Take a trip down this lonely road; It is one of the world's great road trips but not a household name. LINDSAY SUTTON travels the loneliest road in America.
EVERYONE knows about getting your kicks on Route 66. But America's real 'Mother Road' - running more than 3,000 miles from the Atlantic Coast to the Pacific - is the Lincoln Highway.
Now, Highway No 50 may not have the immediate cachet of the classic 66. However, to borrow a phrase, it's the real thing in the eyes of American car enthusiasts.
And this summer, the Way to the West - from Times Square in New York to Lincoln Park in San Francisco - celebrates its 100th anniversary.
Its iconic status comes from the fact that it helped fulfil America's 'Manifest Destiny' in linking the two sides of the country, adding to the 19th century trans-Continental railway connection, and heralding in the new motor car age.
And all this on the very route where the early pioneers braved passing through 'Injun Country' just 30 or 40 years before the Lincoln Highway was completed in 1913.
West of the Mississippi, the celebrated road follows virtually the exact route of the early California Trail.
In Nevada, it traces the route of the famous Pony Express, the mail service where teams of horseback riders delivered letters from the railhead in Missouri to San Francisco in 10 days flat.
Add to that the Overland Stage Coach, and the Lincoln Highway - named in memory of President Abraham Lincoln, of course - has undoubted historic resonances of major significance.
In the once-Wild West, the route passes through central Nevada's isolated High Desert area, well away from the razzmatazz of Las Vegas.
So when you've had enough of the glitz of Vegas - we stayed at the swish Aria Resort and Spa for five nights - you can escape and discover a decidedly different challenge.
Believe me, it's a fascinating experience, travelling the 300-mile Nevada section of the 'Mother Road,' described by Life magazine as "the loneliest road in America".
Life said there were no attractions or points of interest, and recommended drivers to brush up on their survival skills.
It infuriated locals but it turned out to be the best marketing tool possible. It put them on the map; sparked them into positive action; and intrigued tourists so much that it is now a celebrated route to follow. Because boring it is not.
Just over an hour's flight from Vegas is Reno, the "biggest little city in America." It's a stepping-off point for the wonderful Lake Tahoe, with its Alpine-style beauty, but it also has the National Automobile Museum.
You don't have to be a car nut to appreciate the flashback-in-time displays, which showcase the development of the car and American society. The oldest vehicle was made in 1892 and there are The spectacular Caves at the National Park, examples of Henry Ford's earliest models; Laurel and Hardy-style classics; Elvis-era 1950 and 1960 shiny-fin cars; and modern-day cars.
Every summer, the Lincoln Highway Association has celebratory runs across various sections - and the motor museum fits perfectly into the schedule.
Now, what you might not expect en route is the "Top Gun" experience. It's not only where Tom Cruise made the eponymous film, but it's also the Command Base where real-life Top Gun pilots are trained.
Tourist groups can pre-book a visit to the US Naval Air Station near Fallon, just off the Lincoln Highway. In the control tower, you can watch close-by airborne manoeuvres, including dog fights in the clear blue sky.
Lehman Great Basin above "Every day is an air show," says former Naval Intelligence Officer 'Zip' Upman, as you join him to witness state-of-the-art F18 fighter jets take off, flash by and land on simulated aircraft carriers, before being deployed for duty in Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf.
So much for 'no attractions' on the 'Loneliest Road in America'.
In complete contrast, next stop is the Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge, an oasis of calm and serenity.
Apart from being the productive, historic home of the Piute Indian tribe, it's an actual oasis for vast numbers of birds migrating between North and South America.
Then it's off again, spotting the remains of the Pony Express stations and the actual tracks where horses thundered across the vast and haunting open spaces of desert scrubland, ringed by magnificent mountain ranges on the horizon.
Mining is what made Nevada rich, well before Vegas started out as a legal gambling Mecca, and there are several mining ghost towns along the Lincoln Highway.
One place that survived is Eureka, which today has a population of 600 rather than the 6,000 in its early 20th Century heyday.
It has an amazing opera house, still in use; a functioning old-style court house and a museum which is worth seeing.
Next up is the town of Ely, which has a community of preserved early 20th Century homes and a real gem in the form of the Nevada Northern Railway's steam engine experience.
The all-aboard journey is good enough, but meeting up with former newspaper editor turned railway director Mark Bassett is an absolute treat. He's a hands-on, well-informed enthusiast, with a journalist's fine turn of phrase.
Patting the boiler of an ancient steam engine, he says: "We call them 'divas' - they're high-maintenance and expensive to run."
On the nature front, the Great Basin National Park is nearby, with its spectacular Lehman Caves.
The amazing limestone caverns, columns, walkways and wonders are some of the best in the world.
Then it's on to the Ward Charcoal Ovens State Park, where you can walk inside the giant constructions that made the fuel that heated the smelters that separated the minerals from the ore.
By now, you've left the Lincoln Highway and are en route back to Vegas via Cathedral Gorge, with its spectacular rock formations stretching out below you as you walk the line round the vast canyon rim.
Walking down, you can investigate the unique 'slot canyons,' which are narrow slits that stretch 50ft or more above you.
Finally, you're back in Vegas following a three-hour drive to Neon City. We stayed in the Alexis Park Resort, with its low-rise, apartmentstyle suites around a series of three swimming pools, Jacuzzis, sunbathing decks and beautiful gardens.
It was bliss to relax there after the stretching but fascinating trip to see the other side of Nevada. It proved that loneliness can be lovely, especially after Va Va Voom Vegas.
NEED TO KNOW | FIVE nights in Las Vegas with Virgin Atlantic flying direct from Manchester or London, with accommodation at the five-star Aria Hotel starts from PS935, based on two adults travelling and sharing a standard room based on departures on December 2, 2013. | To book visit www.virginholidays.co.uk, call 0844 557 3859 or visit one of Virgin Holidays' 100 stores in Debenhams, House of Fraser, Tesco and Sainsbury's stores nationwide.
Flights from Vegas to Reno can be had for as little as PS100 one-way, available from www.southwest.com. Three days car hire with Alamo from Reno, dropping off in Vegas costs around PS100, too. See www.alamo.co.uk | For latest hotel rates visit Holiday Inn Express, Fallon (www.hiexpress.com/fallon); La Quinta Hotel, Ely (www.lq.com); Alexis Park Hotel, Las Vegas (www.alexispark.com). | For general Nevada tourist information head for www.travelnevada.com. For more on the Lincoln Highway try www.lincolnhighwayassoc.org. For Great Basin National Park it's www.greatbasinpark.com
The spectacular Lehman Caves at the Great Basin National Park, above
| The arid landscape surrounding Nevada''s Lincoln Highway between Fallon and Ely, main picture. Above is one of the signs found on the so-called 'Mother Road' also known as Highway No 50
Lindsay gets up close to a fighter jet at the Command Base where real-life 'Top Gun' pilots are trained