It begins at the Nevada-California line. At the Nevada-Utah line it ends. Both beginning and ending are arbitrary. They were established by boundary commissions for reasons that have nothing to do with logical places to start or conclude a journey. This trip is a game.
"Nevada State Line," announces a small sign above a traffic light. It is superfluous. Two huge monsters sit on either side of the street, one named Harvey, the other Harrah. With skins of glass, flashing eyes, and mouths of many doors, they signal that the gaming has begun.
At first, the road is broad and paved. It runs east through luxurious resortia, and then turns north along the east shore of a pool of cool water collected by a graben of geological proportions. It follows the billboard course of human events: Horizon Casino Resort, Love's Lake Tahoe Wedding Chapel, Family Medicine and Urgent Care, Nuggets, Slots, Fantasy Girls, Topless Cabaret Nightly, and a Free Six Pack of Coke. Sam's Place has it all: food, spirits, and sport.
Ate lunch here. The Park was closed for the winter, so we left the car by the road barrier and walked down. In a large sandy field of picnic tables and Jeffrey pines ate tuna salad on crackers and chocolate chip cookies. A jogger trotted by, beaming with the virtue of locomotion under his own steam. Nearby yellow pines composed a scene of lake and mountain so purely blue that even the snow took the dye. Jeannette asks, abruptly, "Do you travel because you want to get somewhere?"
After tunnelling through a rocky knee, the road makes a right turn east again and curves up out of the Truckee watershed. Only trees are present now, mostly yellow pine, some cedar, no homes. Over Spooner Summit the highway goes and then swings down through sweeping turns into the valley. The pines thin for thirst; ceanothus and manzanita scrubs fatten on aridity. On the distant plain Sierra water channeled by the Carson River moves slowly through Carson Valley on its way to Carson Sink.
Driving along the shore of Lake Tahoe. It's a pleasant day. 40 degrees. Low clouds hanging over the mountains. Willows blush red in the creek beds. No wind at Zephyr Cove Resort. Fences around the houses at Skyland, and a gate to go through to get in. Over Spooner Summit I go, elevation 7146. Brake Check Area. Then a pullout, where a monument tells of a big fire in 1926. Five fire fighters were killed, all of them prisoners at the time. Governor Scrugham issued full pardons so they could be buried as free men. Runaway Truck Ramp. Down into the Carson Valley, 5th gear, foot off accelerator, coasting. Last Runaway Truck Ramp.
Highway 50 is an exercise in how to be free. Will it be gaming, spirits, or sports? What about taking a trip? Make the start arbitrary. Pretend I have no past. Make the finish arbitrary. Pretend I have no future. I am just on the road.
Carson City is the place to come for food, fuel, and vehicle. Highway 50, as it enters town from the west, is a broad avenue of bright and shiny auto dealers, discount stores, and fast food chains. Walmart, McDonald's, Mervyns, and Supply One. Buick/Oldsmobile, Ford/Mercury, and Toyota at a single intersection. Nissan down the road a block. A mile of miraculous American (and Japanese) manufacture. If money is a problem, there is always the other side of town, the domain of cars previously used.
At the far eastern end of town is a junk yard of cars previously wrecked. That is not a good ending. Neither is the free plot those fire fighters purchased with their lives. Better to get in my car and keep going, past Carson City. If, in my eagerness to escape both past and future, I go too fast, I can always hope for a runaway person ramp.
I am sitting at a big table in Rich Moreno's office doing the scholarly thing of going through folders he has collected of Loneliest Road materials. It's about 1:30 in the afternoon of a spring storm. Rich is on the phone raising money while I'm reading newspaper articles, stacks of them, about an advertising coup. Life Magazine said, back in '86, Highway 50 across Nevada was the "Loneliest Road in America." Don't take it, they advised, unless your "survival skills" are honed. How ignorant of the cult of American character can you get! A higher recommendation of Highway 50 to Americans like myself, who quest for solitude, could hardly be imagined.
Rich Moreno was more wise. Rich was a student at Davis back in the late '70s, early '80s. We've been thumbing back through old UCD times. He worked for the Nevada Commission on Tourism when the article in Life appeared and is now publisher of Nevada Magazine. He and fellow commissioner Roger King knew that if we solitary pilgrims got the news that Highway 50 was lonely, we'd be there, so many of us so soon that it wouldn't be lonely for long. So they got up this ad campaign, with a feature story they sent to hundreds of newspapers. They issued "Survival Kits" and posted "Loneliest Road" signs along the way from Fernley to Ely. Eureka labelled itself the Loneliest Town, and Churchill County Museum put out a sign on the outskirts of Fallon declaring that it was the Loneliest Museum of them all. They even provided a Loneliest Telephone. Thus did Highway 50 in Nevada become the Vision Quest Route through the Outback of late twentieth century America.
Nevadans cannot seem to make up their minds about fences. Along its entire length Highway 50 is liberally provisioned with signs that display a spirited longhorn bull, tail swishing, and the words, "Open Range." Many people, I bet, choose to live here because it is "Open Range," a place where they intend to maximize their individuality and minimize interference from troublesome neighbors and mettlesome government. And yet, they make some ambiguous statements about freedom with the way they fence their property.
Not far east of Carson City is Carson Plains, a typical Nevada "suburb." It runs along the highway for several miles and crawls up onto the flanks of the hills to the north, a mile or two away, a sizable development. On the western end is a planned subdivision, just like one would find at the edge of any growing American city: houses, all of them minor variations on a theme, shoved up next to each other along curving streets. Everywhere else the lots are large and uniform, squares on graph paper distributed evenly between the asphalt lines. Most squares contain homes, and most of these are "mobile," although they have not moved in years. A few squares are vacant.
Carson Plains is unincorporated and far enough away from urban conformity that people can presumably do what they like with their yards. Along Frontage Road are three mobile homes in a row. Around the first two are no fences. The third sits between two identical stretches of wire fence on the east and west; the property is open to the south and north. Clearly these fences are markers only: a public declaration that here is where you end and I begin. They are not meant to keep anyone out. Yet, three more squares to the west is a veritable fort! It too is "mobile," sitting on a raised platform of dirt. Around it huge boulders have been bulldozed into place, making access impossible except through a narrow driveway. In the middle of the front yard is an underground bunker, the Nevada equivalent of the castle keep.
Scattered across the Carson Plains are examples of every gradation imaginable between "no fence" and "fort." Wooden fences and frail wire fences. Sturdy wire fences and barbed wire fences. A house on Lafond Road says it all. The owners have completely cleared the ground around the edges of their property but erected no fence. In the middle sits a white clapboard house with a green watered lawn in front of it. Around this core area runs a barbed wire fence. On the driveway gate are hung two flat cardboard figures, bent over as if they are tending garden, with oversize buttocks turned toward the passerby. One figure says, "Private Drive." The other "No Trespassing."
The question Carson Plains raises in all but words is what to make of fenced-in things. The problem is this: What keeps alien out may also keep occupant in . Not physically; the issue here is one of spirit. Fear may be the motivation for keeping others out, and fear may cause us to fence ourselves in, even though we tell ourselves that the fences are purely defensive. It is possible that what we really fear is ourselves. Along Highway 50 are four other fences. Two of them surround prisons, one between Carson City and Fallon and the other east of Ely. Two others make compounds out of Lazy B and Salt Wells, the state supervised brothels east of Fallon, strategically placed to attract customers from the Fallon Naval Air Station. These fences put limits on two forms of excess: criminality and sexual license. Are we saying by the fences we erect around our private property that we, too, need to be contained? They could be signs that we are afraid not only of what other people might do to us but of our own impulses for gratification and, perhaps, for retaliation.
Clearly, freedom is both attractive and scary. No fences opens up the territory of self-realization. Open Range the signs say. But no borders may also mean no limits. Maybe we will go too far out there, go beyond our ability to set limits for ourselves. Some sort of fence may be needed, even if mostly symbolic. Nevada has plenty of models to choose from.
From Fallon to the Utah border is a multi-million year old Nature Park built by colliding plates and stretching continent. The Ride is Up and Down and the Theme is Basin and Range. Out of the Carson Sink and into Dixie Valley, where Navy Jets from Fallon go war gaming. Around the south end of Clan Alpine Mountains, then parallel with them to New Pass Summit in the Desatoya's. Across the plain of the Reese River to Austin. Over in quick succession Austin Summit and Scott Summit and a little later Hickison Summit. Fast along a straight shot of almost 25 miles and up into Eureka. Over Pinto Summit and down. Over Pancake Summit and down. Over Little Antelope Summit and down into White Sage Valley. Over Robinson Summit and into Ely. Southeast in Steptoe Valley to get over the Schell Creek Range. A turn northeast to get through the Snake Range. Down one more time to the Utah border.
At all the summits is a dense population of pinon pines and junipers. Even from the seat of a passing car, a passenger can distinguish the yellow-green junipers from the more grey-green pinons. On the descents the pinons thin first, until there are none. The junipers, more tolerant of heat and aridity, continue down the ridges and out onto the rolling foothills, where a few are sprinkled, then one alone. None make it into the flats below. Looking ahead drivers can always chart their vertical course. The sequence mixed green forest to yellow green woodland to grey-brown chaparral means a falling altimeter. Even one lone juniper visible from the salt flats is a sign of ascent.
Human debris along the highway means a town is coming, the more the debris the bigger the town: trailers unattached with all tires flat, pickups abandoned to weather, dilapidated farmhouses bereft of people, decaying signs of businesses probably defunct. East of Fallon there are only three, Austin, Eureka, and Ely, almost evenly spaced. In most mountainous regions of the world, towns and cities are at the base of the hills, beside the rivers, spreading out into the plain. Carson City fits the world-wide model. But in the middle of Nevada, along Highway 50, while mountain ranges are many, rivers with water in them are few.
Instead of rivers, central Nevada has mines. The mines are in the mountains, so that is where the towns are, either huddled atop ridges, like Austin and Eureka, or tucked into canyons, like Ely. What this means for the winter traveller is cold during the day and colder at night, with a freezing wind night or day. Winter is just the right season for these towns, which have exchanged the heat of precious metals for cooler tourist coins.
On Eight Mile Flat of salt heading toward Austin. It's dusk now. Light grey, soft lens clouds, a little pale blue showing through. The land light brown, mountains in the distance snow covered. After two cars pass in the opposite direction, nobody's on the road but me. I like this time of day. Land darkening into nearsightedness, the sky turning off by rheostat. Headlights on bright.
"It used to be called Y Cafe, because the intersection of 487 with 50 made a Y. Customers would walk in and say, 'This is the middle of nowhere!.'" So, we decided to call it that. Nowhere Cafe. Our son made the sign out there. Lots of people stop and take a picture of it, but you're the first one with that big a camera."
Ellen Hyde grew up on a farm about five miles from Baker, still a little town despite the fact that it is now the "gateway" to Great Basin National Park. She has watched the decades of the twentieth century bring some minor changes, like paved roads and electricity, and a few more travellers.
"Otherwise not much has changed," she said.
"True," I thought. It looked as if generations of Artemisia still called most of the land home, giving way not to encroaching suburbs, even of the Nevada type, but only to junipers and pinons as the Snake Range coiled itself into Wheeler Peak.
Ellen had a stroke in 1979, three years after she and her husband, Kenneth, had bought the cafe. They sold it soon after that and moved to Oregon, only to have to repossess it in 1985. "It was not open, then open, then not open. More not than open. They didn't make the payments. So we figured the only thing to do was take it back and run it," she said with some resignation but no bitterness.
Kenneth was sinewy, thin faced, unshaven, wearing blue jeans and plaid shirt, with rough, disheveled hair, and an initial reserve that disappeared completely when conversation began. Ellen was white haired and grandmotherly, as I remembered my own grandmother-calm, slow, and gracious. (Before I left two of her grandchildren wandered in the back door and out the front.) I had to remind myself not to romanticize their life, but I couldn't help it. Both seemed so entirely themselves, to have settled into Nowhere as their own place on the loneliest road.
"A motel needs to go in for this place to be profitable, but we are not up to it," Kenneth said, with a gesture of the arm that seemed to indicate a lack of energy as well as a lack of funds. "That's for some younger ones to do."
It was hard for me to imagine how Nowhere Cafe could be more attractive, by itself in a vast dry land, with a name that spoke where it was. To be isolated in the midst of desolation, to be lonely in a great land of loneliness! "Yes," Jeannette," remembering her question to me way back there at Nevada Beach and being utterly unable not to romanticize my own life, "I travel to get Nowhere." Apparently, on that day, no one did. A number of cars drove by. None stopped. All had some place to go.
Writing this at the table in the duplex. Val Taylor lives in the other half. This half is used for guests. It's nice. The best room I've found anywhere in the vicinity of 50: solid bed, firm pillows, hard shower, cool cross breeze. I spent most of the afternoon interviewing Val and John B. Free, meeting some other people, and then eating a great spaghetti dinner with left over chocolate birthday cake for dessert.
Val: Home Farm is the headquarters of the School of the Natural Order. The School was founded many years ago by Vitvan, which means "One Who Knows" in Sanskrit. His English name was Ralph Moriarty deBit, a Methodist raised Kansas farm boy who was drawn to the west. Somewhere in Oregon in the '20s he went to a lecture by an East Indian named Mozumdar, who came down the aisle and said to him, "I've been waiting for you. I've been sent to find an American to work with." deBit went through a seven year cycle of study with Mozumdar, who gave him the name of Vitvan.
The primary purpose of the School is the publication and distribution of Vitvan's books and lesson courses. We have over 200 hours of lectures, most of which have been transcribed into lesson course form. We do no advertising and no proselytizing.
My simplified explanation of the Natural Order is that an elm tree is going to produce an elm tree, and so forth with other plants and animals until you get to the human species. Often before a baby is born, the Daddy and Mommy have plans for this child that are imposed from the outside.
David: What today is called parental scripting?
Val: Yes. Vitvan said you have to take your own journey. What we have here is a school. Vitvan provided a curriculum. He says to each person, "It is hard work, and you've got to do it on your own."
David: This was not his first community, is that right?
Val: He started out in Bailey, Colorado. He wasn't a good businessman, so he lost that land. He went into Denver, and then during World War II lived on his wife's farm in North Carolina. After the war he bought land in San Diego County.
David: Why did he leave San Diego?
Val: One of his students was touring and came by here. She said to Vitvan, "I've found the ideal place for you." "Oh, I'm too old to move," he said. Then a navy plane hit the side of a hill near them. He was concerned about a third World War.
John: We need to go back and put Vitvan in historical context: If there were a nuclear holocaust, he wanted to be as far away from city centers as possible.
Val: This land was for sale by Mr. Fielding, Ellen's dad, the Ellen up at Nowhere Cafe. Vitvan lived here from '57 to '64, when he died. He is buried in the cemetery here. He never called himself, "Master." Within himself, he was very clear, that it was not him but the teachings.
David: How are things going without him?
Val: Well, we're here! One of our members said, "It is a miracle we have survived when you consider that we are a group of anarchists."
David: There must be agreement on some large practical issues.
Val: Not really. John has a real investment in how the land is cared for. I do not. Sometimes things get resolved and sometimes they don't. People say, "I want to go and be a part of that community." Then they get here, and we are not high flown spiritual beings. We are ordinary, nitty-gritty, run of the mill American citizens.
David: What about disagreements over doctrine?
Val: Well, in some sense, we don't have any doctrine. We are each an energy field, and this is an energy universe. That's loose enough.
David: In the material that you gave me to read, I noticed a lot of gnostic elements.
John: Vitvan wanted to carry on the tradition of the body of gnosis.
Val: The gnostic tradition is the body of knowledge that helps us understand the evolution of humanity, that leads us to talk openly about transcending the physical. We are more than our bodies. The body is the tool with which we work through this incarnation. We build a new personality, a new psyche every time around.
David: So something survives the death of the body?
Val: Vitvan called the process palengenesis, like the leaves coming off the trees and blooming out again. The life germ, the energy system that I am, comes back in another ... well, even if you say "form," that sounds like reincarnation. We don't believe that we are going to come back as dogs, but Val as Val is not going to come back. Personality does not survive. The qualities that I build in or refine do. This helps me make sense of why I am here and working so hard to get better.
David: So there is some notion of evolution, of moving to higher and higher states?
David: Is there a final state?
Val: In some eastern traditions they believe in getting off the wheel. Well, that may be, but I don't know anyone who is ready to get off. Vitvan didn't believe that he was ready. We are all far, far from that point.
Back in the duplex, musing, after a deluxe breakfast of homemade waffles. I like these people. I like the way they accept how ordinary they are. What they have accomplished at Home Farm is impressive. But to join them? To go out in the desert and join an intentional community there, one that seems to be going Somewhere, one that sees a goal at the end of all our travelling? Can't believe it. Can't do it. Today it's back on 50.
I learned about Mt. Moriah from Val and John at Home Farm. I told them I had been in Great Basin National Park and had climbed Mt. Wheeler.
"Oh," they responded, "Wheeler is not the power peak around here. Moriah is. That's it over there on the other side of 50. Have you been up it?"
"No," I said. But soon afterwards I decided to give it a try. To the south of the Loneliest Road was a religious community. I had visited it and decided it offered me no alternate route. What about this great mountain to the north, where I could gather a community of my mountaineering friends? What might I see from its summit? Home Farm and Mt. Moriah were directly across from one another. The roads to both turned off of 50 at Nowhere Cafe, in opposite directions.
Jeannette and I arrived at Nowhere Cafe at 4:15. Kenneth and Ellen were there, with one son and two grandsons. Within minutes Andrew Kirk from Davis and Michael and Valerie Cohen from Cedar City, Utah, pulled in at precisely the same time. Sean O'Grady from Boise, D Jones from Berkeley, and Harold Glasser from Davis were ahead of us. An hour behind us were David Rothenberg from Brooklyn and three more Davisites, Mark Hoyer, Maryann Owens, and Stephanie Sarver, all in Mark's Roadrunner. By 6:30 all had assembled at the trailhead beside Hampton Creek, twenty-one gravel miles to the north.
Everyone else in bed beside Hampton Creek a little over 7,000 feet on the side of Moriah. Moonless night. Stars overhead. Fire going out. From the NE a mildly ominous cloud reaches out in our direction. After all of us had arrived tonight, after tents were up and dinner eaten, I realized how important the group was. That it was not just me out here. Wilderness could be a place for communal activity, all of us exchanging with each other and with land and weather and rain and snow and stars. Fusion.
I signed the register kept by the National Forest Service. Name: Robertson party. Number : Twelve. Destination: Summit of Moriah. It was easy going for the first mile on an old mining road. The level of difficulty leapt one quantum the next mile. The road ended and the trail began to cross and recross a most swollen Hampton Creek. Sometimes the creek was the trail. We had to build rock bridges and push though underbrush that grabbed protruding snowshoes and skis. At 8,200 feet we began to see patches of snow. In another half mile and another 400 feet the amount of difficulty increased by another quantum. When the snow became too deep and too soft to walk on, we strapped on snowshoes. But then we couldn't get across the creek a hundred yards up the trail. So we unstrapped snowshoes. But then we couldn't get through the snow.
Up late, feeding little sticks into a small fire, about 8,800 ft. on the eastern flank of Moriah. Everyone else already in tents. Snow is everywhere, except in small circular patches under large conifers. That's where the tents are, 9 of them, spread out over an acre or so of an almost level ledge, each in a bare spot, each bare spot occupied. No vacancy at the Mt. Moriah Motel.
The next morning, while the snow was still crunchy, the Energetic Five headed up Hampton Creek in search of the summit. By the time I unzipped my way out of a three-season tent, Michael and Valerie had eaten and packed. They were going back. They might, they said, head for home once they reached the trailhead. Overnight altitude sickness had sketched its lines into Stephanie's face. She and Maryann left an hour later, Mark, Jeannette, and I an hour after that. The group had spread out all along the trail.
Lots of clouds, a little rain, a little snow, a little sun. Just as I was packing camera away from an hour's photo session about a mile above the trailhead, David appeared, then D and Harold, then Sean and Andrew. They had reached the Table, a couple of miles and a 1,000 feet from the summit. They got a glimpse of it. Clouds then covered it. They turned back.
Fission. I knew before I reached the cars that Michael and Valerie would be gone. They were. The rest of us stood around debating to stay or not to stay. I didn't want to leave, but did not say so. Instead asked everyone else what they wanted to do. All wanted to go. "Not another wet night." "But it looks like clearing," I said, almost hopefully, hoping almost to persuade. "Yea, sure!" So we left, with such resolve that we forgot to say goodbye to D and Harold, who were parked around a bend and out of sight.
I had imagined nothing human at the border. Maybe a sign of welcome to Utah in one direction and welcome to Nevada in the other, but that's all. Nothing else but borderless sand and sage. From miles away I could tell I was right about the vegetation and wrong about humans. A speck of trees, a building, no, two buildings. I counted down the miles, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 0. I got out of the car on the north side of the road and sighted south down the boundary line, exactly defined by the crease in the pavement where the Nevada crew stopped laying asphalt and the Utah crew began. In Utah was the Border Inn Motel. In Nevada, snuggled right up to the line, was the Border Inn Cafe. The reason for this arrangement was not hard to guess. One border, one business, two states with different tolerances for gaming.
The rules of the game I was playing said turn around here. Take Highway 50. Make an incision where Nevada meets California and another at the Utah line. Lift this section out and go back and forth. Do not get off of Highway 50. Do not go past Nevada. This game does not make much sense. Precisely on that very point, it may, however, most imitate life. At this time in the late twentieth century and in this landscape of hybrid cultures, life itself seems all too much like a game, one in which the rules are arbitrary, made up by each of us, alone. And the Nevada-Utah border may be an apt metaphor for death, which rarely comes for each of us in our loneliness at the moment we have reached a meaningful destination, such as the summit of a range. It is just out there on the level, where someone else put it for reasons that are extraneous to our journey.
Much of the poignancy of life arises from the fact that the game we all play has two sets of lines. One set we draw by making up our lives. The other set is given, by genes and culture, by time and place, by the inherent structures of the universe. We want with quiet desperation to see the two sets as one, the way our eyes by focusing make one image out of two. But rarely, it seems, do we manage it.
Heading west toward Ely, rising out of one basin to cross another range. All the others are gone, to Boise, to Cedar City, to New York City. Those going to Davis are miles in front of us. As we gained elevation I glanced back over my right shoulder in the direction of Moriah. There it was, a shinny white ridge rising to a rounded top. A promise. From here no more than a promise that I had not come close to realizing. I pulled the Honda over and got out. Jeannette got out. I put the fully automatic Olympus on zoom and took a couple of pictures. We got back in the car and pulled out once again onto 50.
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