Back Into the Desert, Feeling Like I Finally Belong as the Sun Sets on This Van Trip
A gala in Glamis, a fork in the road, and a confrontation that brings everything full circle.
As I headed down U.S. Route 93 from the Idaho border through the entire length of Nevada, leaving the misty conifers of the Pacific Northwest behind, I struggled to actually make it to my destination: the Hoover Dam, to cover the the all-women’s Rebelle Rally, a navigational and overloading challenge through thousands of miles of the desert. I was getting paid to be there on time, and I had to make sure I had a few extra hours every day for my journey because I would certainly get distracted with the beauty of the desert, and pull off for shots. Something about Nevada above all other states speaks to me; I believe it’s the fact that an astounding 63% of the state is public land.
No other state in the country has so much beauty freely available to anyone with a bit of ground clearance and some A/T tires. Driving down 93, it felt like everything my eye could see was a free-roam map of exploration, ripe to be discovered.
[Editor's note: Writer Victoria Scott is taking off to travel the country this year and explore car culture in a JDM 1995 Toyota Hiace, and we'll be chronicling her adventures through a series on The Drive called The Vanscontinental Express. It's natural to yearn for the open road at a moment when it feels like the world is waking up from a yearlong daze. But as a trans woman looking for her place in the world, Victoria's journey is anything but your average road trip. This is part 15; you can read parts one through fourteen here.]
Alas, after a few wonderful nights under the now-shifted constellations showing me a gorgeous fall night’s sky, I rendezvoused with the racers at tech inspection to introduce myself and get my initial coverage. For the next two nights I had nothing to do. I knew I’d be heading back into the heart of the rally’s action eventually; the scrum had moved north, and I planned to rejoin them as they looped back towards Vegas, so I just kept myself in the area, sleeping in the many open lands surrounding the city and spending my days writing stories about whatever struck my fancy and hiking.
And as I hiked into the aptly-named bright orange Bowl of Fire near Lake Mead, a very rarely traveled trail, I remembered the initial wanderlust I had nearly a decade ago to go out and explore. The urge that started this trip was so simple—see the unknown—and yet seemed so difficult to satiate, and then I looked up as I stood in the middle of a canyon of ancient rock from the Jurassic era with otherworldly forms and strange alien faces eroded into the Aztec sandstone, and I knew I was the only human for miles.
I felt satisfaction in that moment. I didn’t know what would be on this hike, and I had already found my parking spot for the evening. I simply saw some interesting topography on my maps, and decided I would hike to it because I could. It was one of the most otherworldly and serene experiences of this entire trip, and my wanderlust was vindicated as I stood alone among the ancients.
Shortly after this surreal journey into the Bowl of Fire where the unknown had become known, the Rebelles came roaring through again. I headed out to Big Dune to somehow cover this grueling navigational rally-raid that's explicitly closed off to spectators; I genuinely didn't know how I'd able to get a good story. Thanks to some extremely kind people running the event and my own persistence, however, I got to tell some of my favorite tales of my fledgling career.
First, I rode along with the Rebelle media team as we drove into a vicious sandstorm and bonded over our fortitude through the worst weather in the history of the rally. I had gotten great images and a solid story, but I still wanted more. After asking event coordinator Emily Miller, a professional off-road racer and extremely wonderful person, for permission, I followed the rally directly in my Hiace Marsha, and tracked the competitors through challenging 4WD-only BLM trails criss-crossing the desert.
I had gone from relaxed days with no direct goals to rapidly traversing hundreds of miles off-road as I followed a virtually uncoverable event in search of the perfect story, but I still found the same enjoyment I always have in the desert. Getting lost with the competitors, struggling to coax my van up the washouts and dry riverbeds with the women bravely driving across the same terrain felt like my normal fun, but instead of the self-fueled satisfaction, we bonded over it. I made friends at the Rebelle, something I didn’t expect to as a writer simply there to cover it, but survival in the desert brought us together, and by trying to immerse myself in the culture of the event, I was able to enjoy part of its magic myself.
It was uniquely enjoyable for me to cover the Rebelle because of this. As I find comfort with who I am, I have endured a nagging fear that I exist in some sort of middle ground. I am definitely no longer a man, both by choice and by requirement; I cannot “hang out with the boys” in the stereotypical masculine American way, not that I ever really was great at it before transition. But I had the intrusive fear that I still would never be enough of a woman to ever be welcomed in a space predominantly populated with women. It wasn’t that I was ever explicitly told to my face I was unwelcome in spaces like this, but until this trip, I mostly lived and transitioned on the internet, where the bad experiences of the world are told openly and hate flows freely.
And really, although it was less openly spoken than many of my other motivations, this was yet another reason for me to take this trip. I was truly terrified I would never find a place I belonged again. With the exception of the rare grocery-store trip in a skirt and a single Radwood car show pre-pandemic where I wore a Honda crop-top and some leggings, I had never publicly been a woman. I had no firsthand knowledge the world would truly react to me, and I feared it deeply. And so with the trip I threw myself out into the world to see for myself, before my fears and shrieking trolls on the internet made it impossible for me to feel comfort around others in my own skin, if I could find a place.
And at the Rebelle, finally, surrounded by dozens of incredibly kind and talented women who always made me feel welcome—like I deserved to be there with them, because I am a woman who drove the same trails they did and woke up with Emily’s cowbell at 5 AM every morning as they did—I found a place I belonged.
After parting ways with all these amazing women in dunes of Glamis (and plotting my return for next year), I headed up to Las Vegas once again. I had to fly out of McCarran Airport on assignment soon, and I figured that if I was going to be in Vegas anyway, I might as well see if I could chase my Hunter S. Thompson literary fantasies and see what came of it.
I went to the Bellagio, one of the more unique and defined casinos on the Strip, at 7:00am on a Monday, and it was like walking into a place t hat had never felt the sweet touch of God. Gamblers looking exhausted dragged on their cigarettes alone at slot machines, long after the complimentary drinks should have changed from booze to coffee. I wondered what could make someone carry on with a losing proposition for so painfully long.Elsewhere wasn’t much better; there is the New York New York and a giant fake Renaissance castle and a garish facsimile of Paris, all endless funhouse mirror reflections of other places I would have much rather been. I stayed at a hotel on the Strip where I took the worst shower of my trip and I think something bit me while I slept. I paid too much for parking, and I got stared at constantly.
Vegas is a cruise ship in the desert, and I am trying to find uncharted waters. It is the last place I can stand being right now. I flew out, back in, and got Marsha the hell out of there.
The initial plan was to head back up to Seattle and spend more time there, and finally end the trip sometime around late November. Then I realized how close the Grand Canyon was to Las Vegas, and so off I went, east instead of north. An ostensibly one-day journey turned into three; exhausted, I'd scope out public lands for a quick nap, wind up someplace mind-blowingly gorgeous, and spend hours longer there reading or working on stories.
Winter comes up quick in the west, and by late October, it had already dusted the higher peaks of California, Oregon and Washington, with more snow in the forecast. Even further south, it was getting cold at night, high 30s or low 40s. There are many words that can describe Marsha; insulated is not one of them. Seattle was now off the table, especially because I still had a couple imminent flights to arrange for more work trips. From the Grand Canyon I kept going east, perhaps to catch a plane from Albuquerque or Tucson, where I could at least dodge the weather and find plenty of places to camp. But as I drove into the night through the Navajo Nation, waiting to finally get to the public lands on the New Mexico border and watching the temperatures continue to drop, I finally just decided on a hotel.
The night's abode was the historic El Rancho Hotel in Gallup, NM, on one of the more vibrant remaining sections of Route 66. The neon signs drew me in and the hotel bar kept me there. It had been a tiring week, so I had a few drinks and contemplated my course of action. As I agonized over the path to take, I began talking with a couple at the sparsely populated counter who had a Volkswagen van they were traveling in, and so we hit it off. Things went well until one of them made a joke I didn’t love. When the topic of who I am came up, I started getting the usual, tired “I identify as” humor. It was nothing that indicated a threat or harm to me, but also the last thing I was in the mood for. Making connections with strangers has been a common theme on this trip, but so has me grinning and bearing it as people try out their Chappelle-esque new material on me.
My usual response is to smile, stare at my hiking boots, and pray I can change the topic. But this time, I didn’t just hope for a conversational shift. I rebutted. I told them, I do not want to hear your joke. I don’t think it’s funny. If you would like to keep telling it, leave me alone to drink in peace instead. I don’t know if it was the lingering alienation and intense stares of Vegas, or the solidarity and kindness of journeying with the Rebelles, or just having existed for the last six months in public, but it was the first time I’d ever actually told someone to either respect me or leave, even gently.
And because they were genuinely nice people, they apologized, we got back to discussing the wide open West and our vans, and we had a truly lovely evening talking until the bar closed. It was exactly what I hoped for by speaking up, and I was truly glad I did instead of stewing in my dysphoria about the liminal space of gender I inhabit. And as I went to bed that night, insulated from the cold, trying to figure out airports and parking and logistics and how to keep myself from freezing as the temps drop further, I realized I can just… go home. I do not need to be the gamblers in Vegas, sitting at the slot machine waiting for it to hit at 7:00am. There is no pride in sticking it out to the bitter end.
I want to rest. I want to give Marsha some maintenance and love. The main thing I set out to accomplish—to develop who I am as Victoria Scott, the writer, the woman—will never be complete, but the past few weeks have been a culmination of sorts for the first part of my journey. Ending this on a note so decisively victorious and fulfilling feels like a divine gift I would be a fool to pass up. Perhaps this trip wasn’t long or grueling or challenging enough—after all, someone chronicled their road trip for this very site that was over twice as long as my own—but I feel satisfied, and ultimately, that is enough for me.
There will be a few final updates to my journey, but for now, I have made the one and only duplicate stop of my trip. As I write this in my van, I’m parked in my favorite place on Earth: 9,200 feet above sea level on a mountain in Cibola National Forest, there’s a shaded turn-off under the pines about 50 feet from the best vista of the desert I’ve ever seen. I had to return one last time to it. When I visited last I had been on the road for only a few weeks and it was my first mountain I’d ever summited to camp on. I had to return, if for nothing more than to make sure that my travels haven’t jaded me.
And I may have changed a lot this year, but it’s still my favorite spot on Earth.
You can follow Victoria's journey in real time on Twitter here. Got a tip? Send us a note: firstname.lastname@example.org.