2003 Road Trip Diary: Chapter 12

We hit I-80 heading east just after breakfast. In Sacramento we switched over to US-50 and made a beeline for the Sierras, reaching South Lake Tahoe in time for a Rooty-Tooty-Fresh-and-Fruity lunch at IHOP. I’d been to Tahoe once before, joining Ethan and some friends of his for a ski trip. It usually takes me two visits to a place to get and hold a clear picture of it in my mind, but Tahoe was pretty much how I remembered it.

After lunch we cut over to US-395 and turned south down the back of the Sierra Nevada mountains for several hundred miles. I had long been looking forward to this portion of the trip and was disappointed that the weather had kept me from taking this route a couple of weeks before. I was anything but disappointed that day. The Sierras give you a thousand different looks. They’re the most beautiful mountains I’ve ever seen.

We turned east again just past Lone Pine, with Mt. Whitney in the rear view mirror, and Death Valley straight ahead. The most significant direction, however, was down in that we went from 5000 feet elevation to –190 in the space of about 100 switchbacking miles of highway. I had expected stifling heat, but it was probably only about 85-90 degrees on the valley floor that day which, as so many have said, is quite comfortable in the desert. I had likewise expected Death Valley to be bleak and barren, but the desert bloomed with wildflowers. Even the sagebrush took on a green tint, making this legendarily desolate landscape one of the more welcoming places I had been on my trip.

We stopped the car when we reached sea level to take pictures of some sand dunes on the north side of the highway. It was unnaturally quiet. No cars passed us the entire time we were stopped. For some reason, I felt compelled to lie down in the middle of the road. I’d been in a fabulous mood since my epiphany that morning, but lying there, staring at the desert sky, transported me to a higher plane of relaxation and contentment. Soon the sun began to set and we continued on our way.

I have mixed feelings about Las Vegas. 30 million people go there every year, primarily to gamble, and if you read the Ely and St. Louis installments of this diary, you know my feelings about gambling. Las Vegas’ isolation and uniqueness temper those feelings somewhat. Though I know it’s more complicated than this, I allow myself to believe that, unlike the riverboat casinos in Missouri or the Hotel Nevada up in Ely, Vegas isn’t being kept alive by people making quick stops to blow the grocery money on their way home from work. It’s a destination, I tell myself, and budgeting to blow a few thousand vacation dollars at Caesar’s Palace is no more offensive than budgeting to do the same thing at Disneyworld. Maybe less offensive. Gambling aside, the place, its history, and what it represents in American culture and psychology just fascinates me in ways that sad-sack southern towns with faux riverboat casinos simply never will. I’d like to write a book about it one day.

We checked into the Mirage just before 8 P.M., stowed our bags, and went down to get some dinner. Ethan had called ahead earlier in the day and got tickets to see a show. It was a lot of fun, but road fatigue got the best of me about halfway through. We had a couple of drinks back at the Mirage after the show, but by then I was dead on my feet. I managed to engage in some conversation with Ethan regarding the end of his marriage and the beginning of his single life, but my head wasn’t really in the game. As I went to bed I hoped that I didn’t give him any bad advice. Of course, after all of these years, he’s no doubt an expert at sorting through my bullshit.

I awoke the next morning to the buzzing of an alarm clock – the first time I needed one since my last day at work. I guess the previous day’s drive had taken more out of me than I thought. I let Ethan drive out of Las Vegas. After stopping for a quick breakfast in Henderson, we snaked over the Hoover Dam. Neither of us felt all that compelled to stop for what is, essentially, a lot of concrete and a lot of tourists. As we crossed over I prayed for a pre-cision earthquake (yes, I know that was a different dam).

Highway 93 south through Arizona is dullsville. Nothing but miles and miles of, well, nothing interrupted by the occasional mobile home squatting on land selling for $500 an acre and a waste of money at half the price. It was the perfect landscape for our purposes, though. Whereas the day before was full of long stretches of silence as we took in the beauty of the mountains, lakes, and deserts, this day was full of conversation. About change, mostly. Ethan’s soon-to-be-filed divorce. My soon-to-be-born baby. Career uncertainty for both of us. The feeling that we were getting older and exactly how we felt about that. This last bit was underscored by a call from my Dad when we were just south of Kingman, telling me that he had decided to retire. The only constant in life is change.

Soon after my Dad called, Ethan’s prospective landlady back in Berkeley called me to check his references. I suppose it might have been awkward if she had asked me any tough questions, him sitting a foot away from me and all. Amiable hippie landladies from Berkeley aren’t ones for tough questions, though, so she asked me a series of odd ones like “what is his favorite kind of pizza?” and “is he a complete person?” We drove out of signal range before she had a chance to ask me what kind of tree he would be.

We pulled into Tuscon at around 5:30, made a quick stop at a grocery store for camp grub, turned onto the Catalina Highway and started up Mt. Lemmon and into the Coronado National Forest. U2’s Joshua Tree blasted from the cd player as we raced up the switchbacks, stopping every so often to take in the view as a golden sunset cast the day’s last light on the valley floor below. We were on a combined music-driving-scenery-altitude high as we stopped at Spencer Canyon Campground, about 8000 feet up the mountain.

It had been over 90 degrees down in Tucson, but it was already well below 60 and dropping fast as we made camp. Ethan built a fire, over which we cooked our manly feast: cocktail shrimp, peppers, onions, and tomatoes, marinated in sesame oil on bamboo skewers (I kept my wedding ring and a picture of my wife close by just in case we encountered harassment). We continued to camp like morons as I stirred the fire with my car’s jack handle rather than seek out a thick branch. I would end up forgetting the jack handle when we left the next morning. A massive fire burned much of Mt. Lemmon just over a month later. As I watched the news coverage back home, I wondered if anyone would find the jack handle next to the fire pit and assume that some greenhorn had accidentally burnt the goddamn place down.

For the past several months, each night’s sleep had been preceded by several minutes of building anxiety. If dreams came, I didn’t remember them. When morning came, I couldn’t wake up.

That night I zipped into my sleeping bag and stared up at a billion stars, framed by a proscenium of Ponderosa Pines. Sleep came quickly. My dreams, vivid.

Craig Calcaterra

Craig is the author of the daily baseball (and other things) newsletter, Cup of Coffee. He writes about other things at Craigcalcaterra.com. He lives in New Albany, Ohio with his wife, two kids, and many cats.

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