My 14-year-old son Everett and I had been on the road for one day, having left Merced on July 25. We’d driven over Tioga Pass and spent the night at the Virginia Creek Settlement Motel in Bridgeport, which offered as its primary attraction the claim that John Wayne had once slept there.
Today, the terrain would be sagebrush and rock over Powell Mountain, sagebrush and rock from Hawthorne to Fallon, sagebrush and rock from Fallon to Austin, sagebrush and rock to Battle Mountain, and sagebrush and rock to the High Desert Inn on the outskirts of Elko. Before the end of the day, Everett would use up all of his Verizon data in an effort to connect to a world beyond the Nevada desert.
Distances were multiplied by the bleakness of the landscape – 50 miles seemed like a hundred, 100 like a thousand. We drove through Hawthorne and took Highway 95 past Walker Lake.
“Look,” I said, pointing eastward. “Water!”
Everett glanced out the window. “Yep,” he said. “That’s a pretty lake.” And then he looked down at his phone.
“Any water is pretty out here,” I said.
Everett scrolled and nodded.
A few miles past Walker Lake, I began to see signs for a place that sold fireworks and Indian tacos. I had never thought of combining fireworks and tacos into a one-stop shopping and dining experience, but it seemed like an interesting idea. I was somewhat alarmed at the prospect of fireworks in all that dry sagebrush, but then I reasoned that even if a fire burned out there for miles and miles, it could not do much harm. Eventually, it would hit sand or cracked, lifeless hardpan and that would be the end of it.
At the town of Schurz, which borders a Paiute reservation, we needed a cold drink. We parked next to a low, squat building, unable to determine what its purpose might be, but across the street there was no mistaking the portable building that had been repurposed into a restaurant. Outside, someone had built a deck, and on it two men in their early 20s were lounging on plastic chairs arranged around a table, watching traffic pass through town. As far as I could tell, they were the only inhabitants of Schurz. The table was covered with a checkered plastic tablecloth, and next to the deck stood a sun-faded sign: Fireworks! Sold Year-Round! Indian Tacos!
“Well,” I said to Everett, “they probably have sodas. Let’s go in.”
“You first,” he said, eyeing the portable.
The men, one tall and slender, the other short and chubby, sprang to life when they saw us approach. The short one tied his chef’s apron. The tall one opened the door into the restaurant for us.
The chef took his place behind the counter.
“We just want sodas,” I said, feeling guilty about dashing their hopes.
“Sure,” said the tall one, who must have been the waiter, and he disappeared into a back room, reappearing moments later with two cans of Pepsi. He handed them to us. They were ice cold.
“How much?” I asked.
“Two dollars,” he said. I wanted to tell him that as the only place between Hawthorne and Fallon offering ice cold sodas, he should charge more. But this was their restaurant.
“Thanks,” I said. “They’re really cold.”
“Where you from?” the cook asked, and so I told them.
“It’s kind of like here, flat and dry, but it’s irrigated,” I said, before realizing that my description of their hometown might be taken as an insult.
“I used to work in irrigation,” the waiter offered. He was a handsome kid, with a dark complexion and straight, black hair. “Where you headed?”
“Montana,” I answered, and both boys exchanged a look. The waiter smiled broadly, revealing a mouthful of beautiful teeth. “What?” I said.
“I used to live in Montana,” he answered.
“Cool,” I said, wondering what could have brought any young man back to Schurz. “Where in Montana?”
“Hardin,” he said. “What about you?”
“A little town called Roundup.”
“Oh man,” he said. “Hardin’s just a little below there.”
The cook shook his head at the unlikelihood of such a coincidence. We all commented on the odds of finding ourselves together in Schurz, of all places, and then I said goodbye.
“Thanks again for the soda,” I said. “It’s really cold.”
“Have a good trip,” they said, and watched us go. Their hope seemed almost palpable, with their signs and covered table, with their plans to corner both the fireworks and taco market between Hawthorne and Fallon, with their cheap cold sodas, and yet anyone could see that there was absolutely no chance of them ever making a go of it in Schurz.