Anyone driving between California and the Rockies for the first time will realize he has been lied to all his life: the country has not been settled, the West not won. An unvanquished heartland called the Great Basin remains, a huge broken bowl claiming parts of seven states. At its center, and entirely within it, is the wilderness known as the state of Nevada. It is a place like nothing else in the world. There, water—and thus the flow of valley, mountain, plain; the configuration of life—does not drain to the sea, but inward upon itself, toward some imagined, unattainable midpoint.
One seems to be driving across an emptied ocean, bereft of both the tidal patterns of seas, and those of land, where rivers organize geography toward an oceanic destination. Ghosts of glaciers and wide water haunt the great heat and aridity. Epochs intermingle. Limestone shoulders granite. Causal principles are left to the absolute rhythm of sun and night and the recklessness of wind. Wind facets everything, from pebbles to mountain faces. Dunes swell from nothing and advance in crescent ranks directionless across the desert. There is rarely a blue day in the Basin unconvulsed somewhere by the isolated rage of a thunderstorm—a spasm of entropy trapped in the limitlessness of the place.
The land turns and subsides, changes in all its aspects except the greatest heights, the severe and lovely blockfault mountains serried above the sagebrush steppe. Instead of composing an uplifted continental ridge, as the Rockies or the Sierra Nevada, the Basin ranges follow the sinuous confusions of fault lines, angle crookedly for one, two hundred miles, stop suddenly in the desert again. Most beautiful of the central Basin mountains is thirteen-thousand-foot Wheeler Peak in the Snake Range of eastern Nevada. Wheeler intervenes between two utterly barren, thirty-mile flats as an enormous block of blue rock and ice above the boneless, panting desert. The deception, the bewitching deformation of shapes and attitudes there are the ideata of the Basin: Pliocene volcanic stone that seems still to melt and move, rampike trees, the mass of the mountain venting through clouds and, above all, the sheer northeast face, a ragged semicircle of two-thousand-foot cliffs gnawed by glaciers, called Wheeler’s cirque.
In prehistory, Frémont Indians hammered petroglyphs into the mountain’s lower boulders, invoking its spirit. Centuries later Shoshone, Goshute, and Paiute survived on the piñon nuts of its foothills. John Muir wandered there in 1878, stunned by the tectonics of the cirque. And there, wondering at the savagery of rock and ice, and at the past, he never suspected the extraordinary secret the cirque held.
Above ancient Lehman Caves, hidden within a boulder field and a grove of Englemann spruce, is the one entrance to the glacial flats at the foot of the cirque’s walls. From the flats, climb to timberline, just before the still-breathing ice field that seals the base of the streaked cliffs, and you might have found the oldest thing alive on this planet. The hills surrounding Wheeler Peak are forested with Great Basin bristlecone pine, strange dwarf trees unmatched even by giant sequoia in longevity. And somehow above timberline on the mountain, at 11,400 feet, a small bristlecone, the oldest of its ancient kind, had been growing five thousand years within a ruck of quartzite boulders, enclosed by the towering broken cup of the cirque. The pine’s twisted body was almost entirely deadwood, fretted by wind and ice, polished by Arctic weather to a gloss that shined silver, ivory, yellow, and a bleeding red—dead but for one curling strip of bark feeding the one still-green branch.
The Forest Service came across this tree in the 1950s and named it Prometheus. In 1964 a young geologist, a Ph.D. candidate doing fieldwork near the glacier, attempted to measure its age. His coring tool sheared in two inside the incredibly dense wood of the tree, and, whether only frustrated and stupid, or suddenly—alone within the cirque—berserk, he sawed it down, cut it into chunks, and removed it from the mountain.
There are two ways to travel. Like hummingbirds who zing five hundred miles without touching ground, fasting in flight. Or like geese who investigate lakes, fields, city parks, everything en route, and gorge themselves constantly. On this migration from San Francisco to Colorado, Kevin was the hummingbird, I the goose. Finally arranging a breakfast stop at Frenchman’s Café in Nevada had been the first victory for goose travel since we left the afternoon before.
This first leg—the 240 miles from the city and the sea, through full spring in the Sacramento valley, up into winter on the Sierra Nevada, down past Reno’s lights through the vacant black desert to Frenchman’s Café—had been marked by a quietly festering discord, the grudging coexistence of rival species. It was my car, my trip to Colorado. He came as a rider, to share driving and gas, on his way to Cleveland. We’d never met before and, from the first, our differences showed little promise of moderating with the comradeship of the road.
For one thing, that Kevin didn’t like to stop and eat along the way began to irritate me beyond reason. Originally it had irritated me within reason, I think, as I’ve always needed to pause periodically for coffee and trash food while traveling. Kevin scorns all stimulants and foods prepared in public kitchens; also, he’s a compulsive believer in “making good time.” He had carried aboard a supermarket bag brimming with what he considered ample staples for the journey—cheeses, applies, crumbly home-baked wheat bread, pounds of dried fruit—expensive apricots, muscatels, Chinese salted plums—and nuts of every variety. I can’t tolerate dried fruit or nuts. Even raisins. Even peanut butter.
At first he was generous, offering to divvy the health bag half-and-half, but generosity soon turned to condescension. I’d need coffee and he’d suggest cashews. I’d be driving, eyes fixed on the road’s white lines in the Sierra midnight, and perceive, near the rearview mirror, Kevin’s thumb and forefinger proffering a withered fig like some semiprecious gem, saying softly, “Try this. It’s good for you.”
In San Francisco I’d picked him up at Burns’s house, Burns being the mutual friend who arranged the ride. Unfolding the map I explained our initial, crucial decision. Two routes proceed from San Francisco east eventually to Denver, my destination. I-80, a little faster, but oppressively dull and beset with two hugely enervating obstacles: Salt Lake City and five hundred miles of Wyoming. U.S. 50, slower, riskier regarding availability of gas, but a scenic delight following the old, storied route of the Wells Fargo line. Either way would advance Kevin toward Cleveland, his goal. But, as the trip was in effect my valedictory to California, I’d prefer taking 50. After Reno, it goes through the heart of the Great Basin, through the silver mining and hot-spring country of Nevada, by the Utah canyon lands, over the Colorado Rockies. Besides, outside of Ely, Nevada, the magnificent valley beneath Wheeler Peak alone justifies taking the road less traveled by.
Kevin had nodded.
We boarded my brand new Pontiac Ventura, buckled up, and soon were tugging the basketball-orange U-Haul beast up the first of a hundred mountain inclines—like two lawmen bringing in a caged brute for bounty. The trailer did hold outlaw booty of a sort: detritus salvaged from a disastrous decade-long encounter with the State of California. Things hadn’t gone well there; not quite ruin, but all the rack I could handle—divorce, disintegration, teetering on the edge of madness—a history of conceits and failures somehow bound to the city itself. I now brought to a close the years of my twenties not with a bang, but with a shudder. San Francisco in March of 1974 had gotten a little edgy, to say the least. The Symbionese Liberation Army had just shanghaied Hearst’s daughter, and the random murders called Zebra killings had everyone horrified and bewildered. The city’s buoyance had caved in, as it regularly does, to a kind of manic gloom. One thinks of the earthquake at times like those, and of leaving town.
As Kevin and I and my U-Haul past set out, my mind teemed, conflicted with thoughts of transit. There were two preoccupations: making this last trip a memorable exodus, lousy with symbols and deeper meanings, with resolution and revelation, the stuff of literature, that is, so I could come away from the Golden State with something to show for it; and getting there, to Colorado and presumably a new life. A wonderful change of fortune I still couldn’t quite believe had saved me, that winter in San Francisco, from drowning in my accumulated fecklessness. Chris, with whom I’d lived two years after divorcing my first wife, had become pregnant, we’d decided to marry, and I’d gotten a great offer in Denver. Denver: landlocked, as safe as you could be from the earthquake. I flew Chris there the week before the trip, to begin house hunting, and she’d called that morning to describe the little gingerbread Victorian she’d found. When I got to Denver we would get married, in Pagosa Springs, just the two of us. This trip with Kevin was the last transcontinental step, the thread between a bootless past and a solid future. Much more than a good job, a new wife, a first birth waited at its conclusion. Across the Great Basin, just over the Continental Divide, a pellucid wholeness beckoned: concentric glowing rings—Colorado, the house there, the woman, Chris, inside, the child inside her—an aurora 1,300 miles to the east, “an orbed drop of light, and this is love.” I couldn’t begin to talk to Kevin of these things as I drove—of love and the urgency of what to do with it (like fire when first discovered: Shall we boil beans and dry socks with it? Or put it to kindling forests and ravaging worlds? Or simply sit wonderingly, rapt with its beauty?). I did try to tell him about Wheeler Peak.
I babbled, in fact, of that mountain, its breathtaking cirque, its ancient trees, the grotesque forest of bristlecone pine that populates that place where other spirits must also reside. I babbled, while driving, to the point of obsession with this subject, until late in the night when, straining in the underpowered, overloaded car up Donner summit, I stopped midsentence, having gained audible evidence that Kevin was asleep. I was tired myself, set on stopping in Reno for slots and coffee. But some hours later Kevin awoke and produced the dispiriting desiccated fig. I was undone. We left Reno behind, sparkling in the cold crystal night. Dawn rose near Fallon and with it my mighty resolve to pause at Frenchman’s Café, after which Kevin would take the wheel.
I shook him awake. “Time for breakfast, Kevin. A mug of coffee and ham and eggs. Nothing improves scenery like ham and eggs, as Mark Twain, a Nevada patriot, once put it.”
About Kevin. Burns had called asking if I wanted a rider and of course I did. I didn’t much fancy pulling that trailer alone across the mountains; the trip promised to be slow, tortuous, expensive. A rider would cut costs, enable us to drive straight through, and perhaps make the journey more a pleasure than a chore. Burns seemed anxious, for some reason, that Kevin be delivered into good hands on his way to Cleveland, and I owed Burns a sizable favor for a sizable loan several years back. Burns did not know Kevin very well—the younger brother of a good friend of his, a shy kid, twenty-one, twenty-two years old, worked odd jobs in the city. And I learned little more about him than that, in the forty hours we were almost constantly together. There’s nothing objectionable about his appearance. Long blond hair in a ponytail, clean shaven, glasses, about six feet tall. A well kempt hippie. In addition to gobbling dried fruits he smoked dope, joint after joint—a practice that began to bother me once he started driving.
Most striking about Kevin was his silence. I don’t hear very well and at most he barely whispered. At first I was afraid he couldn’t talk at all. We’d conduct rather difficult conversations. For example:
“So you’re going to Cleveland?”
“Your folks there?”
“So you’re headed back for a visit with your folks?”
“What’s Cleveland like?”
It wasn’t that he seemed especially bashful; I don’t know what it was. San Francisco then had gotten, as they said, “heavy into ego-loss,” a matter of large metaphysical consequence I never understood. (I imagine it was an effort to dissociate from L.A., which has always been, as we know, heavy into ego-projection.) I figured that Kevin, being younger, was probably on top of this currently hippest phenomenon of San Francisco hipness. He was certainly beyond far out; he’d gotten down to the mellow mumble and, as it first appeared, seemed to have lost his ego irretrievably. Ego-loss, as I’ve indicated, did not interest me at the time. What interested me was more like ego-salvage: Chris, family, house, job, and so on.
Near Auburn, about three hours into the trip, as the sun lowered behind us into the gauzy green March of the Central Valley, we did have a two-way conversation of sorts, but it didn’t go much better; what Kevin said was so unsatisfactory.
We talked about San Francisco. I mentioned the Zebra killings (a group of black men had been corking off whites at random—housewives, delivery boys, pigeon feeders in the park), which I’d found fairly unsettling. Downright terrifying in fact. I asked Kevin if he felt any relief now that the Mother Lode hills lay between us and the violence of the Bay Area.
“I love San Francisco,” he mumbled.
Well, yes, no doubt. And a great city it is. Very European, as they say. But, my God, there was weirdness rolling through that fog of late. Wasn’t there?
“Just the goddam pigs,” he murmured.
Hmmm. The reference here was to police, not the murderers. The possibility of a very fundamental rift yawned between us. And I wanted this trip, my valedictory, to be a success.
“Have you traveled much cross-country before?” I shifted the subject.
“Two years ago.”
“That was when you and your brother came out from Cleveland.” I filled in his information for him. He nodded.
“Which way did you come?”
“I don’t know.”
“Did you come through Wyoming and Salt Lake?”
“I don’t remember,” Kevin said, turning to me. “I don’t remember anything between Cleveland and the coast.”
He leaned into the back seat to delve in his health bag, coming up like a diver with a handful of macadamia nuts. Meantime I pondered what had been Kevin’s longest spoken sentence. Nothing, nothing in all that magnificence between Ohio and California impressed him; that unspeakable magnitude of geography, which ought to reduce a born and bred American to humble study of his land, failed to nick Kevin’s memory. This struck me as very bizarre. I, on the trip, would illuminate the Great West for this deprived soul.
I turned on the radio, twirled the tuner, landing fortuitously on a C&W station. Within a half-minute Kevin had jerked out his arm and snapped the radio off. “God I hate that shit,” he muttered.
“You do?” I stared, amazed at his incivility.
He nodded, grinding his molars on macadamia nuts.
“Well, you’re going to have to put up with it.” I clicked the radio back on. And I was going to have to put up with him. Besides needing his help driving and splitting expenses, I was obliged to Burns. No matter. We reeled along into the numinous twilight of the Sierras, banked like hooded giants before us, and I began to babble of Wheeler Peak. Kevin smoked a joint, graciously regularly passing it my way though I continued to refuse. I lit a cigarette; a look of mild horror crossed Kevin’s face and he rolled down the window. I turned up the heater and kept talking. Kevin rolled and smoked, rolled and smoked, and, by all appearances, listened throughout the evening.
I felt great. We were a hundred miles into Nevada with three hundred more to go—one good full fine day of Great Basin. The sky was as immaculate as my daughter’s eye is now. There were likely to be few if any cars on U.S. 50 all day long. I could sleep as I wished, but I had no wish to sleep.
At Frenchman’s Café, which we’d just left, we’d seen one of those strikingly peculiar sights that occur nowhere but in the maverick state of Nevada. I was sopping up the last of my over-easys (while Kevin nursed a glass of undrinkably sulfurous water), when a van, lettered TRANS-NEVADA BUS LINE, pulled up outside and the uniformed driver plus four ladies, three black, one white, wearing diminutive amounts of leather and lace, got out. They yawned and stretched, silhouetted against the cracked bed of a dry saline lake across the highway, and, behind that, shimmering, featureless, monochromatic distances of desert. They stood there as desultory as if passing time in some gilt and scarlet lobby on the Vegas strip. Inside, a rancher, looking up from the pool table, announced, “Here’s Sammy with a load of hooers.” Evidently, the sole service of the Trans-Nevada Bus Line was to shuttle hookers cross state from Reno to Ely and back, and the driver always stopped for coffee at Frenchman’s Café.
"How about that?" I remarked to Kevin. Kevin looked both puzzled and uncaring to be unpuzzled. "Whores!" I said. "Right dead in the middle of nowhere." Kevin nodded and suggested that we better get moving.
He drove and I tried to sleep and couldn't. I couldn't sleep, I realized after we'd ventured twenty miles beyond Frenchman's, because I'd contracted a case of Traveler's Lust, a low-grade but pervasive horniness resulting from being up all night driving and thinking, triggered no doubt by the whores at the café. But the same complaint had struck other times when I was strung out from driving in that part of Nevada and was connected with exhilaration of travel there, where speed and solitude, unbroken horizons and brilliant light, dispute thoughts of destination and confuse a linear imagination. Somehow passion haunts the sparse wastes; the dry wind excites and visions form. It is as though the car has reached the velocity of liberation, has escaped the old known earth. I wondered if Kevin could possibly sense it.
He drove, I thought, very poorly. He'd mentioned, when we switched places, that he hated American cars but that he could handle them alright as he'd driven a cab for a while in San Francisco. I found that hard to believe. Kevin of the mellow mumble as a garrulous cabby? But I knew it was true as soon as he began manhandling my car—taking first gear to 45 mph, steering, stopping, careening downhill without the least regard for the two-thousand-pound buffalo hitched to the rear bumper and fighting us all the way. A radical change came over Kevin as soon as he took the wheel. Even as a passenger he'd never made peace with the infamous seat belt interlock system that encumbers my Pontiac, mumbling with increasing ill humor when each time after stopping he forgot to latch himself in place. But now the mumble became a decided mutter with an aggressive edge quite uncharacteristic of ego-loss. At every pothole he cursed my car's suspension; at every incline he damned its miserable six-cylinder engine. He began rolling and smoking again. That calmed him down but not me.
As we topped the crest of Railroad Pass between Fallon and Austin, engine puling under its burden, rods, I was sure, about to be hurled through the hood straight up into the bright eye of the sun, we were abruptly confronted with an enormous black hole in the sky. Immediately it was upon us—the classic Basin banzai squall. The blue sky shuttered to an inky gloom, reticulated with lightening. Gusts nudged us from side to side like a cat with a mouse, and as Kevin roared down the tail of the pass, the trailer began to whip. Hailstones the size of dried figs polka-dotted the enveloping darkness then turned to a heavy muddy rain. Sheetflooding coursed down the Toiyabes and a river formed before us, in rapids across the highway.
"SLOW DOWN!" I hollered, hastily adding, "SLOWLY! Slow down slowly."
Kevin looked terrified; I was terrified, but we splashed safely through the sheetwater at the foot of the pass and soon cruised slowly forth. I suggested that Kevin turn on the headlights. He did. Take it easy, he said, and I tried.
We were passing through hot-spring country, I informed Kevin, thinking a little conversation might ease the tension. A few seconds later, through the mists to the front right a pale elongation of steam gathered shape—Antelope Hot Springs—expending its heat from the center of the earth into an ice-bitten lunar world smoking with fog in mid-Nevada. It was almost as a vision called forth by my suggestion of it, and by my memory of stopping in the next valley south a year ago with Chris.
It had been June 1973, one of the first of our trips investigating possibilities east of California. Traveler's Lust smote us both outside Austin; fortunately we were together and near a hot spring. Veering with abandon from the straight and narrow macadam we toiled through billows of alkaline dust for twelve miles to Emigrant Spring. It bubbles merrily at the exact midpoint of an enormous cratered playa, a ruthlessly barren concavity zoned entirely by eleven-thousand-foot mountains. Someone had built a small rectangular concrete pool to catch the hot turquoise water; someone had left a picnic table, with benches bolted to it, oddly floating in the pool. We arrived wrapped in dust, stripped, swam, and made love in those amniotic waters. We chased each other naked across stretches of tufa and sand, screamed into the echoless immensity, and returned to the benediction of the anabaptismal pool. We sat face to face on the benches, drinking beer on the floating table, spinning slowly counterclockwise, half in hot water, half in alpine air, beneath the noon sun and cobalt sky, rotating slowly eye to eye in the primal torque of the girdling ring of snow-topped peaks. We left transformed in the Basin's spell.
This time, of course, things went much differently, with tongue-tied Kevin, not Chris, my companion. He drove with two-fisted fixation; I closed my eyes and drifted into a waking dream of oily, black-skinned hooers sprawled on hot white sand. I hadn't really slept, but I had to.
Not far from Austin in mid-Nevada the storm rose, literally rose a couple of miles into the air, and we could watch its unabated fury, its long curls of rain evaporating before they reached the earth, stray steadily to the south in an otherwise empty sky. I suggested to Kevin that we stop for beer in Austin. He didn't respond and I felt obliged to explain. I'd be driving next and I'd gotten too wired up to get any sleep. Beer would relax me.
Kevin frowned. He was silent for fifteen or twenty minutes. He appeared to be deep in thought.
"It wouldn't be cool," he finally said quietly.
"It's not right," Kevin said. "Drinking and driving."
I couldn't believe it. This doper who'd been risking my life and ruining my car all morning suddenly a moralist over a can of beer.
"I'd rather hitch," he said.
"Go ahead. Of course we haven't even seen a car for the last 150 miles. And if you saw one they wouldn't stop." The bitch of it was that I needed him now, after no sleep for nearly thirty hours; I needed someone to drive.
Kevin grumbled and within a few minutes we ascended the curving approach into the crumbling little silver town of Austin. At my direction he pulled in front of the Austin Hotel's palely glowing Oly sign. He got out to prepare and selfishly consume a gouda and wheat-bread sandwich. I sidled into the hotel—one of Nevada's oldest whorehouses—and returned untempted with a six-pack.
I could see it coming as we prepared to press on. Kevin, absorbed in his teetotalism, outraged at my abuse of privilege—a six-pack—forgot what one must not forget in a 1974 Pontiac. He turned the key, the damnable buzzer rang, red lights flashed. He grabbed the loose seat belt, ripped it toward him, flung it away, jamming his elbow against the door and evidently injuring his funny bone.
"GODDAM this fucking piece of tin," he yelled.
"SHUT UP," I yelled back.
I circled the car, opened his door, and told him to get out. Either stick out your thumb, I said, or move over and keep your bullshit to yourself, because I was going to drive. He moved over; I drove. From Austin to Eureka, to Ely, where the sun set in lurid flames behind the vapors of Kennecott Copper, throughout the afternoon, I drank beer upon beer, Kevin smoked joint upon joint, both of us in silence, neither thinking about the land we passed, both thinking very separate thoughts.
There are few contiguities more dissimilar than the states of Nevada and Utah. They share nothing but an overlapping Basin geography. Utah is sanctimonious, shrill, and suspicious. Strangers are treated not merely as curiosities but as contaminants. Nevada is open, free, the most lawless place in the land—sublimely profane. Nevada is, consequently somehow, the more vital and beautiful place. Strangers there are everyone.
Wheeler Peak stands thirty miles east of Ely; thirty more miles past the mountain is the Utah line. On the outskirts of Ely I balked at the prospect of contending with the long and treacherous Mormon night. I knew Kevin would be hard to convince. Since Mormons, I said, putting it as rationally as I could, go to bed at nine o'clock, gasoline is hard to come by afterward in Utah. With that in mind, and considering my own fatigue, and considering that, should we proceed we'd miss seeing Wheeler by day—something we both, I trusted, looked forward to—prudence remained in laying over this evening in Ely and breaking camp early enough to catch dawn behind the mountain.
Kevin, as usual, said nothing, which I chose to regard as compliance. With a beery, weary purposefulness I negotiated the town and parked behind the Eldorado Hotel and Casino. I walked inside and booked a room for two. Above the desk hung a short, crook-backed branch, like a piece of driftwood, pranked out with a sequined inscription: "Ely, Nevada Home of Bristlecone Pine WORLD'S OLDEST LIVING THING!" The lobby opened on a casino, deserted but for four or five old-timers in bolo ties playing cards.
Undismayed, I returned outside for my dop kit and Kevin, but Kevin, his health bag and backpack, were gone. On the dash I found a twenty-dollar bill and note: Hitching on. Can't afford the time and money for room. Here's my share for gas. Good luck, Kev.
Kev?? The fool. I locked the car, went inside, arranged for a room, and brooded at the bar. An hour passed and still I sat glumly, lacking even the energy to pull on any of the hundred glittering slots. I considered, as thoughtfully as I could, calling Chris in Colorado, but couldn't muster the will for that. I didn't want to talk to her just then. I didn't want to talk to the bartender or anybody; I'd talked myself out.
I couldn't call Chris, I realized, because, alone now in this bright little town, I had to resolve things myself. A beer-soaked thought occurred that even here, beached in Ely, six hundred miles from the city, halfway home, I still hadn't been able to shake loose of California.
There were two alternatives: sleep long and deep and face Wheeler and Utah fresh in the morning—follow the vision of Emigrant Spring back to Chris, pregnant in Colorado—keep it whole; or cave in to entropy in Ely, indulge my last chance in one of several casino-whorehouses before our private wedding next week in Pagosa. The choices thus were clear: recklessness or responsibility. Keep it, or lose it.
Desire began to well up once more, almost as a pent-up response to Kevin's purities. Now that he had left it was as though he had been, oddly, a restraining, responsible influence. Yet there seemed a kind of crude intent in his twenty-dollar bill, the standard price of any Ely trick. I wandered undecided through the now vacant casino to the front door, like a cat drawn to a fish market. But outside, incredibly, enchantingly in the arcs of neon aureoles, snow dropped densely and gently and a good two inches already quilted the highway. The way it was sticking it had to be cold. The next town was 140 miles and no one would be out tonight. The fool.
I scraped the windshield, unlocked the door, latched in, and turned the car into town, leaving curlicue tracks in the parking lot, sluing smoothly back onto U.S. 50. I passed through the dazzling, silent place east toward the wilderness. I couldn't leave him alone in a snowstorm in the dead center of the Great Basin. He might, he actually might die. But he might by then already be in Utah, happily headed for Cleveland in someone's VW bus, or in a semi, offering a bewildered trucker a toke. Still I kept driving stupidly, ever more slowly, inexorably toward Wheeler Peak. I had to find him; I needed to find him.
After no more than a few hundred yards the lights of Ely vanished, as though the town, and all humanity, had suddenly disappeared. The highway dissolved with the desert into one white surface. It was coldly quiet except for the purling of the car's slow tread, tires grinding at the icy crust like rowels. I began to lose sight of the object of the quest, though the sense of quest grew more and more intense. I was fully aware of the almost laughably bizarre situation I dragged myself toward: driving alone, obsessively, at no more than ten miles per hour, sedulously combing the roadside for Kevin, though there was nothing, nothing to see in the whirling chaos outside, and surely no one, not even an empty ranch house for God knew how far. Still I kept tracking into no-man's-land with an increasingly strange image of myself: a car towing an orange steel box stuffed with my past, struggling across the white lifeless face of the earth, across a planet drowning in unceasing tides of snow—an image of the absurd and saving will of the solitary family man, searching for something, a purpose to keep his life of a piece.
The odds were against us. I wouldn't find him, would have to turn back—a disturbing thought: trying to wheel the car and trailer around the other way on an invisible road. Then I'd have to report him lost. Missing person—an apt identity for Kevin, with his fogged brain, his wholesome snacks, his comprehending remove from everything, mumbling out alone into the swarming brutality of the night. They might not find the body for days, if ever. If they never found him, what then? He might have somehow made it through; he might have vanished, just vanished, subsumed into the wanton desert. I would have to call Cleveland: your son may have frozen to death in the Great Basin.
And if they did find him, it would be like . . . like the Face in the Glacier? Tyndal Glacier in Colorado, where decades ago a woman, climbing at its rim, had fallen. Rangers didn't locate the body, for good reason. The glacier had swallowed it up. But every seven years, the story goes, she appears, four or five feet down in transparent ice, as the glacier's slow heave lifts her for a few days near the surface, clearly visible from the rim above. No one could reach her now, so she will stay there, rising and sinking in the ponderous, aching flow of ice. The face, they say, looks puzzled. The lips are parted, brow intent, eyes wide, ice brightened, staring in perpetual mystification. The fingers stretch taut, the arms twist up at the sky.
I shuddered. It might happen to both of us, the Family Man and the Missing Person, the two of us lone fools in the storm. It might happen just to me, piled in a drift, or skidding and tumbling, car and trailer, down to some raw death. And no one was looking for me.
It seemed like I'd driven for hours, though I couldn't have covered more than five miles. I was ready to quit, if only I could turn around. But there he was. Stock-still, an apparition behind the flowing curtain of snow—stiff and caked white, awkwardly holding his bag of cheeses, nuts, and fruits, arm and thumb extended rigid as bone toward the car's two cones of light.
I rolled to a stop alongside him. He fumbled furiously at the door, set down the health bag, and went at it with both hands—obviously numb and useless. He finally pried open the door, dumped his bag and pack in the back, and sat down on the unbuckled seat belt. The buzzer rang like a siren in the hush of the night, and Kevin raised up, startled. I helped him strap on the belt. He sighed and let out a lugubrious snuffle, clearly frozen half through.
"Thanks," he said. "For stopping."
"You better believe it. What in hell did you think you were doing? Walking out into a blizzard in the middle of the night in the desert! Did you actually think anyone would be driving tonight? Why didn't you go back to town? What's wrong with you?"
He snuffled again, rubbed his hands in front of the heater fan.
"Are you suicidal?"
"Then you're hopeless," I said, and he appeared to nod his head. "You're inhuman. Do you realize that I saved your life?"
Kevin looked puzzled—the pure, solitary bewilderment of the face trapped in ice. Unreachable helplessness.
"Forget it," I said. "You'll thaw out."
"I left you some money for gas," he stuttered from the cold.
"Yes. Thanks." So we'd settled accounts. We sat quiet in the warm idling car for a few minutes. The snow was thinning and the indistinct glow of the moon began showing through to the east. "Well," I said, and Kevin looked up expectantly. He seemed adequately abashed—nothing like a little exposure to the elements for that. He was probably chastened enough to be a competent driver now, if not companion. "Well, we might as well keep going. I'll drive us over the pass. You'll warm up by then and we can stop for coffee in Delta."
Once the night cleared and the three-quarter moon marked out terrain, the boundaries of the road, it wasn't too bad. Fairly soon the bristlecone forest began—two trees on the right, one further up on the left, then, around a curve, thick ranks of the stubby, man-sized, convoluted, primeval pines, lining the roadside, interpreting the highway's turns, depth, and grade, like guides with arms and fingers pointing the way over the pass.
As we climbed a hill Wheeler Peak rose, gigantic and luminous, from behind a gray ridge. The bleak, formless night had resolved into an exquisite mountain, caparisoned with new snow, glowing under a gem-clear moon. Above its clean, white shanks the cirque gaped, a deep black rictus fringed with light. Desolation had reared up into menace. It seemed to consolidate . . . what? This trip, this passage, bulked up in one indomitable form?
I'd stupidly strayed onto a glistening patch of ice, and more stupidly braked; the car and trailer began to fishtail out of control. It was exhilarating, the danger, the loose, gliding grace of the skid, the anarchy of ice. The mountain oscillated in the windshield. If it swung clear off to the side, that would be it: we'd be spinning off the road. But it stayed, steadied to the front. Tires hit pavement and I could steer again, dead on toward Wheeler Peak, like a huge lodestone, attracting, ordering the wayward energies of the night.
Behind it lay black Utah, through which I'd sleep, and above Utah in the east the flat-sided orb of the moon. I would dream that night of cities, subside into the world of women and men, where life resides, where in a few months my daughter would be born. And the first human gesture would not be a scream, but the unfolding of a tiny red hand, inch-long fingers touching at the unfamiliar air. We passed around and away from the mountain, behind us, in the west now. It lowered slowly, some ancient, living glacial creature, keeper of secrets I'd rather not know. Or, only a mammoth, austere, indifferent fist of rock. Just past the border we switched places. Kevin drove, and we made good time.
"Rider" was published in Best American Short Stories of 1977 (Houghton Mifflin) and was first published in the Denver Quarterly 10, No. 4 (Winter 1976). It is included in Baine Kerr's acclaimed collection of short stories, Jumping-Off Place.
The collage by Caroline Augusta Leonardo was inspired by "Rider." Leonardo is a San Francisco-based artist whose other works may be viewed at her website.
The photographs accompanying "Rider" are by Texas-born writer, photographer, and rock climber Jeff Long. Long is the best-selling author of more than 10 works of fiction and non-fiction, for which he has won numerous awards. Some of the photographs that appear on this website are from The Night Mountain, Long's recent collection of surreal landscape images with text. Long lives in Boulder, Colorado.