OK, Sonny. It’s a Very Nice Place (revisited)

It seems a long time ago I went back to Winnemucca, but it was actually last July, a week before COVID hit my house and my forward momentum came to a crashing halt for a time. The Professor is recovered and I’m back on my road, focusing on what will be. – Teri

The walls in Boise were closing in and I needed to breathe. Accusatory voices in my head were taking up space where peace should have been. So I ran away from home, heading due south to the Red Lion Inn in Winnemucca, Nevada.

Sonny and Cher

Why there? Years ago I had a really bizarre dream where pop star, actor, and Congressman Sonny Bono sidled over to me at a reception three times and whispered conspiratorily:

“The Red Lion Inn in Winnemucca is a very nice place to stay.”

Heaven knows I needed nice. It’s been a rough year. So off I went. They say you have to hear something three times to take it in. Maybe that’s why Sonny whispered it in my ear thrice, insistently.

I’ve never forgotten his words or stopped pondering that dream. Don’t go all Twilight Zone on me and tell me you don’t wonder about dreams too. You know, the bizarre ones you can’t trace to bad pizza.

There’s a whole lot of sagebrush in the Great Basin. Driving across it takes hours… long ago it led to sibling insurrection but now, deep thoughts.

I already knew the Red Lion. In Nevada, it was hours east of Reno and just off I-80, the transcontinental highway that threads through the West’s arid Great Basin. In those days it ran right by the place. We stayed there when I was little. I loved it. I was out of the hot car and it had a pool.

The majority of our drive was on I-80, the fastest route from California to Colorado where my mother’s people lived. It was a twenty-six hour trip from the gate at home to my aunt’s front porch, too long for my overheated, exasperated parents and two angry kids with little use for each other.

When road games like I-Spy-Something-With-My-Little-Eyes-And-It-Starts-With-A… stopped distracting us, we’d taunt each other which led to slaps which led to tears and then recriminations. The only way they kept us from killing each other was promising a swim in the sparkling blue pool at the Red Lion IF we were good. We always stopped for the night in Winnemucca – it was something to look forward to. A reward, an oasis, our way station.

But what did Sonny Bono know about Winnemucca? I found it hard to believe he could find it on a map, let alone that he’d stayed there. In my dream he told me that he and Cher were on a cross-country pilgrimage. From and to where, I have no idea.

In real life Sonny Bono was one half of the monster pop duo – Sonny and Cher. When he and Cher divorced, he was the butt of jokes – a laughing clown – but somehow he got back up off the ground. He eventually became Mayor of Palm Springs and then a respected Congressman (before he died in a skiing accident in Tahoe). After he entered politics, I read that Sonny said he had been looking back when he should have looked forward, and that when people can’t let go, it stops them from becoming what they should be in the future.

That night I didn’t know that though. I was still asking questions.

When I arrived at the old Red Lion, now the Winemucca Inn, it was vaguely familiar. Walking my dog Tex on the narrow strip of green grass next to the pool, I felt nostalgic imagining my parents there again. Today the Interstate skirts the town, but it’s still a way-station for weary parents and quarreling children. A place to recharge while kids splash each other in the pool long after dark. Parents sit by and drink adult beverages, laughing away road tension.

Remembering mine, I didn’t watch long. The years have gone by. They’re gone. I don’t tarry in memories like these.

As I turned away, I muttered aloud but quietly to no one in particular, “What was so important that I had to come all the way down here? What am I supposed to understand from this? The Red Lion Inn makes me sad. It’s a tired old place. It’s not so nice anymore.”

“Sonny,” I asked under my breath facetiously, “What the hell am I doing here?”

If I expected an answer in neon lights, I got nothing. Dreams don’t talk back, you know. They download strange sequences into our heads and leave us to make sense of them. I was disappointed. I am a person who needs answers. So I went to bed dismissing him along with the questions. I awoke to no epiphany. So I checked out and that seemed to be that.

As I got on I-80 and headed eastward toward Elko and the road back north to Twin Falls, I told myself there was no significance to the dream, the words, or my trip to Winnemucca. Maybe it was bad pizza. That was an answer.

But driving through the vast, baking sagebrush sea under hazy blue skies, I felt a long-forgotten twinge of feeling. It was the feeling of traveling cross-country, untethered from home. It was the feeling that I could do anything, go anywhere, my possibilities, endless. I was free from obligations and expectations, my own included. Controlled by nothing and controlling nothing, I knew I could move forward. There was nowhere else I’d rather be.

The overnight at the Red Lion was the pregnant pause I needed to see an opportunity to break from the past and start anew. And then I thought about Sonny. He paused too. He must have looked back and made a choice. On the other side was a new life if he’d have it. No longer fate, but destiny. I was summoned to the Red Lion to consider mine. And choose.

I chose to focus on destiny and freedom – not from circumstances or from the Professor or anyone else, but freedom from myself. From a future I created in my mind out of the flawed trajectory of my past. Until then life had been a long, hot slog across an interminable desert. I needed an oasis to see that I tarried too long there. I wasted time berating and shaming myself. I spent too much time listening to others and mourning that which I’ve lost (and that which I never had). Turns out we had that in common, Sonny and I.

My dream wasn’t really about staying at the Red Lion or about Sonny Bono or what a great (or ungreat) politician he became after rising from the ashes. It was about getting free from my past, from rigid self-control and self-imposed limitations. Choosing to think in a new way and be unfettered. About getting my head straight and clearing out clutter. Stopping the noise and the condemnatory voices. It was about the existence of an entirely elective path forward. About my choice.

Driving across the arid Nevada desert, at last I could almost hear Sonny say, “You got it! Will you choose it?”

I will, Sonny. I have. Turns out he wasn’t such a buffoon after all. And the Red Lion Inn in Winnemucca was a very nice place to stay.

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