I was alone on the road out of the campsite. The multi-lanes of the exodus were all empty, save for numerous potholes on the rough road. The guard houses at the Gate were all dark and silent. Gerlach was very quiet as I rolled through. There were still some BLM Ranger vehicles at Bruno’s Motel. Down the road, I realized I’d forgotten and left the bicycle flag behind. I felt bad about leaving moop. The Sun slowly rose in the east. Several big flatbed trucks passed me northbound towards the playa. I wondered if they were headed to pick up big art pieces.
I passed a guy on a bicycle, biking back to civilization. About two miles later, the car engine sputtered and died. I managed to roll it over to a flat spot on the shoulder. It looked like I was out of gas. There was no warning, no flashing lights, the engine just -- stopped. I had a gallon jug of gas in the back seat for just such an occasion. After putting it in, however… the car wouldn’t start. It just wouldn’t turn over. Just then, a Nevada Highway Patrolman northbound pulled around and came up behind me. The officer got out to help. I was able to call AAA, and since I was on pavement they said they’d be sending someone out to help me. It might take 30 minutes, they said, or it might be several hours. As I talked to AAA, the officer got on his radio, and told me there was already a truck “en route” to help me. The guy on the bicycle waved as he passed me. Left alone on the highway, I watched other burners heading south towards the default world.
Inside, the owner said it would take a couple of hours to get around to looking at my car, and he couldn’t promise it would be fixed that day. I hadn’t eaten anything that day, so I walked over to the Guadalajara Mexican Restaurant. I must have looked like hell when I walked in. They were very gracious, however, and I got a pretty good meal, even if my chips ran out before my salsa. When I got back to the garage an hour later, my car was already in a bay getting looked at. They showed me some spark plugs, which seemed to be burned out. “It acts like its starved for fuel,” they said.
|After another hour of tests, the verdict came in: “We’re certain it’s
the fuel pump,” they said. Because of the car’s design, they’d have to
drop the gas tank to replace it. It sounded expensive. At 3:30 they were
working on the car and tried to start it but… no good. It was very breezy
As I was waiting, I met a lady named Catherine. She was from Vermont, another burner, and was getting her RV repaired. She was staying at a place called the Desert Rose Campground, just outside of town. In my research, I hadn’t seen any tent camping places any closer than Lahontan, but Desert Rose offered tents space for only $17 a night. And they had showers! They managed to get her RV done in time, and she happily drove off. That’s when they tried my car again and… it wouldn’t start. But then, they put $10 worth of gas in it, and it started right up! It idled a little bumpy, but they promised it would get me home.
The final cost was ...substantial. I pulled out of the garage 15 minutes before closing time. From there, I followed directions and went straight for the Desert Rose, which was 3 miles from Fernley. I paid for my space, set up my tent, and hit the showers. Oh, the wonderful showers. There were no restaurants within walking distance, and the only food in the office other than snacks was a 69 cent cup of ramen noodles. So, that’s what I had for supper. I found a penny in the gravel road and thought, Ah, this must be my lucky day…
Wednesday morning, I opened my eyes. It felt like I’d only
been asleep for a few minutes. When I checked my pocket watch, I saw I’d
slept for 7 hours. Outside, the skies over the RV park were overcast, the
air cool. I took a long, hot shower and packed up the car. I’d been on
the road for two weeks, and I was looking pretty haggard. Breakfast was
a packet of beef jerky. I was on the road within an hour.
|I drove down the highway to the Native American-owned Fox Peak Station,
where I filled up the Cavalier. The oil levels were good. I went a mile
down the highway and pulled onto the eastbound Interstate 80.
It was 127 miles to Winnemucca. I patted the Cavalier on the steering wheel and said I’m not asking much—just get me home.
The ETS OFF and CHECK ENGINE lights kept flashing on and off. The garage had said to not worry about them, but... I worried. Every little pop or bump in the car made me jump, worried that something else was wrong. I was so tense, I couldn’t even listen to music for the first hour on the road, keeping my ears open for imminent problems. My mind was lost in thoughts of disasters and failures. Clouds churned overhead. Sprinkles splattered my windshield as I crossed the Pershing County line. I even had to turn the heat on for a while.
Rain soon returned. A little after two hours from Fernley I pulled off at Winnemucca and stopped at a truck stop to put on my hoodie. I got $10 worth of gas at $2.95 a gallon and bought some Fritos. A sign said “Butch Cassidy left here rich—so can you!” There was a casino inside the truck stop, and I almost tried a slot machine to win back all the money I’d spent on repairs… but stories like that only end that way in the movies. The car still sounded funny.
Coming up to Wells, I passed the exit that would have taken me to Highway 93 and north to Idaho. I told myself that anything I missed would still be there next time I passed through. Eight miles down the road I got some sprinkles, but they didn’t last. Down the highway, I was stunned to see a family of antelope grazing in a field beside the road. There was about a dozen of them, about 30 yards off the pavement, with two big males standing guard off to the side. Cars and dusty bikes passed me on a long uphill grade, playa dust trailing behind them. I also saw a big orange & white RV with fuzzy bicycles piled on top. I figured I knew where they came from.
The winds started to get really tough. A big gust of wind pushed the Cavalier around like a toy. Another steep grade slowed me down until I topped the summit at 6,967 feet. From that vantage, I could see a hundred miles to the east. Pointy Pilot Peak passed at 1:40. A sign warned of 45 MPH winds until 7 PM. I exited at Wendover to make a pit stop. I also got $10 worth of gas at $2.95 a gallon. A brunette girl named Yasmin waited on me.
It was 1:57 Nevada time when I got off the interstate, but the cellphone time didn’t change when I crossed over into Utah (and didn’t change until I got to Salt Lake City). Crossing the Nevada Salt Flats reminded me of the playa. The air was dusty. The winds did not let up. The Cavalier kept getting knocked around the road. Interstate 80 traveled due east in a straight line for 47 miles before curving towards a ridge, leaving the Salt Flats behind. Tumbleweeds blew across the road. In the mirror, I was flushed and all dried-out. I looked like a Scottish raisin. I managed to get to Salt Lake City just in time for five o’clock traffic. Lucky me. There were cars suddenly all around me. I took the I-215, headed towards Ogden, but then I took Exit 324 and got on Highway 89. A sign said it was 21 miles to Ogden. I think the drive would’ve been easier if I’d stayed on I-215. Traffic was frantic.
I guessed I had an hour and a half of sunlight left. The road got very crowded, and even stopped altogether for a few minutes. I didn’t want Ogden—I wanted to go there to catch Interstate 84 east. There were picturesque green hills, dotted with friendly little farms. One small business had a sign that just said EATS—BEER. Down the road, I took Exit 103 at Morgan. Right off the highway, I stopped at a 7-Eleven and got $20 worth of gas ($2.97 a gallon). I also got a sandwich to save for breakfast. I drove on through the little town of Morgan, past the school, the church and the family history center (Mormons are big on family history). The campground I was headed towards was another 17 miles south through some lovely rolling hills. I passed many little family farms: horses grazing in pastures, dogs playing in yards, American flags proudly waving from flagpoles. As pretty as the hills were, the Cavalier did not like the hills. It seemed to run better on a full tank of gas, but getting it looked at back home was becoming a priority.
The little road twisted and turned and brought me up to an impressive concrete dam. Beyond was a lovely lake, with boaters out fishing. After another hill, I came to the entrance for East Canyon State Park. The office was closed for the day, so I dropped my $10 fee in the slot and went to find a place for the night. There were not many campers there at all. I was looking for a campsite with a flat place to pitch my tent. I found a place, but after walking around I found another place closer to the bathrooms. I pulled out the pop tent and staked it down.
I called home and then called a friend about the car, and he said, “As long as your fluids are good and you’re not overheating, you should be good to go.” At 6:15, the Sun set behind the western hills. Almost right away, the wind stopped, and the temperature started dropping. There was a flash of light to the southeast. Lightning? I put on a sweatshirt. I stayed up long enough to watch the stars come out, and then I rolled out the sleeping bag and went to bed…
I woke at midnight. It was cold. I pulled a blanket around me. Outside, the stars were magnificent. Way down the slope towards the lake, I could see somebody with a flashlight walking around. Up towards the bathrooms, not 20 yards away, a pair of deer grazed on the scrubby grass. One was a young 4-point buck—I could see his horns clearly in the lights from the bathroom. It made me wonder what else was out there in the dark, all around me, watching me…
A wild, whistling wind blew through the park late that night. The air became frigid. I snuggled deeper into my sleeping bag. I woke again at 5 AM to the sound of rain. It was first a pelting on the tent, then it hammered down on nearby tin roofs. Soon, the first glow of dawn lit up the east. I could see three deer down by the lakeside. Angry, dark clouds churned above me. The wind was hard and chill. It was looking like a tempestuous Thursday morning.
There was deer scat on the ground not 10 yards from my tent. I finished packing up. The skies to the east seemed to be clearing up a little. By that point, I’d been on the road for two weeks. It clouded up again when I pulled out of the campsite. Rocks had fallen onto the curvy road in the night. It began to drizzle. Through the rain, I could see a beautiful rainbow, arching above the road from one ridge line to the next. I had the road completely to myself up until I got back to Morgan, Utah. I passed kids in rain slickers waiting for the school bus. I stopped off at the 7-Eleven to top off the tank, then got back on Interstate 84, eastbound. The highway went down a narrow valley. There were a pair of railroad tracks parallel to the interstate just off to the north. I felt my ears pop.
Thirty miles from the park, I turned onto Interstate 80, which would take me all the way to Nebraska. The highway took me out of the mountains into flatter countyside. The rain seemed to let up. I could see blue skies ahead, but it was still cloudy with very strong crosswinds from the north. I soon crossed over the border into Wyoming. The first thing I noticed was that gasoline was way cheaper in Wyoming, about 30 cents cheaper. There also seemed to be lots of fireworks companies, for some reason.
The Cavalier complained going up a steep grade, but coasting down the
other side the ETS light flickered off for a while. That seemed
to support the theory that the sensors were malfunctioning... but then,
why was the car acting funny? Were the malfunctioning sensors making
the car run funny? The winds bounced the car around, making it hard to
tell if anything was running right. The wind shifted, and seemed
to come from the south. The radio weather report warned of 40 MPH winds.
The Cavalier complained about another steep grade at Mile Marker 28. Soon
past that, the landscape became thankfully level. Fields were covered with
little green bushes. I had to swerve to avoid a big RV tossed my way by
the winds. The Sun kept trying to poke out from behind the clouds. The
landscape became harsh and badland-ish. The road went past some impressive
cliffs near Green River. I went through a tunnel. When I got to Rock Springs,
I pulled off the highway and topped off the tank with gas. I meant to do
some exploring, but figured I'd better keep moving. It was 254 miles to
Cheyenne. There was lots of dry, open country around.
|I worried about the car. It only seemed to be acting up while I was stopped and idling, but of course that was incorrect. Whatever it was doing, it was doing it at high speeds, too, and maybe messing things up even worse. I crossed the Continental Divide, and then, miles later, crossed it again. The Divide splits around the Red Desert, leaving a big, dry, empty basin. The land had its own kind of stark beauty. It was a lonely, dreary drive.|
I left Laramie at 3:30 Mountain Time. It had turned into a beautiful day. Eastbound Interstate 80 climbs though some impressive peaks before it gets to Cheyenne. I was no more than a couple of miles out of Laramie when the Cavalier started behaving very oddly. The transmission downshifted for no reason. I got very anxious, and got off the highway at the next exit. It turned out to be the exit for the Lincoln Highway memorial. I’d planned to stop there anyway, but the situation was different. Inside the visitor’s center, there were two teenage girls at the information counter. I asked them directions to the nearest garage. I told them my car needed repairing right away. They directed me to a place back in Laramie. I turned around and headed back west, frantic and nervous. The place those girls sent me to turned out to be a tire and lube place—not a place where repairs would be done. I was really angry at those girls for wasting my time.
The guys at the lube place pointed me to a garage near old downtown
Laramie. The road took me straight through town, right through the university,
where I had to slow down and idle and listen to the car jump and huff.
The guys at the second place said they could take a look at it, but not
until the next day, because it was already after 4 PM by then. They directed
me to the GM place, way back the way I came, about a mile from the
first place I stopped. Why didn’t the lube guys send me there?
|I drove slowly, painfully back through the university and found the GM dealership and service center. They were busy, and had a lot of cars already getting worked on, but one of the mechanics took a look at the Cavalier. I sat in the waiting room for a long time. The mechanic came out and agreed that my car --like me-- was “not firing on all cylinders.” The mechanics looked at the spark plugs, and found one looked “right out of the box,” meaning it was not getting fuel. The coil pack, which controls the spark plugs, had malfunctioned; they showed me where it had shorted out and melted part of the casing. The good news was that it was a pretty standard part for Cavaliers. The bad news was not many people drove Cavaliers anymore.|
Standing in the parking lot, hundreds of miles from home, nowhere near anybody I knew, with the Sun casting long, dark shadows all around me, I felt about as alone as I’d ever felt in my life.
There was a motel nearby. I walked over and got a room for the night. Luckily for me, they had a discount for stranded Okies. I told the girl at the counter I might need a room for more than one night, if repairs took longer than expected. She assured me they had available rooms for the weekend; there would be a place for me to stay. I dragged myself up to the room and took a hot shower, changed clothes and walked a couple of blocks down the road to a restaurant. Normally, I wouldn’t have indulged in the cost of a restaurant, but I was already spending so much money, and after the week I’d had I figured I needed a little pampering. Supper was a steak I couldn't afford. I left a tip. Back in the room, I watched a little TV and finished off the last of the beer I’d saved from Hair of the Dog. A friend sent a text with encouraging words. Finally, I had no strength left in me. I turned out the lights. For the first night in two weeks, I was in a real bed, though it took me a long time to relax…
I was up at 6 AM, Mountain Time, Friday morning. I’d slept about 8 hours. I think it rained overnight. I took a hot shower. I hadn’t shaved in two weeks, so I looked pretty rough. The TV weather showed radar images of a big storm system over central Kansas. It looked like I’d be better off staying west of Wichita. It was 42 degrees out that morning, with a wind chill of 36 degrees. Laramie was expecting record lows that night. I went down to the lobby for the continental breakfast: an orange, 2 hard-boiled eggs, toast & jelly, and orange juice. The TV had news of a big fire in San Bruno, California, just outside San Francisco. The video pictures looked like a bomb had gone off.
I walked over to the GM garage. The first thing I noticed was that my car had been moved from where it was the previous evening. They said the part was on its way, and should arrive by early to mid-afternoon. Cost would be ...substantial. The chief mechanic said they should get me “on the road today.” I wondered how far I could get if I started mid-afternoon. At that point, I had no desire to sightsee anymore. I just wanted to go home. I spoke to the motel manager. I explained that my car was being worked on, and I might need to hang around the lobby until it was fixed. She said that wouldn’t be a problem. “We’ll let you hang.”
So, after checking out of my room, I sat in the lobby, watching the TV. It had already been a long morning, and it was looking to be a long day… But then, right at 11:20, the GM garage called. The car was fixed! I thanked the hotel staff for their patience and hurried across to the garage. The bill was substantial, but actually a little less than they’d estimated. Outside, I got in the Cavalier and started it up. The engine came to life, purring like a kitten. No lights flashed on the dashboard. I was mobile again! It was right at 11:30. It was only 13 hours to home. I’d done 16-hour drive before. I thought, I can do it. I can make it home tonight.
|I pulled out of Laramie and headed east on I-80. Beyond where I’d stopped
to see the Lincoln memorial, the road got really steep, topping out at
a summit of 8,640 feet. It was 36 miles to Cheyenne. To the north was a
beautiful ridge of mountains. The air was icy cold. I pulled off the highway
at the exit for the Ames Pyramid, but when I saw the gravel road leading
off into the countryside I said no thanks. I’d taken too many chances that
The pyramid would have to wait. I got back on the highway, but just a few miles later I pulled over for something else I’d been wanting to see: Tree in Rock! The interstate went on either side of it, creating kind of a traffic circle around it. The wind howled as I stood at the fence, stretching my hand through the bars to touch the tree.
The car was running good again. I wasn't having problems, but --my confidence was shaken. The cumulative experiences with the car had rattled me. I didn’t feel as confident as I did when I started out on that trip. I felt desperate to get home, but when I got to the Kimball exit, I just had to pull over. I had wanted to take some pictures, and I felt, by God, I’m gonna get something done, so I pulled off the highway. I drove through town and got my pictures. Back on the interstate, I felt a little better about myself. I’d been a plaything of the Travel Gods for days, but I did one thing I wanted to do and got away with it, and the roads ahead didn’t seem so ominous any more. I still had a lot of miles to go.
|It was 119 miles to North Platte. The wind blew hard. The dusty skies
turned a bluish grey. I crossed the South Platte River, and then the town
of Big Springs. At 4:17, I crossed into the Central Time Zone, making it
5:17. About 20 minutes later, I came to North Platte. It was 94 miles to
The Sun was getting very low in the sky. I’d passed the storm clouds, and the skies were completely clear in all directions. The miles rolled on and on. Fields of tall corn lined the highway. I crossed Mud Creek at 6:53, and Odessa at 7:01. Minutes later, I made it Kearney. I stopped for $10 worth of gas and some snacks. The western sky was blinding at that point. It hurt my eyes to look in the rear view mirrors.
I got $10 worth of gas. The pumps had old analog numbers, and I went
2 cents over, so I went back and gave the manager 2 pennies.As soon as
I got back on the highway I was in Kansas. The first mile marker I saw
was 226, but that was not accurate. The numbers counted down not to the
southern border of Kansas but to the Wichita city limits. Belleville, the
next town, had no place to stay. I kept going until I got to Concordia.
I stopped at a Super 8, but it was full of kids traveling for some convention
or something. There were high school-age kids in the parking lot drinking
and yelling. The only other motel in town was also full, so I kept going.
The highway was wet, like it had been storming. Ahead, lightning flashed
in the clouds like a bad 1960’s science fiction special effect. I was tired
and hungry and stressed-out. I needed to find a place to crash for the
night. It was almost 11:30 when I got to Salina. I pulled off the highway,
and the first place I saw was a Comfort Inn. I figured, I’d already
racked up an unbelievable amount of debt this trip, what’s one more motel
bill? They found me a room upstairs around back. It was nice
and warm, with lots of pillows. I watched TV for a few minutes, and then
fell fast asleep.
I woke at 7:40. It was Saturday, the 11th of September, the 9th anniversary of the September 11th attacks. I took a hot shower and went downstairs for breakfast. It was remarkably like the breakfast I had at the Comfort Inn in Laramie. The TV news showed Vice President Joe Biden at a 9/11 ceremony. Outside, the skies were cloudy. A flock of birds flew overhead. Within a half hour of waking up, I was showered, fed and on the road. It was 76 miles to Wichita.
At 9:39, I crossed the Arkansas River, and soon came to Mile Marker 1, just inside Wichita. I got my toll ticket for Interstate 35, and suddenly it was Mile Marker 41. I paid my toll ($1,90) at Mile Marker 16. From there, I counted down the miles until I got to Oklahoma. At 10:20, I pulled over at Exit 4 to get some gas ($20 worth at $2.69 a gallon). There were three carloads of Japanese folks in the convenience store getting snacks. Four more miles down the road and I was back in Oklahoma. Every radio station I found seemed to be playing Fleetwood Mac.
It was a quarter after 11 when I turned east on the turnpike towards Tulsa. Above, vultures circled around some roadkill. There were dark clouds ahead. When I was 47 miles from Tulsa, I called home and left a message on the answering machine. Two hours after crossing the Oklahoma border I made it to Tulsa, and landed smack in the middle of a huge traffic jam. Traffic was bottlenecked around a cop working an accident. I finally pulled into my driveway at 1:15. I’d driven 3,751 miles since leaving home for the playa. Once I rested up a little, I started cleaning out the car, putting stuff away, doing laundry… but it didn’t matter. I was home.