Finding Nirvana in Northern Nevada

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Joan Jett-fronted Nirvana limps to the threshold of the Rock and Roll HOF Thursday evening for its Brooklyn-based induction.

For decades, I labored under the notion that living in the West meant some kind of access to unfettered wide open space. Maybe, truly, the Dixie Chicks had a bigger hold on the conversation than I gave them credit for. Maybe I had a certain kinship with the pop-folksism truck-commercial-jingle-ready balladeer John Cougar, or maybe, simply, I just wanted to gas up and go explore.

In the spring and summer of 2009, I sprayed my resume around the Internet like Deep Woods Off! in a campground parking lot hoping someone, somewhere, had a job that would pay me to sit at a keyboard all day and type out my thoughts.

There was a task close enough at a single-proprietor Salt Lake City-based magazine. The story I put in syndication about the move to ensue from Truckee to Park City centered around the directions from old home to new. As such: Drive 200 yards. Turn left on to Highway 267. Drive one mile. Merge with Interstate 80. Drive 580 miles. Turn right at exit 141/Kilby Road. You have arrived at your destination.

It was tougher explaining to a Truckee weekender the roundabouts they’d have to negotiate to get from the Cottonwood to Safeway.

Prior to making the move permanent, I spent a month flagellating myself on a bi-weekly basis with this 600-mile one-way Joycean journey.

Along the way, I came to resemble the Northern Nevada towns that peril had once come to and long since forgot. Even the tumbleweeds have uprooted and moved their annual convention to Clark County. So the roads, as it were, were clear and my mind devoid of thought: Sparks, Fernley, Winnemucca, Battle Mountain, Carlin, Elko, Deeth (pronounced “teeth” not “death”) and Wendover — West Wendover to be sure (East Wendover is actually in Utah, and Starship does not perform there regularly — that’s how you tell the difference).

Somewhere in between these bomb shelter and trailer park towns is the state prison one Orenthal James Simpson currently calls home, the biggest and most impressively forgotten mountain range in the West and several dozen billboards featuring women airbrushed to impossible proportions dangling a stiletto from a manicured toe with a Dolly Parton Wig spilling out the top of the frame luring you to “Come on in. Then come on in.”*

Nevada’s hinterlands, if nothing else, are creatively not-so-family friendly. Then again, it’s the only place to be once your family is no longer a factor.

I got the drive down to the point where I could gas up near the Del Taco/Sparks Marina and make it all the way to the dollar craps tables of Wendover Resorts in a single push if I didn’t play the radio too loud or top out the cruise control over 75. On this particular afternoon after stopping at Trader Joe’s to stock up, I decided to see how far three-quarters of a tank would go.

It took me as far as Wells, a suburb of Elko which features the haves, who occupy the Ruby Mountains west side of town near the Mountain Shadows RV Park; and the have-nots, cowering on the East side of town near the Crossroads RV Park.

The town is anchored by a Love’s Travel Stop, which, if your gas light has been on for the last hour and ten minutes and it’s 102 out, is the road trip broquivalent of running around the bar at 1:50 am looking for safe passage in the arms of a stranger and ending up with Kate Upton walking towards you with two Coors heavy bottles and a pair of Jack backs asking to hear what your story is.

If you only have $20 and the road trip grocery list happens to be: • 1 box of Trojan BareSkin Sensitive condoms • three green bananas • Spitz Cracked Pepper sunflower seeds (1/2-pound bag) • CD copy of Eddie Rabbit’s Beatin’ the Odds • Camouflage hat that says ‘Women love me. Deer fear me’ • one Leatherman mini tool and • one 22 oz. can of Schlitz Malt Liquor to get you through the salt flats …plus showers and slot machines, the Love’s Travel Stop in Wells will make you feel as if you’d already died and gone to Nevada.

At this stop, the checker guy had a drape of dishwater hair stuck to the irate craters burned in his cheeks. His eyes turned down permanently as his fingers impassively stroked the keypad adding up my prizes. His jeans were melted past the floorboards and his shirt, baggy, even as a men’s medium, barely obscured the counter knobs jutting out as elbows. The logo on the front was indelible in my mind, this kind of sepia infrared purple and pink portrait of a man’s form, palms facing front silently screaming and seemingly naked. The word “Nirvana” at the top. Nothing else.

I recognized that as the Sliver shirt I’d acquired sometime in high school. Maybe it was the same one. Maybe that was an alternate me there now, in Wells, behind the counter.

“I saw them,” I said. “At the Cow Palace. My shirt ripped and I lost my friends and found them later waiting at the entrance. They were giving away popcorn at the concessions after the show.”

He looked at me with a dismissive nudge I read as mocking but was more likely fatigue. His green eyes yellowed and narrowed to alien slits. He didn’t say anything but nudged the debit card pin pad toward me with his pink skeleton fingers. I slid my card and punched in the numbers and waited for approval.

And that, to me, was Nirvana.

*Actual billboard.

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