Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

December 19-22, 2005. ďDrive to Cheyenne, turn left, keep going till you get to San FranciscoĒ



I finally left Boulder on a Monday, after two weeks of waiting for van parts. I meant to leave early in the day, but didnít hit the road till after two. And then I hit Winter.

Iíve avoided traveling in winter since I started this odyssey. For the first year my van wasnít heated, and it just seemed sensible to head north in summer and south in winter. Besides, when you

hear people say "lady, if you can't drive in the snow, why don't you just stay home? " - well that's me they're talking about. But this time I really wanted to go to San Francisco, then drive down the Pacific Coast Highway and head east from LA to go to Buses by the Bridge in Arizona in mid-January.

So I followed Davidís directions: take 25 to Cheyenne, turn left on I-80, and keep going.

It was awful.

I mean, I donít know that the road was really that bad, but I was terrified. A few miles west of Cheyenne, the sky closed in and the lines on the road were obliterated by swirls of blowing snow. Not enough to affect visibility, just enough to make it hard to distinguish the edge of the road from the start of the shoulder, or my lane from the one to the left where trucks were blowing past me.

The road climbs out of Cheyenne, and Matilda doesnít much like hills. Iíd had to rein her in in Colorado, or weíd have been barreling along at 75 (thatís way too fast for a Vanagon!), but she rarely even made it up to 50 heading out of Cheyenne. Illuminated road

signs warned of slick patches, gusty winds, and blowing snow, and instructed us to turn off cruise control and keep to 55 mph. Of course Matilda couldnít even get up that high, so I put the flashers on as we crawled along. We only actually skidded once, and that so slightly that I donít think anyone watching would have noticed. Still, by the time I made it to Laramie, I was so scared I was shaking.

I wasnít about to call it a day with only one hundred miles on the road, though. So after an early dinner and some excellent coffee at my favorite (and probably the only) coffee roaster in Laramie, I struck out again, now in total darkness. There wasnít much blowing snow past Laramie, but I always drive slower at night, and this was no exception. Fortunately, there wasnít much traffic, either, and my flashers were probably visible in the dark. Less fortunately, while my windshield wipers were working again, the wiper fluid wasnít spraying. As long as there was no oncoming traffic it was okay, but lights shining on my windshield lit up a thick crust of splashed mud and slush. Even without the oncoming lights, I saw nothing beyond forty or fifty feet of dashed white line on my left.

It was a relief, a hundred or so miles later, to pull into the Flying J truck stop just past Rawlins, Wyoming. I considered staying in a motel, instead of camping at the Flying J, but decided not to. A motel would have a real bed and a shower. But Matilda is my home, and I wanted to get settled back in. Splurging on a ďrealĒ place to say sounds

like a nice indulgence, but when it comes right down to it, itís a nuisance. My stuff is all neatly in its place in the van, taking it out to sleep in a motel is just a hassle. So I drew the curtains, blocked the windshield, pulled out my bed, turned on my propane heater, and settled in with a book.


I stopped the next night in Salt Lake City, staying with a vanagonaut whom I had met briefly at Burning Man. Heíd emailed me to suggest that I phone if I was in his area in time to stop; I replied asking if I could just plan on it, as it would be nice to see a friendly face on the way. Jon seemed delighted at that, and sent me his address.

Iíve been in Salt Lake before, but never for long. I was there for a work meeting a few years ago, staying in a downtown hotel. Of course I didnít have a car, so I saw the places accessible on foot; the Mormon temple, the state house, a downtown residential neighborhood up a steep hill north of the temple, the few broad and largely empty avenues that constitute downtown. In my exploration of the town I came across a somewhat unexpected place, a very new age restaurant and bookstore, selling herbal teas, gourmet organic food, fountains, crystals, and books on holistic health, spiritualism, massage, and meditation. It was a bit too new agey for me, really, but a welcome change from the conservative Mormon cast of most of the city. So I was happy to hang out there and drink coffee.

When I arrived at Jonís house, he suggested that he and his wife and I go to dinner Ė to a restaurant downtown with a new age bookstore. Does it say something about me, or about vanagonauts, or about Salt Lake, that the one restaurant I knew in town is where Jon and Jan suggested we go? I dunno. Jon and Jan were both really nice Ė and not new agey, despite the restaurant. They seemed so devoted to each other that I wondered if they had

just married recently. But they hadnít, unless thirty-nine years can be called recent. I donít think I know anyone who has been married that long, much less anyone still so obviously happy together. It was a pleasure to spend time with them.

Salt Lake City is beautiful, if you donít look too hard at the city itself. Itís in a valley between two chains of rugged snow-capped mountains. Wherever you look, the peaks tower above mundane suburban houses, billboards, and shopping malls, forming a dramatic point in the perspective of the cityís long straight streets. So I was looking forward to the view, as I continued west on Wednesday. The weather had warmed up, and it promised to be an easy, snow-free drive. Well, it was easy, and there wasnít any snow, but I didnít see a thing from Salt Lake to Nevada. A thick fog blanketed all of western Utah, mixing with the brown haze of pollution hanging over the city. The mountains surrounding Salt Lake have their down side, inversions that keep car exhaust and industrial fumes low over the city. In east coast cities, where the landscape isnít so open, the pollution is a bit less obvious. Here you see it filling in the valley, the mountains towering above smoke instead of downtown buildings.


Once I was out of the city, though, it was just blue-white fog blocking the view. Now and then it thinned a bit. One time, I realized to my surprise that the interstate ran right between the Great Salt Lake and the mountains, at the bottom of which a power plant belched steam from tall chimneys. Another time, after miles of straight flat road with nothing visible ahead, behind, or on either side of me, a tower suddenly loomed in the gloom, so I pulled over to check it out. Turns out, it was Art. It was labeled ďThe Tree of Utah,Ē and looked like a mistaken mess of concrete left there in perhaps 1966 (though the plaque showed I was off by two decades). I donít know if it would have been better or worse if it hadnít been shrouded in fog.

A couple of miles from the state line the air suddenly cleared. Shimmering light blue water stretched to the right as far as the eye could see. A few miles up ahead, the buildings at a rest stop were clearly reflected in its surface. Thatís one thing about his part of the world; if you can see at all, you can see forever. A plaque at the rest stop identified this as the Bonneville Salt Flats; the site of the land speed record was just a few miles further down the road.


In Nevada, the fog disappeared and the road wound between the hills, golden with dry grass glowing in the sun, sparkling white with patches of snow, grayish green where sagebrush dotted the landscape. It looked airbrushed, the colors gradually shading from one to another across the slopes. One patch of mountain was zebra-striped, strips of snow alternating with strips of dark brown bare ground in complex stripes and swirls.

The cities, however, were less than charming. In Utah, I donít know if I even passed any cities; I was lucky to see the exit ramps in the fog. In Nevada, even the small towns and truck stops were garish with flashing blinking lights advertising the casinos.

The quiet ďhistoric districtĒ main streets of small towns in other states had been brought back to life as gambling strips in Nevada. I suppose the casinos do keep economic activity in the center of town, but Iím not sure this is a good alternative to historic preservation. And there were still the usual Walmarts and Targets at the edges of town. I was looking for a supermarket, but never seemed to find one. I wonder if Walmart has wiped out all the mid-list supermarkets, just as Border and Barnes and Noble have wiped out the mid-list novel?

I drove steadily all day. Iíd originally planned to stop in Winnemucca, which is about half way to San Francisco, but since the weather was good I figured Iíd go as far as Reno. Passing through Winnemucca was funny, though. Itís the closest ďcityĒ to Black Rock Desert and to Burning Man. It felt odd to be back in the area when there was snow on the ground and no crazily laden

vehicles and excited people heading my way. Burning Man is ephemeral, in a way, like Shangri-La; it exists in August, but in December the whole thing has simply disappeared and this corner of the world is just one more bit of sparsely-settled desert.

Outside of Winnemucca, the rain set in. It poured. Trucks flying past me sent sheets of water into Matildaís face, so heavy that even with my wipers going full blast there was no way I could see anything. The emergency broadcast system interrupted All Things

Considered to warn about flash flooding, in Reno and Sparks; exactly where I was heading. Only thirty miles to go, though, so I gripped the wheel and kept going. At least Matilda was washed clean of the slush and mud that had coated her over the previous few days on the road. And when I arrived at my destination Ė a TA Center outside Reno Ė the rain had let up and the air was almost balmy.

In the morning I decided to take the scenic route to San Francisco, south to Carson City and then west on US 50, instead of staying on the interstate. Carson City was interesting. Itís the state capital, so it has something going on besides the casinos; government offices, courts, and something akin to the ordinary businesses of a

small town. I stopped for coffee at a place with free wifi and a sign saying ďfriends donít let friends drink Starbucks.Ē Outside, three teen-agers were smoking cigarettes, the two girls practicing ballet moves while the boy looked on. They didnít mind my asking to take pictures of them. Maybe when itís a middle-aged woman asking, it doesnít seem threatening?

Iíd made it through snow, ice, wind, fog, and rain. So the last day I figured the only things left were locusts and frogs, right? Wrong! Iíd forgotten about combinations of snow, ice, wind, fog, and rain! So I drove the last couple of hundred

miles in pouring rain and thick fog. It was a neat drive, though. US 50 crosses the mountains from Carson City to Lake Tahoe, and then continues to Sacramento. It would have been beautiful, I think, if I could have seen anything. Matilda climbed very slowly up the dry snow-sprinkled mountains above Carson City, fighting very strong winds that kept us below 40 mph even when we werenít climbing. And then we cruised downhill for what felt like hundreds of miles, as the landscape around us changed from desert to lush

fog-shrouded forest with rushing rivers pouring next to the road. And then to farmland, orchards, and very green lumpy hillsides. With the emphasis on green. After three days of desert, the vegetation of California was amazing. And the humidity! And after weeks of waking up every morning with a sinus headache and a bloody nose, I was finally in a cool steambath, where my hair frizzes up instead of clinging to my head with static and the air feels soft and cushiony.

California!



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