It’s a beautiful valley in an unexpected place, south of Elko, Nevada, deep in the desert, and with the mist hanging in the air it looks like some primordial morning, suggestive of a time before Man.
But it’s not a time before Man and that’s not mist. That’s smoke, and its been there for days and will be there for a few days more, drifting in from the now-yearly-but-getting-worse California conflagrations.
We are in Lamoille Canyon and we drive along the only road, deeper and deeper. We meet a woman, an anthropologist studying the indigenous Indian tribe who, when the virus hit, hit out and has been camping ever since, writing her book. We meet an officious pretend-park-ranger who is really a maintenance contractor who insists we pay the parking fee, having stayed over the allotted fifteen minutes grace period at the parking area, three of these minutes spent using the restroom, the remaining twelve responding to his questions.
Along the steep incline off the road I spy what looks convincingly like gold laying on the surface, a nugget the size of my fist that I spend several minutes with, studying it through my binoculars.
We’ve been on the road now for over five weeks and we are a day or two from home and the closer we get the grimmer it becomes. The sky is solid overcast and yellowed, the air smells burned and unfriendly.
The Lamoille Canyon is called the Yosemite of Nevada but that is pure boosterism–the crowds here were no match for those in California, no tour buses vomiting up fifty, sixty, seventy parasol-toting tourists at a time, no squinting old ladies holding their iPads aloft, swinging about, trying to snap the selfie-shot.
There’re no real waterfalls here in Lamoille, that’s true. Yosemite does have nice waterfalls.
We want to hike but the smoke thickens, and we wonder whether we should be out here breathing it at all. We reach the end of the road and explore on foot a bit, then turn the FJ around and drive again, telling ourselves every few minutes that we’d come back.
Heading west on I-80 across the Nevada desert is like approaching a mini-Mordor, the gloom deepening in tandem with the dread. At dusk we drive past where the fire had crossed over the highway the night before, traffic backed up then for hours.
With every mile my thoughts turn more and more to the lockdown that awaits us, and the smoke, and the rolling power outages, and the political turmoil, and just half an hour up the road the tent encampments in San Francisco and people shitting on the sidewalks in daylight on busy streets, the homeless meeting your stare, unblinking.
I look back on this drive now and I chuckle. It was still only August.
This is the final post in a series of articles chronicling a 2020 cross-country trip with my wife and two daughters and a boyfriend, from California to Ohio (to visit family) and Pennsylvania (to drop off my oldest daughter at grad school), and then back. We spent over five weeks on the road during the pandemic.
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