Night Dreams Just Off Highway 395

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Before Google Earth, this was a difficult question to answer. Photo by Carol Underhill.

Most of my childhood trips were spent in the dark, traveling the straight charcoal road that led from my small, dry and copper-colored hometown of Bishop to what I then thought was a tropical paradise – urban, green and palm tree-dotted San Diego. My younger sister Carol slept peacefully while Mom and Dad spoke quietly up front, their faces tinted by green and red dashboard lights. Alone with my thoughts, I practiced night dreaming. I made up stories about friends who loved my games and gathered in my two-story white clapboard house to see my collection of Barbie mansions in the family room. I was popular and never went without the latest toy. That is, in my night dreaming. In between inventing these alternate universes, I counted the transmission lines leading to Los Angeles. I clicked my tongue every time we ran over a blue reflector. I searched for the moon and questioned Mom and Dad about how it knew where we were going. When Carol was awake we played Punch Buggy.  

By far my favorite activity during these long drives was imagining who lived in the mysterious towns we passed along Highway 395 – Garlock, Red Mountain, Johannesburg, Randsburg and Olancha.  Carol and I would read out the elevation and population statistics noted on the signposts of these remote settlements. I sometimes asked Mom and Dad to stop in order to satiate my curiosity, but they assured me there was nothing to see. Plus, they were always focused on their mission – to get to Grandma’s house in San Diego, Aunt Shirley’s house in Apple Valley in the Mojave Desert or to get back home to Bishop.

Years later, I finally had the chance see for myself what lay beyond Highway 395 in those small towns. And who better to see it with than my sister Carol? Carol’s endless patience for pulling over to read historical markers, coupled with her identity as another Owens River girl, made her the perfect companion.

We chose to visit Randsburg (Carol’s travelogue on our visit is hilarious, plus her photographs are fantastic), a semi-ghost town with a mining history, population 69. We had some trouble finding a place to stay, but once we were settled into a kind of spare bedroom behind a thrift shop, we opened some wine coolers to relax. The proprietress said we would be the only guests aside from Randy.

“Who’s Randy?” we inquired.

“Just the cook, he stays here until he can get his own place,” she replied. Carol and I looked at one another. We needed somewhere to sleep and the only other hotel was hosting the floozies festival and had no occupancy. So we smiled at the owner and bid her goodnight. No one stirred in the streets. The floozies had long since gone to bed. It really did feel like a ghost town. The wind blew and coyotes circled the building, howling mournfully. Then a door in the hallway opened.

“Randy!” we whispered. We threw the thin coverlets over our heads and vowed to stay inside the room all night. Being in the middle of nowhere, we figured Randy had a butcher knife, a cleaver and a gun. Best not to take any chances. But there was a problem. Our room had no bathroom; it was located down the hallway. Past Randy’s door. And we had just drunk a few wine coolers.

Carol and I held it in as long as we could. Then we sprinted down to the shared bathroom, praying Randy would not be in the common area or even worse, in the bathroom. He seemed to be in his room, watching television. After visiting the bathroom, we raced back to our twin beds.  Huddling under the covers, Carol and I listened all night for Randy’s footsteps. The coyotes continued to cry. Randsburg slept.

When morning came the sun revealed a Western town whose heyday had long since passed, but its spirit was still palpable, and, incredibly photogenic. Before we explored the false store fronts of Main Street, we had something we had to do. Randy was cooking scrambled eggs and pancakes across the street and we were hungry.