The only things more American than road trips are apple pies, fireworks, and maybe Jesse “The Body” Ventura. The road trip is canonical in American culture; just look at On The Road, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and Travels With Charlie.
Two weeks ago, I set out for Tacoma, Washington from Denver, Colorado. I cleared two weeks worth of schedules so that I would have time to explore the depths of the American heartland and write about my travels.
Soon after hitting the road, however, I realized that my road trip lacked the one thing that made the aforementioned novels such wonderful descriptions of the journey: a passenger. Kerouac would have been nothing had it not been for the collection of colorful characters around him in On the Road. Hunter Thompson had his attorney with him for the majority of Fear and Loathing, and John Steinbeck was accompanied by his sarcastic poodle Charlie in Travels with Charlie.
I flirted with the idea of picking up a hitchhiker along the way for company, but thought the better of it; my small stature makes me easy pickings for the roadside perverts that wander this country like the undead.
Luckily, I realized that there was a stuffed monkey named Gaylord in my trunk. God never closes a door without opening a window. Gaylord would be the savior of this road trip. If Steinbeck could personify a poodle as a co-pilot, why couldn’t I personify a stuffed monkey?
With Gaylord in the passenger seat, sitting atop a box of records, an old turntable, and a box of half-read books, we headed off in the elusive search of that point where the ground and sky meet in the endless expanse of ocean to the West. The following is a recounting of what happened on the way to that great coast.
Day One: Denver, Colo. to Ely, Nev.
This was to be my and Gaylord’s longest day – eleven hours of travel, according to Mapquest. I loaded up on coffee, and though I offered some to Gaylord, he declined, saying something about how his body is a temple. A little haughty for a stuffed monkey, no?
Kevin Drew provided the music for the first hour of the trip. His new album, Spirit If… is wonderful road trip music; fast-paced, with a child-like sense of wonder, but tinged with nostalgia. The perfect embodiment of the feeling of heading off onto the road.
We plowed through the Colorado mountains, their treeless peaks extending out in stark relief against the blue sky like crooked, arthritic fingers.
This was the one day of the journey during which my iPod was working. As such, my memories of the day all correspond to songs. Some highlights include:
Bjork – “It’s In Our Hands”: During this song, Gaylord and I were driving through the Utah desert. He commented that it looked like the surface of the moon. I agreed, but he took it a step further:
“It’s quite preposterous to think that the moon landing was anything but a massive hoax played on the gullible American populace,” he began in that smarmy British accent of his. “You see, there is a belt of radiation surrounding the earth so strong that no spacecraft built in the 1970’s could have shielded the crew. And yet not one of the supposed astronauts got cancer. Hmmmm. What’s more, if one considers the gravity quotient on the moon, the astronauts should have jumped much higher than they do on the film. In fact, they are only jumping as high as they would on earth, but since the film is in slow motion, it appears that they are on the surface of some foreign body. But speed the film up, and all you see are men in ridiculous suits, jumping the same as the would on earth.” Gaylord continued in this vein for quite some time, so I fed him a banana to keep him quiet.
Jeff Buckley – “Hallelujah”: I had made my way to U.S. Highway 50, the “Loneliest Highway in America” according to the signs that speckled the roadside. Gaylord was taking a nap, and I was driving across a giant, barren salt flat. It looked as though someone had shrunk my car and I was driving across the surface of a pancake. I pulled over and drove on a little two-track ranch road into the middle of the salt flat. I could see nothing but white in all directions; the scene was redolent of the arctic, tempered only by the suit of sweat I was wearing from the desert heat.
As I was walking, I saw a human-sized lump in the middle of the salt flat. I panicked, convinced that I had stumbled upon a dead body. I heard Gaylord begin to scream that foppish scream of his, and I got the willies. As it turns out, it was just a sleeping bag that someone had left in the middle of the flat. Gaylord said that the fright he had gave him indigestion; I fed him a banana to keep him quiet.
Modest Mouse – “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes”: This was by far my favorite musical moment of the trip. I was on an endless stretch of straight road extending to the horizon, and was just about to cross into Nevada in the middle of a giant desert. At this moment, Isaac Brock began singing about driving down the road into tiny cities made of ashes and punching people in the face and glasses. A perfectly sinister compliment to the inherently sinister nature of the vast desert.
Day Two: Ely, Nev. to Reno, Nev. then back to Sparks, Nev.
Though we didn’t drive more than 10 hours, this day was excruciating. The first half of Nevada was like a sparse minimalist painting. Nothing but an endless stretch of straight road broken occasionally by small ranges of mountains, followed by another interminable valley. To make matters worse, my iPod broke (for the fourth time since I purchased it). So I was stuck listening to the three CD’s I had in my car on repeat: Bright Eyes’ Lifted, Neil Young’s On the Beach, and Beck’s Odelay.
The one nice thing about U.S. 50 through Nevada is that tourists can purchase a passport for “The Loneliest Highway in America” and get it validated at each of the small towns they pass through. So I picked up a passport.
The first stop along the way was Eureka. The main street looked like something out of a Spaghetti Western, and I stopped at the town restaurant for lunch. While I was eating, another man walked in. He was about 55 years old, had a mustache like a caterpillar precariously perched on top of his lip, and was talking to a woman about his travels.
When the waiter came to serve him, the loud man asked him how it was to work there. The waiter replied that it was nice, and that he liked his boss. In response to this, the man responded that he also liked his boss. He said his boss was a Jewish carpenter.
The waiter didn’t get it, and the man chided him about this for a few minutes, before telling him to “mull it over” and that he would get it later. Then he left without tipping.
I hit the road again, and Neil Young’s On the Beach was the perfect soundtrack for the next segment of driving. The mountains and valleys gave way to brown desert, and sand began to replace the brush that had previously been on the side of the road.
I saw a hand-painted sign for a “Hidden Cave” in the middle of the desert, and I couldn’t resist. I climbed out of the car at what appeared to be a trailhead, and started hiking. The trail quickly dissipated and became indiscernible from the rest of the burnt brown landscape.
So I hiked for about an hour, figuring that maybe the cave really was just well hidden. Things went south when a gigantic jackrabbit hopped out from behind a boulder and scared the shit out of me. I fell quite a ways through volcanic rock and shrubbery, and ended up bloodeid and with wounded pride.
When I returned to the car, Gaylord was chuckling to himself, gnawing on a banana peel.
I was about fed up with Nevada at this point, and I soon drove into Fallon. There, I searched in vain through each of the town’s seven gas stations to find an air pump to fill my tires. Gaylord also remarked that he needed a monkey wrench. I told him puns were not welcome in my car.
We rolled into the gambling capital of Northwest Nevada at around five in the afternoon: Reno. I was ready to get out of the hundred-degree heat and into a cool hotel room, but Nevada had other plans. Turns out that hotels without casinos are hard to find in Nevada – and asking for special accommodations for my stuffed pet monkey named Gaylord didn’t seem to help my case. Since I wasn’t 21, there were no inns available in Reno. I had to backtrack fifteen miles to Sparks, Nevada, a sad little suburb. Basically what you would expect from a suburb of Reno.
Luckily, California lay just around the corner, glimmering like a huge smoggy chunk of fool’s gold on the horizon and seducing me with promises of cool temperatures and sunny beaches. Our journey across the scorched no-man’s land that stretches from Colorado to Nevada had ended, and all the fortunes of California awaited us. Including fresh bananas for Gaylord.