Sun Pee Bingo
by Suzanne Hackett-Morgan
Sun Pee, I’ve determined, is a winter phenomenon. On my last desert trip to Nye County, I really noticed the number of bottles, of all shapes and sizes, holding organic-looking liquid warming in the sun along the shoulders of the road. Some were laying on their side, some stood upright. Inside, the liquid ranged from orange-yellow, to brilliant goldenrod, to a rusty reddish-brown.
For many years, I had always assumed the bottles held iced tea, iced tea partially consumed and then tossed out the window. Or, especially when I’d spot a large milk jug, half-gallon or so, nearly two-thirds full, I’d think it was someone making sun tea who had just forgotten about it. I guess it’s conceivable to argue that, in retrospect, at least some of it could have been tea.
It finally dawned on me, on another trip, when I saw a half-gallon jug set on the curb of a deserted former Stuckey’s building at Cima Road, that it didn’t make any sense at all for that much iced tea to be thrown out a window nor for someone to be making Sun Tea at this abandoned location in the Mojave. Then I thought about how almost all the plastic bottles were wide-mouthed and capped. Then I thought more about where I was: Highway 95, Nevada. This stretch of road, on which I first really noticed the phenomenon, is the primary North-South route between Las Vegas and Nye County, and further north to Reno before it traverses the Palouse in Idaho, to Coeur d’Alene, and on to the U.S. Canada border.
Heading north through Nye County in central Nevada, the west side of the highway contains the improbable farm land of the Amargosa Valley. To the east are the rocky, arid hills of the Nellis Air Force Range, the Nevada Test Site, Area 51 and Yucca Mountain. It’s a landscape between destinations, used by truckers and tourists. There’s a compelling lack of reasons to stop. Why stop and pull over to pee—even if there were places to go (note to self: there is a public restroom maintained by the Nevada Department of Transportation at Lathrop Wells, now called Amargosa Valley. A pit stop notable for the blinding pink Alien Cathouse brothel at the Area 51 Travel Center, where Highway 95 meets up with southbound NV State Route 373 and California State Route 127, skirting the purple peaks of the Funeral Mountains to the west, to Death Valley Junction, the celebrated artistic home of the Amargosa Opera House and Hotel and its most famous resident, the late 92-year ballerina, composer and painter Marta Becket.)
Why even stop when no one would care, no one is there to observe you littering and taking care of your most basic of business in one grand gesture? There’s lots of reasons to need to. Maybe you got liquored up in Vegas or at said brothel, or maybe it’s just hot enough for you to have been maintaining proper hydration as you motored along.
There were enough of these discarded bottles of sufficient variety in the way they stood or laid. I thought they could make a passable collection of images for one of those cardboard Interstate Highway Bingo games from the 1960s, the kind sold in Stuckey’s and other rest stops to occupy the kiddos back in the day. The sturdy cardboard playing piece had 25 windows under which were tiny black and white images of something you might see while traveling in a car: a billboard, a cow, an airplane, a rest area. You see it, call it, and slide a little red plastic window over the image and try to get five in a row to call Bingo!
I was a kid who looked out the window from the backseat of the family station wagon on our annual summer sojourns from Los Angeles to National Parks and monuments. For my generation, travel meant a quest for new and “real” experiences in the hinterlands and fringes of American society--Jean Baudrillard’s America where culture exists “in a wild state.” This America was more regional; people used and responded to what was around them resulting in unique expressions of an individual’s aspirations and imagination. Teepee-shaped motels, oversized arrows, and the odd straightforwardness of communicating through simple words and images on billboards, exhibit a kind of grace nearly lost in the 21st Century. They are a sideshow of ambitions and attitudes from a time when traveling across the desert meant a real trek through time and space. Maybe the reason family cars come equipped with DVD-players and Wi-Fi now is that the homogenous, humorless nature of today’s highways leave little reason to look out the window.
With the exception, perhaps, of full-time RVers, many of whom are from the generation that migrated west along the Mother Road, travel today is more about getting there than journeying. The distance between Los Angeles and Las Vegas can be made in four and a half hours now instead of six or seven, or one can easily fly and bypass the Mojave altogether. Many people avoid traveling through the desert because “there’s nothing to see.” For me, the lack of distractions in the desert, the likelihood that something far in the distance might be the only thing to focus on for miles and miles and miles, makes it possible to really see.