One. Nevada. A few miles from the California line, heading into the setting sun on U.S. 6, I have to put my hand up in front of my eyes occasionally, so bright is the starflash on the windshield.
Signs have warned, wordlessly in silhouette, of horses on the highway, and in fact I have seen two small herds of wild ones grazing the volcanic hills west of Tonapah. There are no fences.
In a canyon, coming around a corner, there they are, another band of maybe half-a-dozen dark bays and chestnuts, crossing the road from left to right in front of me.
The last horse across is a palomino, in no hurry. As I accelerate again, he parallels me along the shoulder, kicking dust into the light, prancing and shaking his head as if to say: Little white car, what have you to do with this place?
Two. Alturas. Way up in the northeast corner of California on the road from Reno to Bend, Oregon. The marquee over the redbrick cinema on Main Street advertises Jack the Giant Slayer, but with a few letters missing.
The timber industry collapsed here in the 1980s. Stray papers blow across the street on a swirl of dust. I don’t need gas, but I do need a Monster – ginseng, lo-carb.
The Bronco ahead of me starts to turn right but brakes suddenly. There’s someone in the side street, a lump of a woman in pink pants moving very, very slowly, behind an aged cocker spaniel.
I stare, unintentionally but fascinated, and rude, because she catches me at it and glares daggers through my windshield, with crazy eyes and a snarl that unsettle me for miles along the road to Surprise Valley.
Three. Lake County in southern Oregon appears right out of a Walker Evans photo essay. Not black-and-white, of course. The colors are the gold of last year’s hay and the pale blue of Goose Lake, a shallow, glacial pan that fills the valley on the left side of U.S. 395.
Some barns are still standing. Others have experienced what a plainspoken neighbor of mine once referred to as a “flatdown.”
There’s an H, a dark capital H, in the road a mile ahead. I guess that it might be a tractor, and I’m right. But I’m not prepared for its antiquity, somewhere in 1940s or 50s. A Farmall, or an Allis-Chalmers, with eight-foot tall rear wheels and tiny, T-Rex front wheels.
The smokestack tilts off to one side, belching. The farmer sits just above the axle, on the crossbar of the H, bareheaded, in his coveralls. He’s 21st-century chunky, not haunted-looking like Evans’ Depression-era portraits. He’s driving a remarkably straight course, at 25 mph, bouncing on the steel-spring seat.
Four. California. Cecily tells me that Convict Lake, north of Bishop up one of the steep canyons that slice into the gray-granite wall of the Sierra, has a gourmet restaurant now, along with a thriving wedding business. It’s just a couple of miles west of U.S. 395, so off we veer.
Sure enough, there’s the wind-ruffled, deep-blue lake. And the permanent wedding tent. And, yes, still recognizable behind handicap ramps and patio umbrellas, the old Convict Lake General Store.
In 1965 I’d come out here from a weeklong, 100-mile hike on the John Muir Trail. I’d been hallucinating for days. The freeze-dried food had sustained us, but I dreamed, incessantly near the end, of a cantaloupe sliced in half with a scoop of vanilla ice cream in the middle.
And, in one of the few miracles I have witnessed personally, there it was out of the cooler at the tiny Convict Lake Camp: cold and sweet and juicy beyond measure.
And here it all is again, rushing up in me, driving by 48 years later.
Five. Utah. Spanish Fork and the civilization of the I-15 corridor are too far behind me to turn around. But I’m tired. I need to sleep. It’s been a nearly 900-mile day from Bend.
The road to Soldier Summit twists through the dark. The old Saab’s windshield could be clearer; it scatters the light of oncoming trucks indiscriminately, dazzling my slitted eyes. The worst blindings are administered by the pickups with fog lights, four malevolent, piercing beams roaring back from Moab.
I think about pulling over somewhere. I’ve got a sleeping bag and pad. But where? There is nowhere. Must. Make it. To Price.
Down the Price River Canyon past the coal mines and coal trains, only imagined behind impenetrable black walls.
Then out finally again into the open. And there on the eastern horizon is the moon, huge, two days past full, climbing over the Book Cliffs, lighting the valley cantaloupe orange.