Drive All Night
Ever since I read about Bruce Springsteen flying out to Utah, buying a car, and driving around in the desert to take photographs with Eric Meola, I wanted to do the same thing. And then as those photos became iconic, I always wanted to visit those locations myself. I wasn’t nuts about the idea of sleeping on the hood of the car in a small town in the desert (as the legend goes), but the idea of just showing up somewhere and driving around to see what was there was undeniably attractive. I wanted to see the same things that artists I respected were inspired by.
Fast forward a couple of decades. I’ve driven cross-country three times and been through the Utah desert and Badlands and seen a lot of the States (and the rest of the world). But that trip through Utah and the desert still loomed large in my legend. This would be stoked by the release of the Promise box set, and then Streets of Fire, Eric Meola’s most recent book of photographs. I promised myself that one day I would sit down and put it all together and try to plot out their itinerary.
That day arrived earlier this winter as I began pondering a plan for a roadtrip of my own.
Bruce and Eric started in Salt Lake City, and drove across 80 to Reno. So most of the iconic locations of these images are actually in Nevada and not in Utah, as I originally had in my mind from the bits and pieces that had been told in stories over the years. I am not going to take you through my entire research process, but just some of the highlights:
1) VALMY AUTO COURT
This has been replaced by Valmy Station – click on this link and use street view to see what it looks like today.
How do I know it’s the same place? I looked up the addresses of both the old and the new one and they are identical.
Here’s another great image of the building in the 80s, in daylight and in color, not long before they tore it down.
2) BRENDA’S CAFE
I did a lot of Googling and found a city (Lovelock, NV) and the city fit in with the basic routing of the trip. The city helped me find this photo, which gave me more context than the nighttime one taken by Meola.
So now that I knew what it looked like, I needed to somehow find an old address record. In the course of my relentless online research, I found a comment thread under a photograph in which someone who claimed to be the daughter of the original owner of Brenda’s Cafe commented that it was now a Mexican restaurant.
Then, I looked up Mexican restaurants in Lovelock, NV and using Google Street View, compared these two photos with every address until I found this location.
(You are either very impressed at this point or very frightened.)
3) THUNDER MOUNTAIN
“Along the highway there was this house….that this Indian had built from stuff he´d scavenged off the desert and out in front he had this big picture of Geronimo and over on top it said ‘Landlord’ and he had another sign, this big white sign painted in red, it said, ‘This is the land of peace, love, justice and no mercy’…it pointed down this little dirt road that said ‘Thunder Road.'”
Yep, that’s the place.
I’ve spent enough hours looking at modern photos of the place to be certain that none of the signs still exist (there was a big fire at some point), or I’d have found a way to add it to the itinerary.
Those were the highlights. Some of the other locations, like roads with mountains in the background, were too nebulous for me to try to locate (of course I say this as the woman who trekked out through Death Valley to see a dead tree). The specific wedding chapels in Reno that Bruce posed in front of are long gone. Mark Twain’s cabin and the one room schoolhouse are reduced to boards barely holding onto each other. And some of it, you know, should be left to magic and luck and a moment. If nothing else, the research was absolutely fascinating and inspired me to put my own roadtrip together, combining many of the same elements, Route 66 and The Americans and The Grapes of Wrath and On The Road, and, just maybe, a little darkness on the edge of town.
Watch this space.
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