The Extraterrestrial Highway

Trip Start Sep 02, 2013
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13
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Trip End Dec 05, 2013


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Flag of United States  , California
Tuesday, November 19, 2013

We are staying overnight in the small desert town of Tonopah (pronounced toe-NO-pa), Nevada. Last hotel/motel room in town because of workers on a big construction project soaking up all accommodation. Tonopah lies at the end of the aptly named, 225 kilometre long, undivided Extraterrestrial Highway, through cloudless, sunlit desolation, with bare rock mountains seemingly suspended above vast expanses of dry lake bed.

There's just one town on the way. Rachel. Population: yes. Aliens: maybe. According to the sign. Some people are prompted to live in beautiful harsh places.

Some people might like it. Mrs Henry, however, is not one of them, fretting the entire length of the Extraterrestrial Highway about what will happen if we have a flat tire "in the middle of nowhere". Mrs Henry believes we have no spare tire, and that, if we did, it would be beyond the powers of the Director of the Mr Henry Institute to take the flat off and fit the spare.

I have always wondered about the middle of nowhere. It seems to imply that nowhere has a periphery. Anyway, the Extraterrestrial Highway may be in the middle of nowhere, but we did overtake a Walmart truck.

Tonopah starts off as a collection of sensationally delapidated hovels with brand new V8 pick-up trucks parked in front of them. The next town (barring Rachel) is two hours away. Three in the ageing Egg. It is dark already. Motel after motel displays the no vacancy sign. Had there been a Mr Yoshi Motel (donors who have joined this blog later on: see post 4 – The Institute Assumes Wheels), we would have taken it. We would have welcomed the $1.50 condoms (plus tax) with open arms, so to speak. We spent a gruelling half hour waiting to see if a booked guest would cancel or turn up late at the Mizpah Hotel (built 1907), where Jack Dempsey stayed. Luckily, booking hotels and then not turning up is a national pastime in the USA, where booked rooms are released at 6pm if you don’t show up by that time.

In the lobby of the Mizpah Hotel, a short, pot-bellied man spots us killing time looking at a photo of Jack Dempsey in full battle gear, about to punch the photographer.

“That’s Jack Dempsey”, the man with the potbelly says helpfully. Mrs Henry and I thank him warmly for his contribution, which the potbelly man ignores, putting on that expression that says, “I’m having one of these awfully meaningful flashbacks about my life”.

“Yeah, Jack was a great guy”, he says, shaking his head in fond remembrance.

Mrs Henry takes the bait (“Did you know Jack Dempsey?”) and a long story follows about the pot-bellied man’s career as a jockey and how “Jack” bet on horses he rode.

“Jack and me, we are the only two professional athletes to come out of Goldfield [a town relatively close to Tonopah”, he concludes.

The Mizpah Hotel is historic. The ground floor lift door has a large bullet hole in it. It maybe fake. It’s a nice, old place, the attractively crumbling plaster and the lacquered oak plywood wall paneling reminding you that the Mizpah and any old hotel like that was just as tacky in its heyday as modern hotels are today. Tacky becomes authentic over time.

Daylight reveals that Tonopah is a town on the wrong side of desolation, with puny, exceptionlessly infertile rocky mountains surrounding it, on which the naked eye can pick out every rock. Despite stylish, delapidated, sometimes boarded up buildings on main street, just one street behind main street it’s shanty town living stretching all the way to the outskirts. There’s no wild, deserted, desolate beauty about Tonopah. “Is Tonopah on the edge of nowhere?”, I ask Mrs Henry. “No”, she says, “it’s in the middle of nowhere too.”

Mrs Henry and I are moving off the Colorado Plateau. We’re moving south. We’re moving west. We’re on the run from winter. We’re acting like northern retirees and moose. We’d go to Florida if it was practicable. Our sights are set on Pismo Beach, California, about halfway between Los Angeles (“L.A”, as Mrs Henry calls it) and San Francisco.

California is immediately warmer after coming down Yosemite’s Tioga Pass, Mrs Henry screaming “Slow down, slow down!” all the way. California is dry and dusty and yellow, but warm during the day.

We’re out of nowhere.
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