The Summer of 1998 Part XV

I headed west on U.S. 20, back out into the outback, and I noticed there was one thing missing – the abandoned railroad track that I had been following ever since Susanville, California. All along the way, I had been consumed in tracing where the rails meandered through a meadow or cut its way along a mountain side, sometimes by way of an abbreviated tunnel. I kept imagining a steam locomotive pulling a train of passenger cars, and what a delightful trip it was for those on board.

A sadness came over me, knowing that pleasurable mode of travel will never exist again. I had stopped in a town called Wagontire (a beautiful appellation) and asked a gas station attendant about the wooden water tower next to the tracks, “Wasn’t that a water tower used for filling up steam locomotives?” “Yeah, it was,” he replied. “Now it’s being used for the town’s water supply.” He continued, “They used to ship sheep outta here by train loads, biggest sheep business in the country at the time. There hasn’t been a train through here in five years. They keep the tracks in shape just in case someone wants to use them again. I doubt they ever will.” A sad testimony, but unfortunately true.

The outback, immensely under-populated except for the cattle, grazing on what looked like a minimal sustenance of grass, was going to be with me for another 150 miles. I wondered how those cows could sustain themselves, but then I figured they instinctively moved on to another area to graze, and then to another, and another, until they had come full circle. In the natural order of things, the stubbles left behind began their process of re-growth. Every second of every minute was precious for each millimeter of newborn grass. Everything worked in harmony. One had to see, not just look.

I would rather have a mind opened by wonder, than one closed by thinking I knew everything. I was in a good mood, remembering how eventful the day had been so far. The road is always better than the inn. Most people confirm their reservations at the end of the day, call it quits, and miss the whole point of travel. Realistically, no inn, no ultimate point of arrival should exist. It is the road now and forever – all that matters is what we learn along the way. Enough of my philosophical shtick.

Somewhere between Juntura and Harper, I pulled into a lone gas station, saw the price registered on the pump at a $1.65 a gallon, then started pulling away just as this old guy was coming out, ready to pump some petrol. I gave him a condescending wave and said, “Thanks, but no thanks.” I kind of felt sorry for the old man, but then business is business out on the highway. About forty miles later, I stopped at a pump in Vale where the price was 40¢ less per gallon. As the lady attendant was handling the nozzle, I mentioned to her the exorbitant prices this guy was charging back down the road. Sympathetically, she said, “Poor ol’ Gus. He sits out there in the middle of nowhere, and refuses to be competitive with his prices.”

Twelve miles out of Vale, I came to a junction, either go left to the Interstate or right on ol’ route 20. I chose the latter, since I wanted to avoid the monotony of the super highways as much as possible. As it turned out, it was one of the most fortuitous turns I had ever taken in all my years of traveling. As I was meandering through the idyllic countryside and pleasurable little towns, I happened to notice the temp needle was way above normal. I pulled into one of those Fast Food & Gas Marts, and quickly diagnosed the problem: water and coolant were flowing freely out of the bottom of the 170,000 mile-old radiator. It was a wonder it had lasted that long.

Fortunately, a water hose was available, so I filled her up, and toddled on down the road. This incessant stopping and re-fueling went on for another twenty miles until I had to merge with the Interstate, but just for a few miles. By this time, I was ready to call it night. As luck would have it, I spotted one more of those combination junk food and gas emporiums. The place was lit up like a Christmas tree, but there was not one single car, or truck, or anyone in sight. Then I saw the banners proclaiming : “Grand Opening – September 1st”. That was the bad news. The good news was there was a standpipe with a water pump positioned on one of the pump islands – and it was working! I had never been so thankful that I had always carried three or four gallon jugs of water with me on trips. And I was also giving thanks for having taken that right-hand turn back there at that junction (where I was able to make all those water stops). Otherwise, I would have ended up stranded on the shoulder of I-84. I shook my head, never ceasing to be amazed at the quirks of travel.

While I was slaking the thirst of my sieve-like radiator, a security guard pulled up, inquiring about my situation. After expounding on my trials and tribulations of the previous fifty miles, he offered some very helpful advice. He pointed over to an adjacent parking lot in front of a strip of commercial buildings, and said, “You can park over there for the night. It’s well lit and safe. I’m on duty all night, so I’ll check on you every now and then.” Well, the planets must have been lined up just right that night. I graciously thanked him, and moseyed over to the vast expanse of asphalt (no trees available).

One of the more perplexing decisions in life comes when one has to choose just the right spot to park in out of some 300 empty spaces (for an overnight, that is). Actually, the number of choices was reduced considerably, since I wanted a space that was in a “blind spot” between those bright florescent tubes, high atop their soaring light poles. With enough maneuvering, I was able to locate just the right spot where a shaft of light would not be beaming down through the skylight right on my pillow. It wasn’t exactly Lake Tahoe, but I certainly could not complain. As far as I was concerned, it was a “night in paradise” compared to the travail of just getting to where I was. I lay there between the sheets, thanking the Lord for a safe day’s journey, and reflecting on what had to have been undoubtedly The Longest Day. (Just for the record, it was Saturday, August 29th, 1998).