UMBC professor, author heeds call of the West
Christopher Corbett enjoys exploring long stretches of U.S. 50 in Nevada in search of the authentic American West.
Stretches of Highway 50 in Nevada have been dubbed "The Loneliest Road in America." (Photo courtesy of Nevada Commission on Tourism, Baltimore Sun / September 22, 2011)
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Corbett, an award-winning journalist and author, spent countless hours traversing the dusty stretch of Old U.S. 50 that lies between Salt Lake City and Reno, Nev., while researching his two books, "The Poker Bride" and "Orphans Preferred: The Twisted Truth and Lasting Legend of The Pony Express."
Dubbed "The Loneliest Road in America" by Life Magazine in the 1980s, this remote stretch of highway is Corbett's favorite getaway destination, a place he believes is the best representation of the authentic American West.
Corbett is also a tenured professor at University of Maryland Baltimore County and teaches a class titled "The American Road Trip," peppered with tales recounting his years on the road as an Associated Press journalist. Since 1995, Corbett has written The Back Page column for Baltimore's Style magazine.
Where is your favorite travel destination?
There's no place like the American West. Central Nevada is the place I consider the true West. Many Easterners think Las Vegas is Nevada, but the majority of Nevada is this incredibly bleak, almost lunar landscape. Having grown up in a mill town in Maine, the West might as well be a different planet.
Where do you suggest visiting, exactly?
If you really want to experience the West, drive old U.S. 50 from Salt Lake City to Reno. … [I]t's a 650-mile, two-lane, godforsaken strip of asphalt that goes across bleak desert with hardly anything out there.
How did you discover it?
I was on assignment for Associated Press and stumbled upon a former Pony Express station. It was one of those places that triggered the hundreds of John Wayne films that play forever in my head, eventually becoming the subject of one of my books.
It's 650 miles; how long does it take to drive?
At least two days — more if you have the time, so you can appreciate how weird and spooky the true American West really is. It's not for everyone; this ain't Nantucket!
Is there any place to stop along the route?
There's a funny little town called Eureka — a great name for a mining town, which it was. It has an old opera house that is right out of "Fitzcarraldo" [the fictional story of a man determined to build an opera house in the middle of a jungle].
This grand, crazy structure looks like it was dropped down out of 19th-century Europe. I also really like The Eureka Sentinel Museum, where the newspaper was published for 100 years. It's like being transported back to a time when [Mark] Twain was a journalist and makes you realize how much fun it must have been to work in the newspaper business 135 years ago. It's just a great old town with a dusty main street.
What else is in the town?
One way to entertain yourself is to buy a local newspaper — there's no better way to take the pulse of a town. I love to walk in the cemetery reading the headstones; there's someone from everywhere in the world buried there. These "mining bowls" were unbelievable in the people they would bring into these places.
What's the landscape like along the drive?
This part of Route 50 follows the Overland Trail (a 19th-century stagecoach trail) and the Pony Express route over incredible deserts. The countryside just hasn't changed much since the mid-1800s. You can see enormous distances — the road in some spots is so straight that your eye almost can't comprehend the distance you are taking in. It just melts into the horizon. You're so far out in the middle of nowhere, you can't get anything on the radio; the dial just keeps spinning around.