The Road To Reno (Part One)

I drove up to Reno on Friday from LA. I drove, because flying is such a pain in the ass these days, especially since Norman “egalitarianism at any cost” Mineta made them end the expedited security lines for first and business class passengers.

I rented a car, because my Honda needs new CV joints in one of the axles. It makes that ominous little clicking noise when you make left turns, as though it’s tsk-tsking you for not maintaining it better. That’s not so bad, but it also has a resulting shimmy at about 75 that is a good simulation of a jackhammer–it’ll rattle the teeth right out of your head. I can take it, but I was afraid that a thousand miles of it would send the car to its final rest. Since the State of the Union speech, I’ve taken to calling it the Axle of Evil.

Anyway, as I said, I rented a car.

I am always frustrated when renting cars–they don’t make one for me. At least, not unless I go to one of those places like EXOTIC CAR RENTAL up in Beverly Hills, that hit you for a couple hundred clams a day for a BMW or Lamborghini. With standard rentals, I can’t get what I want, even though it wouldn’t cost that much if they had it.

The problem is that, first of all, I despise automatic transmissions, but it’s almost impossible to rent a stick any more in the US, probably because most people don’t know how to drive them these days, and the rental companies don’t want to be continuously replacing clutch plates, flywheels, throwout bearings, and gears ground to a fine powder.

Also, I like small cars in theory for the fuel economy and handling, except that the rental agencies’ small cars have lousy fuel economy, because they all come with auto transmissions, and most of them don’t handle for cheeze whiz, because they’re not just small cars–they’re cheap cars. And being “economy” cars, they don’t have amenities like cruise control, which I’ve become spoiled enough to consider essential for long road trips. So I usually end up getting a larger car than I’d like to just to get a little quality.

Except for this time, when I found a deal of a week’s rental for $139.00 for a “compact.”

When I got to the place to pick it up on Thursday night, it turned out to be a Metro, which I’d never previously thought of as a “compact,” but rather as an anemic motorcycle with four wheels. They had nothing larger, and no prospects of getting one before I had to leave. So on Friday morning, like John Glenn in that cramped Mercury capsule, I contorted myself into the little white car, and headed off to the northwest. (Here’s a good bar bet, by the way. Make a wager as to which city is further west–LA or Reno, Nevada. You’ll win every time if you take Reno, at least if you have an accurate atlas handy.)

After I fought the traffic through Sepulveda Pass, I made good time up the 14 Freeway to the Antelope Valley. It was a trip with which I was intimately familiar, because two or three years ago, back in the good old days before the Axle went Bad, I was doing it almost every day on a commute in the Accord–a hundred miles each way from LA to Mojave.

Just as you’re getting into Palmdale, the freeway crosses the San Andreas Fault. It’s one of the few places that it’s very well defined, and can be seen from ground level, if you know where to look. It’s a range of rippled hills right by a reservoir, and they define the southern edge of the Mojave desert. If you look at a satellite image of it, it’s a very clearly-defined line angling from northwest to southeast, separating the gray-appearing desert from the mountainous areas. And if you let your eyes follow it up to the northwest, you’ll see another one that combines with it to form an angle, an arrowhead pointing west–desert inside, mountains out. That upper one’s the Garlock fault.

Anyway, as I’m crossing it, and hoping (as I do on each crossing) that this isn’t the time that the northern section chooses to throw off the moorings and depart from the southern one, in that cataclysmic phantasmagorical Richter-eight extravaganza that those techtonical illiterates from back east are alway telling us is going to convert Arizona into oceanfront real estate, complete with sand, surf, roller bladers, chain-saw jugglers, and cheezy tee-shirt stands dispensing crude and unamusing apparel, I see three parallel contrails crawling across the cloudless sky. It looks like an improbably large cat is clawing an azure sofa, and slowly releasing the diaphanous white stuffing within. I don’t know if it was two aircraft escorting another, or Thunderbirds training, or what, but it’s the kind of sight that you’ll only see in this part of the country, at least on any kind of regular basis.

Passing through Lancaster, just south of the turnoff for Edwards AFB, I see a billboard advertising the financial benefits to be gained by forming a Nevada corporation. It lauds said advantages with white words on a backdrop featuring the Tetons. Speaking as someone who actually has a Nevada corporation domiciled in Wyoming, in the shadow of those same mountains, I know that they’re nowhere near Nevada, and haven’t been since at least the Mesozoic period, when Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth. Certainly it was long before state personal or corporate income taxes were of concern to anyone–it was a feature of modern life, like asteroid avoidance, that the thunder lizards never mastered. Anyway, it doesn’t quite constitute fraud, but it’s certainly misleading.

As I drive past the town of Mojave, I glance over at the airport to estimate the current health of the airline industry. It isn’t good. There are many more planes parked there than usual, dozens of them with US Air paint on them.

Forget Janes, forget forecasts from The Teal Group, forget all the cooked numbers coming out of the airlines trying to keep their stock from tanking. If you want to know what’s going on in the business, just drive up to Mojave, which, it turns out, is one of the places where airplanes go to die, or at least to be mothballed, when there is insufficient demand from the leasing companies for them. The desert climate there is good for preserving aircraft, at minimum storage costs, until demand picks up again. So the Mojave fleet size ebbs and flows in an inverse relationship to air travel levels, and right now it is huge. Thank you, Norm Mineta.

As I get onto 395 north, which will take me all the way to Reno, and head past China Lake, I realize that the car isn’t as bad as I’d feared that it would be. It seems to be able to pass, if not quickly, and doesn’t seem unhappy cruising at 70+, though the speedometer maxes out at 85, and it sounds like all of the squirrels are running in their cages under the hood at such a speed that their frantic little legs are just a blur.

I pull over at Coso Junction for gas, and a rest stop. Gas is outrageous, compared to LA–at least forty cents a gallon higher. In the restroom, there are not just one, but two dispensers of the traditional prophylactics. Just insert three quarters, push-in, pull-out, click-clack (there’s something symbolic about the very act of purchasing one), find a willing pelvic affiliate, and relatively-safe connubial bliss can be had for anywhere from three minutes to an hour or two, depending on skill level and endurance. Is that a bargain, or what? What a country.

And truck-stop toilets carry a variety that can never be found at your local Rite Aid–you have to get out on the open highway for them, out into the Real America, Red Country, where the people voted for Bush by wide margins. You can get a lubricated one, a ribbed one, a Glow-In-The-Dark one, one of seemingly every color in the spectrum (all of them garish), one with a multitude of tiny knobs on it that will have her (or him, if you’re bent that way) Screaming For More, an ultra-thin one for Extra Sensation, and one that comes with its own spermicide, just in case you’re concerned (as well you should be if you buy one in a place like this) about tiny sperm-sized leaks.

There doesn’t seem to be any way to combine the features, though. What I really wanted was a lubricated, ultra-thin, glow-in-the-dark, passionate pink one with little knobs in between the ribs, but it wasn’t to be had, for six bits or any other price.

I think that the truck stop of the future, if it’s a future worth living in, will have a little nanoassembler on the wall above the urinal, into which you’ll punch the specifications, and then insert your three quarters, upon which, using the restroom’s fragrant hydrocarbon-rich air as the construction materials, it will quickly fabricate some sort of diamondoid-reinforced thingy that will not only adorn itself in living, swirling phosphorescent colors, but will also feature a dynamic surface texture that alternately converts dimples to bumps and back in sympathetic rhythm with the amorous exertions of its wearer. If your personal or social hygiene is sufficiently pathetic such as to preclude a conjugal companion, it will have sufficient power, strength, and dexterity to provide you with groinal solace all by itself.

And for an extra twenty five cents and three minutes, it’ll build you a partner of your gender choice. And only fifty dollars more to make him/her/it interested in you.

The whole experience, as usual, returned my mind to pondering the question that has flummoxed mankind throughout the ages–just what is it that they dispense in women’s restrooms?

Heading north, I pass Owens Lake, or what used to be Owens Lake, before Mulholland appropriated the water out of it and shipped it down to LA. They say that the Owens Valley used to be lush and green–a riparian paradise in which huge flocks of waterfowl blackened the skies, you couldn’t walk in a straight line across the meadows, they were so thick with all the deer and antelope playing, and the lion lay down with the lamb. I suspect that it’s a little exaggerated.

But the dry lake bed is a little depressing, if eerily beautiful, and the dust sometimes blows off it all the way down to Ridgecrest, where residents sometimes have to wear painter’s masks when the winds are intense to keep the abrasive particles out of their lungs and nasal passages. There was recently a deal cut to have LA leave enough water to at least keep the lake bed moist, but it wasn’t obvious how well it was working.

The whole thing to me is a testament to the insanity of California water policies and politics, in which we subsidize farmers to grow rice in deserts while draining natural estuaries and overcharging the cities. Got markets? Not here.

Further north, the high Sierra come into view–the snow pack seems low for late February.

Mt. Whitney is the highest point in the lower forty eight, and it’s only sixty or so miles, as the buzzard flies, from its peak to Badwater in Death Valley–the lowest point. It’s hard to pick the mountain out unless you’re familiar with the profile, because there are other, lower peaks that are closer, and appear to be higher than Whitney itself. Pulling into Lone Pine, in the shadow of Whitney, the mountains temporarily disappear behind the butt-ugly Alabama Hills. If I were in charge of the Lone Pine Chamber of Commerce, I’d start up a fund to level them, so that the mountains could be seen from the road up to Whitney Portal, which starts in town. As it is, there’s little to visually motivate one to head up the highway.

I continue to head up the Owens Valley, past the ruins of the old Nisei internment camp at Manzanar, just south of Independence, through Big Pine and Bishop. North of Bishop, the road climbs up into the mountains, toward Mammoth and the east portal to Yosemite. Up at eight thousand feet, I’m in the pines, and there’s snow on the ground, but the road is clear.

[To be continued]