Western Odors in an Eastern Direction (20060731)
Heading east from Winnemucca. Seth Rosenblatt (c) 2006 Four years ago, when I drove out of Boston, I made a point of checking out Metaphor, the Tree of Utah. It's one of the many large-scale oddities that dot our landscape, providing a veneer of culture where none exists except in the frozen yoghurt. Heading back the other way, to help drive my brother to Missouri for graduate school, I remembered something else: Metaphor might be the Tree of Utah, but methane was definitely the Smell of Utah. The pong of methane infested my brother's car's vent system within 30 minutes of entering Utah and wouldn't release its stinking grip until we were on the edge of Salt Lake City. That leg of the ride was painful, not only because of the smell but because we kept making fart jokes at each other. Maturity goes out the window when you're trapped in a metal box hurtling through time at 80 miles an hour that just reeks of then inside of a cow's butt. We should've expected something bad to happen. Bad Things happen in Utah, and our first indication that something was amiss was that border crossing. It was the American version of the Thai-Cambodia border, where the level of civilization and infrastructure on the Thai side appears to be about 57 years ahead of their Cambodian neighbors. West Wendover, the last town heading east on Interstate 80 out of Nevada, looks at night to be Vegas in miniature. The road goes up a long, steepish hill and as you come down on the other side, you twist around the side of another mountain and then, for all intents and purposes, you can turn off your headlights and get out your sunglasses. The neon lights in West Wendover, population 4720 as of the 2000 census, were more suited to a city 10 times its size. Casinos and bars and truck stops and RV parks as far as the eye could see - which, if you haven't figured out by now, was quite far because of the ridiculous amount of light pollution. Decadent West Wendover quickly became dead Wendover at the border. The change would've been shocking, except that that kind of ultra-convservative lack of life and joie de vivre is what Utah is culturally famous for. Not only that, but physically the two Wendovers were symbolic of the two states that hosted them. Where West Wendover was all neon and modern life, I could see only one street from the freeway that was illuminated. This, at only 11 p.m. If you'd ever wondered why the aliens landed in Nevada, instead of Utah, just look at what the two states have to offer. In Nevada, you get legalized prostitution and gambling. In Utah, you get snow and mountains. Besides, what kind of nutcase tourist board thought up polygamy? More than one wife? No thanks! Metaphor, the Tree of Utah. Seth Rosenblatt (c) 2002 Nevada, of course, had an entirely different set of smells. The electric charge of the air as a summer storm geared up had a freshness to it that smelled clean and crisp, but was probably just the creosote cooling down. More than anything else, the overwhelming, nose-hair singeing amonia that almost made my eyes water in the Elko casino where Brother Aaron and I stopped to gamble away my last $20. Luck, however, was with us that time, and we broke even on the electric "pokies" as the Aussies call them. ("Pokies" are those stupid gambling machines where you drop your money in and poke a button to watch it dissipate into the ether.) Despite leaving San Francisco at 9 a.m., we didn't get to the California-Nevada border until three. There was a two-hour traffic jam about 50 miles east of the city, and it didn't let up until we were almost at Sacramento. The differences between Asia and America stood out for me there, as well. In Asia, you'd never find a traffic jam with only one lone person in the car. Four, maybe, but six or 10 were more likely. Yet so many of those people stuck between Albany and Davis were driving solo. The only benefit of hitting the Sierra Nevada, the mountains that run the border between California and Nevada, the final resting place of the Donner Party, was that in the afternoon, the scents of the sun-warmed trees mix with the clean mountain air in the most intoxicating way. Memories of childhood vacations to the mountains blended with pre-adolescent weeks at summer camp and were topped off by more recent excursions, all bounded by that warm California oak and Ponderosa pine. It all came rushing at me, much as an 18-wheeler did as it stopped short. I saw it in time, and stopped short with no casualties and only a smigden of rubber left on the road. There were, in fact, no injuries of any kind on this trip, no small feat for those who know my brother and I. As kids, we couldn't get along even if other people's lives depended on it - let alone our own. I was the kind of older brother who would tell Aaron that the Challenger explosion was his fault. I did not, however, actually do that, but I did other things of equal caliber. Strangely, bizarrely, both of us have always felt that we should get along even if we couldn't. So not only was the drive not a pressure cooker frothing over with tension, we actually spent most of it talking to each other, without a single stinking frothing incident to be seen.