I–80: The Lessons of Nevada

What I learned on the most desolate stretch of major interstate in the entire United States

Anna E. Hiller

I lived in Pocatello, Idaho for three and a half years, but it was only about eight months of that time that I was exclusively tied to living there. I started making road trips to the Bay Area starting in May of 2013. As of today — I just counted — I have done the circuit between Pocatello and San Francisco and back a shocking 15 times. At 746 miles each way, you can imagine the mileage on my car now.

You might also be able to imagine how this stretch of road that I once deprecated as “boring” and “monotonous” has come to be a space of inner peace and personal discovery. When such a long stretch of freeway becomes a rote exercise in how your car handles at 82mph, the lack of strict attention to traffic (because there is very little) is bound to clear out the dross in your head. Or rather — perhaps better stated — it is bound to allow you to take a step back from the dross in your head and address it directly, perhaps for the first time. These acts of self-examination at high speed, rocketing through scrubby desert and easing over one mountain pass after another — Golconda, Emigrant, HD Summit (if you’re headed to Idaho, as I was) — they can be all at once painful, refreshing, overwhelming, stunning, and sometimes visually obliterating.

I’ve seen how as I drive, the sagebrush and salty basins of Nevada fade before me and are replaced by the film reel of my own life, which I watch at a distance, projected on the empty screen of the two-lane freeway in front of me. My frequent companion on these trips — I’ll call her S — and I, both of us have had a lot going on in our lives in the last year — perhaps too much for either of us to handle. At one point when we were overwhelmed — probably for opposite reasons, but that is a separate story — one of us joked that at least we had a journey coming up on I–80, because “80 is for processing.” In the 7 times that she and I have traveled that road, it has proven true each time.

I–80 through Nevada cracks open your mind and heart, if you let it. I–80 through Nevada has lessons hidden in its unvarying, sparse scenery that is punctuated by small towns with non-native trees and power plants situated 20 miles off the freeway but still visible in their enormity. I have learned things, practical and personal, in these journeys. For those of you thinking about making the drive, I have some recommendations for you. My hope in posting these is that the next time you travel I–80, you will not complain about it, but rather practice the radical acceptance of boredom in order to reap its benefits. You can enjoy this stretch of road. Here’s how to turn your dread into an experience worth having.

Lesson 1) Nevada is beautiful if you accept that you have 410 miles of open space from the salt flats of Utah to the foothills of the sierra. If you give in to the monotony, you can discover true peace gliding along at 2 to 6 mph over the speed limit. The speed limit throughout the state is 75 mph, except in Elko, when it drops to 65 mph. Usually, you can safely drive the majority of the stretch at 81 mph without getting stopped, but in Elko, be sure not to go faster than 67 mph through the town. There are speed traps on both sides.

Lesson 2) The Winnemucca Inn has the strongest well-drinks in all of northern Nevada. It is right next to the Best Western Gold Country Inn, which is one of the better hotel options in Winnemucca. That said, do not eat the french toast at their 24-hour restaurant, unless you like really eggy french toast.

Lesson 3) Misogyny is alive and well in Nevada, and can be found at some restaurants, printed on little “fun-flyers” that advertise local businesses and are situated at each table. S and I found some terrifying examples of these at both the Pizza Barn in Elko, and the aforementioned Winnemucca Inn. I will post photos. They have to be seen to be believed.

Lesson 4) Despite the objectionable reading material, the best pizza you’ll ever eat is in Elko, at the Pizza Barn. This pizza is up against stiff competition from New Jersey. Even though I grew up in the Italian colony outside of Philadelphia, Pizza Barn wins 6 days of the week and twice on Sunday. Their pesto pizza is amazing. They are also San Francisco Giants fans, which makes me love them even more. The restaurant is very family friendly, and usually has Sports playing on overhead TVs. Go team.

Lesson 5) If you gamble, Never play Lil Red or any other video slot in truck stops, even if you want to. This is particularly true for the Flying Js in Winnemucca and Wells.

Lesson 6) You will always lose your money if you withdraw funds from the ATM located within the casino. Universally true.

Lesson 7) Driving in Nevada at night, you can see the glow even of small towns from at least 20 miles away. If this is the first time you’ve driven Nevada, putting away the map and playing “What’s that glow” can be a good game for familiarizing yourself with how light pollution damages an otherwise enveloping, inky night sky.

Lesson 8) The Taco Bell in Elko could receive awards for poor quality.

Lesson 9) Swill Coffee House in Reno is the best place to get a cup of joe between San Francisco and Chicago. Its price point is a little high, but it makes up for it in free, stable wifi, a good clientele, lots of light, and good management. A must-visit, if you are in Reno. Take 580 south from I–80 to Moana Lane, turn right, and go about 1.5 miles to Lakeside Court. Take a right. Swill is a block down on the right, in a shopping plaza. They also have a wine bar that opens in the evening. Enjoy. You can thank me later.

Lesson 10) Black Bear Diners are excellent in every location. I’ve stopped at the ones in Reno and Fernley and they were great. I’m hoping they’ll expand along the I–80 corridor, mostly because they have the best chicken apple sausage I’ve ever had. I no longer eat bread, but if you can, have a biscuit when you eat there. You won’t regret it.

Lesson 11) US–93 from Wells, Nevada to Twin Falls, Idaho is one of the most desolate stretches of road in the US, and the ONLY cellular provider that covers most of it is Verizon. Don’t bother with signing on with any other service if you think you’ll be traveling on US–93 with any frequency. The spot where you lose service (if briefly) is about 25 miles outside of Jackpot, Nevada, which is right on the Idaho state line.

Lesson 12) This is true everywhere: Never, ever play slots on a Sunday. Speaking from experience: Don’t do it.

Lesson 13) Always have an 800-song playlist set on random when driving 746 miles. You will listen to about 190 songs each way. If you do the drive more than once, the same 800-song playlist will get you through at least two round trips without any boredom, and full of pleasant surprises. My tip for building and 800-song playlist is: sort your library by number of plays (which should suggest a list of your favorite songs) and cut and paste into a list. Comb through your library for new stuff, too, that may not have made it yet to your top–800.

Lesson 14) Always drive through Nevada/Idaho with all-weather tires, or carry chains (if you don’t have AWD). If you get caught in a storm, sing Bohemian Rhapsody at the top of your lungs while fearing for your life going over mountain passes. It really cuts the cold fear of death that snowy mountain passes can cause if you’re not used to them.

Lesson 15) Except on Sundays, always throw a $20 in the Zeus machine at the Colt Casino in Battle Mountain (Exit 229). It is good luck. At least it has been for me.

Lesson 16) If you end up thinking about death a lot on I–80, that’s normal. Just roll with it. Don’t push the thoughts away. Embrace them. Learn about yourself. Keep going.

Conclusion

And with this last, I end my personal rules of I–80. Expect to hear more from me about this stretch of road with some frequency. I am addicted to its revelations. And now that we’ve definitivley arrived at tl;dr, I offer one last argument in favor of this bare stretch of road: I–80 has been maligned for too long — it has a profundity and gravitas that no one will admit; pity.

My sincere wish for all of you that travel on I–80 through Nevada is that you will take a moment to stop complaining about how boring it is, and instead use the monotony to do some inner exploration. Let go. Let it all go. Let I–80 possess you, and let it work out those psychic kinks that you never knew were tying you in knots until you had nothing else to do but face forward and rocket into nothingness for what should be only six hours, but that feels like a voyage from cradle to shroud.