Starting Dec. 26th, I traveled to NM to visit my family. I arrived back in Sacramento this morning (Jan. 3rd). This is a travelogue of that trip.
I prefer, if possible, to travel through the sere desert of Nevada. This year, weather permitted the trip through the Sierra Nevada Mountains and across Nevada, and but on the return trip, weather forced a detour through the Mojave Desert of California.
Wake for Bruno
Just before starting the big trip, I took my dog Sparky to the Wormeli's wake for Natalie's much-loved but deceased guide dog, Bruno. We will all miss Bruno so much (and none more so than Natalie).
I left Sacramento about 5 p.m., traveling on a beautiful moonlit night for Reno. The storm that had been threatening all day remained at bay: the winds were blustery, but no precipitation fell. Sparky and passed Donner Lake before we realized it, and we came into Reno. I realized I had left behind my blood pressure medication, so I drove around the streets of Reno, looking for drugs. I ended up at the Atlantis Resort and Casino, and like the fabled lost continent, after an early surge of luck and staying up all night, my prospects ultimately sank beneath the waves, with a big blackjack loss. In the morning, I finally located a drug store, and we were off.
The Llamas of Fallon
Inflow region of storm cloud formed in the wake of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, as seen from Fallon, NV, Dec. 27, 2004.
We passed along the east slope of the Sierras, first along the Washoe Valley, past the Virginia City cutoff, to Carson City. The fertile meadows near Washoe Lake were beautiful. The were various signs of long-term disturbances, though: battered-looking lines of cottonwoods without clear watering canals, strange roadcuts, and alkaline salt deposits (on slopes, no less). The Gold Rush Days had left their mark on the terrain.
The neighborhood around Silver Springs, NV, between Reno and Fallon, is a perfect Western example of exurbia, the region that Karl Rove so expertly exploited in gaining G.W. Bush's reelection two months ago. Widely-scattered mobile homes and ranchettes, held together tenuously with dirt roads and hardscrabble churches. It looks so familiar - except for the region's youth, the region is much like the kind of place I grew up, in Corrales, N.M. We passed a concrete batch plant with the incongruous name of 'Vaquero Supplement': sounds like it should come in a blue pill!
We crossed the desert to Fallon, to catch Highway 95 south to Las Vegas. Passing through Fallon, I saw a field of cavorting llamas. I remembered, in 1990, visiting the extreme north end of my hometown of Corrales, New Mexico, where the hills, the lateral canal, and the Rio Grande river all meet. There, to my great surprise, people has established a trotting track for llamas. Now, my hometown had long had many deficiencies and insufficiencies, but it had never occurred to me that what we really missed, and sorely needed, was a trotting track for llamas. The llamas of Fallon don't have a trotting track. The llamas of Fallon NEED a trotting track!
Walker Lake, Dust Storms, and Las Vegas Streets
20-Mile Beach: salty Walker Lake, a remnant of vast, salty, ice-age Lake Bonneville.
Slope above northwestern shore of Walker Lake, showing a prominent, horizontal, wave-cut bench, carved from the slope by the waves of ancient Lake Bonneville.
As we left, Fallon, I heard fragmentary radio reports of trouble in South Asia: an earthquake had struck somewhere in the Indian Ocean, and a tsunami had hit Sri Lanka. A tsunami would scour the beaches of Sri Lanka, in a violent manner, reminiscent of the much quieter (but more persistent) way these hillsides all around had once been scoured by ancient Lake Bonneville.
There was a peculiar landscape south of Fallon, beyond the irrigated fields, where the mountain pediment (the rigidly-sloped, shallow-soiled mountain base) made a transition to bottomland playas: a kind of badland, where barren clayish soils were moistened by wintertime runoff. Eerie-looking!
Dust storm just east of Luning, NV, Dec. 27, 2004.
There was a big dust storm just east of the town of Luning. The storm seemed to be aggravated by the presence of a cumulus cloud (looming across the top of the picture above), over the mountains, NE of town. Like Fallon, Luning seemed to have one of those mountain-pediment-transitioning-to-bottomland playa thangs, but this time, the empty badland was dry.
It was interesting how bad the dust storms were at Luning, and along the base of the Lone Mountains, farther south, whereas the much larger playa in-between near Coaldale Junction was almost quiescent. The only thing I could think of was, this time of year, some playas are drier, and more vulnerable, than others.
Arriving in Las Vegas around 9 p.m., I was struck just how few cars were traveling this stretch of Highway 95. One of the five principle highways into a city of over a million people, and the road was deserted except for Sparky and myself.
I am far too overconfident of my skills negotiating the Las Vegas road system. Exiting the freeway, I turned left at Eastern Ave., in the naive belief I was heading east (I was going north). Turning left on Washington, I abruptly faced a freeway on-ramp, apparently to I-15. Suddenly I was plunging through a tangle of off- and on-ramps the locals have dubbed the "Spaghetti Bowl," and before I could squint through my obsolete glasses and grasp what was happening, I was spat out of the Bowl at high speed, heading NW, back in the direction I had come from. Exiting and trying again, I finally located the Boulder Highway, and ended up Motel Six (where they accept dogs). Not having slept more than two hours the night before in Reno, I collapsed, and sadly, didn't have the energy to troll the city streets.
Parking Lot 13, December 28, 2004: Under looming rain clouds, the back face of Hoover Dam, showing just how far down drought-battered water levels are now in Lake Mead.
The next day, Sparky and I left Las Vegas, and immediately got mired in tourist traffic at Hoover Dam. Slowly pulling free, we were next assaulted by heavy rain. Rains fell throughout our scramble to climb up onto the mile-high Colorado Plateau on Interstate Highway 40 (I-40). I saw the low-hanging cloud deck reach down, in mirror-image to mesa tops, to make a cosmic sort of connection to Mother Earth below. We finally outran the storm just east of cloud-wreathed Mount Eldon, in Flagstaff. We raced ahead into the unseasonably-warm air just in advance of the cold front (labeled by meteorologists, with reason, the 'warm sector.')
The Backstreets of Winslow
Stopping at Winslow, AZ, to call my dad, I noticed someone had left behind a wallet at the telephone booth. Looking inside the wallet, I found no cash, but there were ID cards. There was also a citation, indicating that the owner of the wallet had recently been ticketed by Hopi Tribal police.
I decided to try and return the wallet. Getting directions from the convenience store clerk, I soon found myself navigating the back streets of Winslow, squinting with my bad eyes at darkened street signs, weaving around, and basically making a hazard of myself. Even though Winslow seemed to be composed mostly of small houses, the style people seemed to be reaching for was Backstreet Bernalillo Trailer Park Moderne (but without the double-wides, do you still get the trailer-park cachet?)
I succeeded in locating the home of the wallet owner, but he wasn't there: in fact, no one at the house had seen him for a couple of days. A woman, who was apparently the wallet owner's mother, suggested her son was at that tender age (mid 20's) when holidays mean one must follow the party: party there, sleep on the couch; wake up at noon, party again, sleep elsewhere, till invitations to party tail off. When I explained there was no cash in the wallet, they said that was no surprise. They were grateful to have some evidence of his continued existence, however, and paid close attention to precisely where I had found the wallet, and speculated on his recent wanderings.
The Morlochs of Gallup
The first solid sign of being in New Mexico: the Munoz Blvd. Blake's Lotaburger in Gallup.
Being in New Mexico meant that I could at last indulge my taste for the world's best hamburgers, at the NM-based Blake's Lotaburger chain. Gallup had the first of these restaurants, and even though I knew from previous encounters that many panhandling alcoholics favored the fast-food ghetto near the freeway, cadging coins from stunned turistas, I was eager to try the fare.
This time of year, the alcoholics are dressed pretty heavily, so as to party all night (if that's the right term), harsh weather or not, without losing one's limbs, or life. All bundled up, they looked like the clumsy Morlochs of H.G. Wells' 'The Time Machine.' Gallup has one of the most persistent problems with public drunkenness in the United States, and it's easy to die overnight on the arid, frigid Colorado Plateau. In fact, in 1960, one of my own relatives partied a bit too hard in the Siberian warmth of the Flagstaff, AZ, Santa Fe rail yard, ending up stiffer than the rail tie cordwood lying about the place. It's too bad the public relations people finally got them to change the name of Old Highway 666, because it is such a fitting name for this locale, a friction point in the smooth-running gears of the modern economy, where Old Highway 666 (Munoz Blvd.) meets I-40, where tribal ways collide with the modern world, in a tragic way.
When Sparky and I walked around, I could see only two Morlochs, and they kept their distance. We loitered, however, and eventually another Morloch approached. Sparky took an immediate interest in this malodorous individual. In a slurred voice, he appealed for cash, and I obliged with some change. Looking up, I suddenly realized Morlochs were slowly approaching from all directions, arms and legs akimbo in slow-motion pursuit. They had seen! I got unnerved, commanded Sparky to flee, and we quickly ran across the street, jumped into the car, and left.
A rare meal not at Blake's Lotaburger: El Pinto restaurant, Alameda, NM.
Sparky knows to bark at doorbells, because strangers are certain to be near, but he doesn't understand that, in Albuquerque, he is the stranger.
We approached Albuquerque from the west, and from Nine-Mile-Hill, the view of the city lights was spectacular (the view from the south, coming north on I-25, is almost as good).
Life in Albuquerque seemed pretty slow and relaxed. My father likes to watch the various TV Court shows they have these days. A typical day features Judge Manuel Franco ("La Corte del Pueblo"), two shows with Judge Christina Perez ("La Corte de Familia"), and Doctora Ana Maria Polo ("Sala de Parejas," plus her brand-new show, "Casa Cerrado"). After that, it's time for the English-language shows, Judge Joe Brown and Judge Judy. It's amazing how the heavy hours of an idle day melt away with this fare. Jurisprudence seems to be on everybody's mind these days!
It was saddening to hear continuing news of the South Asian tsunami devastation. I was surprised the Bush Administration was so slow in getting a grip on the magnitude of the disaster. It wasn't until Wednesday that Bush himself made much more than a perfunctory statement. To be caught having made only a $35 million pledge of aid from the U.S. Government, when Pfizer Corporation alone had already pledged nearly twice that amount, was quite embarrassing.
New Year's Eve made me apprehensive: it was the tenth anniversary of a fatal drunk-driving accident that Sparky and I were first upon the scene. It was the last fatality in Albuquerque in 1994 (15 minutes before midnight, by my accounting), or the first in 1995, by KOAT TV-7's accounting (and probably the coroner's too). I had just returned from a rare visit to a downtown strip club (The Ice House), so New Year's Eve 1994 became, for me, the Night of Sex and Death.
This New Year's Eve, I invited my sister Michelle, and her high school friend Lita, to Music Theatre Southwest's version of Rodgers & Hammerstein's "Cinderella." DMTC had done its own version of "Cinderella" in the Young Performer's Theater (YPT) last spring ('The Prince is Having a Ball!'). It was a delightful show - I'm glad the old Hiland Theater building on Central Ave. is being put to good use these days.
After "Cinderella", the three of us went to downtown Albuquerque (which I had last visited on Y2K's New Year's Eve). Michelle forgot her ID, so we soon had to leave the festive clubbers, and ended up instead at a NE Heights bar named Stoneface, where we discussed the perennial question of why Men and Women Don't Get Along. We got no closer to a final resolution of the question, but we all agreed communication is key.
Music Theatre Southwest's "Cinderella." Stepsisters Portia (James Mills) and Joy (Max Woltman), Cinderella (Crystal A. Kellogg), and Stepmother (Cyndy Noll).
Finale of "Cinderella". Cinderella (Crystal A. Kellogg), Prince (Julian Singer-Corbin), and the Company.
On New Year's Eve, and again on New Year's Day, I talked with C., who was serving at a local restaurant. C. spotted my DMTC 'Brigadoon' sweatshirt, and started a conversation. C. is a Musical Theater student at Colorado State University, in Greeley. He complained that it was difficult to get into MTS shows: one had to work one's way up through the MTS in-house theater program first, which meant that MTS tended to use (and thus overuse) the same people. I commented that might be expected if the talent pool in town was rather shallow, but C. demurred, saying there were a lot of under-utilized musical theater people in Albuquerque, and if MTS focused more on auditions instead, they might tap into these people better.
Colorado Plateau Redux
Cliffs near the I-40/Window Rock exit. It was near here in 1541, at Hawikuh, where Coronado first encountered the Pueblo Indians (the Zunis) of the Southwest.
Sparky and I left Albuquerque on New Year's Day, heading west back along I-40. Passing back through Gallup, Sparky and I stopped again at the Blake's Lotaburger. The Morlochs were gone in the daylight. We looked around at the neighborhood, particularly, the adjacent, humble St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church.
After Holbrook (where a recently-wakened Morloch startled Sparky in the gloaming at the gas station) and Winslow, we passed the Joseph City power plant, which I like to spot on satellite weather photos during the summer. Oftentimes a tiny cumulus cloud, visible from space, tops off the power plant plume. The cloud hovers above Joseph City, like the cloud that hovers around Charles Schultz's character of 'Pigpen,' from the Charlie Brown comic strip.
Sparky and I quickly and efficiently blew through Flagstaff and Kingman, but this time we avoided Hoover Dam, and crossed the Colorado River at the resort town of Laughlin (even though this meant taking the haunted highway through the Nevada town of Searchlight, just north of where comic Sam Kinison lost his life in 1992).
Paris, Las Vegas.
I don't know why they call the south Clark County town of Searchlight by that name, but even from there, 50 miles away from Las Vegas, against the glowing overcast of scattered Las Vegas city light, it was possible to see the distinct dot cast by the vertically-pointed beacon light of the Luxor Hotel and Casino.
Reserving a room again at the Boulder City Highway Motel Six, I headed to the Strip, and blundered, as if guided by the hand of fate, to Paris, Las Vegas, the same casino where I won $12,400 last Martin Luther King Day weekend. Turning into the casino, I got stranded in a pedestrian crosswalk by the changing light, and people swarmed about the car (and rattled Sparky).
I didn't pay very much attention to the variegated and louche New Year's Saturday night sporting crowd: wish I had, though, since they are beyond beautiful. I did overhear one interesting conversation, though: a woman was bragging to a male companion of very recent acquaintance (maybe bragging is the wrong word: she was more like recommending her best features - putting her best foot forward, so to speak). She swelled with pride as she said "I'm a 100% natural girl: none of my parts are plastic!" I found her assertion to be charming. We should all be proud of our natural endowments, particularly when standing in the very center of the phoniest patch of real estate, in the middle of the most artificial city, on the face of the Earth.
My efforts to reverse the bad fortune of my earlier visit to Reno proved fruitless, however: total devastation. I went to bed in despair.
On January 2nd, I had my oil changed, and shortly after noon I headed, together with the large LA crowd, SW towards Barstow. Massive traffic jams on I-15 between Las Vegas and Barstow, and also west of Barstow, at Kramer Junction, drove me and countless others to madness. The traffic jam just outside Las Vegas seemed to be rational: I-15 goes from three to two lanes at the California border, and on an overcrowded freeway, that is enough to cause a backup. Parachutists at the Jean offramp entertained many of us.
The second backup, starting at Baker and extending most of the way to Barstow, had no obvious cause, however. I noticed that some sort of blimp hovered over the Soda Mountains, far above the freeway misery. Since we were quite close to Ft. Irwin, and since blimps are used for surveillance, I decided the Marines must be watching and they must be to blame, somehow, for the chaos.
I still don't know how negotiate my way to Highway 58, leading west from Barstow, towards Bakersfield. After stopping at the Amtrack station for refreshment, I followed Main Street west. Like a stubborn old salmon headed upstream through obsolete watercourses, I still search out the Old Highway 58, passing first over the huge Barstow rail yard and the Mojave River. On this trip, I learned what happens if you mulishly follow Old Highway 58 west, past Erin Brockovich's hometown of Hinkley: the road turns to dirt and basically ends. Bereft, the old salmon and his dog wandered through various mobile home backwaters until finally locating the New Highway 58 (I'm sure next year, I'll do exactly the same).
The traffic jam at Kramer Junction used to occur because they had a four-way stop on the N-S highway (between Mammoth ski area and LA) and the E-W highway (between the Central Valley and the East Coast). Now they have a traffic light, but still, traffic backed up for many miles. Traffic radio implicated an accident at Kramer Junction for the jam, but I saw no evidence of an accident, and I think it's just another case of overloading narrow highways with traffic.
I lost three hours to traffic jams. It took me 6.5 hours to drive 200 miles. Using algebra:
200 miles = 80 mph x (X hours) + 1 mph x (6.5 - X hours)
or X = 2.5 hours driving 80 mph, and 4 hours driving 1 mph (or some similar amounts).
Upon arriving in Bakersfield, about 280 miles from Sacramento, I decided to aim for an average of 70 mph, which would put me in Sacramento exactly four hours later. Despite the rain, and an accident just south of Kingsburg, CA (a semi-trailer, a white pickup, and a red sedan stranded in chaos on Highway 99, which required dangerously abrupt braking to avoid), I made it to Sacramento exactly four hours later, to the minute.
Departure 4:06 p.m. on 12/26: arrival 12:53 a.m. on 1/3. Mileage: 45,530 - 43,017 = 2,513 miles.