Several years ago, I was attending a conference in Las Vegas (not my favorite place, as if you couldn’t guess). I was originally scheduled to fly back to New York on a Thursday night red eye, then fly back to San Francisco Sunday afternoon for meetings. As much as I actually enjoy flying, this just seemed silly. So I arranged to leave Vegas on Thursday to fly to SF.
After my second full day in Vegas when I was already 1000% done with it, I made a stupid decision. And like most stupid decisions I make involving travel, this one was genius. I cashed in my plane ticket and used it to rent an Audi A5 convertible for a one-way drive to SF. The cost was exactly the same.
I am woefully inexperienced when it comes to the western United States. I have done practically none of it despite being both interested and capable. So when I had a free day, a free convertible, and a free spirit (also known as a completely outsized assessment of my endurance and capabilities), I jumped at the chance to make the drive.
It’s a bit of a hike from Vegas to San Fran – 9 hours by the route google so helpfully provides.
So, obviously I didn’t take that route. No, I was there to see some Death Valley, some foothills of Yosemite (as this was the middle of January, no actual Yosemite was going to be seen because the roads are dangerously impassable in winter). I didn’t mind that I was locking myself into well over a half-day of driving. This was going to be fun!
So there was one slightly funny, slightly problematic thing that started my day at the car rental agency at just before 5am: it had been many many years since I’d driven an automatic. My car isn’t, Jim’s car isn’t, and when we rent cars abroad, they aren’t. This made for a significant number of short stops when I slammed on the brake with my left foot, thinking it was the clutch.
Now January in Las Vegas isn’t exactly January in New York, weather-wise, but it also isn’t exactly tank top weather. But I had rented a convertible and a convertible is what I was going to drive. Top-down, heat all the way up, alternately freezing and roasting. Like god intended. This was already shaping up to be incredibly fun.
Because the literal second you leave Las Vegas city limits, you are utterly, utterly alone. So alone, you could, for example, take your hands off the steering wheel so that you could use them to snap photographs through your own windscreen. I mean, if you were so inclined.
I can remember few other experiences as delightfully solitary as driving through Death Valley in the immediate post-dawn – hell, I saw a coyote! The general store at Panamint Springs didn’t charge me, or anyone else, for coffee, assuming that if you were on this road, you probably needed it. And in the couple of hours it took me to push through, I saw maybe a half dozen other cars.
As I made my way back onto something approaching a main road, traffic picked up. And I looked longingly at every sign pointing towards Yosemite, especially those with a big yellow add-on that read “Road Closed.” And here’s where I start to say something deep about travel: there’s a metaphoric “Road Closed” sign on a lot of places. Whether because they’re too far away, too financially out of reach, too dangerous, too logistically complex, too whatever, we are inclined to put up signs warning us away from things we might want to do. Driving what amounts to 15+ hours just because you “had the time,” is kind of a silly thing to do. And there were many times I could have called off this little jaunt before it started, hopped on a perfectly acceptable 30 minute flight, and enjoyed a day in San Francisco gorging myself on sourdough. But somewhere on the trajectory of my life, I started getting really pissed off at the Road Closed signs – both the ones I put up for myself and the ones I felt were put up for me.
Fuck Road Closed. What’s the worst that could happen?