A Day Of Driving.

Location: Ely (rhymes with mealy), Nevada
Miles: 7237.1

Add Highway 89 from Jackson Wyoming to Logan Utah as another great driving road. I followed the Snake River, dodging rainshowers through pure luck – often the pavement was still very wet from a squall that had just passed by. The road moved gracefully beneath my new tires as I moved through the canyons and over the summits. It was a day for driving, for motion, not for picture-taking, so you’ll have to use your imaginations.

I had awakened that morning feeling refreshed and road-ready. In Bozeman I had shared all of John’s lifestyle except the time of awakening – on his couch sleeping until noon just wasn’t happening. That made “refreshed” difficult to achieve to say the least. (To be fair, John often stayed up later than I did, studying the current political situation. He makes Dr. Pants look like a Bushie. Both John and Pants are very widely-read and support their opinions with facts. Don’t invite them both to the same party; they’ll be the two who never stop taliking about politics all night, their voices getting louder as the conversation gets more animated and they get more drunk. But I digress.)

Along 89 is a string of towns that serve the agricultural communities nestled between the mountain ranges. Driving through I thought more than once, “I could live here.” Small and well-painted, with bars with names like “Dad’s”. In town, the speed limits drop down to 25, allowing me to take a good look.

Farther along, in slightly larger towns, I began to see signs of the creeping rot that is making its way north, eating towns. By the time I reached Garden City, the main street had several empty windows and boarded-up doors. [A little voice in my head said “That would be a good picture”, but I learned long ago not to listen to the little voices in my head. I told myself I would be back again sometime. One of the things that made my Yellowstone photo adventure so fun was that I had seen the opportunities on a previous visit and had a plan in my head how to tackle the place. So maybe I will go back. That shut the little voice up, anyway.]

Logan to Brigham City was a fairly uninteresting stretch of construction and assholes. I joined mighty I-15 and pointed South. This was the same road that had inspired my romantic highway musings on a late-night drive in San Diego a thousand years ago. Sitting in bumper-to bumper traffic from Ogden to Orem did not inspire the same whimsey. I had been trying to decide between a straight shot down 15 to San Diego or taking the scenic route, and by the time Highway 6 West was ahead of me there was no contest. in 99 days I had become a small-road man.

I still had plenty of gas in the tank but I stopped in Elberta to top the machine off and to get a shitload of Gatorade. I was heading out into God’s Country (trespassers will be prosecuted).

The rot has taken hold along Highway 6. The towns not populated only by ghosts will be soon. For sale signs stand faded in front of businesses with no business existing anymore. These towns used to be between places, but they aren’t anymore. Nothing’s moved, but there has been a transformation–not a geographic change but a mathematic one–that has changed these towns from being on the way to being nowhere. The equation that spells death to these towns has several components: Interstates and Airlines being the obvious culprits, but as I drove west, passing the miles between the dying towns, I had two thoughts: 1) If I break down out here, I’m screwed. 2) I’m not going to break down. It’s number 2 that has those little towns in the number 2. The range and reliability of modern cars makes the midpoint stop unnecessary. Point A and point B are practically touching now. There’s no in-between, so in-between is dying.

I’m glad I got to see in-between before it disappeared completely. Those towns fill our legends. Created by accident by careless pioneers, they filled a critical role in America’s love of the automobile and the open road. They were the enablers. They were the safe havens, always nearby, as the American family went out to figure out what America really was. “See America”, they called it, but they were chasing a mystery and at some level they knew it. But when the engine overheated and they were limping along, they would find their oasis in the most improbable place, and there’d be a motel with a neon sign calling across the desert to weary travelers, and there would be a cheer in the car. They were going to be all right. The family would get two rooms at the motel, so the kids could bounce on the bed while the parents quietly expressed their relief and celebrated life.

Drivers now do exactly as I had done, load up on supplies and shoot across the desert, only noticing the occasional human habitation as a reduced speed limit. Along 6, the speed limit does not drop by much when it does at all.

Winding through ranges then shooting across plains, I am chasing the sun to the horizon. It is a race I cannot win; the terminator is behind me and gaining fast. With the light low, I drive past many photographs. The wheels are turning and who am I to tell them to stop?

Ely Nevada is apparently to gliding (sailplaning?) what Albuquerque is to ballooning. Ely is dying. It is a crossroads, which gives it some help but in the end merely prolongs the agony. I rolled into town and on the outskirts there are a couple of modern highway hotels–Motel 6 and the like–and since I’m in Nevada a couple of them boast casinos. I’m not looking for a casino but a bar, and I have seen ads for places in the center of town.

As I approach the “city center” I jump on a cheap motel. What hooked me was the promise of a phone in the room. Sweet blessed connectivity. Non-smoking room, pirated cable, twenty-five bucks. I’m all over it.

The room was less than stellar –the door had been kicked in at least once, the carpet was stained, I parked next to a Camaro with a flat tire on the right front and clothes in the back, reminding me that my moniker “Homeless Tour” has a very different meaning for other people–but it didn’t smell bad and the bed was actually quite comfortable. After loading all my crap into the room and making sure that a passing breeze wouldn’t blow the door open I went out to explore the middle of town.

Historic and newly-renovated buildings were vacant. There were places so recently closed down that all you would have to do is turn on the lights and start business. I was looking for a burger and a beer. At the far end of the main drag was a pub. I sat in there for one beer, and eavesdropped on some sailplaners. The place had just been bought by a husband and wife, who were both very nice and outgoing. The kind of people who should be running our bars. Luckily they didn’t serve food there, so I had a graceful excuse to leave. Talking to the new owners of a doomed business was more than I could handle. I went over to the Hotel Nevada.

Hotel Nevada seems to be one of the two survivors in town. (If you are interested in buying a truly historic hotel, and you have a way to make it an exotic destination rather than a stopping point along the way, Ely has the property for you.) I had a decent meal there, then lingered when I saw that the blackjack tables (both of them) were relatively cheap. Since I am also relatively cheap, that was a good match.

Nikki was the dealer at first, and she was nice to me, so I formed the inevitable bond (in my head). I won’t go into the thousands of little signs I saw that meant she liked me. She was relieved by Melanee, who was nice, but no Nikki. Nikki had actually grown up in Ely, and was really happy that she had a chance to move back there as a dealer. On her days off she does “anything dangerous.” That ruled me out. Mealnee had come to town because of her husband; she had ditched him and was ready to leave the other.

There was also Kurt. The casino probably loves him, because he deals with a ruthless efficiency, but we as a table took it as a victory whe we made him smile. Forget about conversation. Kurt was probably very tired of the phrase “ruthless efficiency” by the time we parted ways. “Ruthless slaying” was probably closer to the front of his mind. What can I say? I was feeling jolly.

When I put my second forty bucks onto the blackjack table, I told Nikki, “It’s your sparkling personality that keeps me here.” It’s funny how easy it is for me to flirt, considering how tough it is for me to ask someone on a date. But that’s for another episode. As soon as I plunked down my money the dealer changed.

Sitting next to me was a wiry, coarse, deeply tanned brunette and beyond her were her coworkers. Hot Shots. Tomorrow they were heading into a wildfire. It took a while before we got to talking but the whole crew was really cool. Take a moment, now, if you’ve read this far, to wish them well out there on the line. The wind was really whipping today. Sitting next to her I understood why women are hot for firemen.

After that, the part where I won some of my money back playing poker seems small. I played some poker. I made some money. Nobody died on the line today.

9 thoughts on “A Day Of Driving.

  1. Pardon me for gloating but I’m really pleased with the sentence

    I was heading out into God’s Country (trespassers will be prosecuted).

    Oh, the layers. It seems like something Edward Abbey would have said (and probably did).

  2. Ah, the place in between. That was definitely White Lakes, New Mexico. Many years ago, before Pat and I were married, we were traveling from Houston to Los Alamos. We had our cat, Shere Khan, with us, as we had left Houston in the aftermath of a hurricane that had left our apartment uninhabitable.

    This was before Detroit had figured out how to make fuel-saving and emissions-control devices that could cope with high temperatures at high altitudes. The car started wheezing, and gradually slowed down, chugging slower a n d s l o w e r a n d s l o w e r

    and stopped, halfway between Clines Corners and Lamy. There was an old adobe diner, with a faded sign that said “HAMBURGERS” and an out-of-order gas pump (circa 1940) out front. We went in — it was swamp-cooler damp and cool, and dimly lit, dark-green linoleum and countertops and vinyl on the chrome-trimmed barstools at the lunch counter, all of which had clearly seen much better days. The little old lady there (probably about 90 years old, and originally about 6 feet tall, but dried up from the desert) let us use her phone, and her three Pekinese dogs made friends with Shere Khan — it was amazing how much alike the cat and dogs were (this was when Shere Khan was at the peak of his 14-pound glory).

    After about an hour cool-down, the car started up and ran fine, so we went on our way. The next time we went through White Lakes, there was nothing left of the building but an empty white shell, and even the gas pump was gone. In fact, there was nothing left of White Lakes but the remains of the diner.

  3. This is an interesting passage about the big land off the interstates and the small, dying towns. It reminds me of a proposal I ran into in the mid-90s, I don’t remember where (possibly Time magazine), of a “Buffalo Commons.” The dying small towns is phenomena all over America, at least west of the Mississippi. This husband and wife team proposed buying up large tracks of land and dying towns in the great plains, and reverting it back to pre-european ecology. Giving America a giant, buffalo-friendly park in the mid-west.

    Their team is a bit, err…odd: short on scientists and includes a hip-hop poet activist. But still a compelling idea. Details at:


    I don’t financially support this organization, and I’m not shilling for them either – its just for reader interest and relates to this passage.

  4. Your description of the cheap ass motel in Ely reminds me of a reader conversation a while back about the hero loner in western movies. If you had a girlfriend or a family you couldn’t stay in that hotel. But right now, you are only responsible for yourself. The mythical road is so open and free when the only person you are responsible for is your self. Get an experience, stay in a roach motel, drink a beer in a saloon. I think those movies play out at the intersection where the loner starts to become responsible for more than himself. A town or a widow’s farm.

  5. If the Buffalo Commons people are the ones I’m thinking of, they have a book out, and they had a booksigning at the Black Cat bookstore in Truth or Consequences not too long ago. It’s an interesting idea to replace decay of one sort with restoration of another.

    However, there is something lost when the old places-in-between dry up and blow away. I’ll probably never know the story of White Lakes or the diner or the little old lady, but I’m sure there are some really great tales. Maybe she’s got some family somewhere who can fill things in … I imagine she died, and the descendants came and sold off what was worth anything, and told some wonderful stories at her funeral, and someone took in the Pekinese, and now, poof, everything’s gone.

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