Cold Springs Pony Express Station & Frenchman, Nevada: US 50

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Things change, as you leave Austin and head west, across the loneliest stretch of the Loneliest Road in America.  Across the eastern half of the state, US 50 was predictable: the road cut through mountain ranges and across wide, flat basins, one after another.  Every ten minutes or so, your surroundings changed, making for an interesting drive.  But now, on the longest stretch between towns on Highway 50, the landscape suddenly gets a little less interesting.  After passing through the very wide basin west of Austin…

… you do get to pass through one more range of hills, but they aren’t as impressive as the ones from earlier in the day.  After that, the road avoids mountains, and instead follows the basins — even when it means heading north or south for a while.  It seems there’s always a mountain range on one side of the road or the other, but the scenery doesn’t change much, for miles.

Fortunately, there are several worthwhile stops on the 110 mile stretch between Austin and Fallon, Nevada.  The first is at the Cold Springs Pony Express station.  The ruins of this stop, where riders would swap out their tired horse for a fresh, well-rested one, are preserved behind a chain-link fence.

It’s a very tall fence, indeed.  I had to hold the camera over my head, and aim blindly, in order to get a picture of the ruins without the fence in the shot.  It’s too bad you can’t walk through the old corral or into the station itself — however, you will have that opportunity at another Pony Express stop later on.

A whole lot of nothing surrounds the Pony Express station.  The ruins are located on the north side of the highway.  About a half-mile away, there’s an exhibit and rest area on the south side of the road, but I couldn’t see much point in stopping there, since there were no ruins and, aside from a few interpretive signs, nothing to see.

If you’re desperate for human contact, there is a small community a few miles east of the Pony Express station.  It appeared to have some sort of business, but I didn’t need to stop, so I didn’t investigate.  If there is a business here, it will be the only one you see between the two towns.

Frenchman Dry Lake Bed

There’s another place you might want to stop, as you cross the desert.  Highway 50 slices across a dry lake bed, at the old town site of Frenchman.  There’s no official parking area here, but you can easily pull off to the side of the road and walk around on the playa.

It’s a good place to get those pictures of dry, cracked dirt, which is what so many people think the entire desert looks like.

As you pass through the Frenchman basin, you’ll notice a mysterious building in the distance.  A sign explains that it’s the Navy’s “Centroid” facility.  A “centroid” is the center of a geometric figure, and while I can’t find much information on the Navy’s facility, it would appear to be a center of some of their air training operations (the Navy’s “Top Gun” fighter pilot school is located in Fallon).  Or perhaps, it’s the center of the Dixie Valley bombing range.

In his excellent road-trip book Blue Highways, William Least Heat-Moon spent several pages writing about a stop he made in Frenchman.  Back then (in the 1970’s) there was a cafe/bar/gas station/motel near the lakebed, and William stopped for breakfast.  His description of the area: “In a state abounding with uninhabitable places, Frenchman excelled.”  In the book, the bar’s owners said it had a history of burning down — every 30 years or so.  Apparently, sometime between the 70’s and today, it happened again, but no one bothered to rebuild.  Today, there is a spot near the lakebed that looks like it could have once been home to something more than a dirt lot, but no other trace of the building remains. 

Just before dipping down into the Dixie Valley and the Frenchman town site, you pass over Drum Summit, elevation 4,600 feet.  There’s a road near the pass that leads south towards Fairview Peak.  A sign says you can see an earthquake fault, six miles down the road.  The road looked interesting, but I passed on it, in hopes of arriving earlier in Fallon.  Now that I know there’s not much in Fallon worth seeing, I would probably choose to spend a little extra time exploring.

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