The good news is this is half over ... what? You're ENJOYING this? Really? I suppose it's possible. Anyway, I'm on vacation, and while I'm gone, I'm force-marching you past one dozen locations cribbed from my 2009 travel memoir, "The Quest for Pie."
Kent was asleep, lower lip puffed out, his head lolled onto his right shoulder, covered to the chin in his blue and orange fleece Chicago Bears blanket, when I passed the sign reading, simply, “Bonneville.”
We had left Salt Lake City and were approaching the Nevada border. The green sign announcing “Bonneville” set in motion some gears in the back of my mind that had not turned in a very long time.
I was not a fan of cars as a child. My father was a nuclear physicist who drove boxy Volvos, for their safety. I remember marveling that my pals — Paul Marciniak, Paul Zond, Rusty Perry — could actually tell automobiles apart by their shape, by their sound; they knew, almost instinctively it seemed, which one was a Charger and which one was an Impala and a GTO and a Firebird and such. To me they were all cars. They looked like cars. They had four wheels.
But I had gleamed, vaguely, that there was this whole car culture out there. I pumped quarters into gumball machines, hoping for a plastic Rat Fink — Big Daddy Ed Roth’s anti-Mickey Mouse custom car mascot. My pals in junior high read “Car & Driver” magazine. It was a time of homemade dune buggies and hot rods. Every TV show seemed to have its own custom car — Batman’s Batmobile, the Green Hornet’s Black Beauty. The Monkees had their own special car. Even the Munsters had one, a Model T turned into a hearse.
And drag racers—long, thin vehicles with huge, fat rear tires and tiny front wheels, cars that sat in pairs, while lights counted down until the green flashed and they took off with an explosion of flame, their front ends rearing into the air like excited horses, shuddering as they picked up speed, tires smoking, blasting through the quarter mile and then, at the end, little drogue parachutes popping out of the back to bring them to a skiddering halt.
These races, I remembered, often took place at the famed Bonneville Salt Flats. Here was where they tested rocket cars and set land speed records. And that memory was enough for me to ease the car off the highway and follow the access road for about three miles, to where it petered out to a sign, set up by the Department of the Interior announcing, “Bonneville Salt Flats International Speedway.” We got out of the car to read the sign.
“These salt flats were formed as ancient Lake Bonneville slowly evaporated...” it began, warning us that the flats were “often moist and unstable.” Aren’t we all?
The road around the sign blended smoothly into a fantastical geometric space, a white plain stretching to the horizon, where there was a dim blue outline of low rounded mountains. There was no barrier, no “KEEP OUT” sign, not so much as the lip of a curb or a lone orange cone. A rare spot where the constrictions of society suddenly melt away and you are free to do whatever moves you. It struck me as almost tragic that the occupants of the car already there when we pulled up seemed satisfied to photograph themselves next to the sign, get back in their vehicle, and leave in the direction from which they came. That seemed a stunning failure of imagination.
We got back in the van, and I eased it around the sign and onto the salt flats, and soon we were going 50 miles an hour, through blankness, no landmarks to track, the distant light purple hills barely moving as we raced forward into a void.
“You wanna learn to drive?” I asked Ross, as we blasted along.
“Yes,” he said, and I slowed to a stop and we got out and switched places. The ground was not hard, as I expected, but indeed wet, as the sign said — your shoe sank a 1/8 of an inch, and the car left tracks in the damp salt. As we switched seats, I looked all around us —a giant white tabletop stretching in all directions, with one vehicle, way far off, like a ship on the horizon, the fringe of mountains far away.
Ross sat in the driver’s seat, hands on the steering wheel, and I went over the preliminaries. The gas pedal is to the right, the brake to the left. Use your right foot for both pedals; otherwise you’ll hit the brake and the gas at the same time.
Ross turned the ignition and the car moved forward — my son was driving! He quickly gathered confidence and speed; soon we were zipping along — he was pushing 60, and I began to grow concerned.
“Maybe you should slow down a bit,” I said. It occurred to me that, not knowing any better, he could abruptly cut the wheel and roll us. I explained the basics of turning — ease the wheel to the left, and we go left. To the right and we go right, but gently.
Kent chose this moment to wake up. He looked outside at the surreal blank white landscape flashing by, his father in the passenger seat, his brother at the wheel. “Where are we?” Kent cried. “What’s going on?”
I explained to him where we were. I also realized that while the place is indeed very flat, it’s still a natural formation, and I couldn’t be certain there wouldn’t be a two-foot ditch somewhere ahead. With each passing second the conviction grew that we should Quit While We Were Ahead. The image that formed in mind was not wrecking the car and killing ourselves, but the grim prospect of the phone call home, explaining that the trip was on hold while we wait for a Honda transaxle and new front suspension to be trucked to Nowhere, Utah. I urged Ross to slow down, then stop, while we went over some of the less exciting fine points of driving, such as what the positions on the transmission stood for.
“D” is for drive. “R” for reverse.
“It is?” Ross asked. “Are you sure?” He thought, charmingly, that R stood for “Rest.”
“No, it doesn’t. P is for ‘Park.”
“Oh.” Time to end the lesson. I turned around to Kent.
“You wanna learn to drive?” I asked, smiling benignly.
“No,” he said.
That startled me. “It’s okay,” I said. “There’s nothing to hit. It’s like the largest parking lot in the world. You’re never going to have a chance like this again.”
“That’s okay.” This should not be hard, I thought, this should not be an argument.
“You’ll always be able to tell your friends that you learned to drive on the Bonneville Salt Flats.”
“I don’t want to. I’ll wait until I learn in school.”
I looked at him hard. What sort of boy is this?
“It’s okay. Your father is telling you it’s okay. I give you permission. There’s nothing to worry about.”
Ross and I changed places. I put the van into a large, looping turn and headed back toward the sign, a dot on the horizon. I didn’t want to leave this otherworldly space, but we had been there 20 minutes or so and it felt time to push on. A little cloud floated over my head. I couldn’t understand Kent — was he going to miss his whole life this way? What was he afraid of?
Easing back onto the road, I felt enormous gratitude that here, on this spot, there is a place where the grid ends, where the road peters away into freedom, and you can plunge forward into emptiness, at least to the limit of your daring, until the tether of your own timidity snaps taut and you’re pulled back to the road, to civilization and its rules. In Kent’s case, it is still a very short tether. But we could work on that. All people are unfinished masterpieces, or should be.