Most of us reacted to eighteen months in the unwelcome company of COVID-19 the same. We reflected on our time with Mr. Virus and wondered, “What would we have done more of?” More get-togethers? More travel? More dinners out? Yes, yes, and yes. But instead, we hunkered down and waited for things to get better. Our routines became more… routine. Everything faded to black and white. Clocks came to a standstill. It’s the same feeling I had, coincidentally, enduring a drive from Colorado to California earlier this month.
Maybe you’ve made the trek: Denver to San Diego via Interstate 70 and then Interstate 15. Sounds so clean and easy, doesn’t it? Two highways. Plenty of lanes. Rocky Mountains on one end and Pacific Ocean on the other. Yeah, well, it’s all the mind-numbing in-between stuff that makes you want to burst through your sunroof and flag down a helicopter heading west. There’s a whole lot of nothing in the desert.
The problem with this drive (which was not a flight because my wife & I wanted to bring our bikes) is the beautiful part comes first. From Denver, it’s four hours of majestic snow-capped mountains, rushing rivers, red rock canyons, and breathless (literally) summits as you cruise on over to Grand Junction. There’s good reason America the Beautiful was penned in the Rockies.
But don’t get comfortable. Once you reach Grand Junction (which isn’t so grand), beauty takes a big break. Pretend you’re a marble inside a rolled-up blanket. Then someone flips that blanket out and off you go, rolling across the flattest, most desolate desert floor you’ve ever seen. The mountains reduce to buttes reduce to sand dunes reduce to nothing. The highway morphs from all sorts of curvy to ruler-straight. Your cell phone signal goes MIA. You suddenly feel parched. And you wonder, why-oh-why does the dusty sign say “Welcome to Utah” when there’s nothing welcoming about it at all?
So it goes in middle-eastern Utah. Every exit is anonymously labeled “Ranch Road” (and why would you want to exit anyway?) The highway signs counting down the mileage to Interstate 15 march endlessly. When you finally do arrive at I-15 (your single steering wheel turn the entire journey), you bring out the balloons and the confetti and do a happy dance. YOU MADE IT ACROSS THE MOON! Well, sort of. Now you’re just in central Utah.
I-15 wanders south a couple hours to St. George. It’s probably a perfectly nice place to live, but St. George reminds me of the Middle East. Squarish stucco/stone buildings, mostly white. Not many people on the streets. The temperatures quietly ascended to triple digits when you weren’t looking. You realize you’re starting to sunburn through the car windows.
But then you make it to Arizona (briefly). The landscape changes, suddenly and dramatically, as if Arizona declares, “Take that, Utah! We’re a much prettier state!” You descend through curve after highway curve of a twisting, narrow canyon, rich with layers of red rock. It’s the entrance to the promised land! Alas, Arizona then gives way to Nevada, and here my friends, are the proverbial gates of Hell. Welcome to the arid, endless, scrub-oak-laden vastness of the Mojave Desert, where everything is decidedly dead except for a brief glittery oasis known as Las Vegas. The Mojave looks like it wants to swallow you whole and spit you out (except spit requires water so you’d probably just be gone forever).
Hang on to those dashboard gauges for dear life, friends, because it’s a full four hours in the Mojave broiler before your car gasps past the “Welcome to California” sign. In those hours you’ll call your kids (one last time?), declare your final wishes, and wonder why you didn’t visit your parents more often. Anything you see in motion off the highway is probably a mirage. If you do make it to California, you’ll pull over and kiss the
ground sand before wondering, “Hey, how come California looks exactly like Nevada? Then Google Maps smirks the bad news. You’re nowhere near the end of the Mojave Desert.
Baker. Barstow. Victorville. Hesperia. You’ll pass through each of these towns and wonder, a) Why does anybody live here? and b) Is this the land that time forgot? But finally, mercifully, you’ll descend the mighty Cajon Pass (the outside temperature descending alongside you), burst forth onto the freeway spaghetti of the LA Basin, and declare, “Los Angeles. Thank the Good Lord. I must be close now”.
Except you’re not. The Basin is dozens of cities, hundreds of miles, and millions of cars collectively called “Los Angeles”. Hunker down, good buddy. The Pacific is still hours away.
Here’s the short of it. My wife & I made it to San Diego. The car didn’t die in the middle of the Mojave. Neither did we (though I left a piece of my soul behind). We even rode the bikes a few times. But I can’t account for those nineteen hours behind the wheel. It’s like Monday morning became Tuesday night in a single blink. Just like 2019 became 2021 without much in between.