The Big Empty |

The Big Empty

RENO, Nev. (AP) ” This week’s news reports about missing aviator Steve Fossett have been filled with references to the barren and empty landscape he was flying over when his plane disappeared.

But from outside Nevada, it’s hard to fully appreciate just how expansive, how desolate the wide open spaces of the state can be.

Superimposed over a U.S. map, Nevada’s 110,000 square miles would stretch from New York City, west to Pittsburgh and south to Myrtle Beach, S.C. Then remove nearly all the people.

While Nevada’s population has been the fastest growing in the nation for most of the last three decades, it averaged just 18 people per square mile in 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That compares to a national average of 80 people per square mile and 1,134 in New Jersey, the nation’s most densely populated state.

Even that doesn’t tell the whole story. Some 2.3 million of Nevada’s nearly 2.6 million residents live in just the two counties that include Las Vegas and Reno. Across the rest of Nevada, there are fewer than three people per square mile.

“There’s just very, very few human beings out there,” said Guy Rocha, Nevada’s state archivist.

So much of the state is so desolate that the Web site of the Nevada Commission on Tourism urges visitors to carry plenty of water and gasoline when traveling to many of the destinations it lists. Cell phone coverage is spotty, and often nonexistent.

The area of northwest Nevada where the search for Fossett is concentrated is considered one of the state’s most barren regions and has been relatively unchanged for more than a century.

“I don’t think the general public watching on TV really has too much of an idea of just how rugged and remote this area is,” Rocha said.

Outside Reno, Las Vegas and the capital, Carson City, the nation’s seventh-largest state is a vast emptiness.

The severe landscape that marks the overwhelming majority of Nevada is far different from the traditional travel brochures that feature the beaming lights of the Las Vegas strip or the forested ski resorts ringing Lake Tahoe.

Miles of high desert are broken up by hundreds of mostly barren, craggy mountain ranges rising 8,000 to 11,000 feet from dry lake beds and seas of sagebrush. The state has 300 named mountain ranges ” more than any other state in the nation ” and few roads outside its main cities and towns.

“In Nevada, there is a lot of ‘middle of nowhere,'” said Chris Healy, a spokesman for the Nevada Division of Wildlife, which issues licenses to hunt deer, elk, antelope, bighorn sheep and mountain lions.

Rural Nevada is dotted with gold and silver mines, many abandoned a century ago. Irrigation allows limited farming and livestock grazing in some of the valleys, mostly on territory administered by the state’s largest landholder ” the federal government.

One leg of the California Trail, used by 19th century pioneers coming overland in wagon trains, passes through the Fossett search area. It runs from a former Pony Express post into the dry wasteland that stretches to the flanks of the eastern Sierra Nevada.

Few immigrants, however, dared to brave the barren route. One party that made it through in 1853 threatened to lynch its leader because of the deprivations it endured along the way.

“The route was described as ‘strewn with wreckage of prairie schooners (covered wagons), oxen yoke and bleached animal bones,'” reads one historical marker.

Today, the most traveled part of the region is on the eastern edge of the search area bordering Walker Lake, where Highway 95 connects Reno to Las Vegas some 450 miles south.

The quality of the view is in the eye of the beholder.

“The mountains are pretty. It’s scenic,” said Healy, the wildlife official.

John Sullivan wasn’t prepared for the isolation when he first made the drive to Las Vegas after moving to Reno 20 years ago from his native San Francisco.

“Boring. Just so monotonous,” Sullivan said. “It’s just dirt, sand and a couple three or four small towns you’ve got to drive through.”

On the bright side, he said the trip to Las Vegas goes faster than the mileage might suggest because it’s easy to get away with exceeding the speed limit.

“I made it in 5 1/2 hours once,” he said.

Typically, the drive takes about eight hours.

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