Like when we were kids, we stick to the seats. It’s 97 degrees out, and most of the town of Elko has retreated into smoky casinos, 1970s office buildings and dank little bars.
Just behind the storefronts of the main drag, Idaho Street, there are the bars. Stockman’s Casino, home of “liberal slots.” The Stray Dog. Goldies, with a stolid, rectangular sign above the door: two identical fisted hands pushing mugs of sloshing golden beer into each other – a sloppy toast to the heat.
We follow dusty roads down to the banks of the Humboldt River, which is dry, then bump and jostle our way back to town, past water street, silver street, commercial street, railroad street, until we drift into town park’s soft, green embrace, where we stay for three days. Elko is poor and sunbleached, slow-paced and gentle, settling into the desert before our eyes while its people eat hot dogs and snow cones.
On the third day we leave at dusk and slip through the chaparral like a tortoise, past Beowawe, Crescent Valley, Eureka, Ely. Sampling sunsets, and then sunrises, on the slow drive through the great basin.
The whole area is a huge, dry, stretch of dirt and rock straddling the convergence of the Pacific and American tectonic plates. Hot springs everywhere, and so little rainfall the area is considered “endorheic,” meaning there’s no outflow of water other than evaporation. It’s a land of salt flats and dry lakes, creating the impression of travel along the bottom of a dusty ocean.
We land in Tonopah at 9PM the following day, and are off again at four. We stop in Bishop to change the oil, which I do myself with borrowed tools in the parking lot of a local garage. just as I’m loosening the oil pan nut, I hear the woman behind the counter calling for help, and I look sideways from under the RV to see her struggling to hold up an aging customer who is collapsing out of his seat. He’d been there when I borrowed the tools – sallow and quiet on a stool in the corner.
I slither out from under the RV and run to the garage. I call 911, and we stand there, she and I and the mechanic, looking at this poor guy who’s wet his pants lying there on the concrete, eyes open, breathing shallow. He seems OK except for a bloody gash on his arm. Ash walks over and the guy looks at us. “Where you guys from?” he asks. Boulder, we say. “A beautiful place,” he says. Then the paramedics roll up in their ambulance and we sort of slip away. I finish the oil change covered in dirt, shower in our tiny bathroom and we go for breakfast.
The rest of the drive is a battle with desert winds, through Big Pine, Lone Pine, Mojave and into the coastal citrus belt, where the desert gives way to orange and lemon groves, and the Channel Islands lurk like beasts in the misty distance.