The truck lost speed over the latest hill in the Nevada desert though I pushed the pedal to the floor. I eased off, hoping if I took it slow the truck would recover.
Just as it had the first day of the trip before it turned off the next morning, the “Service Engine Soon” light came on. The truck jerked and slowed to 35 miles per hour. A sign showing a speed limit of 80 taunted me.
In the seat next to me the dog continued to sleep, or at least acted like he was.
The truck labored for a few miles before I spotted an oasis: a rest stop. I pulled off, parked in the middle of the almost empty sun-parched lot and grabbed the leash.
Interested again in life, the dog stood up, shook off the torpor and panted.
We had entered the Battle Born State earlier that day on the penultimate leg of a journey that had taken us more than 2,000 miles through six states from the San Francisco Bay Area to just beyond the entrance of Glacier National Park in Montana. Why we didn’t make it deeper into the park is another story for another time.
While I have a soft spot for parts of Nevada – including scruffy Reno – for this trip it was a thoroughfare to and from far-flung destinations, as it has been for many past travelers.
Less famous these days than the Oregon Trail, which is well-known in large part due to a computer game from the 1970s and 80s, the California Trail was for part of the 19th century a similarly well-traversed path to the promised land of the West.
The trails followed the same corridor of routes from Missouri river towns until they split off in what are now the states of Wyoming, Idaho and Utah. The Oregon Trail headed in a general northwesterly pattern through the breadth of Idaho into what is now the Beaver State, while the California Trail veered south and west before entering the Great Basin Desert.
Though the railroad came later, and the highways after that, and towns sprung up and some ranches and farms dot the landscape, many parts of the desert remain as they were for the early travelers. Sagebrush and other shrubs stretch far as the eye can see, interrupted here and there by daunting brown mountains.
The dog and I ambled about the rest area, stopping here and there so my little hero could claim ownership of a rock.
We happened upon an illustrated sign that invited the reader to look east and west. While a modern car could travel the expanse in approximately 15 minutes, travelers on the California Trail would only make it that far in a day.
A weary pilgrim wondered what his friends back east would think of his group now, covered with dust and grime. He spoke of too little water, game and vegetation.
I looked down at the dog, now panting heavily. I too was getting a bit warm under the desert sun. Hoping my noble steed had rested enough we walked back, drank a bit of water and hopped into the truck.
The “Service Engine Soon” sign glared at me as I slowly maneuvered the creaking behemoth with a beast of a camper on its back onto the freeway. The truck accelerated without faltering. I kept it between 50 and 55 as cars whizzed past on the left. The wind blew in the open windows. The dog stopped panting and went back to sleep. I peered at the seemingly endless desert out the window and was grateful the truck could accelerate again, and that we might not spend the rest of the day in this little slice of desert.
The truck lumbered on, but my energy waned by the mile, as did the reserves in the gas tank. Realizing we weren’t going to make it far without filling up I set a gas station in Lovelock as our next destination. A former stop on the trail that housed a gunnery range during the Cold War era, Lovelock is now home to the prison where O.J. Simpson had been held following a robbery conviction.
When we took the exit I immediately regretted not gassing up earlier. Lovelock greeted me with a boarded-up building in a dust-filled lot.
I feared the gas station next door was closed. But a red car sat next to one of the tanks. The dog sprang to life when I parked. “Not here, buddy,” I said. He looked out the window, sat back down and curled into a ball.
The lights were so faded I could barely read the instructions but I managed to get the machine to accept my card.
I placed the nozzle into the truck and squeezed the handle. The gas gushed. I clipped the metal piece in place to pump automatically so I could scrape bugs from the windshield.
Thunk. The gas stopped pumping. The clip hadn’t held. I put in place again, and waited. Gush. Thunk. The clip failed again. I squeezed the handle. Gush. Thunk.
I muttered something that shouldn’t be repeated in polite company, then looked out the corner of my eye. A young woman sat in the car opposite me, her window down. She started straight ahead. I realized if I squeezed the handle just right the gas would trickle into the tank. I muttered anew.
Beyond the car the gas station proudly displayed the trunk of a large tree, possibly a Sequoia. A sign advertised “All Fresh” food, which I wasn’t about to confirm or deny. Across the street signs advertised the “Punch Inn & Casino” and another for just “Casino.”
A fit young Latino man in a pink dress shirt with a well-trimmed dark mustache and beard walked in front of my truck.
“How are you today, sir?” he bellowed.
“Good and you?” I replied.
“That’s very good sir,” he yelled as he stared at me before climbing into the driver’s seat of the red car.
“Were you flirting with someone?” I heard him yell at the woman in the passenger’s seat before the car exited the lot and accelerated down the street.
An older woman, cigarette hanging from her lips, looking like she was about to cry, yelled into her ancient flip phone as she paced the edge of the crumbling parking lot in front of the truck. A child in a beat-up pickup wailed.
The gas trickled. Figuring we had enough to make it to Reno I put it back in the housing, hit “No” on the screen five times to indicate I didn’t want a receipt before giving up and heading in the direction whence I came.
“No access to Interstate 80” the sign screamed.
Like the guests who can check out but never leave in the Eagles’ song “Hotel California” and the singer who can’t get out of Lodi in the Creedence Clearwater Revival song, I feared I was stuck in Lovelock and again lamented not getting gas earlier. I spun the camper around and headed past the gas station and into town.
A few nondescript and ramshackle businesses advertised their wares, and the county courthouse shimmered at the end of one of the side streets. But most of Lovelock was dusty and quiet.
A man in worn ranch clothes and a large sombrero walked a small dog, a 12-pack of Natural Ice beer in his free hand. The dog stopped and pooped. The man continued on.
Realizing I was driving over the speed limit I slowed to a crawl. I didn’t want to give any bored and overzealous officer a reason to prolong our detention.
Two men stared at the camper from outside a trailer.
I let out a sigh as we slowly trudged up the onramp.
Though we had to drive another hour through mostly empty desert before we would enter the outskirts of the Reno region, and the “Service Engine Soon” light continued its silent vigil, I could almost taste the pine trees and cool air of the Sierra and beyond that, home.