day one: California, Nevada, Utah
Distance traveled: 818 miles (1316 kilometers)
Route: From Santa Rosa to I-80 via Highway 12, 80 all the way to Salt Lake City, then south on I-15 as far as Provo.
I left for Swan’s Island on the morning of May 10th, the Splendor Hyaline loaded down with somewhere between 500 and 1,000 pounds worth of books, records, audio equipment, and assorted household items. Packing had been down to the wire since the stuff that I shipped from Japan had arrived only two days earlier after a long delay that was the result of my cardboard container cube being singled out for an extra special round of x-ray screening (maybe it was all of the audio equipment that did it). I had hoped to leave a week earlier and make my way leisurely across the country, but I needed to be on Swan’s Island by the 20th and so it was time to, as the saying goes, put the petal to the metal and chew some miles.
“Chewing some miles,” isn’t the phrase usually associated with driving down Highway 12 through Sonoma Valley (the “Valley of the Moon”); instead, people usually think about drinking wine and meandering from vineyard to vineyard, all the while complaining loudly about the bumper-to-bumper weekend traffic. Since it was a weekday, there wasn’t so much tourist traffic to contend with, but 12 is never the fastest of routes — there’s always someone craning their neck to take in the glorious views of the oak-covered hills that rise up in the distance behind fields of grapes. And this is actually not a terrible thing, because the slowdown gives you time to crane your neck as well, and take in the glorious views. One thing that always strikes me when I’m back in wine country is the sheer amount of money floating around the place these days: impressively elaborate (and impressively expensive) sculptures that have been commissioned by wineries dot the landscape; wineries line the hillsides looking not so much like farms as they do chateaus; and BMW follows Porsche follows Mercedes follows Audi follows Lexus follows Jaguar (you get the drift). And what always strikes me after this is the enormous disparity between this level of wealth, and the standard of living of the workers — most of them from Mexico or other points south — who are responsible for removing the grapes from the vine so that they can end up as wine.
In any case, the beautiful oak tunnels of Highway 12 ended soon enough, and then it was on to Interstate 80, which — after The Nut Tree — is pretty unremarkable until it begins to wind up into the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The last time I traveled through this stretch of mountains was aboard the California Zephyr, a much more leisurely trip. Still, there are incredible views of the snowcapped mountain peaks when you arrive at the summit of the Sierras, even if there’s really nowhere good to stop to take photographs unless you’re going the other way. Also, at one point, I was passed by a jolly fellow with a huge white beard who was sporting a license plate that said “ON DSCHR.” Since it’s currently off season, I wonder if the gentleman who was driving isn’t a member of the Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas, an organization that’s been in some turmoil lately.
I’ve driven the stretch of Interstate 80 between California and Salt Lake City a couple of times. One thing that has changed since I first traveled across the desert stretches of Nevada with my family when I was 15 is the speed limit. When my family and I drove across the country, there was still a national speed limit of 55 mph in place, but now the speed limit through Nevada reaches 75 mph at points. This, of course, means that you can get away with driving anywhere from 80 to 85 mph, and the desert speeds by. The downside of this change is that it’s a lot more difficult to stop and take photographs when you’re traveling at 80 mph than when you’re traveling at 55 mph: by the time you realize there’s a good photograph coming up, or a turn off for a ‘scenic view,’ you’ve most likely already passed the opportunity up.
The other thing that was really different on this trip was the sheer amount of water in the desert. At points there were even vernal pools that had ducks lazily floating along the surface. This is in stark contrast to the time my family and drove this stretch in our Volvo D70 and huge tumbleweeds were vaulting across the road. (Have you ever hit a tumbleweed in a car? You expect them to get caught under the front end, but they’re generally so dry by the time they start to tumble that they simply disintegrate.) All of the water in the desert made Nevada look positively lush — at least compared to its usual desiccated state — though the rainfalls that have resulted in a such a verdant landscape in Nevada have also caused the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers to overflow their banks. In fact, rain and unseasonably cold weather followed me all the way across the country to Swan’s Island, where a local plumber told me that it had been the coldest, wettest May in living memory.
I’m sure that settlers headed west along the California Trail would have been glad for any water they could get their hands on as they trekked across Nevada. Compared with today’s 75 mph speed limit, I can only imagine the tortuous pace at which a line of wagon trains would have trundled along. If a day of driving through what most people see as a flat and desolate landscape can produce head-nodding ennui, imagine what weeks of grinding through the same landscape must have been like for all those bonneted wagon riders. Of course, today the California Trail is a trail for big rigs, a high-speed delivery route that pulses with the arterial rhythms of capital. The western migrations that occurred in the United States were also part and parcel of capitalist expansion, of course, but it’s not until you spend a full day driving Interstate 80 with convoys of corporately-branded delivery trucks that you realize that the assembly line extends far, far outside of the factory walls.
One of the things that I love most about driving into Salt Lake City is seeing the surreal expanses of the salt flats, but it was dark by the time I arrived and — unlike the time I rode the California Zephyr — there was no moon to light the flats up like snow. This almost complete lack of light made the sudden late-night appearance of the Deeth Star Valley turnoff sign all the more eerie. The truth was that I had started later in the day that I anticipated, and now I was reaping the fruits of my poor planning: a mind-numbing drive along unending, unchanging freeways through hour after hour of darkness.
When I finally pulled into my friends’ driveway in Provo, it was after midnight, and I was grateful to get out of the car. It took my body a little while to adjust itself from driver’s-seat shape to the more various series of inside-the-house shapes that we’re more used to living with, but the rum and coke that my friends Chuck and Cindy offered up to me was the perfect thing to wipe away the miles. I hadn’t seen Chuck and Cindy for six years, and it was wonderful to see them again. Somehow, with your best friends, it never matters how long it’s been since you’ve seen them — everything snaps back into place as if no time has passed at all. I had actually been hoping to arrive in Salt Lake City early enough to catch Chuck, a former member of Monsula and Harvest Theory, play a house party with the band he’s been playing with most recently (SLC punk!), but the party was long over by the time I got there. Instead, we spent an hour or so catching up before I was banished downstairs to the play room where all of Chuck’s records, guitar amps, hi-fi gear, and childhood (and adult) tchotchkes reside, including a couple of Robokon figures.
In the morning, when I woke up, I was treated to a view of the Rocky Mountains, which rise up, snow-covered, right behind Chuck and Cindy’s house. For breakfast I had a cinnamon roll and some amazingly delicious Thai-style fish with rice that Cindy made, as well as a couple of espressos straight from the Pavoni. Then, all charged up with friendship and caffeine, I was off to Boulder.
Filed under: personal, sweet story of Trout Monroe, travel | 2 Comments
Tags: California Trail, cross-country trip, desert, driving, I-80, Interstate 80, Nevada, Sierra Nevada Mountains