A road trip from Las Vegas, via desolate Nevada to the Mormon stronghold of Utah’s Salt Lake City, offers a journey of wild extremes. Greg Cook takes a spin.
Leaving Las Vegas by road has to be one of the most radical overland trips anywhere on the planet as the lurid, neon chaos of ‘Sin City’ abruptly halts to leave you staring into vast sun-scalded emptiness.
I’m travelling from the heartland of indulgence and excess, through Nevada to Utah’s Salt Lake City, America’s capital of religious temperance. For travellers who like their culture served in shocking contrasts, and for natural spectacles to register on the massive end of the scale, nothing beats this.
Head north out of Vegas on Interstate 15, and before the sounds of the strip have finished ringing in your ears, the heat haze has erased the city behind you fast enough to make you believe it might all have been a crazy fantasy. That’s when the true context of where you really are hits you.
You’re alone in the Nevada Desert, and it’s large – intimidatingly large. Even the security blanket of a route map does little to ease the sense of isolation, especially when the roads you’re about to travel have names like Extraterrestrial Highway (Route 375, which appropriately shears its way past the US governments infamous secret compound, Area 51).
Yet although it’s undoubtedly huge (after all, the Grand Canyon is somewhere in the middle of all this), you soon realise that there’s nothing vacuous about the wide, lonely spaces of the Silver State.
On the contrary, the emptiness constantly feels as if it’s ready to burst, leaving you with the feeling that something entirely inexplicable could occur at any moment – a strange light moving in tangents across the sky, or the tiny puff of a mushroom cloud on the horizon – with you as the only witness.
Amid this topography, the horizon seems always lined with mountains, tortured into awesome shapes by the elements, while the roads carve through dried-out, iron-flat lake beds.
Craters of different varieties are another frequent feature. Some are volcanic, some were made by the impact of genuine, extraterrestrial objects millennia ago, and some have been made by the hand of man in the last half of the 20th century. An example of this is the mighty Sedan Crater located in the Tonopah Test Range east of Highway 95, the product of a 1962 thermonuclear detonation.
As you begin to eat up the straight miles of tarmac, other smaller but equally eerie signs of human endeavour become apparent. The old abandoned mines and early settler cemeteries that are the historic remnants of those first brave or foolhardy souls lured to this barren region in the hopes of a lucky strike; to this day, Nevada still produces over 80% of all the gold mined in the US.
Around 483km (300 miles) north west of Vegas on Highway 95 is the desert town of Fallon, a low-rise outpost built around crossroads which intersect with Highway 50 – dubbed ‘the loneliest road in America’.
Bearing east along it, the highway lives up to its name in spectacular fashion for the next few hundred miles until, nearing the town of Ely, you’ll find evidence of human existence in the form of The Shoe Tree – a gnarled, 21m-high (70ft) cottonwood by the roadside, blossoming with thousands of cast-off footwear, hung over the years from its bare branches by passing travellers.
Back to civilisation
East of Ely, the highway takes you over the border into Utah before joining Interstate 15 for the final 160km (100 miles) leg north to Salt Lake City.
Set against the backdrop of the Great Salt Lake to the north west and the vertiginous Wasatch and Oquirrh mountain ranges on the eastern borders, the state capital is famous for being the heartland of American Mormonism, a branch of The Church Of The Latter Day Saints.
At least half of the city’s population are practising Mormons, and although Salt Lake City seems to have has caught up with the rest of contemporary America since hosting the 2002 Winter Olympics by relaxing liquor laws and offering more cosmopolitan restaurants and nightlife options, there is still a highly religious undercurrent here.
However, regardless of your religious beliefs, the fact remains that Salt Lake City provides the perfect counterpoint to Las Vegas, on a trip through a region that has to be, both culturally and geographically, one of the most bizarre, thrilling and extreme road journeys you can take in the western world.