Randi Kreiss

Heading west, into smoke and wildfire hell

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I confess, the headline is hyperbolic, but for a Long Island woman on her first cross-country road trip, the wildfires and smoke demand purple prose. We arrived in an area of California that is designated “purple” because conditions are “extremely unhealthy,” according to the weather service. It rained ash.
We sea-level dwellers are accustomed to clean air and no elevation issues. Right now I am at 6,700 feet and I can’t see the mountains in front of me. We knew the West was in a wildfire and air-quality crisis, but we needed to move, to change the scenery and mostly to see our kids and grandkids who live out here. We started planning this trip last year during the lockdown, and the planning itself was liberating.
Driving cross-country has been my dream. My husband has always put it off, dreading the endless driving days through the middle. But that’s what I wanted, to experience the unchanging open prairie and the nothingness. How can you really know it’s all out there if you don’t drive through it?
Like most dreams, I got just a piece of it, but these days that counts.
Early last week we flew to Denver, picked up a rental car and drove to Cheyenne, Wyo., then Park City, Utah, then Elko, Nev., before we arrived in California. The experience has been both better and worse than expected.

The flight was great and the car was waiting for us. This sounds matter-of-fact, but as an obsessive planner, I had spent dozens of hours scrolling through hotel and car websites, trying to find the best — and the most cancelable — plans. We heard all the horror stories of people being stranded at airports with no cars available.
The day we landed, Denver had the worst smoke and air quality of any place in North America. We headed out, stopped at a Walmart to buy a cooler, a small bed for Lillybee the dog and enough water for a Sahara crossing, and then we drove to Cheyenne.
In the months since we first planned this adventure, the Delta variant has overwhelmed the hotel experience. Everything that can be is online. Breakfast buffets are masked affairs with no real buffet, just grab and go. No housecleaning services unless requested.
Cheyenne itself is hot, dry and seemingly the center of the American military complex. Streets are named for generals. We drove by a life-sized missile on display in the park. The only surprise in Cheyenne was Mort’s Bagels in the center of town.
The drive to Park City made me think of the movie “North by Northwest,” in which Cary Grant gets strafed by a crop-duster out in the middle of nowhere. We drove through featureless high plains studded with occasional red rocks. The openness can feel disorienting.
We stayed in Park City for two nights. I’ve wanted to visit ever since Robert Redford brought the Sundance Film Festival to the area. As it turns out, we should have gone 25 years ago. Today, Park City is emblematic of all the overdeveloped mountain towns overrun by rich folks who want seasonal mega-mansions on the slopes.
Two days into the trip, the Delta surge necessitated that we wear masks indoors everywhere and eat only at restaurants with outdoor tables. On a personal level, we were doing well. Lillybee turns out to be a roadie. Eight hours in the car is doable. She isn’t picky about sleeping arrangements.
We felt good just being let loose, but there were new constraints, and we knew we were losing ground to the virus. Our luggage comprised two huge bags, one carry-on and Lillybee’s bed. We were quite well organized, and only lost one Kindle along the way, although we thought we’d lost the car keys and our phones too many times to count.
News of the world popped up along the way on the phones and in headlines splashed across newspapers. It was all disturbing: masking meltdowns, Governor DeSantis of Florida on the ascendancy, Cuomo self-destructing and then, suddenly, Biden hitting a wall in Afghanistan. Fortunately, the TVs in our hotel rooms didn’t work and we wouldn’t let a repairman in, so no TV.
Our last night on the road was in Elko, and it must have been forgettable because it was just three nights ago and I forgot the highlights.
The big takeaway so far is the smoke and the intense heat around the country. Driving along the Great Salt Lake felt like traversing Mars. Nothing but shimmering heat as far as we could see, the salt flats stretching in all directions like a prophecy. 

Copyright 2021 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at randik3@aol.com.

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