-to-sea stature.
NOTE: Route 6 started (or ended) in Long Beach, CA, for 27 years, and indeed was a coast-to-coast highway during that time (1937 to 1964) before the section from Bishop to Long Beach was formally decomissioned as part of California's 1964 renumbering program. Thanks to Lyle for pointing this out.
But these stories are not about Route 6 or Highway 8A. They are not really about highways at all. Instead, the stories — which may someday be complied into a book — center around people and some of the places, geology, and projects along a few of the highways and backroads I have traveled; the stories are about where those highways lead.

Some miscellaneous notes:
  1. Ely is pronounced Eee-lee, not Eee-lie like the inventor Eli Whitney. And Nevada is pronounced with the first “a” sounding like the “a” in cat—it is not pronounced as it is in Spanish, where the first “a” would sound like the “a’s” in “la-di-da.” The common mispronunciations of these words, along with a few other Nevada place names like Verdi, Genoa, and Moana, give away newcomers and outsiders from places like California, Colorado, and the East Coast. The correct pronunciation of these other place names will have to be taken up with a Nevadan, preferably a native Nevadan or someone who has been around awhile.
  2. Some people prefer to think that the West begins with the westward crossing of the Mississippi River. I firmly believe that one has not entered the province of the West until one has gone westward from Denver, Colorado, and crossed into the Rocky Mountains, the eastward edge of which is marked by the hogbacks along the Front Range just west of Denver.
Return to Why Highway 8A? (if that's where you came from).


Lyle said...

Note that once upon a time, US highway 6 Continued south from Bishop on 395, California 14 and on to Long Beach. Then California decided to minimize the lengths of US routes in the state, except for 101, and moved the start to Bishop.

Silver Fox said...

Thanks for the info, Lyle. I had merely looked along a current map to find the current highway 6, not thinking to investigate farther into CA's history. I should add the info at least in a note below the main part.

Silver Fox said...

Post updated with Route 6 information on 9Feb11.