Tag Archives: Great Basin

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.

running west with the wind

Buffalo Head

In the 1970’s I played my show in Colorado. Autumn was preferred. Instead by hubris in winter late near midnight I drove Highway 160 over Yellowjacket Pass in thirty below. I made Durango that night for a show the next day. My teeth chattering, I climbed into my goose down bag tossed a blanket over my dog. Getting out of my bag at daybreak was agony.

Four decades later Colorado mountain towns have swelled up and are too big. Roads are full of vehicles. Hillsides are dotted with second homes. While there are still vast sweeps of undeveloped landscape there are fewer to be found and their unbound nature has been nibbled on by the crush of humanity seeking a piece of their own.

A westerner understands what I mean. Emptiness is essential. Mustangs need room to roam. So do prospectors, outdoorsmen and curmudgeons.

Michael’s Diesel Truck

In Ely, Nevada I had the pleasure to speak with a retired military man. The mother had not much cared for Ely and had run off with another man leaving Michael and the children. Everything about life in Ely is hard including finding a reliable wife. So, it was to be the father completed the task of raising his sons.

For twenty-four years he worked at the Robinson Mine four miles west of town. This is an open pit copper mine. Gold is also found in the ore as well as molybdenum. There are no easy jobs when you hire on to work at an open pit copper mine.

Strolling the Neighborhood

Luck is changing for this Ely, Nevada resident. South 216 miles is St George, Utah. Michael has become partners operating a big rig diesel service shop. Putting the finishing touches on his home in Ely our military veteran is ending all these hardscrabble days preparing to sell his property and move on to life’s next chapter.

He’ll be leaving behind 4000 of Nevada’s most remotely located citizens to take up a new life in St George where near 88,000 Mormons, near Mormons and never will be Mormons reside. Michael’s servicing long haul trucks means he’ll be wrenching on equipment one quarter the size of the behemoths he kept serviced at the mine in Ely. Cracking off a two-inch bolt is that much more work from removing a three-quarter inch piece of hardware.

Backbreaking awaits high desert immigrants wanting to make a life out here. Punching water wells, wrenching on studded snow tires for the season, or assembling a Quonset hut will humble the uncalloused hands of a Great Basin newcomer.

Cooking beneath Cottonwoods

Michael invited us to remain parked right where we had stopped to make dinner and sleepover beneath the cottonwoods. Social distancing being what it is Michael explained most of what I’ve retold here. Michael’s veteran military status had provided him with a healthy skepticism. Politics and rattlesnakes were both to be sidestepped, left alone so that a citizen could move on to better things to do with a mind and a life.

Wandering into the least parts of the American West is where I often find the most durable characters. Keeping intact this emptiness makes room for those few odd citizens that seek to build a life as near to civilization’s edge as a soul may travel.

Temple Gods silver state

Glimmer of Nevada

Luscious open empty miles on Nevada Highway 50 are planned. Busking buddy Sean Laughlin rules from the roost in Silver City. We go back to sidewalk show days. Sean’s pop was Bay Area icon radio broadcast personality Travis T Hip. Born and raised in Berkeley is its own geographical means of bending soul to place. I’ll twist a few yarns from his perch prior to more eastbound into the heart of nowhere.

Hot Spring Honeymoon, my third novel, a sexual farce takes place here. Long fiction uses uncountable hours of our imaginations bandwidth. Jerusalem crickets, pinyon pines and sagebrush become contemplative Great Basin life forms. Nonconformists are the entire Nevada population…. think imaginary prizefighters and hardrock miners. Easy if you try.

Best part of running east on Highway 50 is the caprice of starting and stopping. Yes, I will practice reciting new material. Delivery of a new line with nonchalant premeditated comic intent is a craft. You have to listen to your audience. Is there a reaction? Does the joke land or the following spontaneous line deployed hoping to save my belly laugh bacon save me from silence? Spontaneity is a gateway technique common to busking.  

Park a Dream Come True in Here

In the town of Ely I’ll juggle on a park lawn beneath cottonwoods. Unless the wind is howling the workout will be once each day as I cross to Ft. Collins.

Love, sex, booze and mustang are first order elements to living in Nevada. Perhaps you are married, maybe you twelve-step, given up on sex and have no affinity for horses there remains the great task of fitting your lack of conformity with what is regarded as sacrament here in the Silver State. If all else fails act cranky, but profess respect for lizards.

Hay growing, cattle ranching and gold mining thrive here. Natural resource extraction has not been easy on this delicate ecosystem. Adding to this is the sociologically bizarre gambling epithet called Las Vegas and this humanity that has gathered  pressurizing the demand for the groundwater here to the north. Remember that water running east from the Sierra’s or west from the Rocky Mountains comes to Nevada where it forms ponds and sinks into the ground. Millions of years of accumulation can be extracted by well pumps and piped away in the wink of an eye.

Road off into the Clouds

As far as nowhere goes I’d recommend more nowhere for its healing spiritual qualities. Cheek to jowl in California is bumper to bumper soul stifling. Preserving some sizable portion of our western states where we may travel for the sake of soul rebalancing is a prescription for our personal psychological health-care.

If humankind has been building temples for the gods it is likely the gods have built the Great Basin Desert for all of creation. Nevada she is the emptiness jewel mounted upon a crown of forlorns…