A clear blue dome encloses all in sight, and plays host to that great white searing orb humanity has in some parts of the world come to call the sun. Cracked asphalt hums by beneath spinning tires, which rejoice to be loosed from the bonds of speed limits – not because they are not technically present, but because there is no one around to enforce them. The valley stretches on broadly ahead, with the road achieving the mythical geometric perfection of a straight line, vanishing to a point somewhere ahead – a perfect illustration of perspective for anyone who has ever had difficulty grasping the concept in a beginning art class. Mountains frame the whole spectacle, sometimes austere and humble, sometimes majestic, snowcapped and forested. Like many who have spent a decent chunk of their lives in the American West, the thought of such a drive plays a rare music on my heartstrings and brings me the sort of calm, warm feeling many look to religion for.
I have spent many days of my life on drives like this. Sometimes they are recreational, with the goal simply to enjoy the open road, clear my head and see some things. Other times they have been compulsory, undertaken sitting in the cramped back seat or sometimes behind the wheel of a Forest Service wildland fire engine. When I was a child, driving was just how we got places. My parents crammed me and my three siblings into the back of a minivan with our luggage and we took off on marathon trips to places as nearby as Colorado or Oklahoma, and as far away as British Columbia and Washington, D.C.. We only ever took a family trip by plane once when I was a kid.
For all my love for long daytime drives across western deserts, mountain valleys and prairies, I have come to experience a more complicated relationship with overnight drives across the desert. I have powered through several such drives that took me clear from sundown to dawn without pausing except to get gas and use the restroom. There is no experience quite like it. I have found no greater source of wonder, mystery, tension, stress and paranoia combined. At least none to be had behind the wheel of a car.
At night that same road that stretches across valley floors and barren playas is seemingly elongated by the dark, it’s meeting point with the horizon or ascent into the hills no longer visible. Those distant craggy mountain ranges cast their silhouettes agains the wheeling stars like the skeletons of great beasts that have died, petrified, and are now rotting stone crumbling out of all recognition. If there is no moon, then the only light is the small pool illuminated by your hi-beams, which suddently do not seem so bright as they once did. If the moon is bright, the softly lit landscape becomes a mass of indistinct silverblue and ghostly shapes – is that a coyote sitting just off the highway right-of-way or is it a bush? Perhaps it’s not something so ordinary, or so benign.
You may pass through scattered small towns – if they can indeed be called as such. Many may appear on your map just as plainly marked as any larger population center, but when you arrive they are nothing more than a scattering of old trailers, shacks, and rusted out cars. One may assume that nobody lives in some of these places, but for the eerie flickering of a television through curtained windows, and the fact that the one street lamp over the two lane highway bathes the whole scene in its gross orange glow.
Legends come to mind on nights like these as you sip weak gas station coffee gone cold since your last stop at any sort of friendly civilization, or chew sunflower seeds to stay awake as I do. The emptier parts of the American West are the setting for many stories of people disappearing under mysterious circumstances, and for tales of encounters with UFOs, and other inexplicable things that frighten those who see them for life. The desert has also been home to outlaws – murderers, robbers and many secretive and nefarious cults, like fundementalist Latter Day Saints, and the Manson Family. At night seeing another set of headlights on a lonely desert two lane highway becomes a startling anomoly. When you see them you wonder; what sort of respectable person would be out on a night like this, in a place like this? The realization that you are one of those people may or may not be a comforting thought.
Late one summer, not so long ago, some friends and I were travelling from New Mexico to a music festival near Lake Tahoe, going by way of Arizona and Nevada. We were driving a rented Chrysler 200 – a truly terrible car, but more reliable than any of the poverty rust boxes we owned between ourselves. After stopping in Kingman for dinner, and then in Las Vegas to stock up on camp food and beer for the festival weekend, we continued north towards Reno, skirting the Amargosa valley along the way. It had already been dark when we got to Las Vegas and though we were getting tired from our long day of driving we were still exuberant for the coming weekend of camping and music. As we left the glow of the city on the horizon, we discussed the bands we were excited to see, the prospect of some cool mountain air after the hot southwestern summer, and of course the stories of alien encounters and secretive military bases associated with the wide open spaces of Nevada. Like many southwesterners my friends and I are generally interested to one degree or another in conspiracy theory, UFOs, the unknown, the unexplained and the generally weird.
We made a brief stop in Beatty, where I pissed in a potted plant in front of a Wells Fargo bank (I’ve since wondered if I was caught on security camera) then we located a gas station where we filled up and bought energy drings and snacks. On we drove into the night, the road ahead only visible in our little bubble of light. There were still a few cars sharing the road with us – just enough that each one was not worth commenting on.
North of Tonopah the road was empty. Almost as soon as we passed out of town we were the only car on the road. Only two of us were able to drive the rental car, and our third slept in the back seat while the two of us up front had been trading off seats all night to give each other the chance to get some light sleep. At about 1 in the morning we realized that the gas gauge was sitting a bit below half a tank, and so we resolved that we would stop at the next town on the map – Coaldale – and get gas. On the map, Coaldale sat at a fork in the highway where our route would turn right and head straight north, there was no other information about the town.
About that time another set of headlights appeared on the highway behind us. At first we only commented on them because it was the first sign of any other vehicle we had seen in quite some time, but before long we realized that they were gaining on us quickly. We sped up a bit, careful not to accelerate too suddenly or drastically and risk wasting precious fuel, but the lights kept gaining on us across the inky void. Who was it? We wondered aloud. Were they simply opening up their throttle on an empty stretch of highway that was certaingly devoid of law enforcement, or had they seen our taillights and begun to chase us? We half-jokingly concocted a morbid scenario where the vehicle caught up, somehow cut us off, and the driver and passengers overpowered us, trussed us up in twine and carted us off to a rusted and crumbling compound of tarpaper construction and ancient trailers where they performed unspeakable acts upon our broken forms while we were helpless to resist.
As we were laughing uneasily about the horror story we had created for ourselves we arrived at the crossroads. Somehow we had passed Coaldale without even seeing it – we could only assume that there had been no gas station there. As we took our northerly turn we saw the headlights in the rearview mirror swing to the left and continue on to the west, away from us. Relieved, we were now free to laugh openly at our fears – but then we became acutely aware that the needle on the gas gauge was now noticeably below the quarter mark.
Our road stretched on into the night straight as the proverbial arrow across wide and desolate plains flanked by distant sinister mountains. Every now and then there would be a slight curve in the road, ever so slow and gentle, and then it would once again achieve that geometric perfection of the straight line. I felt like I could let the steering wheel go and the car would be able to stay on the road for miles without my help. Between the road and the mountains the land was featureless and surreal, but in the car we had tunnel vision. All we could think about, talk about was the road ahead. We read the names of upcoming towns off the map; Mina, Luning, Hawthorne. Which ones had gas? Did any of them?
Finally a lighted area came into view. This must be the town of Mina. Unlike Coaldale this appeared to be a bona fide town, with multiple streets and everything. Our hearts swelled with joy at the prospect of salvation. What a fate it would have been to run out of gas in such an empty and otherworldly a place – those empty valleys with their menacing mountains standing as sentries all around. We have no gas, they seemed to say, nor any water. Mina seemed as good as heaven as we drove up to it.
But it was not.
There was in fact a gas station but it was closed, and its pumps were of the old type that had to be turned on from inside the building – we doubted that they would be operable even if there was somebody inside to take our money. As we reached the edge of the light at the north end of town our panic returned. Would Luning be more of the same?
This was the question that lingered in the cab of the car as we peered forward into the headlamp-illuminated night. The fuel gauge fell ever more to the left and that ominous “E” with its square of as yet unlit orange. The stars spun overhead, unperturbed by our plight. It was now sometime around 2 or 3 in the morning. For my part I had been awake for nearly 20 hours by then and the state of my mind was beginning to reflect that fact.
Luning also had more to it than Coaldale, but less than Mina. Not even a decrepite gas station there, at least that we could see. By now the needle was perilously close to the empty mark, though the warning light had not yet begun to flicker on. Hawthorne. Our last hope, if only we could make it that far.
Conversation in the car had become scarce, tense and a bit snippy. About halfway from Luning to Hawthorne it happened – the orange light we had so long dreaded finally began to come on. I knew from many experiences that this was not the end just yet. There were probably still a couple of gallons left in the tank But we did not know if we would be able to find a 24 hour gas station in Hawthorne or if it would be like the towns we had already passed through – an archaic inoperable pump at best, none at worst.
Fortunately Hawthorne is a military town, with a higher population than we expected and the conveniences to go with such a population. We were able to find a gas station that took plastic at the pump and put some gas in our car’s ass. We continued on to Fernley, where we slept for about an hour in a truck stop parking long and then continued on to our destination.
On our return trip, we stopped for food in Reno, and upon returning to the car discovered that it had a bad battery. Fortunately we were able to exchange it at the rental company for a much nicer car with a proper power source. Had we not discovered the problem then, we could easily have come to experience our worst fears of a few nights before, stranded without power in the middle of one of the loneliest deserts I’ve ever seen.