In July 1986, Life magazine described U.S. Route 50 as the “Loneliest Road in America.”
Underneath a single depressing photo, the magazine featured this description of the two-lane highway:
“It’s totally empty,” says an AAA counselor. “There are no points of interest. We don’t recommend it.” The 287-mile stretch of U.S. 50, running from Ely to Fernley, Nev., passes nine towns, two abandoned mining camps, a few gas pumps and an occasional coyote. “We warn all motorists not to drive there,” says the AAA rep, “unless they’re confident of their survival skills.”
It was a colossal diss, but Nevada tourism officials couldn’t have been happier. All of a sudden, Life’s non-endorsement of their depressing little highway had given it a brand, and in so doing managed to popularize the road among a certain set of gloomy travelers. The state put up signs advertising the new name—HWY 50, THE LONELIEST ROAD IN AMERICA.
Just three months after that article was published, U.S. 50 got an attraction that even the most jaded AAA counselor would have agreed at least counted as a point of interest. Set back a few miles from the highway, a 76,000-acre plot of land was given a branding upgrade of its own. In October 1986, Congress passed a law establishing Great Basin National Park.
The park was intended to serve as a representative sample of the entire Great Basin region—a massive watershed spanning five states, including almost all of Nevada. All the water found in the Great Basin drains or evaporates internally, never making its way to the Pacific Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico. Put another way, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.
The park itself is less than 300 miles from the Las Vegas Strip, the brightest spot on our entire planet when viewed from space. But the country’s loneliest road doesn’t see many headlights. The closest town to Great Basin—Baker, Nevada—is home to just 68 people.
“We’re pretty rare,” ranger Annie Gilliland told me when I met her near the visitor center. “This is one of the—if not the darkest place in the Lower 48.”
Annie is a “Dark Ranger,” part of an elite squad of park staff who lead regular astronomy presentations.
“I love it,” she told me, smiling. “It makes me sound like a superhero.”
The Dark Rangers are real-life guardians of the galaxy, tasked with ensuring that the lighting inside the park stays low so that visitors aren’t distracted from the sky up above. At Great Basin, the stars are the star attraction.
Before my meeting with Annie, I had spent the day hiking a few short trails and drove up the park’s Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive. The scenery I’d seen was pleasant enough, but most of it, to my eye at least, was the same type of pinyon-juniper woodland that can be found all throughout the Great Basin region.
If one were to go home when the sun goes down, then Great Basin might merely seem as “Great” as the Great Plains. That’s why rangers like Annie encourage visitors to stick around. Here, they have a saying…
Half the park… is after dark.
I’d heard about Great Basin’s skies, and I’d timed my visit so that I would arrive on the night of a new moon—the darkest possible night. It was also a weekend night, which meant Annie would be hosting one of her popular astronomy talks. As the sun set, a small crowd began to form in the parking lot. Flashlights were forbidden—Annie wanted our eyes to adjust naturally.
When the stars finally made their debut, the canopy shining overhead did not strike me as something that should be referred to as a “dark sky.” Wind Cave was dark. This was the brightest sky I had ever seen.
Rising up from the east, the Milky Way slowly streaked across Great Basin’s horizon—it looked like the heavens had been ripped apart. This wasn’t some faint constellation where you have to struggle to connect the dots just to see a shape that vaguely resembles a bear chasing after twin crabs. This was an unmissable interstellar Grand Canyon, a massive band of light so brilliant it cast shadows on the ground.
I was transfixed. It was hard to comprehend that all of these thousands of stars had all been up there all along, hiding in plain sight. I realized that all other supposedly beautiful starry nights of my life had been symphonies with notes missing. At Great Basin, I was finally able to appreciate the full composition.
An astronomer would tell you that I was still only seeing a tiny fraction of the universe. The human eye, under the best of conditions, can see fewer than 5,000 of the billions of stars that shine in our galaxy alone. As I tried to take them all in, I wondered if the limiting factor was not the eye, but the human brain. Throw in even a few dozen more bright-white pinpricks and it felt like my head would explode.
When I occasionally lowered my gaze to rest my neck for a few minutes, I could see the heads of a hundred other tourists craned skyward, their eyes wide with wonder. Annie had set up telescopes in the parking lot for anyone who wanted to take a closer look. When I walked over to one to peer at Jupiter, I met a troop of Boy Scouts from Farmington, New Mexico, who had come to the park to earn their astronomy merit badges. I asked one of the Scouts if the sky was different than what he was used to seeing back home.
“I can’t see any of this back home,” he said. “It makes me think, our world is so small, and the galaxy out there is so big.”
At an age when most kids think they’re the center of the universe, the stars of Great Basin helped remind this kid that he wasn’t. That none of us is.
For most Americans, this kind of cosmic insight is increasingly hard to come by. More than two-thirds of the country lives in areas where the Milky Way can’t be seen from their backyards. While today we know far more about the cosmos than any generation in history, we see far less of it.
When the International Dark-Sky Association announced in 2016 that it was recognizing Great Basin as a “Dark Sky Park,” program manager John Barentine told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that Great Basin was “as close as you can get to what the night sky might have looked like before the invention of electric light.”
It’s easy to forget that the era he was referring to wasn’t actually that long ago. Lights have only been obscuring our view of the sky for a century and a half—Thomas Edison’s company didn’t start selling bulbs until the 1880s, and it took a long time for cities to turn into the glistening metropolises we know today. But our world keeps getting brighter and brighter. The direst predictions estimate that, by 2025, there may be no dark skies left in the Lower 48.
Before it could be certified as a Dark Sky Park, Great Basin first had to adjust its lighting fixtures to all point downward. The bulbs around the visitor center were retrofitted to use low-wattage red lights, a color that allows our eyes to stay better adjusted to the dark. (That’s why everything from the numbers on digital alarm clocks to the insides of submarine control rooms is illuminated red.)
Most important, the park strove never to use more light than necessary. When something wasn’t in use, it was switched off. That’s how easy it can be to address light pollution. It literally can go away with the flick of a switch. Light pollution is reversible.
Parks, with their charge to preserve, “unimpaired,” our natural resources, have an ecological responsibility to consider the impact of light. Artificial light sources can cause massive disruptions to the circadian rhythms of animals in the parks and impact the relationship between nocturnal predators and their prey. Lights can also disorient species that rely on the moon and stars for navigational cues.
Every year in Florida, millions of sea turtle hatchlings die when they waddle off in the direction of artificial light sources along the beach, mistaking the glow of condos for the light of the moon. Frogs, which croak at night to find a mate, may never realize it’s night if it’s too bright outside. If the males can’t get in the mood to make their baby-makin’ music, then the females don’t mate, and the frog population dies out.
Beyond the environmental impact of light pollution, seeing the stars at Great Basin reminded me that the night sky itself is a resource worth preserving. The view of what lies beyond our world can be just as powerful and transformative as any of the scenery found on its surface. Unfortunately, protecting that view is beyond the power of a few Dark Rangers. The view of what lies beyond our world can be just as powerful and transformative as any of the scenery found on its surface.
Excerpted from Leave Only Footprints by Conor Knighton Copyright © 2020 by Conor Knighton. Excerpted by permission of Crown, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.