Location: Ely (rhymes with mealy), Nevada
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.