The Nevada Highway
Copyright 2005 by Michael Crifasi
I walk into a bar and you are on my mind. It is lunchtime at Jack’s Bar and Grille and it has been three years since I loved you. No one in Fallon knows who you are except for me as I sit down to eat, two years removed from the last words we ever spoke to each other. I doubt anyone would care if I told them; not here, not anywhere on this jaunt across America for me and the R.E.M. tour, only a year since I first really put your ghost in the ground of my heart.
I would have told this story a long time, if I had thought it would do any good.
The walls of Jack’s are adorned with the images of the NFL, especially those of the Raiders (both L.A. and Oakland). For me, and for Eli (the E of the R.E.M. tour), these are the only familiar signs in this place. Even the faces in here are angry. With what, we do not know, but they don’t care for us. The “R” of our little parade would have had some witticism for this place, slipped under his breath and into our ears, but Ryan left us at Seattle four days ago, headed back to the real world.
We kept driving and you kept popping into my mind.
What would you have to say if you saw me right now? Would you laugh at my Stetson, rolled too far and stuffed with a crow feather I found back at Olympic National Park in Washington? Would the dirt on my black tee have turned you off? Would the loose fit of my cargo shorts make you smile? Would you even wrinkle your nose at the smell of my sandals, the same I have worn for two weeks on the road now? Or would you not even care.
Can you even imagine what it’s like to be me these days, or at least all of me that you left behind?
Can I imagine for you?
Here, let me try.
You owe me that, at least.
You order a steak sandwich, the Jack’s special, assuming it will be the cheese-steak that sounds so good to your gullet. The slab of meat on a bun that arrives after the three too-sweet Dr. Peppers (even you don’t drink this early in the day) is to say the least, a disappointment. Chewing on fat has never been one of your more cherished moments. Perhaps the waitress should not be on the phone with her mother or lover or ex when she takes your order, but then again, this is not the place to make a fuss. Never pick a fight you are sure will end badly before it even begins, you remind yourself.
“He’ll be killed as soon as he gets to prison, bastard deserves it.”
You are stirred from your fries by the voice that most definitely did not say bastard. It takes a minute to connect images.
A face looks at you from the next bar stool. Dollar bills and two empty cans of Budweiser sit on the video poker machine before it. There is a tank top and a tattered ball cap that never had a team name on it. These things barely register. Neither does the face. It is the definition of unremarkable, the textbook appearance of blank. You will not remember it months later.
The bloodshot eyes you will not forget.
Eli has gone out to use the cell to call Colleen, his girlfriend. You and he need her to get tickets for your Blues Traveler concert in far off Provo tomorrow night. But he is gone and you have been on your guard since you walked into Jack’s Bar & Grille of Fallon, Nevada and now these damn bloodshot eyes have made a comment straight to you and they want conversation.
“You think so?” you reply, hoping the tone of your voice denotes only rhetorical interest, not the intent of talk.
“I damn sure hope so. Look at him, look at that …”
…definitely not bastard.
Your eyes move to the television. The film that has built on your contacts in the last two and a half weeks makes it hard to focus. The CNN bottom line scrolls by, their emblem in the corner, opposite the word “Live.” The BTK killer, Dennis Rader, is listening to his sentence. He looks like he does not really comprehend emotionally what is going on. He looks like a calculator.
Somewhere in the next few minutes, as the bloodshot eyes continue to talk, you will drop into what you think of as your working man’s, blue collar voice—the one you use when you don’t want to offend anyone or just want to be one of the guys—and question the point of consecutive life sentences.
“He’ll be dead anyway,” Bloodshot and Persistent reminds you.
“God willing,” you reply and remind yourself to punch yourself in the gut several times for it later.
Eli has not returned. You’ve been done with your steak slab for a long time. The waitress refills your Dr. Peppers without asking now, and for that matter, without looking at you. Then the question comes:
“Where you headed?”
You look at Bloodshot and curse in your head. He does not smile and his eyes do not seem to focus. Your nerves are on edge. The dramatic in you is judging the space between you and him, tracing the imaginary paths to the exits, and factoring in worst-case scenarios of how many attackers you’ll be facing if something in this exchange goes wrong.
Then you say screw it for the first time in years, just screw it, buy the ticket and let go.
Then you smile.
Bloodshot smiles too.
Buy the ticket and let go.
You will carry on a conversation about how you will leave lunch here at Jack’s and pass onto Highway 50, “The Loneliest Road in America.” Bloodshot will crack his second smile and begin to tell you of the sights you must see along the way, including the real loneliest road: 722, the old Pony-Express route that was there when 50 was being tattooed across the Nevada wasteland. Bloodshot is born and raised you will learn, and other than the heat of his state, like most people you have met across America (and yourself) home is still the place he loves to call home.
Eli will return and have to sit through another Coke before you finish your conversation with Bloodshot. By the end, you have talked about your home in Ohio and the trip that had blazed you and two hometown friends across the American northwest. Bloodshot tries to recall the things he knows about Ohio, mostly from an old girlfriend he had from what he thinks was Canton. You tell him you know it and have friends yourself there but see he is not listening while he stirs his memories of Ohio, Canton, and whatever happened to cause them.
You can sympathize. There are places you don’t ever want to recall yourself. Eventually it is time to go. You pay the bill in cash. So does Eli. You laugh as Eli fights the temptation to feed the poker machine before him as he has so many times during the Last American Road Trip. Bloodshot chuckles too.
Finally, with a hand shake and a blue-blooded All-American wish for well to your bar friend you take your leave of Jack’s, lunch, and western Nevada, all the while promising yourself that your newfound up-yours to Fear will not vacate your soul when this trip has come to an end. Eli makes a joke about the bar as you pile into the Jade Lady and head off, but you do not catch it. You are thinking about Ohio, and the road, and the people in-between and beyond who make us call home, home.
You are traveling down Highway 50 an hour later. The memories of college hit you like a wave. So little time has passed. It is not the absence that hurts, it is the simple realization that those days are done and gone and will not be again. There is happiness, not hurt, but perhaps a little longing. There are times and places you do not want to forget.
Then there are those places you don’t want to recall.
But you are tired of the past now. You are tired of playing audience to the failures of your life and the betrayal that has colored your days for so long. This morning in Reno at Harrah’s you had an epiphany. You were ok. There was no more point in mourning. You could be angry but it would not do to dwell upon it. And that’s it. You were just ok and it felt good.
You realize you have fallen asleep. Eli wakes you. The Shoe Tree of Nevada is on your left. You pull over and stop. A mother and her two children scurry about in the dust and the sagebrush before the tree. You get out and take a picture. Eli does not want to turn off the car. There are many things that need to work for a car to get started, and thus many things that can go wrong in the desert heat. Though you do not feel the desolation of the world around you, you are still aware that it is not a place where you would want to wait for help.
The Shoe Tree itself is just as advertised. Eli thinks there is one in Michigan as well. For whatever reason, this tree, growing in a micro canyon parallel to the Loneliest Road in America has become a shrine. For what, no one likely knows. The hundreds of pairs of shoes hanging from its branches, along with the numerous singles scattered around the canyon floor like Christmas gifts demonstrate that even if the reason for the shrine is lost, the ceremony is not.
You pose for a disposable camera picture before the tree, kicking up peach dust as you take your position. Hope and companionship echo in your mind and you wonder if the message on your cell phone you cannot dare to believe is from the (new) girl you’ve been waiting for was real and if she will remember. You hope so. You are daring to hope for the first time in a long time (isn’t that why you’ve taken this pilgrimage?) and it feels good. There are places you don’t want to recall but at the same time there are places you are dying to return to, just for the chance to build memories of a future more bright. This is what home means, and why you race that way at the speed of life.
Just as you turn to leave, reaffirmed in the little things that make us want to go on in life, a fellow motorist is pointing up the ridge while he speaks to Eli. You wander over, trying to hear the conversation through the dust of the desert and your own thoughts. The midday sun is warm, but not hot. The bleaching of the West has not gotten you yet. The big F-150 drives off but Eli points up the mountain, across the world’s smallest canyon and her tree of shoes. Confident and quiet you follow.
You find a way over the barbwire fence and off trail. What you will see after you cross the minefield of scat and creek mud will astound you. The nine Desert Big Horn sheep will pay little attention to you as they rest on the hillside and that is just fine. They are grey as ghosts and sheer and sheen and alive. There is one you see with a set of full curl horns, like those on the sides of football helmets and roller coasters named the Matterhorn. You are filled with awe. The sheep watch quietly from their stronghold and you and Eli eventually leave them in peace, kicking empty buckshot casings as you do, hoping whoever had used them had missed.
The calm of the sheep seems to promise they had.
And for this, and the wonders of a day where you can drive into the sun having faced the little challenges of life with shoulders back, you are filled with awe.
You will veer off 50 a few miles down onto 722, not only once the Pony Express trail, but also once the basin of the greatest lake on earth, still amazed. Cattle will cross your way and you will see the green that can be Nevada under skies which no one else will see this day but your friend, your car, and the dreams and hopes you now ride to Utah and the life that waits beyond.
There are a million little stories like this. There are infinite vignettes every hour of my waking days that you will never know. I traveled 8, 300 miles through 16 states over a month to find this peace somewhere in the middle and let me tell you, my journey was worth it. And you, can you even imagine it? In my first days free of your phantom, do you ever wonder what the moments and memories I make without you are worth?
I don’t know if you would even care.
But I know for now that I don’t.
I have seen things. I have seen such wonderful things. I have seen the sun set over the Tetons from a hilltop that no one else but the most elite of trail hands knows of. I have dived in mountain lakes of Montana, so cold I finally understand what it really is to have your breath taken away. I have stopped to pet a dog with different color eyes as the sun toasted the backend of an evening in the deserts of Idaho. I have slept on Isle Royale as a moose found her dinner in river just feet away from my camp and realized that some places could not care less about how we break each other’s hearts and what we do after they refuse to mend. I have climbed mountains, kayaked rivers, fished lakes, and somewhere in-between on the Nevada Highway remembered that while there may be so much that is false and harsh in this world, there is as much, if not more, that is true and sweet.
I said I would have told this story of a long time ago if I thought it would have done any good.
Well, I think it does now.
And should you ever read this in the moments of
your life, I hope you will understand that too.
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