Paul R Davies | USA: Cruising the Highways of the Southwest Deserts

USA: Cruising the Highways of the Southwest Deserts2009077684 grand canyon people

You see the tumbleweed blowing across the endless desert highway as you stop at a tiny filling station.  It’s so small that it comprises of a shack with just one pump, and a creaking old wind sail near by.  To complete the scene as you pull up closer you see that little, frail old man in a rocking chair, squinting through wire-rimmed spectacles in the bright sunshine.  “Where you come from, boy?”  The setting is so stereotyped, you wonder whether it really does exist.  My curiosity got the better of me as I got a flight over to San Francisco and drove in search of that desert highway.  I hired a car and commenced a ten-day round trip across the Southwest States of America.

Four hours inland of the Bay Area, California rises up to the Sierra Nevada mountains, where I encountered Yosemite National Park, normally famed for having some of the highest waterfalls in North America.  I’d arrived at the end of a long hot summer so they had dried up completely.  Although the national park attracted a vast number of tourists in the main valley bottom, but as soon as I hit the trails above the valley on foot I got peace and quiet to admire spectacular panoramic views of famous hulks of granite such as the magnificent Half Dome.  I was highly impressed with El Capitan, a 3000-foot rock sheer rock face, a spectacular sight at sundown. 

On the edge of Yosemite National Park I survived a night of camping with the bears in the woods.  Knowing I had hundreds of miles to drive, I swiftly packed my tent and drove over the crest of Tioga Pass, dropping down to Mono Lake.  This is a most unusual setting on the border of Nevada.  The waters’ edge is lined with spiky, soldier-like rock pinnacles known as “tufas”, all quite mysterious looking.  Leaving the mountains behind I was finally blessed with that great stereotypical scene of the long straight highway into the desert.  I studied the map and plotted a course across the entire State of Nevada, aiming for Utah.  It was at this point in time that I made a schoolboy error of the greatest magnitude in by failing to tank up with gas at each given opportunity.  I anticipated that every name on the map was supposed to denote a town.  Well not quite, since the “towns” I drove through were not so much towns, not quite even villages.  Some only consisted of maybe two houses, and no filling station run by an old man with wire-rimmed spectacles.  The fuel gauge dropped to empty and the next so-called town was maybe fifty miles away.  Worryingly, I’d not passed another car in the last three hours as scenes from the X-files entered my mind.  I began to sweat even more in the baking Nevada desert, especially with the image of me spending the night in my tent on the roadside.

I trundled in to a hamlet called Rachel in Nevada, with a population of ninety and still no petrol station.  The location is infamous for the sighting of UFOs and on arrival I instantly recalled it from a TV documentary which I’d seen only months earlier.  The epicentre of the village was a bar aptly called the “Little Ale-Inn”.  I somehow began to feel in quite a desperate state, marooned in UFO town with barely a drop of petrol.  The bar owner, complete with baseball hat, mullet hair-cut and moustache kindly let me siphon off two gallons of petrol from his truck, provided I could find some piece of hose pipe lying about the place, which I eventually did.  Since I was not familiar with the practice of siphoning petrol I swallowed about half a pint of it in the process, so I spoke like Barry White for the next three days.

I left Rachel, Nevada to the aliens and forty miles down the road I managed to tank up with gas.  That night I lay under stars in Utah listening to the crickets chirping away, feeling most relieved I made it across the barren desert landscapes of Nevada.  My romantic vision of “cruising down the highway” could have been close to me being “conked out by the highway”.  Later in my road trip I was enthralled with the great national parks of Bryce Canyon and Zion in Utah.  The finale lay in an awesome view of the Grand Canyon, and on my return to the Bay Area I made damn sure I crossed Death Valley with a full tank of gas.