by Akim Reinhardt
I've made some deep runs in my time.
I once drove non-stop from central Wyoming to eastern Iowa before passing out at a highway rest stop for a couple of hours, waking up with a scrambled brain, driving the short distance to Illinois, then staring with confusion and regret at the chili cheese omelette I'd ordered at a pre-cell truck stop where drivers sat with piles of quarters in front of them at booths hard wired to pay phones.
Another time I went from the Nevada-Utah line to eastern Nebraska, staving off sleep during the last several hours by frequently leaning my head out the window at 80 miles per hour, the wind and rain whipping me in the face beneath the dark night sky.
My most recent super haul was from Windsor, Arizona to northeastern Kansas, where I'd finally pulled over to sleep in a rural parking lot. But that was fifteen years ago. I was in my early thirties back then.
In the months leading up to the trip I've chronicled here, I had wondered: What do I still have left in me? What would the road be like for me in my late forties?
I had no illusions. I knew I wouldn't be busting tail nonstop for 1,200 miles. Even in my prime that was at my outer limits. It was unthinkable now.
But beyond the issue of endurance, I was more intrigued, and even fretful, about how I would take to the road.
What would it be like to long haul now compared to back then? What would my state of mind be after 600 miles? Seven hundred? Eight hundred, if that was even feasible. Would I still find driving alone for vast stretches to be meditative? Would I still marvel at the expanse of this continent? Or would I simply be middle aged and grumpy? Would I be helpless to enjoy a solo, long distance drive as I once had? Would I just be petty and impatient to reach my destination?
Even since before I first left Maryland back in late August, I knew this would be the jaunt. From Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota to Reno, Nevada. No other stretch of the trip is much more than 500 miles. This one's over 1,200.
Going in, I knew that South Dakota to the Nevada-California border in late September would sort it all out.
I left Pine Ridge at about 3:30 PM. Or more accurately, that's when I began leaving Pine Ridge. It's a very large reservation, and from the north central town of Kyle, where the college library and archive are located, to its southwestern edge near the Wyoming border, is about an hour and a half.
There's no interstate on Pine Ridge, and as I left the reservation, I was riding on U.S. 18 down and across the arcing panorama of eastern Wyoming. As I sped through the western Great Plains and into the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, the late afternoon sun began its vicious assault, blazing ever brighter while sinking towards the horizon. I cobbled together a defense from both flip down windshield visors and a pair of cheap sunglasses. It required frequent adjustments as the road wound in various directions, allowing the sun to attack from shifting angles.
Helios finally surrendered, retreating behind a grassy escarpment. My victory brought forth unimaginable glory.
You know that line about “purple mountain majesty?” It's a real thing. At least in Wyoming it is.
As highway 18 turned south, the sun sank to my right. To my left, the sky layered across the horizon in a multitude of colors: blue, pink, and purple. And straight ahead, the mountains bathed in a light purple haze, the sky a pale lavender shroud.
Apparently it's no big deal that I can climb into a machine and soar over the mountains and flute through the valleys of Wyoming at 90 miles per hour.
Life is magical.
I made it as far as Casper, Wyoming. The place reeks of having once been a shady mining town full of hustlers and whores. Now it feels like a fast and loose overgrown truck stop cashing in on the interstate trade. At least that's the impression from the various I-25 exits which, admittedly, are not a fair representation. But it's all I had to go on late Friday night.
The motels were overpriced. I ended up at a revolting Super 8.
They only had smoking rooms left. A hundred and eight dollars. For a rank, musty room with a broken television and a broken promise of scrambled eggs at the continental breakfast. It turned out to be cold, dry, spongy hard boiled ones instead. The kind where the yolk crumbles.
The place was depressing. The room had been overrun with moths. The next morning I couldn't figure out why many of the people in the lobby seemed so happy. It was like something out of The Twilight Zone. Didn't they realize they'd just spent the night in an overpriced shit hole?
This is the day I stop shaving, I thought to myself.
I had chopped most of the beard off for summer, leaving only a Van Dyck. Now I would quit shaving altogether and allow the winter warmer to return. And no more washing my hair for a while. This rundown, price-gouging corporate motel was modern America at its worst, and spending a night there sapped me of any desire to get my shit together.
When I mentioned the broken TV to the woman at the front desk the next morning, she laughed about it. “All I do around here is fix TVs.”
Yeah. Fuck you too.
I saddled up and left.
The previous day had merely been a prelude. There were still well over 900 miles to go. Most of Wyoming, the panhandle of Utah, and all of northern Nevada still lay ahead of me. After filling up on the disappointing continental breakfast, I opened with one last ramble on a pre-interstate U.S. highway before finally landing on I-80, which I would drive for the duration of this trip's westward leg.
The Wyoming Rockies on I-80 are a lot easier than the Colorado branch on I-70. The slopes are relatively mild. And after crossing the mountains, one can usually count on a dry ride. The intermontane West is composed of dessert and semi-arid near-desert. By definition, a desert gets less than 10″ of precipitation per year.
Nonetheless, the rain started in central Wyoming, and barely let up for the entire day.
Somewhere halfway across Nevada I glanced into my side mirror and noticed something flapping behind me. I peered closer and realized that the little metal door which is supposed cover my gas tank spout was open.
Holy shit. Not again. Had I lost yet another gas cap somewhere in the void of American highways? Had I forgotten to screw it back on while hurriedly filling up in the rain a few hundred miles back?
I took the next exit. More, Nevada.
More: When the endless moonscape of Nevada isn't enough.
The highway sign made plain that there were no services. So I drove up to the top of the exit ramp and pulled over along the shoulder.
I got out and checked my gas cap. It was still there after all. I would be spared the embarrassment of losing it and the $11 of replacing it one more time.
I shut the metal hatch, opened my fly, and peed straight down onto the blacktop. I finished, zipped, accidentally stepped in my own urine, got back in the car, crossed the service road, went up the entrance ramp, and returned to the highway.
By day's end I'd driven nearly 800 miles, most of it in the rain. The rusted chariot was humming between 80 and 90 mph when there wasn't any road construction. The only real stop was for lunch and gas at a truck stop cafe in eastern Wyoming.
It was not the type of cafe that gets an accent aigu over the “é.”
That was 30 minutes, tops. All told I'd been on the road for eleven hours.
But now my head was getting numb and tight, like a thick rubber band was snapped around it. It was becoming difficult to focus. I would not make Reno tonight.
My future awaits me in Winnemucca.
I roll into downtown and am encouraged by the bevy of hotels and motels. Surely the competition will keep prices deflated. There are also a lot of local joints, which is a good sign.
I pull into one and ask. Eight-four plus tax. Twenty bucks better than the Super 8 in Casper last night, and undoubtedly a lot nicer, but I sense I can do better.
Half a block away, I find it: The Holy Grail of shitty motels.
Rooms starting at $25, says the lofty, crooked marquee. When I pull up, there's a gaggle of children hanging out in front of the office, no sign of an adult. They range in age from about four to fourteen and they all look related.
When the oldest one sees me emerge from the rusted chariot, in my stained three-quarter sleeve shirt (white with faded navy sleeves), my matted, unwashed hair, and unshaven face, she knows I belong there. She stands up and walks into the office.
The handwritten sign on the office door says, “NO SINGLES, JUST DOUBLES STARTING AT 44.80 DAILY RATE.” As if it didn't exist, she asks, “You want a single?
“Yeah. How much?”
“You paying cash?”
Sure. Why not. I don't see the advantage to handing over my Visa.
When I give her a couple of twenties, she fumbles a bit, then says: “I'm not too good with math. What do I owe you?”
“Twenty-eight from forty. That's twelve, I think. Twenty-eight, thirty-eight, forty. Yeah, twelve.”
She gives me the change. “You got internet?” I ask, realizing how ridiculous the question is as the words come out of my mouth.
“No. But you can get it from the place across the street if you stand outside. That's what I do.”
“They have a password?”
She's been shuffling through various drawers during the exchange and then says, “I can't find the TV remote.”
“No problem,” I say, and turn to leave. Just then, the matriarch appears. You can immediately see it in the faces. They're her kids.
“What's the problem?”
“I can't find the remote.”
Mother Hen opens a drawer and pulls one out. Hands it to me and says: “Make sure you bring it back in the morning. Sometimes people steal them and then I get angry.”
I go over to the room. A scrap of window trim is laying on the cement floor in front of the door. No telling how long it's been there. Or how long it might remain.
The room itself is about 15' square. A queen bed takes up most of it. The TV is a cathode ray tube with a screen just a hair larger than my laptop. The bathroom floor is dirty linoleum tile with some white paint splatter. The toilet runs after you flush it. There's one bath towel and one hand towel, no bath mat. The wash cloth is dirty. And stained. The room door doesn't lock. I'll be leaving my valuables in the car when I go out to dinner.
I'm so fucking happy to be here.
The average rainfall for Winnemucca in September is less than half an inch. But it's pattering down relentlessly as I sit in the little room, trying to capture its ramshackle beauty with mere words.
Every time I hear sounds of life outside, I peer through the plastic Venetian blinds. I'm curious about who else stays here. Based on the cars, they're not poor people. Just cheap, like me. The cars look nice and clean. Maybe it's the rain.
The unseasonable precipitation finally relents. I trade my shorts for pants, put my computer bag back in the car, stick the room key in my pocket for reasons that are still unknown to me, and head out for dinner.
I eat across the street, at the place I'm stealing internet from. Paying for it after all, I suppose.
I'm pretty sure there're no bedbugs in this climate, but I'm not taking any chances. Mostly I stand when I'm in the room, banging on the computer, surfing stolen internet, and watching football on the little screen.
When it's time for bed, I avoid the sheets and keep my clothes on. I pull back the bedspread, lay on top on the blanket, and cover myself with my sleeping bag.
I awake the next morning feeling filthy yet refreshed. I'm a new man. And I've got one thing in common with the old me: I still love driving as far as a beat up old car will take me.
I climb back in and head off towards Reno.
Previous and future entries from this cross-country travelog can be found here.