One of the disadvantages of freeways is that they let you go at a speed at which your mind becomes oblivious of the surrounding landscape. You are going so fast that you can't really concentrate on the things you're passing. Even when you see something that looks interesting, you seldom take the time to slow down and look at it more closely, let alone stop and go back to explore.
I think of this as I look through some of the slides I took on a recent trip to San Francisco with my two youngest boys, Danny and Andrew.We took Interstate 80 across the salt flats, and somewhere in the long, barren stretches of the Nevada desert, in the hundreds of miles between Elko and Reno, maybe close to Battle Mountain or Winnemucca - I can't remember exactly - we came across a sight that I notice every time I cross that long stretch. And every time I do, it is so intriguing that I want to pull off the freeway and go back along the frontage road to study it closer.
But every time there have been time restrictions, or a bunch of people in the car, so that I felt awkward imposing because then we couldn't get there before dark or something of the sort.
This time there was no such problem, and, as you know, kids are usually game for anything. In fact, when I suggested we stop and go back, their eyes got as big as saucers.
I am referring to a remnant of an old highway attraction called Thunder Mountain. Abandoned by the freeway, it is a conglomerate of stucco sculptures, steel, junk, concrete and broken glass mosaic - a virtual latticework of buildings covering a couple of acres. If you aren't half asleep when you drive by, you can't miss it. A true expression of American folk culture, it stands out like a miniature Watts Tower in the desert.
It begs you to stop and look closer.
So we did.
I would guess that the original builder no longer lives there. For one thing, as we approached the first building, a hexagonal mishmash of gray stucco, you could see that it had really fallen onto hard times. A whole covey of Hell's Angels-type motorcycles were parked in the yard, an indication that this was no longer as much a residence as a hangout. So we avoided lingering here and drove further up the dirt road toward a second, more intricate complex of buildings and fences with signs and whirligigs all along it.
This one seemed more civilized than the first, as suggested by a couple of goats tethered to poles in the yard and a makeshift corral with two scraggly, brown horses.
Danny and Andrew were fascinated by the confusion of signs on fences, unmistakably intended for inquisitive passersby such as us. The messages were mixed. Some said NO TRESPASSING, short and sweet. Others projected the place as a haven of metaphysical wonder and invited the observer to drop donations into the slit of a tin box with a padlock attached to the fence.
Other signs stated odd philosophies and rules of conduct. Everything hinted to wariness on the part of the owner to a world gone mad. This was a new Eden for whomever had taken it over, a shell abandoned by the visionary eccentric who had originally built it with much love and care (and a mixture of commercial enterprise), over many years, probably in the 1930s and '40s. Now, taken over by hermit crabs, it was slowly melting into oblivion.
Overall, stopping here was one of the high points of our trip.
Sure, the boys remember the seashore at Monterey where we scrambled along the rocky cliff at low tide looking for those little tiny crabs and sea anemones. And they remember zig-zagging down Lombard Street amid a sea of blooming red hydrangea.
But, in retrospect, what they comment on most of all when the trip to San Francisco comes up is the weird place we stopped at in Nevada.
So, on your next trip, remember that it does pay to pull off the freeway once in a while and take a side road into curiosity. An increased speed limit of 65 mph isn't totally what it's cracked up to be if it keeps us from slowing down from time to time to smell the flowers - and whatever.