Just Passing Through Time was short, but America kept knocking on the door of a cross-country home on wheels.

January 04, 1998|By Jill Schensul | Jill Schensul,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

I was miserable over my coffee, listening to the bleached-blond waitress telling another customer about her waitress jobs and her kids and a former life or two. The other woman, in the booth beside us at the Denny's in Fallon, Nev., nodded knowingly.

My head was swimming. I was overwhelmed by America.

Three days out on our cross-country RV trip, and I was succumbing to the daunting vastness. I wanted to sit down with every gum-cracking waitress and ambling young gas jockey we met. I wanted to drive down all the Main Streets, smell the nuances in the air, and stare at the massive heavy skies and eat grits until I exploded.

But I had just two weeks left on my journey from Los Angeles to Atlanta, and a sneaking suspicion that two years wouldn't be enough time.

I have several friends who say they want to buy an RV and see America when they retire. I couldn't wait. I was 40 years old and afraid if I didn't put my foot to the floorboard now, I might forget to do it at all.

I wanted to rediscover abandon.

That was my goal, really my grail, as I headed north out of Los Angeles, bound for Atlanta in our rented RV. I didn't really care about the specifics of our itinerary. We decided on humble U.S. ** Route 50 east to someplace around Illinois, then south (somehow) to Georgia. This was more a sketch, a security blanket for my organized husband, Paul, than anything to which I was emotionally attached. Secretly, I intended to take full advantage of the RV lifestyle: Have home, will travel.

Circumstances did not permit an easy transition from our Toyota Corolla back home. We had been sucked unceremoniously into a maelstrom of traffic, heading north on Interstate Highway 5 the ,, Santa Ana Freeway out of the Cruise America lot in Buena Park, Calif., where we picked up our Tioga. We were still trying to figure out how long it would take to stop a moving object this heavy and how far we were from the white lines and the semis howling by us on either side. I was glad Paul was driving.

And relieved when, two hours after we left Buena Park, sunset threatened and we agreed there was no way we'd be caught driving this thing in the dark.

We turned in at the gate of the Park Drive Mobile Home and RV Park, in Pixley, Calif., a sea of asphalt and crunchy white rocks. It had advertised itself as new; it certainly was more like a parking lot than a "park." Only half a dozen of the 91 spaces were occupied.

Minimalism was helpful, though, for our first night in an RV. For $18, we got a map and a smile and a promise from the manager that she'd leave the light on at the pool until 10 p.m.

I knew I ought to cook. This is one of the advantages of RV travel: You take a whole kitchen, complete with stove, microwave, refrigerator-freezer and running water, hot and cold. But there was a minimart glowing in the darkness, so we went shopping for a suitable Road Food Feast: Doritos and salsa. We ate dessert first, polishing off the Twinkies as we picked our way through the moonless night back to our home on wheels.

Roughing it

I couldn't get used to the idea that what we were doing was considered camping. We had a vehicle, not a tent. But our second day on the road crescendoed into undeniable wilderness, as our Tioga slowly climbed into the Yosemite high ++ country, gulping in the cool alpine air at 10,000 feet. We pulled carefully into the campsite, our mirrors almost touching the pine trees on either side. A chipmunk stood upright on a log and noisily chided this forest interloper made of metal and glass.

But that's RVing -- roughing it without the rough part, enjoying the outdoors without rocks under the sleeping bag, having our nuked frozen pizzas and eating our campfire-roasted marshmallows, too.

We shivered through the Yosemite night, but the theme turned fast to furious, white-hot desert when we hit U.S. Route 50 -- "The Loneliest Highway in America" -- an hour east of Reno. Before us swept a moonscape of gray-white dirt, hard salt bubbling to the top and baking in the 90-degree Nevada sun. Telephone poles marched off east and west along the road as far as we could see.

Seeing nothing

I had to stop not a mile out of Fallon to smell the dusty heat, to listen to the crackling of the salt. I sat in the middle of the near-liquid asphalt, right on the yellow line, and watched as no car or truck or bird or snake disturbed the shimmering horizon.

"Come on, honey," Paul said as our hair began to fry in the sun. "There're gonna be even lonelier places than this."

Hard to believe, but there were. Outrageous expanses of nothing but dirt, sometimes flat dirt such as the Great Basin in Nevada, sometimes tortured red heaps of rocks as in Capitol Reef National Park in Utah, sometimes soaring precipices assaulted ceaselessly by rivers as in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Monument in Colorado.

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