The Authentic America at the End of the Night Road
In the rainless Death Valley, we unexpectedly encountered dark clouds and drove for hours until it was almost dark and pouring rain was imminent. I asked my son where the hotel was so we could check in. He had booked the only hotel in Death Valley, which was actually quite nice, and I had assumed we would be staying there. I had never worried about what might happen that night.
In the deserted Death Valley, as the rain poured down, all I wanted was to find a good place to eat, get some rest, and call it a day.
When the navigation was handed to me, I almost fainted. The hotel was over 100 kilometers away in the middle of the desert, with nothing in between. This was the result of letting young people book hotels. After sunset, Death Valley was pitch black, and whenever I saw headlights in the distance, I thought it was a UFO. As I walked in the dark, the sign “Welcome to Nevada” flashed by in front of my headlights.
This place was notorious for disappearances, and my worries began to surface: what if a car suddenly stopped and blocked me, or if someone waved for a ride, or if a car followed me from behind, or if the tires went flat, or if the car broke down, or if I had to spend the night in the car in two or three degrees Celsius without even a blanket, let alone a flashlight, water, or food? As for the phone… you couldn’t call for help in the western American desert; you could only take pictures as evidence if you were abducted by aliens.
Driving at 120 kilometers per hour in the pitch-black desert for an hour, I saw a small cluster of lights at the end of the horizon.
If that wasn’t it, I would have collapsed.
It turned out to be a Truck Stop/RV Park, where “truck” referred to long-haul container trucks, and it was a place for long-haul drivers to rest overnight.
Looking at the bar, I thought about ordering a glass of whiskey. The bartender said they only had beer and hard liquor. A typical western response. The menu only had hamburgers, steaks, and potatoes, which probably hadn’t changed in a hundred years. In the middle of dinner, a sheriff with a western hat and a revolver on his waist came in, and I suspected he had ridden a horse here. This was a rural road, not a highway, and during dinner, I saw four long-haul truck drivers come in to eat, each weighing twice as much as me.
The economic lifeline of rural America depends entirely on these people. One driver told a server that he had just driven from Reno in the north, braving strong winds and snowstorms all the way, and had to use snow chains. Truck stops in this area rarely see any Eastern faces, representing the deepest and most original aspect of American culture. Inside, there are facilities for drivers to shower and wash up, as well as washing machines, and a simple grocery store. Everything necessary for survival within a radius of over 100 kilometers is concentrated here. All of this is not much different from the relay stations 150 years ago. The attached grocery store still bears traces of a hundred years ago: an old-fashioned decoration similar to a plaque is pasted on the wall, with the words “One Cent Store” written on it.
During my student days, I once drove a big truck from San Francisco to Seattle for delivery. It was a 20-hour one-way trip, and the truck did not have an extended rear sleeper. At night, I could only pull over on rural roads and sleep on top of the cargo.
There is a special term in this industry called “windshield time.” Driving on interstate highways across states in the United States is very boring. Every day, you hold the steering wheel and stare at the windshield, daydreaming. If you’re lucky, you might be able to pick up some country music on the radio, but most of the time, all you hear is the sound of the engine and the wind outside the window.
That sense of isolation from the world is particularly strong at night. I remember driving on the pitch-black Highway 5, where most of the time, all I saw was ink. I could only rely on the beam of light from my headlights to tell the highest authority who knows where I am that I’m here and still alive. The scene didn’t change for hours, and my mind was blank. That was the whole world, and it was torture for the soul. That kind of desolation is especially strong at night.
If you’re lucky enough to see the distant taillights in front of the windshield, you’ll try to speed up and get closer, as if that would relieve the loneliness in your heart. Later, every time I drove on a night rush, I would think of that scene from years ago.
Many of these people don’t even have a home and spend all year hauling goods outside, sleeping in their trucks at night. When we had dinner that night, I noticed that they all kept to themselves and didn’t interact with anyone. I imagined that when fellow travelers met in such a remote desert, they would gather together, have a drink, chat, and exchange their stories. But that didn’t happen.
Perhaps living that kind of life for too long makes people become silent, or maybe they have gradually lost their social skills, as if only the small space of the driver’s cab can give them a sense of security. People living in another world, living a different kind of life for a long time, appeared in a small inn tonight, intersecting briefly with our parallel world in the most remote part of America for one night.
It was very cold outside at night, so I put on my jacket and walked into the desert, looking up at the sky. Through the gaps in the vast rolling black clouds, I was sure that the stars here at night would give people goosebumps.
Watching the truck drivers eat, drink, and wash up, and then touch their towels…all went back to their trucks to sleep. This is their routine every day when they close up shop.
The next morning, the sky was clear, and I walked out to realize what kind of night I had spent here. I saw several container trucks parked outside, with a thick layer of frost on the windows, and the engines had been running all night for warmth. At the other end of the parking lot, there was an RV parked. This is not a destination for camping cars, just a place to stop for a rest, wash off the dust, and have a meal. Everyone has their own itinerary in the desert, and they can only briefly intersect for one night here. After finishing the unchanging breakfast of the western countryside, everyone went their separate ways without even saying goodbye.
I thought to myself that maybe I would find an excuse to come back and see the galaxy.
After an hour’s drive on the dark road, I unexpectedly saw the most rustic and authentic side of America, and unexpectedly discovered that behind the small group of lights on the horizon last night, there were also quiet but rich stories.