On a dark desert highway

If I need to escape into a daydream and flip through my mental memory rolodex, I instantly transport to an empty and undulating desert highway. The late evening summer sun is finally settling behind a far-off mountain range. Every color in view is another shade of reddish brown. It’s been hours since civilization, and my speedometer is reading around 80mph.

I have no radio signal, but for some reason my phone is able to stream a Royals game. The slow pace and the uneventfulness of several scoreless innings are well-matched to the static landscape all around. Nothing out here is moving but me and I can barely notice that either.

This is southeastern California, there is no sparkly beach or buildings or congested population. This is no-man’s land.

It was already late afternoon when I finally picked this route to Lake Havasu. I was worn out with the traffic leaving San Diego; it took awhile to decide which way to escape that mob. I probably should have stopped earlier at Joshua Tree, but I was so detached and oblivious from our week of vacationing, that I missed it altogether…

Nope, out here, there is no National Park. It’s not pretty enough for that. This is just barren desert.

Eighty miles per hour may seem fast for a narrow two-lane. Without even a chance of seeing a patrol car, I could have easily added another ten. I kept it somewhat reasonable though, since every couple miles, the road dropped out from under me for a hundred feet at a time. Calling them ‘dips’ doesn’t give these cutouts much credit. I think these reverse bridges are designed to let water cross the road, in the slim chance that rain ever finds this place. This strip of asphalt is one long sandy roller coaster.

I wasn’t quite lonely out there. I was so far removed from the real world that Roxy lying silently in the back was companionship enough.

Two hours back, there was a four-way crossing. A sandblasted brick box used to be a service station. I slowed down as I got near. There were two relics resembling gas pumps. Both were occupied. One with a large red-caked old Winnebago and at the other a frustrated soccer mom stood by her SUV. I passed on through, with a foolish confidence. My gauge read just over half. Surely enough to make it one of the other towns on this map…

I came upon them, every 40 miles or so. Back in history there was an established town there. At least I would guess that’s why the map showed a name. They were now nothing but tumbleweeds and rock. My journeying wasn’t limitless, the tank only holds so much. This road is much longer than I had thought it to be. The fuel stops I hoped where there; weren’t. I motored forward into the young desert night, not knowing when I might run out and then how soon help might arrive.

This is the sort of place that isn’t on the way to anywhere. Most people wouldn’t have a reason to be this far out in the desert. I knew I would need to be on-guard if stranded here… Finally, after a couple long hours watching the needle of my gauge dropping, I drove up to a general store. There were gas pumps with electricity. A 4×4 highway patrolman sat across the road. But sadly the place was locked up, and pumps on the fritz. Dang, I had to pee…

Nothing to do, but head back out there, now with less than a quarter tank, I still had miles to go. My nervousness was on constant increase on that last stretch heading into Arizona. The pastel pinks and purples of the clear sky darkened into navy then midnight blue. In the distance I finally saw tiny spots of yellow, it was Parker, a real city perched alongside the Colorado River.

I don’t think I had but a few fumes left, when I pulled into the Terrible’s Quick Stop and let Roxy out the back. I was hungry from a long day on the road. I still had to find a place to camp for the night. I narrowly avoided being stuck in that desert. It was real relief to hear fuel gushing through the hose.

I drove around 3800 miles on that trip from Princeton, KS to San Diego and back. That late evening blast across the sandy moonscape of California was maybe my favorite of the trip. It was a bookended moment in time that etched itself into memory. I was enchanted with the area. I was maybe in actual danger. I drove along a razor’s edge at 80mph and damn, it was fun.

My life here at home is pretty pedestrian in comparison to that night. I have routines and awesome moments with my girls and I’m glad that I don’t fear for our safety here. I wouldn’t want a Mad Max existence, barreling around constantly in battle for survival. On that night though, I began to question the boundaries of my safety net. I powered myself right into that problem, and luckily coasted on out.

Memories are hard to make, when everything is perfect. Those times when it all goes right, can be somehow forgettable. Like I said back on the first line of this story, when I daydream, I find myself way out there, so far from home and uneasy in my seat. That was an experience of real adventure and the impression upon the mind is vivid.

Scarcity can be so satisfying in hindsight. I did make it through; there was no disaster at all. I probably had a mile or two to spare even. I entertained more fear than necessary. It was special though, that drive across nowhere.

Without surprises, those other segments of the trip were curiously forgettable. All those well-fueled and carefully planned miles I navigated fade into the mundane. I guess it’s ironic, to think I spend a lot of my energy planning to avoid life’s problems…

I guess the moral of this one, is to appreciate the unrest, the lack and the will to drive where others don’t. These might just be the only memories to cherish someday. The ‘normal’ ones could blow away like the dust, in the wind.

Until next week my friends, take yourself out there, where no one else will go, and enjoy every minute of it.


Aaron Nichols

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