Route 50 is a capricious, two-lane highway running through the middle of Nevada and western Utah like a sclerotic artery. It has the audacity to call itself The Loneliest Road in America.
Nevada, at least, has a sense of humor about Route 50 (does Utah have a sense of humor about anything?). When you gas up at either end of the state, they give you a survival map and a passport to stamp at each of the towns separated by long empty stretches along the way. West to east it goes: Carson City, Fallon, Austin, Eureka, Ely. If you make it to the end you get a certificate saying, “Congratulations! You Survived The Loneliest Road in America.” I’ve survived the trip many times. In fact, I’ve more than survived it. At various points in my life, I’ve embraced it, scoffed at it, and challenged it to hit me with its best shot.
The first time, a willful act of separation led me there. You know the drill — heiress girlfriend decides to get serious about life, goes off to business school, marries and leaves you to your own devices in the big city. Once the doctors recommended a change in lifestyle, I beat a retreat for Vail, Colorado, to become a ski bum and find myself. I found Route 50.
It was the spring of ’91, after my first winter in Vail when the ski season had melted to a halt. Work gets hard to find during the off-season, and cash becomes scarce. Folks start drinking too much and hitting each other too often. Running out of money myself, I sold the ’85 Jeep I’d arrived in and bought a ’78 Subaru wagon. Subarus don’t win many style points, but this one, tan with a deer guard in front, had a mutt-like charm and was just as game. I liked to imagine that if everything fell off that car except the steering wheel, I’d only have to hold on and it would drag me forward.
With the cash left over from trading the Jeep, I decided to road-trip out to San Francisco and swing down the coast. If you’re heading to the Bay Area, conventional wisdom says take Interstate 70 to the middle of Utah and then jog north on I-15 to I-80. That way you never go more than 50 miles without gas, food or lodging. Looking at the map, though, Route 50 seemed the straighter shot. I saw that for most of the way only two towns, Ely and Fallon, were marked in bold, and there was a long way between them. I noticed also that Ely and Fallon were in smaller lettering than, say, Carson City or Sparks, but from the looks of the map, they were bustling metropolises compared to Eureka or Austin, which were noted in the tiniest and thinnest lettering. No matter. I was a loner-seeker, and my mysterious aura would be enough to keep highway robbers, lobos and loons at a safe distance.
When you’re not exactly screaming down the road at 65 mph (the wagon’s top speed), the great basins of south-central Utah stretch out like an endless Road Runner storyboard. It’s beautiful country, but it feels rigid and formal, lacking in human impulse. Entering into the burnt, red terrain of Nevada, though, my heart rose. It was just as vast and empty as Utah, but for some reason seemed more inviting, like a giant hearth. The time between oncoming cars increased to the degree that I thought I might really be the only traveler out there, but it wasn’t a scary emptiness that confronted me. It was nourishing. I drove my Subaru hard through the desert, rising and ascending plateaus and plains, desert brush clinging to shady pockets in the mountain passes. I drove and drove, thinking unoriginal thoughts about life and what it had and hadn’t turned out to be. I was aware that family and friends wondered what was wrong with me — leaving behind New York, career opportunities, relationships and other things I wasn’t ready for, becoming hard to track down, disappearing into the West, setting off on uncharted courses . . . Sometimes I wondered, too.
In the middle of nowhere, with a hundred miles to the next stop, the Subaru overheated. I pulled over to the side, got out my guitar, lit a cigarette and played a few cowboy songs just to let the desert know I came in peace. Something happened out there in the dusk on that road with the sun setting down on foreign lands and everything turning purple. I could smell poppies in west China. I could taste fruits from the South Seas. I could sense time moving like a faraway swell in the ocean: It was out there, but I wasn’t yet caught in its wave. I realized everyone I knew before was already a memory and that this wasn’t just a phase. My life was somewhere out here. After a while, I put some coolant in the engine and pressed on.
Another time on another trip, I drove a different, even older Subaru (downward mobility was my mode back then) through the desert with the temperature hovering around 110. When I made it to Fallon, an Air Force town, I was caked with dust and slightly disoriented from the heat. I pulled into a KFC, ordered a bucket of chicken and fries, poured a large water over my head and drove on to San Francisco where I ran into (literally) the only Swedish model at the party. Turns out we had a lot in common: I spoke English and she was a Swedish model. A cab driver taken with the romance of it all drove us around the city, picking up fares and advisers along the way, until he found us a vacant love nest in the fully booked city. The morning revealed it to be a Tenderloin flophouse.
A snowboarder-sociopath named Brendy joined me on another trip to the coast. We started drinking as soon as we crossed into Utah, tossing 40 ouncers into the back of my pickup truck like they were candy wrappers. Somewhere in Utah, we picked up an eccentric older guy we called Uncle Bob. Uncle Bob was on his way to an algae convention in Eugene, Oregon. He showed us his briefcase full of rare specimens that he claimed had magical health benefits. He ran down his get-rich-quick scheme and tried to get us to invest. The three of us drank and laughed our way across Route 50, stopping for steak and eggs and petty larceny whenever the occasion arose. Once I drove straight from San Francisco to Denver via Route 50 — 20 hours if it was a minute — popping caffeine pills and drinking Coke the whole way just to get back to a girl who wasn’t expecting me.
I had gone native.
The point is, Route 50 is always an option, never a necessity, like betting on an iffy hand. When you’re young you tend to push your luck just for kicks. But the house always wins in the end. Some learn the hard way. Some just take a wrong turn at the wrong time.
The only thing that’s changed in Eureka, Nevada, since its Wild West heyday is the internal-combustion engine, running water, electricity and the male-to-female ratio, which has gotten worse over the years as the mines shut down and the old Opera House and bordello turned into a motel with slot machines in the lobby. A sign at the town limits says: Welcome to the Loneliest Town on the Loneliest Road in America.
It had been a couple of years since those first carefree jaunts through the desert had taken me through Eureka. Going back to school had finally propelled me out of Vail and the low-end jobs and seasonal-affective disorders that were leading to too many broken bones and misdemeanors. Near the end, I cashed in my last Subaru and was down to a Honda Hawk motorcycle and a lot of mud in my teeth. The last straw came when a skid/loader on a construction site conked out on the crest of a hill and nearly toppled me into a swimming pool. The tip of my ring finger was almost chopped off in the hydraulic arm. I got out, washed off my hand, inspected my mangled finger and started kicking the mini-tractor, yelling, “Fuck this fucking place. I’m out of here!” over and over again until someone took me to the hospital.
By and large the years in journalism school and working at various newspapers were good years, culminating in a plum assignment to the Washington Post. But all good things come to an end, and this one ended suddenly. Before I knew it, I’d quit The Post and was traveling back across the country to pick up my stuff at the place in Los Angeles I used to share with a woman who used to be my girlfriend but, while I was in D.C., had taken up with a Viking from Iceland.
I knew I wouldn’t be able to do this errand without some help, so I called my old friend Arty. I could barely form a sentence. He could tell this was serious and flew out to meet me in New York. From there we set out for L.A. where I’d leave Arty and then retreat once again to the sanctuary of Vail. The recidivism of it all left me nearly comatose. The entire drive went by in a blur of cigarettes, cupcakes and Nine Inch Nails CDs. It was November and the gray sky was as heavy as the music and my mind.
“Arty, she gave him the bed,” I said somewhere around St. Louis, grabbing a Ho Ho from my box of 24. It might have been the first thing I said the entire trip.
“She gave the Viking our bed. I mean my bed. She gave it to him.” It wasn’t just a bed. It was the first bed I had ever bought. The first time I ever had a bed that was my own. It was a symbol of having made my way up off the floor. Now it was in the loft next door. I asked her how she could be so heartless.
“I didn’t think you’d mind,” she said. “You weren’t going to use it, and he needed a bed.” She made it sound like I was being immature.
“Dude, that’s cold,” Arty said in the car, polishing off a limited-edition Hostess Snowball eight-pack.
“What am I going to do? I mean, how could she be that insensitive?”
“I don’t know, dog, that’s a tough one.” He was eyeing the Dolly Madisons.
“I’ll be damned if I’m going to have Vlad the Impaler fucking her on it.”
Arty shook his head sympathetically and reached for one of my Ho Hos. “Hey, have you heard the new Cypress Hill CD?”
By the time we reached Colorado, we were both weighed down with junk food and soda, but there was nothing to do about it but press ahead. The next stretch in L.A. would be the tough one — I didn’t need to deal with Route 50 just yet. We took the safe route, I-70 to I-15 South.
I hadn’t seen her in about six months. I thought about the ring inscribed with the words forget me not that she had given me when I left for the Post gig. Back in D.C., I would go to the mailbox every day looking for something that explained it all. Instead I got forwarded bills. I fingered the ring in my pocket: Forget me not. Fat chance.
My father’s Buick LeSabre was impressive as we headed toward Las Vegas. It had an understated luxuriousness. Ninety felt the same as 55. The steering was responsive. The miles flew by in silence, save for the crinkle of individually wrapped Dolly Madisons. Arty was playing every CD in the Soul Assassins catalog. I think we were up to Funkdoobiest. We were getting closer and fatter.
“Arty, what am I going to do about the bed? I mean, I can’t take it with me.” We were at the Coco’s in Barstow, eating chocolate cake.
“Look, man, if it’s bothering you that much, you gotta do something about it. You gotta call her.”
I told her I wanted the bed out of there.
“What do you want me to do with it?” she asked, like there was no other option.
“I want you to call Salvation Army and have them pick it up.”
“You heard me. That bed better be fucking out of there when I come to pick up my shit.”
“I don’t get it.”
“I know you don’t, but you should.”
I dropped Arty off in Hollywood and made my way to the loft she and I rented at the Brewery. It was empty when we moved in. I put in the cabinets. Unfortunately, I put them in upside down and the doors opened the wrong way — my own forget-me-not.
It was cold and overcast when I arrived. She was waiting outside, wearing that sweater, the one that made her look like Marilyn Monroe. I wanted to be angry when I saw her, but I was just sad and felt like a fool. That sweater was like six daggers in my heart. I picked up my belongings. The bed was propped up on display in the hallway. It was just an appeasement. I knew Thor would be using his hammer on it before I was out of the county. I had to let it go.
If there ever was a sadder-looking sap than I was in the parking lot, loading my shit into the car, staring at her in that sweater, my feet cinder blocks, I would have liked to have met him. She gave me a hug goodbye. I wanted to refuse it, but I couldn’t. I handed her back the ring. “You may need this,” I said, and drove away.
It started raining while I was on the 101 North, heading up to Oakland to see my uncle. I pulled over and called her. I didn’t have anything to say. I just cried.
“You gotta stop this,” she said, not unkindly. “It’s gonna be okay. You’re a great guy. You deserve better than me anyway.”
I didn’t want better, not then. I wanted my pride back. I wanted to know why she didn’t want me. I wanted to know why, despite my best efforts, despite J school, the front-page stories and the breakfasts with editors who told me how great I was, I was still heading back to the place I had tried so hard to get away from. Driving back to Vail, I meant to take Interstate 80. I knew I was in no condition to meet up with my old traveling companion, The Loneliest Road in America. Somehow, though, with my head a mush of regret, I missed the turnoff at Sacramento, and I-80 turned into Route 50 all on its own. I didn’t even notice until I was past south Lake Tahoe and out in the wilds. It started raining as soon as it was too late to turn back. I should have stayed in Fallon, but there were too many miles to go and, besides, it was just rain.
By the time I was approaching Austin, where the shoulders drop off the road as it winds through the mountains, the rain had turned to snow. By the time I was past Austin, with 70-some miles to make Eureka, the snow had turned to a blizzard. Visibility was about 10 feet. I slowed to a crawl and put on my hazards. If I stopped, a truck would come up behind and crush me, but there was almost no way to go on. One wrong move would send me tumbling down a hillside where I would have to wait days or weeks for someone to find my charred body. I should have kept the ring, I thought. How poetic if the ring was the only thing left to identify me.
I felt like God was testing me, and I wasn’t in the mood for it. Gripping the steering wheel so tightly my knuckles went from white to blue, I started yelling back. Fuck you! Fuck you! You’re not going to kill me you motherfucker! I thought about the fancy dinner thrown by the managing editor of the Post and how someone kicked over the beer bottle I’d set on the floor, the liquid slowly spreading like a plague toward the fancy rug that probably cost more than I’d made in the last two years. I thought about how maybe I shouldn’t have knocked over that one intern to catch the ball in the outfield at the staff-versus-editors softball game — but he would have missed! Maybe I shouldn’t have hit the home run that won the game the staffers are supposed to lose each year. Maybe I shouldn’t have played footsie under the bar with that impish editorial assistant when we all went out for drinks. Maybe I shouldn’t have been making out with her in the hallways. Maybe I shouldn’t have gotten drunk before writing that one story — even if it ended up the section lead. Maybe I should have been more humble and kissed more ass. Maybe I should have said yes when they told me they couldn’t give me a staff job, but wanted me to stay on for another two-month contract. Instead I told them to fuck off and took a job and a ski pass from the paper in Vail. What was I proving to whom?
Maybe I should have paid more attention to my ex-girlfriend when I had the chance.
I was guilty, all right. I was guilty of a lot of things. Things I couldn’t even remember. After all, I was a white male, the guiltiest. But all I could think was fuck you all anyway. My father’s LeSabre, an unlikely hero if ever there was one, held the road. I was vibrating with stress by the time I passed the sign welcoming me to Eureka: The Loneliest Town on the Loneliest Road in America. I pulled into the old bordello and inquired about a room. Everything stopped. You could have heard a thousand pins drop one at a time. I looked around and noticed I was the only one without a trucker’s cap and a ZZ Top beard. All eyes were on me. To them, I was either an alien or the prettiest thing that had stopped in there in years.
The rooms were upstairs, off a balcony, just like the Old West. Everybody watched me climb the stairs and unlock the door. I had to laugh at the waterbed in my room. Great, at least when I’m gang-raped by a bunch of out-of-work miners, it’ll be on a waterbed. I sat in the room for an eternity, shivering. What am I going to do? I couldn’t just sit there. Fuck it, I decided. If I’m going to go down, I’m going to go down the best way I know how.
I went downstairs to the bar and ordered a shot of whiskey and a beer. Then I ordered another. Then I put my quarters on the pool table. I ended up playing a wiry miner with half a set of teeth who told me everyone was stuck there until the mine reopened. I knew the feeling. I asked him what they did for kicks. He said they drank, took speed and stockpiled weapons, “in case the niggers decide they want to come up from Las Vegas.” I nodded my head and slipped one of the 5-inch construction nails sitting on a dusty ledge into my pocket. I flashed back to a story I had read in the Deseret News years before about a rash of unsolved murders in the area. We played a couple games of eight ball. I fantasized about sticking the nail in that asshole’s throat, but I bought him a beer instead.
When I finally was drunk enough not to care what happened next, I went up to my room and propped a chair under the door handle — I mean, they were at least going to rob me. I put the nail on the nightstand. I sunk into the waterbed and thought about that swell of time off there in the distance. It had caught me at last, and it was a tidal wave. Congratulations, I said to myself, you’re the Loneliest Man in the Loneliest Town on the Loneliest Road in America.
The next morning, the sun was brilliant and the air crystalline. The desert appeared refreshed by the snow. Route 50 invited me back onto it like it a friend from long ago. Before I got in the LeSabre, I looked up, shook my fist, and drove on.