On a lonely road, time rolls to a stop

by Jim Harmon

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 out.

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 purposes.

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.

It 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.

I 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 was compelling.

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.

Eventually, 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 trip entirely.

The author lives in Long Beach, N.Y., where he is spending his third season as a Jones Beach lifeguard.

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