A Scouting Life: The Loneliest Road in America

April 6, 2010 | Sam Hutchins

We couldn’t leave Ely fast enough the next morning. The place had a certain malevolence tucked just beneath the surface, and our presence there was enough to awaken it. Nothing that couldn’t be handled, but the time to deal with the hustlers, grifters and flakes was later. For now we were just passing through and taking some pictures. Definitely time for us to get on down that road.

As had happened in the past, circumstances dictated our route. We had thoroughly scouted southern Nevada, then covered the eastern part of the state right up to the Utah border. North and west were our only remaining options. A quick glance at the map indicated that our choice was to take Highway 50 out of Ely. A long stretch of it would get us into Reno. Although Ely seemed to fill our “dingy card room in a desolate, menacing town” quota, it behooved us to see what iterations of such were available between there and Reno, if not in Reno proper.

Rte. 50 rises sharply through the mountains west of town. We passed multiple rough gravel turnoffs that led to mining operations past and present. I’d had some fun spelunking abandoned mines outside of Phoenix before, but that was not meant for this trip. Now it was time to drive, and so I did. Over and through the first range and across another high desert plain. And another. And another.

Although the land was lovely, it was desolate. We lost cell service as soon as we left Ely and had not seen any sign of life since. No other cars passing, no telephone poles stretched along the roadside. No mailboxes or lonely houses isolated off in the distance. Even with our early start it was nearly lunchtime by the time we saw another person.

Rounding a bend we encountered the town of Eureka. Eureka, Nevada is a town of 300, which represents the last vestiges of another former booming mine town. It reminded me of nothing more that the ruins I had seen of the Anaszi people in southern Colorado. The town seemed like it was both part of the mountain and also being swallowed by it. Houses clutched precariously to the cliffs on either side of the road. It could just as easily have been abandoned as populated by the looks of it.

The only open business was a combination gas station/convenience store, the retail part of the operation occupying what appeared to be someone’s living room. After gassing up we had a brief chat with the proprietor. Turns out the stretch of road we had just traveled was the “busy” part of Rte. 50. West of Eureka it had been labeled, “The loneliest road in America.” My friends were a little dismayed to learn that lunch would consist of homemade beef jerky and Dr. Pepper. We ate as we drove.

It was out there, on the vast open road, that I truly began to fear the Chinese people. Kar Wai had already proved to be fairly inconsiderate of other people’s needs. That can easily be attributed to working as a film director, though. Regrettably it comes with the job. But somewhere on that lonely drive we wound up discussing politics, specifically the election that was taking place in France soon. At one point I used the word “communist” pejoratively and received a sharp reprimand from Kar Wai for doing so.

I was speechless. Here was a man whose family had been violently torn apart by the Communists. They had killed his brother and forced his mother to flee to Hong Kong with him. Yet when I spoke ill of the philosophy he was quick to point out that the good of the whole was more important than the needs of a few. My fears were later proved true by another even more frightening incident, proving the sincerity of his beliefs.

A few months after this particular day a group of us were back scouting in New York. It was an exceptionally warm summer night, and the end of a very long day. Work was seven days a week with these people, they never took a day off. Further, the days themselves were generally 14-15 hours in length. So there we were, marching down the smelly, sweaty back streets of the Meatpacking District when one of our producers, a woman named Alice, simply collapsed from exhaustion. She stumbled and went face down on the greasy sidewalk. Neither Kar Wai nor any of the rest of the Chinese missed a step. They kept right on going, leaving her there. Looking around in shock, I ran and caught Kar Wai by the arm.

“Alice has collapsed. We should take her to the hospital.”

He gave me a long, blank stare before replying.

“Put her in the van. She’ll be fine. Just tired.”

He turned on his heel and went right on scouting. I threw Alice over my shoulders and carried her back to our van where she could at least get some air conditioning and water. After making sure she was not critical, I had to turn and run back to catch up with the scout.

But that was later. This particular day in the mountains I was just figuring out how cold Kar Wai could be. Silence settled in over the truck as I tested its limits by driving as quickly as I could. I no longer wanted to be out in the desert at night with these guys.

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