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Home / Articles / · Archive / News & Columns /  Editorial | Rasmuson: Ramblin? Man
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Editorial | Rasmuson: Ramblin? Man

By John Rasmuson
Posted // January 21,2009 -

Alone in a car, doing 80 on 80—west of the airport where the dark, smooth slope of the Kennecott tailings mesa looms—I am half listening to Morning Edition on KUER 90.1 as my mind wanders in free association: my days on the Kennecott payroll, reading On the Road, and, unavoidably, the Donner Party.

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On a beeline to Donner Pass, I am timed to beat an approaching storm, 550 miles with gas-and-coffee stops in Elko and Reno. Then a 300-mile sprint to the coast to conclude a numbing, 15-hour day on the road.

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Beyond Kennecott, on the right, are the onion domes of a forlorn replica of the grand resort started by the LDS Church in the 1890s. According to Nancy and John McCormick’s book Saltair, church elders worried that “pleasure resorts” along the Great Salt Lake shoreline near Ogden “exposed Mormon children ‘to the villainous acts of practiced voluptuaries’ and ‘degraded character destroyers,’” so Saltair became the approved alternative.

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A glitzy, 21st century pleasure resort lies just 88 miles ahead. Billboards near Tooele tout $45 rooms and single-deck blackjack. Wendover beckons like Sodom, and nine out of 10 cars in the parking lots bear Utah plates.

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KUER dissolves into static just west of Wendover. From the left side of the FM dial springs a host of religious stations. Christian rock and talk prevail until NPR reasserts itself as KUNR 88.7 FM three hours later. Curious, I listen as a guy named David Reed parses the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Bible to criticize what he calls “double talk and double think.” I wonder what they say about the Book of Mormon and the Koran in these empty desert spaces.

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This is Mormon cricket country. The ugly little buggers hang out in these parts until they run short of salt and protein. Then, they swarm like a biblical plague of locusts as they did famously in Salt Lake City in 1848. Unlike locusts, however, the swarm engine of Mormon crickets is cannibalism. According to Iain D. Couzin, a Princeton biologist, the impetus of the swarm’s forward motion is the individual’s urge to eat his neighbor. If you are a cricket, you try to eat the guy in front of you even as you guard your ass from the guy coming up behind. So you keep in step with thousands of others.

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Cannibalism is also the subtext of the Donner story. They passed the Great Salt Lake in late August 1846. The desert flats must have looked inviting to the teamsters after bushwhacking through the Wasatch Mountains. If only the winter had held off, there would be no story, but six weeks out of Elko, five feet of snow trapped them in the Sierras. Forty-six of 87 survived the winter, some by eating the dead.

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I doubt that the Nevada desert has changed much since then. The landscape is a soft sculpture, textured by sunlight and shadow, in shades of brown and gray. Bunch grass adds a ragged fringe here and there, but it is chiefly sagebrush in vast, nubbly sweeps that meets the velvet folds of the mountains seamlessly in the distance. The mountains are purple, but not majestic.

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The sun has bleached the color from the undifferentiated land. Only the highway signs are vibrant—green, red and blue—but the ravens looking unhurriedly for road kill are shiny black. Under a vaulted sky, the scale is such that telephone poles are spindly; fences merely cobwebs; trains of double-stacked containers, matchbox toys. A chronicle of violence is recorded on the asphalt in skid marks and blood splatters. On the sides of the road lie scraps of retread rubber, “gators” in trucker argot, a detail I gleaned from a John McPhee essay, not a truck-stop conversation.

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I note that I am sharing the road with trucks primarily—extended cabs, 4x4s and big rigs. I spontaneously sing Art Garfunkel’s part of the Paul Simon lyric, “Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike / they’ve all gone to look for America.” The cars haven’t made it this far west, I muse. But then I examine what I do see of America in Nevada: a parched landscape, hazy skies, evangelical radio, four prisons, a highway built as a Cold War defense, and caravans of long-haul trucks. None of it is reassuring.

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What is reassuring, however, is the sight of trees and water after 500 miles of desert. The Donner Party must have rejoiced. They followed the Truckee River into the pine forest at the foot of the Sierra Nevadas and into the teeth of unforgiving winter storms.

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The sun warms the car as the gauzy sky finally clears outside of Reno. Overhead, contrails are knife slashes on a blue canvas. Below, Donner Lake is postcard pretty. Too many tire chains have worn the inside lane of Interstate 80 into a pair of pebbly tracks. The car vibrates and the hum of tires drowns out the radio. All the cars hew to the smoother passing lane and refuse to move aside. It’s just like driving on Salt Lake City freeways.

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Near the summit, traffic is funneled into gates like cattle. “Any plants or produce?” a uniformed man asks. I say no. I smile when I see that eastbound cars—many likely carrying baggies of marijuana, California’s largest cash crop—pass unchecked.

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Beyond Sacramento, the sun low on the horizon, I have to squint to read the backlit road signs. It is hard to see. Behind me, the gold fields that attracted the Donner Party are mined out; the frontier, paved over. Ahead, the unexpected—perhaps more dangerous than any blizzard—waits beyond our ken. In which direction shall we keep a weather eye? CW

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Private Eye is off this week. Send feedback to comments@cityweekly.net.

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