Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Loneliest Road in America

Duane picked me up outside of Austin, Nevada, on Highway 50, the 'Loneliest Road in America.' But this title isn't based on any specific data. No one has waited at rest areas or little highway towns and conducted surveys on emotional states. They call it that because a 1986 article in Life Magazine started what the Nevada tourism board would successfully finish-synonomizing a length of painted asphalt with one of our deepest fears. The road "officially" begins in Fallon, Nevada, or Delta, Utah, whichever your orientation, and stretches straight across the northern Southwest, four hundred and nine long, dry, and generally desolate miles. There are only three inhabited towns on this strip, and other than these tiny nodes of civilization, it is just bleached salt-flats, erratic vegetation, and rolling hills of multicolored sand that reach as far as the eye can see. It is not uncommon to go an hour, or longer, without seeing another vehicle.

When I saw a smart new cargo van crest the hill, I didn't think it was going to stop (most newer vehicles, I have found, have a tendency to prefer not having a sweaty and potentially homicidal hitchhiker lounging on their leather seats), but as the van slowed to a stop beside me I could sense this driver was a little different. There was music blasting, some kind of electrical groove-type beats that ruptured the stillness of the morning air, and he didn't bother to turn it down as he pulled beside me and shouted through the open window.
"Where you headed?"
"East," I yelled back, "Utah."
His response was lost in the circulating sound waves, so I just opened the door and got in. "Name's Duane," he shouted as he punched the gas and tore down the hill.

We were soon sprinting out into the flats beyond Austin. Duane had one bare foot dug deep into the accelerator, and the other curled into his lap. The windows were open, the engine whined, and Duane was completely unwilling to turn down the music. We couldn't piece together a conversation until he steered onto a dirt pull-off an hour later and killed the engine. I finally got a good look at the guy. He wore dark sunglasses, a tropical button-up, and a floppy nursing home sun-hat with long strings cinched under his chin. Deep creases ran from under his glasses, the kind of worn channels you'd expect to find on someone who smiles too much, and they stretched down to disappear into a neatly trimmed and gray-speckled goatee. We exchanged pleasantries-I told him I was going to see the canyonlands in southeast Utah before returning home to Vermont, and he told me he was from "Be-zerk-ely, California," and was going to "intercept" his woman in Denver. I didn't really know what that meant and I didn't have to ask because he had already jumped in the back and was tossing around clothes and stuffing them into open drawers, washing dishes, and straightening the sheets on his fold-out cot. He said that he liked to clean house each morning, that it made the nights more enjoyable.

So I just sat on the step of the van's open door and looked out at the Nevada desert, a flat expanse of gray and brown sand pouring into ponds of sulphuric white, all interrupted by patches of scrawny sagebrush. It had been like this since Carson City, just a terrestrial moonscape, with about enough vegetation to hide a malnourished jackrabbit. A wasteland, yes, but a tantalizing one. The day before, in Fallon, I had walked a three mile stretch of straight road, waving my thumb at the few cars which blew past. The progress was immeasurable; the road was filed into a sharp pinpoint somewhere to the east, piercing a line of distant buttes as if plunging into a tunnel. The sun was uninhibited and the sky overbearing, but it was the silence that was really impressive. It was deep and profound, the kind of raw static that hurts your ears because they aren't used to the strain. But it wasn't lonely-not with beauty in every direction, the heckling sun, the whispering breeze, and the trusty white line at my feet. There is a difference between solitude and loneliness.
"Ready?" Duane interrupted.
"Oh. Yah. Sorry," I said jumping to my feet. "It's easy to daydream out here."

And then we were back on the road, straight as a runway, 85 mph, music pulsing, Duane drumming, me staring out the window watching a pair of buzzards criss-crossing in big swooping loops, like string-less black kites lost in a current. The land was becoming slightly more lush- oceans of russet and green earth pouring into distant buttes and illusory mountains the color of dark lavender. Serenity at its fullest. But as we crawled down the highway towards Ely, and the Utah border, Duane lost his calm. I wasn't sure what was happening at first. He had started talking about his mother, and how he missed his family. Tears welled up under his sunglasses and they began to spill down his cheeks.
"My aunt used to live right down that road, you know." He pointed down a gravel path which ran off into the desert and disappeared along a distant ridge. "We used to come out here every thanksgiving for the whole weekend...everyone." He choked himself up. "And my father, he was a real war hero, got the medal of valor over in Korea. Everyone looked up to him...my mother, my sister... the relatives...," he sputtered, "but they're all gone now." He was belligerent; tears soaked into the collar of his shirt, his voice heaved and wavered. I wasn't sure what to do, so I just sat there listening. I'd gotten used to people venting at me while hitchhiking, its part of the price you pay for a free ride, but I had never encountered a crier before. He went on about how his father gave the blessing at the Roses-something-or-other, and Bob Hope's funeral too, saying they were "good friends" after the war-I was catching every other word as the music blasted and the road hummed by. But then he went silent, his face tightened up, and he stared straight ahead at the rigid highway.

An hour later, as we passed through Ely, a small mining town of one story buildings and dusty store fronts, Duane loosened up. He started bouncing to the tunes again, as if the uncomfortable emotional episode was years in the past. I played along, nodding to the music as the little town disappeared in the rearview. I wouldn't have known what to say anyways. I can't even talk about feelings with my own mother.

About a hundred miles west of the Utah line, Duane asked if I would drive, and as soon as I settled into a steady pace, he fell asleep in the passenger seat, leaving me in a refreshing silence as I rolled across eastern Nevada. The highway soon climbed out of the flat basin and into ridges of golden and red sandstone which sprouted from the burnt earth like pyramids, seriating the blue horizon with sharp, jagged teeth. Islands of thick ashen clouds hovered above, their flat underbellies parallel to the earth. I could see why one might call this terrain remote, even hostile, but how can one be lonely with such primitive sublimity accompanying the body's every sense?

A truck driver once told me that you're not a true man of the road until you fall in love with a diner waitress. I had laughed, thinking of the irritable and hair-netted greasers that littered my diner memories with an almost caricature-like distortion-no, no thanks, I had thought, I'll keep my options open. But a few weeks earlier I had been in Bismarck, North Dakota, and it was raining, and cars rolled by my soggy sign despite my best little-lost-boy eyes. I was 1,800 miles from home, filthy, and sick of walking, tired of standing in the hot sun and the pouring rain, tired of apathetic travelers, unfamiliar faces, and lurking in the shadows of city parks and highway overpasses for a secluded place to sleep-or wait, deep into the night until even the crickets stopped and the mosquitoes drifted away. I ended up in a 24-hour neon diner, an insular light amidst a strip of box stores and gray, dismal concrete.

And there was this girl, and I swear she was dancing across the checkered linoleum floor, smiling and giggling as she filled tawny mugs with dark drip coffee. It was as if there was nowhere she'd rather be on a rainy Saturday afternoon than in velcro loafers, smiling and talking to strangers. She was young, maybe 19, and had a spark in her eyes that only young girls have, the kind of tender flicker that still believes in love stories and high school sweethearts. I remember her shiny auburn curls pulled tightly into a pony tail, bound tight except for a few crimped strands which flirted in front of her eyes and bounced freely as she laughed.

Before she had even come over to my seat at the counter, I was ready to drop everything right then, to make North Dakota my home. I figured with my carpentry experience I could find a construction job, stockpile some healthy American debt on a little house and a V8 pickup, marry this girl and have a houseful of children. But I only ordered a coffee, and sat there watching the rain pour over the well-lit windows, illuminated against the dark summer afternoon. I would have given anything for a familiar face.

At some point, the rain slowed and I walked back to I-94, flagged down a rusty red jeep, and rolled off towards Montana.

I realized then, looking over at Duane sleeping in the passenger seat, that loneliness isn't particular-and any road will do. His just happened to be Highway 50. I soon reached Delta, where 50 splits south, and kept on driving. Duane continued to sleep. The deep creases on his face were swollen red and his body had finally succumbed to an idling stillness. I wondered if he would ever "intercept" his woman, or if there ever was a woman, or if it even matters. I woke him in Crescent Junction, Utah, and stood awkwardly on the roadside while he wrote his phone number on a slip of paper. Then he hopped behind the wheel and disappeared towards Denver. ¤ 

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