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DESERT TIME -- A JOURNEY THROUGH THE AMERICAN SOUTHWEST

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Chapter 31:  virgin camps
Santa Rosa Range, Nevada

I've learned to make squaw fires (meaning fires for cooking things, small no-nonsense do-it-every-day pragmatic fires) out of not much: papery slabs of sagebrush, spine-hard twigs of horsebush or shadscale, twists of dry grass. When I go through highlands I stop the car and gather a bagful of juniper bark. It makes a great flaring resinous fire-starter and is better than birchbark, even, which is what I was used to at home. Stone circles can be made of dolomite knobs, shards of sandstone, basalt hulks holey as meteorites, glittery quartzite, dry-wash pebbles heaped in a ring. In a new camp the first concerns are stones and dry fuel, stones and fuel being this: the commonplace of human habitation, materiel of fire and defense.

Somewhere back on the rutted track that Coulter and I have been on for hours now we crossed the Nevada line. It seemed to me that the sky got bigger there and that the mountains rose to take more of the landscape. The basins between them held no water-made canyons and no riverbeds, no sign even of the ghost waters of the glacial age. Then, suddenly, here over the rise of a naked mountain's shoulder are clumps of small round willows, and a dark streak of water meadow in a hollow of gray slope.

***

"Nevada is the biggest bunch of nothing you was ever in," Cobby told me before I left Idaho. "Watch yourself," he said, and what he meant was: watch your gas gauge, your waterbags, don't trust anyone, the bunch of nothing is between you out there and the next gas pump, water tap, any help, don't forget.

"And say 'Naavaada,' not 'Nivahdah,' or it's a dead giveaway you're from someplace else," he said, and we've been practicing. The broad central "a" as in "gasp" seemed foreign and already doesn't, it's closer to the Spanish, which means snowed or snowy, and Nevada is ribbed with mountains lined range on range. In winter, when the Spaniards must have seen it first, the whole place is snow after snow like toothy jawbones.

According to our maps we're in the Santa Rosa Range, at the lip of the Great Basin itself. Great Basin is a massive dent in the continental breast, a hollow stretching from Oregon and California clear into Utah and down nearly to the Arizona line; basin and range country, all of it, streaked with mountains but contained, rimmed all around by higher ground. In here, nothing drains to any sea. Not that there's much, nowadays, to drain. Ten thousand years ago, when there was more water here, it all went inward to the basin lakes. Nowadays Nevada is the driest state in the Union; rainfall statewide is from three to ten inches a year, and averages out at four. Most of that comes in as snow.

South of here, perennial rivers end. Ephemeral streams carry montane snowmelt in the spring, for a while, and here near the Santa Rosa's backbone we've come on one of these: a snowmelt creek with its clumps of willows as round as clipped topiary, and between them the water meadow of level green. "Camp," I say, and stop the car.

A single vulture circles in his thermal watchtower, barely visible, though we are clearly visible to him. Yellow warblers fly along the creekbed, bright as canaries.

***

Later, after this, and after the other virgin Nevada camps -- meaning places where there's no evidence of anyone's having camped before -- Coult will say:

"But Mom, you have to tell them, how beautiful it is. Like ... Mom! Like you can't see anything like that around houses!" An un-eleven- year-old intensity. I blink.

"Tell them what, exactly?" I say, hoping he'll tell me.

"Mom!" he says, "tell them!"

So, can I tell anyone how clean the creek water is, like brown glass? The brown chuckling ripple. Like music. That's just what it's like. One gets funny out here about water.

What else? Only that all ideas of time seem as cleanly washed away as beach footprints after a smoothing wave. I put away my camera as if I'd been foolish to bring the thing. It is stupid here; no way can it hold the vast place in which we are. The scale of the world has overwhelmed its aperture.

We are happy, we are happier here than we can remember being anywhere.

The water meadow is full of birds: robins and red-winged blackbirds and song sparrows, nothing fancy, but all of them are more curious about us than they are shy: people are the rarities, here. We walk up the creek, the streak of their habitat to which we've gravitated, too. Among the green blades of rush that are thigh deep and thick as shag rug are patches of Rocky Mountain iris and blue common camas, and buttercup and larkspur and pennyroyal. Upstream there are fields of wild blue flax. A pair of black-crowned night herons has a nest there and they follow us as we walk, flying forward and perching with a threshing of willow twigs. Always one of them is watching us with a ruby eye. In the rushes we find a single softball-sized vertebra of an elk, dry as chalk. Then a single rib. The irises are nearly white where the light strikes through the petals.  They glow like milk glass against the green. A bee rummages and the iris petal dips and then the whole flower tips as if it were listening.

Above the water meadow are dry slopes of scattered sagebrush, high caulkings of aspen forest, a brown peak with drifts and tags of snow. Big shadows of clouds are flowing over the land. To the east a terrifying roll of mountains drops away. We are high here, just under the pass, and I feel unsteady when I look east as if I were standing over the eaves of a roof; it's a rough body of range clothed in faded camouflage canvas: the texture of high desert spring. Bedrock juts like compound fractures. Far away there is low, pale distance.

***

Camp is simple: two-man tent with bedrolls unrolled inside, a full waterbag hung on a branch and next to the waterbag the striped towel, the bottle of liquid soap, the tin cup, the pocket mirror. We are good at this; it takes fifteen minutes to make bed and bath. Raingear and down vests and a change of underwear are at the feet of the bedrolls, along with the two drawstring bags that are all our defense against disaster.

Then we concern ourselves with stones. Up in the scattered sage I find white rocks and use my shirttail for a basket.

Should I tell how quickly life becomes simple? And how simple it is?

Later, at the virgin camp in the Toquima Range, near a red dust track in a waterless forest of single-leaf pinyon and Utah juniper the juniper with its pale leaves pressed into coralline sprays and the fibrous bark that's so great for starting fires (or making sandals or rope or caulking logs in cabin walls) -- among flat red stones like jumbled potsherds, I'll pick up one stone for the fire and there will be a rattlesnake coiled underneath. It will buzz and we will run. It will be greeny yellow with a banded tail, a western rattler, thick as braided rope.

Three times that night I will wake up gasping, eyes wide, neck stiff as a girder, with my fists clenched against that punch and jab that could have been into forefinger, wrist, the pad of muscle at the base of the thumb; feeling how my fingers could swell like potatoes and my arm like a gourd; feeling how glad I was I'd taught Coult to drive in case I couldn't, but how many hours would it be, him driving the dirt track in the dark with mother sagged shallow-breathing on the seat beside him to even the first paved road, and along that over the high passes in the dark to the town of Austin, Nevada, with only the one rowdy bar open at that hour, and could he do that? How can I tell?

How can I tell the way the heart lives in the throat?

***

"Weren't you scared, out there?" people will ask.

"Well, yes," I'll say; what else can I say?

But how can I tell them the way the fear is married to the joy? There are worse things than being scared. There is that despair which rides pillion with security, I want to say that. Take a measure of freedom, you take terror by the hand every time.

So we make our circle of stones and fill it with a sacrament of wood and touch a match to the saved tinder of crushed bark. We wash our hands. We open a can of chili and put it in the pot. The vulture draws his circle in the sky and the sun draws his over the rim of the world, throwing a veil of gold and rose over the range, a sundown veil embroidered with black shadow. We have those two small drawstring bags we pack in everywhere, we're never without them: the kit bag with thirty feet of fine nylon rope, two pocket knives, roll of duct tape, water treatment pellets, candles and candle lanterns, windproof waterproof matches, sewing kit, coil of fine wire, lightweight pack straps with fastex buckles, waterbag that folds like a handkerchief but can hold a gallon and a half; then the medicine bag with the first-aid kit, snakebite kit, injectable antihistamine, sunblock, insect repellent, analgesic tablets, codeine tablets, broadspectrum antibiotic, bandages ...

***

The chili is good. Afterward, we lie by the fire and look at the sky.

"Mom, do you know where we are?"

"Not exactly."

"Who owns this place?"

"We do."

"But I mean really."

"I'm not sure there is an answer really."

There is a sort-of answer. This is part of the Humboldt National Forest, here, even though there is no forest of trees to speak of; the largest sage or willow stem is the width of my wrist, but that's beside the point. More than 70 percent of Nevada is publicly owned (according to my maps), meaning that the National Forest Service (in the ranges) and the BLM (everywhere else) and Teddy Roosevelt's Wildlife Refuge System (here and there) and the National Park Service (one fragment of the Snake Range on the Utah border) and then the Washoe and Shoshone and Paiute Indian Nations (more fragments, scattered) and the U.S. Air Force (seventy-five square miles or so between the Cactus Range and the Pintwater) and the state and federal Fish and Wildlife Services (anything to do with wildlife anywhere) all deal out entry permits and grazing rights and mineral rights and timber rights and hunting and fishing rights.

But we're not exercising any of these rights, tonight. So maybe it is ours. Ours by virtue of our being in it with no one present to tell us no. Ours to take a few dry sticks from and move a few stones in. We'll scatter our stones, bury our ash. We'll leave the place with minimized signs of temporary tenure, something only Cobby could interpret. We'll move on, as people did, before divvying of ground became convenient, or mandatory, and the question of whose became a question one asked.

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