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It has been a very long time since a certain travelling tractor salesman once plied these roads. These roads being those of the American Pacific Northwest. Tonight I’m in my van in a roadside rest area on Interstate 5 near the Oregon border, parked beside sleeping big rigs and listening to the rain drum on my fibreglass roof. I am exhausted. It has been a very long day. After the ferry ride to the mainland I performed some roadside repairs so now I have a functional house battery which means there is a working furnace and lights, etc. etc. Such decadence! (There was a time when sleeping beneath an upturned canoe on a rainy night was a matter course for me…long ago!)
I once regularly travelled this route, Interstate 5, the north-south transportation artery between the Canadian border near Vancouver and Tijuana on the Mexican border. Maybe I’m just older, the traffic now seems much heavier and faster despite an obvious police presence. In Seattle, which now is always in rush hour, drivers clearly have a death wish. I’ve never seen such risk-taking and I recall when Seattle traffic was noted for courteous driving. Some may argue that my memory fails me, but that is how I recall the good old days. And you could time your movements to avoid the morning and evening commute. Not any more. It is all a monstrous throbbing cancer despite the wonderful artistic community which I know thrives there. I’m a country boy at heart and so I’ll head for the hills. I just hope that all this rain is not snow at higher elevations. Yeah right! I was going to I5 it all the way into Northern California, then cut across to Reno and head on south through Nevada and Arizona.
I’m finding this freeway too much work and anxiety. Although I’ve made some repairs to the old van’s steering, it still handles like a hay wagon especially when travelling at the truck’s legal speed limit of 60 mph and the eighteen wheelers go by as if you are parked. They actually do try to blow you off of the road. The air compression at their speeds is incredible. Think of all the diesel being burned to rush someone their fresh lettuce. I kept the window open a bit to help myself stay awake and I swear there are times when I can smell and taste the exhaust swirling around out there. Well I’ve taken my meds, washed my face, brushed my teeth and it is time to go to bed for my first night in my little bus. Tomorrow is another day.
And so it is; after a very long night. I’m sitting with my morning coffee, pecking away at the computer in the thick black of 06:30. Something is draining my house battery and shortly after going to bed, the furnace died. I pulled on another blanket and tried to sleep. Stupidly I’d parked where directed, in the big truck area. I’d forgotten about engine brakes, air brake pressure relief valves, throbbing idling diesels, flashing lights as trucks arrived and departed all through the night. This morning I first could nor find my mobile phone, then couldn’t locate my hidden envelope of US cash. The adrenaline of panic is not a good way to begin a day. I wander off to the washroom, far across the parking lot in the driving rain and sleet. To my amazement, on a lowbed trailer sat a huge Bell 212 helicopter looking very out-of place.
Next the curser on this golderned computer screen vanished; gone to the loo I suppose. It returned, eventually. The coffee is good and I soldier out into the wet and dark of morning on the road. Ordeal or adventure, it is all in the journey I choose.
The journey has now led me to be parked beside a rail line near La Pine, in Central Oregon on my second night. You know it, rain and wet snow. Tombstone Pass over the mountains was slick with sticky wet snow. In the dark I missed a turn in Bend and now here I am. I’ve finally sorted out my electrical problem and am happily listening to the fan of my lovely little furnace. It was an arduous day that has passed quickly. I fell into my bed, which was damp with the storm’s humidity. Earlier today, I finally exorcized my electrical gremlins and now I do have a working furnace.
Diesel pickups with loud exhausts roared past on this remote backroad all damned night. I was parked close to a level crossing and every time I almost drifted off, guess what? Yep! Too whoo, clickety clack, who dat trying to sleep beside the old railway track? Fully exhuasted, I was cooking breakfast before dawn. I drove eastward toward a place called Winnemucca, Nevada. It sounds like a medical condition but it is a real name, probably of a native origin. At first the sun was in my eyes with a promise of a brighter day but for a while I squirm around yet more wrecks being attended with emergency crews. It is not just Canadians who have a death wish.
The winter roads here are sanded with crushed, brick-red lava rock so the old van is coated with red muck. It hides the weathered paint and rust. I drove on through high Ponderosa pine forest and emerged onto the Southern Oregon high plains ranchland. I have been gobsmacked with the incredible beauty of this country. It is vast. It is stupendous. I tried to imagine how incredible it must have been before the pale-faced hordes invaded and desecrated everything with roads, fences, power lines, mines and waste. It is still stunning. As I drove across the plains and mesas, around and over thrusting slabs of tilted, weather rock sometimes a thousand feet or more high, I finally began to feel my months-long anxiety begin to ease. If I has stopped to take all the photos I saw, I would not have travelled fifty miles. Each time I leapt out of the vehicle with my camera I thought of another note to make and soon snatches of poetry began to appear. A very good sign indeed.
“These vast plains and thrusting slopes are a landscape that the gods slash with bursts of changing colours and light, rainbows, and swirling clouds while ten thousand cattle turn their backs to yet another winter squall.” At one point it was raining and blowing so hard, I turned on my dash cam to capture the show while fighting to keep the careening vehicle on the road. Stunned, I came upon a jogger out in the tempest and then, incongruously, I saw that he was waving to another jogger approaching him. These ranch folk in spandex are a tough lot! I wrote some more, “And the land rose up, the sea fell away, as the plains turned green, out came hoofed creatures at play.” Well it’s a start.
Then I realized a freedom that I was actually stopping to write these ideas down. The day unfurled before me like a wonderful dream. As I drove I also seized upon one of the joys of this old van, it has a cassette stereo. At the last minute I tossed in a bucket of cassettes I hadn’t looked at for years. What a way to enhance the bliss! Occasionally I’d meet another vehicle, perhaps twice an hour. Everyone waved! I have forgotten how it was to live in a world like that. I saw magpies several times and realized that I had also forgotten these once-beloved birds. The day rolled on on on. There were often huge round boulders laying in random places. I recalled a Swedish friend once explaining to my wonder at such things that they were there because some Troll had once thrown them at a church. Every so often I would pass a cattle guard. Traditionally, these are gateposts at either of a series of pipes or rails laid side by side for three or four feet. Cattle can’t walk on them, the metal tubes must hurt their hooves. On the highways, these gates are merely heavily painted lines across the road. The cows have duped themselves into believing they cannot cross. Hoof prints and manure stop abruptly at these lines and then turn back. It is clearly not only people who can be convinced to believe in the impossible, whether it is true or not.
Perhaps folks waved because it’s obvious that I’m a stranger in their big country. I am not driving a silver Dodge diesel 4×4 truck at over eighty miles an hour. The grandest wonder of all to me is that for all the hundreds of miles I drive in this sprawling majesty, it is only a tiny scratch within a very, very huge land. Tonight I sit in my camper van just south of Battle Mountain. There has been a labour of love here. Some folks have made two huge letters on a mountain slope overlooking the bleak little town. BM. We know what that can mean. Las Vegas ahead in the morning. It is a city I abhor and I’ll do my best to go around it.
So guess what? There I was in downtown Las Vegas, in the dark, after ten hours on the road, with every zoomhead in the world wanting to play bumper cars. I have an ancient GPS mounted on my dash. It saved my life. I only had to backtrack once. Now I’m backed into a dead end at the Searchlight Nevada municipal airport. Almost five hundred miles today since Battle Mountain. I’m bagged.
I’ve seen more amazing scenery and incredible sights than I can assimilate. I’m WOWed out! From hereon I’ll try formatting the blogs from this ongoing trip as pictorials with captions. Editing all my photos and films at the end of each day is plenty enough work. This is supposed to be a holiday! I’ve finished stashing the day’s take in photos. A marvellous mariachi bands plays on the radio. Outside, a cool wind blows beneath a clear, full-moon desert sky.
“I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really.
Get busy living, or get busy dying.” …Shawshank Redemption