On this trip, I see and declare the coolest thing ever on average once every two waking hours. A sampling:
1. Plow-cut snowbanks fifteen feet high, pickups crumpled inside. It’s like driving alongside a giant slice of ice-cream cake.
2. The shrouded mountains falling away into the desert, like this:
3. Hundreds of sheep scattered across a dead-level pasture. Literal sheep, but everywhere you look one is doing something different: bleating, eating, scratching, kneeling, all under the drifting shadows of fleecy clouds that look just like them. Am I in a Far Side cartoon?
4. My friend the Montanan rolls a tractor tire down a gravel road. It wobbles drunkenly, rights itself, keeps going and going out of sight behind the sagebrush.
5. Abandoned mine works, lumber and wrecked and rusted metal strewn about a gully of ankle-deep gravel so steep that in places I’m clawing up it on all fours. The Montanan, as one might expect, had a childhood full of such excursions and doesn’t want to go any higher; I didn’t and do. We’re about to argue about this when—
6. Fighter jets come howling low and fast down the valley floor. There is an astonishing, unreal moment between seeing them and hearing them and then the thunder rushes into my ribcage through my open mouth. It’s awesome.
7. At Alabama Hills the bright dry washes are full of wildflowers, red-white-yellow-purple-blue. My allergies are horrendous; I can hardly open my eyes; nevertheless I’m belly-down in the sand peering into the blooms with the smile I later realize is the way you’re supposed to look at a (human) baby.
8. A very efficient foot pump for an air mattress.
9. High above the jumbled lava rock at Fossil Falls, a flock of pelicans is dancing a massive, silent ballet. As each bird turns it flashes briefly black and silver, then disappears completely, then reappears in white. The movements are unhurried but the choreography unreadable, animated by invisible intent: the cloud coalesces and evaporates, divides itself, floats back together, rises and falls away.
It’s hypnotic, holy, surely; it feels physically difficult to drop my eyes from the sky to the sand. In the afterimage of the birds I think I see the sleepy flutter of a jellyfish, the roll and ripple of grass in the wind.
10. A 1995 Suzuki Samurai JL, white with pink Dixie-cup accent squiggles. Here my enthusiasm is tinged with some regret for my own vehicle, which has neither the 4WD nor the flair.
11. Joshua trees, hundreds along the highway. We’re going fast so they’re coming at us like aliens, on cruise control so it feels like a spaceship.
12. The Kern River like I’ve never seen it before, a swollen, bottle-green juggernaut. It’s hurling froth and spray over boulders and hapless cottonwoods, roaring down the canyon under the sun.
I want to mention Manzanar, also, although it obviously doesn’t belong on this list. It would have been a different kind of detour a year ago, let’s say that.