Essay by Bruce Willey
It begins when you can leave town, when you leave your common sense, your guilt and a large chunk of yourself behind. It could be four years of pent-up academic frustrations. It could be the many years at a job that fleeces your ability to connect to the sweet simmering world. It could be simply that you want to let the road show you the pace. To hell with schedules, unwanted phone calls, the incessant hassles of life. To be immersed in the vicissitudes of flux at just a tad above the speed limit is nothing short of being loyal to the human spirit.
So your car or your pick-up truck is a little low in back with the tent, the sleeping bags, a Coleman stove and lantern, food, cooler, foam mattress, the beer and firewood. You will press on the accelerator and feel the precious gas pull you forward down the road. Nothing better than to see the gas gauge on full. So much promise and portent. And it begins with a full tank of gas. It always does.
But you’re guilty, as well you should be. Disbelief that you just paid well over $4 a gallon, enough to make you feel almost European. Disbelief that the oil in the earth will run dry just as sure as the mighty and seemingly endless Colorado River does not anymore empty into the Gulf of Mexico. You’ve got to do it now, now before it hits 10-15 dollars a gallon—because it will. Sooner than you think.
Common sense declares you would be doing your part to save the world by taking a long bicycle trip instead. You would. But a bicycle won’t make it to Utah in two days. So you promise yourself just one more road trip, one more time to see the ancient layers of red and tan rock carved by inches of time and water.
So you head due east, running up the flanks of the Sierra by noon. It would have taken John Muir a week to walk the same distance. Muir thought horse travel was too fast. But he knew the pleasures of wildflowers not asphalt. And besides, his former path to the Sierra is now blocked by Wal-Marts, Starbucks, and corporate farms, the air as polluted as the Los Angeles Basin. He’d be lost now, another visionary homeless man in a thumped and thrashed landscape.
You reach Yosemite’s Tioga Pass and drop down the eastern scarp of the Sierra, down into Owens Valley. At Big Pine you hang a left, and start ascending again to a narrow pass that will take you over the White Mountains, home to some trees that were already old when the Egyptians began building the pyramids. Then on into Nevada where you’ll turn right at a roadside brothel that has since gone out of business because most long-haul truckers have turned to their wives for love when it takes $1,000 to fill up on diesel.
Making Las Vegas by nightfall, you’ll camp at the Red Rocks campground. A cactus-covered hill will hide the swift creeping suburbs below, but the strip’s neon glow will still penetrate the night sky. In the morning you’ll take a long walk into the canyons of Red Rock and you will feel finally that you have reached the Southwest. The wildflowers will be blooming against the black desert patina and you’ll realize that life on earth is tenaciously bold.
Still, the alarming proximity of the city will begin to fray your nerves. So you will travel northeast through Arizona for an hour where you’ll indulge yourself with some Meat Puppets, a lazily stoned punk rock band that has musically articulated the desert better than any other band in the history of rock & roll. Once you cross the Utah border, you’ll turn off the music and let the tires and the wind take over the soundtrack. Two hundred or so miles the road weaves in and out of canyon lands, a rippling landscape so stunning and strange it seems to have the capacity to kidnap your soul.By afternoon you’ll head south into Moab where the economy, once dominated by the search for uranium to blow the world to smithereens, is now the mountain biking and motorized off-roading capital of the world. Mud splattered jeeps roar in and out of fast food joints. Motorhomes bung the highway with gas tanks that take a month’s pay to fill. Moab, a Mecca in the desert where people religiously worship the dirt road or file into guided raft trips down the Colorado River. All fueled by oil from another desert half a world and a white robe away.
So you head south, past the Hole-in-the-Rock tourist trap where you can pat a wallaby if you’re so inclined. Dipping down into Indian Creek you’ll camp for a few days amongst the junipers, the remnants of splitter cracks scabbed on your hands. You’ll build a bedroom with your tent and rocks for chairs in your open-air living room. You may even assemble a kitchen on a flat rock while the red sand slowly works its way into every cranny and hair of your body. And it will feel good; better still when you sit in the cold, mountain-fed creek.
At night you’ll make a campfire, noticing someone left their unpaid student loan bill ($38,984 due) and an outstanding medical bill ($567.34) near the fire pit. You use the bills for fodder and soon have a lively fire while you wonder about the guy who camped here before.
Next day the rain will come, bathing the sky with rainbows. The creek will come up to the floorboards as you cross it, and you will seek higher ground. So you head north to a place where desert towers stand like old, gossipy men. It will be impossible not to wonder what you will find on the tops of these summits, so you will tie into a rope and climb the ancient mud to a wild summit that ravens have vital knowledge of.
Nearing the top with 700 feet of air below your feet you think you could very easily die, especially when you are forced to belly flop onto a snout of mud-hardened rock. But you must put this thought out of your mind. If you had any sense you would remember that the world’s food supply is in trouble. The strung-out economy is a Wall Street minute from collapse. The earth’s climate is showing the strains of one too many road trips. It would do the planet a lot of good if you jumped. One less Toyota truck on the road. One less mouth to feed. One less carbon footprint. But you’re already gripped with your possible and immediate demise as it is.
As you look around, the Fisher Towers appearing as though they were made by a giant hand dripping mud from the sky, you want nothing more than to get down and drive home. To feel the road under your seat just one more time before the road trip simply becomes a thing of the past. So you rappel into what’s left of the late afternoon, knowing that this place may one day soon be too far, too expensive for your gas-driven reach.