Merced Life

August 23, 2014

Brigitte Bowers: Traversing the loneliest road in America

The sign read “Welcome to Fallon, The Oasis of Nevada.” Since Hawthorne, Everett and I had been hard-pressed to find anything green along U. S. 95, which traverses Nevada from south to north, but as we neared Fallon we saw alfalfa fields and cottonwood trees.

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series.

The sign read “Welcome to Fallon, The Oasis of Nevada.” Since Hawthorne, Everett and I had been hard-pressed to find anything green along Highway 95, which traverses Nevada from south to north, but as we neared Fallon we saw alfalfa fields and cottonwood trees.

Fallon is irrigated by the Carson River, which begins in California and terminates at Lahontan Dam, built in 1915, west of Fallon. Though average precipitation for Fallon is less than 5 inches per year, and the annual snowfall is only 7 inches, there is water in Fallon, including Carson Lake and a wetlands area a few miles southeast of town.

Fallon is an attractive place, with solid brick buildings, well-cared-for Victorians, and neat farms on its outskirts. It is also home to the most significant child leukemia cluster ever in American history.

In the five years between 1997 and 2002, 16 Fallon children were diagnosed with leukemia in a town with a total population of 8,600. Though there is a lot of water in Fallon compared to most other towns in the Basin and Range area of Nevada, much of it is laden with arsenic and tungsten.

In fact, there is more arsenic in the water in Fallon than in any other city in the United States, and while tungsten levels are higher than the national average throughout the region, they occur at the highest rates in the children of Fallon.

Theories about what might have caused the leukemia cluster are all related to the U.S. Naval Air Station at Fallon, where I was born when my father was stationed there in 1958.

But no one, including the medical and environmental scientists who have studied the cluster, really knows why so many Fallon children, three of whom died, suffered from leukemia in those years marking the end of the last century.

We drove by the naval base and cruised around town, finally stopping outside of the Nugget Casino for gas. By then, we weren’t sure where to pick up 95 again. Next to us, a woman was filling up her old Ford truck. I asked her for directions.

“Are there any back roads, something a little more scenic?” I suggested.

“My husband and I usually take 116,” she said, pointing east. “But my daughter takes 95 from that way,” she added, pointing west. “Isn’t any of it pretty, though.”

So we headed east, and then I saw a sign for Highway 50. “Hey,” I told Everett, “that’s the road that says ‘Loneliest Road in America’ on the map. You wanna try it?”

“It’s up to you,” he said. He had concluded about a hundred miles back that it didn’t matter much what route we took. It would all look the same.

I opted for the loneliest road. We would take it to Austin, a town at the northern base of the Toiyabe Mountains.

In the 110 miles between Fallon and Austin, we only saw exactly seven cars, and one was the state trooper who appeared out of nowhere and stopped us.

“Where did he come from?” I asked Everett as we pulled to the side of the road.

I handed over my license and registration. “How much longer before Austin?” I asked.

As we started for Austin, Everett and I had looked at the road stretched before us and could see no end to it. It extended beyond our vision and blurred into a wavy distance. About 50 miles in, I began seeing barriers in the road that did not exist and lakes in the distance that turned out to be sand.

By the time I was pulled over, I was worried that Austin might be as ephemeral as the mirages.

“About five minutes,” the trooper said. He was in his early 30s, a sandy-haired guy who was in no hurry. It occurred to me that he might have pulled us over just to have someone to talk to.

“Thank God,” I said. “Not to say anything bad about your state – I really like Nevada – but it’s pretty desolate out here. Were we speeding?”

We were.

He called in my license and registration and came back.

“I’m not going to ticket you,” he said. “So, where’re you headed?”

I told him how we’d started in Central California and were going to Montana. “We’re spending the night in Elko,” I added, just to let him know we weren’t trying to speed through Nevada.

“Why don’t you have the top down?” he asked, patting the cloth top on my Beetle. “On a beautiful day like this I’d have the top down, soaking up the sun. I always have my window down. See?” He showed me how his left arm was more tan than his right one. “Always hanging my arm out the window.”

“My son doesn’t like the top down when it’s windy.”

“Well, I’d have it down.” He smiled. “You have a safe trip.”

I pulled back onto the road and set the cruise control at 70. We drove on to Austin, where we had lunch at the International, the oldest hotel in the state.

I was not trying to curry favor with the trooper when I said I like Nevada. The people are friendly, and despite its unforgiving nature – water laden with tungsten and arsenic, a landscape that does not inspire poetry or paintings – I have always felt drawn to Nevada’s wide-open spaces, even when those spaces continue unchanged for more than 100 hundred miles.

Isn’t any of it pretty, but there is something compelling in that desert.

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