Road Trip 2: The Return

Day 1: Saturday, June 29, 2002

49thStreet.jpgBy the morning of June 29, all the books we couldn’t bear to part with had been shipped off by U.S. mail, all our furniture had been sold or donated, and we had said our good byes to friends in the area. All our remaining belongings were stacked up in the living room and bedroom, waiting to be taken to the train station or packed in the car, respectively.

Our friend Jonah lent us his car, an old Volvo station wagon whose hatch wouldn’t latch (rhyme unintended), and Joe packed it to the gills with drums, guitars, and boxes of clothes and kitchenware and drove it to the Amtrak shipping depot. Then he came back and did it again. Our 900 pounds (that’s right — almost half a ton) of luggage cost approximately $350 to ship — a very sweet deal, whatever else you may say about Amtrak, when you consider that the alternative was spending $1500 for the pleasure of driving a U-Haul truck through the Rockies with our car dangling off the back.

Meanwhile, Lisa packed the car, also to the gills. For better or for worse, a Toyota Corolla sedan cannot hold nearly as much stuff as a Chevrolet Celebrity station wagon. The car’s rear end sagged mightily for the duration of the trip, however. We prayed, for the sake of our muffler, for smooth roads.

On The Road Again It was a hot, bright day, hotter than usual for Oakland in June. It was almost a blessing. Knowing, as we did, that we were leaving the mild maritime climate for a sweltering summer back East, a breezy 70 degree day would have been a kick in the pants. The house nearly empty, we scrambled to pick up the last odds and ends and give the house a final half-hearted scouring before our landlord showed up to inspect it and return our security deposit. Due to Amtrak opening two hours later than we expected, we weren’t able to finish on time, but our landlord peaceably agreed to return a while later. By the time he returned, we were sitting on our front porch swing for the last time, eating lunch.

We had hoped to leave between 12 and 1, but of course these things always take more time than you think they will — even when you’ve built in extra time for things to go wrong. By the time we finally embarked, having returned Jonah’s Volvo and made a final drop-off at a nearby thrift store, it was after 3. And, heading out of Berkeley, we promptly hit some of the worst traffic we’d experienced while living in the Bay Area. Like the day’s hot weather, it made our departure slightly easier — in the emotional sense, if not the physical. By five o’clock we’d barely gone thirty miles.

Things cleared up eventually, however, and by then it was too late for further glimpses at what we were leaving. It was hard to believe, much less accept, that we were saying good bye to the Pacific, the Bay, and the Golden Gate Bridge between them; to the San Francisco skyline and the Marin headlands; to the Bay Bridge, the Richmond Bridge, the Carquinas and the Benicia; to Mount Diablo and Mount Tamalpais and the summer-golden hills all around; and, of course, to the less stunning but perhaps more important (to us) landscape of Oakland and Berkeley. We might return to California for visits, but this was a one-way trip. We wouldn’t be back in a day, or even in a week, to see it all again.

Donner Lake Once into the Central Valley, we rolled along easily. Making the journey along I-80, we thought about the first time we’d come through in the opposite direction. How exciting it had been to see the signs for San Francisco as we’d driven in at dusk after twelve hours of driving. Reading signs for Vallejo and San Rafael and naively thinking they’d be pronounced the Spanish way. Laughing at Vacaville (translated literally: cowtown). Enjoying the pink and red hedges of flowers along the freeway median. Lisa’s initial disgust at the palm trees (we weren’t in the tropics, after all!). Wondering with trepidation if the 100 degree heat in Sacramento stretched all the way to the ocean. Coasting into the yellow farmlands of the valley from the green wooded mountains.

We stopped once more at Donner Lake — Donner Lake which, two years before, we had mistaken for Tahoe. We never made it to Tahoe while living in California, but we did visit Yosemite, Big Sur, Point Reyes, Malibu, and various redwood forests; our time was not enitrely wasted. Leaving California, there are no booths asking about your produce, as there are when you enter. The only indication that we’d left California for Nevada was the change in scenery — and the increasing number of billboards for Reno casinos.

Nevada Is Green Along I-80, the change in landscape is as abrupt as the black line separating California and Nevada on a map. In eastern California, your car climbs and slides down the meandering road, surrounded on all sides by lush evergreen forests. In western Nevada, the road flattens and straightens, and the high hills some miles off the freeway are covered only with brown scrub. We found that aspect of the Nevada landscape, along I-80, difficult to see as beautiful. The land, both the hills and the plains, is rust-colored. The hills look like ant-hills with the nubby texture of Berber carpet. You get thirsty just looking out the window.

That was how we remembered all of Nevada from our trip West. Before long, though, we had to admit that there was more to it. Off the freeway runs a river, and along the river, trees grow and the earth is brilliantly green with vegetation. And once we turned off I-80 for Route 50 — the so-called Loneliest Road in America — we were surprised with more green and, amazingly, water. A huge reservoir gleams blue for miles, only half an hour’s drive south of the freeway.

Nevada Landscape Still, much of the landscape is overwhelmingly bleak. Dust blows over the flatlands, and the scattering of grass looks sharp and brittle. Most of the homes we saw along the highway were trailers, with the occasional pre-fab house thrown in. The towns we drove through barely warranted the rare four-way stop. It was impossible to imagine living in such isolation, in such harsh territory, much less making a living. Yet hand-painted signs advertise farm equipment and seeds. Lots filled with shiny new trailers and pre-fab houses solicit potential buyers, and we could only wonder who would be moving into this desert — and why. For most Americans the desert is something to drive through on the way to somewhere else or, for the adventurous, a vacationing challenge. It gives one new perspective on nations where desert is the only landscape, not just one corner of a large and fertile land.

Ironically, as we drove through the town of Silver Springs headed for the campground, we noted that the streets all bore the names of trees — Spruce, Elm, Maple, and so forth — that were nowhere to be seen.

We stopped for the night around eight o’clock, at Lake Lahontan State Park on the shore of the reservoir by the same name. The sky was turning pink, the russet hills becoming purple in the dusk. On the shore grow silvery-green bushes with leaves the texture of downy feathers. There are no official sites within the campground; you just drive through the sand until you found a place you liked. For once, we wished we had an SUV! More than once, our car had trouble finding purchase on the so-called road.

Our campsite Surprising to us, there were a goodly number of visitors to the campground. The reservoir being one of Nevada’s few oases, people come from miles around for fishing and water sports. Camper after camper was parked in little clearings along the shore, music and voices and the smell of charcoal drifting from them. We found a quiet spot along the road to park and set up our tent beside the greenery. The sand was soft underneath. After a cold dinner and some star-gazing, we settled in for the night. Being on the road again did feel good.

Day 2 »

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