THE OPEN ROAD: Highway Dreams and Desert Dogs … Words and Photos by Paul Vlachos

I’m socially distant in the best of times. Years ago, I realized that I actually need people and enjoy the company of other humans, but that doesn’t mean companionship comes naturally to me. When I go on road trips, I am usually alone for weeks at a time. When I do encounter people on the road or when I meet up with a friend, I react the way any other recluse does – by talking too much. I’ll surprise myself with my volubility and almost want to apologize for it. All while yearning to get back on the road and to my own thoughts – my happy, catastrophic, sometimes serene, often wandering thoughts.

I should have been on the road at this moment. Because I’m not eager to travel while the country is in lockdown, I have been biding my time, waking up each day, tracking the news, and trying to accept that I might not do the cross country trip that I had planned for this May.

For the first time in the twenty-first century, I have not driven cross country in over a year. At first, I blamed the dog. I had a new puppy and he wasn’t ready for the big haul. Then, my usual stasis set in. I headed down to Florida, but it was more for a writer’s retreat than for a road trip. Anyone can haul ass for two or three days. It’s like holding your breath. A cross country road trip is different. You are out there every day, floating around from one parking space, motel, national park, or dispersed camping spot to another, for weeks on end. That’s a whole different trip than taking a long drive to a destination where you’re going to stay put.

So, here I sit, trying to enjoy the rarest of rare things – my neighborhood, while it’s absolutely still and quiet, empty of 70% of the people I normally avoid and curse at. It’s like one of those glorious Memorial Day weekends when everybody leaves the city and it’s all mine again. Except this time, it’s going on for months. Do I miss the people? I don’t know. I miss everyday life and the free and easy living that used to be the norm and, hopefully, will be the norm again soon.

The last few months have certainly been like nothing I have ever lived through before. From the portable morgues in refrigerated trucks, to the people wearing masks, to nurses riding to work in scrubs on bike shares, to a deserted cityscape, to the businesses going under at record rates, these are strange and historic times. In one of our worst moments since 9/11, New York City put out the call and good citizens from around America – EMTs, doctors and nurses – answered it. This gives life to the slogan, once again, “e pluribus unum,” or “out of many, one” and suggests that, when life is reduced to the human level, there might actually be hope for us all in the end.

“May you live in interesting times.” It turns out that the origin of this phrase has been debunked and it is NOT some “ancient Chinese curse,” but it sure works as a modern global curse. These are interesting times.

I may end up leaving town and I may end up documenting this difficult time all over the country. Or I may not. I am certainly documenting it here, in New York City, which has been home for most of my life. The trip I was supposed to be on now was going to include a weekend soaking trip at hot springs in Nevada and Oregon with my old soaking buddy, also named Paul. We have been driving the dusty backroads of California, Nevada, Oregon, and Idaho for a couple of decades now in search of hot water. Paul got me into this strange pastime and I’ll always be grateful to him for it.

Our trips usually last for a few days. They always involve a lot of driving, punctuated with stops at remote trailheads and then short hikes to holes in the ground where hot water seeps, bubbles up, or is routed via hoses by local volunteers to gravel or mucky-bottomed pools. When I slide into one of these natural hot springs, everything else melts away. It has been a long time since I have had a good soak and I surely could use one. In the past, we have managed to hook up once or twice a year. We would email each other weeks ahead of time, batting around different routes and places to check out. Planning is half the fun, a way to enjoy the trip before we hit the road. We usually set a date to meet at a certain hour at an impossibly remote place, a process that delights us both. It’s fun to say “I’ll meet you around noon next Friday at Bruno’s,” which is in Gerlach, Nevada, of course.

Paul Vlachos with Elko, the Desert Dog
Paul Vlachos with Elko, the Desert Dog

It was on such a trip in 2006 – a cross country – when I found a stray dog as I set out for home. This little guy would change my life and I wrote about the story here, in a previous issue of the Zephyr. Like the mythology that surrounds the day when John Lennon first met Paul McCartney, there is a bit of backstory to how I met Elko, the desert dog. And even if there weren’t, I took some photos, so I would have to invent something to say about them. That being said, everything I report here now is true and actually happened to me.

The trip started with me leaving home and hauling ass for three full days until I landed in Clayton, New Mexico. I was planning to slow down at that point, but I was in a fairly new Toyota Tacoma and could not stop hauling ass. I had a hard time slowing down in those days. I headed up to Ouray, Colorado and soaked in a few interesting places, among them Chief Ouray’s “vapor cave” and a strange pool in the parking lot of the motel where I was staying. I headed into Utah, then west to California. I was photographing a lot of roadside memorials on this trip.

I ended up in southern California, where I had a leaf added to each of the rear spring packs in my truck at a shop that had been a blacksmith’s workshop for over 100 years. I was the in the zone, mentally. I zigzagged around California, Nevada and Oregon for two weeks, hitting various hot springs, taking photos, and doing a lot of driving, slowly circling in for a meeting with my friend, Paul. We planned to travel for three days of backcountry soaking. We met up and spent the first night at an interesting hot springs hotel in Lakeview, Oregon.

Lakeview Oregon. Photo by Paul Vlachos

1. Lakeview, Oregon – 2006

The place had a sign that advertised a lounge, a gift shop, a hot pool and a geyser. I was reading a biography of Pol Pot at the time and, when Paul came to my room that night to study the maps and plot out our next day’s route, he noticed it and said “Why are you reading a book about Pol Pot?” I had no good answer, but he understood. The small motel pool, filled with natural hot water, was like a cross between a David Lynch and a Fellini movie and we had an interesting soak with residents of Lakeview before turning in for the night. We spent the next day at remote desert hot springs in eastern Oregon and northern Nevada and ended up in Winnemucca for the evening. Winnemucca has been at the crossroads of many great soaking trips for us. The next morning, as we were planning our day’s route, Paul got news of an emergency back home and we had to call off the rest of the trip. I set out for home and, an hour later, had picked up this stray dog.

State Inn Motel. Photo by Paul Vlachos

2. Nevada/Utah – 2006

I fell for him at first sight, but I was uncertain that I could integrate a dog into my life of traveling and shooting photos. I would eventually discover that having a dog buddy on the road is better than having a human buddy in many ways. This first day, though, I was filled with doubt and fear. My instinct, after discovering that all the local shelters were kill shelters, was to adopt him and make a fast run back to the east coast. I had been planning to take a lot of photos along the way, but didn’t know how that would work with a dog on board. It sounds idiotic now, but that’s what was in my head. When I spotted this sign – it may have been near Battle Mountain – it became a test to see whether I could chill out, get the photo with a dog in the car, and move on. It was no big deal in real terms, but it was a big deal, psychologically. It’s the first photo I took with Elko as a photo assistant.

Springs Motel. Photo by Paul Vlachos

3. Rock Springs, Wyoming – 2006

On the west side of town, this is where Elko and I spent our first night together. I think we had already bonded by the time I pulled in here, but there was still a lot I did not know about dogs. Luckily, he was already a seasoned road dog when we met and was able to teach me things. We took a walk that night and I shot a bunch of things, including the motel, itself. We then went and shot a propane depot and some random buildings. When I was telling a friend back home that I had picked up a dog, she asked if I was going to give him a bath. I had had cats for years and said “I don’t think so.” I turned out the light in the motel room that night and, two minutes later, he ran to the head of the bed, did a fast U-turn and burrowed all the way back to the foot, where he curled up under the covers. The next day, I stopped at the first store I could find and bought dog shampoo.

Motel Lobby. Photo by Paul Vlachos

4. Eastern Nebraska – 2006

We drove all day across Wyoming and then Nebraska. Finally, we pulled off the interstate at some nondescript services exit, which consisted of a large truck stop, a motel and a tire shop. I don’t remember much about that motel, but I do know it’s where Elko got his first bath. It was a beautiful night, though, so we walked around and I took some photos. The whole place seemed to have been planted on the flat earth. The mountain ranges of the west were behind me and the night sky was painted a magical kind of blue. This was the motel entrance and lobby.

Nebraska. Photo by Paul Vlachos

5. Eastern Nebraska – 2006

This was at the far end of the motel parking lot, across a fence or a ditch.

Phone from Car. Photo by Paul Vlachos

6. Iowa – 2006

Cell phones were becoming more common by 2006, although good cell service was not ubiquitous. “Phone From Car” booths were still scattered around the country, usually on the edge of a parking lot. It was becoming rare to see people using them but, once in a while, you would see someone parked and holding the phone on its extra-long cord while sitting in their car, usually with the motor running and maybe a cigarette burning.

Factory Tile. Photo by Paul Vlachos

7. South Bend, Indiana – 2006

This was the last place we stayed on the way home. It’s a bit of a hike from South Bend to New York City in one day, but I had done it before and hope to do it again. I saw this sign before we got a room for the night. I’d be surprised if this sign hasn’t popped up all over the internet by now. As of the third decade in this century, there are a lot of diligent, obsessed sign collectors out there with digital cameras and fast lenses. I’m not one of them. I do shoot a lot of signs, but I don’t think of myself as a collector and I don’t hashtag them. I just shoot what speaks to me. This sign most definitely spoke to me.

I can’t wait to hit the road again.

I love you all.

Paul Vlachos Author Shot
Copyright © Paul Vlachos 2020

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1 comment for “THE OPEN ROAD: Highway Dreams and Desert Dogs … Words and Photos by Paul Vlachos

  1. Frederick A. Sramek
    July 2, 2020 at 6:57 pm

    Loved this story! The combination of road trip, dog (I love dogs!) and vagabond travel really put my enjoyment factor toward the top of the meter. Someday, once the current health crisis is handled, I look forward to hitting the open road again.

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