Saturday, Aug. 20, 2011 | 2 a.m.
Editor’s note: Twenty-five years ago this summer, Life magazine named U.S. Highway 50, as it crosses Central Nevada, the loneliest road in America. A photo of a straight stretch of empty highway fixed it in the national imagination as a symbol of the state’s vast emptiness. To mark the anniversary of the Life photo, columnist J. Patrick Coolican and photographer Leila Navidi drove the length of U.S. 50 in Nevada to examine issues important in the rural communities along the highway, meet its people and explore loneliness in the hyper-connected age.
When we began our journey across America’s loneliest road in Baker, on the Utah border, we encountered two woman cyclists who looked exhausted. We called them the joyless, sullen cyclists.
On our 62-mile drive to Ely the next day, we saw a hitchhiker going in the other direction, and turned around in an attempt to talk to him: What could be more lonely than hitchhiking the loneliest road?
He wanted no part of us, but as luck would have it, as we were pulled over, the cyclists came huffing by. We’re driving U.S. Highway 50; they’re biking it.
We passed them and went on to Ely, the town of steam engines and giant murals and smoke-jumpers at the bar of the Hotel Nevada telling tales of wildfires fought and booze imbibed.
And then we were kicking ourselves for not stopping the cyclists and getting their story.
But it was time to move on to Eureka, where the life of a friend was once imperiled when it got out at the town’s hard drinking bar, the Owl, that he was employed by someone with the last name of Reid.
So we’re on our way to Eureka, and we round a bend, and there they are, the cyclists, grinding up a hill.
We offer to buy them dinner, and over Mexican food that I’m pretty sure was not prepared by anyone of Mexican ancestry, we hear their story.
They are Frida Devold, an MBA student in finance, and Gunnvor Ness, a pastry chef, and they aren’t just cycling U.S. 50 through Nevada. They’re cycling the entire United States.
They are Norwegian, 25, and — no surprise here — blond.
They began their journey June 25 in New York City, took a train to New Jersey. From there, they went south to Pennsylvania, Maryland, D.C., Virginia, before turning west to Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, Utah. They’re going about 80 miles a day; their longest ride was 120 in Kentucky. Because they didn’t train before they started, which I too found shocking, the beginning of the trip was merely eat, sleep, cycle. They carry 30 pounds each and consume at least five liters of water on their rides, which begin and end early to avoid the heat.
By the time they reached Colorado and Utah, cycling those climbs up the Rockies was nothing at all compared to the beauty of those peaks.
Still, “There are a couple hills I won’t forget,” Ness says.
As for Nevada, the mountain-basin topography has grown wearisome, they concede.
Some background on Norway: With its universal health care, subsidized higher education and a robust social insurance system, the nation of 4.8 million people has astonishing rates of health and happiness. In fact, Norway has been ranked by the United Nations Development Program as the best place to live on earth.
But fear not: Our Norwegian friends found they love America.
Their route is fairly typical of cross-country cyclists, and it gives the traveler a distinctive view of America — one without big cities. Distance cyclists are wary of big cities because they’re difficult to get into and out of.
So our Norwegians have seen small-town America, and they’ve received the legendary hospitality. “We’ve met so many great people — I can’t say that enough,” Devold says.
At first, the openness of it was a little unnerving. They are Scandinavians, after all, famous for being emotionally walled up.
Joann at a Subway in Kansas wouldn’t rest until she found them a place to stay for the night. She called around town until she located the minister, who offered his church. Random people give them water, buy them dinner.
Many Americans, up and down the socioeconomic ladder and across the political spectrum, believe something has gone fundamentally wrong with our country. They have different ideas of what happened and who is at fault, but in general we all feel sort of depressed about the state of things.
To talk to Devold and Ness is to renew your faith in our country. Even though our government may do unspeakable things in our name, we’re a pretty decent people.
“We’re very grateful for all the kindness we’ve met along the way,” Devold says. “It’s been amazing. And we’re impressed. We feel like we met real Americans on this journey. The goodness of people has been inspiring. Norwegians can learn from this.”
If you can read Norwegian, you can read about their trip on their blog.
Here’s what they said about us: “På en bakketopp på vei til Eureka ble vi stoppet av to journalister fra the Las Vegas Sun.”
Next stop: Fallon