Fear and Loathing in North-Central Nevada

Road warrior Jeff Merrion takes the scenic route (well, scenic by post-rock standards) from Tacoma to Denver, encountering crooked cops on “the Loneliest Highway in America.”

I was just outside of Reno when the caffeine began to kick in. It may be symptomatic of some sort of digestive disorder, but whenever caffeine begins to affect me, I feel a lurch in my stomach that feels a lot like the butterflies that accompany young love.

I drink a lot of coffee on road trips.

It was the fourth day of a fairly epic road trip from Tacoma to Denver, and my goal for the day was to drive from Yuba City, California to Ely, Nevada. Why would I choose to drive across Nevada? Well, I like my landscapes the same way I like my music: desolate and sad. In other words, yes, I tacked an extra 600 miles onto my trip just so I could drive across the frozen desert and listen to Godspeed You! Black Emperor. And it was worth it.

I was traveling along U.S. Route 50, “the Loneliest Highway in America,” for a stretch of 120 miles without a single building or sign of human life.

After a few hours without having seen a human being and without cell phone reception, I thought that it would be nice to get pulled over just for the human company. In retrospect, this was a bad idea.

A Ford truck passed me, doing 90 or so. I had my cruise set at 75, and the speed limit was 70. Sure enough, a highway patrolman passed by in the oncoming lane. After passing me and the Ford, he turned around and passed me to pull over the truck ahead of me. But just as I was uttering a statement of relief, the officer ran out into the middle of the highway and signaled for me to pull over.

For a split second, I honestly considered turning around before realizing that it had been hours since I had seen a turn-off. I nestled in behind the patrol car and waited for him to write a ticket for the car in front of me before dealing with me.

Then a second car arrived; the patrolman had called for backup. It felt like my stomach was doing a floor gymnastics routine. To be sandwiched between two police officers in the absolute middle of nowhere was terrifying, primarily because I didn’t have a driver’s license.

The first cop approached my car, hand on his gun.

“Do you know why I pulled you over?” he asked.

“No,” I responded, legitimately confused why he would pull me over for doing five above in the middle of desert.

“You were doing 73. That’s three above the speed limit, but I just wanted to make sure you don’t have anything illegal and have a valid driver’s license,” he said.

“Well, I think it is lost somewhere in my car,” I said, “but I do have my college ID.”

He told me to look around my car for my driver’s license, which I did not find. At this point, the officer put two and two together. I was a youth with moppy hair, an unkempt beard, and a messy car–in other words, a marijuana addict. After my fruitless search, he asked me a few questions:

  • “Have you been smoking marijuana?” I replied no.
  • “Do you have marijuana with you?” I replied no.
  • “Do you smoke marijuana?” I replied by telling him that I am a complete teetotaler. My attempt at humor was ill received.

After this series of questions, he waited for his partner to come back. They both circled my car, looking for evidence of marijuana, of which they found none. What they did find was that I have a lot more stuffed animals than a twenty-year old man should have.

The second police officer decided that he would improvise with my constitutional rights a little bit.

He said, “So since you don’t have anything illegal in the car, it’s okay that we’re gonna’ search the car.”

He didn’t phrase this as a question, but there was nothing illegal about his statement, since it could be construed as a question.

I paused, unsure how to respond. I knew the ball was in my court, primarily because there was nothing illegal in the car. But still, the libertarian deep inside of me wanted to win this one on principle.

I said, “I thought you needed probable cause to search a car.”

“This has nothing to do with probable cause. If you’ve got nothing to hide, you won’t mind that we’re going to search your car. So I’m just asking you what you would say if we told you we were going to search your car.”

There was another extended awkward pause. “I would probably say that you can’t search my car.”

He walked away and waited with his partner while they ran my name through the computer. Finally, one of the two said, “Screw this, it’s too cold. Let’s cut him loose.”

So, they cut me loose, and proceeded to follow me for an additional 50 miles until I got to the next town. As soon as the police officer stopped tailing me, I pulled over and vomited from how nervous the whole ordeal had made me.

I learned a couple lessons from this tale that I can pass on:

  1. Nevada sucks. Any state that legalizes brothels in an attempt to increase tourism has to be a terrible place.
  2. Some cops are slippery, and like to dance like Fred Astaire around our constitutional rights. Be careful.

While he excels in most other areas, Jeff Merrion’s spatial logic falls within the lower third percentile of United States citizens. He is a Religious Studies major and, as such, has a long life of administrative assistantship awaiting him. To potential employers: Jeff makes a mean cup of coffee.