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The great white flats stretch away from Route 40 to a very distant horizon. In between there is nothing to climb or avoid, nothing to distract man or machine. It seems inevitable that certain people would find this place and set it aside as a temple for the worship of pure speed. The sense of the place is hypnotic, the speed fever that rises from the Bonneville Flats is contagious.
From the highway, a single salty access road leads into the heart of the flats toward the speed altar. The speedometer on a soft, flabby, rental car begins to climb: 75-80-90-95. Energy conservation, the law, safety be damned. The compulsion is strong. Go, go, go. Gotta go now. Let the car fly. One becomes Ab Jenkins in his Mormon Meteor. Craig Breedlove in Spirit of America. Go, go, go.
On a July Saturday here people are water-skiing, trout fishing, shooting skeet, motocrossing, rounding up wild horses, riding bulls, playing basketball and baseball. Making allowance for its small population and specialized environment, there are as many and as varied things going on in Nevada as anyplace else. However, it is hard to remember this because everything else seems dwarfed, overshadowed by The Game: the poker-keno-roulette-baccarat-blackjack-crap-slot game that goes on continually in casinos, restaurants, motels, hamburger joints, gas stations and drugstores.
At 10 o'clock on a Saturday evening in Battle Mountain, a middle-aged woman is playing roulette in the Owl Club casino. A boy and a girl come in and tell her about a picnic which they say featured some superior watermelons. The woman appears to listen but does not take her eyes off the wheel and continues to shuffle chips between red and even. At 8:30 on Sunday morning the same woman is playing blackjack in the Owl Club casino.
It seems perfectly proper and even friendly to inquire of a model-plane enthusiast about his addiction. It does not seem proper or friendly to ask the same questions of a roulette-blackjack player.
Across Nevada, from Salt Lake City westward, Route 40 is clearly in trouble. Like a drowning creature it keeps sinking under an interstate, resurfacing briefly and then disappearing again. Still, in this 500 miles wherever the new highway has been laid on top of the older one, it is at least decently marked with a double number, indicating that the route is both the interstate and Route 40. Then somewhere between Harolds Club in Reno and the upper Truckee River even this gesture is abandoned. The last Route 40 sign is met on the Reno bypass. There is no announcement or plaque calling attention to the fact that this is the last time our greatest highway will be called by its own name. Thereafter it is simply not mentioned.
From the California state line westward, what was once Route 40 is a freeway, but at least it is Interstate 80, which suggests some numerical connection. A good California-type sign on the freeway would read: "Interstate 80—the Son of Route 40."
DONNER LAKE, CALIF.
Donner Lake lies just off Interstate 80, more or less at the crest of the Sierra. On its shores is a state park that memorializes the famous Donner party, the group of emigrants who came to terrible and gruesome disaster here in the winter of 1846-47.