It was the end of my first year as a graduate student, and my personal stock had risen somewhat due to long hours of hard work. Now a fabulous opportunity presented itself in the form of a research project in the northern Sierras in a locality known as Haypress Creek, which fell into my lap as a result of shifting academic fortunes. The hapless fellow who had been slated to go began an academic tailspin despite the initial excitement generated in the department by his excellent undergraduate grades. Meanwhile, my long hours of diligent work that first semester, in contrast to undergraduate grades that had not only failed to generate excitement among the faculty, but had gained grudging admittance on a probationary status, captured the slot. Good, graduate school had been an all-or-nothing proposition on which everything was gambled on making a success of the first semester.
I rolled northwest out of Fort Worth in my bright blue 1973 Dodge Charger, sliding past the luxuriant green prairie toward Amarillo. The Charger had been with me for just over five years, since being resurrected from what amounted to an open grave where it moldered under a tree in a biker-guy's yard. Acquired in California during the Army, it had made several cross-country trips with its new engine, and I had little doubt that it would make the journey from Texas to California. Besides, as a poor graduate student, there was really no choice but to utilize the resources at my disposal. The character of the country changed as I approached Amarillo, the green waving grass replaced by blowing dust. Mexican migrant workers shuffled along the road, bandanas tied over their faces as protection against the sediment-laden driving wind, in a scene reminiscent of the Grapes of Wrath. The dust storm cleared, revealing layered red, beige, and white sandstone and scrub grass, heralding my entrance into New Mexico. The varicolored desert slid past interminably as the blazing sun beat down. Due to the expanse and sameness of the scenery, a fixed point on the horizon never seemed to draw closer. Objects on the lateral horizons never seemed to draw abreast, making it seem as though I were simply sitting on the highway with the engine running. The thermometer on my Avocet watch read 105, but continuous glances at the temperature gauge revealed no impending doom beneath the hood.
After making the diversion to the Grand Canyon, too close to pass up spending half a day to see it, I resumed the westward journey on I-40. Nearing Kingman, the signs for Needles again reminded me of the Grapes of Wrath, although my path led northwest across the Hoover Dam. Fantastic rock formations, representing massive mudslides of past eons, lined the twisting descent into the concrete modified canyon, through which the hot breath of the desert was channeled. Crossing the dam, with the distinctive four intake towers protruding what appeared to be a short distance above the surface of the reservoir on the right, belied the dizzying crag on the left. The 318 chugged and rattled up the steep incline, straining to propel the steel body of the Charger onward to Las Vegas. Dusk, then darkness, descended as I guided the Charger along the bustling thoroughfare, nervously increasing speed well above the posted limit, but still cars flowed past me like water diverging around an obdurate boulder in a stream. My plan had been to stop for the night in Las Vegas, where it was rumored that good hotels were cheap. A casino hotel beckoned from the urban strip off the highway, but much to my consternation, I was unable to find the road to the entrance and could not reach what stood right before my eyes. Frustrated, I continued northwest, determined to find a motel that required less sophisticated navigation skills to reach. With tired, frayed nerves after a long day of driving, the subsequent miles to Indian Springs were like sleep deprivation torture, but finally a "motel" sign beckoned.
In the morning, much refreshed, I started early in hopes of making a detour through Death Valley. Similarly to my brief detour to the Grand Canyon, I felt that I couldn't pass so famous a place as Death Valley without seeing it. The thermometer at the visitor's center indicated 100 at 10 am, as I meandered north through the park. Whether because of the high temperature, or increased air pressure at this low altitude, the Charger's temperature gauge began a steady, inexorable climb. I watched nervously as the sun-faded orange needle passed middle ground and reached the second-to-highest tick, then began the final push on the short, intervening distance to the last mark. Every extra bit of work required from the engine, even to climb the smallest hill, was matched with a corresponding rise in the temperature gauge needle. On downhill stretches, rolling in neutral at idle forced a retreat of the troublesome instrument. Climbing the last hill, the needle pegged on the top mark as I gently urged the 318 onward. I waited for the impending clouds of steam to boil from beneath the hood, but none came. Upon cresting the ridge of the Funeral Mountains, I immediate shifted into neutral and coasted down the long grade into Beatty, relieved at the corresponding rapid descent of the temperature gauge needle.
Now my spirits rose as my destination seemed within a day's reach. Passing through Hawthorne stirred memories of a previous visit to the army depot located there, which I had visited six years before. Finally, past Yerington and the short distance to I-80, and I was truly in familiar territory. While in the Army in Monterrey, California, I had traverse I-80 on so many occasions that the route was memorized. I rolled west on I-80, now retracing a stretch of road that was very familiar. Through Reno, there was the famous Circus-Circus that had always attracted my interest on previous trips. Here was some overlap with the past, as I had actually once stayed at the Circus-Circus while traveling for the Army. The hotel was also the last landmark that I remembered before my old 1964 Dodge had thrown a rod in the middle of Nevada, during an attempted return home for Christmas vacation some six years earlier. After Reno, I relived the experience of crossing into California, with the fir-covered slopes opposite the interstate. At last I reached Truckee, where I had also stopped during my first trip to California. In a d?j? vu-like experience, I found myself in front of the same motel in which I had stayed on that initial trip. It caused me to reflect that history was in some ways repeating itself, as if two lives were superimposed, the present upon the past. Although the places were the same, the circumstances were certainly different. On that first trip, I had been traveling to my first permanent Army duty station in Monterrey, fresh out of High School and running from a dead-end small town. My experiences in the Army had motivated me to go to college, and then on to graduate school. Now, here as a graduate student, I felt that I had come up in the word several notches from the first time that I had crossed the High Sierra.
Years later, I again had reason to return to Reno. This trip, nine years after the summer of field work in Haypress Creek, reflected a continued rise in my fortunes. In the intervening years I had continued in graduate school and acquired a doctorate, and this trip was not undertaken with an underlying feeling of desperation in an old car that required continual observation of the gauge cluster. This trip was all expense paid, accomplished with a cross-country flight and rental car at the airport. But in another episode of d?j? vu, I found myself at the Reno Circus-Circus! The temptation was too great to resist, and I pointed the rental car west toward Truckee, then north to Haypress Creek. If anything, the area seemed even more primitive, the roads even more narrow. But after working in the Rocky Mountains and Andes, the peaks no longer seemed as high and rugged as when I had first viewed them.
About The Author
I am a geologist, and have had some interesting experiences and travels over the years. I thought this was a particularly fun story because it shows how a person's condition in life can improve as measured against something stationary, like a place that you visit under different circumstances over the years. My real emphasis is on geology and mining, but it is fun to write some short stories. I have some more serious geology-related items at my web page: