We spent the night in Richfield, Utah, not far from the Nevada border, in a creepy yet spacious hotel room with nothing for entertainment but a bible and the Book of Mormon. Having spent most of my life amongst East Coast urban sprawl, the Book of Mormon had never really been anything but a punchline for me – seeing the relevance it enjoyed in this corner of Utah reminded me exactly how far from home I was. In the morning, we started off on what would turn out to me the most mortally terrifying leg of our journey to California.
With my girlfriend particularly exhausted from driving through the mountains, and from being in the car in general, I stayed up late (easily done without cannabis to help sleep) that night trying to plan a less punishing route for the following day. The original plan involved a night in Lake Tahoe, but I noticed on the map that brought us far north out of our way to the South Bay the following day, extending driving times for both days. Noticing Yosemite National Park sat almost directly on the path from Richfield to the South Bay, a great alternative to Lake Tahoe, all that was left was to figure out the roads themselves. The choice was between a northern route that took us out our way into northern Nevada, a southern route that dipped south towards Las Vegas, and a direct central route that though an hour or two shorter, Google maps didn’t automatically select for some reason. The shortcut seemed to me like an obvious choice, and when I proposed shaving off a few hours the next day, my girlfriend didn’t hesitate to agree.
I should have realized then that out here in the desert, shortcuts are not always the best call. As a 90s kid I knew from hours playing Oregon Trail that bad shortcut choices were exactly what killed hasty, foolhardy pioneers 150 years ago, crossing basically the same territory we were preparing to cross. Somehow it didn’t enter my mind – traveling in our technology filled, air conditioned bubble, with only one full day of travel left to go, the nature of the route itself just did not seem like a factor worth researching. After getting our now very fed up cats back into their carriers, and eating our last hearty Rocky mountain breakfast at a diner called The Little Wonder Café, we took off into the desert – toward California, the Pacific Ocean, and a much needed medical cannabis card.
After crossing the Rockies, it was my first day in the desert, but early on it seemed pretty non-threatening. Nice views, mild weather, rest stops with cow themed restaurants and hordes of people traveling to and from Vegas. However, our route towards Yosemite took us jutting north from the interstate into the Nevada Great Basin Desert, an endless stretch of flat, barren land in between the western edge of the Utah Rockies and the beginning of the Sierra Nevadas. We were distracted as we crossed the Nevada border, working out by phone the bureaucratic details of my girlfriends’ travel nursing job, barely noticing how remote our surroundings were becoming.
Before long, all we could see was an endless stretch of road, straight as can be, and varying shades of golden scrub desert in every direction. Our surroundings had more in common with the landscape on the moon than it did with the parts of the earth where I had spent my life. The eerie beauty lulled us into a tense silence as we passed a sign indicating the road was named “extraterrestrial highway”, and then a cow carcass - and finally a conglomeration of mobile homes called Rachel, Nevada – a town I later learned existed almost entirely to serve the paranormal tourism industry. There was an inn, an empty old fashioned diner, and parched looking atomic era mobile homes - but no gas station. Expressing my alarm, my girlfriend responded that it would be fine, that we were "not even on E yet."
Having no idea we were even particularly close to E, I pretty much panicked at that point. My girlfriend continued to straddle the line between optimism and denial for a few minutes, feeling sure we would find a gas station soon. On the east coast – this would’ve been a safe assumption. Here, on the other hand, with the road stretching forward in a straight line for an empty distance to the mountains that could’ve been 40, 80, 100 miles – I knew we wouldn’t be finding a gas station. After this sunk in for both of us as the road in front of us provided nothing to hope for – we saw a car a few miles behind us and decided we better flag them down. We’d seen some cars on the road, but not many – perhaps one every 20 minutes or so up until this point.
My panic had been pushed into overdrive, but around this point the visceral fear melted away partially, as my survival instinct kicked in. I took a breath, stepped out of the car, and we spoke to a younger ginger haired man with a much older man in and SUV – but they didn’t know anything the area, telling us they were here looking for something called the “black mailbox”. We asked what it was and they looked at each other as if not sure how to respond – I sensed this, and gave them a pass saying “story for another day, huh?” – and they took the opportunity to change the subject. I googled it later and learned it was an old mailbox famous for UFO sightings. They advised us to head back to Rachel, and when they found out we had very little water in the car, handed us 4 bottles out of their trunk – which contained nothing but cases of water. We thanked them, and got back in the car to make our choice.
We knew we could either head back to Rachel – knowing there was no gas, and spend the night. Or we could spend the rest of our gas moving forward into the unknown. I had my doubts, but my girlfriend felt strongly that we should keep moving forward. I don’t know if this was out misplaced faith that civilization was just around the corner of the next mountain, a sense of repulsion from spending the night in eerie Rachel, or just a deep desire not disrupt the normalcy of our continual push westward. She leaned towards moving forward, I leaned towards going back. We needed new information. We flagged down another car going in our direction. This was a young family including a husband, wife, and two kids in the back. They spoke to us with a deep southern/western twang in their accents but unfortunately they also did not know the area – but they had a paper map – and we had long since lost reception on our phones. They checked and found there was a location called “warm springs” about 30 miles ahead on the map, which we all assumed to be a town. We thanked them, and the wife asked in her southern drawl if they could pray for us. As she grabbed my girlfriends hand, and asked god to help us find gas, and to watch over us and our car – I felt struck by two things as the desert seemingly spun around me – the surprising heartfelt kindness of strangers, but also stark reality of our situation.
We got back in our car, and headed down the endless dusty road. The beauty of our surroundings cannot be overstated. A faded gold scrub desert surrounded us in every direction – all the way to mountains on all four sides. Salt flats added accents of white that almost seemed to glow in the heat of the sun. Finally, we saw signs for “warm springs.” We knew this “warm springs” was at the intersection of Highway 375 that we were on, with Highway 6 ahead of us. When we started to approach the junction, it became clear there was no town. This was my girlfriend’s turn to panic. There was nothing but a steep hill, a road sign marking Highway 6, and a yellow blinking light that seemed totally unnecessary for the total lack of traffic. There was probably about an hour or less worth of daylight. No cars in sight at the moment. I looked at my phone, which we’d sort of been ignoring since it wasn’t a smartphone and didn’t have maps – but I now saw that one out of four bars of service was flickering on and off. I called 911, and heard them pick up through interference. Without really hearing what was being said or heard on the other end I said “we’re running out of gas moving toward the junction Highway 375 and Highway 6” repeating it three times. After a few seconds, I heard back “stay at the junction”. I got off the phone not too sure if our location had gotten across properly, but relieved and amazed I had gotten in touch with 911. The sun was going down.
We stopped at the junction – I was surprised the gas had even lasted this long – it must have been at least 50 miles since it came to my attention that we were hovering just above empty. After a few minutes we saw a pickup truck moving slowly over the rocky ground past Highway 6. Since we weren’t sure of either our location having gotten through to 911 or when/whether we would see another car – I decided to take the straightforward approach and flagged him down. I yelled to get his attention – but he didn’t come over, nor did he say anything back. Instead of walking all the way over, I headed back, spooked. He very slowly drove up to us and we saw a face out of the driver’s side, bearded and covered in dirt. “Having some problems?” he asked. We explained what had happened and he just laughed at us. I couldn’t tell if it was a menacing laugh, or if this guy just found it funny how badly prepared we were for the Nevada desert.
I interjected at that point that we’d spoken to 911 and that someone should be on their way. That way if he had any plans to mount our heads on the walls of his cabin, he may have thought twice. My girlfriend asked if he had any gas to spare, and an even more sketchy move, he said he had 10 gallons in the back of his truck, but didn’t agree give us any. Now either this guy was actually dangerous, or he was genuinely hesitant to part with his own gas out here in the desert. This ambiguity was definitely freaking us out, but at this point we were either screwed or we weren’t – it was in this guy’s hands.
It was dark now – and in the desert that means just about pitch black. At this point, the guy introduced himself and explained that he lived 100 miles away in a town called Ely, and was out here for a few nights tracking sheep. He showed us two bloody bighorn sheep skulls in the bed of his pickup truck, along with a pistol and an AR-15 automatic rifle. At this point we both started to trust him, based on our still being alive. From there, he seemed to loosen up, and we in turn became more confident. He said he’d wait with us – estimating that the police would be coming from a place called Tonopah, almost an hour in down the road. He explained warm springs was just that – a literal hot springs in the ground at the top of the hill we stood next to. He told us he didn’t blame us for not stopping in Rachel, and that even he found it a little too “the hills have eyes” in his words, but he also pointed out he couldn’t have found a scarier place to run out of gas. He went on to tell us just how close we were to Area 51, just over the hills to the south. The state government had renamed the road “extraterrestrial highway” in the 90s to capitalize on paranormal tourism as a result. He had never had a close encounter out here himself, but had seen any number of unidentifiable phenomenon in the sky, and knew any number of locals with much weirder stories. Even more concerning he said that Mexican Cartels ran giant drug operations north of the hills on the other side of the road, and he regularly saw silhouettes with Ak-47s atop the hills as the sun went down.
I had to reflect – if on some level I’d come out here looking for some romantic notion of the wild west – I had no doubt found it. The Great Basin Desert was desolate, dangerous, and mysterious in a way that I really didn’t think was possible in the 21st century United States. We had gone in distracted by completing forms, licenses, and solving bureaucratic technicalities for my girlfriends nursing job - barely aware we had left the interstate. But here, in another world from all of that, we were awakened to the reality of the world outside our car. Sometimes, technology like mobile computing and air conditioned vehicles can make you feel invincible to what’s around you, but it doesn’t take much for the world to pop that bubble, and confront you with the same challenges people have faced for centuries crossing deserts – lack of water, shelter, and potentially dangerous strangers.
The moon hung high and bright over the desert. In the black night, the sheep hunter and his arsenal that had at first intimidated us, now served to make us feel much safer in a land of such unknown dangers. The mood lightened as we waited – we mentioned our two cats sitting silently in the back of the car. My girlfriend showed him pictures since it was too dark to see them, and the hunter, who said his name was Brad, pulled out his own IPhone and began showing us a collection of photos of his tiny poodle, named Baby. When we told him we were from upstate New York, we found out his wife was from Philadelphia. The irony of the dirty, heavily armed sheep hunter in the middle of the desert having an IPhone, a poodle named Baby, and a wife from Philly didn’t really sink in until later. At the time we were just relieved to find more reason to think he wouldn’t murder us.
Just after Brad agreed to pour some of his gas into our tank and follow us to Tonopah, after about an hour and a half total of hanging at the junction, we saw headlights down the road north from Tonopah. The sheriff’s car pulled up next to us. On the aging side and wearing a cowboy hat and a smile that seemed to say he would’ve made fun of us if it wasn’t his job not to, he asked us if we were the ones who called. We said we were, and that this guy had been nice enough to already give us gas. He took one look at him and said “You’ve been helping these people, Brad?” Even though he was driving from about 60 miles up the road, and even though Brad was from 100 miles in the other direction, it turned out they were old friends – another lesson on how things work in the sparsely populated American West. The sheriff agreed to use the gas he brought to pay back Brad, so after thanking them both profusely, we kept moving toward Tonopah and eventually California. Probably at no other point in my trip did I wish I had cannabis more than this final hour getting through the last of Nevada.
With a newfound energy that only comes after a brush with mortal danger, we made it to Mammoth Lakes California at about one AM. Mammoth Lakes is a mountain ski town, and even driving into town at night we spotted more trees and forest by the road than we had seen since leaving New York. After the flat grassy Midwest, the barren Rockies, and the empty desert, we felt at home. Furthermore, the young guy at the front desk came out to greet us at, followed by what was clearly a cloud of weed smoke. We told him an abbreviated version of our desert story, which he took in with squinty, stoned eyes. We were barely across the border and I could already detect the vibrant cannabis culture of our new home.
The next day would consist of a dramatic yet gradual descent from the Sierra Nevadas into California’s central valley, including our first trip to In and Out Burger. We made it in one piece, cats and all, to Silicon Valley – where my girlfriend’s first travel nursing assignment was. The first week or two I spent unpacking, and eagerly awaiting my California ID – the last and final obstacle to becoming a medical cannabis patient, after 10 years dealing with prohibition. I had crossed deserts and mountains and now it all came down to how long the Santa Clara DMV would take to get this done. It was a long week.
By the day it came in the mail, I had learned that the process had been streamlined since I learned about medical cannabis on a visit to California in 2009. Everything could be done online – including a conference with a doctor. After some technical issues trying to use Eaze MD, I gave up and had a much easier time with Hello MD. After video chatting with a doctor from San Francisco, I had my digital verification in minutes and with two hard copies and a card in the mail for about 50 dollars. I was nervous for reasons I couldn’t put my finger on, but the doctor was friendly, professional, and informative, recommending leafly.com for information, and Harborside Dispensary in Oakland for a top quality, medically oriented dispensary. For now however, I would be searching for a delivery service that could use my digital verification – a prospect all the more amazing to me. Within a few hours I would be enjoying my first medical cannabis delivery – after a lifetime of waiting and a harrowing cross country odyssey. The next few months would be spent getting acquainted with the more forward thinking California cannabis culture.