Friday, January 23, 2004

Burning Man 5: On the Road (Wyoming-Utah)

Surprisingly enough, the mountains didn't get really bad until we started heading westbound on I80. That's where you've got to bite the bullet and actually Cross The Mountains, whereas I think we just skirted the foothills in Denver. Not sure, though. I was pretty tired.

Dan woke up shortly after we hit Cheyenne, and pretty well stayed awake for most of the next few hours. We'd stopped in Denver and picked up an audio copy of Steinbeck's Travels With Charley, which I love and Dan started to shortly. There's a school of thought (of which I am a member) that thinks East Coast people don't like Steinbeck. He's too sentimental, his characters don't have depth. West Coast (or, since I'm centrally located) folks don't mind that. In my experience, obviously, that's generally true. Liz doesn't really care for him, and she's about as East Coast as they come. Plus, I like to razz on the Right Coast people about elitist pretentions.

Anyway, the book is a series of stories written around a huge road trip that Steinbeck did with his dog (If I get any emails asking what the dog's name was, I'm smacking you). Good stuff for a trip halfway 'cross country, and Dan ate it up. So did I, and frankly, we both ate up the countryside as well. It's a whole different world to a flatlander like me, and I could see myself living up there if I could get internet access and wouldn't have to drive in the snow. We spent a lot of time mulling over these sort of wooden...fences...that were placed at intervals on either side of the road. I'm convinced they're to keep snow from drifting over the highway, but no one else seems happy with that explanation. Maybe I should ask Troy N.

Finally, we topped out on the Continental Divide. There was/is some sort of memorial/national park/hysterical marker there, but I'll be damned if I can find any reference to it anywhere on my map. Anyway, that was the first time we were out of the car since, well, Denver.

In Oklahoma, late August gets you 104 degrees during the day. That's what I remember thinking at the time, although I heard it got up to 108 while I was away. By the time we hit the Divide and got out to take a piss, it was daylight and about 48 degrees. In August, I swear to god. For me, that's when it started to sink in that maybe there was actually more to the world than more places which, stripped of all smoke and mirrors, were actually just Oklahoma. Sounds sad, but it's true.

We dicked around for a few minutes, then got back in the car and headed west. Dan was up, but I still had a few hours left in me, so I was driving. The sun was still up, somehow, although I could see it starting to set.

Now, let me tell you something about Ford cars and light trucks. I like them OK (there's a great big ol' argument down here about which is better, Ford or Chevy). Dan had a nice Ford Ranger (still does, I reckon), which served his needs very well driving around Houston doing whatever it was that Dan was doing in Houston. Houston is flatland, for those of you who've never been there. Oklahoma City is flatland. So are KC and St Louis and Chicago, for what that's worth. Even loaded down, there were no problems for him in our part of the world.

And then we hit Wyoming. Or more accurately, we sorta coasted on into Wyoming, and then rolled back a bit. Dude. Those are mountains. And Edward (the truck-don't ask me) did his best, but it was rough. Long steep grades, steep enough that they'd give semi's special lanes to drive in because they slowed down so much. So did we. We used the trucker lanes, because no matter how we tried to hit those inclines, we'd always drop down to about forty by the time we hit the top. Then, of course, we could go as fast as we wanted, but we were pretty heavily loaded and the roads weren't Kansas roads (which were fondly recalled, because they were at least STRAIGHT). Then, ominous developments:

1) Trucker lanes on the DOWNHILL SIDES of the mountains. Well, not really lanes--they were big ramps (later, we saw some sand/gravel pits) for semi drivers whose brakes had failed to drive up on so they didn't careen off the edge of the mountain and die. I salute the highway engineers who came up with this idea. It's great. We need more. But there's nothing quite like being on the downhill side of a 4 or 5 mile incline, seeing one of those big ramps, and wondering just what exactly is coming down the mountain behind you?? Lots of that. I was getting punchy, and so was Dan.

And then

2) It started to rain. Hard. The sky went black. We were on one of the twistiest roads I've ever seen, and I couldn't see more than a hundred feet ahead of me. And we were being passed by semis. Dozens of them, it felt like. Actually, it felt like HUNDREDS, by the time it was over with, but I'm trying to keep some sense of perspective. Granted, they were probably much more familiar with that road than I was, and definitely could see better (being higher up), but it was still scary as hell. To tell you the truth, the only reason I didn't stop on the side of the road was I kept picturing one of those trucks ambling out of his lane and cannoning us out through the guardrail like a pool ball. To make matters worse, an Arlo Guthrie song was stuck in my head, too. It's called "I Don't Want A Pickle," and as Arlo will tell you, it's a song he wrote after driving his motorcycle off a cliff in the mountains. It wouldn't surprise me one bit if he had been in the same area. Let me tell you, I missed Kansas back then.

Thankfully, that only went on for an hour or so. And we were losing altitude. Shortly after that, somewhere around 11pm, we stopped for food and drink (jerky and Coke, if I remember right). I made a prank phone call to one of the guys back home, telling him we'd been run off the road by a semi and he would have to come get us. Yeesh. Now that I think about it, maybe Dan should have been driving.

But I soldiered on, for a ways, until we hit Evanston, on the Utah line. By the time we stopped and switched places, I'd driven over 1100 miles in about 19 hours. I was zonked. I was, in fact, sore--the muscles in my back and shoulders were aching from waiting for that fucking semi to slam into the rear of us at any second. More road food, back to the truck, and I began to understand why Dan had such a hard time sleeping.

Next: On the Road (Utah-Nevada)


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