Once one turns down “the path of no return,” every event and platitude which in normal circumstances may seem insignificant takes on a certain weight. The scalding heat of an oil cap after hours of driving in the Mojave Desert, the fact that by sheer coincidence a book long left on the shelf might open right to the page that needed to be read the most—these are the things that happen when you simply decide that you’re going to spend some amount of time doing something.
Of course, doing something often comes at a high price. Whether it’s literal—like, say, the purchase of a car that seems implacably necessary to creating the circumstances required to “build character” or “find oneself,” or something much harder to measure—the opportunity cost, the mangling of a perfectly fine situation, the exchange of comfort for one of its many opposites are all part of this semi-conscientious effort to find what is true and what is central to this idea of character.
I was forced to internalize that as I laid on the beach staring at the stars last week, wondering why I had elected to return to the scene of so many self-loathing, introspective crimes. Driving a cantankerous thirty two year old sports car in Los Angeles’ infamous web of traffic, discussing decidedly California things with decidedly California people, and ultimately laying in the same sand I’d laid in so many times before all brought the moment to a painful anticlimax.
There was a hollow feeling somewhere between my frayed nerves and my much emptier bank account, a base discomfort totally incongruous with my physical surroundings, and they were conspiring to play twin devils on my shoulders telling me that I should just return the car, just go home, just admit that life was fine the way it was and no part of me needed or deserved the circumstances I’d created.
And when I woke up bleary-eyed and vaguely sad the next morning, I knew that I had done the right thing.
That type of second-guessing is essential to forward progress. This morning, I opened my favorite Joan Didion anthology straight to one of my very favorite essays of hers (On Self Respect). In it, she writes about our collective self-respecting grandparents, “They had instilled in them, young, a certain discipline, the sense that one lives by doing things one does not particularly want to do, by putting fears and doubts to one side, by weighing immediate comforts against the possibility of larger, even intangible, comforts.” As we get better at building virtual reality and efficient air conditioning, we become further removed from such virtues. But I digress.
Driving through the Mojave Desert at 3 PM on the first of August, I had to squint through the shimmering mirages and dust devils to try to focus on the intangible comforts. The brown Porsche that as-yet remains nameless lacks any semblance of functional A/C. It was designed with 1960s West Germany in mind and kept relevant for 1980s West Germany with subtle updates but never complete transformations. That is part of the mystique of the early air-cooled Porsches, the quirky control layouts and directness that makes every other car feel ponderous, enormous, and numb; it is also what makes them wonderfully nightmarish to drive outside of their comfort zones. Creeping on I-15 south of Barstow as the mercury soared to one hundred eleven degrees is definitely not in the 911’s comfort zone.
And yet, as I lost nearly a pound of sweat per hour over the course of the entire day, I kept the nose pointed east and swapped stories with my equally-ambitious copilot. We had one goal: get to Zion National Park that night, wake up before the sunrise, summit Angel’s Landing, and have him back in Saint George in time to hitchhike back to Los Angeles and me on the road in time to make dinner in central Colorado. These harebrained ideas quickly consume the human psyche, so that utterly voluntary scenarios become very real challenges that require our utmost gumption.
Parked at an O’Reilly Autoparts just off the Las Vegas strip with two dead cellphones, I got a trial-by-fire lesson in the zaniness of an air-cooled oil change. And the fire was borderline literal, as the scalding heat of an engine that’d been running at full boil all day combined with the relentless baking of the Mojave Desert sun. No part of me wanted to touch that damn metal oil cap, and it required several timid attempts before the metal cooled and my fingertips heated enough that I could actually make progress in removing it. I was so dehydrated that you could see my orbital bones beneath my eyeballs, and suddenly I felt that I was exactly where I belonged.
Las Vegas rises defiantly out of the desert in a way that feels symbolic of its place in the human condition—your secret is safe with us debauchery meets tax incentives for businesses and families to move there meets how does anybody actually live here. It seems to teeter on the edge in a way that other desert metropolises don’t. As we weaved around the side streets and creeped along the Strip, I genuinely wondered aloud how and why anyone could end up there to stay. Or how its weekend visitors could earnestly crawl from windowless, oxygenated casino to casino to VIP pool until it’s time to go home.
Of course, I also used to wonder how I could ever earnestly dance or love or have a conversation again after I felt that part of me atrophy under the weight of irony and sarcasm and a million unanswered questions. Now, I’m borderline allergic to sardonic tones and the idea of being too cool to dance. That shift requires untold years and plenty of burnt fingertips and road rash and heartbreak. But that’s a different story.
Sitting in a popup vegan restaurant in the downtown district, a very-Vegas petri dish experiment by Zappos’ CEO Tony Hsieh, with gallon jugs of water and a layer of desert dust accumulated from hours of driving at one hundred miles an hour with the windows down and the temperature up, we finally happened upon someone who could shed a little light on the Las Vegas Question.
As I sat and ate my Tempeh Lettuce Tomato sandwich, a girl came in and ordered something to-go. She took a seat at the table next to ours and waited with an uncommon alertness, no cell phone to be seen. Quickly, we found ourselves in conversation and inevitably it was asked if she actually lived here. And she did. She’d moved from Chicago to Vegas to work with Teach for America—after teaching in Chicago for a few years. And she’d just signed on to stay beyond the two year tenure TFA asks for. She spoke of the transience that the city demonstrates—how often parents arrive and tell her that their child won’t be in class anymore because they’re moving—and how she felt compelled to not be another transient statistic who evaporates as quickly as beer spilled on the Strip sidewalk. She said she’d found comfort in the amount of National Parks within a four hour radius and explained her reluctant embrace of the saccharine ‘culture hub’ we found ourselves sitting in. I embraced it, too, because after five hours of crawling then flying through the desert as the temperatures inside the car rose to 130 degrees, air conditioning and fresh food were an unfathomable gift. And hearing a very real story of a very human resident of the surreal Sin City made every second and every drop of sweat worth it.
Then I twisted the left-handed ignition and growled back onto I-15 towards Utah, my belly full and my core temperature much lower. I had my heart dead-set on avoiding interstates as much as possible, but to get to Utah from Las Vegas, there are precious few options. An awe-inspiring desert electrical storm quickly gave way to a desert monsoon, and I kept the floor-hinged throttle pinned and the H4 headlights on their bright setting, just barely piercing the imposing darkness. As we rolled into the heart of the storm and took turns guessing at the name of the girl we’d forgotten to ask, I chewed on the endless ways we can be humbled. It reminded me of another time Matt and I had sat side-by-side on a desert highway, our perspectives thoroughly shaken after an incident I’ve almost never spoken of.
With the thrum of an aircooled flat-six motor behind me and the rhythm of the rain on the windshield, we pressed onward towards Zion, chewing on the subtleties of life and the telepathic nature of the unassisted steering wheel in my hands. The circumstances were bleak and exhilarating at the same time, and I felt the gnawing, latent regret give way to dutiful determination and undying optimism. It didn’t hurt that the rain had lowered the ambient temperature into the eighties, which made being inside the car much more bearable.