The Roadtrip Journals

I am a firm believer in the restorative power of driving to faraway lands with a ragtag crew and a carefully crafted playlist, which is why I talked my poor, unsuspecting parents into a 13-hour journey to the Best Coast a few weeks ago. This summer is shaping up to be a dream, but it’s also a tad weird on the emotional front, which means the notes I kept as we ventured out are somewhat less than digestible. I’m still fond of a few scraps of thought that came out of it, though, so I’ve stitched those together. Grab your Ray-Bans and turn up the self-aware alt rock, we’re going on an adventure.

Miles and miles of trackless desert, and all I can see is water. There’s the Great Salt Lake, with its pulsing mass of seagulls all congregated on gritty peninsulas, and the shimmering white remnants of Lake Bonneville. But the interstate plays at fluidity, too: a shallow puddle seems to glaze the tarmac, perpetually eluding your pursuit. It’s a cruel mirage that makes you crave a pebble beneath your tongue even as you drink from a bottled spring.

The pretense is contagious: soon, the variegated mountains seem to swell with a current, and the brush conspires with sand to mimic sunlight glinting off the sea. Either I am starved for shore, or the lonely desert imitates the ocean.

***

Sometimes, it’s hard to believe that podunk towns aren’t just a collective practical joke. We’re stopped in Winnemucca, Nevada, where 104 degrees of dry heat feels surprisingly pleasant. But I just can’t get it through my head that someone named this thoroughfare Potato Road.

***

Driving into a storm that shrouds the mountains, everything in the foreground looks more and more 3-D. Out the window, the sage-green-banded rocks are dulled by grey erosion control netting. It’s cute how we try to impose our will on nature.

Abruptly, the storm breaks like someone emptying a vase of glass beads onto our windshield. The drops hit with force and skitter along our windows, sharp in contrast to the soft grey sky. I crack the window to let in a miniature cascade.

***

There’s nothing like the bracing sting of chlorine up one’s nose. Despite junglelike humidity, the pool makes for a strange kind of heaven: the best place to sink into the pleasant give of paperback pages. Later, in the empty parking lot with coppery plait still dripping, the breeze carries with it the scent of pines. If you close your eyes, you can almost forget the ticky-tacky taiga out there. In your mind, it’s a forest of trees, not billboards.

***

You know you’re in the Castro when the insurance ads are queer-rights-themed and a guy swooshes into the bagel shop on teal-sequined rollerblades.

***

It’s hard to be alone in San Francisco. There’s no buffer between all these pastel wedding cake houses and the roaring streets. But there’s at least one place where you can shut off the chaos and fill your lungs with quiet, still air. “Grace Cathedral: a place of immunity, anonymity, unity.” Yards of blue and red ribbons like veins hang suspended from the granite rafters. It is dark, save for the weak shafts of sunlight that cloak the altar and the crucifix. It smells like Sunday mornings, like wax and matches and burning wicks. Without warning, quavering organ notes shatter the silence and shake the floor. Dark wood, dark tremelos, a different kind of commotion.

The gift shop taught me that both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Harvey Milk are martyrs of the Church, which makes perfect sense. I want the corresponding icon candles.

***

We went to the pier today. Conclusions: I want to live on a sailboat, and while Rudyard Kipling may have been an imperialist old sod, he was still a pretty great poet.

***

The universe just conspired to create an uncannily perfect last moment in SF. By sheer accident, we exited via the Golden Gate Bridge, rolling onto CA-1 just as the achingly poetic song of the same name came up on our playlist. I’ll miss this sweet fog.

***

Nothing suggests eerie, post-apocalyptic America like a parking lot full of baking cars but no people. It doesn’t hurt that it’s adjacent to an over-air-conditioned movie theatre where you are a nobody and Brad Pitt is saving the world from zombies.

***

Rolling across the salt flats, imagination surging. Lyle Lovett keeps us company until we arrive, catching the last fleeting trace of a recent rain. It’s good to be home.

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