You turn off the A/C. You’re cruising fifty-five, because you vaguely remember your dad saying once that the speed was more fuel efficient, that in the ‘70s, when they’d had high gas prices, President Whomever lowered the national speed limit to save the country gas.
It had been grey and beautiful and surreal when you were driving in the woods on your way out of California, but now it’s just desert: hot, stark, dead looking. And yet. You’re surprised, all the same, at how much life there is still, having pictured Wiley Coyote deserts, ACME boxes broken and strewn about on the empty, cracked earth. You’ve been on Highway 266 for what feels like one million miles. You could have sworn you had three quarters of a tank when you started; you apparently had started with less.
No matter: there are towns listed on the green road signs with miles reasonable enough ahead, and your car, your wonderful little sedan that’s not new anymore but also not yet old, tells you you’ve got a range of one-hundred seventy-three miles, which you know means closer to one-eighty, and you’ll pass the next gas station you see.
“I’m sure there’ll be another gas station up here somewhere that looks a little more, you know, hospitable.”
This turns out not to be particularly true. There were people at the last gas station at least, and there were pumps — old, but presumably functioning — sitting in the dust in front of a metal-roofed building. The town, to your city-bred eyes, looked more like an abandoned strip mall than a town, and were you farther North, perhaps, farther into the forests and mountains and states above, you’d suspect that there were more people hidden behind the hills, the mountains, the trees. But here you have no such imagination: you can see one hundred miles flat around you, and you see nothing save the afterimage Sierras in the rear-view, save the occasional up-cropping of inexplicable formations towering in the distance.
You’ll be surprised at their beauty. You’ll be surprised at how many towns you’ll pass with no services. You’ll be surprised at how long you’ve been driving, at how much farther you have to go. You’re reassuring yourself, as the meter dips lower and lower, that it’ll be OK, that something has to pop up soon. You’re sure of it. You begin to remember some acquaintance at some bar somewhere telling you to always fill up your tank before driving in Nevada. But who was it, and where did you meet them?
When you started the drive the temperature was something like seventy-two. Now it’s ninety-four. Wasn’t it in the upper thirties when you woke up in a tent this morning?
You do have a friend with you, at least. Not that that’s much reassurance, to be sure. If anything, more a driver of guilt: he doesn’t like riding in cars to begin with, doesn’t like thinking about them or talking about them or sitting in them. You don’t like to talk about them, either, for what it’s worth. And you would also not like to sit in them, possibly stuck in the desert.
Something nobody tells you about road trips is how intermittent cell service is. You wouldn’t think that this would be a hard thing to put together, two and two, that if you’re out in the middle of bumblefuck, there would be little service. And yet. You think of the pretty-colored maps they show on TV and how their blues and reds and yellows and pinks cover most, if not all, of the United States (what a world we live in!). Just a few gaps. You just happen to be driving in one of them.
You and your friend have two cellular networks between the two of you. When one’s working, the other invariably isn’t, and one of them doesn’t work that well even when it does work. And, of course, sometimes neither of them work, and you’re glad you still keep music on your phone, still keep CDs in the console, that you’re too cheap to pay to stream music. Perhaps they have the radio out here.
At a range of ninety-nine miles you begin discussion. Until this point, you and your friend had been silent, thinking your own thoughts. Not in an uncomfortable way, necessarily — though you’re both concerned about the amount of time you’re spending together, given that it’s really been oh so long, years, even, since you’ve spent even a fifth this much time together, since you, yourself, have spent this much time with anyone, really — but silent in the kind of way when you had a long hike the day before and it’s been a few hours in the car already, when you’re exhausted by the immense beauty of the American West (which you capitalize, even in your imagination), exhausted by feeling so small, so little in the shadow of mountains, exhausted from sleeping in a different motel bed or campground every night, now four days running. The kind of silence that’s a symptom of fatigue and dread at the how-many-more-hours until you land, at the feeling that even if you do finally make it to Las Vegas — assuming your car doesn’t stop, that you don’t die of dehydration — will you both have the energy to do much more than sleep, assuming, still, that you make it?
“What do you think?”
“Oh, I think we should be alright.” (You try to sound sunny, optimistic even.)
“Alright, I trust you. I mean, it’s your car and all.”
“Maybe you should look up where the nearest gas station is.”
“My phone’s got no service.”
Your phone is wedged into the little tray below the stereo controls, along with the case for your sunglasses, along with assorted coins, lip balm, nail clippers, National Park brochures, and hard candies.
“There’s a gas station one-hundred fifty miles up the road.”
“Is that the ‘on the way’ search thing?”
“Try just the closest. Try Google’s. Their maps are sometimes better out in the middle of nowhere, I’ve noticed.”
“What’s the range?”
The A/C’s been off for a while now, and you start to sweat into the leather seat. The lower back of your cotton shirt becomes uncomfortable. You keep the radio on, because you know that it doesn’t cost that much more extra power, because you need something to block out the silence. Because it is now ninety-six degrees outside, and all you can see is the road stretching to the horizon, the big orange rock formations in the distance ahead (Utah?), the shrub things on the side of the road.
Do you think you’ll make it?
When was the last time you saw another car?
You’ve been in someone’s cell range for most of this. You have AAA. You don’t have your AAA card, but if you have cell service, you can text your mother and she can take a picture of the front and back of it and that’ll have to do. It probably will do, come to think of it. You’ve done that before, last winter when you were in Georgia and your battery died. What you would give for some snow (it is the summer, you are in Nevada). Does it ever snow in Nevada?
“Hey, does it ever snow in Nevada, I wonder?”
“I don’t know.”
“Look it up!”
You have a shade tent in the trunk. Maybe that’ll help? You could pop up the shade tent, put together your camping chair (your friend will sit there, you’re happy to sit on the ground, generous, helpful host your are, not the kind of host that would ever make your guest uncomfortable, at least not on purpose), maybe open up the beer you have in the cooler, you think there’s two in there: yeah, the bottle and the can. They’re not cold, mind, because you didn’t fill the cooler with ice at all, not even when you put them in there, but they’re insulated in the cooler, you think, and so they probably aren’t terribly hot. Maybe just a little warm. But what was that essay you were reading about mulled beer? Or that essay where the old guys drank mulled beer at that famous bar in New York? Do you have any spices? McSorley’s. A stove on which to cook them?
You have the desert, fifty-two miles of range, and Beethoven’s third symphony.
You would want to say that the highway ends abruptly at I-95, but to be honest, you can see it coming for miles. In the distance you see a white building on the southwest corner of the intersection and hope it’s a gas station. Your friend tells you that it won’t be. You don’t give up hope until you see the husk of it: broken down, falling apart, chipped paint and a number of signs that read NO TRESPASSING, not that you would have anyway.
As you approach:
“So what do you think?”
“Well, the closest one is to the left.”
“But we want to go to the right, right?”
“That’s where we’re headed, but the gas station that way is another ninety miles. How much do we have?”
“Forty or so.”
“Well there’s one fifty up to the left. Do you think it can make it?”
“Maybe, we can try.” So left you turn.
Highway 95, though, is an indeterminate speed-limit highway, which is to say, you think it’s 75. It might be 80, for all the folks going 90, but it’s hard to say. You keep driving 55. Worse, there’s a hill. This means extra gas. You hope the down-hill section is long, because if that’s the case then you can coast and get free energy. Free energy is always good, you think. Free, free. The range ticks down, and down.
“Should we call AAA now? I don’t want to get stuck in the middle of nowhere and then have to wait three hours.”
“I don’t think so, I think we might be able to make it.”
“Hey, that looks like a town down there. They probably have a gas station.”
You make it close, see the buildings mostly in a state of wonderful, picaresque disrepair. There’s a sign outside the town advertising gas, food, and a number of other services. The name, though, doesn’t fit: it’s advertising for Tonopah. If you’re not much mistaken, you’re in Goldfield. You had a friend, growing up, with a last name something like that, you think.
It’s a main street kind of town and the main street is the highway. You’re forced to slow way down, since they put a huge bend in the road, bring you down to 25 miles an hour, hope you’ll stop and stay a while in Goldfield, you see. We try to pass through the town, try to make it the extra 30 miles to Tonopah. But you have to accelerate to get back up to something resembling highway speeds, and this costs gas. You get just outside of Goldfield and your range his 12 miles.
“You think we can make it on that?”
“Yeah. Well, I guess we turn around, then. Maybe we try that general store?”
Of course! You haven’t eaten since breakfast; at the very least you’ll be able to get a meal, maybe some chocolate to warm your spirits. You know from long experience that you get grumpy if you don’t eat. Stories from road trips past — ah, you think, best to dwell on that another time. Best to focus on making it back into town on what you have.
The car still somehow says 12 miles when you stop in front of the general store. Half the shelves that face the door are empty when you walk in.
You both head immediately for the food, for the line of coolers containing drinks and cheese and Lunchables, yes: Lunchables, for the win. Always for the win. As you’re paying for yours, you casually ask the woman at the counter if she knows anywhere you might be able to buy a gallon of gas. You just need to make it to the next town. If you get a gallon, you’re sure you can make it.
“I think my husband might have one. Or, better, go back up to the museum, the green building at the entrance to town. I think he sells gas. Tell him Tangie sent you.”
“Okay, the museum? The green building? And it was ‘Tangie’ who sent me?”
“Do you think he’ll be open on a Sunday?”
“I don’t know if they’re open, but… he’s always there.”
Snickers bar, bottles of water, lunchables, place to get gas, a guy who’s always there.
You drive back to the front of the town, slowing for each green building you see. There are two, broken down and abandoned, and then the third, which, judging from the radio antennae sticking out of the roof every which way, is the radio museum.
And sure enough: he’s not there. There is, however, a number you can call, and so call it you do. The sign reads, “EMERGENCY GAS. $20 for 2.5 Gallons. CALL XXX-XXX-XXXX.”
You call, no answer. The answering machine is for the museum, not the gas. You don’t leave a message, but hang up and try again. This time an answer. Gruff, but not unfriendly.
“Hi, I was calling about your emergency gas? A woman named, Tangie, I think it was, told me you might be able to help.”
“Out of gas, are you?”
“Alright, well it’s twenty dollars for two and a half gallons. Well, really two point eight. But it’s twenty dollars, you understand that?”
“Yeah, twenty dollars. Got it.”
“Alright, I’ll be there in about fifteen minutes.”
You don’t begrudge him when it’s closer to thirty. You hope back into the car, driver-side and passenger doors open to try and persuade a breeze to blow through, and you eat your lunchable.
“Is there someone coming?”
“Yeah, he said it’d be twenty minutes or so.” (You once had a boss who told you that they key to business was ‘expectation management.’)
“Yeah. His only thing was that he wanted us to be sure that we understood it was twenty dollars.”
“Well, I bet he gets a lot of people who are pissed to pay that.”
“Beggars can’t be choosers.”
A beat-up truck with an off-color camper shell pulls up in front of the Goldfield Radio Museum and you get out of your car, thinking well, this must be him.
The man is a little taller than average, and the kind of man who clearly used to be fit but has been drinking perhaps too much beer for a few too many years. He’s got his keys hanging from a lanyard around his neck. There’s a spent bullet shell hanging from the keyring, too.
“Hi there, thanks for helping us out.”
“Oh sure, oh sure.” He waves it off and walks over behind your car.
“What state is that? I can’t see beneath that thing you’ve got on there.”
“Ah, I was born in Missouri!”
“Yeah, but then I was in the Army, in Berlin, and then I moved to L.A. But I made it the hell out there! I escaped, see. Climbed over the great San Bernadino Wall and swam up the Colorado River until I made it to Nevada. Where abouts are you from in Missouri.”
You tell him something like the truth. “Kansas City and St. Louis.”
“Oh yes, one of my favorite radio programs is broadcast out of St. Louis, I think. You should listen to it, especially if you’re interested in the paranormal and the weird. It comes on around one a.m. our time, so that’d be what, two a.m. your time?”
“Something like that.”
“Alright, so you need some gas.”
“Ah, ran out huh? What kind of milage do you get in this car? Is it new? Pretty dirty.”
You tell him something like the truth again. “Not really new, but I get about forty on the highway.”
“Yeah, well you know what they say about driving in central Nevada.” He laughs.
“No, what’s that?”
“If you see six gas stations in a row, you fill your tank up at every one!”
You’ve been standing in the sun talking to him for a few minutes now. You’re wishing you would have put on a hat: it’s a little after one thirty and you can feel your exposed neck cooking. The man finally starts making his way over towards the back of his truck. You follow, see a gas can, a couple of funnels, a milk-crate full of wires, and paint stains on the bed.
“Now only one of these funnels works… hm.”
The one he pulls out first has a big crack running down the bottom of it. You point this out to him.
“Ah, there it is! I need to remember to buy another. I keep it in here to remind me… but here we go. And this can here, I know I said it’s two and a half gallons, but it’s really closer to two point eight.”
“I see, well that’s nice.”
“Yeah, now you hold this and go put it in the car, and I’ll fill it up, here…”
Neither of your hands are particularly steady, but you get the job done.
“Oh, now is that your girlfriend in there?” He pokes his head in. Your friend, who had been playing on his phone, acts like he doesn’t hear and waves a hand. “Oh!”
“Yeah, my high school buddy.”
“Oh, and where are you headed?”
“We’re headed to Zion. We think we might stop in Vegas for the night, though.”
He tries to convince you that you should instead, since it’s another — how many? — hours until you make it to Vegas, stay local, that there’s a really nice hotel up a little ways past Tonopah, just past the gas station. You insist that you’ll probably head the way you were intending, but thank him for the information all the same.
“Now, are you using a GPS or a real map?”
“Both.” This is a lie. You’re using the GPS on your phone.
“Well, good…” Not the answer he was expecting. “Well, you know what I always say what to do if you have a GPS, right?”
“Put it under the your tire there and drive in reverse!”
Hearty and nervous laughter, respectively. You’ve already had to replace one phone this year, remember.
“Oh yeah, well thanks again so much for helping us out.”
“Yeah, no, it was my pleasure.”
You duck into the car to get some money with which to pay the man. Your friend hands you a ten and you find another crinkled up in the console and walk back over to the man’s truck. He’s putting his gas things away and has two water bottles in his hand when he turns back around.
“Need any water? It’s free!”
“No, thanks, we got some at the general store.”
“Are you sure, it’s pretty hot out here…” He begins telling a story, insists one more time that you should really just stay local, since it’s already so late and all.
“We’ll be alright, but thank you. Here. Twenty, right?”
“What do we have here? A Jackson?”
“Oh yes! Hamilton. I preferred Jackson, though. You know they’re talking about getting rid of his face on the twenty?”
“Yeah, I’d heard that.”
“You’d think they’d get rid of Franklin. He wasn’t even a president.”
“Alright, well one last thing, you don’t want to use your GPS to get up there, because there’s this little road that it’ll want to take you on. One little road that’s one point three miles faster to Tonopah — one point three miles, see — and the dumb GPS will take you that way because it thinks it’s faster. But that road’s not paved, now, and so you’ll have to slow way down to take it, and you just wanna drive straight through on 95 till you get up there. Don’t listen to the GPS, you hear?!”
“Yes sir, thanks for the tip.”
“All right now. And remember you were in Goldfield, Nevada. Tell people about us, tell ‘em nice things. And come back to the Radio Museum. See that antenna knocked down over there? I’d put that up, but we had a storm last week and the wind blew it down. But pretty soon, soon as the FCC gets their shit together, there’ll be a new radio station coming out of Goldfield, though I haven’t decided what I’m going to play on it yet. Something that’ll piss people off though, maybe far-Right talk radio and polka music. Something like that.”
“Well good luck with it.”
“Same to you. Remember, you were in Goldfield.”
“Goldfield, got it.”
You shake his hand, and get back in the car, start it up, and pull away. Your tank’s a quarter full, and you drive north up the road towards Tonopah, taking the big turn at thirty miles per hour again.
“What a weird dude.”
“Yeah, I was listening the whole time.”
“You know what though? He was missing some of his pinky finger. I felt it missing when I shook his hand.”
The General Store in Goldfield, NV
*The Radio Museum where we bought twenty dollars of emergency gas*