4 min read

Day 1: Saved by the Billboard

Day 1: Saved by the Billboard
The 2012 Ford Fusion, ready for its closeup

Elko, NV, Elko County (2020 Election: +56 Trump)/Miles Driven: 495.88/Top Speed: 90.3 mph/Cups of Coffee: 2 (2 total for the trip)/Lowest Gas Price: $4.74/Percentage of strangers who correctly identified the Iron Sheik when shown his action figure: 28.6% (2/7)

Lodging: The Thunderbird Inn: 3.5/5 George “The Animal” Steele turnbuckles

In the beginning…

While I am certainly no man of the cloth, the peculiar events of today’s first day on the road has me at least thinking about biblical tales. First, a legitimate rainstorm slammed the Bay Area as I set off, a true anomaly in June, and not the pitter-patter you might be thinking of for Oakland rain, but a true atmospheric river. Then, when I pulled off on an exit to nowhere to relieve myself, somewhere between Reno and Elko, Nevada, the ground begin to shimmer, nay, hop — a plague of locusts! Hundreds of fat-bodied, burnt red grasshoppers with vice jaws were moving en masse across the ramp, likely in some mating or migration ritual. I picked one up (I am an entomologist September-May) and watched with slightly terrified delight as it tried to stab me with its lancelike ovipositor.

After checking the forecast for frogs, I got back on the I-80 to endure a particularly boring stretch between Battle Mountain and Elko. Already tired of my own Spotify playlist (a bad sign for a nine-week road trip; don’t worry, not your playlist Brant), the lack of sleep from the night before began setting in, and I scanned the horizon for a stimulant.

“ABANDON SELFISHNESS!” screamed a billboard streaking by.

Ooh, that sounds good. I don’t want to be selfish.

I had seen these signs many times before, appeals to the lost to be found through the grace of God, along with a telephone number promising relief: 83-FOR-TRUTH

Why not? I thought. Who is at the other end of this rainbow? Will I get a live voice? A recording? The Man himself?

“Thank you for calling the toll-free number for Gospelbillboards.org. Please press 0 to access the main menu.”

A few beats later, a wizened but cheerful voice picked up: “Thanks for calling today, how can I help you?”

Howard, 73, is a Mennonite living in rural Alberta, Canada. The non-profit behind the billboards runs a network of 1500–2000 signs across the U.S. and Canada and is mostly volunteer, about 30-strong.

I told Howard that I was on the 80 in Nevada, saw the sign, and was curious, nothing more. He launched into a description of his work, his backstory, and of course, the Kingdom of God.

“It’s terrible what’s happening in the world today. The denigration of morality. The killing, the poor babies, the transgender people, the euthanasia…”

I asked him what he meant by believing in the separation of church and state, thinking that was an unusual position for the Pro-Life movement who wants to ensure the illegality of abortion.

“The Bible says there are only two kingdoms, and they are separate — the kingdom here on Earth, and the kingdom of heaven,” he said.

I mostly listened, grateful for the live voice, even if I agreed with almost nothing he said. He talked a lot, but did not try to save me. Finally, perhaps remembering that I had called him, he said, “I’ve been doing all the talking. Perhaps you can provide some input?”

I told him that while I was not a Christian, I appreciated his perspective. Expecting a torrent of gospel, I was pleasantly surprised when he demurred.

“Ya know, I just want to say that I appreciate you and your call. You are very polite, and very respectful. We get a lot of foul language, people who call just to yell at us. So thank you. Are you a truck driver?”

“No, I’m a writer,” I replied, conveniently leaving out the scientist part, not wanting to test my luck (if he only knew I was not only a scientist, but an evolutionary biologist).

The entire twenty minutes was unexpected. There was no shouting, no forceful attempt to change the other person’s point of view. It made me sad to know that people on North America’s freeways are calling this 73-year-old man in Alberta to call him an asshole. I completely disagree with him and his beliefs, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have a civil conversation.

And he kept me awake. So thanks Howard.

One of the vows I’ve made on this trip is to stay in non-chain roadside motels, and I arrived in the capital of non-chain roadside motels today: Elko, NV. The boom-bust gold town seems to be in a boomy mood, as the main drag of Idaho St. glittered with motel names like the Esquire Inn, and my choice: The Thunderbird.

The secret's out

I figure I need to also do a quick review of these establishments in a totally official report I shall call THE STATE OF THE ROADSIDE MOTEL

Overall rating: 3.5/5 George “The Animal” Steele turnbuckles

Year Opened: 1972 (as a Holiday Inn)

Lobby: Above average, with some tables and chairs scattered throughout and a flat-screen TV playing Fox Business News. Nice bit of kitsch, with antlers on the wall.

Room: No stationery or pen; flat-screen TV with hundreds of channels; no iron, or irony; no luggage rack; weird bench thing that could be a luggage rack; hard copy phone book but no bible; no stains; shampoo dispenser in the shower!