Driving the Continental Divide

The intoxicating blur of an all-nighter down the Continental Divide.

Jun 30, 2009
Outside Magazine

Try navigating this after 1,214 miles.    Photo: Erik P./Corbis

A BOND DEVELOPS in the car. A private universe takes shape. It's made of road noise, of speed, of conversation, of AM radio music and bags of chips. It emerges as we drive south from western Montana into the Snake River country of eastern Idaho and sweep down along the Wasatch Range through Utah, pushing, pushing, headed for Los Angeles, where my girlfriend and I have business the next day. The landforms passing in the dark are silhouetted by our bluish headlights—a hallucinatory succession of alpine meadows, sagebrush plains, and expanses of pure emptiness. As we leave St. George, Utah, at 3 A.M. after buying candy bars and Cokes from a red-eyed clerk, a biblical vista of weathered stone appears that makes us feel both puny and exhilarated. We started this 1,200-mile trip at dinner time, and though we intended to be sensible and take a break halfway—to rent a motel room, watch TV, and sleep—we find ourselves gulping truck-stop coffee instead and riffing away about love and art and politics, drunk on the intimacy of momentum itself.

What a thrill it is to forget the world these days, to outrun its cell-phone signals and cable newscasts and live in a zone of uninterrupted motion that seems, at times, like a preview of eternity, especially in the hours before dawn. It feels almost criminal, this mobile solitude, like an act of rebellion that must be punished, which is why we reflexively hold our breath whenever we spot a police car by the freeway. We fear we'll be given a ticket for euphoria.

In Nevada, we approach a border casino town whose billboards advertise shows by seventies pop stars who seem to have risen from the cultural dead. We contemplate pulling over for a nap but quickly decide against it. To stop would be to abandon our little capsule and fall back to earth. To stop would be to crash. We roll down the windows to catch the breeze and press on toward the outskirts of Las Vegas, whose distant glow is merging with the sunrise.

Hurtling down the S-curves of I-15 into San Bernardino, California, it hits us that our trip is almost over. We'll have to return to our jobs and bodies soon. We've crossed a whole continent, nearly, from north to south, and though we were close when we started, we're closer now, and neither of us is eager to let go. Should we have stopped in Las Vegas and gotten married? Should we turn back and do it now?

We can't. We're there.