Across the Desert

Spent a good evening with a buddy at his house north of Sonora, CA. Then it was time to head east, over the mountains and across the desert, with a goal of getting as close to Northern New Mexico as possible without undue stress. Road trips are not about stress. Quite the opposite.

The day was all about roads; there were curvy roads, straight roads, steep roads, flat roads. Mountains and desert, cool and brutally hot. Potholes and fresh asphalt. First up for my driving pleasure was Big Hill Road, a shortcut from my friend’s house to eastbound highway 108. (I spent a few seconds trying to coax a URL out of Google Maps to which I could link, but without success.) It seems every time I’m in the neighborhood the road is closed over Sonora Pass, but at last I’ll be passing over during the brief summer.

Big Hill Road has two flaws: occasional patches of broken-up pavement, and it’s just too damn short. It was an ideal way to start a day of driving, zipping around corners, the road sun-dappled as it wound through the forest. After that bit of road 108 seemed like a superhighway – at least for a while. Sonora Pass has, I believe, the steepest stretches of paved road I have ever driven. There was only one thing wrong with that part of the drive: Traffic. It’s not that there were a lot of vehicles, it’s that three vehicles in particular really gummed things up.

Here’s the deal. Let’s say you’re driving on a stretch of road in which there are no opportunities to pass safely. For the sake of argument, let’s say the speed limit is 40 mph. Now, this is a particularly twisty and turny bit of road, and you’re not comfortable going 40. You want to drive your big-tired station wagon (some people call them SUV’s), oh, how about 15 mph. I have no problem with that. Absolutely you should not drive faster than you are comfortable doing. But — BUT — when there are ample opportunities to pull over and there are people stacked up behind you, just get the hell out of the way! How much time are you losing, considering you’re just crawling along anyway? Obviously you’re not in a hurry or you’d be on a different road. Just pull over for a moment and let the SV (my car has no U) go by. Seriously. We’ll all feel better.

Thanks. Back to my narrative.

Climbing up to Sonora Pass, I drove my car as fast as it would go for the first time. On that hill, that wasn’t very fast, and even with a 6-speed transmission I was caught between second and third, winding the engine way up in second, but not pulling hard enough in third. The scenery was nice, sometimes even interesting, but not spectacular; trees pushed in close, denying breath-taking vistas. As I climbed, I could smell the brakes of the vehicles heading the other way. A sign warned of 26% (!) grade somewhere ahead (vehicles with trailers not advised), but 15% was more common.

Down the other side, past a small Marine base (sign read: “Caution Marines Training Ahead”). The buildings, otherwise identical to any other rural business site, were painted a light olive color. I imagine that this is simply a matter of habit; I don’t think the people who ordered the pre-fab steel structures spent much time thinking about what sort of attack the base might be subject to, and what coloration would best thwart it. I’m just saying that other colors might be more practical in some cases, like white for the propane tanks. (I assume, here, that there is a reason that propane tanks are always white.)

After a southward stint on US 395, I turned east once again on Highway 120. That was a great stretch of road. The terrain goes through several stages and climate zones, and there were plenty of sights that proved intellectually stimulating as well, like stumped trees dotting a field of tuff (compressed volcanic ash), which led me to ponder that the longest-lived organisms on our planet live in harsh circumstances. 120 is an old-school road, built before the cut-and-fill strategy had taken hold. As I drove through the forested stretch the road seemed to twist for no appreciable reason except to provide people like me with the feeling that they are driving. I wove between the trees, left right left right in an easy cadence like a skilled skier sliding down a powdery slope. Farther along, the road passed over flatter terrain, and I smiled as I passed a sign reading “Dips next 5 miles”. I have always liked dips; I remember as a kid staring out the windows of the familymobile hoping to see the next sign that said “The road is about be fun”. Some of the dips on 120 west of Benton were the real thing, providing an almost weightless moment that had me exclaiming out loud more than once.

Then it was time for the desert. US Highway 6 was my new friend, and as I drove I applied sunscreen more or less constantly. The high desert was not oppressively hot (at least, not while I was moving), and I slid easily into my desert driving mindset, a contemplative frame that discerns significance in unexpected places. Out there in all that vastness the small things matter most.

East, east, as far as Tonopah, delaying the critical decision as long as possible. I have a choice: South through Las Vegas and an easy drive tomorrow, or east over some exceptional roads, winding through the Utah rockies, but adding hours to the trip? A deadline loomed, alas (the bane of any journey is the destination); I chose south. Not that Highway 95 doesn’t have its own charm. I passed mysterious, seemingly purposeless dirt roads that ran from the highway up into the mountains to end abruptly. There were the occasional buildings, painted pink and surrounded by palm trees. Brothels, out in the middle of nowhere.

I worried about rush hour in Las Vegas, but it turned out to be the weekend. As I drove through Henderson (now no more than an estension of Las Vegas sprawl), the moon climbed over the mountains, almost full, almost invisible. The same color as the sky around it, it seemed translucent, ephemeral. I followed Highway 93 toward Hoover Dam. “No trucks or busses!” the signs exclaimed. “Use alternate route!” In boulder city I was presented with two ways to go — the truck route or the business route. Truck route? I hadn’t gone far on the truck route when I was reminded once again that trucks were not allowed.

There is a massive construction project going on there, appalling amounts of money being spent in the name of Homeland Security. The result will be: 1) more efficient 2) less fun and 3) spectacular. They’re cooking up one hell of a bridge over there. From there, south to Kingman as darkness asserted itself. It was time to stop, time to sleep, time to reflect on a day of many roads.

20 thoughts on “Across the Desert

  1. You were in Sonora and didn’t stop in again?? You’re a turd, Jer. I won’t even start to tell you what Lillian would have to say about such a near-miss.

  2. Hey at least he’s seen ya recently. He tends to head north from your home not south.

    *sigh* Maybe I need a Jer victim. What say the family should I make Jer fang bait?

  3. There is something appealing about driving on a road with a vehicle matched to it, whether it’s your Highway 6 in the Miata or FS 542B in my jeep.

  4. My friend described the Google maps of this area as “drawn with an etch-a-sketch by a crack baby”. This area is not just low-tech, but it defies technology.

    I’ve been hiking up in the pass, and I have seen some spectacular views that encompass 108. I suspect you don’t see them from the road because you are too busy shifting and turning.

  5. FYI, Jerry, in California the law requires that any vehicle traveling below the speed limit must pull over if there are five or more vehicles queued behind it. So not only are they jerks, but they’re breaking the law.

  6. Yeah dondo, the jerks will follow that law like they do the keep right unless passing law.

    /jerks, jerks I tells ya
    //c’mon mcswede, poke your pointy head out of your jerk-hole!

  7. In New Mexico, the law is that, even if you’re going the speed limit or faster, if you’re in the left lane, you must move right if somebody wants to go faster, even if that person is breaking the speed limit.

    And on some stretches of road (the most notable being the uphill side of Nine Mile Hill), signs warn that drivers going slower than 10 mph below the limit must stay out of the left lane, even if there’s something going even slower that they want to pass.

    Not that drivers obey either rule terribly often. This isn’t Germany or Britain, where the speed hierarchy of the autobahn and motorway are strictly enforced.

  8. I think that the 5-person backup law is even on the driver’s test in California. I find that test interesting because I think its goal is social engineering rather than testing useful knowledge.

    In most cases on my trip, there wasn’t a long line of cars behind the slowpoke (not that that ever seems to matter), it was just a basic lack of courtesy in letting people past. I understand that they don’t want to go any faster, but you’re just creeping along it’s not a big deal to step aside for five seconds.

  9. Growing up in NM, we were pretty dismissive and vicious about Texans. But among many positives about Texas, another is that in the rural parts (even extending into east NM), people just dang pull over for ya. Polite as the road is long.

  10. I’m glad to see comments on this subject. Some “drivers” (they sully the name) make things even worse by not only not pulling over but actually speeding up when one of the few fleeting opportunities to pass comes along. I agree with Jer that if the road is curvy and a driver feels uncomfortable going faster than 35 in a 55 mph zone, then 35 it is. However, when the double solid yellow line finally turns into a dashed one, the worst of those “drivers” decide that NOW they feel comfortable going 60. Are they completely inconsiderate? Are they completely oblivious to everything behind them? If you draw the venn diagram of these “drivers” and the ones who don’t move over despite the ambulance / fire truck right behind them with lights blazing and sirens wailing, then I think you’ll see a lot of overlap.

    Thank you for letting me vent. Now for my question: is this phenomenon uniquely American (rural TX evidently excluded) or have you endured examples of it while driving in other countries?

  11. “As polite as the road is long” may not be merely poetic, but insightful. I think what I encountered on California highway 108 was a bunch of amateurs. People who live long roads are going to understand the unwritten code of getting along out there.

    I have seen driving in other countries but it has been a long time since I participated. In France, forget about courtesy. In Italy, every move is a negotiation with those around you. Nowhere have I seen driving as structured as it is in the US.

  12. Oh, and in the Czech Republic, they just aren’t very good at driving at all. It’s aggressive like France (not nearly as crazy as Italy), but without the skill. (Of course that is a generalization, and all czechs reading this are obviously exceptions.)

  13. On my first road trip with Pat (in Texas, between Houston and McAllen), it surprised me that he would, every so often, pull over onto the shoulder. His explanation was that the other guy wanted to go faster, so why should we get in his way?

    Partly, that maneuver was made possible by the condition and cleanliness of the shoulder — in New Mexico, the shoulders are often in rotten condition and/or littered with debris that threatens tires that dare to roll on them, so altruism of that sort would be rewarded with a flat tire.

    As for the drivers who go slow in no-passing zones and then speed up when the solid line ends, I consider them oblivious. They go slow when the road is twisty and scary, and they go faster when the road isn’t so twisty, and unfortunately, the twisty parts are where the no-passing zones are. They aren’t trying to infuriate other drivers on purpose … they just aren’t thinking about other drivers.

    I do stand by my observation that in Britain and Germany, especially in Germany, there is a solid expectation that slower vehicles will stay in the slow lane so that faster vehicles will not be impeded. Gerald, based on his recent stay with a family in Germany, will back me up about the autobahn.

  14. Germany has laws about that, and enforces them. Years ago I spent an excruciating few hours on a road-trip in Washington while a German exchange student took a stint behind the wheel. We were driving on a four-lane divided highway, and there was an R.V. poking along in the left lane. The German driver absolutely refused to pass on the right, as that was illegal in Germany and he’d been ticketed for said offense as a teen.

  15. Yes, in Germany and in Britain, it is illegal to pass on the slow side (the right in Germany, the left in Britain), as well as being illegal to go slow in the fast lane. In New Mexico, I have often observed situations that, in either of those countries, would have earned a ticket for two drivers — one for going slow in the fast lane, and one for passing in the slow lane.

  16. America has lots of laws about the road, and I am fairly sure lots of states outlaw passing on the right (I seem to recall it on plenty of drivers tests). However, there is one – no make that two – laws in the US: 1) You can’t speed outrageously in front of a cop. All other laws about passing on the right, driving above 45 on a freeway, driving courteously, etcetera etcetra will be ignored. Guv’mint cares about one thing only. Speeding. Period. 2) You can’t run a red light that is enforced by a camera managed by a private company who is in it for the profit.
    Two laws. That’s it. Dont’ drive above 9mph over the limit and dont’ run a red light with obvious cameras.

  17. I dunno if it is the congestion of the East or the winding rural roads with no views, but oddly I really don’t run into the creeper bandit who won’t pullover. The thing out here that really gets my goat, chaps my ass, pees in my wheaties, and removes the jam from my donut (/takes breath) is the jerk that is waiting to pull out from a side street, sees you coming along at a nice pace, sees there is NO ONE forever behind you, and still decides he better pull out any way. What! you couldn’t have waited 5 seconds to pull into a clear road? Your mission is just so important?

  18. I’ve noticed that’s how drivers in Arkansas drive, and I wondered about it, and especially why drivers in New Mexico don’t seem to pull out like that.

    Then I saw some statistics — New Mexico had about the worst DWI rate in the country, and Arkansas had one of the best. New Mexico drivers can’t get away with pulling out in front of traffic, because they can’t count on the other driver to be sober enough to avoid running into them. Arkansas drivers can.

  19. Things must’ve changed in The Land of Enchantment. In my recollection, the signature New Mexico driving maneuver is pulling out from a side-road/driveway onto a two-lane highway, in front of approaching traffic, and pulling into whatever lane the approaching traffic is in.

    California has many traffic laws, but oddly enough they’ve never gotten around to outlawing passing on the right. Enforcement is directly proportional to the size of the fine. Tail-gating and unsafe passing tickets are approximately as lucrative as speeding tickets, so those’ll get you dinged as well. Car-pool lane cheaters are big bucks too.

    Completely reflective of the roads around my house, the drivers who really chap my hiney are the ones who don’t know that when two cars meet at a skinny spot on a laneless mountain road, downhill traffic should yield to uphill traffic.

  20. I think the drunks and the traffic-cutter-offers are working at killing each other off. At last count, New Mexico had gone from second in the nation in drunk-driving deaths to 14th.

    As for the uphill vs. downhill issue, in New Mexico it tends to be whoever is bigger, or whoever has the vehicle with the least to lose (i.e., already seriously beat-up and/or ancient) who gets the right-of-way.

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