Last night it was dark in the Panamint Valley west of Death Valley, the two nether-world stretches of folded earth that time has to catch up with.

I drove through the Panamint with a car behind me. I was glad it was behind me. It was forty miles to Trona. Twenty more to Ridgecrest.

I turned south onto 178, the truck not far behind. It was flat, I’d remembered. Sixty miles per hour steady, the truck tracking me from a hundred yards back, not crowding me. Sixty-five miles per hour, high beams on, rough road. After several miles my Jeep started to slow and I added some gas to keep my speed. I could tell from the speedometer and the tachometer that I was going up hill. I had no sensation of up or down. Black on black, headlights disappearing just beyond reach.

I felt the Jeep struggling to keep my speed and lights behind me were coming up. I kept my speed, lights reaching ahead to the yellow reflective arrows pointing left, left LEFT and a curve came fast. I braked and turned, swerved and fought the steering wheel, slowing to thirty five.

In the curves now, walls of clay and rock flash by, the lights behind me shining through the edges of little bridges across the draws I must have been driving over on the edge of this desolate valley, the lattice patterns of the bridge rails flashing and tilting from the lights behind me.

Reflective arrows pointed right, right RIGHT and I slowed this time. The walls of the canyon were on me, and the lights behind me played on the rock and scrub brush. I felt the Jeep downshift through the turns, left, right, left right, tight, around the bend, lights behind me throwing patterns on the wall in front of me, reflectors pointing left, right.

I came out of the turns, felt the Jeep still pulling, looked at the tach and speedometer to gauge the vehicles ascent or descent, all sensation of up and down gone, the only sign the tach and speedo to tell me which way the Jeep was heading.

The road flattened out. I could see the tach slowing down under two thousand RPM’s and the speedometer moving above sixty, sixty two, sixty three miles per hour. The road was straight. The headlights were on full, high beams with fog lamps underneath if I dimmed them, but there were no cars. Just a light in the distance. Maybe an approaching car, maybe a motorcycle. Far away, too far to know.

The light was twinkling like a star. Maybe a safety light, a warning for a curve, highway work being done. I headed into the dark night, watching the light. For a moment it seemed like the light was just ahead, coming towards me like a car, moving out of the dark edge of night. No, it was far away. Maybe a light in front of a motel, a sign to turn off, a warm bed and a meal and a shower. The light was so far in the distance, even after watching it for two, three minutes. All the lights I could see; my dashboard, tach and speedometer and the blue ‘high beam’ indicator and the green ‘fog light’ indicator and the light of my headlights and the light behind me and the light ahead of me, I questioned them all. None seemed to be right. My headlights had no reach, the brightest light I had and it fell short of telling me anything. The tach and speedometer were showing I was moving up, down, the shadowed light from the vehicle behind me on the curves throwing ladders of shadow and dim light on the walls of the canyon, and this bright spectre winking at me coming at me down the road, but holding its ground.

I wanted this light in front of me to show itself.

Identify yourself in this midnight valley. Who goes there?

Three minutes, four minutes, what vehicle lights would be visible for three, four minutes, without showing itself as two headlights coming down the road rushing past me? I looked in my mirror for the headlights of the vehicle behind me and there seemed to be another vehicle behind him, another pair of headlights. I looked back to the road in front of me. Still there, moving toward me, the light seemed to be coming down a grade, the strange winking light. I’d been watching it for four minutes or so. In my mirror the vehicle behind me gave space.

There were two lights in front of me. It was a car, a truck, not a motorcycle. It had been in my vision for over four minutes. Four minutes or five minutes. A pinhole of light in the desert of night, Venus coming at me on the horizon. I could not tell the difference. The vehicle speeded past me, two headlights out of the dark. Then they were gone. I drove on. Trona was coming up, its lights steady and distinct, the old plant on the edge of town, I could see it a few miles away. I’d make it.

In Trona I came up on a black Mustang convertible going twenty miles an hour, no more than thirty through town. For five miles I followed him. This driver knew his way home, all the way to Ridgecrest. The truck followed me. The Mustang weaved and hobbled like an old pony with a bad leg, but he knew the way.

I’d come through the dark desert highway. I could go forty, forty five, fifty through the dark, down in to Ridgecrest behind this old pilot. He could be my tugboat captain.

I turned in at McDonalds and ate in front of a family of large people. Their young children were respectful and delighted to sit with their big mom and dad. I heard the girl calling ‘Mom, Mom, come look at this’ and I knew she was happy.

No comments: