Tag Archives: American West

Nothing-Nada-Zip

In 1974 I hooked up with a roadshow. The tour took us coast to coast, Seattle to Key West, Boston to San Diego. I was hungry to see the country, I drank in the North American continent playing one day stands city to city, state to state.

Rolling westward from Cheyenne I was home bound. Somewhere west of Rock Springs, Wyoming we settled in at dusk on the easternmost edge of the Great Basin Desert. Among my responsibilities was caring for a 3-year-old miniature horse, a black stallion, Othello.

Together we walked up to a ridge into the sagebrush. From there I released Othello. Charging off at a full gallop, farting, nickering, tossing his head side to side the mighty miniature horse exalted in having this vast sea of space to romp among. Arriving at the highest point on the landscape my stallion scanned the terrain, stallions are always imagining lovers may be found at any time in any place. There were none. From where I stood to Othello was a quarter of a mile, perhaps further. I took a knee. Othello bolted back galloping down the slope. Playful, showing off, freedom was sweet, he swept past then halted.

He nipped at the grass, savoring the wild forage. I patted my stallion on his shoulder, he liked his neck itched. “I’ve never been here either.” Confessing to my friend, “Some kind of high desert. I don’t think I knew there was desert in Wyoming, never occurred to me.”

Launching my own show, I began working across the American West. I’d travel east to Colorado, north and south from the Mexican border to British Columbia. Travel patterns varied, there were years I remained in San Francisco working in Fisherman’s Wharf. Many other years of my life, for many decades, I traveled across the American West.

In my mind trees, rivers and mountains I had prejudged to be the most appealing landscapes. Visiting Palm Springs, a womanizing carpenter friend introduced me to the Palm Canyons. The canyons are on the ancestral lands of the Agua Caliente Band of the Cahuilla Indians. Indigenous to Baja and the southernmost deserts of California and Arizona the palm trees, Washingtonian filifera, captivated my sense of oasis. Because of the stream flowing in the canyon birds abounded. Verdant, shady, rugged, granite boulders, sand… the wheels in my mind began to turn. I finally got the bug, the buzz, figured out how to explore desert, understanding that I would need to be on the lookout for hidden terrains.

Unaware of the spa resorts out in Desert Hot Springs, my friend told me I had to go have a soak. Then I discovered Sam’s Family Spa and added taking to the mineral baths after hiking in my favorite palm canyons.

Jumps between Palm Springs and Phoenix, initially, before I was able to grasp what all this emptiness might mean, how it might move my interior emotional world, all those early jumps, all that vast emptiness went lost on me. I picked up a bird guide, found a book about the American deserts, began to get some sense of when I was in the Mojave, Great Basin, Sonoran or Chihuahuan deserts.

Crystal clear air, pyrotechnic sunsets, forty-mile-wide valleys, rugged mountain ranges so enormous they can make you feel as if you could stick your hand out the window and touch their slopes with your fingertips.

The Coachella Valley, Valley of the Sun, Tucson, Patagonia, Tupac, Sedona, Camp Verde, Albuquerque, Las Vegas, St George, Salt Lake City, Pocatello, Twin Falls and Boise I found convincing, conceivable, plausible, as if given their dimensions, their sprawl, their size, population, the access to water that there was a case to be made for people to live in the desert, make a life, thrive, have a family, vote, and build community.

There is a beauty to be found in emptiness. Lending the world your open mind is a kindness. What remains of the American west’s emptiness decreases with each moment of each day of each passing month and year.

For millions of years across the North American continent the kingdom of wildlife flourished, swelling and shrinking with changes in climate and availability of food and water. Man’s immigration into North America twenty thousand years ago tipped the balance. Any place man arrived resulted in the same sequence of events. The largest mammals were soon driven to extinction. We had no idea that gestation was such a bitch. Imagine what a salmon would say if it could gripe about what the Bonneville Power Administration has done to their chances?

Intelligence isn’t a one-way street. Blowback is interwoven into every nook and cranny of every ecosystem studied. We’re just smart enough to get ourselves over our heads in heaps of blowback and catastrophic species collapse, and we don’t even have to try that hard, it seems to come naturally.

People have been living in the Great Basin Desert hunting and gathering for many thousands and thousands of years. Eating fresh caught trout, Jack Rabbit, and pinion nuts. Gathering mushrooms, wild onions and sage. Foraging for leafy greens, crickets, and snakes.

Vast underground aquifers have been tapped. If a well is productive a place might be settled, even thrive, remote for the few people that can tolerate such solitude. There are big cities in the Great Basin, but in this desert it is emptiness and untouched open space that is lord and ruler of this natural wonder.

Being a native Californian, having spent much of my life in the San Francisco Bay Area I’ve grown more in need of what this desert emptiness whispers to my heart, how it soothes jangling heavy traffic irritated nerves. How I can drive 90 miles and not see another single solitary soul. How I can feel the emptiness healing a hunger in every fiber of my being, running unbound without the hustle and bustle, the temptation to take one more meeting, have one more drink, drop by to see one more friend. Color me selfish, tell me I’m a want it all type, impractical and environmentally off kilter, but I want what I want, and I want the Great Basin Desert to be this healing place, this empty place. I want to know there are prospectors, mustang and dirt roads and ornery burros. Instincts are strong. Whatever healing emptiness allows, however you measure solitude and silence, there is some measure, a measly pinch, there is this elixir of fairy dust found in empty space all of us will want to experience while on our visit here upon Mother Earth.

autumn backroad east

I’m a roadrunner baby

Running the southern route adds two-hundred miles to the trip to Denver. Once I’d made Bakersfield, I parked at a truck stop, slept there for the night. Sunday, I made five hundred miles east to Williams, Arizona. A local tipped me off to a free campground operated by the Bureau of Land Management.

“Get off Interstate 40, take Highway 64 north a handful of miles,” my tipster guaranteeing, “you can’t miss the campground, the dirt road is on the right.”

Wheeling into the dusty forest there was posted a sign warning camping was limited to 14 days. Squatters can become a nuisance. I was only there for one night. I parked warily under ponderosa pine. Wildfire this autumn has kept people on edge. Terrain was brittle, dry, risk of fire high. Among the long needle Rocky Mountain ponderosa pine, you would be advised to keep your ditch bag near at hand.

I set out a folding table, chair, got my electric skillet fired up slow cooking the one man- one pot dish. Tonight, it would be homemade beans, potatoes, asparagus, and spinach. The secret sauce to being cast a sage culinary vagabond was be spartan like and not make a mess.    

Pandemic dining at its best

In 1992 I lived along the Verde River eighty miles southeast of here. I remember taking my baby girl Alana shopping in Flagstaff. I could still hold her in my arms. I was miserable seeing her grow up knowing that all too soon I wasn’t going to be able to pick her up and carry that baby girl in my arms. You think about the people you love when your camped out alone.

Out here in the southwest where the Mojave, Sonoran and Great Basin Desert’s meet up there has been a great increase in population. Most of the places categorized as in the middle of nowhere and to hell and gone, five miles by dirt another mile on foot, all of that part of the American West is under threat. St. George, Utah was never supposed to grow so big.

In more remote regions of Nevada, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico you’ll find solitude as pure as your evil heart. Then, you brush up close to Las Vegas, Flagstaff, Albuquerque, or Phoenix and you will choke on civilization sprawled out over a horizon and cooking at a boil.

Reclamation Project Underway

For my money, the American West is in possession of the crown jewels of our nation’s wilderness. Now each remote outpost is being encroached upon from a new nearby settlement. It is unclear what is to become of solitude, the wildlands have been stolen by a swelling population, hardscrabble loner’s that have struggled to celebrate emptiness are nearing the end of such places. All of us need nowhere even if we never bother to go. The privilege of camping in wild open spaces, counting the mustang off on the horizon, being serenaded by a canyon wren, these are experiences that deserved to be passed onto the misfits and renegade misanthropes.

Fool’s Paradise

I hiked up a gulch fooled by the terrain, read the clues all wrong, ended up in a boxed canyon. Ancient Anasazi people hunted in this terrain, once their prey had been cornered nets were raised, trapped, unable to escape, the ancient hunters armed with spears would press in for the kill.

As the Pleistocene ended, what is now Nevada warmed, ice age animals went extinct, pinion pine migrated north from Mexico. Into the region arrived grizzly bear, elk, deer, antelope and big horn sheep. For the next ten thousand years a tribe of hunters thrived. Early man faced drought, wildfire, and the threat of being eaten alive. Right now a mountain lion can ruin anyone’s day. Important answers to civilizations problems confound people attempting to respond to the mortal risks flourishing in the third decade of this new century. We are acting, you can feel the whole lot of us trying, growing momentum will sweep up more and more, and we will make good trouble refining our path.

I see on my calendar humankind’s next big leap will take place on November 3rd. Let’s get along now, there is a wild blue yonder to chase and a wide wonderful world to save.