On Shabbat eve, October 9, ‘20, we got stuck on famous Highway 50, the loneliest road in the US, just before Austin – not the bustling capital of Texas, but rather a tiny unincorporated town of less than two hundred people perched on top of a watershed in Nevada’s Big Basin. Road repairs. One lane at a time.
Out of the pickup truck ahead of me, and the jeep ahead of the pickup, jumped three bearded dudes and a kid, all in camo cargo pants and tight army green t-shirts. I froze behind the steering wheel as my eyes landed on the short-stock AR-15s slung on the dudes’ shoulders and thinly disguised swastika tattoos on their biceps. The dad and kid leaned on their jeep, whipped out their schlongs and peed into the basin. When the lollipop man changed the sign we formed a caravan as we entered Austin.
In an effort to encourage tourism during COVID times, Expedia gifted me with a free stay in the best room of Austin’s best still-open motel — an assemblage of weathered plywood structures around a courtyard that doubled as a parking lot. My two-bedroom suite, however, was sparkly clean.
The three Swastika beards and the kid ended up as my neighbors to the right. To my left were two petite Korean students from a tony English-language school on the shores of Lake Tahoe en route to Bryce National Park. “School is online, and we can’t fly back home anyway.” The Reno couple and their daughter across the way from the Swastika beards were headed for a weekend of deer hunting.
Due to COVID, we sought the safety of open air. We all took chairs from our rooms and sat on the porches in front of our doors, enjoying the remains of the day as the cold night air wafted into the courtyard. Soon enough a conversation developed.
“That’s a Malinois, yeah?” Beard One said.
“Purebred,” I retorted, remembering how the folks at the Austin saloon were impressed with Malka when I stopped in 2016 on my way to Moab. It was right before the election then, and the main drag was covered with Trump signs.
“Them things are just like a hand grenade. Just point ‘em in a direction and pull the pin,” Beard Two chimed in, taking another swig of Corona.
I didn’t tell them that my Malka is a rescue. As a puppy, she failed the aggressive drive exam. Too affable for security or nose work.
“Hmm…I’d say, she’s more like a Kalashnikov,” I quipped back, giggling on the inside.
“Kalashnikov!” Beard Two echoed with awe.
“In Yemen, in the mountains’ marketplace back in the ‘90s, you could buy a Kalach for eight dollars, max.”
“Eight dollars!” gasped Beard Three.
“So you’re Israeli. It’s your accent. Maybe you can tell us something about guns. Military, right?” a man in his 60s chimed in. “I drive for a geothermal company. Have done for years now. The bosses are Israelis from the Bay Area. Over there, you take this COVID too serious. They make me wear a mask all the time. My wife had it, my daughter and her husband had it, my neighbors had it. No big deal.”
As we chatted we found out that back in the day I took belly dance lessons from the company founder’s wife.
It was Shabbat candle lighting time, when my clock shifts from linear to circular. Ritual time. So I placed my li’l portable candle holders on the worn end table, blessed and lit. I then logged on to the Shabbat Zoom Service of my San Francisco shul, Congregation Sha’ar Zahav. Scared shitless yet giggly inside. The Swastika Beards lounged only feet from me, AR-15s lazily resting in their crotches. My gallows humor always kicks in when I need to dissociate from danger.
My headphones, and not having our congregation’s siddur, kept them from hearing the English of the service. Social distancing also prevented them from peering into my Zoom squares. The service’s Hebrew I know by heart. So excited to be back in the desert, to have made it to Austin, and to get the best room in this ramshackle town, I prayed wholeheartedly and sang aloud. The young Korean girls rhythmically began clapping along.
When the service was over, Beard One turned and gruffly rasped, “What was that?”
“Oh, my Shabbat service, I’m Jewish.” I cooed in my fearful high pitch.
“You?! Are?! Jewish?!”
“Yup. I am.” I was back in my choppy alto, feigning confidence.
“But you said you were from Israel!”
“Yes I am.”
“There are Jews over there?!”
“Yup. It is a Jewish state. They took the lands of Palestine just like the gringos took the lands of the Indians, and they have about 80% Jews there.” I was too afraid to say “rob” or “dispossess,” or to say that for me it’s both Palestine and Israel.
“Can’t be,” Beard Two interjected. “My Facebook said that seventy percent of people over there support President Trump.”
“Yeah that’s bullshit,” he snarled. “Jews always vote democrat. Their money runs the whole damn Deep State and all them smart-ass libtards.”
As much as I wanted to correct them, my gut kept my tongue in check.
“Well I’ll be damned,” Beard One belched. “How they got such a good army if they’re Jewish?”
I shrugged my shoulders and gazed at the candles. The Korean girls sensed the awkwardness in the air. “Isn’t it Christian?” one chimed. “So many Koreans go there on pilgrimage.”
“Well, Jesus Christ was from there for sure, and before COVID, when there are no wars, there are many tourists.”
When the candles burned away, and the Beards finished their six-packs, I heard the dad murmuring gently to his son as he tucked him in for the night. I couldn’t help but wonder if he was one of those deadbeat dads, rank and file of these militias.
I went to my room. Forever the ethnographer, I took notes.
No Trump signs in town now, unlike 2016. The saloon was locked up. Other Highway 50 small towns were full of ’em, but in Austin they no longer need them.
“I moved here for work. Couldn’t afford the West Coast anymore,” the receptionist said as I checked in. “What a culture shock!”
As the election results trickled in I was back home, glued to my screen. Biden and the Democrats narrowly won Nevada. Sultry, bustling Las Vegas was the silver platter. An Israeli friend who often roughs it out in the US national parks commented on the stunning photos I posted to my Facebook wall: “In America, the more sublime the wilderness, the more it teems with right-wingers and militias.”