“That’s two,” Tizi says.
Whatever she murmurs in response I can’t hear. Because even with my hearing aid cranked to HIGH, I can’t hear murmur in the car. And besides, this I don’t really want to hear.
It’s a little tense at the moment. We could be counting wild horses. When we drive out to California to visit our son, we take this desert route on purpose, to see the horses, starting 70 miles west of Elko, Nevada, on I-80 to Battle Mountain, so named thanks to a skirmish between marauding Californians and native tribes in 1850. A few miles east of Battle Mountain you see the giant BM on the mountain side. The Californians prevailed. Heading south on route 305 we come to route 50, along which on Bureau of Land Management land, roughly 2000 horses run wild.
Routes 305 and 50 are two-lane roads. And all the routes after them taking us to Yosemite will be two-lane, through beautiful high desert. A center line is visible, the road surface is good, though noisy in places (hence the muffled murmur). To say these roads are little traveled is an understatement. Between BM and nowhere, there’s nothing for miles.
This morning, when we took the exit off I-80 and started down route 305, I looked at the gas gauge. Got enough? Tizi asked. Well I guess, I said.
Now I’m not so sure. Where I stop in the middle of the road, there are a dozen wild horses standing thirty feet off the shoulder.
“Horses?” Tizi says. As in: is that why you’re stopping.
“We have a decision to make,” I say.
She frowns. “How much?” she asks.
“About a quarter tank.”
She gets out of the car, walks across the road, crosses the shoulder to take a few pictures. I’m about to reach for my phone when I see a blue dot in my rearview mirror. Forty-five minutes down 305 and now route 50, we’ve seen one car. This one makes two. I take a position at the back of the van and hold out my hand. It’s the universal stop-please-help signal. At first it does not seem to be working. Then, blue begins to slow.
The driver, a woman, runs the passenger window down.
“You shouldn’t park here,” she says. “It’s dangerous.”
“How far to a gas station?” I say.
She thumbs in the direction of BM, where we just came from. I point toward the future: more horses, more nothing, and then what.
She tells me again I shouldn’t park here. “There’s a lot of mine traffic,” she says.
I ask again. Gas?“
“Probably Austin. It’s about 60 miles down the road.” In case I missed it, she shakes her head in irritation. Michigan license plate, horse gawkers, stopped in the middle of the road.
“Austin,” I say when Tizi gets back in the car.
“About sixty miles.”
“They’re beautiful,” she says. Meaning the horses.
“I think we can make it,” I say.
That’s when she says: That’s two. Twice I’ve taken us to the edge. Out here, obviously, is no place to run out of gas. No place is. But this place is extremely no place.
Okay, so we had a bad breakfast. It was our third stay in this hotel back in Elko. I remembered the buffet as adequate.
This morning at 6:00, when we left the room and walked down the hall, she asked if there would be eggs. I said I thought so. I said I remember the buffet as more than adequate.
It was not. Extremely not. A breakfast like this separates the Americans from the Italians. Yes, there are eggs, in sandwiches that were made within the last 24 hours and shelved in small single-serving paper bags. If you rip open a little pouch of hot sauce and squirt it on the sandwich, it’s better than not bad. The cereal mix I make, spooning granola, walnuts, and what I think are bran flakes (Tizi swears they are Frosted Flakes, to her a sugary abomination) is satisfactory. But I’m willing to bet the Meadow Gold 2 percent milk, with no expiration date on the carton, saw better days a day or two ago. When the conveyor belt toaster that warms two halves of an English muffin completes its task, half the muffin tips off the track and falls on the floor. Under these adverse circumstances, I can still make a meal. Tizi cannot.
So when we get underway again out there in desert, setting our sights on Austin, that is to say, hoping to set our sights on it, she is not in her best humor.
“Beautiful along here,” I say.
“I could swear last year we saw the wild horses on the other side of the road,” I say.
“You can tell they’ve had a lot of rain. It was nowhere near this green last year.”
I know it’s dangerous to stop in the middle of the road, but for the next thirty minutes, we see only two cars. Both coming at us. None going where we’re going.
What if there’s no gas in Austin? I don’t want to, but I begin playing out the scenario and plan of action. The scenario is clear; the plan of action is not.
“This is a Pony Express route,” I say. “I think the Middlegate stop was a Pony Express stop.”
Middlegate is somewhere down the road, beyond Austin, deeper into the desert. The gas gauge sinks well below quarter tank. Thirty miles to go. What if there’s no gas in Austin. I begin to fantasize about seeing the Austin city limits, passing Austin community schools, waving at the chairman of the Austin Chamber of Commerce. A thriving community out in the middle of nowhere. Finally we round a curve. Austin does not come into view, but I see a sign, white lettering on a blue background. “This city adopted by…” A sorority that picks up litter. That bodes well. Where there’s a sorority, where there’s litter, there must be gas.
The next leg, route 50 to route 361, is lonely but not fraught. I drive 80 mph on two-lane 50, full of gas, full of sass. We see four antelope. That buoys our spirits. We see the sign for Rawhide. Thirty miles off route 50, out deeper into nowhere. I wonder if there would be a statue of Rowdy Yates, the Clint Eastwood character in that TV show. We pass another historical marker for a Pony Express stop.
“How about those guys,” I say. “Riding out here?”
At Middlegate we stop at an inviting hovel. Out here any sign of civilization is inviting. She peels and eats a peach we brought from Michigan. I take a few pictures. We’re good again.