We shot out of San Francisco like an arrow leaving the bow. Powered by strong coffee from Martha & Bros. we felt like we could leap across the continent to Vermont in a single bound. We knew that leaving our cool, gray city of love we would also enter another world. Sure enough, as we crested the Coast Range on Highway 80 and entered the Sacramento Valley the sun came out and the temperature began to soar.
Driving across the country has its advantages. You really get to see the country and its slow changes of geography and culture. Nothing prepares me for the mind-boggling open space of the American West. Nor for the sour-crushing uniformity of suburban sprawl in California and western Nevada. I have driven around the West most of my life. But every time that I do, I am still surprised by the physical experience of being surrounded by the West’s fragility, beauty, cruelty, and intensity of this beguiling awesome space.
One of the other great things about driving across the country is listening to podcasts. For some reason, Ellen and never find the time to listen much at home, but for a 10,000 mile drive we binge without limit. Last summer, Lyndsay Graham’s American Experience: Wicked Game got us all the way across country and back with mile-melting, fascinating stories of every American Presidential election, from Washington to Biden Today we listened to his American History Tellers podcast series on the Lewis and Clark expedition. It seemed appropriate as we had just plunged into our own expedition in search of America.
As we drove into Reno everything changed again. The temperature spiked to 103 degrees, and we entered the Great Basin of Nevada. This beautiful state is called Basin and Range country because of the undulating landscape of mountains and valleys carrying on like an endless set of beautiful waves to delighted surfers in Santa Cruz. And we were the surfers sailing over the crests and down into the troughs.
We listened for many hours to the toils and troubles of Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery fighting off Grizzly bears, prickly cactus, endless clouds of mosquitoes, cold, heat and starvation from the comfort of our air-conditioned Prius. On this trip, we chose to drive east across Nevada on Highway 50 which promotes itself as the “Loneliest Road in America”. Actually, I think Highway 6 in Nevada is lonelier, but this title makes for good copy. Cumulous clouds begin to form in the east and grew bigger and blacker and eventually it began to rain. It turned out to be a gentle rain but as we rolled down the windows of our car, the desert began to smell like rain. The overpowering aroma of sage was intoxicating, and the physicality of the West finally kicked in. We stopped in an open valley near the Naval flight school outside of Fallon to photograph the dust storms blending with wispy sheets of rain backlit by the sun. It was a magical moment in the great American West surrounded by a crazy blend of nature. As we continued to drive east, the miles drifted by with a combination of piñon pines and sagebrush, rain and sun, basin and range, and Lewis and Clark. We pulled into Ely, NV at the end of a long day – happy, exhausted, and glad to be back in the land we love – the great American West.