Report From Modesto (Part Two)
November 13th, 2009

Before I left Jackson, Larry Angier took a quick look at my gas gauge and assured me I had more than enough fuel to get to Nevada. I should have known better than to trust Larry!

Then again, maybe it was the altitude that was causing the needle to drop precipitously as I wended my way over the Sierras and down State Route 88 in pitch darkness toward Minden. I’d never been to Minden before, or if I have, I’ve forgotten what it looks like. Eventually I came to a sign announcing that I had arrived in Minden—so where was it? All I could see in any direction was more darkness, punctuated here and there by a lone sodium vapor light. Then I came to another sign announcing that I was departing Minden. My impression of Minden echoes what Gertrude Stein famously said of Los Angeles. There is no “there” there.

The gas gauge now read dead empty; I was frantic! But finally S.R. 88 merged with U.S. 395, and none too soon I came upon a filling station. To my amazement, the gas tank was still half full. Larry was right all along. What a surprise!

Speaking of surprises, I had decided to return home via U.S. 50 for one big reason. I’ve never traveled the so-called loneliest road in America but what I haven’t met with at least one big surprise. It might be something as ordinary and deadly as a range cow standing in the middle of the road, or it might be a man waving at me frantically near a spot called Frenchman. When I stopped, the stranger told me he had just been in an accident—pointing to his pickup truck which was lying upside down in a nearby wash, its wheels still turning.

“I swerved to miss this woman who was standing in the road,” he exclaimed. “In her nightgown!”

I helped the man retrieve his belongings from the truck and gave him a lift to the nearest telephone. I didn’t see any woman in a nightgown, but far be it from me to question his veracity. I’m just glad she decided to flag him down instead of me!Bugs

Ghosts, suicidal range cows, rabbits, deer, pronghorns, owls and other things that go bump in the night, combined with ground-hugging military jets and unidentified flying objects make Highway 50 one of the most interesting roads in America. I drove all through the night and never once got sleepy. For much of the stretch I was able to pick up National Public Radio from a transmitter in Reno, but as daylight broke, educational radio gave way to indoctrinational radio. I don’t remember the call letters, but it comes in with supernatural clarity. Some sort of faith-based newscast. Hence, I was informed that congress was about to vote on something called “Obamacare,” which will mandate taxpayer-funded abortions and mercy killing of senior citizens. Happily, Representative Michele Bachmann is fixing to address the nation regarding the bill and the entire nation (surprise!) is breathlessly waiting to hear what the lunatic legislator from Minnesota has to say on the matter. Oh, and in case you haven’t heard, global warming is a myth.

It’s unfortunate that congressional hearings on climate change take place indoors and not outdoors—in particular the Great Basin, which only recently was a vast inland sea teeming with unusual creatures such as the toothy ichthyosaur. Marine fossils are everywhere, and those benchmarks on the mountainsides are not—as a fundamentalist Mormon once explained it to me—Nephite rail beds but rather the high water marks of ancient Lake Bonneville.

West of Delta is a vast barren playa, a remnant of Lake Bonneville known as Sevier Dry Lake. But rest assured, it is not as dry as it looks! In fact, sometimes it doesn’t even look dry; from a distance it looks like a shimmering lake. You have to pull off the pavement and get closer in order to convince yourself that what you’re seeing is just a mirage, and that’s just what I did one day back in the early Eighties. To my infinite surprise, I encountered waves crashing against the shore and a salty spray in my face. Sevier Dry Lake had become for the moment the largest body of water in Utah—larger, even, than the Great Salt Lake.Sevier_Wet_Lake_2

Ever since that day I’ve made it a point to stop and check the water level, if any. One day, as I stepped from my car, a gust of wind lifted my hat off my head. Not just any hat, but a cherished Akubra Snowy River that I had purchased in Australia. I gave chase, but as luck would have it, the wind was blowing from the north, toward the playa. I ran and I ran, until finally the playa crust gave way to muck and I could continue no farther. The last I saw of that hat, it was dancing southward over the far horizon, ghostlike in the shimmering heat waves, like Clint Eastwood riding out of town in the film “Pale Rider.”Sevier_Dry_Lake_2

“Hat, come back!” I cried. But it was no use. I’m pretty sure my hat made it all the way across the so-called lake, but I can’t be sure because I don’t know how far it is to the far side, and I have no idea how one goes about getting there. By boat, possibly, but not until after the polar ice caps melt and Lake Bonneville reappears.

-Richard Menzies