“You treat her kindly, you nurse her engine, you put silver dope on her wings, and what happens?”
~ Beryl Markham, West with the Night, page 54, third full line
A long time ago, in another life, when I was a different person, when I was in my first relationship with a woman, we took a road trip from Denver to San Jose, and when we hit the straight stretches, I would read as D drove (couldn’t do it in the mountains—I’d get car sick). I read to her from West with the Night, and it was perfect reading for a road trip.
Since then I’ve taken many road trips alone, heading east to family in Terre Haute or west to family in California, listening to audiobooks. I love the long straight stretches of road where all I can see is nothing but sky—sky over prairie or sky over desert, sky over Wyoming or sky over Kansas. It’s true that the mountains are beautiful—Rockies or Sierras—beautiful in an obvious way. I also love the stark beauty of the Salt Flats in Utah, images rising like mirage out of all that white.
Nevada from the east, heading west: small towns like strip malls in the desert. Gas prices jacked up. Diners where the food all tastes the same. Fast food drive-through and speedy marts for loading up on soda and powdered-sugar donuts. When I was a kid, long before I-80 allowed travelers to zip past the small towns, we drove through each one of them, and I’d look out the window and wonder who the people were who could live out here in nowhere. Then I’d see a sign for a smaller town, a turnoff, a cattle-crossing grate, and no sign of life down that road for as far as I could see.
Driving the straight stretches is the best, watching tumbleweed blow across the road, turning off the audiobook so I can hear only the wind buffeting the car. I come into a rest stop and see the same cars and trucks I’ve been playing tag with on the last 200 miles of road. I see a woman trucker climb out of the cab of her truck carrying a small dog. A whole family tumbles out of the back seat of a sedan, and I feel grateful for my solitude when I get back in my car. One year I stopped at a diner in Wells, Nevada, ate fried chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy, watched a woman dealing blackjack in the corner of the room they called a casino. In Nevada, you can lose money in the speedy mart and the grocery store, the diner and the laundromat. The sound of loose change clanking against metal is ubiquitous.
I try to get through Reno as fast as I can. It has grown and spread, it sprawls in gray and lights up at night. It tugs the cars off the Interstate and into the streets lined with hotels and casinos and neon lights. The sprawl lacks charm; the city seeks your money—and don’t go home till you’re broke.
I love seeing Reno in my rearview as I begin the climb out of Nevada. And then there’s Boomtown, last stop casino traveling west, first stop traveling east.
Highway Patrol: Did you know you were going 80 in a 65.
Me: Yes, that sounds about right.
HP: What’s your hurry?
Me: My mother needs to put all her nickels in the slots at Boomtown.
He hands me a ticket, tells me to be safe, and we’re on our way.
I always feels a sense of peace followed by a surge of joy when I enter the Sierras and go through the inspection station. I’m home.
We used to have to stop (I don't think they do that anymore), and a guard would come out and ask if you had any fruit or vegetables. I think most people lie. My carrots and grapes came from a grocery store in Salt Lake City. They don’t care about that. They’re concerned about the home-grown stuff that could harbor destructive insects. California is an agricultural state. Back in the early 80s in San Jose, we had weekly visits at night from helicopters spraying malathion to kill the Mediterranean Fruit Fly.
I’m due for a road trip. I’m ready for long stretches of stark beauty and landscapes that trigger my imagination. While Hug drives and watches out for blowing tumbleweed, I’ll read to her, and we’ll travel the many roads of our imaginations across two mountains and one desert, past a bunch of little towns where someone deals blackjack, someone fries chicken, someone drives a tractor and wonders where all those people on the Interstate are going.