Legions of tractor-trailer rigs were bullying their way across the Mojave Desert on Interstate 40. They passed us making a hell of a noise, and they seemed to take pleasure in changing lanes with as little distance between us as possible. Maybe I imagined that part about them taking pleasure – a sort of grumpy traffic mirage.
The motorcycles were another matter. The in-your-face thunder of modified pipes and the show-off lean when they swerved in front was unmistakably political. It said, “we bearded bad-asses are as good as you wimpy elites.” They made a good point, but I didn’t like the way they were making it.
The semis and Harleys made us feel like intruders on their private road. It was most annoying, and the feeling was amplified by their damned noise. We were making too much of it ourselves.
The van’s engine is a replacement that has about twice the horsepower of the original. That’s a welcome improvement, but it’s loud. So was the wind whipping through open windows. (In an irony of the highest order, the expensive after-market air conditioning system causes the engine to overheat, and the hotter the weather, the less it can be used.)
So, listening to the radio or CDs was impossible. We could have rigged up blue-tooth transmission to earbuds, I suppose, but that never occurred to us. Too old, I guess. Anyway, now that I think of it, that strikes me as improper in the circumstances. Music is best heard in concert halls, the spoken word in auditoriums. Not exclusively, of course. It can be a welcome distraction when you’re stuck in traffic, and a great pleasure at home. But listening in the isolated zombie state induced by earphones while traveling in the together spirit of a VW camper just wouldn’t do.
If we could have listened to the radio, we would have been drawn irresistibly to the political drama of these times. That’s what happens in the Prius. Happily, the van forced us to take a break from it. Much of the time, we couldn’t even get an internet signal to check on events via phone. We were a rolling oxymoron – cut off from the world while being cuffed around by the über-worldly noise of the internal combustion engine.
To the side of the highway, there was little to see but sandy soil and a scattering of low plants (mostly sagebrush, I think). We were surprised to read on a poster at a rest stop that the desert was home to bobcats, mountain lions, rattlesnakes, rabbits, tortoises and more. It wasn’t as empty as it seemed. Not as quiet either.
Standing beside the van with the engine off and, for a moment or two, with no passing traffic, we still had to contend with the considerable sound of desert wind. It whistled and hissed seemingly without interruption. Hearing aids amplified it to the point that normal conversation required head twisting and positioning to get a good angle.
Improbably, the day’s noise engendered a certain stillness. After straining for a while to converse over the din, we gave up, and occupied ourselves with gazing out at the desert, noting a slight variation here, a bit of color there, thinking our own thoughts, and slipping into the sweet calm of companionable silence.
Later in the day, the highway rose up out of the desert, and we entered higher elevations and a familiar world, one with people, variation, and water.
Off and on along Interstate 40, historic Route 66, the depression corridor of Okie hope, has been preserved. It is, however, more kitschy theme park than museum, including even faux Burma Shave signs. In Arizona, the Grand Canyon took a star turn. Many roads led there. Want to raft it? Information half a mile ahead. See it by helicopter? Turn right.
In the evening, we settled into a motel and returned to observing the televised presentation of American democracy as it is again being tested. It’s an unsettling state of affairs, and as images of it flickered across the screen, my thoughts turned now and then to something I’d been reading about recently – the third-century religious hermits who retreated to the Egyptian desert in search of peace. I don’t know if they found it, but I expect they did, at least in some measure. Our morning in the Mojave made it clear that deserts can do that.