I stopped in Truckee to visit the restored and still operable railroad station, right on the main line at the base of Donner Pass. Well, I couldn’t set my watch by Amtrak…the west-bound was already a hour late. I headed on down I-80 and pulled off at one of those ideal campsites that I had spotted on the way up – a grove of shade trees nestled between the Truckee River and the main line tracks. To add to the pleasure, there was an elderly couple already positioned under a tree in one of those unwieldy-looking shack-on-the-back-of pickup combos.
They were from Modesto, and regularly made the 360 mile round-trip just for the relaxin’ and fishin’. As the man said, “Yep, there’s trout in th’ Truckee”. I asked him if the Amtrak had come by, and he said, “No, she’s a little late today. Oughta’ be by pretty soon, though”. Sure enough, several minutes later, here came the Sunset Limited, churning its way up the incline. I waved at the engineer and the phantom passengers behind the charcoal-tinted windows, and thought to myself: “What a shame you can’t see the people wave back”. I cursed the tinted glass.
We could see those billowing clouds of smoke over to the east, hopefully only the remnants of the forest fire that had been raging for several days along the Sierras just west of Reno. I had caught my first glimpse of nature’s awesome inferno as I was headed up to Donner Lake after the auction extravaganza. As I came around a curve on the interstate, I was so awestruck by the enormity of the flames and smoke that I was impelled to pull off onto the shoulder, and photograph a rare phenomena of a setting sun being totally obscured by ashen clouds. A sun-splashed afternoon had been transformed into an eerie darkness.
I was sharing that “exhilarating” experience with my California neighbors, when here came a Union Pacific freight, grinding and churning its way up the tortuous grade, with five units pulling and three units pushing. I said to Roberto, “Wow, what an awesome power surge”. He explained, “Those three lagging will come back down from the summit to Sparks, and push the next load over the top”. Seemed like a good way to run a railroad. To top off a perfect day, my friends shared their Truckee trout with me. I thanked the Lord again that night…
I took off south on CA 89 to Lake Tahoe and noticed an unusual cloud formation to the west. As I looked closer, it was obvious that it was another “where there’s smoke, there’s fire” scenarios. KENO-AM, 570 on the dial, confirmed my sightings – another inferno was ravaging another mountainside. The region was so desiccated that the smallest flick of lightning was capable of igniting the volatile timber. It wasn’t like I had a conflagration nipping at my heels, but I was still somewhat relieved to get to Stateline, where I could feel comfortable that the flames were not going to leapfrog across the width of Lake Tahoe. I was able to park in my “lucky” spot behind Harrah’s, a space that almost seemed to be reserved for me since my inaugural 1981 odyssey in New Baleau.
Once again, I could lay back and gaze up at the spiraling pines through my bedroom skylight, with my head in Nevada, and my feet in California. “Whassits?”, you ask. Hey, it’s a given that the front door of Harrah’s Casino (on the southwest corner) was benchmarked squarely (and legally) on the state line. By my reliable azimuthal projection, I simply extended the diagonal stateline from the middle of Lake Tahoe right through the parking lot behind the casino. Jimmonee Cricket, so what if I was off a couple of feet…I could still fascinate sleeping in two states at the same time. Trust me, it was simply being aware of where I was at, that’s all.
I cashed in all my chips from pulling slots and blackjacking (about $900 worth), and coasted down to Carson City, feeling pretty lucky I had absconded with nine C-notes from the mega-corp casino. I pulled in behind a Holiday Inn on the south side of Reno for a chest full of complimentary ice, where I noticed one of those elongated Class “C” RVs. The cab was a “Chevrolet Flyer” with a modified front end to house 454 cubes of pullin’ Chevy horses. The man of the family was checking the precious bodily fluids of his GM Peterbilt, so I strolled over to make conversation.
As luck would have it, their pleasure cruiser had Colorado plates with an “A” as a first character. I blurted out, “Hey, you people must be from Denver”. He generously replied, “We’re from Pennsylvania, just renting this RV in Denver. We’re from west of Philly, just close enough to enjoy the amenities, and far enough away from crime”. Well, he just branded himself as a white-flight suburbanite, but no matter. We had a good talk, mainly about his home state, which I could easily relate to from past experiences. We even exchanged stories about visiting Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water masterpiece way out west near Pittsburgh. As he slammed the hood down, I couldn’t help but exclaim, “That is one ‘mean to the bone’ machine”. He agreed, saying, “This sucker really plows over those high mountain passes”. I was envious of the horsepower, but I was still satisfied with my 305 cubes with a lot better gas mileage.
I headed east, transversing Nevada’s unique cordillera, a geological phenomena common only in the Silver State…brawny expanses of sagebrush interrupted about every thirty miles by barren mountain ranges. I had time to reflect on some of the special times back over the last week. One in particular came to mind: our grocery shopping adventure at the Safeway in Truckee.
Being totally discombobulated in a new store, we asked a young lady employee where a certain item was. She immediately stopped whatever it was she was doing (I believe it was re-stocking shelves), and took each of us by the arm, saying graciously, “Come with me. I’ll show you exactly where to find the pinto beans”. We had no chance to dissuade her, even with a plea, “Hey, just tell us which aisle”. She was adamant with her helpfulness. We wondered if we had happened on one over-zealous employee, so we decided to “test” several more Safeway girls. We were greeted with the same enthusiasm at each “trial run”, so we were convinced that it was authentic Truckee hospitality. Blaine and I walked out of the market just shaking our heads and laughing, somewhat overwhelmed by all the friendliness.
I spent the night in the middle of Nevada, then cruised into Battle Mountain to stop for a few groceries. As I was lollygagging in front of the local market, I noticed a girl in her young teens exit the store, munching on a candybar. My sightline enabled me to watch her as she crossed a dirt field, and then enter one of those ubiquitous mobile homes (the “wheel estate” of the west). She was bespectacled and frail in stature, but still had a scintilla of femininity about her. I sat there in Ol’ Baleau wondering what the future had in store for her. There, in an all but isolated town of 2,000 people, would she be shackled by the provincial environment surrounding her, ending with a convenient marriage to a. highschool sweetheart, who’s sole ambition was to be head oil-changer at the Quik-Lube… right there in Battle Mountain. Then I imagined the extreme opposite: a teenage girl growing up in Hollywood or Beverly Hills…what a contrast in the way one is influenced in their formative years. Environment is everything.