It couldn’t have been much past sunset when we hit that tire; I remember there was still a bluish smear of daylight on the western horizon as Phil got down on the gravel and pavement of the highway shoulder to inspect the front end of the car. He was trying to see if anything had got stuck under the car, or had attached itself to the undercarriage. Out of the murky darkness, we heard another car run over the same tire.
It was a truck tire, stretched like an alligator across the road, covering nearly the entirety of our lane and a small amount of the oncoming lane. We didn’t see it until it was right under us, and even if we had, the only ways to avoid it would’ve been to run the little Chrysler off the highway into the desert or into the oncoming lane.
Seeing nothing under the car, we decided to head on, but stopped further down the road due to a rubbing sound coming from under the car. A second inspection revealed a piece of plastic hanging from under the front end, either rubbing the front right tire or simply scooping up air and creating wind noise. Phil lodged it back up under the nose of the car.
When we stopped at a gas station in Alamo, Nevada, we bought twine and made our first purchase of water. A 2.5 gallon jug for us and a gallon of distilled water because Phil was not confident that the radiator wasn’t leaking after the accident. In the bright cold light of the canopy of the gas station, we started to see tiny “Reported” stickers in various places on the car, one of which was right above the hanging chunk of plastic.
We were annoyed that the car turned out to be in such rough shape, but relieved that we had likely not caused the damage to the front end of the car. Phil tied the piece of plastic back in place, and we headed out again, and turned on to SR 375, finally making westward progress.
It was about ten at night when we pulled in to Rachel, Nevada. Rachel is a tiny town that serves a farming community just north of the Groom Lake Facility, informally known as Area 51. The majority of Rachel, Nevada is a cafe/bar/hotel/gift shop called the Lil A’Le’Inn. When we went inside, the man behind the bar told us that he was about to close up, but that he had time to get us a beer if we wanted. Two very drunk regulars greeted me with enthusiasm and the sort of handshakes that can only be had under the influence of alcohol. We each drank a Sol, and Phil set about negotiating.
It turned out that “rooms” at the Lil A’Le’Inn (rooms meaning furnished single-wide trailers that sat on the property) could be had at a rate of fifty dollars each per night. For two rooms, that would be a hundred dollars out of our meager travel money.
Phil looked worried.
He asked about camping in the area instead, and the man told us that they could camp out behind the diner for free, but if we needed to use the bathrooms to do it now, because the camping did not include any such facilities.
Phil pulled the Chrysler around to the back and left the lights on as we set up our tents on the gravel near the dumpster. First his, then mine. We brushed our teeth with water from my liter bottle, and Phil went off to do some nocturnal photography. He was taking photos of an old truck out in front of the diner when the security guard showed up. This was a strange and silent man, all in black, with a walkie-talkie at his hip. I couldn’t tell whether he was armed or not. He came over and stood near me for several minutes, as I puttered about getting ready for bed and keeping an eye on the tents.
He went over and stood right next to Phil where he was taking photos. He said nothing to me and was equally silent with Phil. I stayed and watched them until the man had wandered off.
Phil was no stranger to Rachel, Nevada. He had been through this town on previous visits, and said that someone had told him once that the folks at the Lil A’Le’Inn went to Las Vegas and found homeless folks to come out and work at the inn and its surrounding property. He also said that the place seemed a lot less rough now than it had on his first visit.
The night was a somewhat sleepless one; the temperatures were reasonable, but in the night people drove their trucks around the gravel parking lot and shouted. The ground was hard, and by two in the morning, my hip and shoulder ached, and the rolled towel that I was using as a pillow seemed somehow insufficient. I watched the hours wear on, waiting desperately for the sky to lighten so that I could reasonably start the day and leave that first night, camped outside the Lil A’Le’Inn, firmly behind me.