Greg, the bartender of the Middlegate Station in Fallon, Nevada, doesn't seem all that happy about having his photograph taken. He consents and, naturally, he's ever the polite western gentleman but as the camera is raised, he retreats into taciturn cowboy mode and strikes the kind of pose you'd expect in a circa-1880 picture of Wyatt Earp. 'Come on, Greg,' says the photographer, 'surely working at a genuine Pony Express outpost, you've been in a few tourist snaps, this road isn't really that lonely, is it?'
He rocks back on his heels for a moment, looks towards the car park, which is empty except for our shiny new Chevy rental and an abandoned Fiat collapsing into the earth, then gazes towards the resolutely empty highway and the mountains beyond and turns back to us and the camera. 'Well,' he replies, 'it's not nearly as lonely as it used to be.'
This is Highway 50, one of America's forgotten routes, stretching 4,800km from Ocean City, Maryland on the Atlantic Ocean to West Sacramento, California. Dubbed the 'Loneliest Road in America' by Life magazine in 1986, the frontier spirit of Nevada is still alive and kicking along this stretch of tarmac; forget the heroic history books, most people first came to the Old West because they'd had all they could stand of being crowded, figuratively as well as literally, in the cities and just wanted to be left alone.
Many modern-day residents along Highway 50 have more in common with their pioneer ancestors than with those with a taste for 10-gallon hats and blue jeans who followed.
The 'loneliest road' title was specifically given to the section of Highway 50 that bisects the high desert of central Nevada; and it wasn't intended to flatter. Originally part of the trail blazed by European settlers, and later used by the Pony Express and Overland Stagecoach companies, it was incorporated in 1913 into the Lincoln Highway, America's first transcontinental route, before being bypassed in the 1940s (it was reactivated in 1992 as a heritage trail of sorts).
According to Life, there was nothing out here to see or do and, unless you possessed 'survival skills', you were best off avoiding it. Native Nevadans on the other hand, being a rather feisty lot, took the article's appraisal as a compliment and wear the condescension with pride. 'Come try Highway 50', the tourism council says, 'if you think you can handle it.'
Fallon, once a simple ranching settlement in one of the few valleys blessed with water, is just too close to the bright lights of Reno and the junction of Highway 50 with Interstate 80 to avoid the creep of 'McCulture'. Having the United States Navy 'Top Gun' school 10km outside the city limits probably has an influence, too.
While what remains of its original centre still has a pleasingly pioneer flavour, Fallon is growing rapidly towards the superhighway in typical American small-town fashion and finding any business or institution that sets it apart from thousands of similar places across the country is no longer easy.
At the Gas Store, Fallon's last independent petrol station, the attendant is hesitant to have her photo taken, but Big Ed's B-B-Que turns out to be friendly and a great place to eat. Ed Sanders retired from the Fallon Naval Air Station in 2007 and being from Arkansas, in the deep south, decided that Fallon really needed some genuine southern-style food. He and his family make everything from scratch, 'except the French fries', and it shows.
Only minutes out of town, the countryside turns into some of the most striking and captivating landscapes in America. Between Fallon and Ely, Highway 50 crosses desolate, searing-white alkaline flats, craggy, raw-shouldered ridgelines and towering khaki mountains; it shoots straight as an arrow through featureless, barren valleys and crests seemingly insignificant rises to reveal the vistas beyond, where the September rain has flushed the sage brush with green and yellow.
Although this stretch is deceptively short, not quite 480km, trivial by American standards, on it you can roast to death in summer and freeze to death in winter; in spring and autumn, since the altitude rarely drops below 1,200 metres (and often exceeds 2,100 metres), the weather can change so quickly both could be possibilities. From an afternoon break in Middlegate to an overnight stop in Austin, the loneliest road's half-way mark and the first 'real' Nevada town on it, the traveller rises well over 600 metres and loses a few degrees in air temperature - and a good deal of the 21st century; if Fallon is being smothered by modern American culture, Austin is being ignored by it.
It's what's known as a living ghost town and may be the best preserved mining town of the 1880s - before the silver ran out and development stopped - in a state litter-ed with them. Patronising locally owned businesses is easy in Austin, they're the only ones here, and it speaks volumes that the waitress at the Toiyabe Cafe is on first-name terms with everyone other than us who comes through the door. On prominent display in the dining room is a life-sized cardboard cutout of John Wayne in full cowboy regalia. How could you not love the place?
Sadly, it isn't possible to feel the same way about our sleeping accommodation. The Lincoln Motel might indeed have taken its title from the Lincoln Highway running past its front door but more likely, one suspects, it was named after US president Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), during whose administration the plumbing and furnishings were apparently last updated.
Our next stop is Eureka and it proves to be a good call; it is quite a jewel. A mining community like Austin but more successful, Eureka has less a rough-and-tumble gold-rush atmosphere and more an air of a Victorian-era frontier town that tried to grow into a city but couldn't. It also had mines that sputtered but never totally died and the population is now more than double that of Austin: the latest census put it at a massive 650 souls.
On a weekday morning, of course, most of them are off the streets and hard at work but if you're looking for conversation in any small American community, anywhere that claims to be a general store is likely to have one going. Eureka's store has been the domain of Leona Rowley for 40 years and there's not much that she, son Tony and the gentlemen perched at the coffee counter don't know about their tiny town.
Talk turns to the beautifully restored 19th century opera house and Eureka Sentinel newspaper museum, the Lincoln Highway and the clean, well-kept streets. We chat about Tony's many-times-distant grandfather, who explored the west, and about Leona's years of watching life on the loneliest road and at the end, when Tony eventually persuades his mother to allow us to take her photograph, I am nearly as proud of Eureka as they are.
After a day and a half of reliving the glory days of central Nevada's frontier era, driving into Ely comes as something of a shock. The final town on the 'loneliest' section of Highway 50 rocketed straight out of its humble miner's shack beginnings, shot clean through into the modern era - and stopped dead in its tracks somewhere near 1960. It's such a marvellous representation of small-town Middle America at the height of its post-war vigour it might as well be a film set.
Unlike most cities of its size, Ely's main street hasn't been decimated by competition between giant suburban malls; there are still shops with local names on the front door and you have the feeling there must surely be a drug store hidden away somewhere with a long Formica-covered counter, a soda fountain out the back and children in short trousers slurping cold chocolate malts.
Along the way there are lovely old motels of the sort that once welcomed road-weary travellers all over the US with warm beacons of pastel neon shining through the night and comfortable little diners with booths in earth-toned vinyl and brushed stainless steel peering out through wide picture windows at the passing traffic. There are pickup trucks of every age and description, driven by plainly dressed men who greet each other as they pass by means of the merest lift of a finger or two off the steering wheel; there is even a full-service petrol station where they clean your windshield while they fill your tank.
It's such a pleasant place that standing in the centre of town as the sun goes down behind South Schell Peak and the street lamps switch on along Ely's own short portion of the loneliest road, it's hard to remember that any other kind of America exists. Or why it should.