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Street smarts: What we learned on our Great Big Road Trip

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Andrew Kiraly

Driving through a snowstorm into Elko. I hope you appreciated that, Elko!

Eight days, nine towns, six RV parks, 1,700 miles, and (*counting on fingers, giving up*) innumerable bathroom stops later, we’re back, safe and sound in our cubicles after our adventures in rural Nevada, aka Desert Companion’s Great Big Road Trip. In case you missed all the excitement, Editor Andrew Kiraly, Staff Writer Heidi Kyser and Art Director Christopher Smith spent March 26-April 2 touring the state in an RV, exploring the places and meeting the people well beyond the amber halo of Las Vegas. (Click the “DC Road Trip” tag above to get all the stories.)

And, now that we’re back and we’ve had time to pause, reflect and sleep 19 hours straight, here are some of the lessons we’ve learned from the road — about Nevada, about travel ... (trenchant pause) about ourselves.

Heidi:

• Never pass up a bathroom stop on the road, no matter how basic. The person who does the RV’s sanitary dump that night will thank you.

• Carve out at least an hour to spend by yourself each day, non-negotiable. Otherwise, you won’t notice that you’re carsick or homesick until a remedy is out of reach and a meltdown on its way.

• Have a schedule; break it. Pre-planning frees you to be on your way to things, instead of wasting time tracking them down. But being open on the way frees you to enjoy the surprises.

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• I realized how lucky we are in Las Vegas to have widespread access to health care, despite its need for improvement. I met people who have to drive an hour and half to see their doctor, or be airlifted here or to Reno for emergencies because their local medical clinics have closed. This is serious problem that I’m eager to learn and write more about. 

• I’m ashamed to say I had some of my first in-depth interactions with our state’s natives after living here for 12 years, but feel fortunate to have finally met them. From the Ely Shoshone, to Thunder Mountain Indian Monument, to the Pyramid Lake Paiutes, all had compelling stories to tell, urgent issues that they wanted the rest of the state to pay attention to, and strong feelings about white settlers’ invasion in their land and lives.

• And although I’ve known for many years how important it is to conserve the state’s natural resources, it was underlined for me at every turn—not just in the Shoshones’ and Paiutes’ plea to have left intact the water flows that feed their sacred ecosystems, but also in hunters’ and fishers’ desire to see wildlife preserved, state employees’ commitment to educating residents on cultural artifacts and natural landscapes, and activists’ risk in confronting huge corporate interests that they see as spoiling their communities.

• This trip didn’t change my mind about Nevada; I’m still as ambivalent about it as ever. The state gets some things right and some wrong—sometimes horribly. But I couldn’t help having my perspective on rural areas widened by the people we met, who were unanimously kind, open and patient when faced with our intrusion. I may never go hunting or talk politics or attend church with them, but I didn’t meet anybody I wouldn’t have a drink with. And most I’d like to go back and get to know better someday.

Andrew:

• Quiet is a natural resource that influences the pace of life. It was a fond refrain of rural residents: Quiet, quiet, quiet. One of the things they love most about living in rural Nevada is the quiet. To them, whether it’s Teresa Hamilton, a motel manager in Ely or John Arant, a restaurant owner in Winnemmucca, it’s about more than the absence of noise. Quiet has packed into it other values: yes, a little bit of leave-me-be, but it also seems to me the absence of the urban psychic noise that manifests itself in our everyday functional paranoia and protective jadedness gives rural residents an edge in openness, perhaps even hospitality. (When I barged into Teresa’s front office Easter morning and started all random with, “Hi, can we get on your roof to take a photo?!”, she said, sure, she’d be all for it if the roof in that section wasn’t bad and she could be sure we wouldn’t break our necks.)

• Related: Roots mean something in a restless, transient world. Social media has turned us all into brand ambassadors for our own romantic consumerist escapades — Look at me, I went here, ate this, did that. “Experiences” become a commodity; likes and follows, the currency. In tension with this, many of the people we met found themselves drawn back to their home towns, their home state — a decided journeying back and inward rather than a fidgety broadcasting outward. Steve Hernandez trained as a chef in San Francisco but returned to Fallon, where he grew up, to open up The Slanted Porch restaurant. John Arant, owner of The Martin Basque Restaurant in Winnemucca, told me he actually bought the historic place to have a reason to return from Maine to his home state of Nevada. “It’s a different country out here,” he said.

• On the next-to-last-day of your trip, when six days of road food are turning your digestive infrastructure into Insane Clown Posse, the beef jerky, bacon burgers, pit-stop cellophane bearclaws, diner fried pickles and chicken strips awhirl in some unholy mosh pit in your lower GI tract, yes, you should still stop at Socorro’s Burger Hut on the roadside of Mina and get the Ortega Burger, a belly bomb loaded with sauteed onions and roasted green peppers. It was worth every bite. I still can't feel my legs, but, yes, worth every bite.

• When traveling with friends and family, let their superpowers out of the bottle. In addition to taking amazing photos, Christopher Smith was our main driver and navigator, a confident natural on the road through sunshine and snowstorm alike. When not relentlessly hustling on stories and blogs, Heidi kept a detailed itinerary whose schedule still allowed us surprise and serendipity. My sense is they both did those things not because they had to, but because they wanted to, and perhaps even enjoyed it — something about actively moving the grand narrative along to help the individual stories better tell themselves. (My superpower ... well, does showing up count?)

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