Wednesday, July 6, 2011

MAP QUESTS

      It’s around 10:30 AM when I turn off into Nevada City and find a parking spot along the main street.  Around the corner is the Café Mekka, a place I’d been in a few years ago, a funky, high-ceilinged coffee house with comfortable old velvet covered sofas and small tables where a few people sit with computers, holding forth with coffees in the warm Gold Country morning.  Locals wander in, checking in with the owner-proprietor Cory who fills my order for a latte.  He’s okay with me taking a few photos and I try and become unobtrusive, snapping natural light shots of the interior, catching a couple engaged in conversation across the room, another with a computer rigged up and glowing.  Cory has perfectly drawn the flowery spot of cream on the top with a simple design that signifies a knowing barrister.  He gives me his email so I can link him up to my blog post.   

The Mekka has broken-in comfort

  The Mekka Café has timeless appeal, the inherent vibe of old San Francisco, the Haight Ashbury, the muted plush upholstery of Victorian California, high windows looking out on the street, the hushed back bar with toppings and flavorings for everyone’s favorite coffee drink. 

     Further up Highway 49 I stop in Downieville for gas.  Townspeople are setting up chairs, gathering around the square for the 4th of July Parade.  The streets are filled with people strolling, holding hands with children and Grandparents, bikers looking for like souls, and I creep through town, working my way past sidewalks and coolers, lawn chairs, citizens of all ages and generations waiting for the beginning of a brightly sunlit march celebrating the birth of our country.  Further up the road in Sierra City the scene is the same, the cool rushing water of the Yuba River a bit thinner as I head up the canyon, but the river runs the canyon and foams over smooth rock, hidden currents bucking against flattened surfaces of shelves and ledges.    

Lassen rules the Southern Cascades

     Mt. Lassen is majestic, and from the eastern shore of Lake Almanor, it is magnificent.  Earlier, I stop in Graeagle for a sandwich at the Country Store, a wonderful old-time market where I made my own ham and cheese sandwich, added a small carton of macaroni salad for a great lunch sitting on the front porch at a picnic table along the highway.  I’d parked the Jeep around the corner at the small lake full of youngsters floating on mattresses and tubes.  Lassen cuts a long horizon of snow and rock above the timberline and the young volcano is alone in this southern portion of the Cascade Range.  Through the Feather River Canyon, the highway is high above the rushing wild stream, high arching bridges span the river for the train tracks that bend and curve through the grandeur of the Plumas National Forest.  There is little traffic, the sun is bright and warm, the Feather River a treasure all its own, hiding in the deep canyon running swift and bubbling over shoals and cutting into whitewater gorges spraying mist and mystique along its path.  Lake Almanor spreads out from the shore’s edge all the way to Mt. Lassen, gleaming in the distance across miles of deep blue water cut with spreading ripples of boaters’ wake. 

     Later, I pull into Reno and head downtown, past the University of Nevada Reno campus, brick and modern steel, an urban campus in the classic small town that is the ‘Best Little City In The World’, according to the local slogan.  The casinos rise steep and steely creating their own urban canyons, and the road leads past the Reno Aces minor league Triple A stadium.  I continue on through the southern part of town, catching up to US 395 into Carson, stopping in Minden at the Carson Valley Inn and Casino.  The stairs creak, the old palace a standard stop on the way from Nevada back into California, a wonderful warm spot, and the dinner downstairs at Katies Grille a fine one.  Prime rib, two beers, a five spot for the bus girl who hustles all through the dining area.  Fine chandeliers, imitations of the classic gaslight style lanterns hang overhead, and Katie’s has a comfortable friendly local buzz as waitresses glide through the room and diners enjoy prime rib, steak and ice cream sundaes.

     At 5:45 AM I’m down at Katie’s again, and the waitress asks if I need company when I ask for a booth.

     ‘We’re bored’, she says, and I tell her I’m heading down into Nevada, to Yerington and Hawthorne, looking for UFOs and alien beings in Area 51.  She suggests otherwise.

     ‘Boring country.  There’s nothing to see.’

     ‘Area 51?  It’s literally off the radar, isn’t it?’ I say.

    ‘Maybe illegal aliens,’ is all she can muster up.  My waffle and sausage are hearty.  I pore over the map of the area getting ready to head out.  By 6:30, I’ve bought a case of water and gassed up and I’m on the highway heading south.  I cut off on Highway 208 through a carved slot canyon bathed in morning light and a stream rushing to daylight, coming out in the valley into Yerington, picking up Highway 95 into Hawthorne.  The road leading into Hawthorne passes hundreds of concrete bunker-like structures lined up in rows that reach almost all the way to the far hills across the small valley.  Hawthorne is home to an Army Weapons Depot.  Ammo is king.  In the main part of town, I pass the Ordinance Museum, and although it’s not open this early, I’m able to grab a few photos off of their website when I’m back home. 

Cluster bomb at the Ordinance Museum, Hawthorne, NV

     Next up is Tonopah, a hill town next to a mining enterprise, a grey haunting feel to this drab bit of history.  Earlier, I’d tried to find Walkermine, where Mom said she’d spent her first year of teaching, a year she said she wouldn’t trade for anything.  I’d wanted to find it, but I couldn’t find references for it on any of the maps, and there were no road signs.  Duke said he’d spend time in Tonopah, so I’d been anxious to find it.  It lived up to it’s ‘middle of nowhere’ description, and nowhere, in this case, is west central Nevada between stretches of lonely two-lane road and military bases testing ordinance and surveillance craft that send lights bending in the distance at night and searing blasts of killer-ammo that seek heat in the dark.  Gas, McDonalds, watching bikers gearing up in leathers and helmets, checking their maps, getting ready to roll.  I head south, looking for aliens, UFO evidence, seekers, wanderers, savages, travelers, lost souls searching for truths in hard scrabble desert they say no one wants to travel anymore.  I’m not one of them.  This is my prairie, this is my searching, my quest, not a serious gamble on alien beings but a personal battle against the fear of the unknown, desolate stretches of un-traveled, uninhabited land that’s been picked clean by miners and military testing.  This is where the atom bombs were tested, earth that has cooked mineral deposits until ready to scrape and harvest, water scarce, heat abundant and deadly.  

  I want to search the scorched and parched dirt and dust and come up alive and ready for more.  It’s a car trip, not a dangerous covered-wagon journey, but it’s my drive to survive, a confrontation with lonely desolate uninhabited portions of the American West.  I’ve been to mountain ranges, hiked the peaks and camped in the wild forests, floated the Snake and Salmon Rivers, and this completes the contest for me.  Like my last trip to Death Valley, the fear and inhibition recedes, the loneliness and isolation confronted.   

My appetite quenched.   

For now.  

Until the next journey.   

When the siren sounds.

1 comment:

Timecheck said...

Footloose, poignant. Makes me envious in a way, but I travel in twos now, and for me, that works better.