on The Road
The open road is a glorious place, especially if your diving from Colorado to Northern California on the Loneliest Highway in America, Highway 50. The cracked highway gun barrels through sage brush and salt flats for as far as the eye can see. The light does funny things. Nowhere else, except for maybe the open ocean can you see so much sky. On one end of the open desert a thunderstorm churns and cracks, at the other end wispy clouds flutter in every direction letting slivers of light illuminate the desert floor. The color palette is insane. The most genius painter or designer couldn't come up with the palette that mother nature so effortlessly created. Soft tans fade into sagey blue-greens, a pinkish hue lines distant rolling hills, and juniper bushes speckle the landscape to create the perfect amount of contrast. Hot-springs litter the open desert floor and line the outskirts of the Toiyabe National Forest. Are you getting the picture? … It’s fucking glorious.
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve driven the loneliest highway. I’ve forgotten what reasons took me there in the first place. I’ve driven the highway with friends and with lovers, but until a few months ago I had never driven it alone. From Aspen, CO to San Francisco it’s about 18 hours. There are other routes you can take to Northern Cali from Colorado that cut the trip by 5 hours or so, but highway 50 was calling me back. Besides I’d rather go through strange little towns in the middle of Nevada with mom and pop cafes ( There actually is a cafe right as you turn onto highway 50 at the edge of Utah called “MOMS”, it’s my favorite) than eat flaming hot cheetos from gas stations along a busy highway … and lord help me I cannot resist a bag of flamin’ hot cheetos when I’m on The Road - so I try to avoid them at all costs. This was also my first time driving on 50 when I didn’t have a specific timeline. I had all the time in the world. I had a destination, but no schedule.
I approached Austin Nevada at around 4:47 in the afternoon. It only takes a minute and a half to drive through Austin. There’s a motel, a gas station, and a rock shop. Just the essentials. I filled up on gas, as I do every chance I get along the loneliest highway. Rest services are sometimes 180 miles apart. Then I went straight into the rock shop. Crystals, fossils and turquoise covered every surface. Old glass bottles lined the windowsills. I poked around and picked up anything with a heavy sparkle, twisting it in the filtered light of the glass bottles. The shop owner walked up and introduced himself, Bill. We got to talking and it wasn’t long before Bill told me of his turquoise mine half a mile up the road. I tensed up with excitement. Nothing gets my rocks off like the thought of digging around in the dirt for treasures. I asked Bill when he was going to his mine next and if I could tag along. He said no. So I asked again, I insisted. I said I’m stronger than I look and I have eyes like a peregrine falcon. He said no. So I asked again and told him I would bring him a six pack of the beer of his choice … and BOOM! Just like that he gave me his cell phone number, email, and home address. Cheers to persistence. I brought a strand of faceted tourmaline, gave Bill an awkward hug, and told him I would be back in the spring to go turquoise hunting with him. There is treasure everywhere you turn.
My next stop was Spencer Hot Springs. I always make it a point to break up my road trip and stay the night at these hot springs. About 14 miles outside of Austin you take a sharp left turn onto highway 376. The old road to Tonopha. Its tricky to find. I hadn’t been to the hot springs in 2 years and by the time I decided that that’s where I was going to spend the night the sun had set behind the hills. There’s no service so my handy iphone was of no use… Which is pretty fucking debilitating to my generation, including myself. I had to rely on my instincts. And to my surprise, my impeccable sense of direction led me straight to the springs. The signs are small and if you weren't really looking they would be invisible to an untrained eye.
I pulled in a few feet from the hot springs and was relieved to be the only car in the lot. Spencer Hot Springs are in the middle of the Nevada desert. In a place that seems void of any water, these little hot springs bubble up from the ground and into horse troughs made into bath tubs. I stripped down and slipped into the springs, watching the stars and distant car lights make their way down the valley.
I woke up to find that I was not alone. A few hundred feet away from where I parked was an old air stream and two horses tied up on the outside. I woke up with the sun so I could watch the sunrise over the desert and have a solitary soak. A few minutes into my sunrise soak I saw an older man, probably in his late 50’s step out of his airstream and into the morning light. He saw me and began to walk over to the springs, no towel or bathing suit in hand (not that you need a bathing suit to go Hot Springs-ing). Traveling alone as a young woman can be a little nerve racking. I’m more cautious and mindful of where I stay and what I do when I’m alone on The Road. When I saw this older, rough looking man with a big handlebar mustache walk towards me with no intention of getting into the springs my mind started to race. I was nervous being alone and bare-ass naked in the middle of the desert with no one and no services for miles. I began to think the worst. What could this man possibly want with me except to murder me in the back of his air stream and feed me to his horses?! … I watch too many horror movies.
He politely approached me, introduced himself as “Jack” and handed me a cup of steaming hot coffee while I was still in the springs. He said he noticed I was alone and invited me to breakfast and more coffee in his trailer after I was done soaking. I felt like a real asshole for thinking he was going to rape and murder me when he just came to offer me hot coffee and company. At this point I could have used some company. I dried off and walked over to his air stream. In his little kitchen was Dan, another handlebar clad cowboy with ripped jeans and a red flannel. They had made pancakes, bacon, eggs and.…coffee. Lots of coffee. I ate breakfast with them and lingered to chit chat.
Some people have a gift of storytelling. Cowboy Jack had that gift. He told me the story of when he was working as a logger in his 20’s and was 5 miles away from Mt. Saint Helens in May of 1980. He told his story in alarming detail. The state patrol had warned him for weeks that they need to evacuate the area because the mountain was going to blow. But he and his crew were making $350 a day logging … that's a lot of money in the 80’s and when your 20 years old that’s even more money. So they ignored the warnings and continued to log. As a hobby, one of Jacks crew members fancied himself as a wildlife photographer. He took his camera with him on every outing, shooting birds, elk and any other critters that they crossed paths with. On the morning of the eruption no one saw any animals. No birds chirped, no squirrels scurried in the bushes. Jack remembers thinking it was strange how quiet the forest was. They were making their way down a hill, when they saw the enormous plume of debris and ash hurdling down the valley. Even before they heard the boom of the eruption, they were running to their truck to beat the omniscient cloud of doom. He remembers how the ground turned to what felt like Rice Crispy’s under his feet, a 2 inch layer of crust formed as they were running, and within minutes the forest went from rich greens and browns to a monochromatic grey. By the time Jack and his crew got back to their old truck it was as dark as night outside. The cloud of ash had completely blocked out the sun and made it impossible to find the road. All six men had to take turns walking in front of the car to make sure they didn't drive it off a cliff. He said being outside was like having your face stuck in an oven, he could feel his nose hairs burn off and the back of his throat being torched. An hour had gone by and as they approached the nearest gas station, they were slugging through knee high ash. Everyone made it out alive, and the national guard picked them up and drove them to safety.
I shook myself out of the trance that Jack had put me in with his Mt. Saint Helens story. I gave Jack and Dan a big hug and thanked them for breakfast and the unexpectedly awesome company. They sent me on my way with a snack bag filled with M&M’s, a ham and cheese sandwich, 2 oranges, a Coca-cola, and two doobies for the road.
It’s so easy to assume the worst. And it’s so easy to judge people on their appearances. As I got over the guilt of thinking Jack was a rapist murderer I realized he taught me a very valuable lesson. Just as the road is open to our wanderings, we need to be open to road. If I had closed myself off to Jack, I would have closed myself off to a story that will stick in my memory for the rest of my life. A story that I will tell to remind people to be adventurous, and that it’s ok to initially feel uncomfortable. Those moments of uncertainty usually lead to the best stories and the best snacks.