According to my friend David, the coolest part of the trip was up ahead – something about a virgin. No, we’re not talking about a sighting of the Virgin Mary or two species of fish, the Virgin spinedace and the Virgin River desert sucker. We’re talking the Virgin River Gorge, a staggeringly beautiful canyon carved out by the Virgin River in the northwest corner of Arizona. Red and brown cliffs form the steep and overhanging limestone walls of the gorge, a huge draw for rock climbers, hikers and campers, except on a day like today when you could literally fry an egg on the pavement. OMG, the heat! There’s not a wave left in my hair and my forehead is being seared by the hot July sun. But the terrain is stark and bewitching, calling me to take a few more photographs. And I most certainly comply.
Back on the road we continued north to Barstow, a California town made famous in songwriter Bobby Troup’s classic American tune “Route 66.” U.S. Route 66, one of the original U.S. highways, ran from Chicago to Los Angeles and was decommissioned in 1985. Troup’s lyrics pay homage to America’s love of the automobile and the lure of romance and freedom found on the open road.
Beyond Barstow the Mojave Desert, home to the Mojave National Preserve, stretched some 22,000 square miles, a vast desert characterized by broad valleys, parallel mountain ranges and little annual precipitation. The outside temperature was well over 32 degrees Celsius (over 90 degrees F) and it wasn’t even noon. In the distance, what seemed like a mirage shimmering in the morning light was in fact Soda Dry Lake, a playa lake formed under arid conditions when water drained into the basin with no outlet to the sea or ocean and quickly evaporated, leaving a crust of minerals such as sodium carbonate. It was a breathtaking sight, an unexpected jewel in the desert expanse.
Las Vegas was the very antitheses of Soda Dry Lake. The flat afternoon light painted the city in tones of gray. Where was the magic, the sparkling lights, the carnival-like atmosphere I’d seen in photographs and in films? I imagined the riot of color against the night sky and the sound of dice rolling across casino tables as men and women cast their lots for a dream. And in a blur the city was behind us.
First pit stop: Victorville, Calif. Regular was priced at $4.39 a gallon, an 18-cent increase over last night’s price in La Mesa. Although David had heard that gas prices would be higher in Utah, we found the least expensive fuel in Cedar City at $4.08 a gallon. In Tremonton, near the Idaho border, gas was priced 11 cents higher than in the southern part of the state. Justin Wolfers, a guest blogger for the New York Times blog Freakonomics, elicited many reader comments on his “taxonomy of concerns” associated with rising gas prices. It’s definitely worth a read and a comment.
Okay, whose idea was it to rise at 4 a.m.? Not a creature is stirring. Not even the birds are singing! David, a high school friend and professor at San Diego State University, and his family own a cabin in southwestern Montana. And that’s where we’re headed at such an ungodly hour of the morning. We’ll log 1,200 miles on the open road, traveling through six states and two time zones or is it three? Holy Mackerel, it’s too early! My eyes are barely open! With two thermoses of coffee in hand, we hop in David’s Kia and set out for Interstate 15, one of the longest north-south transcontinental highways in the U.S. Before morning light surrenders to dusk we will feel sweltering heat, watch gas prices fluctuate and cast our eyes upon lands swathed in hues of gold, red, copper, and green.