One Tank Road Trip, Part 1
We’re setting off from the Berkeley Marina on one of my favorite road trips in the western United States. We’re going to be following Highway 50, the route of the old Pony Express, east across California and across the state of Nevada.
And we’re going to do it driving a Nissan Altima hybrid. The idea behind this is to see how far we can go on a single tank of gas before we run out of gas. I don’t know how far we’re going to get. We’ll find out. And that’s part of the story.
Highway 50 actually starts in Sacramento and continues all the way across the country. We follow it over the Sierra Nevada, the first of nineteen or twenty mountain passes we’ll climb in the course of our adventure.
We soon reach Carson City, the capital of Nevada. But for us, the journey really begins a little bit further east, where Highway 50 earned its nickname as the “Loneliest Road in America.”
But it’s hardly lonely when we reach the city of Fallon, Nevada, an agricultural community with a population of about 8300. It’s roughly 60 miles outside of Carson City and 280 miles from our starting point.
Among other things, Fallon is famous for its Heart of Gold cantaloupes. And we happen to be passing through during its annual cantaloupe festival.
The festival features sights you might see at any country fair, plus just about anything you can do with a cantaloupe.
There are cantaloupe eating contests and even cantaloupe bowling tournaments!
For bigger kids, there’s the Cantaloupe Chunkin’ Contest. In the human powered division, the object is to hurl one of the melons as far as you can.
I decide to try my hand, but instead of chunkin’, I choke.
That doesn’t stop Dave Fisk from inviting me to join his crew in the catapult and trebuchet division.
We’re up against some serious competition, though Dave is the defending world champion. His trebuchet is a metal dragon with bungee cords.
The goal in this division is accuracy, not distance.
“You’ve got to hit the barrel,” says Dave.
The other teams come pretty close, and our efforts are off the mark.
The folks in Fallon have one more method of propelling cantaloupes: using air cannons.
After having way too much fun in Fallon, we resume our journey. There seems to be nothing but empty, wide open space on the horizon. However, as we head east, we also venture into a romantic part of our country’s past.
Sandwiched between Highway 50 and Sand Mountain, an imposing dune often crawling with ATVs, are the ruins of the Sand Springs Pony Express Station.
The stone walls of Sand Springs were once part of one of the most storied legends of the American west. It’s remarkable that the Pony Express looms so large in our memory. It only operated for 18 months in the early 1860’s, doomed by the advent of the telegraph.
Highway 50 traces the old Pony Express Route. It was also part of the original transcontinental highway, the Lincoln Highway. Just east of Sand Springs, it leads to Middlegate Station, a piece of the old west that is still very much alive.
We arrive at Middlegate Station, 307 miles from Berkeley, with more than half a tank of gas left. Middlegate is one of our favorite spots along the Backroads. It’s been quite a while since we’ve been here, and it’s good to be back.
Middlegate Station has been around, in one form or another, since the 1850’s, when it was an open structure presided over by a couple of grizzled prospectors.
You can still find real live grizzled prospectors here now.
Though the building is much more comfortable than it once was, it’s still authentic.
“All the walls are over a hundred years old wood,” says Russ Stevenson. He and his wife Fredda have owned Middlegate since 1985. It’s now a bar, café and motel.
According to Russ, “We want to stay where we were, though, back in the past. And keep the past – bring it into the future, but still be the past.”
“Things outside here are unchanged,” says Fredda. “The hills are still the same. The plains are still the same. The wild horses that run by here all the time – still the same.”
One old tradition Fredda and Russ have revived is that of barkeepers holding money for customers. Their ceiling is covered in dollar bills with the names of people from all over the world who placed them there.
“It’s theirs until they want to come and take it down,” explains Russ.
In fact, when we first stopped at Middlegate back in 1994, Russ invited me to leave a dollar on the ceiling. Now he’s helping me look for it.
We never do locate my old dollar, but we do find an old friend, a prospector who calls himself Gold Dust Bob.
Bob says, “I got a hundred million out there, but it’s still in the ground.”
Bob was here during our previous visit. It feels as though he never left.
“I can come here and go to sleep if I want to, and nobody bothers me,” he says.
Or he can pick up his guitar and serenade us, which he gladly does.
With regulars like Gold Dust Bob contributing to an atmosphere that Russ and Fredda have carefully cultivated, it’s easy to imagine stepping way back in time.
Russ says, “I like to sit out on the porch in the evenings, and just hope that a ghost of a Pony Express rider will come riding by, throw his mochila -- mail pouch -- out there, and here are these other ghosts loading him on another horse, and the other riders switching mochilas with him, and he takes off, riding on by. I hope I see a ghost doing that.”
For more information on Fallon, Nevada or the Fallon Hearts of Gold Cantaloupe Festival, held every Labor Day weekend, please visit http://www.fallontourism.com or call (775)423-4556
Sand Mountain Recreation Area - Bureau of Land Management (BLM)
Sand Springs Pony Express
Click here for website
Located about 50 miles east of Fallon on Highway 50.