West of Lincoln, I-80 opens up into vast maize, white yellow gold on both sides. There are power lines, buildings here and there, and the wind is fierce and dangerous. I threw on a “This American Life” podcast, and Ira Glass and I struck forward.
I guess along the way I thought about going north to the Dakotas and finding my farmhouse, but the reality of not having a plan was beginning to sink in. My idyllic farmhouse was waiting for me (maybe) but I wasn’t sure about the gumption of finding this place. I had Helicopter too, and was hundreds of miles from anyone that cared about me. Indecision (which is really another word for inertia) kept me west.
At my first gas stop, I had reception again and a message. It was Dally, who was getting into Denver that night and definitely wanted to see me if I was really going to be there. I called her back and caught her at the airport between legs of her flight from Charleston. Yes, I’d be in Denver tonight. I was westward bound, and the timing was perfect. We’d be in touch, she was excited, I was excited too to see a familiar face in big America. Mississippi was further as it became farther, so it was good.
I called Ryan too, who picked up and excitedly wanted to know if I’d actually left Biloxi and done it. He was still with Mark, but Mark was on the verge of hitchhiking up to Seattle from Grass Valley, to go from California to Washington, from Jim Schiller and Rad Sean to Rohde, JP, and Erica. This was fine with Ryan; he had tired of Mark as a road trip partner. They’d just finished two-and-a-half months on the road from Montreal to El Paso to San Francisco to middle Cali, stopping in Home Depot parking lots when they ran out of gas and beer money to get short gigs to keep going. “Let’s meet in the middle and figure out what to do this winter, if you are really staying out here.” I was set on it, and told him I’d call him when I was leaving Denver.
So onward, and the excitement boiled in me to the point of thinking about getting a beer to settle the nerves as I descended down I-76 into Denver. When the interstate comes off of 80 in the northeast corner of Colorado, it twists and turns in sprawling loops that seem ridiculous in the flat topography. I got past this and drove on looking for a town to get gas and a drink.
When I got to Sterling, I was literally in the right turn lane, but something struck me and on the spot I determined to get at least to Fort Morgan before my beer. I suppose this was a very fortunate decision, as 15 minutes later there were sirens in the rearview mirror.
The trooper informed me that I had a broken taillight and asked me where I was heading with my Astrovan and my Mississippi plates. I told him about moving West to find work, about leaving Biloxi after so long. All the while I switched between this conversation and calming Helicopter, who in her six-month old youthful protectiveness was not happy with this strange man at our window. The trooper laughed at Heli, wished me the best of luck, and made me promise to get the taillight fixed while I was in Denver.
The whole experience shook me up, and I figured fate was telling me to skip the beer. I drove on and called Dally, who was now in Arvada. She got us a hotel room near the Denver Tech Center and gave me directions. She had also called the front desk and given them my name so I could check-in; she had to visit the family for a bit before coming out to meet me. I drove on, found a liquor store on the way, picked up a pint of Maker’s Mark and two tall boys, checked into La Quinta, snuck Heli into the hotel room, and watched Law & Order while drinking whiskey on the rocks.
Dally got there after an hour and drank one of the beers as I sat on the side of the bed with my glass. She talked about how her team had been, how the family had been, asked how long I’d be around, I told her she left too soon and it was really wonderful to see her. Then we made out, and then we had sex over and over again until 4 in the morning. Our ephemeral week long affair in Mississippi was right back in the bed. I guess in sex, brevity of relationship is safe. Lust is easy; episodic sex is finite, and free of worries about the future, insecurities, least of all one’s self. Intense and creative, strong and vocal— it was motel sex of the best kind, and somewhere in the middle of the night we fell asleep.
The next morning we checked out and got donuts. I followed her to her friend Rachel’s, and we listened to the new Ray LaMontagne album over coffee. I don’t remember what we did after that, but that her twin sister wasn’t around and her older sister was. So I played Candyland with Dally’s niece and nephew all afternoon. Her sister and her husband had two dogs, and let Helicopter stay and play in the house. The four of us talked into the evening, and we got drunk once the kids went to bed (not her older sister, who was pregnant, but she hung out too.) I got a blanket and a pillow, and set up on the downstairs couch when everyone went to bed. Dally snuck down after 10 minutes, and we made love in the laundry room. Then she snuck back upstairs and I went to bed on the couch.
I thanked Dally’s sister and brother-in-law for their hospitality and left at about 10 a.m. the next morning. Dally walked me out to the car and said it was really nice to see me again. I told her the same, and she said something to the effect of: “Well, I guess I’ll see you when I see you?” and I said I didn’t think it could happen any other way. Then I drove out of Arvada.
My phone died that day. It had been problematic for a few days, but then the last hours were imminent. I managed to get enough juice in it to pull over on a scenic view in the Rockies, go through the phonebook, and write down the names and numbers of everybody I wanted to keep in touch with. I called Ryan and told him my phone was dying but that I’d give him a call from a payphone in a few hours. He was headed toward the California-Nevada border. We made plans to meet on Route 50, labeled on my map as “the loneliest highway in America,” at the Nevada-Utah border. It was common knowledge that there was a bar-casino at practically every highway entering Nevada, and we’d meet there.
Past Breckenridge and Vail, I stopped in Glenwood Springs for lunch and a few beers. I found the same bar where Doc Holliday had died, unbeknownst to me until I read a street corner plaque. I read that Holliday had died of alcoholism and altitude sickness; in his last moments at 37, he lay on the bar room floor at the Hotel Glenwood, asked for a shot of whiskey, looked down at his feet, said “well I’ll be damned. This is funny.” Then he died.
I marched inside, ordered a double shot of whiskey and a Budweiser and toasted the Doc to nobody in particular. I watched part of a football game, ordered some fries, paid my tab, and got back on the road. I-70 is a beautiful drive in the western half of the state, gracefully twisting through the mountain passes and pitching purposefully the whole while. The railroad tracks mirror the highway (they had to) and I felt twinges of Romanticism every few hours when I overtook a freight train.
I drove on through Grand Junction and crossed into Utah. The sun was setting, which is a beautiful thing in that part of the country. I walked and fed Heli at a gas station in Green River, and bought a calling card at a gas station to touch base with Ryan. The payphone went straight to voicemail so I relayed my progress, that I probably wouldn’t make it to the Nevada border until 10 or 11 Pacific time.
The rest of the drive was long and uneventful. At this point I was simply focused on Nevada, and any scenic or notable detours were out of the question. For this reason, I skipped the last 50 miles of I-70 to instead cut north at Salina to hop a local road to Scipio. Route 50 was the goal. I cut up, down I-15 for 30 minutes, and finally started west from there. With every mile from that point, the plunge was further and further from the Interstate. I’d done the same in Arkansas and Missouri, but Arkansas was just the middle land, not a desert. Even in the dark, as I left Delta, Utah behind and the road became completely black and desolate. Every 10 minutes or so a pair of headlights would emerge from the dark horizon, like faint stars under the huge sky, from 5 miles away, growing ever so slightly over the minutes, then exploding in my eyes right before they became red fireflies in the rearview.
After forever, I reached the Nevada border. The dependable bar/casino/motel was on the left side of the road. I pulled Astro in, where there were exactly two vehicles; one a rusting Buick, the other a no-worse-for-wear black Toyota Tundra with Virginia plates. I rubbed Heli’s head and whispered to her that we’d arrived. I took her out to go to the bathroom, put her back in, and ran into the bar.
There were rows of non-descript video poker machines set off into a den area, and then through a doorway, a single bar top. The bartender was wearing broken glasses and had a dirty blonde and gray beard. He was engaged in an animated conversation with a gaunt bearded man in a Carhartt jacket and old cowboy boots, who in turn wielded a bottle of Budweiser like a speaker’s baton.
My best friend stood up and I hugged Ryan, calling over his shoulder that we needed two shots of well whiskey and two Budweisers. We sat back down and talked about his road trip, what he’d been doing since I kicked him out of Hands On for doing a drunken airport run with a company car back in March (sometimes leaders have to make hard decisions.) I talked about Evelyn visiting her father’s grave the same day I told her I made out with someone else, Sober October at base, Dally, etcetera, etcetera, but it was just good beyond these stories and histories to be drinking with Ryan. The bartender was lively and talked to us about how the government had actually invented a clothes dryer that worked instantaneously, but wouldn’t release it because of secret contracts with Maytag. We entertained this, and laughed and talked about all of the good times, about the great adventure, about old friends. We drank whiskey and beer until 4 am when we stumbled outside, crawled into our respective vehicles, and passed out.
The next morning the sun beat down on the chilly dawn desert. I pounded on the window of the Tundra’s back bed, where Ryan slept in a mess of comforter and sleeping bag. He emerged, and I smoked a cigarette, holding Helicopter’s leash and staring at the cacti.
“So you think you’re really done with Biloxi? You do tend to leave and go back. Like Portland. What’s different this time?”
“They fucked me, you know? They fucked everyone, man. Why would you invest thousands of dollars in a project, promise hundreds of volunteers that what they were doing would add up to something bigger than themselves, and then just quit when it came to the most important part? 30,000 dollars, Ryan. 30,000 dollars of lab tests, of statistical proof, of reportable data. And then for the most important part, the academic write-up? They pull the plug after we slave the entire summer, after I went out day after day and took readings, after I mailed sample after sample to our microbiologists in Florida, after I presented preliminary findings to Americorps from South Carolina to Sacramento. They made my work nothing but Powerpoint graphs and confidence intervals. No peer review, no academic follow through. Nothing.
No, if they can’t manage to do things right, making false promises, not taking care of the ground work, then fuck them. If it’s all about the pony show for the corporate sponsors, then fuck them. I can’t deal with it anymore. I’m out in the desert to write the book, and do some work. Maybe not the desert. I don’t know.”
Ryan nodded in his thoughtful way.
“Well, you have to make money while you are writing, don’t you? I mean the savings will run out. Let’s get construction jobs and just do it. It’s easy. There’s work.”
“Yeah, I don’t know.” I paused and crushed my cigarette in my boot. A brilliant thought occurred to me, and I started going through the luggage and junk in the back of Astro, fishing for N8’s going away present. I finally produced the handle of Knob Creek, opened it, and took a long draw in the sun. I handed it to Ryan, and he did the same.
“Let’s get some beers. And drive to Great Basin National Park. And then let’s get on the Loneliest Highway in America and see what happens. We’ll figure something out. You’re ok going back West?”
“I don’t care where we go, but I’m running out of gas money so we need to find work soon. Let’s do it.”
I put Heli back in the car, went into the gas station next to the bar and bought a 12 pack of Sierra Nevada. I gave three to Ryan, and we got into our vehicles and started off. About five miles down the highway, I turned at the sign for the park, and followed a desert road up some hills, Ryan following in his truck. It was early enough in the morning, 8 am or so, that no one was around. I finished my first beer in that time span and pulled over next to a reconstructed cattle skeleton alone on the long road up to the main park entrance. We stood in front of the skeleton. You know, this is it, man. All of that back there, it’s nothing. I’ll write the story and go on. What are you talking about? Fuck it. Westward. You are hilarious. Yes, I know. Watch this.
I hopped over the fence and walked up to the cattle construction. I grabbed a bone and pulled hard. What are you doing? I ignored Ryan and kept pulling. Finally, it came loose— the whole of the skeleton was put together with wire that ran though holes drilled lengthwise through bones. I pulled and pulled until the wire twisted out of the skeleton and the bone was free in my hands, I turned to Ryan and trudged back to the road, hopping back over.
“Why did you do that?” Ryan asked. I looked down at the bone in my hand.
“I don’t know. We have to get out of here though. Let’s drive. We’ll stop at the next mining town. We’ll stop in Ely. Wave me down if we need to stop, my phone isn’t working. Let’s just go.”
I dropped the bone in the van and got back on the road. On Route 50, there is nothing, sometimes you pass cars, but not often. There was nothing but the dust and Ryan’s truck ahead of me. It was the safest place to drive drunk, I mused, and chugged beers accordingly, blasting “Doolittle” by The Pixies at full volume out of my not good enough speakers. Instead of hiding empty beer bottles under boxes, I threw them out the window, straight up in the sky, and watched them crash down on the highway behind me. I didn’t care— there was nothing here. Ahead of me, Ryan swerved suddenly and slowed down. I slowed down and saw him lean out the window and vomit all over the side of his truck. He waved to slow and I waved back. We continued on for a few miles and found an abandoned historical adobe off the side of the road. We parked behind it, and I stumbled out of the car to Ryan’s passenger side. He looked at me with pressure-tear eyes, pouring beers down the outside of his car and wiping the vomit off with a rag.
“I’ve got to take a break, I feel terrible. Let’s just sleep here for a bit.” That was fine, I could sleep. I walked Heli, whispering that this was the great adventure, exploring the open air rock building, and then finally asleep in my van. It was 11 am.
When we woke up it was 2, and we were good to drive again. We pulled back onto the road and drove on in the sun. We got gas. We stopped at a bar in a single main street town called Austin, which was set down from a mountain— the topography was shifting a bit. In the bar were two solitary men nursing glasses. We had a beer for the sake of having it, although I paid for Ryan’s. We played some video poker, and then got back to it. We’d drive West until we found a bigger city where our homelessness was less conspicuous, find a casino parking lot to sleep in. Between Ryan’s tinted windows in the back of his Tundra and the shades I could pull down in the back of the conversion van, it was easier to hide from vagrancy detection than it would be in a more traditional vehicle.
So we did, and the town we ended up in was a suburb of Carson City called Silver Springs. I went in and did my typical casino trick of spending a dollar at a penny slot machine while getting my complimentary drink, went into the bathroom, took off my shirt and washed my face and upper body, and emerged to coolly walk back to the car. Helicopter was still sprightly and staying strong, and I promised her things would calm down soon, that we were in this together and we had each other. Then I slept again.
When we woke up, we drove to a McDonald’s and each got an Egg McMuffin— we hadn’t eaten the day before, so it was sort of a forced necessity. I brought the map into the restaurant and stared at the Carson City/Reno/Tahoe close-up.
“Dude. Why don’t we move to Tahoe?”
“Sure. There are a bunch of summer houses there that need to be weatherized, I’m sure the seasonality will work in our favor. The snow hasn’t come in yet, we’ve still got a bit of autumn left.”
Ryan thought for a second. “Yeah, that might work. I want to stop at the Carson City Home Depot and set-up a job for next week. But we can drive up and figure it out after that. You want to camp tonight?”
We drove on to Carson City, and I looked up a few thrift stores— I needed to buy a cell phone to switch over my service, and figured I could in the least find the hardware somewhere. No dice, there was nothing there and the actual Verizon store wouldn’t sell the phone without the plan for anything less than $200. So I was still bound to the calling card. However, a good positive out of the thrift store hopping was my purchase of a rainbow-colored scarf that I still have today. Also some sweet cassette tapes: Best of Billy Joel, Peter Gabriel (live), the 90210 soundtrack (figured I’d mail that to somebody at some point as a joke.)
We drove down to the Home Depot, which sat on the edge of the suburban before the desert, and I watched Ryan in action from afar. He pulled down the hatch and sat out in the corner next to the lumber, holding up a cardboard sign that said “Have tools. Looking for work.” He’d been living like this for quite some time; according to Ryan, it was easy because 90% of his competition consisted of illegals, and in the Southwest people were just more willing to hire somebody that was white with a decent looking truck. I guess it was just the reality of things. And within ten minutes, there was an older guy standing cross-armed talking to Ryan and nodding. They spoke for a few minutes, Ryan got a pen and paper from his truck, and scrawled down directions and an address. He got a drywall job for three days next week, at $100 cash under the table per day for a three day job. It was good, and we drove forward to Tahoe.