Thursday, July 23, 2009

One is the Loneliest Number

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Greetings from Baker, Nevada, gateway to Great Basin National Park.

Of course, I’m not posting this entry from Baker, just writing it here. Posting it would require internet access, so by the time you see this, I'm likely in Moab, or, if the internet eludes me there as well, the Grand Canyon. Considering that I can’t get so much as a cell phone signal in Baker, I’d crossed off ‘WiFi’ from my list of amenity hopefuls long before rolling up to the motel.

And what a motel it is. Before leaving on this trip, I had noted a recent reviewer on Travelocity call it ‘a throwback to yesteryear’. I don’t know what year he meant, but it sure as hell wasn’t yesterday, and now that I think about it, he never actually indicated whether being thrown back to it was a good thing. I suppose he was associating it with the glory days of highway travel, whenever that was. The 1950? Perhaps the ‘60s? Either way, what’s called to mind are kitschy billboards depicting all-American-looking men driving aqua Cadillacs down a picturesque strip of asphalt with a beaming, kerchief-adorned wife riding shotgun, wholesome children reading Dick and Jane in the back seat.

But to give you an adequate mental image of the reality of the situation: picture a long, flat expanse of highway with nothing but sagebrush in one direction, and a tiny settlement of no more than 100 people in the other. The nearest town of greater than 100 is over 60 miles away. Now plunk a lone gas station out in the middle of all that nothingness, and tack onto that a small, single story casino with a blinking neon sign. Add to that a convenience store, smoky restaurant, and RV park, then, just for good measure, add several barrack-style buildings approximately the width and depth of storage units (in fact, they may have once been storage units), and you have a good gist of the conditions from which I’m writing this entry. No wait…I have a better analogy for you: you’re playing Monopoly, and you have three hot properties in a row, but not quite enough money to put hotels on them all. So what do you do? You satisfy yourself by squeezing one long, lopsided row of houses onto them instead. That’s where we’re staying. In one of those tiny, green squares. Except that I think they may be white. Or were white, back in yesteryear.

But in a feng shui sort of way, this place is very, very cool. I just stepped outside (in the gravel parking lot between the back of Barrack A and the blinking neon), and even with half the sky obscured in the lingering remnants of rain clouds, what stars I could see were brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. It may have been the intoxicating thinness of the high altitude combined with the duel voids of all that nothingness and night, but it made me feel empowered and inconsequential, both at the same time.

This feeling of isolation, of solitude, if you will, has been shadowing me all day. We spent the afternoon following a ranger with flashlights through eerie Lehman’s Cave, a maze of caverns inspiring cathedral-like awe, and even before that, we started the morning on US Highway 50, once dubbed “The Loneliest Highway in America’ by Time magazine. They’re not exaggerating much. Signs dot the roadside with warnings such as “Last Fuel for 80 miles” or “Picnic Area, next left, 40 miles”, and passing any other sign of human life, such as perhaps a solitary ranch or a highway patrol car (eep) is a major event. Every gas station along the route…all three of them…sell T-shirts boasting, “I survived Highway 50”. (Of course we bought one.)

The hundreds of miles between Fallon, Nevada (just past Reno) and Baker really are empty to the point of making a point. The landscape is beautiful in the painstaking way of the high desert: it forces you--through sheer relentlessness--to acknowledge its delicate appeal. At mile two, it’s just an ever-so-subtly undulating plain of shrubbery and dry dirt, barbed wire stretched in an endless ribbon alongside your car. By mile 40, you notice spots of color and smaller detail, as though your eyes had merely needed to adjust: prickly pear lines the shoulder of the road, the clouds are wispy thin, then long and stringy, one moment pure white, then next tinged with an underbelly of silver. You notice every single discrepancy in the shades of blue in the sky, as though looking down from a high a vista onto a current of ocean. By mile 180, the hazy mountains swimming in the distance take on the hue of blue smoke, and suddenly, it’s all desperately lovely.

By mile 230, you’re delusional, but don‘t let that dissuade you.

If you need further incentive to subject yourself to Highway 50, I offer this gem: somewhere between Fallon and the tiny town of Eureka lies arguably the Loneliest Highway’s best attraction: The Shoe Tree. Apparently, the tradition of tossing shoes into its branches was inadvertently started by a honeymooning couple in the midst of an argument. Naturally, we had to stop. (Actually, we went one better: we accidentally passed it, but still decided it was worth turning around for, despite the fact that the nearest turnout was a full five minutes further down 50.)

Here's my dad with the boys. If you look closely, you can see hundreds of shoes hanging from the branches.


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It’s no largest ball of twine, but it’s close.
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