In June 1998 two buddies of mine–Jimmy and Jason–and I rented a Chevy Blazer and lighted out for the territories, heading west at 11pm. Our plan was to leave at dawn the next morning, but we were all so excited to take this roadtrip that we decided just to roll out of town right then. Nobody was going to sleep anyway. We left Greeley, CO and hit I-80 at about midnight, then we drove, missing the majestic landscape of the I-80 corridor as we cruised at a reasonable 110 mph. The playlist must have been very heavy on Death Metal (Jason’s choice), but as the hum of tires on hot Wyoming asphalt lulled us to sleep, it didn’t matter what the guy from Foetus was screaming about. It could have been Cannibal Corpse. I don’t know. They all kinda blur together at some point and the nuances of shrieks and growls distinguishing that particular oeuvre of music are lost.
The last thing I remembered was Rawlins. A town I have loathed since I was young. A destination my dad used to torture my mom and I with as a child. Their are only a few interesting things about Rawlins. In the 19th century, when the West was wild, an outlaw was hanged and the Sheriff who did the hanging had the man’s skin tanned and made into a pair of shoes. Also, there is a refinery nearby. The Sinclair refinery. This is where all the dinosaur gasoline comes from. As a kid, I loved dinosaurs. The town of Sinclair smells like the tarpits that might have killed the dinosaurs. It’s horrible.
We stopped for gas in Rawlins, where a truck driver was tweaking so hard that he signed his name on the gas receipt with a happy face. We kept driving into the night, snacked up as required. We hoped to make Utah by dawn, and we did. Our vehicle passing through Greenriver and Rock Springs in the pre-dawn light, the long shadows stretching out ahead of us. Jimmy took over driving and the mountains and forests of the Ogden area soon dissolved into the Bonneville Salt Flats. I slept. Jason slept. Jimmy kept driving. Driving through the early morning hours, eating up the miles of road as the rest of us dozed. He passed by a place that was advertised as being the last services available for the next 200 miles. He might have said something about this as we flew past, but I wouldn’t know, because I was asleep. I always remember this wrong, since I thought he had passed Deadhorse Point, but that’s on the opposite end of the state.
Maybe we were about to make our own Deadhorse Point? More like Dead Recently Graduated College Kids Point. With 1/4 tank of gas in the car, Jimmy had passed the last gas station for 100 miles.
He informed us of this when Jason and I woke up, asking nonchalantly, “How many miles will a quarter of a tank get us?” A quarter of a tank was a liberal estimation. More like whatever was left in the tank when the fuel light came on. The only thing burning brighter than that low fuel light was Jimmy’s ears after we started chewing him out. After dropping down to 55 mph to conserve fuel and scrambling through the owners manual, we determined that the car had a capacity of around 18 gallons. Which by our estimate meant we had about eighty miles to go on about three gallons. We turned off the AC, ran with the windows down, and held our breath for the next hour.
Looking at the map, we decided to take a state highway, south to a town big enough to have services. We soon discovered that in Nevada, when they say, “Last services for 100 miles,” they don’t mean “In the direction you are traveling.” It takes into account all cardinal directions.
We watched those mile marker signs pass, counting down the remainder of the distance we might have to walk to find the next gas station. 60 miles. 54 miles. 45 miles. That little gas pump burning angrily in the sea of dials within the dash instruments. Cruise set at 55. Then lower. We felt like we were crawling after the triple digit pace we had been going. We crawled right through a town that was a speck on the map, with a gas station that had long since been abandoned. An old Australian shepherd mix (maybe mixed with Coyote) sitting on the stoop. Signs posted all over the place warning that tresspassers would be shot and buried. We didn’t slow down.
Jim reminded us that it was okay. He had AAA. As we neared the next closest town, we still had no cellular reception to even call AAA. Jim’s indestructible Nokia didn’t have enough oomph to reach the nearest tower. In those days, people didn’t even text, and the internet was just dialup for most people, much less any kind of navigation via cell phone. We were looking at a long walk in the mid-morning desert sun on an empty stretch of road. The weather was weird though. Cloudy to the east, a weird, yellow hue to the sky. A tail wind was helping us along.
Sputtering, we coasted into a gas station. Nineteen gallons went into the tank. Mentally exhausted, we stepped into the hot desert air, no longer being forced into the car at 50mph. Inside the gas station shop, we loaded up on provisions for the next leg of the trip. Plenty of liquid to drink, strange candy bars not of our region. Candy I hadn’t seen in years. Idaho Spuds and Suzie Q’s. O Henry bars. Chik-0-Stiks. Bit O Honey the size of your arm. It was like the farm where crappy Halloween candy was born and shipped off to stores before it could outgrow being fun-sized. These were the real-deal, King Sized versions. Wash them down with a Big Red or Sarsaparilla!
Our tank replenished as well as our spirits, we continued on. By the time we stopped at our hotel, we were wiped out. Television in other towns is always strange, approaching something of an uncanny familiarity to what you are used to, only a little off. Local commercials are usually low budget used car commercials with a weird little man in a bad suit, shouting about how nobody can beat his prices. The news reflects the regional styles, with a demographic selected to be the most appealing to natives of the area. Somehow the chalky makeup and overly teased hair, the perfect teeth, is always rankling when compared to your own homeland. You think “How did people this goofy looking make it onto TV?”
I would imagine everyone wonders this, no matter where they are from or where they wind up. When you get used to how the newscasters look, its time to pull up stakes and move on.
On the news, we learned that the source of our tailwind, which gave us about 25 miles per gallon, was the first tornado to hit the area since the late 1800s. It touched down some distance away, tore the roof off some sheds and departed as quickly as it had come.
We ate dinner at a restaurant more suited towards the simpler palate of a vastly Mormon population. Salt and pepper being the only exotic spices allowed. Fat and flour being the other ingredients. No coffee. Not that we needed any. The first leg of the road trip was about 16 hours. Reno was our first main excursion. Beyond a couple casinos, there wasn’t much to do in Reno, so we headed up into the Sierras. Three Colorado boys driving the mountain roads of California was like a duck taking to water, only the roads are wider and better cared for. We flew along.
Then onward to San Francisco.
Me, Jimmy, and unidentified Tourist (far right) at Universal Studios. 1998.