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.