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by Hans Tammemagi
(For Travel Writers’ Tales)

In 1986, Life magazine described a 462-kilometre stretch of Nevada’s Highway 50, which traverses forbidding desert terrain, as the “Loneliest Road in America,” warning that drivers better be equipped with survival skills. But surely, I thought, Canada has an equally forbidding and lonely road.

I set out in search. Like Nevada’s Highway 50, the Canadian road has to be less travelled but still a reasonably important artery. Crucially, it needs to traverse lonely, even hostile, terrain.

Choices are numerous, but I choose the 533-kilometre Klondike Highway joining Whitehorse and Dawson City in the Yukon Territory. Interesting comparison. The American road is in simmering sage-brush-covered desert; the Canadian road runs through boreal forest close to the Arctic Circle.

My next challenge is to drive both highways...and survive.

I start in the heat of Nevada with many jugs of water in the car. At Great Basin National Park, I enjoy the coolness of the renowned Lehman Caves, then I start, heading west along Highway 50 through desiccated brown land dotted with sagebrush and cacti. The air-conditioner hums constantly.

Photo 1 - Highway 50, The Loneliest Road in America, stretches to the horizon

I stop in Ely, a little town of 4,260 and once the centre for copper mining. How different from straight-lace, rural Canada! Hotel Nevada, where I stay, was built in 1928, has neon lights out front, and about a hundred slot machines in the lobby. Beer and gambling flow 24/7! Nearby is the Stardust Ranch Saloon and brothel.

Photo 2 - Hotel Nevada in Ely

Continuing west, the road shimmers with heat and not a car or human structure is in sight. Suddenly, five pronghorn antelope bounce across the road. Later, a herd of wild mustangs is silhouetted on the horizon.

At Eureka (population 600), once a silver mining centre with 9,000 inhabitants, I admire the Opera House and learn about the warren of tunnels that once connected the brewery and hotels.

With ghosts accompanying me, I stroll past red cliffs inscribed with ancient marks at the Hickison Summit Petroglyph Area. From a nearby rocky outlook I see lonely Highway 50 transecting a vast desert landscape, following the route taken in 1845 by explorer John Fremont and later the pony express.

Photo 3 - The moon balances over Nevada hills.

Fallon flies past and then urbanization approaches. In Reno, malls, high-rise casinos, and traffic lights greet me. I yearn to be back on Highway 50 with views stretching forever.

A few weeks later, I disembark at Whitehorse Airport, clamber into an enormous red pickup truck and start north along the Klondike Highway (#2) toward Dawson City, the epicentre of the 1898 Klondike gold rush. Soon civilization peters out and I’m alone driving through a forest of spruce and white-trunked aspen, past marshes and lakes.

The road, unlike the well-kept one in Nevada, is often pot-holed and dusty, thanks to heaving permafrost. A bear ambles across the road. Signs warn of caribou herds. And lurking around every corner is the icy threat of winter.

Photo 4 - Elk Warning on Klondike Highway

The highway parallels the Yukon River and loosely follows the original winter route to the goldfields. I stop at the decaying log Montague Roadhouse, built in the early 1900s when transport was by stage coaches with roadhouses every 30 miles.

I occasionally catch views of the river. The ditches are spotted with the purples of fireweed. The miles roll by.

At Braeburn Lodge I buy a cinnamon bun the size of my head. This is a checkpoint on the 1,000-mile annual International Yukon Quest Sled Dog Race. I shiver thinking of the dark days, hardship and cold.

Photo 5 - Potholes on Klondike Highway

I stretch my legs at Carmacks (population 500). The buildings are one-storey, log structures; every one has a stack of firewood nearby. I wander through the Tagé Cho Hudän Interpretive Centre and learn of the culture of the Little Salmon/Carmacks First Nations. I make sure to gas up.

At Five Finger Rapids viewpoint I gaze at five rock islands, an ominous obstacle to the thousands of wannabe goldminers in their homemade boats. Many lives were lost here.

I fill the tank again at Pelly Crossing, a community of 300 souls. The cultural centre of the Selkirk First Nation is a replica of Big Jonathan House of the nearby historic Fort Selkirk Finally, extensive piles of rounded cobbles left by gold dredges announce Dawson City. Soon I am reflecting on my quest in Diamond Tooth Gertie’s Gambling Hall. The two roads I’ve driven are totally different in so many ways, yet they are amazingly similar with their vast empty landscapes and mining histories. I can’t decide which is the lonelier, but I’m glad I survived.



More Information:

PHOTOS: by Hans Tammemagi.

1. Highway 50, The Loneliest Road in America, stretches to the horizon.

2. Hotel Nevada in Ely

3. The moon balances over Nevada hills.

4. Elk Warning on Klondike Highway

5. Potholes on Klondike Highway

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