The big man in the aviator sunglasses and the logo tennis shirt studied his road map at the rest stop some place west of Deeth off I-80. Steam rose from the hood of his new sedan; the heat was terrible, Nevada in mid-summer, howling in the hundreds. He was bound for Reno, and as he looked at his map, and the labyrinthine course the interstate took there, how far he had to go, he nearly wept with rage. "Why didn't they make it straight?" he cried out. "Just one straight line, all the way across the damned state, from Wendover to Reno? And another one down to Vegas? WHO CARES ABOUT THIS @!*%?! PLACE, ANYHOW!"

That's pretty much Nevada, for many people: an annoying Void between here and there, a barren Purgatory on the way to L.A., Vegas, Frisco, Reno ... real places, places you want to be. It can be a bit much, the endless basins and ranges, the sheer size and uncompromising emptiness of the place. Try driving Highway 93, from Wells in the north to the Muddy Mountains in the south, 400 miles where gas pumps and pop machines seem like shrines, a "CAFE" sign shines in the dusk with mythical, mystical significance, and Rod Serling is in every lonely phone booth, calling in from the Twilight Zone ... It can be a bit much, perhaps.

But that, of course, is also the appeal of the place, an unchecked immensity, wildness, that conceals a congress of wonders, even -- especially -- when it tips toward the crazy, the surreal: when the whole place feels like it has been infected by one of those unstable fissionable elements they play around with at Yucca Flat, reality with a half-life of about zip.

I remember one summer night, driving lonesome old Highway 50 east out of Austin, when the whole planet seemed to be changing into jackrabbits and the beings that feed on them: coyotes, eagles, hawks and owls. Peering out into the light from my high-beams, I couldn't count the lanky lagomorphs hopping and popping on the tarmac, in the ditches, out in the sagebrush. I thought of the ghost dance cult, the American Indian movement around the end of the last century that preached the magical rebirth of aboriginal America, with rivers of buffalo and tides of deer and elk, and I half wondered if it were coming true. Wovokah, the Paiute shaman who founded the cult, came from this same Nevada Great Basin country: If it were going to happen, I thought, this is where it would start. I counted seven redtail hawks, three bald and two golden eagles, a battalion of coyotes and a whole flying circus of owls before the night was over.

You never know what you are going to find out there. Back roads lead to unimaginable and often ephemeral destinations; now you see them, now you don't. POTASH MINE 83 MILES: The next time you pass that way, the mine is closed, its town gone to ghosts. Driving a boneyard basin between blanched, frozen mountains near the California border, an hour from the nearest habitation on the map, you find that someone has opened a cathouse by the highway: a cluster of trailers, a bar, a neon sign leaping with promises: TONI'S LUV RANCH! Who are its clientele? Ghost dancers? Ghosts? Two months later, when you pass that way again, Toni and the girls are gone, trailers and all.

Other roads end in places of astonishing beauty and wildness, places that haven't changed since Wovokah's dreamtime. A climber friend from the eastern Sierra Nevada, who knows that mysterious country well, once took me on a nocturnal drive on a bumpy track out beyond Lida, or maybe it was Silverpeak. We drove and drove, bumping over rocks and wallowing through potholes, and we finally came to a grotto, full of streaming turquoise water, sheltered by palms. Grateful Dead tunes tinkled from an old Day-Glo-painted school bus. There was a whole tribe of people there, who looked like they had shown up for the casting call of "Easy Rider: The Sequel." We spent the rest of the night floating, neck-deep, in the plutonium waters, dreaming on the icy stars.

Other roads lead up through similarly unpromising landscape to green alpine meadows, marshes full of wild birds, trout streams and timber. There are places, lots of them, that you might mistake for Banff, or Aspen, or even western Oregon, stashed away in those multitudinous and forgotten ranges: the Rubies, the Reveilles, the Snakes, the Hot Creeks, the White Rocks, the Spotteds, the Cedars, the Silver Peaks, the Pintwaters and a hundred and one others. I remember visiting a place called Horse Heaven Valley, never mind exactly which mountains, where the snowmelt surged down through willows, aspen and flowering bogs, and the trout seethed in the deep pools like sparks in a fire. Desert bighorn often grazed there, and mountain lions prowled. You wanted to stay there forever, and you probably could have.

Even the human places, the towns, are ... different. In most of them, you find the same kind of friendly, tough, "I don't give a damn who you are or what you do as long as you don't mess with me or mine" type folks you still run into up in rural Alaska, but who have, alas, died out in most of the rest of the West. In the old Basque hotel in Ely, you sit elbow to elbow with sheepherders, prospectors and Indians at the nightly fixed-price Basque dinner, feasting on lamb chops, potatoes, fresh vegetables, homemade bread, homemade wine, pie; it's like one big happy family, only everyone there but you seems to know enough of the Basque language to trade quips in it. It's live and let live, for sure. I know of one Nevada town, a quiet, homey, conservative place, whose Chamber of Commerce matter-of-factly includes the community's three brothels on the official visitor's map and guide to local businesses.

No wonder the state has tended to attract eccentrics, rugged individualists, visionaries: You find them everywhere in Nevada. In the foothills of the Snake Range, for instance, dwell the followers of the self-proclaimed prophet "Vitvan," a forest ranger from the Pacific Northwest who saw a vision of the impermanence of all existence during a forest fire, stopped being a forest ranger and began preaching a sort of blend of Hinduism and homegrown, Western mysticism. Vitvan died years ago but his disciples ended up here, in the soft golden hills bordering the Snakes, on a lovely old ranch. Ask a local Mormon rancher about them, and he has nothing but kind words: "Some real nice folks up there." Why not? Plenty of room in Nevada.

It's wild out there, that's the fact you keep coming back to. You might sight a cloud of dust at dawn, and have it tighten and pull into a herd of wild horses, circling and then suddenly breaking, streaming away toward distant hills. Take the wrong turn, the wrong back road, and you blunder into a gaunt badlands zone where people are still looking for gold, and are very serious about it. Suspicious eyes glare at you from the windows of shacks, and you see one old geezer patrolling his diggings with a shotgun over his arm.

You ask back in town, and someone says that someone else says that somebody, no one knows exactly who, found a pure gold nugget the size of a regulation bowling ball up there last month: decided to give an old claim one more shot, washed the gully wall with a fire hose (hydraulic mining), and the water hadn't been on 20 seconds when the nugget popped out and tumbled down the slope and landed at his feet. "He rolled it up a 2-by-4 into his pickup, drove down to Vegas and sold it to a Japanese fella for $633,000." Such are the dreams of Nevada: wild. Rob Schultheis reports from Afghanistan and works on various film projects in his spare time. SEVEN SUPERLATIVE SPOTS ON THE ROAD ACROSS NEVADA 1. The summit of 13,065-foot Wheeler Peak is the second-highest place in the state, at the northern edge of Great Basin National Park, off Highway 50 east of Ely.

It's a stiff hike, a full-day round trip, but well worth it, with great views, cool midsummer breezes, a giant permanent snowfield and ancient bristlecone pines.

2. The far end of Pyramid Lake, northeast of Reno, is an eerie, primeval place: From the steaming springs, you look out over the glowing turquoise expanse of the lake, where brown pelicans cruise like miniature pterodactyls.

3. If you like rock climbing, or scrambling, or simply hanging out amid spectacular cliffs and rock formations, visit the Valley of Fire State Park, off I-15 between Las Vegas and Mesquite. Note: This is a "Must to Avoid" in summer, when temperatures soar.

4. When pies die, a lot of them go to Nevada, where good cafes and small-town coffee shops survive everywhere. Like Ely, and Pioche.

5. Scenic vistas abound, but especially notable are the dramatic, ever-changing scenes as you roll west out of Tonopah toward the California line on Highway 6: first the White Mountains, anchored at the northeast end by Boundary Peak, one of the lonesomest summits in creation, and then the ghostly rampart of the Sierra Nevada, a spectral presence that announces, "California."

6. Old mining camps and towns (and some not so old) dot the state. Particularly interesting are Rhyolite, a classic pioneer boom town gone bust just east of Death Valley; Goldfield, where the 1903 gold rush began; and Ely, with its gigantic open-pit copper mine.

7. Some of the richest, wildest alpine terrain in Nevada can be found in the Ruby Mountains, south of Elko. The peaks of the Rubies are not particularly high (in the 10,000- to 11,000-foot range, but they kindle deep snows in winter that draw ski mountaineers all the way from the Sierras; in the summer, the marshes are full of waterfowl. -- Rob Schultheis