On the Road: 5 Scenes from a Classic Western Road Trip
Nevada. A few miles from the California line, heading into the setting sun, I have to put my hand up to shade my eyes, so bright is the starflash on the windshield.
Signs have warned, in wordless 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 a dozen 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?
Alturas, way up in the northeast corner of California on the road from Bishop to Bend, Oregon. The marquee over the redbrick cinema advertises Jack the Giant Slayer, but with a few letters missing. The timber industry collapsed here in the 1980s.
The car ahead of me starts to turn right but brakes suddenly. There’s someone in the side street, a woman in pink pants moving very, very slowly, behind an aged cocker spaniel. I stare, fascinated, and rude, because she catches me at it and glares daggers through my windshield—crazy eyes and a toothless snarl that unsettle me for miles along the road to Surprise Valley.
Lake County, 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 beside U.S. 395.
Some barns are still standing. Others have experienced what a neighbor of mine once referred to as a “flatdown.”
There’s 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, a model out of the 1940s or ‘50s. An Allis-Chalmers, with six-foot-tall rear tires 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 looks content, not haunted like Evans’ Depression-era portraits. He’s driving a remarkably straight course, at 25 mph, bouncing on the steel-spring seat.
Bishop, California, where my daughter, Cecily, tells me that Convict Lake, up one of the steep canyons that slice into the granite wall of the Sierra, now has a gourmet restaurant, 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 emerged here, hot and tired from a weeklong, 100-mile hike on the John Muir Trail. I was practically hallucinating. 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 store: cold and sweet and juicy beyond measure. And here it all is again, rushing up in me as we drive by 48 years later.
Utah. The I-15 corridor is too far behind me to turn around. But I’m tired and need to sleep. It’s been a nearly 800-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.
Over the top and down the Price River Canyon, past the coal mines and coal trains only imagined behind impenetrable black walls. Then out again into the open where the moon looms on the eastern horizon. Huge, two days past full, climbing over the Book Cliffs and lighting the valley cantaloupe orange.
This essay first appeared in High Country News.