2009 marked the 21st annual “Shooting The West” photographic symposium and, for me, the sixteenth time I’ve driven across northern Nevada on Interstate 80 in early March, under weather and road conditions that are almost always daunting, each time saying a little prayer of thanks whenever the East Winnemucca exit sign comes into view. Minutes later I was in downtown Winnemucca, where I braked to avoid running over three jaywalkers, each sporting Gothlike piercings and jewelry, novelty hairdos, and long black dusters. Halfway across Winnemucca Boulevard, the trio paused to exchange pleasantries with a fourth jaywalker, this one a grizzled prospectoresque fellow with a black heeler-type dog in tow. No sooner had the four jaywalkers reached their respective curbs than the dog decided to go with the Goths. I waited patiently another minute or two until finally the prospector regained the allegiance of his so-called best friend.
That’s what I love about Winnemucca. Surprises around every corner, but nothing dangerous. That is, unless you chose to partake of the potent Basque aperitif known as picon punch, in which case you’d be well advised to refrain from driving and/or jaywalking.
I pulled into my favorite motel, Scott Shady Court, where Louise tossed me the key to room 59—my usual. How she remembers me and all the other photographers who show up at Scott’s every year—and which rooms belong to whom—is a great mystery. How I came to be assigned to 59 is also a mystery. There’s nothing special about it; in fact, you could call it cramped. The ancient electrical outlets aren’t grounded, so I always have to remember to bring an adapter in order to plug in my laptop. The rubber bathtub stopper is practically petrified and doesn’t completely cover the drain. The tub faucet has a slow leak, which over the decades has resulted in a tiny stalactite. Acclaimed San Francisco photographer Mark Citret, who is permanently assigned to unit 67, also has one, and whenever the two of us get together, we compare stalactites.
Plate 25 in Mark’s excellent book ALONG THE WAY was exposed inside the motel’s Plexiglas enclosed swimming pool. It’s a most eerie setting, and I imagine that’s the main reason I had the pool all to myself for the duration of the symposium, which I only sporadically attended. Mostly I go to Winnemucca to connect with old friends, people who have been coming to the event for as long or even longer than I have. We eat, we drink, we congratulate one another on having survived another winter. Then we venture forth, our batteries recharged, to do whatever it is we must do in order to keep our artistic dreams alive.
Come Monday morning the party was over and everyone had departed Scott’s except my friend Sam Hipkins, permanently assigned by Louise to unit 60. I rose before dawn, dismayed to find the motor court blanketed with a fresh layer of snow. A cold front known locally as an “inside slider” had dropped down from Canada, behind the Sierras, and was now wreaking havoc along the Interstate. Which is how I came to be snowbound for a spell at the T/A truck stop in Pucker Brush, Nevada.
“Highway’s closed fifteen miles west of here,” explained the burly fellow seated to my right at the Fork In The Road Coffee Shop. “Chains only. But as my Daddy always said, if you’ve got to chain up, you might just as well hole up.”
The other truckers nodded in somber agreement. “If you can only make forty miles an hour, what’s the point?”
Soon the conversation turned to politics. Everyone appeared to be in agreement that global warming is a myth—I mean, just look out the window! And if that raging blizzard doesn’t convince you, then turn on the radio. Let me put it this way: If you can pick up anything on the radio in this part of the world, it’s not going to be Bill Moyers’ Journal.
“You know,” opined the trucker to my left, to no one in particular, “Bush was doin’ a heckuva job–until the Democrats took over Congress.”
All seed caps nodded in agreement. Flo brought me my sausages and eggs, along with a pitcher of Tabasco sauce for my hash browns.
“He sounds crazy as hell,” barked a gruff voice from the far end of the trucker corral, “but the more I listen to Ron Paul, the more sense he makes.”
By and by, it became evident I’d be better off taking my chances out on the icy highway. Or, as my own Pappy used to say, “If you can’t stand the heat, git outta the truck stop!”
I took with me some emergency provisions from the T/A store and some free literature courtesy of Chaplain Jim Stauffer, who conducts Sunday services inside a trailer parked out back behind the fuel pumps. The doors to the ersatz chapel were locked; otherwise I might have popped in and offered up a prayer for deliverance from the storm and those oh-so-militant truckers. No matter, by holding the speedometer under forty I managed to make it to Yerington in one piece, arriving just in time for a radio interview, followed by a power point presentation and book signing at the local art center.
The following day I returned to Salt Lake via U.S. 50, stopping in Fallon at Jerry’s Restaurant for eggs and a chicken-fried steak (highly recommended!). I’m constantly surprised at the quality of cuisine one finds in rural Nevada, whether it be Bella’s Espresso Coffee House in Wells (owned by a local madam!) or Martin’s beside the railroad tracks in Winnemucca. Of course, there are some dreadful eateries as well—which may explain why I am constantly surprised whenever I happen across a good one.
Halfway across the Big Smoky Valley, out of radio contact at last with the barbaric yawp of Rush Limbaugh, I decided to plug in the inspirational cassette I’d picked up the day before in Pucker Brush.
“Drivers, my name is Bill, and I’m in the studio today to speak to you on behalf of the Trucker’s Christian Chapel Ministry. Only truckers understand truckers. The voice you’re hearing is the voice of a trucker. I’ve ran the bright lights and fast food of The Big Apple, and the Little Havana of Miami. I’ve ran into South Dakota winds when it took four hundred horses just to get up to 45 mile an hour. I’ve been over Donner when the chains were required, I’ve heated my brakes down the Grapevine into the Shaky. I’ve fought the windy city traffic and toll booths, and I’ve put my pants on, laying in the sleeper, so many times I almost had to lay down at home to get dressed. I know what it’s like to live in a truck. To see the world and experience life through a windshield.”
Trucker Bill went on to list the many afflictions that bedevil truckers, including loneliness, isolation, and harassment. Then there are the temptations. Drugs, booze, prostitutes, chicken-fried steaks smothered in sausage gravy.
So what’s a trucker to do? Life is short, according to Trucker Bill, and there is but one way to enter into the Kingdom of God.
“I want to lead you in a prayer. If you’re driving down the road, you can pray this prayer with your eyes open.”
I followed Bill’s instructions, and by the time I rolled into Eureka, had been absolved of all my sins. I’d been saved! But then the tape ran out, and before I even knew what was happening, I had slipped back into my usual sinful ways.