I can’t always say what the right thing to do is in most situations. When you’re hungry though, and tired, and the sun has not yet set, the right thing to do is to choose a direction.
Hell, the extra miles on the rental are free, so you just go. That’s a typical evening for me when I’m working in Reno, and I chose east, at least initially.
I took I-80 for an hour or so, hoping to see a diner or some other wretched dive on the side of the road that I could duck into for some serious thinking and get away from the demons that so chase me these day. Instead, I saw nothing.
East of Reno…what could I do? Between Reno and Fernley there is nothing but a mountain pass that leads to the vast flat nothing that is the true Nevada desert. Roads winding through peaks with names like ‘Old Lonesome’ and towns like ‘Battle Mountain’. With so much nothingness out there I would’ve had no hope of escape and my own thoughts would’ve caught up to me. I needed stimulus.
So I turned around and headed south on 395 until I reached the intersection with 341 and 431. I took the latter to North Lake Tahoe, which is a fabulous drive and really gives you stuff to think about. Like, for example: Why am I out driving around like a fool when I could be hitting golf balls into an ugly man-made lake in the middle of the desert?
Later on my way back down from Mt. Rose and still starving, craving direction as much as nutrients, I continued on the same road until it became 341 and I followed the crazily windy path through the desert rocks and the dry brush. I knew I was in jack rabbit country out there and I kept a watchful eye for the fuckers. My client in Reno is from here and he knows jack rabbits. He tells me that these creatures of walnut-sized brains have so much to room to eat and fuck in the Nevada desert that they suffer from a condition otherwise only known to man: boredom.
“East of Tahoe, once you start losing the green around the roads, you have to drive like they’re coming,” he said to me just after lunch one day.
“Like who’s coming?” I asked him.
“Jack rabbits, man. They’re fucking everywhere here. You really have to watch out for them.”
“Like squirrels in Northern California, right?” I suggested, barely looking up at him. I knew he wasn’t going to like the comparison between the Oregonian northern stretch of California and the expanse of the Nevada bleakness to which he’d grown so accustomed since he moved here from Massachusetts in ‘78. But I wanted to prod him.
He looked at me in wretched disgust. “Fuck squirrels, man. You can see their little jittery tails from so far…and they want to survive. Not like jack rabbits at all.”
I looked up from my book, Heart of Darkness, with more interest now. “What are you saying? Are they missing some kind of survival instinct?”
His eyes glowed now that I’d asked him the right question. “No, no. See, this is how they get their kicks. They’re bored to death out here. What they do is stand by the road until they see a pair of headlights and then they get all giddy and spasmic. They wait until the last minute and then dart in front of the car, trying to make it across the road alive and usually causing people to wrap their cars around telephone poles to avoid hitting what they think is a cat of some kind.”
“Jesus,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said, exhaling and leaning back into his chair, returning his attention to his turkey sandwich.
“What do you recommend?”
“Keep vigilant on the road, and avoid driving in the dark. If you think it’s too late, run it over, though, man. Very few cats or dogs out here. Too hot. And nobody cares if you hit a jack rabbit. Let God sort them out.”
“Wonderful,” I said. “I don’t need more to worry about.” Then I thought about what he said a bit more. “How do you know all this?”
His eyes got giddy again and he dropped his sandwich and leaned forward. “I’m a geo-cacher,” he said, raising an eyebrow and nodding profusely with perverted smile on his face.
I’d heard the term before. A mousy guy from the Marina once at a party in Trevor’s kitchen where he keeps all of the liquor. The guy had grown up in Davis and was all up in arms about this thing they did when they went home for summer, hiding objects in a tupperware in the middle of nowhere and tagging it’s coordinates for other people to find using GPS trackers. Very strange.
“I see them when I’m out there treasure hunting. Sometimes I just watch them for a while and when you watch jack rabbits long enough, soon enough they’ll do something stupid.”
So I kept my eyes out for anything crossing the road all the way into Virginia City and tried to keep steady a sense of direction. Where was I going? I kept asking myself. What the fuck is ‘Virginia City’?
I had to see it to understand. I had to drive the barren highway 341, past the convenience store and the community church, into the winding hills of red east of Big Ditch. I had to see the red turn to fire as the sun dipped lower and lower in the sky. I had to keep driving on, towards a city most don’t know is there, where Geiger Grade Road dumps into the mouth the Spanish Ravine. To where silver miners roved and eventually just gave up. The result of the American Dream gone sour.
People have searched, worked like animals and prayed and stolen for their chance at the dreams this land allows. Foreigner assimilate features of our culture while we assimilate them into our whole, into our soup. Some lose their identity, their children grow up behaving like savage packs of desert hunters. Some of them take to vices such as drink, women, meth. Some take to solitude and for some it leads to internal collapse. The American fight is not easy and many fail. The successes are big, much like everything else in America, but then, so are the disappointments. So are the disappointments.
And places like this is where some of them have ended up. They may not have given up necessarily, but they’ve stopped pretending like they’re close, and now, like true Americans, they’re enjoying the ride.
Maybe that’s not a fair description of Americans, but rather of this last, aging, hipster generation. We’ll see. But I had to come out here to see it. And while I think I managed to avoid hitting any jack rabbits that evening, I wonder if that would’ve been worse than the sad conclusions I saw in that town out there, alone in a land of no bearings.
I parked the car and ordered a burrito and a corona in one of their dives. I faced east. As the sun dropped in the sky behind me, the shadows reached, reached out into the golden sandstones of the Nevada desert until the black night stomped them out.
I sipped my beer. It wasn’t that bad.