Strange Disappearances on the Highway of Death

Meandering straight across the continental United states, from San Francisco, California, to Teaneck, New Jersey is the vast Interstate 80, also called simply I-80. Constructed between the years of 1956 to 1986, and sprawled out over 2,902 miles of historic travel routes, I-80 is one of the most ambitious highway projects ever attempted in the country. It is also perhaps one of the most vital, an artery through the country along which countless travelers and truckers surge day in and day out. One portion of this major road cuts through the northern part of the state of Nevada, and this expanse cuts through some of the most unforgiving and lifeless wasteland in the United States, with long stretches populated by little more than desert scrub and tumbleweeds. Here one can travel hundreds of miles without seeing any sign of human life, and at night it turns into a black expanse of oblivion, which has all earned this particular stretch of highway the nickname “The Big Lonely.” It is here along this swath of barren badlands that an untold number of hapless travelers have made their last journeys, vanishing off the face of the earth in one of the bleakest places in the country.

On September 21, 1978, 73-year old Nan Dixon left her home in Grass Valley, California to embark on a 3-hour drive to Seven Troughs, Nevada to visit her brother and his family. In 1961, Nan had invested $6,000 in her brother’s gold mining operation, but had gotten cold feet and wanted out, so she was making the journey out there across I-80 to get her money back. She would never arrive at her destination and no one would ever see her again. The only clue as to her whereabouts was a credit card bill for $4.18 in gasoline, which had been purchased at a Texaco gas station in Lovelock, Nevada, but a thorough search of the rather remote area turned up no sign of the missing woman.

I-80 in Nevada

For years there was no clue of what had become of Nan, until 1982, when some hunters stumbled across Nan’s yellowish-green four door 1976 Datsun B210 abandoned in a desert ravine near the Seven Troughs turnoff with half a tank of gas still in it. Oddly, the car was found in a place that had been previously extensively searched, and it seemed as if it had been intentionally driven off the highway, perhaps in an attempt to hide it. Other spooky clues were found within the vehicle itself. There were discovered four cartons of empty cigarettes, which was strange since although Nan was a smoker these were not her usual brand and no one could figure out how the women could have smoked so many on a 3-hour drive. Also found within the car were some pieces of black electrical tape with hair attached to them, as well as what appeared to be bloodstains on the trunk mat, as well as on the tire rim. A note was found scrawled on a crumpled piece paper that seemed to hint at suicide, but no one knew for sure and it is mostly illegible except for a portion which supposedly read:

…keeps telling me to use my gun and end my nightmare, but this I’ll never do for God gives life, only God can take life, committing suicide is the unpardonable sin and I will never be…

What could this possibly mean, if anything? Was this a suicide note or just mindless ranting? No one knows. Although this looked like suicide or a murder, Nan’s body was nowhere to be found. The case went completely cold, and was classified as either a suicide or foul play, although no further evidence was turned up and family and friends denied that Nan had been suicidal. Some have said that she was probably killed by a serial killer or that she had stumbled across a drug drop and been silenced, and then her car later dumped in the location where it was found. Another possibility is that she accidentally crashed her car and then walked off into the wilderness to get help, after which she had gotten lost and died out in the harsh desert, but without a body it is difficult to say for sure. Unfortunately, since the vehicle was later sold at an auction and most of the evidence lost, and because Nan’s body has never been found, there seems to be very little chance we will ever know for sure, and Nan Dixon’s mysterious disappearance remains unsolved.

Nan Dixon

In 2006 there was also the spooky disappearance of 62-year-old Judith Casida, who on February 14, 2006, Valentine’s Day, wrote a note for her husband expressing her unhappiness with their marriage, telling him she was leaving him, and then hit the road in her white 1991 Mazda pickup truck. No one knows where exactly she was headed, but it has been speculated that she was perhaps on her way to visit family in Oregon. Regardless of what her intended final destination was, Judith was spotted at a McDonald’s in Lovelock, Nevada and this is the last time anyone would ever see her again.

A few weeks later, in March of 2006, Judith’s truck was found abandoned on a rugged strip of dirt road off the rural, isolated Pumpernickel Valley Exit 205 along I-80, near the small town of Winnemucca, Nevada. The truck was in perfect working order, was found to not be stuck or crippled in any way, and it also was shown to have a full tank of gas. There were no signs of a struggle or of any sort of foul play, and a single set of footprints were found to lead away towards the nearby I-80. It was baffling because her truck was in good condition and full of gas, so there was no reason for her to need to hitchhike or to have even stopped at all. Why did she get out of her truck and head to the highway in this rough, remote area? No one knows, and Judith Casida hasn’t been seen or heard from since.

It is interesting to note that Casida was last seen in Lovelock, which is where the last gasoline purchase had been made by Nan Dixon decades earlier. Eerily, another mysterious vanishing happened in the same exact area in 2011. On April 13th of that year, 86-year-old World War II veteran Patrick Carnes was driving along I-80 on his way back to his home in Reno, Nevada after visiting family in Ohio, and along for the ride was Lucky, his 100-pound Akita/mixed-breed dog. At approximately 9 PM that evening, Patrick was pulled over going westbound on I-80 near the town of Wells, Nevada, by a highway patrol officer after failing to change lanes when he passed the officer’s parked cruiser, which had been stopped in order to pull over a big rig truck and trailer. It soon became apparent that Patrick had actually been following the big rig for some reason, which he would explain to the officer thus:

I’ll never drive at night again. I’m only following him because he’s going to Elko.

It was cryptic to be sure, but the officer let Carnes off with a warning and the elderly man continued in into the inky blackness of the desert night. Although the highway patrol officer could not have possibly known it at the time, this would be the last time Patrick Carnes or his dog would ever be seen. Around 9 hours later, Patrick’s green Subaru station wagon was spotted 150 miles away, at Pumpernickel Valley Exit 205 near Winnemucca, oddly enough. The car had plenty of gas, was in good condition, and there were no signs of foul play of any kind to be found, yet the man and his dog were gone. Besides the absence of Carnes and his dog, there were already some oddities with the state of the vehicle. It was noticed that the car was sitting on the south side of the highway, but since he had been traveling west it should have been on the north side, meaning that Carnes had changed course for some unknown reason, which was odd considering there was a map in the vehicle that had stopoff points for the journey clearly marked down, all heading west and none of which included Exit 205.

A massive land and air search was launched of the surrounding desert terrain, and ground penetrating radar was even used to examine the many abandoned mines that dot the area, but no trace of the man nor his dog was found, not even footprints. It did not go unnoticed by police that the case bore a striking similarity to the disappearance of Judith Casida 5 years earlier, whose vehicle had been found in more or less the same spot and which had also been in perfect working order with no signs of struggle, and it was thought that there was perhaps some link between the two. Although there was no evidence to directly link the two together, it was nevertheless seen as a rather macabre and eyebrow raising coincidence, and there was speculation that both could have fallen victim to a serial killer or killers.

Patrick Carnes and his dog Lucky

One of the first clues investigated was the big rig truck that Carnes had been following on the night he was pulled over, as it was considered that the driver could be a person of interest in the disappearance. Dashcam footage of the truck was analyzed frame by frame, and the only possible useful clue found was a logo upon the trailer, but it was too blurry to make out. Other than this, there is nothing to go on at all, and although hundreds of tips leads have poured in over the years, none of these have led anywhere, and there has never been any contact from the trucker seen in the dashcam footage. Patrick’s desperate family and frustrated law enforcement have even turned to psychics and remote viewers, who have also not been able to divine much about the strange vanishing, although one psychic said they believed that Carnes had been abducted by two “foreigners.” Neither Patrick Carnes nor his dog Lucky have ever been seen again.

If these people were the victims of some psychotic killer or killers prowling I-80 it would not be surprising at all and certainly not the first time this has happened in the region. Over the past 30 years, there have been hundreds of mysterious disappearances and deaths reported from I-80, in particular the portions that pass through Utah, Northern Nevada and parts of Northern California, which have an abnormally high concentration of such cases. In many cases, human remains have been found which have never been identified; an anonymous body here, desiccated skulls or bones there, more often than not bearing signs of homicide. An inordinate number of these unidentified bodies and remains have further been charred and burned beyond recognition, as if the killers were trying to burn away any evidence. There have been so many unsolved deaths here and bodies turning up that the FBI has even created a task force specifically dedicated to the disappearances and murders of I-80.

With the sheer empty remoteness of vast stretches of I-80 and the myriad options for disposing of bodies in the bleak desert wilderness, the highway is undeniably an attractive hunting ground for killers. This is some of the most remote land in the United States, where one can drive hours without seeing a single sign of civilization or another human soul and patrols by police are infrequent. This is a desolate, lawless wasteland where one could be stalked by a serial killer, murdered, and disposed of without anyone ever being none the wiser or ever even finding the corpse at all. Could serial killers or sadistic truckers be using I-80 as a hunting ground? Definitely. Is it possible that the cases that we have looked at here are similarly the result of human predators and are even connected? Absolutely. However, there has been so little evidence to any of these vanishings or deaths that there has been very little progress made towards solving any of them or finding any meaningful connection between them, and they remain cloaked in shadow, their culprits still free and prowling this moonscape of a road.

What happened to these people? Did they simply leave their old lives behind to perhaps start anew, shucking off their former selves like a discarded shell? Were they targeted by murderous maniacs or serial killers and their bodies simply not found yet, festering away in the arid wilds of this sun blasted place? Are the causes of some of these cases of mysterious deaths and disappearances something more, as perhaps I have a first-hand glimpse into, with my own experience along I-80 and very near this area? What is going on here and why does this remote stretch of forbidding highway invite so much sinister mystery and death? It is unclear whether we will ever know for sure.