In 1982, my parents decided to take a road trip to tour our beautiful home state of . . . Nevada. We headed east from Carson City in our 1978 Scout II. It was a spectacular vehicle – orange with simulated wood paneling on the side. The interior was an army green color with plaid brown and green seats. It was the kind of vehicle that, by the time I drove it in 1986, built character.
My sister and I, at the ages of 12 and 14, could think of nothing we wanted to do more than drive across the desert for six hours with our German Shepard, Fearsome, sitting on the seat between us. All the windows were open as the dog stank, and we had no air conditioning. We also had no music, as the eight track in the Scout worked for maybe six months after we got it. And, obviously, we had no DVD’s, Ipods, or laptops. My kids have no idea what a road trip used to be like, but I digress.
One of the highlights of the trip was my mom’s valiant effort to add an educational component. The highways in Nevada were seemingly littered with metal signs shaped like the state. These are located wherever somebody decided there might be something of historical interest. My mom, somehow, located a book that had the text of all of these signs. She spent the entire trip with this book in her lap, yelling historical tidbits about the great state of Nevada at us over the roar of the Scout and the open windows.
She would holler, “Here comes another sign. Do you want to stop?”
“Nooooo,” we’d yell back. My sister and I would roll our eyes before returning to staring out the window in misery, and my Dad would either stop at the sign to please my mom, or blow by the rest stop or viewing area or whatever it was.
“Isn’t the subtle beauty of the desert lovely?” My mom would try again.
“Nooooo, it’s boring!” we’d yell back. Finally she gave up though she did keep the book in her lap the entire time, reading the information for herself.
I hit the road with my kids yesterday. I now live on the Eastern side of the state, and we were heading west, backtracking on I-80 in the opposite direction from my first trip across. I have since made this 300 mile drive hundreds of times, and I did something I swore I’d never do. I turned into my mother and stopped at a place of historical interest.
Two years ago, just outside of Elko, Nevada, the state opened a California Trail Interpretive Center to share the history of all those “road trippers” in the 1840’s-1860’s. Part of my novel project takes place on the Oregon Trail, so I wanted to see the exhibits; it was research. My kids, both teenagers, humored me and went in without complaint. Their only somewhat negative comment was that everyone there was older than us by at least 30 years, but they were right. It was definitely an older crowd.
The center sits right where the Hasting’s Cutoff rejoined the main California Trail. The Hasting’s Cutoff is the “shortcut” that actually added 130 miles to the Donner party’s journey and caused them to get caught in the Sierra’s, resort to cannibalism and freeze to death.
The most interesting exhibits to me were the wagons. I had no idea they were so small. They were narrow, only three feet wide by ten feet long. The wagon beds were also at least three feet deep which surprised me, and full to the brim with supplies for the journey.
I’ve driven across the state hundreds of times, and it is not a journey I would want to take in a covered wagon. They made 10-20 miles a day across the hot desert.
As I drove my “wagon” today, I decided to enjoy the four hours it took to cross the entire state. I especially enjoyed the dry segment between the Truckee River and the Humboldt Sink, where the water just disappears and sinks into the desert. This part of the journey took the emigrants 24+ hours of non-stop walking. They usually did it through the night to avoid the heat of the day. Sometimes the animals would stampede when they finally reached the Truckee River they were so thirsty.
We blew through it in about 20 minutes with the air conditioning on and the satellite radio going. And, if something had happened, my “wagon” has enough supplies to keep us alive for weeks.
The journey has changed immensely over the past 160 years. I’ll be interested to see what it entails in thirty more years, when my kids drag their kids out for a “road trip.” Hopefully they do hit the road, and maybe they’ll even hit a point of historical interest or two. It would make my mom proud.