3. Crossing Over
“One can never, even by paying the strictest attention at multiple levels, entirely comprehend a single place, no matter how many times one might travel there. This is not only because the place itself is constantly changing, but because the deep nature of every place is not transparency. It’s obscurity.”
~Barry Lopez, Horizon
South of Adel, Oregon, beyond the diminished headquarters of the MC Ranch, Twentymile Road offers a sharp eastward turnoff onto County Road 3–15. You take it, hitting the turn signal for no reason at all, pushing through irrigated pastures in the valley bottoms where the humidity is suddenly tropical and the smell of lush orchard grass, alfalfa, and timothy pours in through the open windows of the truck. You think: a rainforest sprinkled with dust.
Always the dust.
The sun is high and hot in a cloudless sky and again you think: thunderstorms. You can see them building, far to the south, dark gray clouds stacking into anvilheads, the edges swirling like sea-foam.
Irrigation ditches run through this desert valley like a diagram of veins in the human body. The engineering is a complex feat, mostly accomplished early in the last century with machines that only a crazy person would consider operating. A cable-drum track layer, for instance. And maybe it was crazy people who did that work, but who are you to judge? Those people were built of different stuff. They made an empire out of sand. What have you made?
You drive. The desert rimrock looms on the far side of the valley: black rock, shades of green and silver in the brush, blooming yellow rabbitbrush, a lone vulture riding the updrafts in an endless circle, looking for dead things.
Nobody says a word.
Crossing the broad expanse of the Warner Valley on 3–15 you pass one last house clinging to the edge of the world, a modest thing with flaking beige paint, it’s fingers dug hard into a dying lawn, holding on for life against the relentless weight of the desert wrapped around its ankles. You roll slowly by. There is a measure of respect in your speed because you don’t want to interrupt this home’s furious concentration on survival. There is an old blue ice chest alone on the sagging porch, a tire-swing dangling from the branch of an exhausted tree. An old truck with its hood up, gaping like an alligator in the sun. Nobody around. You might be tempted to think: abandoned.
But you know it isn’t. You might have lived there once yourself. On purpose.
Ahead, the asphalt runs out abruptly. The cattleguard here becomes the line of departure, a final demarcation, like riding out through the last columns of ancient Carthage into the northern Sahara, a rocky trail into the heart of a ringing and savage wilderness full of mountains, memories, and great fields of stars above the quiet dunes. You can feel that too, a slightly intoxicating buzz in the bloodstream. It feels good and you want more of it. You think: Red-tailed hawks and bobcats. Horses. Lava flows and fields of basalt, chert, obsidian. Horned-toads. Arrowheads and stone bowls. Badgers dozing deep in their holes. Mountain lions. You think: a wilderness for monks wearing rabbit skins and eating grasshoppers, talking to flaming bushes, seeking the curative waters among the cattails, talking it out with the yawing bats who navigate the night.
This is the precise moment of separation. Here, past the last house in the world, over the last cattleguard in the Warner Valley, is where your hard addiction to modern communications, the levers and pulleys at work in the flytower of your life, are severed. Cut from the rafters, they crash to the stage without warning.
Said another way, you have become an astronaut, free from gravity. It’s momentarily nauseating, this weightlessness, but you have survived the various stages of launch: Sisters, Paisley, Adel. Now this. You have punched through an invisible wall and are suddenly floating among the stars. Re-entry is the only real problem remaining, and you’ll need to focus, to get that angle right, or risk skipping off the atmosphere.
You might even feel the pangs of withdrawal, some clawing remnant of the violent daily psychosis of the world left behind — the buzzing and pinging and ringing and alerting, the bills in your mailbox, the ferocious, whirlpool suck of the internet, the neighbor’s barking dogs, fake news and furious politics beamed into the kitchen-counter television, the ebb and flow tides of human traffic through your life, the endless daily combat for your attention and your money – because it can no longer reach you. None of it. Not here. But you’ve grown accustomed to those conditions. You’ve made them a bed in the guest room of your mind.
Beyond the last cattleguard on 3–15 you become untouchable. Unreachable. There is no doorbell, no inbox, no ring tone.
Absence, of course, possesses its own sharp gravity. The last drink. The last cigarette. But now, suddenly, you have chosen the cold-turkey cure. You are alone with your wits, your discipline, and the lonely tools of your trade: a camera lense, an ink pen, a notebook. The long-obscured realities swing hard back into focus. What’s important now? You worry about flat tires, flash floods, and rattlesnakes. You worry about exposure.
Beyond the last cattleguard in the Warner Valley there is no cell service. And there won’t be. You look at your phone, turn it over in your hands, and feel the dead, meaningless weight of the thing. You roll on into the desert, this place you say is part of you, over the washboard ruts, hear the pioneer clatter of gear adrift in the back of the truck, the crack of rocks spun up into the wheel-wells, see a talcum-fine coat of dust building on the dashboard, on the fine hairs of your wrist. You drive, leaning into the windshield foolishly, as if you might see the expanse for its details. But there is only distance, enormous islands of rock, sand, and brush imperceptibly afloat on the earth’s mantle. You worry suddenly and hard about the loved ones you have left behind – feel their absence in your bone sockets. And it hurts.
4. The Udairi Experience
“Americans will not stand for that pioneer stuff, except in small sentimental doses. They know too well the grimness of it, the savage fight and savage failure which broke the back of the country but which also broke something in the human soul. The spirit and the will survived, but something in the soul perished; the softness, the floweriness, the natural tenderness. How could it survive the sheer brutality of the fight with that American wilderness, which is so big, vast, and obdurate? The savage America was conquered and subdued at the expense of instinctive and intuitive sympathy of the human soul. The fight was too brutal.”
~D.H. Lawrence, from the Introduction to Edward Dahlberg’s “Bottom Dogs”
We made our first camp in a dry wash four miles west of Stevens Camp, in territory unremarkable except for the story it told of a good winter followed by a wet spring. Closing my eyes, it was possible to imagine the torrents of water that rushed out of the basalt hills and through this turn in the road, carving portions away entirely, blasting new channels, carrying rocks and brush in a sudden syrupy rush through the sage. Now, in July, the desert was exploding with small white butterflies, dragonflies, flycatchers and thrashers skimming through the brush. A quarter-mile from our camp a small herd of range cattle were grazing through a meadow gone emerald with healthy grass.
Our route south from the Warner Valley took us along the western edge of the Sheldon Refuge, created — in a much appreciated act of foresight — in 1931 to “(1) provide habitat for pronghorn antelope, the primary species, and populations of native secondary species (mule deer, sage-grouse, and song birds) in such numbers as may be necessary to maintain a balanced wildlife population; (2) conserve listed endangered or threatened fish, wildlife, and plants; and (3) use as an inviolate bird sanctuary.”
The Sheldon covers some 572,896 acres, ranging from 4200 feet of elevation to 7,294 at the summit of Catnip Mountain, and it is named for Charles Alexander Sheldon.
Sheldon — Vermonter, conservationist, admirer of bighorns and pronghorns — was a Boone and Crockett member who hunted extensively with natives in Sonora, Mexico, spent a year studying wildlife and living out of a cabin in the Toklat Valley, and is sometimes referred to as the “father” of Denali National Park. It’s never that simple, of course, but the Sheldon is a national treasure, whoever it is named for. It was cobbled together out of the remnants of hardscrabble ranches scattered across the northern High Rock country, including George Hapgood’s Last Chance Ranch, which eventually became the refuge headquarters. Today, the Sheldon is thought to support better than 2500 pronghorn, north America’s fastest land animal. On the move, a pronghorn can approach speeds of nearly 60 miles per hour, and “have been seen running 35 miles per hour more than two miles without stopping.”
Once, out looking for stray cows in the hidden coulees not far from the southern Sheldon border, I crossed over a ridge and beheld a breathtaking sight. I was on a hill with the sun at my back, and in the foreground an entire hillside seemed to be moving, undulating, as if carried away on the currents of a magnificent mirage. But there was no mirage. It was pronghorn, many hundreds of them, grazing across the desert savannah in numbers one typically sees only in images and videos from the African plains.
A vision like that sears itself into your heart and mind, leaving a beautiful scar.
It is a military axiom that no plan survives the first contact with the enemy. Not that we had enemies on this expedition, at least any that we knew of, but after a brief stop at Massacre Camp, which looks precisely as though it has been massacred, and whose origins are based in a legend — perhaps apocryphal — that a wagon train was slaughtered by Indians there, I took a wrong turn. What should have been a relatively easy passage around a pile of lava into the enduring beauty of Stevens Camp was becoming a gear-scattering, four-wheel drive nightmare full of questionable angles of vehicular repose and even more questionable opportunities for easy extraction. The sagebrush was growing taller, a sign of country that does not see much traffic, the two-track road was camouflaged by large rocks, and range cattle with wild eyes and kinked tails were staring at us through gaps in the brush. Also, the road was leading into a bottomland country that promised to get worse. Also, it began to rain, with the grumble of thunder seeming to rise out of the earth and into our feet.
Wrong turns, naturally, are a hazard in the desert, just as they can be in a “Gun and Drug Free” neighborhood of West Sacramento. Those neighborhoods are never free of guns or drugs, naturally, and on the desert the risks run more to very bad roads with no way out. When the weather is decent.
But it can also be much worse. In January, 1993, Jim and Jennifer Stolpa, with a four month old baby boy, attempted to take a “shortcut” across Nevada on their way to Idaho because Interstate 80 had been closed due to snow. They got stuck. They stayed in the vehicle for four days, thinking someone would be along to help them, but no one came, and it is likely no one ever would have. They started walking, and managed to posthole for 12 straight hours, but still saw no other human being. Jennifer and Clayton, the baby boy, then took cover in a dry cave while Jim walked out, nearly 30 miles in a driving blizzard, where he ultimately found the singular home of David Peterson, a Washoe County road maintenance worker, near Vya. Vya is not a town, it is essentially a historical marker of pyramid shaped sandstone where dirt roads come together out of the desert like shoelaces and make a confusing knot. Hypothermic, and suffering severe frostbite, Jim was able to relay the approximate position of his family, who were eventually rescued by Peterson, driving a front-end loader and followed by rescue personnel in snowcats.
The point is, the Stolpas got lost in roughly the very same place, and it is no country to run without a decent map, even if you think you know where you are going. Even if you pound your chest like a gibbon ape and declare often to the world that you know the country like the back of your hand. Assumptions lead inevitably to jackpots. It isn’t that we had no map at all, we did, only the map I brought was a plaything, the back cover of a cereal box, available by the dozen in any shotgunned and rifle-blasted roadside kiosk. It is a garbage map, unreadable, revealing nothing about scale, or cardinal direction, and likely not meant to be read by anyone serious about navigating, or anything more troubling than a breakfast bowl of Captain Crunch.
And anyway, the map is never the territory. And no expedition is complete without a wrong turn, or it would probably be called touring, which is decidedly not what our trip beyond earth’s gravitational pull was about.
We made our way out of what might have become a jackpot, took the other fork in the road, and finally made it into Stevens Camp.
Stevens Camp is a large cinderblock bunkhouse and kitchen that sits at the northern entrance to High Rock Canyon. Before the cinderblock and vault toilet it was a clapboard line camp anchoring the enormous desert circles of buckaroos — on country once owned by the actor Jimmy Stewart. Stewart has his own long history in the Nevada desert, and in addition to this chunk of basalt and grass he was once the principle owner of the Winecup Ranch, straddling the Nevada-Idaho line near the casino settlement of Jackpot. Today the camp is owned by the Bureau of Land Management, and due largely to the phenomenon of Burning Man has been discovered by more than just the reliable handful of committed desert packrats.
When nobody is there, Stevens Camp is a pleasant place, with the artesian waters of High Rock Creek creating a meadow habitat running between the bunkhouse and modern corrals. Over the years I have seen all manner of people at Steven’s camp, hikers, hunters, and wandering djinns, and the view to the southeast here must be considered among the finest in the world: a rolling moonscape of lava flows stacked upon lava flows, great curving canyons receding into the shadows, walls of basalt heaving up out of the desert floor, a geologic vanishing pool running into an incalculable distance where, at the edge of the world, the gray trace of the Black Rock Range stands up like a curtain.
The camp was abandoned, but still alive. The picnic tables were covered with ice chests and the flotsam of foodstuffs. Someone had even pegged a solar shower to the hanging pole, where I have seen coyotes and deer hanging side by side, the ground covered with viscous gutpiles. Among the last places I would hang a shower was from that pole, but: city folk.
We rolled through slowly. Some fellow had dragged his bedding out of his tent, presumably to air it out, but it had been thoroughly soaked by the same afternoon shower we had just driven through. Colin and I shared a laugh, imagining this poor fellow — who probably left camp betting on fine weather — returning to find his possibles in a sopping and incurable mess.
Rolling through someone’s abandoned camp feels hinky, something like sneaking through your parents’ room when they were out of the house. I don’t know why that is, particularly in a desert whose dimensions are roughly the size of France. Whatever the reason, evolutionary or learned, there is always something disconcerting about poking around in someone else’s camp.
Not that we did much poking. We didn’t linger. Concerned about a water crossing ahead of us, I jockeyed the truck and trailer around, through the various tents and vehicles and detritus, and thought of Fremont again, who entered this country through a gap in the Warner Mountains he named Cedar Pass, for the abundant cedar trees growing there, before crossing Surprise Valley into the High Rock. On December 28, 1843, not far west of where we were in Stevens Camp, he wrote:
“Riding quietly along over the snow, we came suddenly upon smokes rising among these bushes; and, galloping up, we found two huts, open at the top, and loosely built of sage, which appeared to have been deserted at the instant; and, looking hastily around, we saw several Indians on the crest of the ridge near by, and several others scrambling up the side. We had come upon them so suddenly that they had been wellnigh surprised in their lodges. A sage fire was burning in the middle; a few baskets made of straw were lying about, with one or two rabbit skins; and there was a little grass scattered about, on which they had been lying. ‘Tabibo-bo!’ they shouted from the hills – a word which, in the Snake language, signifies white – and remained looking at us from behind the rocks. Carson and Godey rode towards the hill, but the men ran off like deer. They had been so much pressed that a woman with two children had dropped behind a sage bush near the lodge, and when Carson accidentally stumbled upon her, she immediately began screaming in the extremity of fear, and shut her eyes fast, to avoid seeing him. She was brought back to the lodge, and we endeavored in vain to open communication with the men. Bu dint of presents, and friendly demonstrations, she was brought to calmness; and we found that they belonged to the Snake nation, speaking the language of that people. Eight or ten appeared to live together, under the same little shelter; and they seemed to have no other subsistence than the roots or seeds they might have stored up, and the hares which live in the sage, and which they were enabled to track through the snow, and are very skillful in killing. Their skins afford them a little scanty covering. Herding together among bushes, and crouching almost naked over a little sage fire, using their instinct only to procure food, these may be considered, among human beings, the nearest approach to the mere animal creation. We have reason to believe that these had never before seen the face of a white man.”
Fremont is probably correct in surmising that they had never before seen the face of a white man, and the woman’s terror could only have been frenzied and substantial, her screams cracking desperately in the frozen air, the men helpless to intervene in the face of such shock, as Carson wrapped her up and dragged her, likely without ceremony, back for an audience with Fremont.
But we can’t assume these Paiutes had never thought about seeing white men. Sara Winnemucca, who was probably born in 1844, more or less contemporaneous with this event, wrote in her memoir “Life Among the Piutes”:
“I was a very small child when the first white people came into our country. They came like a lion, yes, like a roaring lion, and have continued so ever since, and I have never forgotten their first coming. My people were scattered at that time over nearly all the territory now known as Nevada. My grandfather was chief of the entire Piute nation, and was camped near Humboldt Lake, with a small portion of his tribe, when a party travelling eastward from California was seen coming. When the news was brought to my grandfather, he asked what they looked like? When told that they had hair on their faces, and were white, he jumped up and clasped his hands together and cried aloud, — ‘My white brothers, — my long-looked for white brothers have come at last!’
“He immediately gathered some of his leading men, and went to the place where the party had gone into camp. Arriving near them, he was commanded to halt in a manner that was readily understood without an interpreter. Grandpa at once made signs of friendship by throwing down his robe and throwing up his arms to show them he had no weapons; but in vain, — they kept him at a distance. He knew not what to do. He had expected so much pleasure in welcoming his white brothers to the best in the land, that after looking at them sorrowfully for a little while, he came away quite unhappy. But he would not give them up so easily. He took some of his most trustworthy men and followed them day after day, camping near them at night, and travelling in sight of them by day, hoping in this way to gain their confidence. But he was disappointed, poor dear old soul!”
Old Winnemucca was held at bay but persistent. He would eventually be given a white tin plate, probably to make him go away, but he “thought so much of (the plate) that he bored holes in it and fastened it on his head and wore it as his hat.”
Imagine that kind of gratitude as grace — perfectly realized.
These thoughts were with me as we left the tents and rigging of Stevens Camp behind, found an alternate route, slammed through a deeply rutted water crossing that bent the tongue of my trailer, and hauled out dripping and mud splattered and revived to amble westward and away from High Rock Canyon.
As we drove out of the canyon onto the scrubby tableland — another black storm throwing lightning and rain and rumbling through the desert on our back trail — I was thinking how short the historical arcs have become in the country. In the winter of 1843 Fremont plied a terrified Paiute woman with trinkets, probably worthless, and soothed her tremors. Sinewaves crossed at this moment: the long arc of continuous exploration of this continent by strangers from another, and 14,000 years of Paiute history in the Great Basin — sparking at the points of a howitzer. Only a few years later they sparked again with a tin plate made into a hat.
And a mere 68 years after that, in 1911, Shoshone Mike and his family — the last holdouts of a dead way of life, who fled the corruption of their reservation in Idaho to live peacefully on the outskirts of remote Nevada ranches, would be driven from their redoubt and slaughtered in the snow and ice, near a frontier town ironically called Winnemmucca, where a few years after that the bank would be robbed by Butch and Sundance.
Dayton O. Hyde, speaking of Shoshone Mike and his family’s final hour, writes:
“We know from accounts that the braves fought back with guns; the women with bows, arrows, and spears; the children with rocks and gravel—all to the accompaniment of war whoops, drums, chants, and dances as the Indians tried to drive the terror from their own hearts into those of the enemy. What we will never know from the accounts of the avengers is whether the Indians were ever really given a chance to surrender.”
The truth is, we know the answer to that question. It isn’t a mystery. After weeks on the frozen trail, the posse hunting for Mike and his family smelled blood in the winter air. They smelled headlines and glory. The young ones even thought it would help them find wives in the matrimonial barrens of Eagleville, California. But we can bet on this: even if they had taken Shoshone Mike alive, he wouldn’t have made it town. They would have swung him and his boys on the end of a hemp rope, with the same callousness with which they stuck a rifle barrel into Mike’s mouth and tormented him as he lay dying on the snow and ice.
Hatred lingers, burns like incurable frostbite. Fifty years after Shoshone Mike was murdered in a frozen wash, his family reduced to sacks of crushed ants for food, Dayton Hyde interviewed O.D. Van Norman. Van Norman had been on the posse, had stood over Mike as, full of bullets, he said only “Me Shoshone Mike. Me Shoshone Mike.” Van Norman was a hard man when he was a young buckaroo in the posse, and he never softened. Couldn’t. The desert does not reward the soft. Sensing some sympathy for Mike in his interviewer, Van Norman said of the Indians that they were:
“A bunch of animals…I’d seen those Injuns off in the distance sometimes near my claim in the Little High Rock country, and didn’t give them a second glance. You didn’t in those days. There was a bunch of Injuns up at Summit Lake who were always off hunting and they never bothered anyone. After all, that was 1910. Custer was killed way back in ’76, thirty-four years before. We’d heard about Indian fights from our folks, but that was all. Now and then you saw family groups of Injuns roaming the deserts, but winter sent them high-tailing it to some reservation or another where the white man would give them handouts.
“There were lots of Injuns hanging around ranches in those days, too. Every ranch of any size had its own Indian camp not far away. The Indian men weren’t much for work, but occasionally they hired out for haying, gathering, or breaking horses. If the bucks hired their women out to do laundry at the ranch house, they sat outside and waited. If you gave the woman lunch she had to go outside to feed her man first, and, of course, he was right there at quitting time to collect her pay.”
Maybe hatred is the wrong word, too strong. But there is a measure of incurable indifference, disdain perhaps, in Van Norman’s talk. And perhaps he earned it because Mike and his boys killed four cowboys in Little High Rock canyon. Those men were his friends and acquaintances. None of them had to die. Not the cowboys, not Mike and most of his remaining family. The sine waves cross like wires and spark, but they never merge.
When it was over, incapable of seeing the ironies, present and historical, reporters had the nerve to call the killing of Shoshone Mike and his family the “The Battle of Kelley Creek.”
Toward evening we made our camp in the wash. We unpacked our gear and made a rough dinner. The sun was sliding out of the sky. A lone cow bawled somewhere up the meadow. The coyotes came out. After the storms, the sky cleared up and Colin went to making photographs of the night sky. I made up my bed and fell asleep early under the stars in a nameless camp we called Udairi, after our camp in the Kuwaiti desert where we sat through sandstorms and freezing nights — listening to the soft clinking of camel bells on that ancient desert, waiting for a call to war.
Up Next: Part 5, Stanley Camp, and Part 6, A Hallway Full of Lightning