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On Nevada’s Loneliest Highway: Investigating Icthyosaur

Know what an Ichthyosaur is? Imagine 225 million years ago a swimming dinosaur about the size of a city bus. Traveling to central Nevada to see the fossils of this creature has been on the Tahja family “Bucket List” for decades, so as properly vaccinated seniors with masks, off we went.

Highway 50 through Nevada proclaims itself “The Loneliest Road in America.” For a starting point we were lucky to have family in Carson City and Highway 50 there is surrounded by suburbia, but once you are east of Fallon it’s wide open spaces and small towns all the way to Utah. If you are interested in Native American culture there are two great petroglyph sites along this highway. Grimes Point and Hidden Cave is east of Fallon and Hickson Summit is near Austin and both are easy to access.

Salt Wells Basin east of Fallon is a flat dried up lake bed stretching miles in every direction. The crumbling edge of the highway asphalt and local black rock induce people to pull over, walk out on the playa verge and spell out messages for passing motorists to read. These message writers don’t mess around — the entire preamble to the Declaration of Independence was spelled out along the roadway along with simpler “Billy Loves Suzy” and “Jesus Saves.” On a water tank along the highway someone had painted “Nowhere Nevada” and yes, it feels like the middle of no place.

It’s empty country. You look at mountain ranges that have never been farmed, ranched, mined, or had trails worn into them. The “It’s Good For Nothing” human interpretation of undeveloped open space is what leaves it beautiful to this casual observer.

Earthquake faults from a 1954 7.3 earthquake near Fairview south of the highway are a geologic roadside attraction. At Middlegate state highway 361 takes you south to Gabbs and then turn off towards Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park. It’s a doubleheader state park-a gold mining ghost town with a fossil site right up the road.

Berlin began in 1863 as a gold mining town with a stamp mill that lasted into the 20th century. It’s in arrested decay with plenty of structures to peek into and signage. There are spectacular views from the hillside townsite and the fossil shelter is just up the hill. When Ichthyosaur swam here there was no North American continent-there was a single land mass on earth called Pangea. So what caused 40 individual 50’ long predators weighing 50 tons and possessing eyeballs 12” wide to die and pile up on top of each other? It’s been a mystery since the fossils were discovered in 1928. The ranger there told us current research may lead to the discovery that a red tide poisoned ammonites, the predators favorite food source and caused a quick mass die-off. The fossil shelter is full of displays and a dozen exposed fossil skeletons. As we ate in the picnic grounds at 7,000” we imagined massive reptiles swimming around us in times gone by.

Via 50 mph gravel roads we left headed north through the Reese River valley. We were passed by a 4-wheel drive school bus as we went to our overnight destination. Now to be polite discussing other states small towns I will not name this next community. It’s east of Fallon and west of Eureka. We stayed at one of the two motels in town, with a microwave but no coffee maker in our room. Why is this important? There is no breakfast place in town. The motel manager loaned us cups and bowls from her own kitchen so we could make coffee and oatmeal from our traveling food stash.

I have always associated the term “food desert” with inner cities where the grocery store is distant and all that’s available is junk food at a mini-mart. Well let me tell you folks, it exists in central Nevada. In this town there is no grocery store and the nearest one is 50 miles away. There were two dinner dining choices-one had a sign on the door saying “Masking Prohibited” so that lost our patronage immediately. The only other option was a bar packed with unmasked people smoking sitting packed at the bar with loud country music playing—truly deserving the term “dive.” It had one item for dinner, a French Dip sandwich with macaroni salad-the weekly “special” for $10. Other nights they heated frozen pizzas. Luckily they did take out and we retreated to the motel room to eat and drink Great Basin’s “Icky” Beer.

Driving north from Highway 50 we indulged in a favorite family search, we chased the route of abandoned narrow gauge railroad lines. These lines were torn up 80 years ago with the rails sold for scrap and the railroad ties becoming fence posts for ranchers. Finding the grades for the tracks can take you down many a dirt road to station locations not found on 21st century maps. First we explored the Eureka and Palisade Railroad line. We got lightly rained and snowed on. We were in the middle of not place and loved it. We overnighted in Battle Mountain on Highway 80 where a restaurant served us prime rib tacos which were quite tasty. The next day we drove back south again this time following the Nevada Central Railroad tracks. All these little railroads brought ore up to the big main line railroads paralleling Highway 80 to be taken to smelters. Mining is still a big business and employer in Nevada.

Returning to Highway 50 we stopped off at a favorite rockhounding site for Wonderstone-a colorful name for 12 million year old banded rhyolite spit out by volcanos. My idea of a great rockhounding site requires it be close to a major highway, accessible by a Subaru, and having lots of rock on the ground you don’t have to whack from a boulder with a rock hammer. This site, behind Grimes Point, meets all the requirements PLUS you get your choice of colors: yellow, green, reds and purples and there is literally a mountain of each color AND it is patterned with wavy lines. What more could a rockhound ask for? We brought 20 pounds home for garden borders.

After a week in Nevada I can tell you this: EVERYONE is hiring, from hamburger joints to mining concerns. Gas was $2.59 a gallon. Rural billboards are entertaining. One had the 10 Commandments on it and the next two featured a psychic and pregnancy counseling. Windmills are not yard decoration, they pump water to stock tanks.

For miles there are no fences along the highway and it’s open range. Cattle guards, which stretch across the road, can be traversed at 70 mph without a bump. There are still herds of wild horses to see. Eagles use power transmission poles to build nests on top of since trees are few and far between. If my grandson had been with us we would have heard “Are we there yet?”

So if you ever want to see where swimming carnivorous dinosaurs abounded take the Loneliest Road in Nevada to the center of the state and go exploring. Just don’t plan on it this summer. The whole park shuts down May 1st for major road reconstruction and they expect to be closed all summer. The construction crews will live in the campgrounds and they hope to get the work done before the snows fall. Think next year.

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