Lessons From the Road: A Slice of American Life

The drive from Lake Tahoe to Park City, Utah along Route 80 is like traveling across the moon. It is an eight hour trip through the middle of nowhere. A full tank of gas is a necessity. It is important to remember this if you ever happen to be traveling this stretch of highway.

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Route 80 Nevada

The landscape is desert sand, sagebrush, salt flats, train tracks, and an occasional cluster of trucks, RV’s and Port-a Pottys gathered together for a dirt bike rally. Exit signs mark various locations, such as Hot Springs, a place where smoke rises from the desert soil like hot water from a steamy tub but the springs are not a destination. A pipeline runs in a mile long circle and what appears to be a power plant stores energy from thermal springs. Rich and I speculated on what exactly was going on there.

Below the sign for the exit was another sign: No Services. Exits with gas stations are far and few between. If you’re ever driving Route 80 across Nevada, keep that in mind.

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Rock formations along Route 80 Nevada

Economizing, we had rented a small bright red Yarvis. The golf clubs didn’t fit in the trunk so we put the back seats down. It also had a wimpy horn that Rich tooted every once in awhile, making a sound like the Roadrunner. However, the little car that could did occasionally reach ninety miles per hour. Most of the ride we tried to keep to the speed limit of seventy-five. The gas tank was much smaller than we are used to. If I ever rent a Yarvis again, I will remember that.

On the radio, we found a local talk show that filled us in on What’s Happening in Winnemucca, Nevada. Bill, a lifelong town employee passed away recently. He worked at the Water Department, and then Parks and Recreation until he retired. He enjoyed golfing and playing with his grandkids. The local schools in town are being redistricted. One school district has too many kids and the other has too little, so students living at the new apartment complex over by the Good Morning Furniture Store will be sent over to the underpopulated school.

A burst of green would occasionally appear on the horizon and we’d drive by what looked like turf farms or a stand of cyprus  running along a driveway leading to a group of trailers or a small ranch house. A woman on the radio sang, “I hate you. I love you. I hate that I love you.” Rich thought she sounded confused and changed the channel.

There are four exits for Winnemucca, population 7,396.  At the second exit a sign on a building announced Beer and Brothel. Get Off Now. “I suppose that could be interpreted in more ways than one ,” Rich said. The gas stations advertised slot machines but we had a half a tank. The full tank theory hadn’t occurred to me yet. Remember that?

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Winnemucca, Nevada

It was a sleepy, quiet Sunday afternoon in downtown Winnemucca. We needed to stretch our legs and find a restroom. I suggested the Winners Inn and Casino where the New England Patriots game was on the TVs. It was Brady’s first game back. Unable to pick up the game on the radio we watched a few plays. Slot players sat alone dropping quarters in machines on a blue sky day and only one blackjack table was occupied with a woman wearing a flannel jacket and stiletto heels and a chain smoking young guy  in a leather jacket and baseball cap. Leaning his elbows on the table, he looked anxious. He hit on a sixteen. Although my husband never gambles a good friend of his does and he whispered, “You should never hit on sixteen.” The dealer, a woman a little older than me, won the hand and swept his chips away. A rancher in blue jean overalls and a white T-shirt headed into Pete’s Kitchen, a 24 hour diner.

Outside I took a few photos. The bar across the street from the parking lot offered an all day Happy Hour. Back on the road, we picked up a good radio station outside of Elko. Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit, Led Zeppelin’s Dazed and Confused, and Canned Heat’s Going Up the Country. The trippy music set the scene for desert mirages until we lost the  signal and found an old episode of Groucho Marx’s You Bet Your Life. On the west bound side of the road, a tractor trailer was flipped on its side. Two police cars and a couple of auto body shop guys were loading the cargo from one truck to another.

In Elko we stopped at Burger King and got the two for $10 Big Mac Meal Deal. Several miles back Rich said we should get gas at the next stop. After we ate we got back in the car and onto the highway where we blew through Wells fifty miles down the road. Twenty miles east of Wells, Rich shouted, “Shit, we forgot to get gas.” The next town was Wendover, fifty five miles east. The red light came on twenty miles after Rich shared this dire news so we pulled into a rest stop to ask a guy in a truck if he had some gas. Everyone drives around with gas when they live in the middle of nowhere, right? No, not necessarily. If you’re ever driving this road, remember not to take that for granted.

“Wish I could help you, but you’re not going to make it,” the guy in the truck said. “There are no exits between here and Wendover. You can’t even turn around and go back to Wells.”

Luckily, we have Triple A so we gave them a call. They found someone in Wells but it would take about an hour for him to get to us. We  immediately started arguing and blamed each other. I said it’s the driver’s responsibility to keep an eye on the gas. He thought I should have reminded him about the gas. On the bright side, there was a restroom in the parking lot. I walked over to use it and Rich paced back and forth along a dirt bike trail. When I returned a woman in a beat up old truck filled with a kitchen table and chairs pulled in to take her sheep dog for a walk. Her short hair was carrot colored and she was wearing a sweat shirt that said, “Over the Hill? I think you have the wrong person.” She appeared to be in her mid-sixties and was driving a faded blue station wagon, the passenger side dented.

We told her we had run out of gas and on the off chance, we asked if she had some. “Oh gee, I wish I did. It’s happened to me before so I should be prepared, and by the way, I know the Triple A guy in Wells. He’s a good kid. I was married to a gambler and you know what they say. Fill your tank before you go to the casino. You might not have gas money when you drive home.” It has happened to me before, too. I should have remembered the road trip to Florida.

As her dog sniffed around the parking lot, she told us she was moving to Ogden, Utah. She lived back in Elko for twenty years, “the longest I’ve ever lived in a place. My husband said we had to move there and then four years later he dropped dead. I had a good job so I stayed. But now my daughter in Ogden has scleroderma. You know what that is?”

“Some kind of auto-immune disease?” I asked.

“Yes. Your skin stiffens and turns to leather. Your feet curl up, you can’t walk, your face stiffens up, you can’t eat. Your organs, too. I’m moving out there to help her die.”

“How old is she?” I asked.

“Forty-five.”

We talked for awhile about life, bad luck, and her plans to take a road trip with her daughter while she could still get around in a wheelchair. Another dog owner pulled into the rest area and his dog jumped out of the car. Her dog got nervous and she said, “I better go. He’s afraid of other dogs.” We wished her well and then she was off. We never got her name. After she left, we didn’t return to bickering. I rolled down the windows in the car, got out my laptop, and started writing. Rich called some friends on his cell phone and spent the better part of the hour’s wait talking on the phone.

The tow truck driver arrived about forty minutes later. He was a handsome young man who had been working at the tractor trailer rollover all day. The truck rolled over one and a half times but the driver suffered only a broken wrist. “He was lucky,” he said, then told us the cost for the gas would be $11.25. The service call was covered by Triple A.

We got on the road and texted our friend Steve in Park City to let him know what happened. He said he’d have cold beer, red wine, and beef stew in the crockpot waiting for us. Thirty-five miles later we saw the town of Wendover in the distance. A mirage with neon casino signs blinking like stars against a pink and blue sunset sky. In the distance was the Utah border and the Bonneville salt flats. It appeared to be a large lake but as we got closer we realized it was an alien landscape flat as a pancake covered with thick crusty salt that looked like snow. To the west the scene was interrupted by mountains, to the east the salt flats appeared to go on forever and you could almost see the curvature of the earth.

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Wendover, Nevada

The view turned to darkness as the sun set and the stars came out. The moon which was just a sliver four nights ago was now a full half moon. I stared out the window at the passing taillights and thought about how running out of gas isn’t really a big deal in the grand scheme of things. Nobody knows what’s going to happen, how their journey will play out. Losing my Mom this summer was sad and I miss her but my loss pales compared to the road that lies ahead for the stranger I met at the rest stop. In a fortunate life, our parents pass away when we are adults and we don’t have to bury our children. The mother I met In Nevada was moving to Ogden to help her daughter die. A cheerful, friendly stranger at a rest stop who I will not forget, delivering a message to not sweat the small stuff when traveling the road of life.

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