For many years, my road home at Christmas has been south from the Pacific Northwest. Even after I moved to the desert last year, because I went back to Seattle before Christmas, my road home was the familiar trek across Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Northern Utah. It was pretty routine, with a route that only varied slightly. There was always a one or two day stop in Boise, Idaho to visit family there and drop off Christmas gifts. Then there was the familiar bump in the road on I-84 when I crossed from Idaho into Utah just before Snowville, a bump that told me I was “home”.
But this year -- my first full year of living in the desert after uprooting from Seattle -- I went home for Christmas on a different road. It’s a road I’ve traveled many times before – but not home for the holidays which conveys another set of emotions. Coming down from the Northwest if it wasn’t rainy and cold it was snowy and cold, setting the stage for the holiday season. Coming up from the south one doesn’t hit snow until the second day afteer getting well into Utah. The first full day of driving is across the high Mojave Desert of Southern California, into Nevada, and Southern Utah, where the temperature remained in the 70s, the sun shines, and the vegetation is sparse. And like the route in from the north, the drive covers vast empty spaces – across a landscape where very few people live and work, and where most travelers grumble about how “boring” it is and how long it takes to get across. Not me. I love the great empty, and I find it starkness quite beautiful.
Like the road home from the Northwest, I’ve driven this road many times – most recently a few weeks ago on a run to Las Vegas. It’s quite familiar, I know every dip and bump, every climb, every pass, and all my familiar landmarks. The abandoned microwave tower at Sheep’s Pass, the salt mines and the old Roy’s Motel along Route 66 in Amboy, and coming up to the former Union Pacific Depot in Kelso -- now the Visitor Center for the Mojave National Preserve, where I stop for the first time since leaving the house. I visit with the rangers and look over the depot, and hope a train goes by. My Grandfather once worked here when he worked for the Union Pacific as a signal maintainer during the depression when this was a major rail center, and my Mom recalls him telling her he was in Kelso, so aside from it being a cool place it's got a bit of a family connection as well.
Time passes quickly – almost too quickly. Before long it’s up and over the Cima Grade, passing a train I wished I could watch rumble past the depot back in Kelso, then on past the abandoned store at Cima and through the “forest” of Joshua Trees and then onto I-15 at the California/Nevada line, all the while being able to count the cars I pass on one hand. It's why I like this back road through the empty land.
But suddenly there are people. Lots and lots of people. All streaming towards the casinos of Las Vegas, all pouring up 1-15 from SoCal, and for those who can’t wait to gamble there are the casinos built right on the state line at Primm, Nevada. A few years ago, just outside of Las Vegas an “artist” created one of those massive outdoor “art” projects called Seven Magic Mountains. It consists of a number of boulders piled on each other and painted neon bright colors. It is a sudden burst of color in the muted hues of the desert. I’ve wanted to stop and look at it every time I've passed, but again this trip failed to exit in time, so had to drive past it and double back. The place is crawling with folks taking pictures, so it takes some time to frame it so there aren't people taking selfies in every shot, or guys shooting their "wannabe model" girlfriends posing like Madonna is singing Vogue in the background. It makes what could be a very interesting art installation a tacky tourist stop for the Las Vegas crowd and that's unfortunate.
Then it’s back onto the freeway and into Las Vegas where it’s stop and go traffic all along the freeway through town, even at 3pm in the afternoon. It takes nearly an hour to get through the city. Once safely on the north side the road climbs up towards the appropriately named Apex before heading across more empty desert towards Mesquite and into Arizona. The sun goes down and it’s dark by the time I enter the Virgin River Gorge and start the climb into Utah, and crossing the state line from Arizona into Utah there is no “bump” to tell me I’m home, just a sign saying, “Welcome to Utah – Life Elevated” which is almost lost among the lights of St. George. St. George is like Boise – the half way point on my journey home. But I don’t have any relatives to visit here, so it’s a quiet night by myself in a Holiday Inn Express.
The next day the sun is shining on the red rocks of St. George and the climb into Utah continues – headed North, passing Zion National Park’s Kolob Canyons, gaining elevation, and finally seeing snow just outside of Cedar City. I texted Mom as I was leaving St. George, and she said “good, you’ll be home by lunchtime” and I replied “or thereabouts”, to which she just said “yes, knowing you...” She knows my propensity is to wander, to explore, to stop and take photos. She used to say when I’d leave Boise headed south, “you are the only person I know who can take a ‘normal’ four-hour drive and make it a ten hour one.”
But for some reason, this time I’m not in the mood to wander. I have no idea why. I’m not in a hurry to get home either, but the desire to stop frequently and often wasn’t there for some reason. I’ll pay for that with stiff legs the for next few days, but I just was comfortable in the cab of my big truck, enjoying the emply land, the mountains, the long flat valleys dotted with cattle, and playing CD’s and eating sandwiches I’d packed the day before. The road just rolled away under my feet and I didn’t stop once, even for gas, until I got to Nephi, Utah.
Since I wasn’t going to go through Boise, and my sister wasn’t going to make it to Salt Lake City this year, I needed to mail their gifts, so I had an errand to do in addition to getting gas and stretching. Nephi – the county seat of Juab County, Utah is also where my father was born and raised. It’s a small farming community named by the early Mormon pioneers -- like many other towns in Utah -- after one of the main characters in the Book of Mormon. The ancient post office sits on Main Street, on what was once US-91. The town, now bypassed by I-15 which circles to the east, has pretty much dried up as a result. Main Street is filled with abandoned two and three story turn of the century vintage buildings, with a few café’s and stores still open, along with the stately Juab County courthouse, and a wonderful vintage post office built in 1931, the year after my father was born there.
I wandered in with my package and unlike any other post office in a big city, there was no line at all today. The clerk weighed and sent my package on its way to Boise and we chatted for a minute. I told her she was lucky to get to work in this classic old building, and I was glad to see the Postal Service hadn’t closed it up and moved to something a bit more suited to its present operation and less costly to heat than this neo-classical Romanesque edifice. She agreed and said the folks in Nephi “are proud of their post office” and wouldn’t stand for it. I'm happy. “Merry Christmas” she said, and I replied back as I strolled out of a building I imagine my father visited a few times as a kid mailing letters for his folks a time or two.
Then it's back on I-15 headed north, inching closer to my own hometown, although I feel very much at home anywhere in Utah it seems. And while I’ve not lived here for almost 35 years – since 1983 – I don’t think I’ve ever really left. I know these roads like the back of my hand. But much has changed and it’s almost unrecognizable in many places, it’s grown so much. The traffic starts just before Provo now and lasts almost to Mom’s house in the middle of Salt Lake – at 3pm on a Friday. The stretch of highway between Provo and Salt Lake that I drove nearly every day all the time I was in college at BYU is now 10 lanes wide and full of cars. I used to drive through miles of farm land that is now all covered with office parks for tech companies.
Around Point of the Mountain and the entire Salt Lake Valley sprawls out before me, the valley ringed by the mountains that embrace me as well as the city. I’m home. I feel it in my heart. It’s Christmas. What’s not to be happy about? I drive into Mom’s driveway and while it’s not the house I grew up in, it’s still home. She’s happy, and a litle surprised to see me so soon. She’s got soup on the stove and rolls in the oven and once again I’m back. In my head I hear John Denver singing “Hey it’s good to be back home again…” In the days ahead family and friends will gather, we’ll eat her great food, tell stories, reminisce, catch up, and enjoy the love we have for one another. Once again we are all together. It won't always be like this, we are all getting older. But for now, it's time to enjoy it all -- to soak it all in, capturing it, and holding it our hearts for the time down the road when we can't.
And while it feels a little different coming home from this direction, no matter what I'm home and glad to be here. For the foreseable future this will be the road home and I'll be here until its time to head back to my own home in the desert -- heading back south across the vast empty spaces of the West, to the sunshine and warm winds of the Coachella Valley.