| "I'm going to
buy a guitar this weekend," says my friend Doug. "Do you want to come
"Sure," I reply.
"It's in Salt Lake City."
"Well ... we'd better get going, then."
The guitar: a 1939 Gibson ES-150, with maple back and sides, solid spruce carved top, mahogany neck, and rosewood fretboard. In an original yellow tweed "aeroplane cloth" case, with a matching amplifier, it's the model made famous by the legendary Charlie Christian — who, by the time he died of tuberculosis in 1942, still in his mid-20s, had invented modern jazz guitar and helped lay the foundations of bebop. Doug — a fine player himself, lately immersed in the Christian oeuvre — had found this fretted grail at an Orange County vintage guitar show; but the price was high and his funds were low, and the dealer took the instrument back to his shop in Salt Lake City. Still, the Gibson called Doug's name. And so he got on the phone and managed to work the price down to something that didn't feel as though he were stealing bread from his little girl's mouth. All that remained was to fetch it.
I am not infrequently awake at 5:30 a.m., but it's usually because I haven't been to bed yet. The light is violet and the earth still shrouded in mist when Doug arrives at the door.
"Ready?" he asks.
I've had two hours sleep, a quick shower, and half a cup of coffee. Oh, I'm ready.
We have to cover the 715 miles from Los Angeles to Salt Lake by six that evening, before the dealer (we'll call him Igor) closes shop and heads off to a rehearsal; under prevailing speed laws, with stops only for gas, we figure we can make it. Otherwise we'll be taking just an extremely long Sunday drive — which is all I'm after, after all. This guitar means nothing to me; it's simply the pretext for a four-state day trip and the chance to hang out with a pal in a moving vehicle.
The car Doug has rented for the trip is new, automatic, mid-sized, and American. I don't even notice the make; all that matters to me really are that it has a cassette player and dual cup holders, that the seats are comfortable, and that it isn't my car. (Renting: the grown-up way to joyride.) You'd have never thought from the way I got carsick as a kid — the usual way — how much I'd come to love driving long distances. Some meditate on mountaintops, others find peace by the sea; I am nowhere more my essential self than on the highway. It's a spa experience: No bills are delivered, the phone doesn't ring, and the most pressing decisions are where to eat, when to get gas, and what tape to play next. Every moment you arrive somewhere new.
We travel east down route 10 toward the clouded, gathering daylight, listening to public radio; the news, as often, is bad, and we fall quickly into philosophy. Reckoning the fate of the world and our place in or out of it, we almost miss the turn north onto I-15, skating quickly across the empty lanes to catch the ramp. We head up into Cajon Pass, where the San Andreas Fault begins or ends. The highway from here to Salt Lake essentially follows the trail of the Mormons who a century and a half ago helped found San Bernardino as a way station to the ports of Southern California. They had a rougher trip, of course; no dual cup holders, no cassette players, no bucket seats, no bottled Starbucks Frappuccinos. There was even a time when they had to lower wagons through the pass by rope. If we had to do that with this car, well, I mean, forget it.
An hour out of L.A., it's a different world. Every mile takes us noticeably farther into the desert, as the land empties itself of content, becoming pure contour. The sun is up now, the sky clear. The tape player blasts Buick MacKane, a trash-rock quartet from Austin. (Among their songs: "John Conquest, You've Got Enough Dandruff on Your Collar to Bread a Veal Cutlet.") We shoot through Victorville, an oasis of chains, franchises, and outlets, noting to our right the Roy Rogers Museum, home of stuffed Trigger — we won't be seeing that sight today.
First pit stop, near Barstow. I buy peanut butter–filled pretzels and Fig Newtons; Doug gets a cinnamon roll. Like Halloween and Christmas, a road trip is an excuse to eat the most horrible junk.
The desert whips by, blue mountains off in the distance, an occasional dust devil animating the foreground. We pass a sign: something about a Mad Greek and "cafe espresso" in the upcoming town of Baker: Where can't you get espresso nowadays? Baker arrives; its main to claim to fame, the World's Tallest Thermometer, says it's 85 degrees at 8:06 a.m. (Too hot for espresso — not that we've got the time.) Billboards for Las Vegas begin to appear. We listen to the neo-country-rock of Wilco. A jet trail scars the overarching blue. The road stretches straight ahead, but the landscape dips and curves where lakes used to be.
Las Vegas, the first proper metropolis in more than 200 miles, comes into sight long before we get there. The massive scale of its cartoon hostelries — the giant black pyramid of the Luxor, the insanely high Stratosphere Tower — plays havoc with proportion, makes the city seems closer than it is and approaching it like a dream where you run and run and move hardly at all.
"Las Vegas!" I cry, actually excited. "Viva!" The 12-towered "Manhattan skyline" of the New York–New York hotel and casino heaves into view. "Look! There's the Chrysler Building, gleaming in the desert sun."
"Are people just out of ideas, or what?" wonders Doug, sincerely.
"It's much cleaner than New York," I observe. "Probably safer, too. You won't likely get mugged there."
"You do get mugged. By the house."
After Las Vegas, the distance remaining to Salt Lake isn't much more than a trip from L.A. to San Francisco: a milk run. At Mesquite — like every Nevada border town, inflated with opportunities for last-chance gambling — the desert turns suddenly opulent with golf links and water hazards. We clip the corner of Arizona, a digest of John Ford moments, and navigate the narrow, winding, breathtakingly sheer-walled straits of Virgin River Gorge. Howlin' Wolf growls on the stereo.
Utah at last: Even the scrub is greener here, the earth a deeper red. As we motor north, the scenery becomes more lush, the land more arable, the mountains ever more alpine. It's the kind of landscape that makes you want to lean back against a fence rail and murmur, "God's country — yup."
The lack of sleep starts to tell on me, but a series of ten-second naps — it's okay, I'm not driving — manages to clear my head. To our right, the 10,000-foot peaks of the Dixie National Forest give way to the higher peaks of the Fishlake National Forest, while up ahead, big black clouds begin to stab the earth with lightning. Rain comes down; passing semis drown us in spray. I eat Sugar Babies, and we listen to tapes of Charlie Christian with the Benny Goodman Sextet as Provo becomes a reality and Salt Lake City draws near.
Igor's is your standard small used-guitar shop, instruments hanging on the walls, effects pedals under glass, amps gathered in back. A television behind the counter plays cartoons; a little boy fools with a toy truck on the floor. Igor, a large guy with thinning heavy-metal hair, greets us affably.
What follows is as subtly elaborate as the meeting of Bedouin chiefs: No "Here's your money, where's my guitar?" Even as the instrument is produced, examined, played, and examined again — though there's no question that after driving 715 miles Doug is going to buy this guitar — the breeze must be shot, with casual formality that belies the tension of the moment. We learn therefore how Igor first came to Salt Lake, about his band, his marriage, his divorce, and that he and Doug both hung out in Long Beach 20 years earlier at a club called the Marina Palace. In this way, an hour passes.
Finally the transaction is made, and we're ready to go, with not only the intended goods, but a 1952 Alamo amplifier that caught Doug's eye, and which he got at a good price because every time Igor tried to turn it on, something blew up. (Back home, it takes Doug "five minutes to fix it.")
"Do you guys like to gamble?" asks Igor, as we head out the door. "You know what's nice? Mesquite. I partied there one night and liked it way more than Vegas."
The drive back is much the same as the drive up, except that it's in the dark and in the opposite direction. If anything, the scenery is more spectacular by night. Lightning lights the mountains in flashbulb instants; a bright, bright moon illuminates the plain clear to the horizon. The Virgin River Gorge is otherwordly, its craggy, moon-shadowed cliffs seeming to move as we move through them. We give Mesquite a miss, but Las Vegas, as we come in from the mountains, is a riot of light too wild to resist. We leave the highway for the visual cacophony of the Strip, which moves me to something between awe and hilarity, and pay a quick visit to New York–New York, with its one-third-scale Empire State Building and Statue of Liberty, its Disneyland Greenwich Village, and slot machines massed like crowds on Black Friday before the facade of the "New York New York Stock Exchange." It's well after midnight, the action is spectral, and we're in and out quick, with not so much as a quarter bet.
The last stretch is the hardest, the spirit of adventure by now having been swallowed whole by the desire to get home. We switch off snoozing and driving for a while, listen to Beck as the sun comes up. And by 7:30 a.m., 26 hours after leaving it, we're back in Los Angeles, mission accomplished. By eight o'clock I'm in bed and asleep. All day I dream of driving.