Death Valley, Pt. 1: Astral America

Last spring, we ran down to Death Valley, chasing wildflowers. Krista used to go all the time as a kid, but I’d somehow never been. It’s out of order, I know, but the next several entries will be about the trip.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

1.

It’s 7 AM, just an hour into today’s twelve-hour drive, and I’m somehow already lost. In The Dalles.

See, we’re supposed to jut south here, on 197 or something, and I can see the road above, curling up into the hills. But I just have no idea how to get there.

Krista’s got a smart phone, but I’d been puffing myself up before the trip. “Let’s just use paper maps!” We’re going to the land before—or after, or out of—time, and it just feels sort of right to do things the old-fashioned way. And it worked. For an hour.

So now it’s time to ask Krista’s smart phone, but that’s an issue too. I have no idea how to use a smart phone. Apparently you can just talk to them? So I shout—I thought I was talking civilly at the time, but in retrospect it was definitely shouting—“Hey, Siri!” No response. “Hey, Siri! How do you get to Death Valley from here?” Still nothing. Maybe she doesn’t know either?

Krista corrects me. “You have to be a little more… gentle?”

“I was being gentle!”

“I know dear. Maybe just walk it off? Let’s go get a cup of coffee and try again.”

We do, and I linger for a second to put a thirtieth packet of sugar in my cup. When I make it to the car, Krista’s somehow cajoled Siri into compliance. I don’t think I’ll ever get the hang of smart phones.

2.

197, or whatever it is, is totally beautiful: high dry pasture until it cuts steeply down to the Deschutes, then up again, switchbacking to more pasture, which slowly fades, imperceptibly, into high desert.

We make it to Prineville, then have to double back to find the Crooked River Highway. They call it Main Street. It’s light pink on our map, which tends to mean something between “easy driving” and “hasn’t existed for 25 years.”

It’s easy driving at first. And beautiful. The road plunges deeper into the Crooked River canyon, beside a barely flowing brown stream overhung by basalt.

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But as we go further, the road turns toward the “only exists in past tense” side of light pink. Eventually it’s just good gravel, then okay gravel, then sorta shitty gravel. We pass incongruous resort ranches, with signs that wouldn’t be out of place in Las Vegas—massive wooden gates, twenty feet high, with family or brand names emblazoned on top. Roughly three out of four also include the word “Homestead.”

3.

So… Burns.

The Malheur Occupation ended barely a month ago, and the air’s still thick with tension, like a post-war battlefield, where it’s still not clear which side won.

We drive through around noon, and there are strange signs in front of half the businesses. “Stand with the Bundys!” Giant American flags that never seem to have all 50 stars. A couple pictures of Jesus, indicating that he didn’t like the BLM either.

We eat at a fast food franchise. The only other customers are a pair of seniors, eating formally, at a bright red booth underneath a laminated sign advertising some sort of milk shake “blasters.” They’re eating their sandwiches with silverware—real silverware, made of metal—though there doesn’t seem to be any real silverware on offer. Did they bring it from home?

There’s innocuous satellite pop playing over the crackly old loudspeaker: something about a lonely girl, then falling in love while dancing. But then Katy Perry comes on, “I Kissed a Girl.” And the woman at the front counter cuts off our order and runs—literally, runs—to the back and change the station. Christmas music now. She looks immensely relieved as she returns and says sorry. I’m not at all sure which bit she’s apologizing for.

We stop for gas on the way out of town. The guy pumping is in his late 60s, dirty hands, nicotine stains. A grizzled old voice, a grizzled old face.

He’s a bit older than my dad, but I imagine my dad here. What would he be if he’d been born here, gotten stuck? What would I be? In the attached mini-mart there’s a woman at the register, probably around my age. Her nose is pierced, but there’s no ring in it. And under her hat, there’s the smallest hint of purple hair. Quietly, very quietly, there’s punk playing from an old boom box somewhere under the counter. I think it’s Minor Threat. I think I used to own this on cassette.

4.

South of Burns, once we pass the last outlying houses and compounds, we reach the wildlife refuge, empty now but for birds, and we both sigh with immense relief. I feel a sort of pride about never fitting in anywhere, but I don’t think I’ve ever felt so out of place as we did there. There was an oppressiveness to the town, an overbearing feeling of just… something. I don’t know. Something telling me that I don’t belong.

But beyond the refuge, the powerlines end. The Steens stand white on one distant horizon, the Blue Mountains on another. There are weathered old barbed wire fences every few miles, running in parallel away from the road, but otherwise it’s empty. Shrubs and sand and snow and sky.

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And there’s no one out here. Absolutely no one. We park in a pullout, and walk into the middle of the highway, stand there for ten minutes watching the clouds and clouded sunlight shift in the early afternoon wind, feeling the wild breeze blow up from the desert.

5.

We drive like this for hours: in an empty landscape, surrounded by snowy peaks and barbed wire fences dividing the blank. Krista puts on an old country album, and I think about this essay I read years ago, about the music astronauts bring with them into space. Apparently, it’s almost always country. Old country: The Carter Family, Bob Wills, early Loretta Lynn.

The idea is that those old songs area really about being in space, or at least in a place you don’t identify as your own. They’re about missing home—the Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane, the Green Green Grass of Home—feeling adrift in a new world you don’t understand, in a world with nothing to hold onto.

They’re about moving to the city and missing the hills, but I feel the exact same thing in reverse. As we drive south, it becomes more and more like Mars. We pass into Nevada, but what does that even mean out here? The texture of the pavement changes slightly, but of course the mountains and prairies and fences stay the same.

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6.

South of Winnemucca, there’s a 250 mile stretch of absolutely nothing: a broad, flat valley, flanked by frigid peaks on either side. We drive for an hour without moving the steering wheel.

Krista scans the AM dial, and we land on a strange, staticky station, broadcasting an incomprehensible call-in show. There’s a woman talking over a terrible line, and I can just make out the word “America.” Her voice blends with the landscape.

We’re moving through nothing, and so movement becomes the only thing. Pure circulation. We drive for an hour without seeing a sign or another car. There are ruins at the feet of distant hills—old mining shacks at the ends of old overgrown roads—but time has taken the civilization from them, made them more desert than human.

The radio static’s saying something about America again. The host thinks there’s been some catastrophe—some collapse of what and who we used to be, of the country, of the world. Some scourge, seeping in from the coastal cities to the Real American center.

It’s easy to see how one could believe that out here. The desert is at once catastrophic and utopian. It’s annihilation and perfection all at once. And it’s always been. If everything collapsed, nothing here would change.  So maybe everything already has collapsed. Out here, the catastrophe has always-already happened.

We see our first car in hours, but it’s a truck, driving off road somewhere deep in the distance. There’s a bonfire out there, smoke rising into the smoke-colored hills.

Now the radio static’s on an advertising break. Potassium iodide tablets to treat radiation poisoning. “Your family deserves the best.” The market for anti-radiation tablets is apparently so large here that there are multiple competing brands. Consumers comparison shop. Then some sort of large-scale water treatment machine. A complete solution, from rainwater capture to septic. Does it ever actually rain here? Then an online K12 school, whose primary claim to excellence seems to be that it has never taken money from the federal government. Their tagline is a quote from Ronald Reagan.

7.

As we climb into the Toiyabe Range, there are glimpses of civilization, but it’s ancient—a hundred years old, and only still preserved by kind climates. We pass through Austin, where there’s an inn and a bar and a museum… but a museum of what? This whole place is a museum. In the distance, there’s a castle, built in the late 19th century by a railroad magnate attempting to copy something from ancient Rome. He only lived there for a year.

The valleys and mines are ambitiously named—San Francisco Canyon, New York—and at one time the town was a main Station Stop on the Pony Express. But I can’t help feeling like it was still born a ghost, that all of these towns were.

Silver was discovered here in 1863, and by the end of the year it had a population of at least 10,000. But in 1867 miners struck groundwater and everything flooded. The population flowed out. By 1875, there were just 50 people left. There was talk of connecting the town to the transcontinental railroad in the 1880s, then hopes of a revival in the 1910s with the introduction of more advanced mining technology, and again in the 1950s with the discovery of nearby uranium. But nothing ever came of any of it.

The town’s a mirror of most of this area. There was a widespread silver rush beginning in 1859, centered in Virginia City, and the state was quickly settled by prospectors, many of them Civil War deserters. Statehood was rushed through in 1864, largely to ensure Lincoln enough electoral votes for a second term. But by the 1870s, most of the towns were already emptied. In 1879, John Muir wrote:

Nevada is one of the very youngest and wildest of the States; nevertheless it is already strewn with ruins that seem as gray and silent and time-worn as if the civilization to which they belonged had perished centuries ago. Yet, strange to say, all these ruins are results of mining efforts made within the last few years. Wander where you may throughout the length and breadth of this mountain-barred wilderness, you everywhere come upon these dead mining towns, with their tall chimney stacks, standing forlorn amid broken walls and furnaces, and machinery half buried in sand, the very names of many of them already forgotten amid the excitements of later discoveries, and now known only through tradition—tradition ten years old.

8.

Further south, we descend into another set of valleys—Ralston, the Big Smoky—now flanked by National Forest. There are more cars now, and towns, living ones. Campgrounds and informational signs. An airport.

We make it to Tonopah, our home for the night, a little after nine. We’re staying in a casino of sorts, but it’s a casino like I imagined them as a kid: sun-bleached wood; sand-washed signs; neon out front but nowhere else; only a hundred slot machines, almost quaint in their smallness. The woman up front must be well into her 70s. There’s a lone man, about the same age, sitting comfortably in front of the slots—the only person here—drinking a cup of coffee.

We lie down on the massive bed and turn on the TV. It’s been a long day. There’s some travel show on about the southwest, but it’s a very particular sort of southwest: Phoenix, Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon. A southwest of cities. It’s strange to see. One minute they’re in Reno, the next in Sacramento. Over the Sierra in an instant.

I think of Muir’s dead towns, and of the radio host railing against the rest of the country—the cities that he thinks have forgotten the center. He’s sort of right. On TV, there are cities and ghost towns and nothing in between. But that’s not right. With interstates and airports, we’ve won a sort of battle against geography. Reno and Sacramento really are next to each other. But as I watch the host eat trendy tacos somewhere in Tucson, I wonder about the space we’ve left behind.

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