Feb 20, 2008

Endless Nevada

Merlin Somewhere in NevadaMerlin waited at the open motel door for the world to come back. He had explored the night before, unimpressed with dusty stone fence posts and a neighborhood of small houses with big yards of pavement. Merlin needed green. We had located the only tree in the neighborhood, a wide elm in a vast lawn. Merlin had promptly rolled around on his back in glee, stretching out stiff muscles. Wondering who maintained a thick watered lawn in this desert, I discovered we were guests of the county police department. We smiled at the imagined(?) security cameras and Merlin sat before crossing the street. He waited in the car at the motel while I nipped across the street to a casino restaurant. Tobacco smoke drifted in from the slots as I considered ordering breakfast, usually a safe choice on a foreign menu. Listed side orders included a stack of beef patties, double gravy, and triple fries. No steamed broccoli or tofu in sight. A tired waitress sat down at my table with two plastic cups of water. I asked for chicken tenders. She smiled as I told her the fries were for my dog. “Of course they are, honey. Sounds quite the adventure,” she said, wistfully. Merlin tugged at my awareness so I switched my order to take out. The waitress returned with a fistful of ketchup and sweet sauce packets and a small cup of milk for my morning tea. Ever patient Merlin herded me into our room, the promise of french fries in his nose.

I settled in to unpack and fuss with the new motel wi-fi. Apparently our motel was a favorite of university geologists, who insisted on high speed internet. The room seemed to be in the middle of it's own upgrade with torn curtains and light bulbs missing, but we were glad for a dog friendly place with a tea kettle. I can manage most anything after a strong cup of tea. Merlin watched from the second bed as I reorganized our luggage. He understands suitcases. He gets left behind when they appear, so he hops in and curls up, as if to suggest he is quite under the weight limit so is allowed to go to Europe with us. I’ve promised him I would only take him on an airplane if it were a private lear jet so he could sit with us and look out the window while enjoying in-flight biscuit snacks. Since I usually find myself in people cattle class, Merlin stays blissfully ignorant at home. Unless we’re on a road trip. Hence, his enthusiasm for road trips.

Somewhere in NevadaWe repacked the car in the morning and headed for the lawn tree. Merlin greeted it with gusto, rolling in the grass with his paws punching the sky, as I waved to a patrolman sitting in his police car. The cop waved back and called, “Hey, little Aussie.” With gentle dog manners he asked permission to say hello and offered Merlin the back of his hand for a sniff. Merlin approved and accepted a friendly ear scratch. The patrolman remarked that Aussies are great dogs and I agreed. Most strangers mistake Merlin for a Border Collie or Bernese Mountain Dog, but here in the middle of Nevada is Basque country, and the epicenter of Australian Shepherd dogs. Aussies are actually an American breed, arriving with Basque sheepherders from the Pyrenees who had swung by Australia to collect sheep in the 1800s on their way to the California Gold Rush and open range of Nevada. The Australian Shepherds' strong herding instinct, keen intelligence, and graceful agility made them a favorite at western ranches and rodeos. The Basque are a fascinating people with an ancient language and complex culture. Some scholars consider them the direct descendants of the Paleolithic cave painters of the last Ice Age. Merlin’s Basque ancestry is a deep pulse in his magic.

We joined the I-80 road trains of truck convoys. Wal-Mart triple trailer trucks roared in both directions, feeding the pioneer, Mormon and survival enthusiasts their required two year supply of food and toilet paper. Sudden gusts made the trailers fishtail so we followed and passed with great care. Pet AreaKeeping our vow to stop at every rest area, we amused ourselves with signs insisting we restrain our livestock and pet area signs pointing to the wilderness. Merlin was not pleased with whatever had happened to the ground. He raised a paw pitifully with each step, waiting for me to brush off the crusty soil and sticky seed pods. He almost fell over trying to raise all his paws at once until he accepted the situation, peed where he stood, and quickly returned to the familiar comfiness of his padded back seat. The other parked vehicles towered over us, double rear wheeled pick-up trucks, covered with ranch work. By late morning, the road became emptier, littered with blank, weathered billboards and abandoned homesteads, charred chimneys raising from dry sagebrush. This was heavy metal rock music country with cowboy coffee and burned shells of cars every few miles as we approached Battle Mountain. The Washington Post had crowned Battle Mountain the official Armpit of America in 2001 and the town responded by convincing Old Spice Deodorant to sponsor an annual Pit Festival. Several billboards now declared Battle Mountain the Gateway to the Outback, and the town exit had three gas stations and six coffee shops vying for business with Moto X cycles and ATVs on their roofs. I looked around for X Games athletes but they were off practicing triple flips in private foam pits or base jumping off a skateboard into the Grand Canyon. Not wanting espresso and Red Bull for lunch, I chanced the gas station mini-mart. It was full of locals and I waited in line with a boxed salad as a big Indian filled his cooler with hot cheese stogies for his escape to a new life in Texas. The round woman cashier gave him all her oldest bills and they negotiated for a few minutes over two tattered fives until he bought a pack of gum and she had to give him change.

Next ServiceAfter a quick picnic in a windy dirt park, we returned to the road. Highway signs now warned of something called Dust Fog, for the next 75 miles. Services averaged 100 miles apart, conveniently spaced for drivers to fill up with gas and coffee. Occasional signs forbade us to pick up hitchhikers and I suspected some of the razor wire fenced mining operations were prisons. Wind and dust buff the car. The endless gray flatness is ringed with distant snow topped mountains. We could be driving through time in this timeless landscape. My finger throbs from a paper cut the night before and I think of one of my favorite science fiction authors, Tim Powers. In his book, The Anubis Gates, a modern man travels back to Coleridge’s London in 1810, gets a cut and realizes he’s more likely to die from lack of sanitation than anything else. I make a mental note to borrow Merlin’s antiseptic ointment from his doggie first aid kit and a band-aid from mine when we stop.

Merlin in SageWe exit back into the 21th century with the neon shock of Wendover casinos at the eastern edge of Nevada. Merlin sniffs the strip with great interest as we pass restaurants offering two-for-one all you can eat buffets. I explain the offer doesn’t apply to us because the small print says, Truckers’ Special. We check into a dog friendly Days Inn and I carry my map bag into a friendly, non-smoking restaurant. It’s a slow night and the cute young waiter, Wayne, pours out his dream to become a fashion designer in California. I look him in the eye over my third ice tea, no ice, and tell him yes, he can do that. He smiles, not needing my permission, but welcoming my confidence in him. I leave a huge tip.

Day Two, First Full Day, all Nevada. 306 miles.

No comments: