"The Loneliest Highway in America"
"People would ask me 'How's America?', and I'd tell them I hadn't been there yet."
We decide to take a quiet and scenic route to Canada, and pick Highway 50, the "Backbone of America". Picking it up at Sacramento, we climb to Lake Tahoe, and it's a dirty road, full of that sort of bad traffic associated with rich people getting to their holiday homes. All big hair and perfect teeth in their nice SUVs. I feel I have to continually apologise to the whole world for being judgmental.
Finally, we plunge down out of the Sierra Nevada, and finally I feel that I am truly come to America. Around us, the majestic rocks, ahead of us, the desert. 65 million years of geological history stare me down as we descend into America, with the prospect of almost 3000 miles ahead of us. Excitement rises, I thrill to see the American landscape of my childhood fantasy, all those pent-up years of Western film matinees finally coming to this moment of gentle orgasm.
Disappointment soon rears its head as we swoop into Carson City, and reality proves less romantic than imagination. Casinos and concrete instead of the gunslinger backdrop, tawdry greed instead of spaghetti Western film set. We stop for a meal in an Italian restaurant, and as we wait for our pasta, I scorn the posters and prints depicting Europe, disappointed in myself for expecting more. Still, the bathrooms are clean, and we fill and empty ourselves in the right order and press on Eastward.
"In America, a hundred years is a long time; in England, a hundred miles is a long way"
Road rolls out from under us, and I look at the map, a never-ending expanse of lines heading out across this empty space. In the UK, driving for more than 500 miles would mean winding up in the sea somewhere. Here, it means crossing another state line. I'm apprehensive and excited in turns, and the road arrows on.
We swoop and soar, and Fallon City calls. Actually, it doesn't. It's more like the town of my imagination, a little seedy and run down. Christine tells me that not only is gambling legal, but prostitution, too. I look in vain for a whorehouse, instead we pick coffee in a small cafe. The people are just people, but clearly we're now out of the land of political liberality - the waitress wears a t-shirt that identifies her as a "Western Rancher Against Liberal...something". The coffee drunk, we press on into the evening.
The countryside changes again, as the mountains fall away before the flat salt plains and the road ploughs through the pinkening countryside. We stop to admire messages made from small rocks, painstakingly gathered. John ♥ Emily and Wes Wuz Here 05/04 and stick figures along the roadside. We've seen only a handful of other travellers, and we feel isolated as we stop to watch the sunset, and honour it. The scene is awe-inspiring, truly. And no-one would believe that a sunset could display these colours. No painting would be credible, and no photograph could do it justice. It would need a Turner for that.
The desert is quiet, and dangerous. Everything is spiny and poisonous. I put on some shoes, just in case, and at every stop I walk out into it to absorb the scenery and the quiet.
The quietness is comforting, all-encompassing, rarely broken, and we stand and absorb the beauty of this scene before taking a few photographs, and climb reluctantly back into the car after deciding not to camp out. After a few miles of twilight driving we stop for a pee, near a deserted building, which turns out to be a whorehouse, judging by the sign outside. It's for sale, just in case you're interested.
50 is only the "loneliest highway" in Nevada, and this is why. More than an hour later, we strike Austin. It's a gas station (petrol station, really) and three motels. We pick one, after a warning that there's no working air conditioning. We don't care, as we need a shower and a rest more than anything. The only place with food is that gas station, and I pluck up the courage to go in. Beef Jerky and packaged sandwiches don't appeal, but needs must when the Devil drives. Sleep, to the susurrus of the fans.
Morning, and we refresh ourselves with coffee and fruit. Other travellers are stirring around us, and we pack the car again. Proving that it's a small world, we meet Amelia from Oxford (in England!) and Kym, heading out into the cool of the day with a perplexed kitty packed into their car. We exchange e-mail addresses, hopefully, they'll read this. We wish one another safe journeys and depart on our separate journeys, both literal and spiritual, pagans all, seeking whatever we will find.
Today is Day of the Cricket. Migrating or mating, there are thousands of them on the road, bodies popping under the tyres as we hurtle onward. We try to ignore them, with limited success. They clog the roadside, darkening the pink of the desert soil. Surrounded by beauty large and small, I admire the changing scenery, sagebrush and juniper, chemise and ponderous pine, rabbit brush and occasional willows in the riparian areas.
"This is truly beautiful", I say, "and those who think otherwise are those who complain in their cities, clustering in Starbucks". I don't miss the rush, the neon signs or the people. My heart rises as the country opens up and we head towards Utah.
The Beehive State
We finally leave the land of coin-op gambling and enter Utah. Having tossed the last of the tapes from the glove box, I find my best find so far in the car. Pink sunglasses. With a spangly star on the lens. I peer at myself in the vanity mirror and smile. "I always was a fag-hag", says Christine. She assures me that I look like a Haight Street antique dealer. I don't know about that, but camp it up anyway to pass the time.
Someone had told me that the desert would mean wrecked trucks and shredded tyres. We see no wrecked trucks (nor bleached cattle bones, to my great disappointment), but shredded tyres abound. A puncture could be a disaster here, and each of these carcasses tells its own story of hope and fear. Hope, that the spare tyre will hold up, fear that it won't. There's no cellphone signal here, no roadside truckstop to call from. I'm pleased that we have two gallons of water in the back. I realise that I don't even know whether we have a spare tyre, but keep quiet about that.
We stop in Delta, Utah at the Rancher Motel, for coffee and a gleg at the map, over the worn formica and naugahyde. It's cool here, after the 105° outside. That's hot by any standards, and translating it to 40+ Celsius doesn't help, either. Breakfast is good, ham and cheese sandwiches and home-made crisps, yummy.
Despite the rocky bare bones showing through the landscape, Utah seems dull here, as though Mormon morality has squeezed the colour out. Our decision is to head to Wyoming via I-80. I'm left with questions though. How do people live here? Why did they come here in the first place? After all, beauty is great, but you can't eat it. Oh, and why is it called the Beehive State, anyway?
The Road goes on, and ever on...
Still headed for Canada, we reluctantly leave Highway 50 to head up to Laramie, Wyoming. Back on the "zoom road", I feel that it's all too much, and long for the back roads of America, my own Blue Highways trip temporarily suspended for convenience' sake. I salute you, brave highway, and we will meet again.