ast of my tiers are those complete, one-of-a-kind experiences which become lifetime memories. They make such an impression you never forget them, and probably will tell your children and grandchildren until they scream "NO, not THAT one again Grampa!"
I had three such adventures while driving all-night across Western North America. The first is about something simple, yet spectacular and profound: the sky.
Growing up in metropolitan suburbia, looking up on a clear night, I never was able to see the galaxy of which Earth is a member. The sky is too polluted by light. It wasn't until college that I first saw the white film of stars spread unevenly across the sky known as the Milky Way.
Enthralled by the clarity (and knowing full well how young coeds like to gaze at the stars), I became an semi-literate star gazer. On clear winter nights I would wander up the hill behind the dorm just to stare up, and in particular, look for the Milky Way.
Seeing the galaxy fascinated me because it added dimension to the already incomprehensible: it's our galaxy, yet, like the other (extra-gallactic) constellations, even the closest member of our little Milky Way club is impossibly, unfathomably far away.
Cut to eight years later, on a Cowboy Jazz Western tour (53K), driving across the Nevada desert to California. Whereas most trips across the U.S. are littered with gas stations and fast food, traversing the desert, especially at night, is a sort of minimalism drenched in anxiety. Towns are far apart, there is almost no traffic, and to the unfamiliar what is thought to be a town often turns out to be a single outpost or cluster of farms, the barest excuse for a black dot on a map. When you finally make it to one of the scattered all-night outposts, a dingy truck-stop perhaps, your isolation is so relieved you feel as if you've landed in Las Vegas on New Year's eve.
Planning such a drive is important. Depending on your route it's possible you might have to drive hundreds of miles between outposts and you better damn sure not run out of gas. Even an uneventful all-night drive has a feeling of drama, and risk.
We had planned well enough however, and my stopping the white Ford cube van in the middle of the night was nothing more than a brief rest stop. I was driving Nevada Route 50, alone. That is, I was driving while the other six people I was traveling with slept soundly. Wiped-out, I needed to stretch and energize myself. It was a clear, moonless night, chilly. The temperature felt like the upper thirties.
I felt totally alone as I stepped out of the parked truck and took a few steps across the hardbaked dirt. With the truck's lights off there was no background light whatsoever. Even after my eyes adjusted, the undiluted blackness fostered an eerie feeling. Wiping the fatigue out of my eyes, I glanced up.
The pitch black sky was an electrifying spectacle. Whatever pretensions I'd been harboring, that my East Coast college days had shown me the real night sky, were unceremoniously canceled. There was no comparison. Someone had doubled the dose and cranked up the juice: twice as many stars were visible and they were burning brighter and more intensely than I had ever witnessed.
Familiar constellations were thick with unfamiliar stars. The Milky Way, the near-galaxy I could vaguely see on a good night in the East, was obvious in brilliant, shouting testimony. It's shape was unquestioned and distinct, stretching end-to-end across the seemingly brand new sky.
I stood mouth agape, not in disbelief, but in shocked elation. It was as if the sky had been restored to glory by the same crews who recently, painstakingly restored the interior "night sky" of the Grand Hall of New York's Grand Central Station. As these artisans wiped eighty-five years of smoke and grime from the famous vaulted ceiling, I was experiencing a lifetime's worth of transformation as to what a clear night sky should look like.
I wanted to rouse the entire truck, but knew that attempting to wake them would be a wrathful exercise. So I stood alone in the black desert, twenty or so feet from the white van, and looked up, and stood some more. Finally, neck sore, I climbed into the cold, silent truck, started the engine and drove onward to the next black dot on the map.