The white clouds swirled like comical mustaches finger painted by children onto sky blue construction paper. They reigned over the Nevada desert, curling off the tops of the hills that flowed into the floor of the topographical bowl we sped along. Me on two wheels, Brad on eight. We were on our way to witness the Annular Eclipse of 2012 from the comfort and solitude of Great Basin National Park, which hugs the Utah border in eastern Nevada and is really on the way to nowhere. Brad’s RV was loaded with telescopes, filters, food, and his two dogs. My Harley was loaded with not enough sunblock and me. We formed an unholy duet, bounding across eastern Oregon and into the state that offers access to more vices than the Internet. But the show we were coming for had to do with the veiling of the sun behind the moon—and it was happening in the sky, not in a casino.
Brad is a Kansas-born geologist who found his way into IT work. He claims his profession created his risk-adverse attitude,which is why his RV is loaded with just about everything you could need if the world collapsed tomorrow. I, on the other hand, managed to fumble my only tube of sunscreen onto the highway because I was applying it while doing about 60 mph on a motorcycle. Despite our contrasting levels of preparedness, Brad and I share an intrinsic affection for national parks and the beauty they protect. We are also both Alpha males, which means we take no shit from each other though rarely a moment goes by where we are not dishing it out. But we were raised properly so it’s a very comfortable and oft comical traveling situation. We were an unlikely pair of people and machines riding the black stripe that is a blue line on the road map through some beautiful country. This part of the American West is not for everybody. Some say it’s a monotonous landscape. But, if you can see past the scrub and dirt and take in the big picture of the volcanic violence that created the craggy hills and grassy valleys, it becomes magical.
We came upon a convergence of three highways that could be a perfect backdrop in any American film where the hero drives a souped-up American car. Suddenly Brad’s Big Ford Truck was leading his travel trailer down a little used splinter road into what turned out to be an abandoned RV park. We were quite literally in the middle of nowhere. There was an old diner and several outbuildings that seemed just fine left unsecured in this anonymous crossroads on the way to Sin City. Brad vanished into the brush with the dogs, and I wandered about burning up pixels in my cell phone camera. I feel the need to send up a quiet apology to Ansel Adams every time I do this. There was a time I dragged a 4x5 large format view camera around on the back of the old Norton motorcycle—burning up plates of Tri-X film that I processed and printed myself. Adam’s book, The Negative, was my bible. Now I shoot with a five mega-pixel Android cell phone and let it do all the work. But I still do it, habitually recording the details of American ephemera: picnic tables made of cable spools and painted a shade of blue that never existed in nature; electric panels left to rust; hoards of rabbits that now replace the traveling diners and campers; and the broken skeletons of things once useful now returning to the earth. Night came quickly and cooled the air. I was grateful for the convenience of a travel trailer with a kitchen and bathroom. We have both done our time sleeping on picnic tables and peeing in the woods, and we felt no shame in this version of roughing it.
The sun rose quickly the next morning and painted a warm swath over our quarters. We rose and gathered up camp quickly—seeking out a restaurant with real coffee. Instead what we found was gas station coffee. This was now our version of roughing it: bad coffee.
The wind has always made sense to me. It uses no words yet it tells me all is well and all is as it should be. The world from a motorcycle is a world caressed by moving air parting the seas of complexity with a simple promise: as long as the air is moving, so am I. Things are not stagnant, and in that dynamic are hope and possibilities I have not yet considered. In the wind I can think and believe and dream and know that the things that upset me and destabilize my delicate reality are much less real than the mountains rising above me and the state of mind that allows 400 miles of desert road to pass beneath me with little notice. But, there is such a thing as too much wind.
Great Basin as described by those who run it: “In the shadow of 13,063-foot Wheeler Peak, 5,000 year old bristlecone pine trees grow on rocky glacial moraines. Come to Great Basin National Park to experience the solitude of the desert, the smell of sagebrush after a thunderstorm, the darkest of night skies, and the beauty of Lehman Caves. Far from a wasteland, the Great Basin is a diverse region that awaits your discovery.” We were tucked away in a quiet RV park with tent campers on bicycles on one side and motor-homes the size of semis on the other. The office was the bar, and the bartender was the manager.
The eclipse started at 5:20pm Sunday, and we wanted to be set up well before that. When we went to the park’s Visitor’s Center at 3:30pm to join the party of other sky gazers, the police were there handling the unexpected number of people wanting in on the fun. When we pulled in they told us where and how we had to park and who we needed to check in with before setting up our telescope. We declined, thinking this was way too much regulation for an event that belonged to everybody, and went back to the bar. Brad asked the manager/tender if we could set up in front of his place. Knowing this would draw customers, he consented. This not being Brad’s first day at the rodeo, he set up a pair of binoculars on a tripod with the appropriate filters for the general public to use while he kept his telescope tracking the progress of the eclipse. My job was to keep the public entertained and the binoculars on target while Brad took over 700 images of the progression of the event. I handed out eclipse glasses that looked like old-school 3D movie glasses to those who were ignorant or drunk enough to think a good pair of sunglasses was enough for peering directly at the sun. Brad brought them along knowing most folks wouldn’t think to get them. That’s the way Brad is. The whole thing devolved into a party. When the big cloud crossed between the eclipse and us at exactly the wrong moment, we were all still having a good time. Beer still flowed, and the dogs and kids still ran about. Brad swore a little, but it didn’t darken his mood. Both sides of the Great Basin were still in sunlight while the swath we occupied was so dark cars were turning on their headlights when the sun was mostly covered. This is what I came for—experiencing the novelty of night during the day—igniting childish awe at how small I really am in relation to this rock I inhabit. This is as analogue as it gets. No digital distractions. Just me, and space. Just me, and space, and about a dozen people in various stages of inebriation…
The next morning Brad and I did a quick repair to the truck, which was actually more of an elaborate goodbye than a necessity. As soon at the door could be opened from the driver’s seat of the Ford again, I saddled up and was on my way back to Oregon. Brad had a little more time off so he and the dogs were off to see a couple more western national parks before coming back to the Willamette Valley. The lone ride home for me was a chance to put a little energy into exploring why the hell I dropped everything at a less than perfect time to head to the desert and witness the moon passing in front of the sun. I concluded it had to do with acknowledging that we must take time out for the novel events that pass into our orbits. It is not every day one gets to witness an annular eclipse—let alone in the middle of the desert for the cost of gas and a little food. I had convinced myself it had nothing to do with avoiding taxes and the other realities of the Darkside in the midst of the dead season. Instead of dealing with those immediate problems, my lone tube of sunscreen and I had headed south for the show. It is like a prayer, an act of faith, a testing that the world will still be turning if I am not scraping the carbon off the popcorn popper or trying to find a few bucks to pay past film rent.
I had a coupon for a night at the casino in Winnemucca, NV—which happened to be about half way between where I had been and where I was going. It was nice to have a full sized bed and shower, and I got to watch the series’ finale of House M.D. on a real TV instead of enduring it on Hulu squirting into my laptop. A cheap casino motel room can be quite enchanting after a day on the road behind the handlebars. I try not to take for granted that I have access to one of the most iconic areas of American motorcycling. EASY RIDERS galvanized the imagery of the American West onto the metal of the biker subculture. When I interact with European bikers, they want to know if I’ve ridden Highway 66 or cruised Las Vegas on my Harley Davidson. They seem unimpressed that I would love to ride the Alps from Munich to Bern on a BMW 1200rt.
The wind angrily kicked up over the coolish Nevada night. Once on the road it amazed me that no matter what direction the front tire pointed, it was heading into a headwind. My gas mileage went from almost 55 to 35 mpg. When I rumbled out of yet another small Nevada town onto yet another lonely road, I noticed a dust storm fretted to the left and about a mile ahead. Soon the boiling brown cloud crossed the road. Then I was in it. I hadn’t counted on zero visibility. I also hadn’t counted on the white minivan suddenly appearing—coming at me in my lane. I cut to the right, guessing where the road ended and managing to stay on the pavement while the van skated by me. A couple of hour-long seconds later I was out the other side of the dust—shaken but still upright. As if the Gods of the Road didn’t think that that was enough fun, a hundred miles later I was running along a small lake when I noticed a trench of whitecaps moving toward shore on an intercept course with me. I was stupidly unimpressed. When we met it had enough force to push a 900-pound motorcycle and its 230-pound rider sideways. Then the real wind hit. I forced the front of the bike into the wind (think boating), and the back weathervaned behind me. My Harley went from 60 to zero in a second. It was the inertia of that speed that kept the bike from sliding back. As if this was a perfect time to get funny, my helmet’s chin-strap slipped and wandered down my neck as my lid was trying to lift itself off of my head. This helmet that was supposed to protect me was now trying to strangle me as I was fighting this demonic wind gust for the soul of my bike. I concluded this was unfun. Just as quickly as it came on, the wind died. I had ridden off the road into a parking lot that, by the grace of those same Gods of the Road, just happened to be there. My helmet settled back onto my head. Under the direction of some buried instinct, during the siege I had killed the engine. Before bringing it back to life, I taped that helmet strap and mumbled my thanks to the Harley Davidson R&D team that came up with the motorcycle that kept upright in that beast of moving air. As if this day needed a crowning “bite me” cherry, I could see rain clouds boiling in the direction I was heading. In a very meteorologically telling coincidence, miles later when it became necessary to don my rain gear, it was in front of the Welcome to Oregon sign. This was my second to last day of a 1700-mile trip and the first time I saw rain, just as I’m entering my home state.
On this trip I had braved dust, wind, freezing rain, and road food that turned my intestinal track into a warzone. I’m grateful to be writing this from the chair in the Darkside lobby and that the only casualties are that the skin on my nose is redder than it should be and that my appetite for spicy food is gone for a spell. I think the trip was a good idea since I’m actually glad to be back here—somehow divining that the gratitude to return justifies the discomforts endured while gone. Perhaps almost having my ass handed to me by Mother Nature more than once might have a little to do with that. The skies here are grey, and it’s wet. But there are no harsh winds pitting nature’s ire against the aerodynamics of a stately motorcycle.
Brad and I are already making plans for the next eclipse in 2017. Who knows what modern camera he will have insinuated into the process. Undoubtedly, I’ll be on my old Harley again, glad to be getting more than 50 mpg on what will likely be $10 a gallon ethanol and getting into Brad’s stash of sunblock.