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At Speed: Traveling the Long Road between Two Points

At Speed: Traveling the Long Road between Two Points

by W. Scott Olsen

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From the lowest highway in North America to the highest, W. Scott Olsen takes readers on a journey that is more about going than about getting there. These are stories of travel as it is lived, essays about motion and the desire to keep moving. In a companionable style that puts readers in the passenger seat, Olsen describes his travels through the United States,


From the lowest highway in North America to the highest, W. Scott Olsen takes readers on a journey that is more about going than about getting there. These are stories of travel as it is lived, essays about motion and the desire to keep moving. In a companionable style that puts readers in the passenger seat, Olsen describes his travels through the United States, observing the world close-up as it rushes toward and then away from his old Jeep.

The Upper Peninsula in March, a one-day drive from Death Valley to Mount Evans, a harrowing trip from Fargo to Spokane in the dead of winter: these journeys and others offer opportunities for Olsen’s unconventional narrative to take flight in exploring the intricacies of America, its small towns, its people, its roads, its histories, and its landscapes in vistas long and short that might otherwise be overlooked. In Olsen’s hands, travels along the most American routes of the heartland become an addictive tale that will appeal to anyone who has ever wondered what lies over the next hill.

Editorial Reviews

Mid-American Review

“Writing in the great tradition of American road books, W. Scott Olsen has produced an engaging set of essays which hurtle forward on sheer momentum. . . . By narrating his sojourns down the road, Olsen effectively drops the reader into the passenger seat. . . . When you have finished the last page of the last long drive, you’ll find yourself reaching to unbuckle a seat belt, turning to Olsen and saying, ‘Thanks for the ride.’”—Naton Leslie, Mid-American Review

North Dakota Quarterly

“[Olsen] has the rare ability to catch cultural highlights and report them verbally by merely traveling through the vast expanses of the Midwest. Bu the narrative does not remain confined to it. . . . What makes this narrative alluring is that the author manages to shed a different light on many places he visits and takes away the cliché of tediousness with which these places are often associated. . . . This travel book is a good read, and I emphatically recommend it to people interested in places off the beaten track.”—North Dakota Quarterly


“It’s not where he goes, but what he sees and how he glowingly describes the scenes that make this book a pleasure to read.”—Booklist

— George Cohen

High Country News

“Describing several trips, ranging the continent from Death Valley to Kansas City to the Alaska Highway, Olsen stirs our own memories of the road, that sense of the leaving and returning to the places we have known. . . . His writing is spirited, smooth and fast.” —Ray Vandersall, High Country News

— Ray Vandersall

Booklist - George Cohen

“It’s not where he goes, but what he sees and how he glowingly describes the scenes that make this book a pleasure to read.”—Booklist
High Country News - Ray Vandersall

“Describing several trips, ranging the continent from Death Valley to Kansas City to the Alaska Highway, Olsen stirs our own memories of the road, that sense of the leaving and returning to the places we have known. . . . His writing is spirited, smooth and fast.” —Ray Vandersall, High Country News

Leo Damrosch

"Olsen's journeys across America, with no companion except the radio in his battered Jeep, are splendidly evocative of the American landscape from frozen prairie to subtropical sea. With playful irony and poetic insight, he shows that long-distance driving, far from being 'just one long, boring drive' as a gas station clerk warns him, can be a rich source of imaginative meaning."—Leo Damrosch, Ernest Bernbaum Professor of Literature at Harvard University and National Book Award finalist in Nonfiction for Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius
Peter Chilson

"Reading At Speed is like opening a road map to have it come alive in your hands."—Peter Chilson, winner of the AWP Nonfiction Award for Riding The Demon: On The Road in West Africa

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UNP - Bison Books
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Read an Excerpt

At Speed

Traveling the Long Road between Two Points

By W. Scott Olsen

University of Nebraska Press

Copyright © 2006

University of Nebraska Press

All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8032-3581-X

Chapter One

The Climb

Your inquiry to the U.S. Geological Survey's Earth Science Information
Center was referred to the Geographic Names Office for reply. No, the U.S.
Geological Survey does not, nor does any Federal agency, have an official
definition for mountain, hill, or any other generic term as used with geographic
names. In fact, there are no official Federal definitions for these
terms as they apply to geographic features. In the naming process these
terms are purely perceptive or application driven. Various agencies may
have internal definitions that are application driven, but none are used
universally or are official. The reason is perception and function. People
perceive features differently, and the need or functional classification is
often the driving force. For example, is the feature called a river based on
length, volume of water, or some other criterion? A water resources office
may have one need while local perception may be totally different.
Usually, streams are hierarchical in concept, but very close to us here in
Reston, Virginia, Little River flows into Goose Creek, which is very unsettling
to many. Similarly, the difference betweena mountain and a hill is
well known to everyone except that it differs from place to place and even
group-to-group. The 63 categories available in our type of feature list were
developed by us specifically to facilitate search and retrieval of entries having
similar characteristics, and we attempted to select very general terms
that are not controversial, hence summit for all uplifted features since, for
example, mountain or hill creates confusion and unending argument. In
fact there are 190 different generic terms that fit the definition of summit,
some are quite rare and unusual. You may be interested to know that the
British Ordnance Survey once defined a mountain as having 1,000 feet of
elevation, and less was a hill. This was the definition at the time on which
the movie The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill and Down a Mountain was
based. You might recall that the summit in question was the first elevated
feature which one encounters upon entering Wales from England, and it
was very important to the local folk that it be classified a mountain. The
British have, we have been informed, abandoned the definition. We are
not exactly sure when the British abandoned their definition (possibly the
1920s). The U.S. Board on Geographic Names once stated that the difference
between a hill and a mountain was 1,000 feet of local relief, but even
this was abandoned in the early 1970s.

ROGER L. PAYNE, Executive Secretary,
U.S. Board on Geographic Names

Six o'clock in the morning and I am standing on dry land, 282 feet
below sea level. A short distance behind me, a small spring brings
water to the surface-water far too salty to drink. The temperature
is 112 degrees above zero.

This is Death Valley, California. A spot called Badwater. The lowest
spot in the whole of North America. White salt dust covers my boots.
There is no breeze this morning, and no sound other than the crunch of
my footfalls. Although I can see my Jeep at the pullout where I parked,
now some distance to the east, no other traffic moves along Route 178,
the small road that hugs the edge where the flats meet the sharp rise of
earth. Beyond the roadway, the Black Mountains still hide the rising

The temperature this morning is more than I am used to, but the sun
has not yet filled the valley floor and the air is pleasant, almost sweet
with the smells of plants and flowers in the hills. There is the smell of
salt, too. Everywhere I look, my eye is filled with the residue of hard

I watch the sunlight move down the mountains on the western edge
of the valley, the browns and blacks and grays of the Panamint Range,
places with names like Starvation Canyon and Telescope Peak, and I
smile when a small dramatic voice in my head says I should be running
from this sunlight and the possibly lethal heat it will bring. But I do not
run. Even though I hope to end this day a long way from here, for now I
have water in my pack and air-conditioning in the Jeep. And I am slow
to move away from the one truth this morning already holds. Badwater,
at sunrise, is a beautiful place.

Of course, I have no good reason for being here. No good reason
other than curiosity, and a desire to know what sense might be made
from connections. I read maps the way other people read novels-every
road line its own narrative, every town name a character, every border a
twist in the plot. And some time ago, I'm not really sure when, I found
myself holding a small leather-bound directory of national parks, each
with its own colored map. I was looking at the map for Death Valley
National Park, only because I knew the lowest spot on the continent was
there, and I was tracing the road line when a question came up. There
is a road, I saw, at Badwater. That makes it the lowest roadway in North
America. So where, then, was the highest? I knew the highest peaks (Denali
for North America and Mount Whitney-only eighty miles from
Death Valley-for the lower forty-eight states), but where was the highest
roadway? How high could I drive?

It wasn't an easy question. Though after a flurry of emails and phone
calls, I had a partial answer. Mount Evans, outside Denver, boasts the
highest paved road in North America. 14,264 feet above sea level. What
about Forest Service roads, I asked? What about dirt roads, unpaved
roads, drivable trails? The Forest Service could not tell me, or if they
could they did not want to. I asked the U.S. Geological Survey too. But
they have little interest in roads. The Department of Transportation
told me to call the Forest Service, and so around I went. Finally, paved
was good enough for me.

Badwater to Mount Evans, I thought. 14,546 feet of vertical distance.
Looking at a road atlas, I began to smile. They are not that far apart-nine
hundred miles, give or take a bit. Certainly doable. Perhaps, if I
started early enough, I could finish in just one day; I could connect the
lowest and the highest. What would I see along the way? What would
I think and feel, starting at the bottom and ending at the top? What
would I learn about the shape of the land if I could go from one to the

I couldn't say when, but I knew I'd be going.

So, I'm here only because Badwater, the lowest spot in the Western
Hemisphere, has one of those odd calls to my imagination-a special
place because it's extreme. It is a place I had to see, that I had to touch
and taste and muddy my boots with. Mount Evans, at the end of this
day, though very different, appeals for the very same reason. And there
is the distance between them, the process of nine hundred miles over
and three miles up, the story that comes from seeing the earth rise and
fall and rise again, the questions that spring like storms in the summer
sky, and the memory to hold forever.

This morning, the mountains of the Panamint Range turn pink in
the early morning light. A few cotton-ball clouds frame Telescope Peak,
itself 11,049 feet above sea level. A half-moon seems to rest lightly in
the sky. Behind me, the Black Mountains on the east side of the valley
remain dark and hard and large. And there is no sound here this morning-no
birdcall, no wind, no rushing water. Slowly, wanting both to
remain and to go, I walk back to the Jeep, get in, check the supplies, turn
the key, put it in gear, and begin.

* * *

Whether it's told or not, every good story has a chapter called "The
Night Before." This one is no exception. Last night, I stayed at a place
called Stovepipe Wells, thirty miles or so north of Badwater. The whole
place is just a gas station, a general store, a small hotel and restaurant, a
swimming pool. Old wagon wheels rest against a split rail fence. Behind
the store, the dunes begin, brown and soft in the evening light. The
place is named Stovepipe Wells because prospectors coming through
would dig for water and plant pieces of stovepipe in the ground to mark
the holes.

I asked the desk clerk if there was a thermometer, if he knew what the
temperature was. He said there was one out by the pool, but he frowned
as he told me. "It's one of the new kinds," he said. "It only goes up to
120 degrees." He shook his head and said, "I don't know what they were

Stovepipe Wells is run by the Park Service. Parts are ordered from
somewhere else. I walked outside and looked at the thermometer by the
pool. The temperature read 115 degrees, and although the sky was still
light the sun had set behind the mountains. "There are many days," he
said, "when 120 doesn't even come close."

I put my one bag in the spartan room, walked outside and realized
I'd arrived at the wrong time of day. It was too late to head off for a
hike in the dunes, too early to turn in. No one was swimming in the
pool and there were few other guests in the hotel. I walked around a
bit, exploring the outsides of buildings, looking longingly toward the
dunes and the mountains and the darkening sky, and eventually I found
myself at the general store where the clerk and I only smiled at each
other. I'd promised myself I wouldn't ask him about the temperature.
Nonetheless, a sign on an outside wall said, "The winter climate is delightful.
The valley bakes under a savage summer sun." It said, "Death
Valley consistently has the highest temperatures on earth. On July 10,
1913, the weather bureau thermometer at Furnace Creek stood at 134
degrees Fahrenheit, 57 degrees Celsius-a world record for many years.
Air temperatures above 120 degrees Fahrenheit/49 Celsius are common
in July and August. Ground temperatures can rise above 200 degrees
Fahrenheit/93 degrees Celsius. Rocks can become too hot to touch."
Then it went on to say, "The summer can take the lives of unfortunate
or foolhardy travelers."

I do know a little about compression heating-air that's trapped by
the valley walls is heated by the sun and tries to rise, but then it tends to
fall back on itself and press down, compressing the lowest layer to the
highest temperature-but that was little help as I tried to imagine what
a day here would feel like on my neck and arms, and what it would taste
like in my lungs. Suddenly thirsty, and with little else to do, I wandered
into the restaurant as soon as it opened.

I never met the man, but the cook's name was Lucky. The waitress
seated me at a table near a wall, with a good view of both the television
and the large picture window, poured me a glass of water and began to
tell me what Lucky suggested. "The prime rib, honey, is what I'd order,"
she said. "Lucky made a big one today, and there aren't enough people
to eat it. I've seen what he's serving, and you should trust me on this

I went for this special, with a glass of wine, and settled into thoughts
about the upcoming day, the long drive, the way light can shift hues as
the sun moves from one end of the sky to the other. And I smiled when
I noticed that the restaurant, western style, was brown. A long brown
bar, with brown bar stools. Brown carpet. Brown tables. Brown chairs.
Brown doors. Outside the window, a view of brown buildings, brown
dunes, brown mountains, a darkening blue sky. My white wine, very
cold, arrived with the brown meat, a brown potato. And the slice of
prime rib was very large.

Despite the fact that what I thought was a small plastic tub of "butter"
turned out to be strong horseradish sauce-something I did not
discover until I'd mixed it with my baked potato and put a large bite
into my mouth-the meal was wonderful. Then I walked outside, in the
pleasant mood of a good meal, only to discover emergency vehicles and
park ranger trucks racing past Stovepipe Wells.

"Washout," someone said. "Some people are stuck."

I don't know how the news traveled, but the man at the general store
seemed to know what was going on. Earlier in the day, a good bit before
I arrived, a storm moved through the north end of the valley. Rain fell
hard and fast for a very short time, and the cant of the rocks pushed it
into valleys, where it gathered and then began to push the rocks themselves.
The road north of Stovepipe Wells has rises and then hollows,
small dips and crests, and when the flash flood hit the flat of the valley
it filled the depressions with mud and boulders and debris. Coming
around a corner, drivers found the fl at of asphalt turned into the texture
of the moon.

"That muck has to be at least fifteen feet deep in places," the man at
the store said.

The road to the north was closed. A small band of cars was stuck
between two washouts. Ranger trucks sped by Stovepipe Wells every
twenty minutes or so, ferrying people back and forth

"There is no travel to the north now. Although to the south should be
just fine," the desk clerk said.

A German couple, gray-haired and trim, pulled up in the car they
rented in Colorado. They were already guests in the hotel. They had
driven up to look at the washout as soon as they heard the news. "The
first one isn't bad," the man said. "We didn't drive through it. There are
more in the distance."

The woman pointed at a dirty white Mustang convertible parked in
the gas station, the owner on his back with his head under the car. "We
could see his tracks," the woman said, as if she were sharing a secret.

"He drove through it," the man continued. "First one. Didn't even
know it was there. Sixty miles per hour and straight into the mess."
"Like surfing," the woman said, "with the grace of God."

I waited for a semi and flatbed trailer to pass, a large bulldozer on the
trailer en route to the cleanup, then walked over to the gas station. The
man appeared from under the Mustang and I could hear him talking
with the store clerk. "It may be drivable," he said. "But everything under
there is trashed."

A park ranger truck and a hotel van arrived, and both let passengers
off at the hotel.

I saw one of the hotel employees walking toward the van. I said, "Do
you know how many people were stuck?" He said, "No, I don't. But, they
figure than can fit all the remaining ones in one van." The guy in the van
took off north.

At the hotel, even though the sun had set, the temperature was still
over 100 degrees. The tourists, as they were ferried back, filled the small
hotel registration area. Some of them were sunburned bikers: Harley t-shirts,
leather jackets, dark glasses. Many of them were overweight men
suddenly out of their air-conditioning. One wore a Mickey Mouse shirt.
Another pair was German. One couple was Italian. Somewhere in the
background I heard someone speaking French, too. All of them smiled,
all of them told stories of their adventure, glad to be rescued at day's

Two men I met in the small courtyard of the hotel were talking as I
walked by. I said, "Were you stuck?"

They both smiled and said, "Yes, we were!"

"A bit of an adventure then?"

"Yes, it was!" and they told me the whole story one more time-the
adrenaline a long way from leaving their bodies.

The restaurant where I ate dinner by myself was now packed with the
grateful and the hungry-the bar doing extraordinary business. The
men and women walked around almost dazed, telling and retelling the
story to themselves: where they were, what they saw. None of the stories
were very different, of course. Each of them simply reconfirmed that
something extraordinary had happened. Everyone ordered the special,
and the slices, I saw, grew increasingly thin. Outside, children filled the
pool with their bodies and their glee.

Talking with the front desk clerk I learned there were nearly thirty
people in the hotel who hadn't planned to be here. Their cars remained
stranded between the washouts. One of the stranded men reported he
had talked to the operator of the road cleaning equipment and sixteen
hours was his estimate to clear the road.


Excerpted from At Speed
by W. Scott Olsen
Copyright © 2006 by University of Nebraska Press .
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

W. Scott Olsen is a professor of English at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. In addition to being editor in chief of Ascent, a literary magazine of fiction, essays, and poetry, he is the author of several books, including Gravity, The Allure of Distance: Essays on the Act of Travel, as well as the editor of several anthologies, including A Year in Place.

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