SAN JUAN JON: THE LONELIEST ROAD IN AMERICA
The dreams of my youth were of wilderness and searching for its heart. Getting to the edge of wilderness where you could jump off and out of civilization usually involved a vehicle of some kind. The irony was that the wilderness was more accessible because of that car. My grandfather and his friends rode horseback great distances getting to what was in their day just called the “back-country”. But this story is really not about cars, or horses and mules, but the empty land still “out there” and chance encounters in the wild.
My first journeys across the Nevada deserts came after getting my first real job out of college. My original dream machine following the hot rods and pick up trucks of high school days was an FJ-40 Toyota Land Cruiser, and now I could finally afford it! My walk-about journeys in my early 20s would be done in and with this archetypal truck which I literally lived out of for long spells at a time. In many ways I was well suited for this cab over tractor as we grew up driving an International pickup truck with an identical motor. The truck too could go anywhere as long as it got traction, pulling with unbelievable torque while being slow on the highway without much horsepower. But this story is not really about trucks, but the places where they take us and those we meet along the way.
In 1986, so the story goes, Life magazine dubbed a portion of Highway 50 in Nevada, “The Loneliest Road in America”. Not surprisingly, Nevada grabbed onto that as a way to make some money and plastered the saying all over the road signs just to be sure you got the right feeling. The basin and range country of Nevada is as remote as anywhere in the west and strange things happen in such places. One night driving out there I topped a rise and spied a small town in the distance. Driving on towards it for some time at about 65 mph it suddenly occurred to me that it wasn’t a town, but a car coming the other way!
There are several little towns in the most remote reaches of this drive. One late Sunday afternoon the truck hummed along as we passed by one of them while reading the sign stating clearly that the next gas station was over 200 miles away. Suddenly I realized I would have to get gas here and even then would barely make it to the next town. Slowly I rolled into the only station there and it was already closed. I hadn’t planned on staying the night and was counting on driving into the early morning before catching some sleep and pushing on to the coast of California. I cruised through the streets parking outside the local tavern going in and ordering a beer. While chit chatting with the bartender I explained my predicament to him and within a few minutes was headed to the house where the owner of the station lived. He came to the door and wanted nothing of my problems but grudgingly accepted my five dollars to come out and pump my tank full after hours.
So I got to spend the night far from that spot pulling off onto a dirt track that climbed a treed hill nearby. Stars in the winter desert sky are a sight not to be forgotten easily. Brilliant and with the color and smudge of galaxy and nebula only the intense cold finally drove me deep into the down sleeping bag tearing my eyes from their glory.
Ten years would go by before I drove that way again. It was again in winter and snow drifted and twirled across the road as small flurries blew about. I stopped for gas at the little town I had headed for that Sunday a decade before. Starting out under the gray skies and swirling clouds the road went into the canyon curve below town. A truck was coming towards me and I started with recognition but didn’t yet know why. I stared at him and he stared over at me as we ripped by each other. It was my good buddy Tom! He was working as an Archaeologist in Nevada and was heading back to Nederland, Colorado for the winter season.
We both hit our brakes and I flashed the turn signal. I turned around and nosed onto the dirt track where he had pulled over. We laughed and hugged as the snow blew around us. Wasn’t it amazing to meet out here in this way! He had something to show me and opened the back of his truck pulling out a hammer dulcimer which he placed on the tailgate.
Tom bent over intently with his hands flying about striking its strings with the small wooden hammers. Beautiful music floated from the dulcimer swirling with the snow as the wind grabbed at the notes. Here in this lonely place two friends chanced to meet with companionship warming their hearts like fire in a hearth. We drove off and I marveled at how life’s chances would bring us together in that place and time. For this moment at least, this road was our road and not so very lonely after all.
(For more stories involving Tom, please see “Under the Eternal Sky” and “Neshka, Ashi, and the Taos Plateau”)