In August of 2001, Sean and I drove across the country, from Virginia to San Diego. It was magical for me, the way things are magical when you're 21 and in love. And it wasn't just Sean I was in love with, it was America, the whole great mass of it, all of its wild topography and varying terrain, its diner waitresses and roadside peach stands, the ham sandwiches we ate in supermarket parking lots to save money, the sunflowers that grew on the side of the highway in Kansas. A month or two later, I read On The Road—I mean, I actually read it, as opposed to just having it sit there on my shelf while I pretended I had—and I underlined great swathes of it ("Here I was at the end of America—no more land—and now there was nowhere to go but back"), recognizing finally the fearless freedom of the road trip, that distinctly American urge to move, to light out for the territories, to discover.
My favorite stop we made on that trip was a place called Pyramid Lake in Nevada. I'd read about it in the tattered USA guidebook we were carrying around—this was before Yelp and TripAdvisor, obviously, so our recommendations for the 50 states were squeezed into 900 pages—and something about the description had appealed to me. We had our camping equipment in the back of the van and we were young and aimless enough to have time to kill, so we pulled off the freeway and followed the signs for Pyramid Lake. We camped on the shore, the only people for miles around. This being pre-Facebook, I documented it the way all earnest twentysomethings documented things back then: in the homemade trip scrapbook.
I don't know what it was about Pyramid Lake that made it so memorable, but when I thought about it in the intervening years it was with a warm feeling, the edges blurred and fuzzy, like the whole memory was glowing. When we moved to San Francisco in 2007, we talked about going back—we almost stopped again on our drive out west from Charleston, but this time we had a deadline to meet and a plane to catch—and yet we never did. Like most things, it just became something we talked about idly and never did. We should go back to Pyramid Lake. Oh, we totally should.
And then this weekend, eleven years after our first visit, we decided we would. It was an impromptu decision—torture for planners like me—and we gave ourselves very little time to talk each other out of it. On Saturday morning, we gathered our sleeping bags, packed up the car, and left. Four and a half hours later, there we were, back on the same turn-off road to the lake. It came into view sharply, glittering like an emerald. It sounds overwrought enough that you wouldn't believe it if you read it in a novel, but my breath caught in my throat and I gasped.
For the first half hour or so, I wondered if we should even have come back. It was crowded this time, swarming with people in big trucks pulling boats, the boats blasting Rhianna and making high-speed laps of the lake. I lamented the lack of solitude; the spot where we'd pitched our tent on the shore eleven years ago was now home to a colony of RVs. We drove further and further north up the shore, looking for a little loneliness. The paved road gave way to a dirt one. We lost all cellphone reception. And finally, miles from anywhere, we found it: a perfect spot to settle.
And here, finally, was our solitude. We swam and read and sat on the sand and stared at the view. We climbed a huge rock with two beers in Sean's backpack, and toasted to homecomings as the sun sank lower and the vague imprint of the moon appeared. It got a little darker and Sean built a fire, and the tent blew away and we had to look for pebbles to tamp it down, and we grilled sausages over the fire and sat and talked and marveled at how so much had changed in eleven years and so much had stayed the same.
Saturday, as it turned out, was the anniversary of the day Sean and I met. I wrote about it last year—about how when we got to this same day next year, I would have known him sixteen years, or exactly half my life—but it didn't even occur to me until the day before we left that the milestone would pass while we were away. It seemed fitting, I think, that it did.
So often I think we avoid going back to places that once meant something to us, afraid that something dark might have moved in to cloud our expectations, an ugly blemish creeping over a happy time. I was worried about that with Pyramid Lake, thought perhaps I'd remembered it with the soft perspective of someone young and unformed, someone easily impressed and unsure what she liked, thought perhaps I'd get there and wonder why I'd come. Turns out, though, that I was wrong. On your luckiest days, you can walk straight back into the past like nothing's changed.
Tons more photos of Pyramid Lake here. And as much as I would like to keep it all to myself, if you live anywhere near it, you really should go. Let me know if you have any questions about camping there and I'll try to answer them.