The Hundredth Meridian

Alternative California

It felt as strange flying west—not south, not east—from Salt Lake City as if the earth had reversed its rotation and were spinning in the opposite direction. Basin and range, range and basin: the long barrier mountains were heavy with snow, but now in early March the desert separating them lay bare, dramatizing the topographical disjunctions. The skies were clear and the view unbroken until we crossed into Nevada over Wendover (a gambling town, where recently my friend Brad Willford of Kemmerer was misidentified as Joe Waldholtz by a female drunk who demanded that he be arrested and sent to jail), and snowclouds piled above the mountains. The mountains, where they were visible between the vapor masses, closed up to form deep trenches and high basins, a moiling confusion of dark rock and bright snow. The clouds vanished abruptly, and we were flying above an expanse of forested wilderness broken by the high peaks of the Sierra Nevadas, open snow fields, and the southern end of Lake Tahoe passing directly beneath the body of the plane. The high mountains ended, and roads and houses appeared in the foothills. The plane banked steeply to the south, the Sacramento Valley—wide, green, and humid—rose to meet us, and I saw the geometrically neat farms, the water-courses running high and brown, stands of drowned trees amid the newly planted fields, and the towers of Sacramento gleaming through the haze. Billie Jean Redemeyer waited...

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