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The loneliest road: A drive down U.S. Highway 50

J. Patrick Coolican drives down U.S. Highway 50-and back to Vegas-to understand what’s so dangerous about social isolation

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Highway 50, seen just after 11p.m. at night east of Fallon, Nev. on Tuesday, August 9, 2011.
Photo: Leila Navidi

A few weeks ago Las Vegas Sun photographer Leila Navidi and I set out on the loneliest road in America, given the title by Life magazine 25 years ago this summer. We drove over U.S. Highway 50’s mountains and across its basins to Nevada’s only national park, Great Basin National Park, where Baker Creek runs fast and a cool wind blows through the limber pine, quaking aspen and Englemann spruce. We talked water with people who are afraid the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s plan to build a pipeline and take water out of their springs will forever alter their way of life.

We passed pinyon pine and Utah juniper and two Norwegian cyclists on the way to Ely, where the town is fighting to save its one daily flight to Las Vegas.

East of Fallon we marveled at the remnants of the “Shoe Tree,” a grand cottonwood that was decorated with hundreds of pairs of shoes until it was recently felled by a vandal. At Lake Tahoe we learned about the fight between environmentalists and developers as the clarity of the lake continues to decline.

Through it all, I thought about loneliness and what it means in a hyper-connected society. I was determined to learn more about it. What I found was stunning and revelatory: Loneliness can kill you.

The emerging field of “social isolation” and its effect on the brain and body is led by John Cacioppo, a University of Chicago psychologist and co-author of the book, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection.

The Loneliest Road

By social isolation, we’re not talking solitude, which can refresh the mind. People can be at their loneliest and most isolated in a crowd. This kind of isolation is stressful, leading to the release of cortisol, a stress-related hormone that can be an important tool in “fight-or-flight” situations. But too much cortisol desensitizes our receptors, burns them out and begins damaging the body. Blood sugar and blood pressure rise, the immune system is impaired, bone and connective tissue formation inhibited.

Loneliness also impairs the brain, including cognitive ability and the executive function—the ability to exert self-control. This effect can be viewed in prisoners who experience long stretches of solitary confinement, as noted by the writer and physician Atul Gawande. The journalist Terry Anderson, captured in Beirut and held in solitary confinement “felt himself disintegrating. It was as if his brain were grinding down.” He would eventually bang his head against a wall until it bled.

William Patrick, a co-author with Cacioppo of Loneliness, says, “We need positive social feelings so much that when we don’t have them, we get sick.”

Why is this so?

Cacioppo and Patrick point to evolution and hypothesize that what made us human and spurred us to victory against competitors was our ability to collaborate, making social interaction an important survival tool. As Patrick says, “We never would have survived as a species if it weren’t for social cooperation. Chimps are fiercer, stronger and were just as smart 7 million years ago. The reason we were able to out-compete chimps is because we were able to cooperate.”

Conversely, to be shunned “was a death sentence,” Patrick says. It had to have been incredibly stressful, leading to a flood of that stress hormone cortisol, as well as a psychically debilitating experience. These traits, the hypothesis goes, survive to this day.

What does this have to do with America’s loneliest road?

I ask Denys Koyle, owner of the Border Inn on the Utah line, whether the loneliest road really is all that lonely.

She tells me the Snake Valley was more cohesive 35 years ago, when people knew each other better. And she says women can indeed suffer isolation, while the men are living their dreams of ranching or mining. But a common threat has brought the community together: “With the water fight, we’re back together again,” she says, referring to efforts by the Southern Nevada Water Authority to build a pipeline to bring water from the Great Basin aquifer to Las Vegas. “It’s a unifying thing for the concept of community,” she says.

The unity of the Snake Valley and its collective efforts in the face of the threatening outsider would seem a perfect illustration of humanity’s evolutionary advantage—they are working collaboratively to fend off a threat.

By contrast, atomized Las Vegas, with its pretensions of “rugged individualism” would seem to be, in its way, unnatural, a taunt against a nature that demands collective action.

Here’s what I’m getting at: Is Las Vegas, and not U.S. 50, the truly lonely place?

UNLV’s Las Vegas Metropolitan Area Social Survey of 2010 indicates that might be the case. Just one-third of respondents reported an attachment to their neighborhood, while just 37 percent reported an attachment to their city. Two out of five say they would rather be living somewhere else.

It’s easy to imagine why we might suffer social isolation here. Most of us are far from our extended families and the social networks we grew up with. We often work odd hours. We’ve built gates to our neighborhoods, which often don’t have sidewalks, and walls around our homes. As a young city, we’re still trying to build the civic, cultural and social infrastructure that other cities have enjoyed for decades.

Cause for more concern? Loneliness is contagious. In evolutionary terms, the socially isolated person is scanning the horizon for threats, unable to give himself properly to social interactions. So, Cacioppo says: “If you get lonely, you’ll have poor social interactions with the people with whom you interact most. And then they have poor social interactions with other people. You become more isolated. They become more isolated. It’s a contagion.”

The implications are significant.

“Absolutely there’s the link between social isolation and social problems,” Patrick says. Recall that social isolation breaks down self-control mechanisms. Is there a city that offers more damaging consequences from losing self-control than Las Vegas?

And what about the impact on our students? Three in 10 Clark County School District students will be shuffled from one school to another during a given school year, a cause of social isolation and thus reduced cognitive function. Suddenly we might have a new way of understanding our place at the bottom of all the good lists and the top of the bad ones: We’re lonely.

Maybe U.S. 50 isn’t the loneliest road after all. Maybe the Las Vegas Beltway is. The thought is saddening, but also somewhat uplifting. Because if we could all work up the courage to give a hearty hello to a stranger or deliver a plate of cookies to a neighbor, maybe that can change.

Read the entire series on Patrick’s trip on the loneliest road at lasvegassun.com/highway50.

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