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Come kick around cowboy country with me, while we still can

Come kick around cowboy country with me, while we still can
Roadside attractions, including old mining gear, against the rosy desert sunrise. They wear their whiskers low here in cowboy country. (Chris Erskine / Los Angeles Times)

TONOPAH, Nev. — I’m toeing the abyss, and the very edge of civilization, here in Nevada, on an adventure that reminds me why I adore a good road trip — the endless possibilities, the greasy grub that sometimes tastes like pavement, the last slice of steamy-warm Americana.

Get your Americana while you can, folks. Like vintage vinyl, it will soon be available only at select sites.

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I love waking up to a sunrise over a new place. Here in Tonopah, an old mining camp, the morning looks as if it’s been filtered through a vase of roses. The place just glows. If I were a cinematographer — into light, into burnished Western landscapes — this is where I’d retire. The land is folklore.

“What’s Tonopah mean?” I ask the desk clerk.

Turns out it’s an old Indian term for “no credit card purchases under 5 bucks.”

She was a sly one, this desk clerk. Reminded me of my mom: leprechaun eyes and a healthy dose of I-really-don’t-care-what-you-think.

When I asked whether a nearby lithium mine was still humming, the clerk said yes and acknowledged that I would have an interest in lithium, since she noticed my electric car.

I hate when rural grandmas are more together than I am. Then again, who isn’t?

If you ever visit, note that men wear their whiskers low here in Nevada, like window shades, so you can’t tell if they’re smirking or asleep. Sir, is that a mustache or a squirrel?

Out here, even the smiles seem made of chafed denim.

Know what makes me nervous? Well, everything, but especially rural motel rooms in wide-open spaces, far from the criminal justice system. I’ve seen enough Clint Eastwood movies to know rural outposts attract outcasts with nothing to lose.

Seen a lot of Hitchcock too. Hitch loved the contrast of harsh sun and dark minds. The way Picasso worked in oils, that’s how Hitchcock worked in lonesome roadside lodging.

In places like this, I never know whether to leave a light on. Is it better to have total darkness when the psycho tries to smother me in my sleep? Would total darkness be to my advantage, as it was for Audrey Hepburn, the wily blind butterfly in the brilliant “Wait Until Dark?” (Not Hitchcock, but the filmmakers used the same passel of paints.)

In an unfamiliar motel room, I’m a cat in a dark cemetery. All I can see are the devil eyes of the blinking digital clock.

2:14 a.m. 2:14 a.m. 2:14 a.m.

So I confess that I sometimes leave the bathroom light on in places like this. Inevitably there is a ventilating fan that catches just enough of its plastic casing so that it sounds like a chain saw.

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The good news: The chain saw drowns out the apparent orgy occurring next door. Or maybe it’s a book club. Same screams, giddiness and sense of purpose.

See why I like road trips?

I like the way the mind wanders to fresh places. I like the rascally waitresses who call you “sport.” I like the fry cook who barely winces when the bacon spits him in the eye

I like the Anglo mini-mart clerk with the green Mohawk. Indian country, remember?

Listen, shouldn’t we all soak up a little Americana while we still can?

“No” would be an acceptable answer. “Yes” is even better.

Love the mileage signs (Las Vegas, 310), the sludgy coffee, and the sign on the office door that reads: “I’m out of estrogen. But I have a gun.”

I’ll share a theory: Every great song has some little hook, some hummable couplet, some flourish that elevates that song above others.

So it is with road trips; there is always some little melodic flourish you have never heard or seen before, which is the essence of “wanderlust,” my favorite word (not to mention the best of all lusts).

The lovely and patient older daughter has it too, a taste for new horizons. She and her boy toy, Finn, just returned from three weeks in Asia, where they took Vespa food tours, mingled with tigers, stayed in leggy hotels built right over the water.

Good morning, Vietnam!

“Today, we’re taking a boat trip through the Mekong Delta,” she texted one morning.

How strange does that sound? The Mekong Delta? Really, sweetie? To Americans of a certain age, that just seems too soon.

But hey, times change. Places too, which is why no two journeys are ever the same.

Summer beckons and we all need to get out a little, to lock eyes with new eyes and rely on the wisdom of old desk clerks.

It’s coming soon, summer is. In fact, it’s just over that next ridge.

More road trips: Sunday’s Travel section, devoted to road trips, has more on this adventure and other car rides across the great American West.

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