My Strangest Encounter with a Person, Place or Thing in the West
All the things that happened on one trip across Nevada.
My strangest encounter with a person, place and thing in the West happened on a 2006 road-trip from Pagosa Springs, Colorado to Lake Tahoe. Highway 50 across Nevada may be the loneliest road, but it is not boring.
We first encountered road construction between Cortez and the Colorado/Utah border, not so strange in itself. From a distance, it looked like a go-cart race was in full swing, right on the highway. As we approached the construction zone, we saw grown men in orange safety vests manoeuvring go-carts up and down the highway. They appeared to be picking up pylons and moving them around, but really it looked like a little kids’ go-cart race. We never did figure that one out. In my whole life of living in the west, with highway construction every summer, I have not seen anything like it before or since.
We eventually arrived at Highway 50. It is a lonely highway, very little traffic, and were it not for the mountain passes, you could probably see the Pacific Ocean from Nevada. All of a sudden, a state trooper was bearing down on us, in our lane, erratically waving his arm out the window in a “SLOW DOWN!” motion, lights flashing, siren blaring. What were we supposed to do? There are not a lot of places to pull off the road on Highway 50, but he was not slowing down, nor moving into his own driving lane. We peeled off at the first spot we could, and stopped. Was it a massive manhunt for a serial killer? The biggest drug bust in history? Aliens from another galaxy? Headed straight for us was a convoy of semi-trailers, each with a small cabin on the flatbed. It is common to see homes and other large objects being moved across the west, but they are usually in pieces, sometimes with a “Wide Load” sign and pilot vehicles. These trucks were each hauling an entire cabin, driving on the centerline, the cabins filling the entire two-lane highway. One state trooper was, apparently, the only advance warning system.
This was certainly an interesting trip. My husband Bill, our friend Trisha, and I were headed to our now annual intensive aikido training seminar in Lake Tahoe, which happens every Memorial Day weekend.
After dark, huge jackrabbits jumping all over the road, then a sudden herd of antelope standing in the middle of the highway convinced us it was time to pull over and sleep for a couple hours. After everything else we had seen that day, the animals glowing in the headlights were almost surreal.
Bleary-eyed, dazed and confused, we resumed our sojourn early the next morning. We felt like we had taken a detour into the Twilight Zone.
On the outskirts of Austin, Nevada, Trisha was driving rather hesitantly. “There’s something all over the road,” she said. Sure enough, the road surface, for miles, was covered with something moving. What is it? She pulled over at the first opportunity, we rolled the windows down, immediately shrieked and rolled them back up. Crickets! Thousands and thousands of big red hay crickets, on a migration. We felt bad about killing so many, but didn’t want to wait for the entire swarm to cross, or perhaps take us with them.
What could possibly be next?
The shoe tree was next. East of Fallon, Nevada stands a huge cottonwood festooned with shoes. Hundreds of shoes. Running shoes, hiking boots, any kind of shoes that can be tied together by the laces and flung up into its branches. Who started this? Obviously, everyone passing had continued the tradition. The tree grows in a ditch; fallen shoes lie scattered below.
We were nearing Fallon, looking forward to breakfast. While we much prefer the wide open, uninhabited spaces, we were starting to think we needed to talk to some other people to see if we were indeed still in this dimension.
From a distance, we saw a huge sand dune, with something swarming all over it. As we neared, we were sort of relieved to see it was not covered with giant crickets or other insects, but rather with ATVs. Sand Mountain, the destination for locals to spend a weekend camped in an RV, listening to the constant roar of their machines. Well, some people probably think we’re crazy to drive all the way to beautiful Lake Tahoe, to spend the weekend inside a gymnasium repeating the same movements over and over again. To each her own, that is what we love about the west.
We have made the same journey every year since, always wondering what we might encounter. We have driven through heat, raced thunderstorms, slammed on the brakes in a sudden dust-storm, camped in freezing snow (often all on the same day), but so far, nothing has been as strange as that first trip across the salt flats of Nevada. This year, as we neared Austin, a radio announcer told us Robert Cray was playing at a club in Austin that night! It was incredible that he was performing in such a small town, and the weather forecast for temperatures in the 90s did not quite match the snow we were driving through. It was too good to be true, we had picked up a radio station from Austin, Texas.