First gear. I pull away from the gas station, praying that the extra coolant won’t come hissing and steaming out of cracks in the radiator before I can make it to Vegas.
Second gear. As I hit the onramp, I wipe the sweat from my brow with a discarded t-shirt and wish for the thousandth time that the air conditioning in my Jeep was functional.
Third gear. The giant feathered headdress on the “Buffalo Bill’s Casino” sign
dwindles in my rear view mirror as I merge into the busy afternoon traffic.
Fourth gear. And as I yank down hard on the gearstick, the shifter knob pops completely off into my hand. Oh, boy. 116 degrees here in the Mojave Desert, and the glue holding the knob in place had completely liquefied. This was my first day on the road after leaving my adopted hometown of Santa Barbara for the summer, and already I was getting in trouble. My vessel was no match for Mother Nature at her most extreme, and the high, cool mountain roads of Colorado that I craved were at least five hundred miles away. Waiting until July to embark on this road trip was beginning to look like a bad idea.
Welcome to the first entry in yet another collection of outdoor travel stories which purport to chronicle a former New Yorker’s journey amongst the majestic peaks and vales of the Rocky Mountains … at least, if and when I finally arrive there. This is Bryan Snyder, an environmental science teacher and professional generator of ill-conceived plans, such as my current notion to cross the desert in the midst of a regional heat wave. Temperatures had been steadily rising in my valley outside Santa Barbara before I departed, and it had felt rather odd to be packing gloves and long underwear for the upcoming trip. Every night, the wood of my cabin would cool and contract from the extreme variation in temperature, producing sounds akin to a wooden hull splintering upon unseen rocks. And in the surrounding National Forests, fires were breaking out on a daily basis, raining ash onto the streets of nearby cities. It was time to get out while I still could.
Smoke continued to follow me into the deserts of eastern California, and the further I drove away from the ocean, the more intense the heat became. I rolled the windows down, but being buffeted by scalding breezes made me feel as if I was sitting inside a convection oven. I was dehydrating faster than I could replenish fluids, and mist from a spray bottle evaporated from my skin within half a second. Alas, my career provides enough funding to allow me to take summers off, but not enough to repair the Jeep’s air conditioning system. To make matters worse, I had to have my vents pump hot air into the vehicle continuously, just to draw heat away from the overstressed engine...