I like to go. Drive. Give me an endless expanse of road with a clear sunny sky, and I could drive all day without blinking.
You know the feeling, don’t you? The breeze is floating by, the engine is humming beneath you, and the horizon just keeps rolling out before you—inviting expansive thoughts. On a road like this, you can see why the American West is a road-trippers dream. There are places where you feel like a pioneer exploring uncharted lands, reveling in the empty landscapes.
On this particular journey, the destination we had in mind was the middle of nowhere. And we found it, right where it should be, at the halfway point of our gas tank. And there, the lure of the road, the bait of the forward motion, got the best of us. Up ahead, we saw a large flat lake shimmering in the distance. So against our better judgment, we continued past the point of no return.
We approached the lake with hopes of a refreshing swim on a hot summer day. But the desert had a trick up its sleeve. As we got closer, we realized that there was another expanse of nothingness in the middle of this expanse of nothingness. The sandy yellow desert gave way to a crystal white salt flat. No water at all. The “lake” had been a mirage.
We parked the bus on the dusty shoulder and marveled at our surroundings and how many varieties of nothing there can be in the world! Once you examine the details, something so simple as a flat plane of earth can actually be so varied and diverse.
All this wide-open space gave us gobs of energy, and we ran out onto the salt, laughing and shouting into the sky, wrapped in the joy of freedom. On the white ground, we found another wayward traveler. A lone tire had ventured off the roadway, out into the unknown. It seemed so silly that a tire would venture out on its own. We spoke of wayward travelers who had come before us. Our talks led us all the way back to the wagon days of the Oregon Trail. We concluded this: to roll out into the vast unknown is a yearning we humans have held through generations.
As dusk would have it, the light left the sky. The time came to turn around and bid goodbye to the middle of nowhere. We needed civilization and its amenities again. We pointed the car into the setting sun, and the miles began to slip away under our wheels once more. All was fine; we were content, our minds quiet. The only problem was this: we had gone past the middle. Our expansive adventure had taken us farther than we had planned, and we had to once again contend with the limits of reality. That reality being the simple idea that cars don’t run if they don’t have gas. If halfway turns into three-quarters, you’re not going to make it back.
We were once again on the side of the road, this time not for the sake of curiosity or the joy of exploration but because of our own irresponsibility. It was dark. It was chilly. How were we to get out of this pickle?
Civilization—with its sustaining gas stations—was out of reach, many miles away. Also, true to form on a nowhere road, not a soul had passed us in the last two hours. By foot, the trip to town would take half the night, but I stalwartly got out our jerry can (which, of course, was empty) and readied myself for the journey. About ten minutes into my walk, a text came through on my phone. It was just a dumb meme from a friend—nothing special there. “But wait,” I thought, “I have cell service!”
The kindly AAA operator asked me where I was, and I had to answer, “Um … I’m not sure exactly. Somewhere between ‘here’ and ‘there,’ I guess.” They said they knew that spot and were surprised I had cell service in such a remote location. I agreed and asked if they sent trucks out to the “Bermuda Triangle” of the nothing-filled desert.
“Yep, sure thing, no problem. We’ll send someone out as soon as they’re done with a tow,” the operator replied.
Back at the bus, a blunt thought hit me. I realized I had spent the entire day in constant motion, but I hadn’t gone anywhere at all. Taking in the stillness of the desert at night, my partner and I watched the Milky Way make its slow progression through the sky. I thought to myself, “This is just what I needed. Something to force me to stand still and wonder at it all.”
As my partner lay her head on my shoulder, two sets of headlights came upon us. The AAA truck had arrived, and as luck would have it, so had a local rancher! What had been the emptiest road I’ve ever seen turned into a three-car meet-up. It was a heartwarming, comical scene when the rancher and the AAA attendant hopped out of their rigs with warm smiles and containers in their hands—a showdown of hospitality. The rancher insisted we accept some gas station coffee to get us through the long night, and the AAA attendant, of course, had the road trip-sustaining fuel. With my gas tank full and my brain jolted awake by the coffee, I was tempted to head back into the night to see what was just beyond the middle of nowhere.
J.R. Switchgrass and his partner Kit have traveled all over the U.S. living in their 1970s V.W. bus. This creative couple captures their adventures through writing, photography, and filmmaking.