“The slightest hint of
breathing room can escape
you once personal contours
start closing in.”
Back then, what was gained in gas money was lost in light of day. Sydney and I picked up some apples, powdered Donettes and chocolate milk at the IGA, then chugged out of Willup ever so warily, negotiating its strip mine of chuckwagon diners, ranchero motels and low-octane service stations with high-test prices—common highwaymen lying in wait, divvying the interstate take. Once we passed a slab cemetery of surface crypts climbing its boot hill, Willup gave way to darkening semi-desert, with dust fed winds soon kicking in. This business loop ambush merged back onto I-80 just beyond Keno Bill’s, tapering from there into twin split-lane ribbons, which tailed off into some 400 miles of time-drag topography that collided head-on with one’s pioneer urge to press westward.
“Hell of a game, craps,” I groped for some face-saving opener that straddled clear resentment and modest appreciation for her easing the downward pressure on our travel dollars.
“Whatever works,” Sydney sniffed, cratering the skin of her mealy McIntosh, all fingers and thumbs. “My other passion is Baccarat. It’s so fast, so continental…so chemin de fer. Like, crystal salons overlooking the Plage de la Croisette—I just love the dynamic. But you know what I mean. You’ve been over there…I saw your photos.”
“Yeah, been there, but not there…not even close.”
At best, central Nevada was an undue course of cole slaw between the sirloin tips and prime rib of western America. Beowawe, Willup’s poor relation several miles downroad, slowly set the table for further reflection and reassessment: mine on what this venture was costing phone wise; Syd’s more than likely on how it stacked up against airfare. Trailings of the Shoshone Range fed alluvially to the basin bottom, wizened hills that pulled like undertow at this gray, spackled sky. Beneath them, a stubborn sheet of snow daubed broccoli crown sagebrush, barren rock formations and liver-spotted plateaus. Beyond I-80, the only perceptible movement involved white-frosted tumbleweed careening off range fences, or huge coiled copperheads dead eyeing ground hogs, squeezing out the last bit of sun to warm their outcroppings.
Barely easing 80’s tedium was a succession of road service gambling ghettos fronting as actual towns. Valmy, Galconda, Mill City, Winnemucca: All seemed to sneak onto the horizon under cover of low-profile mountain ranges, gaudy speed bumps tipping their hands with a prop wash of soaring gas signs, junked pick-ups, storm-torn house trailers and propane tanks tossed about wind-trashed pastures like rolls of discarded bar coasters. The towering neon signage even leached out the gold-baby-golden glow of Battle Mountain.
“Such a waste,” Sydney hiked up the sleeping bag, as if envisioning the Great Basin from a shade-drawn seat at 32,000 feet.
“I’m serious, there must be something more you want out of life,” she began rifling through my glove box, mostly maps and greasy rags. “You could be doing so much better than this…”
“Better than what?”
“Than waiting for some eggheads to determine your future. Than crapping out in Nevada and calling poor Moon flat broke, that’s what. She deserves a damn sight more…”
“Me?! You’re the…I…anyway, I can’t see how that’s any of your business.”
“I’ll give you a hundred and forty-three reasons why.”
Beyond the ground rock trailer parks and abandoned Sinclair stations, a night fallen I-80 reverted to white-striped sashes across endless square miles of barb-fenced rangeland. My headlights strained through buckshot highway signs, which pointed to networks of narrow gravel turnout roads tailing off toward skillet shallow valleys and stunted background hills. Well shy of Imlay, the void became so overwhelming one’s imagination ran wild: Mule-size jackalopes grazing the scrub brush; frosted tumbleweed careening off white triangular cattle guards that conjured a surreptitious range war on a Sergio Leone scale; giant Cephalopods and Vampire Squid battling ancient octopi and Ichthyosaurs in a long-vanished Triassic sea, its vast bed now little more than dead space for kraken fossils and burning visions down the pike.
“How about some tunes,” I plied the dashboard radio, spooked enough already by Moon’s misrouted message. I flipped past local country stations, continuing to track the slow lane, a natural zoo of gophers, weasels and varietal vermin playing chicken with the squareback’s front wheels from the Brillo brush lining I-80’s outer shoulder. Midway down the dial, the Blaupunkt went clear channel, pulling in sundown static snippets of AM powerhouses on the skip from Del Rio to L.A., deep-freeze warnings from Casper and Calgary, a Boise superhits seque into ‘Blues For Baby And Me’.
“There, a little ol’ traveling music…Gon-na go west to the sea,” Syd sang. “It’s not George Benson, but Elton’ll do.”
“Yeah, except too bad he’s turned fruitcake.”
“Beg your pardon…”
“I said, too bad he’s come out a butt farmer,” I coaxed the radio’s skip signals with diminishing returns. “You know, an official size and weight tail gunner.”
“Say that where we’re going, and you’ll know from tail gunning, first hand,” she spouted, tearing back into the snack bag, stuffing a Donette in my face.
“C’mon, it was just a harmless figure of speech” I mumbled. “I could have called him a…”
“Really, where is this coming from? I’ll have you know, some of my dearest friends are…tail gunners!”
“That right,” I stiffened, crumbs, powder flaking down to my jeans. “Not that it’s any of my business or any…”
“What an incredibly retarded thing to say. This—from a sociologist, yet!” She commandeered the radio. “Maybe we’d better tune you into one of those redneck stations, while we’re at it.”
“Jeesh, it’s common vernacular…” Figures, ’hag and a bitch. “Talk about no sense of humor…”
“Hmph, Mr. Enlightenment here,” she slapped at the radio’s fuzzy speaker, and the cold air blowing in all around it. “Does Moon know you talk like this?”
“Guess we’ll have to call her and find out…” I clicked the Blaupunkt off altogether. A creamy fourth-quarter moon had somewhat brightened the vast indigo sky, betraying stray wolves and coyotes chasing wild mice through twisted fencing, behind sagging, stripped-out gold mine shacks and Rorschach rock pilings. Dispatched just as abruptly was the roadway romanticism of Taupin and John.
“That won’t be necessary,” Sydney said, reconsidering out of the blue. She tracked a shooting comet on its glidepath over Star Peak, which delivered her wistfully up to the wingtip lights of a westbound 747. This whole thing must have lifted Lester’s stock significantly, and probably even did wonders for some bozo named Bernard. “Just spare me the homophobia, will you please? Like Daddo says, everybody’s got a little prejudice down in us somewhere. That for most people, it lies dormant for a lifetime. But if it’s triggered somehow, latent hate and bigotry can seep out like real ugly bile.”
“Well, would that we could render a quantitative analysis of that…”
“So do it, prof—but are you talking about the prejudice or the bile?”
Past Rye Patch Reservoir, I-80 slimmed back down by two lanes and a median. There had been other two-way stretches since Wendover, yet this seemed the longest, and most foreboding. Mangled road signs and piercing yellow flashers marked the construction detours as temporary, but rust and dry rot spoke like tree rings. Soon the squareback’s misaligned headlamps ignited marble eyes all over the sagebrush. Oncoming high beams vectored toward us, searing our own, blinding me to my three-gauge instrument cluster.
Exploratory passes around slower taillights met with blinking parries by opposing semi-trailers doing the same. Before long, white line fever broke into a siege of grill-splat consumption, shadowy desert varmints of all shapes and hoof-paw configurations feeding the shoulder pathology. I could scarcely tell whether they were nuclear permutations from a game preserve to the south of us, or walking Darwinian fossils from the dead lava beds to the north.
“Reclining Faith,” said Sydney, apparently less intimidated by encroaching wildlife than fascinated with the contour of the hills.
“Reclining what,” I asked, the dark roar of a Utah-bound 18-wheeler throttling past my ear.
“That mountain over there,” she pointed toward a rolling formation road signs labeled the Trinity Range. “It’s so perfectly elliptical and jelled, the top’s a nipple all aroused. The way that moonlight’s hitting it makes me think of my mother’s left breast, like when she’s kicking back on the lounger.”
“Your…mother…” I braked sharply behind a weaving horse trailer, then grabbed for the chocolate milk—still cold as everything else in this forced-air freezer. “On a lounger…”
“Sure, she still has an incredible bosom—large, beautiful papaya—uppies, no less. God, I could kill her that she didn’t pass them on to me. You should have seen her when she was my age. But then you will, once we get to San Francisco.”
“Sorry?” I could have sworn I had just spotted Gable out there ropin’, rustlin’ Misfits and Norma Jean. As a diversion, I recalled reading a magazine expose piece on all the wild horses roaming across Nevada and stuff, about how this one old woman led a battle against heavy-handed BLM roundups. Yeah, bring that up; change the subject all right…too…late…
“I’ve got a full photo spread Daddo took of her when they were just dating,” she said, relieving me of the hardened milk carton. “They’re all over my walls, along with some sketches I did in art school. She was my first figure study. Fact is, Faith is my best friend on earth—we tell each other absolutely everything.”
“Christ, I can’t even imagine,” I squinted at the dimming instrument cluster, then fiddled with the radio anew—imagination, curiosity all aroused. What on earth possessed her to bring up such a thing? “I’d be like seeing my own mother…”
“Aahhh, don’t think so,” she smiled, craning over her shoulder, still marveling at the mound. “But I do happen to know your tastes run to big-breasted women. I know scads of interesting things about you…”
“Yeah? For instance…”
“That you’ve also got some sort of thing for Leonard Cohen…and that you go totally psycho sometimes, and take it out on your dog.”
“Aww, you don’t know…squat.” I squelched the radio static one last time, cursing Moon, rubbing my eyes, clinging to road reflectors, seeing double everything along the yellow lines.
“I know you better than you’ll ever know, flash,” she tapped my right hand. “Like, who else sings ‘Sisters of Mercy’?”
“W-w-wait, Moon told you about New Year’s, too?!”
“Course, that’s what happens when you leave us hens alone.”
Just as the shadows and apparitions most closed in, when an increasingly clouded moon doused the desert underbrush and turned the Trinitys and Buffalo Mountain into bleak, faceless forms, some distant lights began scrolling up on the black horizon. Red blinking antennae and water towers in turn sparked a pink-orange-purple phosphorescent glow: the 24-hour neon aura of Nevada’s next gas and gambling trap.
“Coffee…gotta do a little coffee.” My noggin bounced off the red vinyl headrest, and I bowed lead-eyed before a shrine of 100-foot oil signs. “And thaw my feet…”
“Coffee, nothing…we’re calling it a night.”
“No way,” I picked up on a mileage-exit sign for Sulphur and Tungsten. “Fifteen minutes in this rest stop, and I’m ready to roll again.”
“My treat, already. Where in bloody blazes are we?”
“Signs say Lovelock,” I grappled with a figure study of the hypothetical sleeping configuration. “Bet the rooms are rip-off city…”
“Mox nix…and who said anything about rooms?”
Care for more?
Chapter 12. Road worn, psychically torn,
some overnight fireworks lead them to
an unanticipated power surge…