I drove away from San Francisco late on Friday night, fleeing its blinding LED billboards telling me to Yahoo!
As a veteran weekend warrior, I was determined to get the most out of my two days of freedom. So I drove east as fast as I could, across I-80 to Nevada.
Most Californians – in fact, most people – don’t think of Nevada as a winter weekend spot. I sure hadn’t. But then I drove to a wedding in Idaho with some friends, which forced us to traverse Nevada. I was mesmerized by the state, leaving forehead grease on all four windows to prove it.
It’s hard to explain what gripped me about Nevada… sort of like it’s hard to explain why you love a dive bar. But it was something in the pale blue winter light, the desolate sagebrush valleys, the non-stop trains barreling across to important places. There were massive power plants dropped every 100 miles (were these lighting distant cities like mine?), a multitude of prisons inhabited by convicts like O.J. Simpson, and strip mines hidden just beyond eyesight. Nevada seemed like the place they stuck everything they didn’t want the coastal people to see.
Except for the mountains. Those gorgeous, abundant mountains stretching like swell lines across each passing horizon. They were all dusted with February snow, showing off their state’s name – Nevada means “snow-covered.” There’s nothing quite like a good hangover to fuel a dumb idea, and on the ride back from Idaho, I was determined – you’re coming back here soon. And you’re coming solo.
It was 11:30PM by the time I passed through California and reached the heart of Nevada… somewhere outside a town called Battle Mountain. Destination: no clue. But I started getting that instinctual feeling that home (for the night) was nearby, and I eased the gas pedal. I’d be breaking my “don’t find camping in the dark” rule – the spots are always spooky and rarely good – but this was my price to pay for being a workaholic.
These were the days before I mastered – or even carried – a Delorme paper map for finding the best hidden camps. With little to no cell service, I had only the layman’s tool at my disposal – brown highway signs, the ones letting you know there’s a nearby park or campground.
A left-hand arrow pointed for a state park up ahead, and I cut across the empty freeway. Kaaaadunk. My shocks splashed down onto dirt. Now we’re talking.
The solo camping tug of war set in – excitement about being alone, tempered by the fear of it too. No matter how old I get, the night still has its way with me. Glancing down at the dashboard, I laughed… 12-degrees. My 10-degree bag will try its hardest, but it won’t be enough.
In the distance, I can barely make out a neon light. Seems it can only mean one thing on this dirt road to nowhere – a cowboy bar. Bingo. I’ll slug two strong beers, which will get me just warm and loose enough to sleep through the frigid night.
I park my Subaru next to a behemoth truck, Ford F-350 with duallys – a ranching rig. Another big truck is parked around the side. I wonder who drives them and if I’ll be welcome here, a city-slicker wanting to be a mountain man… a liberal smack in the middle of red country. I take a deep breath and pull on the bulky iron door handle.
There’s two women in the bar, one bartender, one customer. Both in their late 30s, maybe early 40s. Wouldn’t have guessed this crowd from the trucks outside, but what does that say about assumptions? I cozy up at the corner of the bar on a plastic-topped red stool dashed with glitter. It’s a safe distance from both women… no obligation to make conversation.
“What would you like, hon?” asks the bartender, a short blonde, maybe the kind of woman who packs a .38 snub in her purse. I’ve seen it before.
“You have any IPAs?” I ask.
“Sorry hon, only Coors, Coors Light, and Budweiser.”
“Oh ok, I’ll have a Bud Heavy then.”
My beer reference gives her a bit of a snicker… a foot in the door? The other bar goer turns to me. “Where you from?” she asks. “It’s that obvious, huh?” “Yep. I already know everyone around here, and I don’t know you.”
I hesitate to reveal my current city of residence in places like this. Once it’s out there, I can’t take it back... the judgement will be final. “San Francisco,” I say. “Oh Frisco, and what the heck are you doing all the way out here?” “I don’t know… I think Nevada is beautiful, and I’m here to photograph it.” “Really, well there ain’t much to see.” “Well I like the mountains, and there’s plenty of them.” “That’s true, I guess we get pretty used to the way things are out here.”
“Say, where you stayin’ tonight?” she asks. “Oh, I was gonna head out to that state park.” The two women catch eyes. “You’re nuts, it’s freezing tonight,” says the bartender. “I am kinda crazy, but I have the winter gear. Don’t worry.”
I drink my two beers and slip on my jacket for re-entry into the night. The other patron, whose name is Georgia, stops me. “You know, hold on a minute, let me call my husband… we own a little cabin across the road that you may be able to sleep in.” “No, you don’t need to do that for me,” says my Midwestern roots. “Well, let me just call him and see, OK?”
OK. I sit back down on my glittery red stool, figuring it’ll be a quick answer. I know men’s jealousy – or protectiveness or whatever you want to call it – usually gets in the way of kindness. I imagine her hubby hearing my story and saying you wanna do what for a guy from Frisco you just met 20 minutes ago?
Georgia closes her flip phone and turns to me, reaching out her right hand. In it is a key. “Here you go. Ours is Cabin #5, the heater should be on already. Just leave the key in the planter box in the morning.” Shocked, I fumble my words, but manage a heartfelt thank you.
That heater sounds really good right now, and kindness from strangers is one of my unspoken reasons for traveling. I never expect it, but when it happens I get to believe in humanity again, if just for a day. I get to remember we’re all connected and need each other, no matter what our upbringing, skin color, cars, or beliefs. I give Georgia a hug and get her email address. I tell her I’ll send photos from the trip.
Then I drive over to Cabin #5. Eight degrees on the thermometer now. Wow, what luck, I think to myself. But do I really believe in luck, or in the universe? For tonight, I decide I believe mostly in people. And that feeling keeps me awake until the early morning.