Friday, July 23, 2010

You Who Are On the Road Must Have a Code That You Can Live By

The last twenty-four hours have been an experiment in maintaining a Zen attitude in the face of complete and unavoidable ridiculousness.

Yesterday I was in the hotel lobby by six thirty a.m. taking advantage of the continental breakfast, and by that I mean trying to eat as quickly as possible so as not to taste any of it and also trying not to even inwardly complain about free food. I left St. George about seven and crawled back onto the Interstate 15 North for another stint through the desert.

I've always had an odd adoration for two-lane highways that cut through vast landscapes, a trench carved into the very living earth through land that appears otherwise untouched. This part of the trip did not disappoint. The highway ran for hours upon hours, the rest of the way through Utah.

I never before realized, not having the opportunity to, how drastically the climates and landscapes change the minute my tires cross a state line. Driving through Nevada, one is surrounded by brush and shrubs with rolling brown hills on the horizon all the time. Once Nevada gives way to Arizona, the hills immediately flatten into mammoth mesas that form a border along the road. When one comes into Utah, the mesas become jagged bright-red rock formations scattered into the distance in every direction. And I knew the second I was about to cross into Colorado from Utah, because suddenly up ahead I could see actual green plants--small bushes and evergreens--and sure enough, as soon as I have the thought that this must be Colorado, I notice the sign sitting right at the spot where the green begins, welcoming me into the state.

It was also at this point that I lost my iPod, Jesse, to a suicide attempt. It was so depressed that it flung itself off of the box on my front seat and straight into a cup of orange juice. I didn't notice for about ten minutes, and by the time I did, it was completely unconscious. I've tried to revive him, but he's in critical condition and it doesn't look good.

Once in Colorado, I head from flat desert into the mountains. Ears popping, I ascend into a universe of tiny hillside hamlets and long stretches of pines. At one point, according to my best friend on this trip, the GPS, the car and I reached an elevation of 10,000 feet. With the exception of some mild protest from the car at the climbing of these grades and some extremely harrowing construction along the road that narrowed the lanes from time to time and just increased the danger of somehow plummeting off the side of one of these Everests (from all I know of mountains, they might as well all be Everest), the drive went smoothly and was quite a bit prettier and therefore more enjoyable.

As soon as I descended from the mountains and veered off course to stop in Denver, it began to rain. Eighty degrees outside, sunny and humid, and it just started to rain out of nowhere. With the water coming down, I come up over the apex of the off ramp and can suddenly see the skyline of Denver. A sight for sore eyes by all means, this is the first actual city I've seen since leaving Las Vegas 750 miles ago (and Vegas doesn't even really count).

After refueling, I left Denver about an hour before sunset. At this point, I began to realize that getting into Lincoln was possible but would take another seven hours, putting me there at 4 a.m. local time. My CouchSurfing host in Lincoln said this would be fine, so I trudged on along the now utterly flat land, with nothing but fields expanding in either direction and a huge, immaculate double rainbow arcing over the highway.

It is at this point that I witnessed several hours filled with occurrences for which I was completely unprepared, in that they don't happen in Southern California. In Crook, Colorado, on the phone with my best friend, Jonathan, trying to stay awake, I began to notice bright yellow flashes behind dense black clouds in the distance, many miles away. For the longest time I watched the horizon, trying to discern the source of the light (and I'd be lying if I said it didn't momentarily occur to me that there was some kind of nuclear bomb test afoot--that happens in the middle of nowhere, right?).

As I drew closer, I saw what was causing the flashes. Not bombs or airplanes or fireworks, but epic bolts of yellow lightning. Every few seconds for several hours, a crack of electricity would light up the clouds to the Northwest. Eventually, a second lightning storm started up in the East, and a third smaller one dead ahead. Exhilarated and slightly frightened, I just watched it unfold, marveling at the abilities of Mother Nature for about the fortieth time that day.

After fifteen hours of driving with lightning storms everywhere, I stopped at a gas station along the I-70. Getting out of the car, I was immediately tousled by strong, warm winds that gave off noticeable static energy like something out of the Wizard of Oz. Small black beetles that might have been cockroaches without the horrific twitching antennae were scattered everywhere along the ground, and on the handle of the gas pump was a huge green grasshopper that just stared at me. Everything in sight was coated with a layer of whirling chicken feathers.

The attendant, a huge man who looked as though he should be chewing on a straw of hay and and who couldn't have been named anything other than Bubba, took my money for the gas with a slow, tedious air about him. When he gave me my change, I asked him, with my California accent, "So, this whole lightning storm thing. Does this happen, like, all the time out here? Or should I be worried?"

After a long pause, Bubba shrugged. "I reckon." Not helpful.

Back on the road, when it started to rain, it was a light shower. Enough to slow my progress some, but nothing crazy. However, the lightning storms had suddenly converged into one set of crashing bolts that were now pure white and lit up the horizon like daylight. With my iPod in a coma and my laptop's battery being dead, I was desperate for something else to listen to other than wind and rain and thunder. Becoming increasingly scared at the closeness of the lightning strikes, I rustled through my car until I found an old Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young cassette to calm myself down.

This I could have handled, until the light rain became a torrential downpour. My visibility was cut to next to nothing, and I was forced to slow down to twenty miles an hour with my hazard lights on, creeping along the road in order to still see the lines that marked the lanes. On the verge of panicking, but whispering low to myself and taking deep breaths to stay calm, I fought my way through the worst storm I've ever seen.

Finally, on the verge of hyperventilation, I saw the beckoning lights of a gas station off the freeway and literally cried out in relief. I pulled off the freeway and under the awning of the gas pumps, letting my heart rate and breathing return to normal.

There was no way I was getting to Lincoln that night--I was still a hundred miles away. I pulled my car into a parking space behind the mini mart, locked myself in, hid everything valuable, covered myself with a towel and a sweatshirt and immediately fell asleep.

I woke up this morning at eight, amazingly rested, considering. I made it to Lincoln in two hours and so despite almost dying in some kind of horrific and bloody car accident with a semi-truck or simply driving myself into a ditch completely blind, I sit in a coffee shop more than two-thirds of the way to Chicago.

I think I won this one, Nature. Suck it.

So now, I'm going to meet the CouchSurfing host I should have spent last night with and buy her breakfast in exchange for making her clean her apartment for nothing.

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