Motorists have plenty of reasons to stop in Las Vegas, but for those whose final destination is Ely, Nev., the most important is gas. That's because the three-hour drive north on U.S. 93 is filled with so much nothing that they'll start to ask themselves two questions: First, have those scientists who claim our planet is overpopulated ever driven this route? Second, does Ely, a town of about 4,000, really exist? The answer to the latter, thankfully, is yes.
Upon check-in at the Hotel Nevada & Gambling Hall (501 Aultman St.;  289-6665, http://www.hotelnevada.com, rooms from $35), guests receive vouchers for a free margarita (regularly 99 cents), a free beer across the street at Liberty Club and $2 to play in the downstairs gaming area. This alone is worth the visit, but it's Hotel Nevada's décor that has been attracting visitors since 1929. Casino walls are lined with taxidermy and biker-inspired artwork, and the floor is home to a 1947 Harley-Davidson Knucklehead, a 1947 Indian motorcycle and myriad wooden miniature dioramas. Upstairs, in one of the hotel's 63 rooms, travelers encounter Western artifacts, flat-screen televisions and breathtaking views of nearby Cave Mountain.
The goal in life is to stay out of prison. The exception to this rule is when you're eating at the Jailhouse Cell Block Steak House (211 5th St.;  289-3033, http://www.jailhousecasino.com; no single item more than $29.95), where diners are seated at tables behind bars that give off a jail cell vibe. Its hearty menu includes Basque-style chops, halibut steak and brochette of beef teriyaki that reminds guests they're only pretending to be incarcerated.
During the day, head 11 miles north to the McGill Drugstore Museum (11 4th St., McGill, Nev.;  235-7276, http://www.mcgilldrugstoremuseum.org. Open by appointment only, so call ahead). The shop was open until the mid-1980s, and the merchandise has remained intact since former owner Elsa Culbert closed the doors. Today, guests can sit at the 1930 terra-cotta tile soda fountain while guide Daniel Braddock highlights vintage merchandise such as Ipana toothpaste and Dippity-do styling gel. Once the sun goes down, hop aboard a dinner train at the Nevada Northern Railway Museum (110 Avenue A, East Ely;  407-8326, http://www.nnry.com) for a two-hour excursion through White Pine County on a 19th century steam locomotive. Themes change regularly and include a barbecue dinner, haunted ghost tour and a Polar Express ride that begins this month. Regardless of the excursion, stand on the open-air flat car and watch as the railroad careens through two tunnels, meadows and scenic countryside.
The lesson learned
Based on the numerous murals throughout downtown Ely, you learn that cowboys were much more artistically inclined than the "shoot 'em up" stereotype perpetrated by Hollywood films.
Two nights at Hotel Nevada can cost as little as $80; two dinner entrees at Jailhouse Cell Block Steak House cost about $60. McGill Drugstore Museum tours are free; the average price of a ticket for the Nevada Northern Railway dinner train is $46 a person.