Teri Orr: Memory Lane needs an open road…
There are different names for the same idea, but muscle/cellular memory is probably the easiest. It is that feeling — triggered by a smell or sight — even a sound that takes you back in time exactly to a place or another person or if you are lucky to the person you once were, in another place just for a second or two, and you remember everything you forgot about a long, long time ago.
A week ago now I started on a journey to attend a conference and that will begin this weekend in Monterey, California. But first I ended up in Reno and Lake Tahoe and Point Reyes and San Francisco. All the places I grew up until I ran away to Park City at age 28. And the journey has been unexpectedly powerful. I have stayed only one night in a hotel and all the rest with (newly discovered ) relatives and friends who became family maybe 20 years ago in Park City and moved away pre-COVID to Reno.
Driving on old highway 50 — called the loneliest highway in America — you have time to think and not fight semis and not see any billboards and just inhale how vast and ruggedly beautiful that part of the country really is. You see dust devils start in the desert and storms move in and move on. My goal had been to drive it all and end up in Nevada on the first night at my friends home in Reno. But I got a late start and I was monitoring the situation of a sweet friend from Park City who was on life support in another state. So I drove in altered state, between time zones and weather patterns.
I reached a point outside of Ely where a rainstorm in the distance reminded me of Hawaii. You know those times when the clouds don’t entirely cover the mountains and then the sun breaks thru a veil in the distance and see a light rain falling? It grabbed me and I pulled over and just watched the light play with the rain. By the time I stopped in Ely and checked my phone I learned my friend had passed away. So I stopped and spent the night in a quiet hotel.
I drove too far for too long the next day without finding a place to rest, so finally I pulled into an old Pony Express stop where there was a bar that served food. That’s all there was there. The bar/cabins in a placed called Cold Springs. The waitress was probably close to my age. She was missing many of her front teeth. She was very excited for company. So instead of making my order “to go” I sat down. She shared with me her tough time during COVID and the hard time they had finding help and I listened so hard I could almost ignore all the dead animals on the walls. She didn’t ask how I ended up in that part of nowhere because she no doubt had seen lots of weary travelers stop over the years and knew when to let them just have space. We laughed about life and some silly stuff as women of a certain age are wont to do. And when she put down the patty melt and Coke she said, ”Oh Honey, why haven’t you stopped by here before? Will you come back this way?” And I couldn’t say exactly because this trip has very few anchors planned and a lot of time built in unstructured.
And you know, I was gonna tip anyway but there was a certain sadness in her voice that required a real tip. It wouldn’t be enough to change a thing about her life but maybe more than she expected so she felt…seen.
By the time I rolled into Reno the sky was grey with smoke from fires in Nevada and Oregon and California. There was no sun or sky and the apocalyptic sense was maybe what I felt often when I lived there for two-plus years. And later when I lived at Tahoe we still had to travel to Reno to buy most anything at all. I lived in three houses in Reno and a dorm. And I remembered from somewhere a concert I haven’t thought about in decades that happened at the student center with Ike and Tina Turner. Reno was a confusing couple of years for me but it included the birth of my first child. I was 20 and knew nothing about birthin’ no babies…
My husband worked as Pumpkin in Reno for a year — a driver for Harrah’s Club, dressed in ugly orange uniforms, hence “Pumpkins.” Bill Harrah had married Bobbi Gentry but then his wandering ways had her wishing she could throw him off the Tallahatchie Bridge. Instead she ended her singing career and has disappeared for the rest of her known life.
The next day my sister of my heart drove with me to Tahoe to revisit some places in the pines I hadn’t seen for decades. And we found the homes I owned and the children’s clothing store I created that still exists. We ate at the Sunnyside Pier — the scene of many crimes — and the deep fried zucchini that has been made exactly the same since 1938 did not disappoint. And the muscles in my body helped me drive as if I had never left. And the smells and tastes and emotions were all tied together pretty much exactly where I left them when I ran away in 1979.
It was a suspended Sunday spent away from the Park…
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the founder of the Park City Institute, which provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts. She has been a member of the TED community since 2007 and founded TEDxParkCity in 2009.
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“There are times when the universe just sets you spinning and last weekend was one of those,” writes Teri Orr.