On the wall above my desk is an old Amoco Co. road map of the eleven Western states. I’ve traveled through at least parts of eight of those eleven states. All the roads I’ve traveled are highlighted in red. Most of Wyoming, Idaho, and the western half of Montana are thus streaked, as are the northern halves of Utah and Colorado. Two-thirds of California north to south is red veined. Northern Nevada has connecting arteries into the southern parts of Idaho and Oregon. Southern Colorado west to southern Nevada is blank, and so is all of New Mexico and Arizona. Likewise, Washington state is entirely uncapillaried. I’ve traveled by all modes of on-the-road transportation: cars, pickups, and buses, not to mention hitchhiking. And I ain’t done yet.
I first went West in 1975 to find gold in Sierra Nevada streams (having such unattainable goals when young will certainly enhance a sense of adventure). I was accompanied by two friends, a recently-divorced father and his son who was near my age, neighbors I’d known for most of my life. We camped for a month on the Middle Fork of the Feather River near Quincy, California. We’d planned on finding great quantities of gold, and were equipped with a pickup truck, camping equipment, shovels, pans, a wooden sluicebox that we’d built, and a copy of National Geographic with an informative article about the Sierra gold country. A typical day on the river was followed by an evening sitting around the campfire, drinking beer and fine-tuning our get-rich-quick plans. In the end the trip turned into more of a lark, and what little gold we found ended up in a souvenir bucketful of black sand (the last saved residue of a washed gold pan) that found a home in somebody’s garage. But I’d had my first look at the American West and knew I’d be back.
Just eyeballing the map from my desk conjures up specific trips, either alone or with friends. Down Highway 1 along the mountainous Big Sur coast, where the Pacific disappears under a curtain of fog; the beeline across the snow-white Bonneville Salt Flats of Utah; the thousand pinnacles of Glenwood Canyon and the aspen groves on Rabbit Ears Pass, both in Colorado; Oregon’s vast Owyhee Desert with the faraway Steens Mountains following your progress for hours; Lake Tahoe and Pyramid Lake, one in the trees and one in the desert, and both cobalt blue; the scores of springtime waterfalls in California’s Feather River Canyon.
And there’s been car trouble along the way. An overheated radiator immediately upon leaving Glacier National Park once; various flat tires changed without a house or gas station in sight; a bad alternator out on U.S. 50 in Nevada. There was the mechanic in Cut Bank, Montana, who fixed the leaky radiator right before closing on a Saturday afternoon; the guy who gave me a ride into Fallon, Nevada, so I could find a tow truck after that alternator gave out; and the high school kid who stopped to help me change a flat tire in Wyoming. Such is life on the roadside West. I can see those helpful people on the map.
I’ve gazed upon much of the West from the windows of Greyhound buses. If my calculations are correct, I’ve traveled some 25,000 miles this way, though that includes a few East Coast trips. Thirty years ago this was America’s most economical way to travel long distances. I recall once going from New York to San Francisco for a mere $49. But travel of this sort is definitely easier for the young. You have to sleep sitting up in a narrow seat (the adjoining seat might be occupied by an obese or otherwise unpleasant stranger), eat bad food in Interstate truckstops, and not bathe except for quick wash-ups in bus station restrooms, which are many times filthy. The standard coast-to-coast Greyhound trip lasted eighty hours, or a little over three days. Hours spent taking in the passing scene (towns, farms, thousands of fence posts and telephone poles, etc.) could be a bit boring, and some folks resorted to discreet drinking to enliven the trip. The drivers frowned on this, but in the 1970s were more tolerant of it, and you had to be a real jerk to get kicked off the bus. Not so today. If they catch you, you’re off. Otherwise, I remember a lot of reading, and recall enjoying the charming company of Madame Bovary on one trip.
Once, when I lived in California in the late ’70s, a college friend named Chuck Insolo and I spent a few days riding through the Northern Rockies in his small red pickup with a camper top. Just outside Jackson, Wyoming, we drove past a restaurant with a huge outdoor deck, where a hundred or so people were having a big party, complete with a band. We were traveling on a tight budget, and were kind of hungry and sober, so we went to the party.
Chuck happened to strike up a conversation with a longhaired guy in a cowboy hat, and it turned out they had grown up in adjoining towns in the Los Angeles area, so there was much to chat about. The party was the annual get-together of a local kayaking club, and when an official-looking guy with a clipboard eyed us suspiciously and approached to question us, our friend with the cowboy hat told him that we were friends of his and visiting from out of town. So we stuck close to our new friend through a long June afternoon and evening , listening to country rock music, and enjoying free barbecue and beer to the point where we got so drunk that we passed out in the truck parked in a field across the highway from the restaurant that night. The next morning found us admiring the Tetons on a glorious day that must have tempered our nerve-rattling hangovers. But even the sweet trilling meadowlarks I heard at Jenny Lake hurt my ears.
The last I heard Chuck was in Reno. It’s on the map.