Thursday, February 4, 2010

Six Stars

Highway 50 has been called the loneliest road in America. As one travels it from the Utah town of Delta, through the state of Nevada to the California border, there are times when the road is the only visible hint of human existence. If there was an end to the world one could travel highway 50 and never quite reach it. At night the sky is one of the blackest available on dry land.

Nevada hosts some of the greatest excesses of conspicuous over-lighting anywhere on the planet. Even Las Vegas and Reno are insignificant areas of glow on highway 50’s horizon. Even the gazillion candle-watt lamps pointed straight into the sky along the Vegas strip are swallowed by the intervening distance and apparent emptiness. When there is no moon a car’s headlights make the world small. On highway 50, when the moon is new, the vastness compresses the car and its driver into insignificance. This weekend the moon’s last quarter will be weakly waning.

If 50 is lonely, part of the reason is the breakup with highway 6 that occurs in Ely Nevada. Highway 6 is fiercely independent and wild. It takes off into empty parts of the map where features are named just to fill in the space. Highway 6 is not lonely though, it is anti-social. Highway 6 wants to be alone.

There are ghost towns along highway 6 that are populated by mischievous poltergeists. Far from everywhere an artistic arrangement will be made of highway detritus. The spectral jesters’ message is clear: “we are watching friend, and we will mess with your mind”.

I once saw a man walking alone down highway 6. He was pulling an all-terrain shopping cart by means of a rope-harness assembly. He was approaching the center of a wide valley. In the center of the valley was a road bend formed by an obtuse angle of two laser-straight intersecting lines. The road could have traveled a broad arc through the valley. The gradual turn would have saved time and asphalt. The angle, though slight, was an abrupt feature. When they laid out the road, the engineers must have used their enviably straight rulers to draw the best path from one someplace and then they drew the best path from someplace else, here in the valley those two lines intersected. It was the only feature the road had in the valley. There was a widening of the shoulder where people had pulled off at the bend like it was a destination of some sort. When I saw him the shopping-cart man was over an hour away from the bend. I wonder if he stopped there for lunch?

I would like to put up one of those roadside marker pillars at the road bend. On it I would put a plaque that read:
Many years ago two arbitrary lines
intersected right here on an engineer’s map.
 Now you are reading this plaque
and it is an important place in the world.
Perhaps there should also be a small concrete bench there so people could stop and have lunch more comfortably.

I have engaged in nighttime fieldwork near desert roads. Just outside of the tunnel-vision attention zone of the passing cars’ headlights I remained unseen. I did not know anything about the occupants of the speeding cars, but I imagined they felt me watching them. On highway 50 you are small and alone. On highway 6 you know that things are watching you from the edge of darkness.

The giggling night things are not there to watch the few cars that race highway 6 each night. They are there to see the stars. The darker the moon is; the brighter the night sky is. If Carl Sagan had glanced at the sky while traveling highway 6 he would have immediately realized that his estimate of “Billions and Billions” of stars in the universe was a serious underestimate. There are few places where starlight alone can define a horizon. The night things of highway six are standing with their heads out of the Earth’s open window into the cosmos. They feel the cosmic wind on their upturned faces. They open their mouths and their tongues flop out into the rush of flowing star stuff. They breathe heavily the cosmic scents carried by the places the Earth speeds through. Sometimes they accidentally swallow an insect. Mmm…tasty.

Today I plan on traveling Highway 6. I will travel it en route to, of all aptly named places, Death Valley. There I will be running a 30K trail race. I may travel at night, so I have stocked up on liquid caffeine for the trip. I will be alone, amped up, and laughing at my spiral progress through the universe.

I had originally planned on running the Death Valley marathon, but training issues have caused me to re-asses my goals. I overtrained enough to suffer a slight knee injury. The knee injury is healed, but I am now undertrained for the race.

My goals for the race are:
1) Finish in under five hours (they close the course if one is slower than this)
2) Finish in the top 95% (Since everyone must travel to the event I think the DNS contingent will put me into this group should I finish DFL amongst the runners)
I am confident that I will be able to achieve all my goals. I would really like to finish in under four hours, which should also be possible.

Some of you are thinking: “AOA’s goals are too easy to be worthwhile”. To you I say: “Death Valley in February is one of the most beautiful places in the northern hemisphere”.

Some of you are thinking: “AOA is so slow that I could almost run as fast as him”. To you I say “Enter the races, embrace the adventure!”.

Some of you are thinking “I wish I could travel with AOA to Death Valley”.

We could crank up the Corolla’s heat against the sub-zero desert cold, then open the windows to let in the night wind. Maybe we would have strange electronic music on the CD player, maybe we would be listening only to the rush of the freezing air through the open windows. Our fingertips would meet somewhere between the stick-shift and the parking-brake lever. We would trace each others’ pulse from tip to palm to wrist. There we would linger, testing the sensation of pulse for accuracy. discerning a beat similar to, but not my own, I would know that I was not alone in the car.

With great joy we could poke our heads out the windows and howl at the night sky. The things at the edge of darkness would stop their giggling for a moment to howl at the universe in return.

To you I say: “I wish you were here”.

I will, however, be alone on this trip.

I will try and remember to stop at the big valley bend and toast the forgotten highway 6 engineers with a caffeinated soda.

I will remember to roll down the window and put my face into the wind. I will open my mouth and let my tongue roll out. I will breathe the scent of star stuff and be glad.

I may even catch an insect.

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