Three days after rumbling up out of La Guardia, four days before the summer solstice, I was finally there, as far from New York as I could get. I was driving through the spatial and sensorial opposite of my home city: Route 375 in the Great Basin desert, 30 miles southeast of Warm Springs, Nev. For many miles in all directions from my rolled-down windows there was nothing man-made or moving other than the ribbon of road, the car and me.
So I commenced my annual Opposite of New York ceremony,
taking my bare foot off the accelerator at 4:42 p.m. Pacific
Daylight Time and letting the rented car coast. From 82 miles an
hour it slowed to walking speed in just over two minutes, pushed by
a slight tailwind. I shifted into neutral and crawled along well
past the three-minute mark as my hearing sharpened. On the
tires’ last revolutions I heard the tiniest pebbles mashing
beneath them. I guessed it was about 85 degrees as I turned off the
ignition, the car still in its lane, opened the door and stepped
I have noted the silence in open fields and deep
woods and cavernous libraries and in bed late at night, but Nevada
highway silence is of another order, one of incomprehensibly vast
scale. Here it stretched from the Pahranagat Range 50 miles ahead
of me to the Hot Creek Range 40 miles behind, an area of close to a
thousand square miles, the equivalent of Rhode Island, all of the
ground between mountain ranges visible and all of it appearing
still and soundless and uninhabited.
I’ve paused on
a number of Nevada highways over the past dozen years, ever since I
discovered that I can. Westerners take quiet, empty-horizon vistas
for granted, but New Yorkers simply do not know silence or serious
solitude, let alone both at the same time. To me the sensation is
thrilling, as energizing as a drug.
Back at home,
clenched, overscheduled, cell-phone-addled friends roll their eyes,
not really caring whether the experience I describe is possible,
because what’d be the point, anyway? But my summer
isn’t complete without some viscerally amping minutes of
absolute isolation, my noisy, crowded life’s counterpoint, a
stillness of epic scale.
I pore over the Nevada road
atlas each spring, and search the state’s Department of
Transportation Web site for the latest vehicle counts. Nevada
tourism officials take sheepish pride in these empty roads. On
Route 265, south of Coaldale, there’s an average of three
cars an hour in either direction. And I’ve been undisturbed
for what seemed like most of an afternoon on Route 722 out of
Austin, which sees only 50 cars a day. But if you head out on "The
Loneliest Road in America," Highway 50, you’ll be
disappointed. Life magazine gave the road its
nickname in 1986, and it hasn’t been the same since. Sections
of 50 see more than a thousand cars a day. Way too crowded for my
This year I chose Route 375, aka the
"Extraterrestrial Highway," which is one of the state’s
loneliest 10, averaging something less than four cars an hour in
either direction. The road is promoted by UFO devotees as the most
"visited" place in America, passing as it does within a few miles
of "Area 51," the goofy-rumored, supersecret government alien
morgue most recently documented in the movie Independence
Day. "Visited" has nothing to do with the driving here.
And I observed nothing glowing or hovering overhead.
took me several minutes, as usual, to relax, to grow comfortable
padding around a silent car on a silent highway. Then I lay on my
back on the hot pavement of the oncoming lane for a few minutes. In
the sky, I conjured my street at home, and then the South Platte
River, where I’d stopped three days and 1,400 miles earlier
in eastern Colorado, and then the Manhattan skyline.
hopped up on the roof of the car, and then jumped down and scuffed
around in the hardpan among sage and scrub cactus beside the
highway. Thoughts came and went randomly and vividly. Viewing the
vehicle from a distance in all the motionless wide open, I easily
imagined that I had stopped time, that I’d achieved the brief
apotheosis of the summer vacation. Pulling the car off onto the
shoulder just wouldn’t be the same; the freeze-frame effect
Then I heard, without hearing it, a huge
sound, one that filled all this space. It was as if I had gone
deaf, yet I could hear everything: a towering, thundering silence.
This reminded me, as it always does, of a word that is
missing from the English language, a term I’ll coin someday
for vastly magnified "acoustics." The word would help describe the
biggest sounds imaginable, and its absence first occurred to me
— surprise — somewhere in Nevada.
I caught the asphalt-melted glint of an oncoming vehicle several
miles off, so I climbed back in the car, braced myself for the
aural impact, turned the key, fired up the engine and drove on,
feeling retuned, rewound, restarted. The first moving thing I
passed after 15 minutes alone on the road was the glint grown
lifesize, a white SUV driven by a man in a baseball cap, his wife
in the passenger seat with a child on her lap. I imagined them
playing a word game, searching the radio dial, listening to a CD,
keeping the boredom at bay.
And missing the point of the