1997 BMW Z3 to the Mojave
Portland to Burns
The drive was completely and utterly boring down I-5. Ever since looking at the expanse of I-5 back east, I expected grand views along this highway. How could we have made such a beautiful part of the country seem so featureless as it does just north of Salem, Oregon? Turning east, the sights and smells began, and the trip felt like it was finally underway. We zipped through Cascade towns that saw the worst parts of the 2020 Oregon Wildfires. The towns were rebuilding themselves as communities often do. I admired those places we drove past. If only Portland could find some post-Portlandia sense of community to build a new sense of pride. Or maybe I was unfairly projecting my own emotions onto that place. But it was causing those emotions. Regardless, I was glad to be out of the city.
The Continental ExtremeContact All-Season tires were starting to be put to the test on the untreated mountain passes. A few minutes up the hill from the town of Detroit, the town that used to be there, the slush began. We drove by a restaurant we sat in just a year ago for lunch. All that was left was a charred outline of the foundation. The whiteout started at the Santiam Junction. Our speed decreased until we settled into a steady crawl at 15mph. The rear-wheel drive car felt like I was balancing a basketball on a waiter's tray. Luckily, the rear axle was a few inches behind my seat, so I could feel the tires lose grip before the car moved. I'll take a communicative chassis over all-wheel drive any day. Never in the hours that followed between Bend and Burns was there any traction out back. It was a never-ending balance between throttle and traction. It was fun as hell. There wasn't anything to hit. The occasional plow truck every 30 minutes. All-season tires work in deep snow. You simply have to drive at half the speed of everyone else and get out of their way when they want to pass. But time was not a factor in this trip. When you're confident in your car's reliability, and you give yourself plenty of time to reach the hotel, straightforward motoring enjoyment can take the place of crippling anxiety.
Our first stop was at a Burns hotel. For the first time since coming to Portland over a year ago, I got to see what it's like to watch snow fall from a window. I spent the whole night watching the snow fall on the desert. It was incredible. Better yet, this was one of the first times I could park my car outside my home and not worry about someone breaking into it. It was a great start to the trip. The spotless undercarriage and finely waxed paint were finally getting a workout. I imagine for the first time in the car's life.
Burns to Hawthorne
The next day, the sky started to clear up. We stopped at a small cafe outside Burns. This was the kind of place where Covid never went. We loved it. As soon as you walk in, you become part of whatever is going on. That day, one of the waiters was fixing a vending machine next to our table. The waitress was talking about the snowstorm to one of the cooks. And we sat there drinking coffee with a dog nearby, watching it all unfold. It was the kind of place where you can't stare at your phone. You don't even take your phone out of the car. You sit and you drink coffee and talk to others. It was a refreshing reminder of an America many people do not see.
The first half of the day was spent climbing slushy mountain passes. Eventually, one of them opened up into Nevada. The vast expanse of the American West lay out in a straight line. The Z dashed by at a comfortable 80mph, passing one old mining town after another. The understated, nameless mountain ranges guided the road south and provided a spectacular horizon at every angle. It is only in Nevada that you can understand the true vastness of the desert. I now understand how people used to worship lonely mountain ranges. I do not understand it living on top of asphalt. But here, I get it.
We made it to Fallon, drove around in a few circles, and decided 6 relaxed hours was too easy for one day of driving. We kept going to Hawthorne. We stayed here and got a beer at a bar for the first time since the pandemic hit. It was a revelation, a return to familiarity. The people we were surrounded by reminded me of those from my hometown. It just happened that their hometown was on the other side of the country. People didn't really care about wearing masks. Why? Because COVID hadn't hit their town and they had no plans to go anywhere else. I didn't blame them. It's a different country. We had a great time sitting at the bar drinking beer that wasn't crafted or served in a pretentious glass. It was boring, and it was fun, and I felt great.
Then there was the casino. I hadn't been in a casino since I was a kid. So we walked around and were immediately hit by the cigarettes. Again, a usually undesirable experience was welcomed and enjoyed. Although we gave up trying to figure out how to get a beer at the bar. We had to sit down and gamble for someone to pay attention to us. We did a lap, breathed in all we could and returned to the hotel.
Hawthorne to Las Vegas
The next day we got up, pointed the hood at Las Vegas and drove in a straight line towards our next destination. After several days of beautiful Nevada desert, I stopped thinking about the mountain ranges that guide the road on either side. I began to only think about our destination, which for me was somewhere I’ve only read about and was fascinated by. As we approached, the traffic thickened. The feeling of an impending metropolis came out as more and more lanes were added to the two-lane highway. More and more aggressive drivers, billboards, strip malls, gas stations and whatever else makes up every single outskirt of all American cities. And then the strip appeared. The nostalgic evening light hit it as it has for decades, the buildings shining as if to outdo the setting sun - man’s attempt to completely and utterly overcome nature set in. Lights brighter than the sun. An air that felt like it never fluctuated in temperature. This city was like Niagra Falls a thousand times over, to the point where it becomes fascinating again. The Boston Green paint of the Z3 was struggling to emit its bright blue hues being covered in layers of brown Oregon salt and gravel. Had this car been perfectly waxed, it would have shined wildly amid the rainbow of light.
Our hotel was a pyramid that emitted light as if to direct aliens that this is where our world leaders reside. The entire city would seem to extraterrestrials like we believed this was our center of the universe. That being said, our hotel was easy to find. And the legendary Vegas hospitality set in as soon as we started to interact with our first person. I guess the idea is you come here to spend loads of money so everything and everyone at the hotel is placed to comfortably send you on that path.
The city started to lose its sense of wonder as we walked out onto the strip to find something to eat. We figured why not head to Guy Fieri’s restaurant when in Vegas. Such a task was impossible. Even though there was a blaring virus epidemic, getting reservations was impossible. I guess the walls that separate the common people from that fake show-biz world were bigger than I expected. You had to pay to be a part of the matrix, and thousands were emptying their wallets as every single chain restaurant we walked into was full to the brim of those willing to sell their soul to get a seat. It was fascinating that such a world worked so well. I never got the feeling in Niagara Falls that the tourism overload worked for anyone or really made sense. Here though, it worked. The ass-end of American culture created a magical wasteland of happiness that was real for so many people. I was still fascinated.
Las Vegas to Joshua Tree
Sitting in the diner the next day, we made the call to get out of Vegas while we were still intrigued by the city. I could feel the fascination dwindling the longer we stayed. It didn't help that after all that wide-eyed wandering last night, the city still had the same predictable, undesirable hallmarks of every other American city - endless blocks of trash, drugs, and horrible roads full of angry drivers. It was not a good setting for a 25-year-old convertible and two people looking to escape.
As we left town, we turned off the highway and entered what Google Maps designated as The Mojave. The Z3 did not like this road. It was flat and wide open but full of texture and cracks that didn't play well with the roofless chassis. I did not like how the Z3 felt incompetent on some roads and composed on others. It took away from that 90s BMW power steering feedback coming through the steering wheel. 75% of the time, it's a BMW. 25% of the time, it's a ladder-frame truck. We soldiered on through the open ranges, stopping often since there were no cars or buildings anywhere, and silence is a privilege in today's world. Unlike the terrain in the Pacific Northwest, down here, you can park the car, get out, and start walking in any direction you want. Bright orange in all directions to keep you warm.
But the desert was cold. The setting sun was not keeping us warm in the cabin. Luckily, the heater in the Z3 is quite effective in the small space it operates within. We stopped at the side of the road where an abandoned tractor sat, axel-deep in sand. This land must belong to somebody. Somebody worked here and, at some point, decided this tractor was useless to them and left it there. The words "Illinois Tractor" were inscribed by hand on the side. The valve springs sat compressed atop the valve cover, exposed to years of wind and dust. The potential energy locked in those springs will sit under pressure for another few hundred years. Bolts were locked onto their threads, never having been touched. I sat and stared at the inner workings of the Illinois Tractor. This hunk of steel and iron will sit here in this sand for longer than most apartment buildings in Portland. This tractor will still be here when the seventh Comcast tower in Philadelphia is scheduled for demolition. If we build our cars and houses like this tractor in the sand, we would not have to worry about the Koala bears losing their habitat. We wouldn't need a new home every five years; we wouldn't need a new Land Rover every two years; we wouldn't need a new wardrobe every month. We sat silent, leaning against this old machine, and listened to the desert. It felt great to get out of the creaky plastic car and feel the infinite longevity of the natural world without needing to be somewhere or want something for no reason. Such is a peaceful existence.
Then, we came across a sign that looked oddly familiar. It was Roy's Motel and Cafe. I had seen this sign pop up on Instagram incessantly for years. Sitting in bed looking at my phone, I've always dreamed about standing under that sign in person. I can now say, in person, it felt sadly nostalgic. It felt like the feeling I had come here to have left long ago. Such is the sense of nostalgia. It's always a few miles ahead of you, no matter where you go to find it.
Joshua Tree to Palm Springs
Even though we completed our journey and made it to the Mojave, we decided to make our final destination Palm Springs since we were ahead of schedule and the Z hadn't missed a beat. And Joshua Tree was right there. We pulled into our hotel room at Twenty Nine Palms and spent the evening wondering if we were still on planet Earth. I could spend a lifetime in this desert wilderness, but like everywhere else on this trip, we had but a few hours to walk around. It was a sci-fi movie come to life. Millennial tourists like us swarmed the trails. You must leave the main trails in Joshua Tree for a truly silent experience.
Palm Springs to Fresno
I liked Palm Springs. Like many things along this trip, it was so different from the black skies and trash we had left up North. I felt good as a traveler in this town. It was beautiful and I took it for what it was in the few hours we had to explore. We left Palm Springs and it was all about getting home at this point. The car had a long way to go. In my head I have a distant image of the Los Angeles skyline amongst hills and a purple sunset. Because of time and the fact that we made it to where we wanted to go, any more sightseeing was put on hold.
Fresno to Ashland to Portland
I forgot everything about this part of the trip. Only when we got to Mt Shasta in Northern California do I remember seeing much of anything. Central California I-5 reminded me a lot of the Willamette Valley. Mostly grass seed farms as far as the eye could see. It was like a 28th-century planet where every piece of ground was terraformed into flat nothing. What is our obsession with grass as humans? Why do we want to cover the earth in grass? I guess I love the desert so much because we can't do much with sand.
Why is the return always depressing? Why is it always raining at home after a vacation? With every passing mile marker, the sky grew darker and darker. Ten minutes past Eugene, the downpour started. Nothing is worth talking about from here on out.