Whirr
©2016, George J. Irwin. All rights reserved.


I was well into my quest to set foot in all fifty of the United States. I was fortunate to have a job as a Program Manager, and the Program I Managed was nationwide in scope. That meant I had some leeway as to where I wanted to conduct my share of implementations of a Process Change, and I used that leeway shamelessly.

For example, there was no question in my mind that I absolutely needed to personally supervise the work at our facility in Salt Lake City, Utah. There was actually no good reason for this other than I had not yet been to Utah. Considering that the Corporation for which I Managed Programs was going to get itself involved in Much Bigger Issues than this within a few years, this would hardly be a blip on the ethical radar—and besides, someone had to do the implementation, so why not me.

Better yet, at the time the Corporation was strongly encouraging the leveraging of what were, at the time, less expensive Saturday stayover airfares. Thus, scheduling an implementation to take place from Thursday to the following Tuesday instead of from Monday to mid-day Friday resulted in lower travel costs, even when considering the incremental cost of an extra hotel night.

And so I found myself in Salt Lake City, Utah, on an absolutely stunning, hot but not at all humid Saturday in the high desert. Salt Lake, the city, I found to be memorably beautiful, with a spectacular backdrop of the Wasatch Mountains to the east. I took part in the usual tourist activities that were available in town, and few less usual ones. But that's off the point of this story... way off the point.

As this was a time before widely available GPS and online maps weren't even close to being an implementable idea, my trusty companion was the major product of Rand McNally: the annually published Road Atlas. Its rather large format dictated the size of one of the suitcases I brought along on these trips; but this time, it was joined by my full-size VHS camcorder and various accessories. If I was going to notch a new state, I was going to document it.

However, as I pondered this weekend break in Utah, it occurred to me that if I planned carefully, I could actually set foot in two other states on this trip that I would have a tough time getting to otherwise.

Therefore, I awoke earlier than I did on any of the weekdays on which I worked in Salt Lake City, loaded the Road Atlas, camcorder and accessories and other less important material into the rental car which had unlimited mileage, and quickly set off to the east.

Interstate Route 80, which I knew mostly from both ends—the part in New Jersey and the part in the Bay Area—was the initial highway on which I traveled. I quickly ascended the Wasatch Range, entering it even before leaving the Salt Lake Metropolitan Area, and zoomed by Summit Park and Silver Summit. At Echo, the second incarnation of Interstate 84 diverged, the other one being back east in Pennsylvania, New York and Connecticut. (The powers that be don't worry about duplicating Interstate Highway Numbers, you see, if they are far apart enough. I-84 had previously been known as "I-80N."

Less than eighty miles away, I found myself in Wyoming. New state number two for the trip. I hadn't had breakfast yet, so I stopped at one of the usual fast food establishments (as William Least Heat Moon once wrote, on the road he had never had a really good dinner or a really bad breakfast, so national chains suffice). I also put the camcorder to use catching a Union Pacific freight train blasting past the station at Evanston, Wyoming, eighty-three miles from Salt Lake and just a bit inside the border. But it counted. It wasn't even eight in the morning yet.

And I wasn't done with new states either. I conceded that the most direct route to the next goal, in an area of the country where the choice of roads could mean dozens of miles of incremental distance, was to roll back into Utah via Wyoming State Highway 89, which became Utah State Highway 16. The beehive symbol utilized on the Utah State Highway markers is certainly distinctive, which made things a bit more interesting.

At no place in particular, Utah 16 ends at the junction with Utah 30. I turned left and headed west, then northwest, then almost due north to the junction with US Highway 89 at Garden City, Utah. This is one of the towns along Bear Lake, a rather large body of water that was on my right for a number of miles.

Just a bit past Garden City, Utah was the border with Idaho. New state number three, and the final one for the trip. I got the camcorder out and dutifully recorded the view of Bear Lake and the "Welcome to Idaho" sign. Then it was back in the car, and time for a decision. I could either reverse direction and retrace my route on US 89 back to Garden City, or I could continue on into Idaho, knowing that it would be a while before I could reach the next chance to circle back toward Salt Lake.

Being that I hated driving the same road twice, especially on trips like this, and given that it was still morning, I chose the latter. It didn't take more than a second to make that selection. Bear Lake was quite scenic. So it was northbound on US 89 to its junction with Idaho 36. Eighty-nine headed east and thirty-six headed northwest, then west, then southwest, then south-southwest, for about a fifty minute drive to Preston, Idaho and US Highway 91. That route took me back into Utah and down into Logan. From there I reached Utah 30 again.

Somewhere along that route, I don't recall where, I had lunch and checked the Road Atlas.

I noted that Utah 30 had disconnected sections, but there was also a long continuous portion that stretched across the high desert north of the Salt Lake, all the way, in fact, across the remainder of the Beehive State.

Now wouldn't that be a fun road to drive, I mused. I wondered what was there. Based on the number of dots denoting towns, it appeared that there was "not much."

It was not even one o'clock in the afternoon. I had made fantastic time knocking off the two more states I'd hoped to visit on this business trip, and I still had the rest of the day.

Why not. I could still be a tourist in Salt Lake City the next day.

And so I pointed the car west on Utah Route 30, took it over to the junction with Interstate 15, took that south to Interstate 84, and took that northwest to just past a little town called Snowville, Utah. Small, as in population less than two hundred.

Little did I know that Snowville was Northern Utah's idea of a metropolis.

At Exit 5 off I-84, Route 30 picked up again. I angled the rental car over to it and headed almost straight west.

And I mean straight.

The road hardly curved at all until the junction with Utah 42, and Utah 30 bent to the southwest.

There were a few signs of life up to that point: ranches, side roads, and a car or two.

But once I passed Utah 42, there was pretty much... almost nothing. Route 30 turned west again. Park Valley was one of those "wide spots in the road" though it did have a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Rosette wasn't even that. So much for those dots on the map in the Rand McNally Road Atlas.

Then Route 30 turned south-southwest again, and I went from almost nothing to absolutely nothing.

Well, that's not really accurate. By "nothing" I mean effectively no civilization, no towns, no houses, not even any utility poles if I am remembering right.

It was about then that I realized three things.

First, this might be the only opportunity of my lifetime to drive a road that was this desolate. My hunch was right; it was a great idea to see if this was a fun road to drive. The last time I had been on anything even approaching this, it was on US Route 59 for the last hour into Laredo, Texas, and I wasn't alone for that car ride. That drive had been part of my record setting more than 600 mile car trip in a 24 hour period, from Houston to Laredo and back, at the behest of my girlfriend at the time who decided she really wanted to see Mexico. In the middle of that portion of the trip a violent thunderstorm had blown up out of nowhere. That drive was decidedly not fun.

Second, it suddenly occurred to me that this would be a really, really terrible place to have car trouble. I had been counting other cars since I had left I-84. So far I was up to... eight.

And third, and most embarrassing for this City Boy... I desparately needed to go to the bathroom.

Counting my middle name, I was the only john around for miles.

I was also very possibly the only person around for miles, so logically, I didn't see what problems this could present. There was no way I was going to be caught, well, relieving myself.

Within minutes of these ponderings, my renal system went into full warning mode. It was now or never; find an outlet or have some serious explaining to do to the rental car company.

Fortunately, a little farther on there was an intersection with a dirt road, which included enough space along the side of Route 30 that enabled me to pull over safely. There was also a concrete utility shed of some sort about ten yards off the road, which I ducked behind in order to handle what needed to be handled.

And it was a good thing that there was a concrete utility shed of some sort, because when I emerged from behind it, Car Number Nine was pulled over right next to my car.

A voice from inside the car asked, "Is everything alright?"

I was sufficiently startled—it was the first person I had encountered since lunchtime, which seemed like a million hours ago—that I stammered a little.

"Eh-eh-eh-yes!"

"Okay, then. Just checking. You don't want to be caught out here. It gets pretty tough being stranded."

"Absolutely! Thank you so much for stopping and asking! I'm just fine. This is an amazing road. I'm from Back East and we do not have anything like it."

"Alright, then, have a nice day."

And with that, off drove Car Number Nine along Route 30.

A few moments later, with the sound of that vehicle out of earshot, I noticed...

...that there was nothing.

Not a sound.

Not even a gust of wind.

I knew that the next thing to do was to pull out the camcorder and preserve this if I could.

I switched it on, moved far enough away from the rental car to keep it out mostly out of the shot, and did a quick bit of narration. Then I too kept quiet as I did a complete 360 degree turn. At every point of the compass there was only open space. There was no soundtrack. Not even a plane overhead breaking the complete silence.

It was just me, and the earth, and an unexpected feeling of peace. I was completely alone, and I was completely comfortable with that. I didn't understand at the time how unusual that was. There was a multitude of times when I felt much more alone with much more around me.

I finished my circle, said a few more words... and a small winged insect flew into my mouth. I guess it was attracted by the moisture of my body, but I became its untimely end. "I swallowed a bug!" I exclaimed onto the tape.

There didn't seem to be anything else to say, so I uncharacteristically said nothing else. I shut down the camcorder, stowed it and continued down Utah State Highway 30.

I was headed almost straight south at this point, then turned west-southwest. With almost zero notice the border between Utah and Nevada was reached, and I transitioned from Utah Route 30 to Nevada Route 233, with no change in the scenery. Between what I will call my camcorder stop, thank you very much, and the border I saw only four other cars, for a total of thirteen. I had driven all the way across the Beehive State.

Nevada 233 continued for a while through nothing, but as it approached its junction with Interstate 80, a few signs of human population began appearing again. Oasis was the "census-designated place" where I returned to Route 80 and headed east once again. Nevada was not a new state, but I was quite far away from Reno, the last place I'd set foot inside its borders. Oasis was at Exit 378, mileage based, and I didn't realize that I had to travel all the way to Exit 410 to get to West Wendover, Nevada, which was just west of Wendover, Utah, but was worlds away in terms of entertainment options. As in, a casino, for example. That seemed to be a reasonable place to stop, and I used a real bathroom this time after having something to eat and drink and making a donation to a slot machine.

Once in Nevada, I knew the mileage-based exit numbers would start over again, with 1. I checked the Road Atlas. How far was it back to Salt Lake?

Wow, Exit 118. That seemed like an impossible task. It didn't help that I had probably eaten too much and taken too long in West Wendover. It was getting dark and I had driven a long way. In fact, I broke that long-standing 24 hour record for most miles driven, and this was actually even more impressive because I had done it in the course of a single calendar day (whereas the jaunt from Houston to Laredo and back started at around ten in the morning and ended at about three the next morning). One of the reasons that highways have gradual curves built into them every so often is to relieve monotony; I was grateful for every one of them though the flatness of the landscape seemed to communicate that I really wasn't getting anywhere. Fortunately, the skywaves of AM Radio were smiling on me and I was able to pick up a baseball game to keep me company... a game being broadcast from Chicago, more than fourteen hundred miles away. I pulled into Salt Lake extremely tired but triumphant.

The final part of the story didn't take place until I got home. I had a number of accessories with the camcorder, to be sure, but among them was not a means to actually play back the tape while I was on my trip. Once I was unpacked, I popped the tape into the VCR. When I reached the chronicling of that completely isolated intersection along Utah Route 30, I discovered something absolutely remarkable.

It had been so quiet there, the air so still, that the camcorder had picked up the whirr of its own motor onto the videotape. That had never happened before, and would not ever happen again.



A version of this story "debuted" at First Person Singular in Rochester, New York in October, 2016.


...