Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Home stretch

Awoke at 3:20 a.m. Outside, it was still surprisingly mild, with winds out of the southeast. No sign of any storm. While I was sleeping, the rest area had filled with trucks and a few cars.

Refueled in Rock Springs at 6:30. The morning work commute was just beginning. It felt like a gritty "blue collar" town. Along this part of the I-80 corridor, daylight began to reveal an unpleasantly scarred and littered landscape. The arid landscapes, with their sparse and slow-growing vegetation offer little concealment of human impacts. Perhaps we don't appreciate the natural beauty in such landscapes, and so trash them. I don't know. The economy here looks quite poor. Maybe the two go hand-in-hand.

I was now heading into strong winds, the cold front rapidly moving in. There was now snow in the higher passes, white veils hanging from the clouds. As the highway turned southwestward into Utah, I felt the tension ease. Hopefully I would keep ahead of the worst weather descending out of the north. Crossing the mountains at Park City, the snow started falling steadily, though the roads remained good.

Exited the freeway west of Salt Lake City near the airport. A sign indicated a cluster of hotels. Surely there would be a coffee shop. But no. All I saw were hotels. No other services. Very odd. And what’s worse, the roads only seemed to lead me back to SLC. I was furious at being channeled back into the engineering tangle that is SLC’s crazy highway interchanges.

After about a five mile detour, I left I-80 at the Tooele exit. Here, there is a cluster of fast food restaurants and gas stations. I stopped at McDonald’s to try some coffee from their “McCafe”. (Climbing out of the truck, I discovered several more of those obnoxious air freshener tags hidden behind the seats and removed the disgusting things. I thought I had found them all after renting the truck!) McDonald's charges $1.07 for a small coffee, which seemed reasonable. (And, I had to admit, it wasn’t terrible. Probably a product of Green Mountain Coffee Roasters in Waterbury, VT.)

Listened to KRCL radio in the Salt Lake area. An interesting station. I had grown weary of the talk radio shows, all selling gold and investment, insurance and HR scams.

Once again, I stopped at the Bonneville Salt Flats rest area. A much prettier day, with storm clouds covering Salt Lake City and the Wasatch Front, and to the west, blue sky scattered with snow clouds.

I got out to take some pictures, but the frigid wind was whipping across the salt flats at probably 50 to 60 mph. Even wearing glasses, I couldn’t keep my eyes open for more than a few seconds. Out here, goggles would be required. Quickly shot a photo or two and jumped back in the truck.

Around noon, I exited the highway at Wendover, just west of the Salt Flats. A billboard indicated there is a Starbucks inside the Wendover Nugget Casino. Parked in the casino's huge parking structure and struck out in search of coffee. After a big loop of the gaming floor, I found the Starbucks concession just off the lobby where I had entered. (Casinos seem to do this to me - overwhelm and disorient!) The young lady who took my order spoke with an Eastern European accent.

"Are you from the Czech Republic?" I asked.

She replied that she is from “the former Yugoslavia.” ("What brought you to Wendover, of all places?" The question remained unasked.) Though she misses her homeland, she said she likes living here in America.

Wendover straddles the Utah-Nevada state line. I thought I would explore all the gas stations to determine which state offered the lower price. (This is when it would be nice to have one of those "applications" which show the real-time price comparisons by state.) But in Wendover the price was $2.859, whether on the Nevada or the Utah side.

I had to stop to take a photo of the dramatic 10,704-foot Pilot Peak, crowned in clouds. Rising out of the high desert plain, it reminded me of the volcanoes I saw crossing from Bolivia to Chile.

Reached Elko after 1:00. Here I saw swallows flitting through the air and wondered "isn’t it time for their migration to Central or South America?" At a gas station, I watched from a distance as two motorcyclists, geared up for long distance travel, prepared to get back out on the highway. I sympathized with them – it’s a tough day for riding, especially if they’re eastbound. After refueling, I drove across the road to a Raley’s supermarket. After so much junk food, a deli sandwich sounded appealing. Bought a Panini and soda. It felt uncomfortable to be in this rather upscale market, representing the "world of affluence", and here I was, nearly penniless. (“I’m a jobless poser!")

Yet I watched the employees go about their chores and (though I’m sure it’s comforting to be working for such a solid employer,) it seemed so dreary. Near the door, I noted the Red Box video rental system in use here. I had first seen it in Waitsfield, Vermont recently, and have heard it’s taking a bite out of Blockbuster’s business. As I walked back to the truck, a light sleet or frozen rain was falling from a solitary cloud overhead.

Out "in the midde of nowhere", I passed the huge coal-powered Valmy Power Plant. Though hardly obvious, I'm sure there's a "sensible" reason for siting it here.

Crossing the country on I-80, I’ve encountered hundreds of miles of paving projects. Many in Nevada. It definitely has a cumulative effect and must become frustrating and stressful for long-haul drivers. I don’t know how they deal with it, especially if under pressure to meet a tight schedule. Driving single file in narrow lanes for miles on end is all-consuming and fatiguing.

Where the four-lane crosses dry lakebeds northeast of Fernley, small black rocks are laid out in the desert to spell out names and messages, a kind of harmless, movable graffiti. (I had also seen this at Bonneville.)

Nightengale Hot Springs is right along I-80, and it’s quite an odd vision, steam rising out of the landscape in many spots. A major industrial complex has been erected to capture some of the energy. (I passed a similar complex to the east, but at the time did not recognize its purpose.)

A 6:30 p.m. stop at the Boomtown Chevron near the Nevada-California border. Gas is $2.899. It's getting painful! Added only about 5 gallons, just enough to get over Donner Pass, perhaps to Auburn and, hopefully, lower prices. The sun had just slipped behind the Sierra, so driving would be easier (until darkness presented new hazards.)

Immediately upon crossing into California, serious highway construction begins. It is one of the most treacherous construction zones imaginable. Jersey barriers are set up to channel traffic into single lanes – the narrowest lanes I’ve ever seen on a freeway. Still, traffic was moving around 60 mph. It was harrowing, as the road wound up through the Truckee River Canyon.

The only consolation was the fairly light traffic. Aware of the project, many motorists must be using alternate routes.

At the Truckee California Agricultural Inspection Station, a young officer directed me to open the box and then asked a few questions about what I was carrying. Nothing living back there, I was free to go.

Highway repairs continued in long stretches over Donner Summit and down the western slopes. I was appalled at the inadequate safety measures used to separate traffic from the construction zone. In one area, where the concrete roadway is being replaced, the two-foot-thick slabs have been cut out, leaving a precipice and gaping hole just a few feet from traffic. Reflectorized plastic cones and drums are all that separates moving vehicles from disaster.

In areas they weren’t working, the old pavement is terrible and I don’t see how they can finish the work before the snows arrive.

At the Dutch Flat rest area, I stopped to try and call Henry and Charlene. I was relieved to find payphones, but it turned to aggravation when I found I couldn’t use my calling card. Instead, a recorded message directed me to dial a number for a “rate quote”. (The last time I called for such a "quote", it was nearly $20 for what should have been a $1 call.) The few remaining pay phone providers prey on those who are often least able to pay.

Stopped in Auburn at the In-N-Out restaurant. Next door is a Holiday Inn Express, so I walked over to see if they had pay phones. Now, even hotels have removed them, but the clerk was kind enough to let me use the desk phone to call Henry and Charlene. I reached their voice mail and left a message that I would arrive in Santa Rosa around 11:00. If they were not around, that was fine. I’d come back tomorrow (and find a place to camp tonight – though I wasn’t quite sure where. Perhaps Sugarloaf Ridge State Park.)

Decided against the hamburger after all. I've been eating "constantly", and (since these restaurants are so abundant in California) I couldn’t use the excuse that I may not have another opportunity to have a “Double-Double Animal”.

From Roseville onward, traffic grew noticeably more aggressive and I could feel the tension rising. Speeding cars wove in and out of lanes (much like I would often drive in my BMW sedan!) The roads, the traffic, the sprawling metropolis and dwindling natural impressions – all this led to a “rude awakening”. I was beginning to pine for the rural tree-covered landscapes of Vermont. Just as my arrival in Vermont had triggered an emotional urge to turn around. A slight panic. ("This may be hopeless.")

Reached Fairfield around 9:45. Another rude awakening: the Shell station selling gas for $3.099! ("This can’t be true!") And to add insult to injury, as soon as I initiated the transaction, the pump started talking, followed by a TV commercial for “CSI”. I shut it down almost immediately, adding just enough gas to get me home. "Fuck you, Shell!”

The road work continued to amaze me. ("Stimulus dollars" at work!) Highway 12 west of Cordelia is being widened. The Carneros Highway is undergoing a major widening from highway 29 to the Sonoma County line. In Sonoma, highway 12 north of town, out to Boyes Hot Springs, is now lined with quaint old-fashioned metal lamp posts. (I'm amazed that something so frivolous could be funded in these tough times!) Highway 12 through Sonoma Valley has also been widened, perhaps with the intention of creating a center turning lane.

Pulled up to Morita’s house at 11:00. No one was home, but on a hunch, I found a key to the granny apartment under the door mat. Moved only a few essentials inside this evening.

Soon after, Henry and Charlene arrived home. They were returning from Sacramento, and were also shocked by all the construction. Though I urged restraint due to my "odoriferous emanations", Charlene gave me hug. "We knew you'd be back!" They said it seems "just yesterday" that I left. I learned that Jessica had just vacated the apartment earlier in the day! We didn’t talk long, because all were tired.

On the counter, a wrapped plate of home-made cookies and a “welcome home” card from Cooper Cleveland put a smile on my face.

A shower, the first since arriving East Aurora, felt wonderful.

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