A Far Cry from Vegas

Highway 50 through Nevada is called "The Loneliest Road in America," 380 miles from Carson City, at the western end, to the Utah state line at the east. Across this expanse sit four towns - only four - and the space between is long, open, without sign of human existence save for the pavement you're driving on.

The landscape is termed 'basin-and-range,' for there are a number of mountain ranges that run north/south, perpendicular to the road, with wide valley basins dividing them. It is a surprising terrain; the nature of the road changes drastically as one travels from basin to range and back again.

The basins are immensities of romantic desolation, long and wide and flat, and the road peals out in a straight scream to the horizon. Then, approaching a range, the air becomes cooler, and the road winds and curves in switchbacks that traverse the mountains, and junipers appear, and the straight flatness of the basins become a memory.


The Winding Way

If Day One was defined by unexpected horror, Day Two was one of unexpected bliss. I set out from Sacramento to cross the Sierras, headed for the tiny valley town of Gardnerville, Nevada. The Sierras had been my one looming worry before starting the trip, and after my experience with the Diablo Range, I did not have great expectations for this day.

I set out early and left the city streets of Sacramento in the early dawn. By midmorning, I arrived at the foothills of the Sierras and hopped on Highway 50, a beautiful, loping divided highway with sweeping curves through forests of cedar leading up the mountains. It was completely devoid of cars - my own private racetrack; the perfect road to practice riding curves and getting comfortable with speeds above 50 mph.

I left Hwy 50 and jogged over to a small, obscure road called Old Emigrant Trail. The Old Emigrant Trail is a dream - an old two-laner so densely lined with evergreens I could have reached out and touched bough after bough after bough as I rode along... I needed that hand for the throttle though. It was so quiet. Cars and trucks approached from behind but I got competent at looking ahead for pullouts so I could ease over and let them pass me, rather than being panicked by the presence of someone on my tail. Always, they would pass with a wave, especially the giant truckers. There was an easy sense of friendship and camaraderie and peacefulness between all of us on this hidden, secret road.


Day One, Part Two

The day continued to be awful. When I stopped shaking, I got back on the Vespa and onto a long flat road through the countryside and into farming land. The day had gotten hot, I presumed it was over 100 degrees. Feedlots lined the road, crammed with cows standing in the dirt like lost souls in limbo. Their stench hung in the hot air; when semis passed in the opposite direction, the furling air and horrible smell conspired to knock me off my ride. Overwhelmed, nervous and lost, I wondered what the hell I was doing.

As the feedlots faded down the road behind me, traffic dissipated and thousands of tiny yellow butterflies whirled and danced in the air for one long stretch of the road. A beautiful sight - but tears fought for release as the butterflies splattered against my Vespa, against my face shield, against my jacket; unavoidable deaths because of their number.

Soon I reached the cities of the Central Valley and traveled surface roads north to Sacramento. A bank sign in Stockton showed the temperature was 109. I was dripping with sweat in my black leather, and forced myself to drink a sip of water at each stoplight, wondering when, when, would this day end? When would I finally reach Sacramento and my grandmother's little trailer?

When I did reach my grandmother's home, I opened the door and fell to the floor, unable to walk or move, and sobbed out all the overwhelm and stored fear and self-pity. I truly believed that day might be both the first and the last day of my trip. It was a day that lasted ten, and though I couldn't possibly fathom it at that point, I would soon learn with delight they all would be.


Day One, Part One

On the first day of the trip, I rode from the Bay Area to Sacramento, CA, and it was unequivocally one of the worst, most horrific days of my life. It began soft and wondrous, setting out into the unknown adventure in the misty dawn, a scattering of stars still visible. The day grew light and warm as I rode past the cities and the suburbs to where the land opened up and the scent of sage was heavy in the air.

To get to the Central Valley and Sacramento, I had to cross the Diablo Range, a small range - certainly not mountains in the Western sense. I was too busy worrying about having to cross the Sierras the following day to give any fear to my morning's ride across the Diablos. I-580 is the main route of travel between the Bay Area and the Central Valley, but since I wanted to stay off the interstate, I chose what appeared to be a rather obscure secondary highway.

I approached this little highway via a lovely wooded road with no traffic, calm scenery and lots of birds. I was feeling so good, so in control, so right on the road. Things changed in an instant. The moment I turned onto the highway I was swept into chaos, into conditions of insanity - at least for me, on day one, on my tiny Vespa.

The highway itself was a two-laner, one lane for each direction and no divider in between. It wound up steeply in great sweeping curves, following the landscape of the dry hills, and it was packed with cars, trucks, and semis rushing in both directions.

Hypnotic golden hills of windmills rolled like waves in every direction, growing and dropping, overlapping to the blue-sky horizon. The huge spires of the windmills grew out of the ridges of the hills like rows of giant white flowers, their petals giant blades, spinning, mesmerizing.

I pushed the Vespa to 70 mph in an attempt to keep with the flow of traffic - at that speed, I felt like I was going to take flight, and still I was not going fast enough for the drivers behind me. There were no turn-offs, no shoulder at all; there was nowhere to go but straight ahead and straight ahead was a curve. A semi grill loomed enormous in my rearview mirrors, racing down the declines just feet behind me. One wrong move or jerky turn or hesitant reaction and I knew I would be laid out in a crash, the semi on top of me in a semi-second.

I nearly threw up inside my helmet twice from fear and desperate helplessness, and I could feel the moment when pure animal survival-instinct stepped in to overcome my rising panic and simply keep me upright. When we reached the Valley, the highway leveled out and I spotted a fruit stand. I pulled over, parked, and stood beside the highway, shaking.


View From The Vespa

Above and Below

It is no longer the road itself which captivates, overwhelming my eyes and filling me with awe; the sky I travel under is what mesmerizes me now. I've been so taken by the characteristics of the road - the colors, changes, textures and routes, the sways and swoops; now it is the sky. The endless sky, so large here - open, dancing with clouds, open, nothing but blue. The sky, a depiction of all human expression: the darkness, purity, strength, and brightness; at times tumultuous or gentle; and, regardless of mood, always open - openness its only constant, a visual example we do our best to exist under.



Sunrise through the fog this morning - thick, three-dimensional fog that swooped and hovered above the road and river. My nose ran down my face from the cold but it was worth it to be out in such ethereal beauty. The road climbed in elevation and the fog lay in the grass, among the trees and calm wandering horses, softening tones and the borders of things. I rode towards Jackson in the dawn; a sign showed it was 42 degrees. Ten degrees above freezing! At 50 mph it felt beyond freezing. And there were the Tetons, pink and glowing in the sunrise, rising through the mist that lounged along the valley floor, spiking the lavender sky.


Through Fire And Into The Divine

I had a great apartment in San Francisco. It was a small, older building; classic, with high ceilings and huge windows, wonderful worn wood floors, and a hallway with a domed archway. It was my first apartment with a hallway; I adored that hallway. At 3 am one night, a crash woke me from sleep, followed by a woman's screams. I opened my eyes and all there was to see was orange - orange light so intense, so magnificent, it was like the color orange in solid form. Someone had poured gasoline through the mail slot of the front door of the building next to mine and lit it. As this was downtown San Francisco, where all the buildings touch and all are made of wood, the fire had jumped over to my building, exploding out windows as it burned through the stories. The fire destroyed both buildings and killed two of my neighbors that night.

Insomnia ensued for two weeks while I stayed with a dear friend and her family; then I set about finding a new home. Instead of renting another apartment downtown, I decided to move to an obscure hilltop neighborhood. My new home was a tiny jewel surrounded with jasmine and wild roses. With the money I was saving on rent as the means, and the inaccessibility to public transportation as the rationale, I bought myself a Vespa. I had never been on a Vespa before I bought mine, and though I had been on the back of a motorcycle, I had never driven one. I didn't have my motorcycle license yet, but I got my permit, had a lesson, and knew I was destined to ride. Riding a Vespa feels like a cross between riding a horse and skateboarding in the sky. It's exhilaration and meditation, awareness and surrender, chaos and craziness and extraordinary peacefulness all at once. It requires being completely in the moment - or risking serious injury. It is so much fun.

The fear of having my home burn down was my single greatest fear for as long as I can remember. Yet the fire, and the subsequent events that sprung directly from it were so infused with magic and miracles, I was stunned into a realization that would prepare me, a year later, for my trek across the country....

When I told my mother I was planning to ride my Vespa from San Francisco to New York, she gasped. She was not alone in her horror - I soon learned the common reaction was one of shock and fear. Many people expressed concern over every horrible thing that might happen to me on the road. One way of looking at my decision to go is that our freedom can be taken, in various ways, without warning - so why allow one's fear to take it? And everything "bad" that could have happened to me on the trip could happen to me anywhere, anytime, in the most seemingly benign environment. However, the deeper truth that the fire helped me to learn was this: bad things happen to give us the opportunity to realize there are no bad things. To not have gone would have been to turn my back on faith (plus, I'll take any occasion to wear leather pants).

Incidentally, I was never harmed. I rode through lightning, got chased by buffalo, spent the night with at least one felon, and got lost every day... but I was never harmed, or hurt, and nothing bad happened.


Population: 67

Interior, South Dakota is a tiny town on the border of The Badlands and Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. I stopped for gas and ended up staying three days. In the parking lot of the gas station - which didn't have any gas - I met Greg, ex-boxer, ex-trucker, and the owner of one of the town's two bars. We hit it off, and I followed him to his bar for a break from the heat.

Soon after I arrived, Lonnie, a deliberate, silent cowboy, brought his longhorn steer into the bar. A saddle was perched high on his massive back, and so up I went, my head nearly touching the ceiling as I sat atop this giant, gentle beast.

After hours of laughter and stories and countless cups of the most delicious iced tea, it was time for me to keep on down the road. Instead, Greg invited me to stay with him and his girlfriend in the trailer where they lived, in the bar parking lot. I accepted. My three days in Interior felt like a month, and I met all the characters that came into the bar - the cowboys, the bikers, the Sioux. Everyone was rough, tough, and wild, yet our conversations were deep and intimate, and I learned more about the heart - our own true Interior - than I ever expected.


Thinking (Salt Lake City)

I'm in a different time zone, but time has been different since the moment I began. Each day has felt like ten for all that I have seen and felt. Even the cells of my skin seem to be jumping, reaching, trying to grab a piece of what surrounds me to hold onto and remember forever.


A Whole Lot O' Buffalo

It's hard to take buffalo seriously until you're surrounded by 200 of them. From afar, they look rather bizarre; lumbering, disproportionate, almost silly. When you can hear them breathing as they stare you down, it's another story entirely.

I was cruising through the Black Hills, on gorgeous empty sweeping roads, crests and dips, crests and dips. I rode over a hill and descended straight into a herd of free-ranging buffalo. These massive beasts lined both sides of the road and spread up into the hills, dotting the grasslands as far as the eye could see. Huge bulls stood four feet away from where I rode, trembling, in awe and afraid; each one five times the size of my Vespa, their heads larger than my entire torso and adorned with conical black horns. Ignorance is bliss and I didn't have that luxury; I knew these guys could run - fast, up to 35 miles per hour.

I soon realized that forward was not an option. I was flanked by buffalo where I was, and others stood in the road ahead. And so, I made the decision to turn around and find a different route, frantically praying the Vespa's headlight wouldn't anger those it crossed as I made a slow U-turn in the middle of the road.

I tried to avoid eye contact - because isn't that what you're supposed to do with wild beasts? But it was an impossible feat - everywhere I looked, a pair of big brown buffalo eyes stared down at me. I made my way back through the herd, hands sweating, my entire body shaking. A bull twenty feet from the road thundered into a run. Was he after a lady buffalo or after me? I didn't stay to find out. I opened up the throttle and was out of there.



The sun was just rising and the air had a hint of cool to it from the night, though the promise of new heat was evident. I rode slowly down the wide highway toward Badlands National Park, past dry, open prairies, the Badlands on the horizon like torn paper against the sunrise. They're like icebergs in reverse, made of heat and contoured by wind, and soon I was in them, and they grew around me, and as they did my amazement grew as well.

The Badlands are hard to translate. They appear to be made of sand or dust, fragile and delicate though massive. And yet they have a kind of shell - one can walk up a crest without sliding; sometimes you leave a footprint, sometimes, no trace. I cruised through and around this strange terrain, the Badlands pulling me deeper in, the road following their shapes in steep curving rises to crest and point and drop, down, down, steeply into the heart of this landscape, and from there all that you see are prehistoric peaks growing from you in every direction, penetrating the sky.


What I See

Sometimes I separate myself from myself and see this girl on the road on a tiny scooter, amidst cars and trucks and 18-wheelers, states away from anything she knows, 2000 miles from where she began, and I think what the heck is this girl thinking? It really is insane. And I only get that view for a glimmer of a second here and there; otherwise, it all seems perfectly normal and not out-of-the-ordinary whatsoever.

Sometimes I separate from what surrounds me and see myself - a glance at a dusty boot, a shoulder of black leather in the rearview mirror - and I realize, I am here! I am doing this! I'm in the middle of nowhere I've ever known, flying along four inches above the ground, and I laugh! And I feel like the luckiest person alive.


Gassing Up

I pull into a gas station and a giant RV is parked at the adjacent pump. A condescending and pointless remark from the man as he pumps gas: "there you are girl - we passed you ages ago." Well, here we both are, Dick. The woman looks at me wistfully from the passenger seat and tells me how brave she thinks I am, that she could never be that brave. I believe she could.

I pull into a gas station, fill my tank, clean the face shield of my helmet with the window squeegee, down some water. An older couple approaches me from the other side of the station. They're carrying a green disposable camera and ask if they can take my photo. I laugh and blush and say sure. We chat, they snap; after a few hollow clicks of their plastic camera they thank me and walk back to their car arm in arm.

I pull in to top off my gas in the middle of nowhere Nevada. It's not even a town; it's a place with a sign. I'm about ready to go and the tallest, thinnest cowboy pulls in. I smile, he looks at me and says with a slow, lyrical drawl, "You drivin' that thing across the country?" I say yes. His drawl is almost slow motion. "If it weren't impolite, I'd say that takes baaalllls."

I pull into a gas station that is swarming with Harleys. I'm fairly intimidated, riding into the mix on my sparkly little white pony. The moment I stop I am surrounded with bikers, full of smiles and questions and stories. They invite me to Sturgis. The women who ride on the backs of these Harleys fall completely in love with the Vespa. They righteously declare that if their men don't want them driving motorcycles, then damn! They are going to get Vespas!

I pull into a gas station across the street from a Senior Center. There's a carload of elders - three very old ladies in the backseat and two old men up front. I smile and wave as they drive out in front of me, staring. One of the women gives me such a smile back, it seems as if she is concentrating all her energy and willing herself into my skin, into my body, even into one of the snaps on my jacket, just to be along for the ride.


Before Leaving

I look at my route on a topo map and part of my heart becomes quite still and my lungs start working overtime. There are no lines, there aren't even curves, just these schizophrenic marks, frantic and erratic, scribbled across the enormous Sierra Nevadas.

This opportunity thrills me, it really does, but the glory of the ride ahead is dampened and dulled by my worry of Others. Maybe reckless, maybe simply on a faster ride, I cannot stop questioning, wondering, analyzing: will someone coming up from behind me be able to keep from crashing into me if they come upon me suddenly in one of these innumerable blind corners? How split can a second get? And while I trust myself and trust the road, why can't I extend the decency of trust to other riders on other journeys, these individuals I know I will encounter while on mine?

Here is my cynicism (that humankind is an oxymoron); here is my need to control (that I can only stay safe if I am the one acting, that if I leave it in the hands of anyone else I may as well be toast). Here is my challenge - to believe that other people are around to help me, not to harm.


In One Minute

It's what you see, what you feel, what you notice now and now andnowandnowandnow. Say it fast - that's how fast it's all coming to you as you breeze down the road. Now the air is a different temperature; it's warmer - all of a sudden - with a gradation back to cool as before. Now a bug WHAM on the face shield, cheek level. The sound of impact is startling, just for one moment. Now you see the individual end feathers fringing the wing of a great hawk, who is motionless but moving as fast as you are in the air slightly above you and to your right. Now a car sails by in the opposite direction, sunlight gleaming and bouncing off the metal contours. It's past, it's down the road behind you, it's gone. Now the road changes form - it dips and curves, bending itself into a large sweeping curl. It's three-dimensional, this curve, you're inside it, and then you are it, you and your machine and this road curve together into one feeling of flow... The light on the long green grass breaks you out of this reverie, this oneness, it is so beautiful you have to be yourself to look at it - separateness is necessary in order to gaze upon it - and you slow down, there's no one around, and you go quietly by, taking in the yellow-green light warming these blades of grass. And now one minute has gone by.


Hwy 50: Nevada/Utah border

We Shall Not Cease

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always -
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of a thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
(from 'four quartets')