An excerpt from AVOIDING THE POTHOLES: ROAD STORIES IN A CHANGING AMERICA
Highway 50 through Nevada is reputed to be the loneliest road in the USA. It has a rival, and its name is Highway 6. It takes a northeasterly diagonal the entire breadth of Nevada before vanishing into the wilds of The Great Basin in Utah. It is far more isolated than 50, a hard hot eerie stretch of rocky desert and bare crags. There is one Flying J truck stop a third of the way across the state. After that: nothing. The town of Ely (pronounced E –Lee) is the road’s first destination. It’s a crossroads town with signs pointing to Las Vegas, Reno, Salt Lake City. Highways 50, 6 and 93 enter and leave the town in a few confusing blocks.
After surviving our plunge down 89 with a broken steering column, we made it to Bishop, and, god knows why, we wanted to get onto 6 and put another fifty miles on the odometer before stopping for the night.
Rule number one about driving an RV. DON”T DRIVE AT NIGHT! It’s hard enough to control a bulky machine without playing with peripheral monsters at the side of the road, highway fatigue and caffeine nerves.
We pushed out of Bishop after stopping at a Super K-Mart, where Fox and I got separated and I couldn’t find her to save my life. I was reduced to calling her pet name, knowing that she would hear it more readily than a shouted “Fox, where are you?” So, I stood in the middle of an aisle full of hosiery and started crying plaintively, “Boo Boo! BoooooBoooo!” Everyone wascertain I was retarded. I was wondering myself if my previous life of risky activities hadn’t finally damaged my brain. From now on we carry cell phones or walkie talkies, I don’t ever want to go through this ordeal again. “Booooo boooooo!” Where the hell did she go? One second she was right THERE, looking at skin cream, and the next, she had vaporized into the merchandise, wandered off like an un-tethered toddler. This store occupies ten thousand acres and you can’t see more than twenty feet! I might never find her, or wander for two and a half years before fetching up at the customer service booth, begging the teenage girl in the silly uniform to speak into her microphone: Will Booboo come to the customer service counter, please?
At last, re-united by calling booboo until I got within sonic range of Fox, I was able to carry supplies out to Yertle, our beloved RV, in the darkening afternoon. Why did we continue driving? We were nuts. As I navigated the final stoplights of Bishop, a nearby driver began honking repeatedly and gesturing towards Yertle. I pulled over and discovered that I had been driving with the steps still sticking out of the camper. Keep a check list, RV rovers!
After fifty miles, we came to the tiny one-store town of Tonopah. Fortunately, the store was open. A very large young man, Native American, confirmed that there were no campgrounds before Ely. He said, however, that we could park in the school parking lot and spend the night. The school was just behind the store. “Lots of people get stuck out here,” he said. “It’s okay. Just try to be gone before school starts in the morning. Nobody will bother you. I’ll tell the sheriff when he drops by, tell him you’re back there. But if he sees you before I do, tell him Bear said it was okay.”
This kindness was touching. We began to realize that we had met kindness at every obstacle on this trip, and that kindness came in all sorts of disguises, in the most unlikely places.
In the morning there was snow on the tops of the mountains. Nevada is a washboard, an undulating series of mountains and valleys, and the roads cut straight across this ancient seabed. At the top of each peak, the view spreads down the road ahead, which goes in a straight line for miles and miles until it disappears into the next rise of the landscape. I had never expected Nevada to be so beautiful. There were huge clouds casting shadows upon the vast valley floors.
Tomorrow’s drive was supposed to be easy: a hundred sixty miles to Ely, where we would join up with our old friend, Highway Fifty. It was November; bright, clear, and warm in the valleys, crisp on the peaks.Yertle ran well, but I continued to be apprehensive. It’s one thing to drive a car. It breaks down, you call a tow truck. An RV is another matter: we were carrying our lives in the damn thing. The water tank held twenty gallons. We had food, propane. There was no shelter on Highway Six, no trees, no roadside stops.
If Yertle broke down, there was no telling how long we might be stranded. I imagined our quandary if something happened. Out here in the desert, way beyond cell phone service, we could be truly stuck. Therewas little traffic. Every hour or so, we’d pass a car, going the other way. Everyone, it seemed, was going the other way.
Gathering my nerve, I hit the accelerator, and the old Chevy 350 gurgled forth, up the highway, into the brightening day. My gas tank had been filled in Bishop. The truck seemed happy. Yertle was whispering, “don’t worry, I’ll get you to Arches, don’t worry.”
I can’t help but worry, Yertle, I responded mentally. It’s my nature to worry. I am the son of my father.
This was ‘lower’ Nevada, an uncompromising landscape. Sandstone blocks tipped by ancient floods and earthquakes littered the northern side of the road. On the south was nothing but miles and miles of scrub, tumbleweed, creosote bush. The stuff gave off a smell, a pleasant goldish earthen odor. We were skirting the northern fringe of Nellis Air Force Base, with its old atomic test sites. If they once tested atom bombs here, they must have considered this the ultimate in remoteness.
At fifty miles an hour, the noise from Yertle’s engine and various parts bouncing around made conversation or music impossible. There was nothing to do but drive, and look at the landscape, however monotonous or downright eerie. Occasionally a vulture would mark the sky like a comma on vast blue paper.
We pushed north and east, and everything seemed okay. Then, about fifty miles out of Tonopah, I heard a high whining sound from the engine. Yertle kept on going, so I said my prayers and continued to drive.
We had entered a wide valley. It looked like thirty miles to the next ridge, and I could see all thirty miles of road, slightly undulant, like a road-kill rattlesnake, until it disappeared between the breasts of the next rise in the primordial earthbody.
Then I was brought to alertness by a loud bang, and a nasty smell of burning rubber. Yertle was running, but I had to pull over. I was afraid to turn the engine off; afraid she’d never start again. I got out and pulled open the hood. Pieces of fan belt were shredded all over the motor compartment. I picked them out, saving the biggest piece for reference. Fan belt for what, I wondered? How I wish I understood cars, how I wish I were a competent mechanic! Then, as I inspected the various parts of the motor, I saw a thumb-sized hole, right through the metal rectangle of the I-don’t-know-what. Pieces of this metal were strewn about. It was as if we had been shot by a high caliber rifle. I knew, however, that it was a case of metal fatigue, that this porous, cheap material, this aluminum casing for some part of our vehicle’s innards, had met its deadline.
Yet, the engine was running fine.
What the hell, I thought. Let’s go until we can’t go any more.
We kept driving, praying for Ely. Seventy miles to go. Come on, Ely, come on. About half an hour later, I saw a convoy of vehicles in the distance. Two highway patrol cars were parked at the side of the road. The officers were waving us to stop.
I was glad to see a human being, a person of authority. To make that statement, “I was glad to see a person of authority”, is indicative of how scared I was. I don’t have anything against policemen. I have a significant resentment of all authority figures, always have and always will. I learned that there are times when one might be thrilled to see a person of authority, and this was one of those times.
We pulled out onto a wide margin. A mile down the road, a gigantic truck was hauling a gargantuan pipe, long as a freight car and wider than the entire road. I took a chance, and turned off the engine. I got out of Yertle and approached the officer.
“Sir”, I asked respectfully, “can you spare a moment to look at our truck? Something broke a while ago, and I don’t know what’s going on.”
The policeman was half my age. He was short and compact, and looked like someone who could tear three phone books in half with his bare hands. He glanced under the hood, while the monstrous pipe rolled slowly past our place beside the road.
“That’s your air conditioner belt,” he informed us. “And that hole, well that’s your air conditioner. Looks like the belt shredded and then popped the AC unit right through the guts. Good thing it wasn’t the fan belt, or you’d be stuck out here.”
Greatly relieved, I thanked our benefactor, started Yertle and proceeded down the ever-lonely road.
Things happen to people. Events are events, but our interpetation of these events overshadows the events themselves. For me, the most important thing is to react with imagination, to view life as a process of gaining understanding, regardless of whether good things or bad things happen.
I didn’t know what the hell was going on with this crazy trip. All I knew was that it was scaring the bejesus out of me. I asked Fox, several times, ‘Do you want to turn back?”
Fox is made of stronger stuff than I. “No,” she always said, “We’re supposed to go to Arches.”
God, I felt like a pussy. Men don’t enjoy feeling cowardly. It’s not a good man-feeling. It’s a feeling that lurks in some small fetid bathroom down in my soul, a bathroom with a naked bulb worked by a pull-string with a knot at the end, a bathroom with old squeaky faucets that give out brown water. It has a frosted window that’s jammed shut, with a paint job where the streaky white paintbrush overswept right onto the window and the painter didn’t give a shit to scrape it clean. That’s what my cowardice feels like, it feels like that cheap hotel bathroom and it’s not fun at all. I was going to have to brace up. That’s what the wise old samurai said to the Toshirure Mifune character in “The Seven Samurai”. It’s become an in-joke for Fox and me. “Brace up, Kikuchiyo”, we tell one another. “Brace up.”
And Yertle, in spite of her perfidy, kept reassuring me. “I’ll get you there,”
she whispered, “Stop worrying so much. I may be old but I’ve got plenty of miles left in me.”
Never once did I wonder if I was completely nuts, talking to an RV. I was simply being swept along by events as they occurred. What else could I do?
The landscape began to rise, as we came into another range of the Humboldt-Toyabe Forest. I looked at the gas gauge and with a shock realized that we were down to a quarter tank. Where did the gas go?! The tank was filled in Bishop, only a hundred fifty miles down the road. I had badly overestimated the mileage of which Yertle was capable. That, and a headwind, had drunk our gas, and I had been so preoccupied, I failed to fill her up at the one and only truck stop between Tonopah and Ely. Now, I wondered if we were going to run out of fuel on some tricky mountain curve without a shoulder.
Fox was an active participant in all this, of course. By mutual agreement, I was and would always be the driver of our RV. On rare occasions I would give Fox the wheel, but it was a shaky proposition. Fox is given to seeing things, especially when the light is low. A rhino can pop out of the sagebrush and give chase. Osama Bin Laden sits in the back of a pickup truck, grinning smugly. Fox is n’t crazy, but she is psychic and sometimes has trouble separating vision from reality. Maybe it’s the Apache blood. The closer we got to the ancestral homelands, the weirder she became. But she was calm where I was not. She was stoic where I was terrified.
Compulsively, I watched the gas gauge, then chastised myself and equally compulsively avoided watching the gas gauge. I forced my eyes to bypass the little meter as it quivered, ever downward toward EMPTY. Why weren’t we carrying a gas can with five exrtra gallons. Rule Number Two of RV’ing. ALWAYS CARRY EXTRA FUEL! The fuel consumption of the most innocent looking RV is a ravening dragon, an elephant sucking up fluids faster than they can be replenished. Motor homes LOVE fuel, the way kids love candy or the way addicts love dope. Gimme some gas! they breathe, panting with appetite. Gimme some gas!
Thirty miles to Ely. Okay, steal a look at the gauge. It’s hovering over the little line that says, EMERGENCY! hurry up and get a fill! I’m calculating. Let’s see, if we are getting ten miles to the gallon, and we have three gallons, we can just get to Ely. But if we’re getting eight per gallon, we’re totally fucked. That’s assuming there are three gallons. There might be five; or there might be two. Does the gauge read short when we’re going uphill? That’s possible, I suppose.
Naturally, the headwind grew more powerful and our route took to yet another interminable climb up into the Toyabe-Humboldt Forest. The road was Nevada-smooth, paid for by gambling taxes, well maintained. But here, on the undulant highway, there was no shoulder, just a line of white fence posts, blocking all exit from the road. Run out of gas here, around a blind curve, and some truck can come a’whamming along and crunch us like an old Pepsi can before the driver knows what’s happening.
I spent the next forty five minutes waiting for the engine to sputter and die. I watched the side of the road for potential escapes, and watched the rear view mirror for the following eighteen wheeler that spelled our doom, like the monster truck from that early Spielberg movie, “Duel”. The forest grew thicker, looking like a real forest. Now there were signs touting campgrounds and tourist sites, in the southern approach to Ely. They were little comfort to me. The gas gauge quivered and teased me as it sat on Empty. My heart was beating in every pore of my skin. Why so scared, I chided myself? Everybody runs out of gas at least a couple times in their lives. Yes, I responded, BUT NOT HERE! Not in Yertle, noble RV, not on a curvy road with no shoulder, where the last vehicle we saw was a FedEx truck, and it passed us going uphill in a no pass zone, like we were standing still. People drive crazy in Nevada on Highway Six. They think the roads are empty. Crazy.
We came to a crest of the mountain range, and I thought with relief, it’s downhill from here! We can coast, we won’t burn our precious bits of fuel climbing laboriously up every steep curve of the road. Alas! After going down for a bit, the road turned upward once again. The gauge was on EMPTY. I played games with it. If I looked at it from the side, it kinda looked like there was more gas in it. I leaned right, leaned left, but I wasn’t fooling myself. Yertle soldiered onward. I was running out of gas on a road with no shoulder, I had a shredded air conditioner belt and a fist-sized hole in the engine.
The roadside sign said, “Ely—12mi”. And there we were, at the real crest of the range. I put Yertle in neutral, took my foot off the gas, and coasted down and around the mountain curves. At last, the ominous white fencing beside the road vanished. A few houses appeared. Billboards advertised motels and gift shops, gambling casinos, banks and auto body garages. More houses.
Ely! My eyes were pealed for a gas station. I made a left onto Ely’s main drag and made a beeline for the first gas station I saw. Yertle coasted over the curb, I put her in drive, lined her up to the pump, and then….and then…..she gurgled and died, out of gas.