Trespassing in Pyramid Lake
In Wadsworth, Nevada, the issuer of my $142 speeding ticket had straight, white, Erik Estrada teeth. As a highway cop, he was perfectly cast. A Paiute, he was in good shape, alert and lively, and the job of peace officer seemed to agree with him. He behaved officially but not officiously, letting me see the teeth without grinning or snarling, and calmly explained that today-the Saturday before Memorial Day-was historically the deadliest in the whole state of Nevada. He let that sink in. There are plenty of open roads, he said, nodding outward, scanning the horizon, but here it’s more densely populated, and we’re in a school zone, where children might be playing.
On the highway? I thought. On a Saturday? But I kept my mouth shut because of course he was right; I was busted, fair and square. In these parts, anything more than one person per ten square miles is what goes for “densely populated”; think of how rotten you’d feel if you managed to run over that one person. Plus, his suggestion about the other open roads seemed like a gesture of goodwill. Either he hadn’t been around or he’d been looking the other way on the previous day, when I had my generic American-made rental car up to 120 on the road down from Gerlach.
But today he asked if I had a lawful reason for doing forty-two in a twenty-five zone. I couldn’t think of one. To tell you the truth, I was taken aback by the question. I’ve been pulled over once or twice in my life-call me a leadfoot if you must-but I don’t think anybody has ever asked me that. A lawful reason? It occurred to me to have a look at the penal code some time, just to see what’s allowed. The question of lawfulness has always been more existential than administrative in Nevada, home over the years to such tourist attractions as precious ores, nuclear weapons tests, Sinatra, neon-lit scale-model dioramas of world landmarks, instant weddings and divorces, extra-terrestrials, loose slots, loose women, wide open highways. We weren’t far, as Nevada distances go, from the flat void of the Black Rock desert, where wheeled vehicles on the ground have broken the sound barrier — upwards of 750 miles per hour — and children rarely play, unless you count Burning Man. None of which can easily be rendered explicitly lawful.
I looked at my traveling companion. Her face was stilled in mild annoyance. For a moment, I considered a dramatic bit about her being in labor and in immediate need of a hospital, but that wasn’t about to work with Ellen. Her low threshold for bullshit is one of the reasons she wears this place so well. And besides not looking pregnant, she is my stepmother. I almost tried a philosophical line — the landscape itself is so arresting that it defies you to remain aggressively in motion — but couldn’t work it out quickly enough and guessed it would spoil the officer’s good will. No, I said. No reason.
After confirming my residency in urban California and asking where we were headed (he didn’t say “in such a hurry,” because we all knew that would be too much), he advised that I was free to contest my citation at the local courthouse. He didn’t need to tell me that, either, but I was glad to consider it. Wadsworth’s recently refurbished courthouse is a diminutive thing, and it seems more like a set piece than a functional building. It is conspicuous in its context-many of the buildings here are like the trees, dried up, rotting, left for dead but still apparently hanging on. Busted I was, yes, without a lawful reason, but strangely intrigued by the prospect of coming back with a prepared defense. In Wadsworth, even the most mundane of legal wrangles might feel like an authentic round of roughing it. The little courthouse looks so proud in this town, where the largest building is the volunteer fire department and the Family Toy Store advertises “GUNS!”
“Nevada is a state of small population but numerous courts,” A.J. Liebling wrote. Well, for such an implicitly hurried city slicker as myself, curiosity alone is no reason to contest a speeding ticket, and from the looks of the place, it could use the 142 bucks. Ellen told the officer that we were headed home, to her house in Palomino Valley, half an hour away.
Released and underway, we were greeted with a series of increasingly tolerant speed limit signs. The further away from that school zone we got, the faster we were allowed to move: fifty-five, sixty-five, seventy-five, then, for a while, there was no posted limit at all. The officer had mentioned that I’d be seeing a lot of cops this weekend, so I kept it reasonable the whole way home. We cruised smoothly, crossing with a whump over the occasional cattle-guard.
The trip allowed me enough time to begin loathing myself, not for the speeding or for the getting caught, but for making another lame and predictable contribution to Native-American-Anglo-American relations-for being almost exactly the young white city-brat carpetbagger he’d been waiting for. And here the guy had been so gracious, extending to me the same courtesies he would to a local, by taking me for a libertarian.
Today, I told myself in some ironic, half-scolding narrator’s voice, the Paiute teaches the white man to calm himself, to slow down, to loosen his too-firm grasp on the idea of getting somewhere, and to pay better attention to the environment through which he’s been allowed to pass. The Paiute exacts a toll for the white man’s arrogance, and reminds him that, lawfulness aside, a place can also be governed by a kind of inherent authority, the transgression of which, however innocent, can at once make a visitor into a trespasser.
* * *
I cannot bear to feel like a trespasser here. This place means as much to me as a place can mean. When I want to get away from it all, or from most of it, this is where I come — this swath of Great Basin between the Rockies and the Sierras that was once a lake of about 8,400 square miles, called Lahontan. That was during the last ice age, and times have changed, but not as much as they’ve changed in other places. Most of the lake is gone now, dried up, but you can still find its remnants, the smaller northern Nevada lakes, Tahoe and Pyramid, the latter enclosed by a Paiute reservation, and the Truckee River connecting them. If you’re inclined toward civilization, Reno is the best you’re going to get. The rest of it, with due respect to Wadsworth and Gerlach and Nixon and Fernley and Fallon and Sutcliffe and Susanville, is raw, rough desert. This is what I’m after.
At an elevation of a mile above sea level, give or take a thousand feet, the sky seems unlimited, and the air is dry and quiet and perfumed by ubiquitous sagebrush. There isn’t much else around in the way of vegetation, just junipers and cottonwoods here and there, and on a few of the many, many rocks, a vivid lichen of rust, yellow-green, and peppermint shades. Don’t move for a minute and the stillness will clobber you. If you think the city can be pitiless, you should try the desert. Such beauty and indifference, combined, can consume souls. It encourages total self-absorption but absolves the attendant guilt by making you feel very small. Nevada’s high desert will make you believe in geologic time. You can feel its impossibly gradual exertion, grinding your bones into its topsoil. Somehow, it feels good. It’s quieting, and therefore a relief. There aren’t many better ways to make yourself at home in a place than letting it swallow you.
Logic dictates that, on first glance, you may take this place for dead. Actually, it does okay, life-wise. There are networks of California quail, chukkars, hummingbirds, eagles, vultures, phoebes, snowy egrets, black crowned night herons, great blue herons, gulls, pelicans. There are ground squirrels, pack rats, wild horses, lizards of various ancestry, gopher snakes, rattlesnakes, bobcats, jackrabbits, mountain lions, foxes, coyotes, marmots. There used to be imperial mammoths, American lions, saber-tooth tigers, and even camels. Seriously. They think camels originated in North America. They’ve found bones.
But that was before the people got here. Not surprisingly, the people are problematic, even in the less than densely populated areas. If you venture in to the nature trail off of highway 447 just north of Nixon, for instance, you’ll see a modest sign declaiming the ecosystem’s “Ribbon of Life.” It’s riddled with bullet holes. That is, unless they’ve replaced it, which I’m sure they haven’t. The traffic signs, too, have their share of rusty gunshot wounds. In general, people tend to ruin things, and in Nevada they tend to let them stay ruined. Just by being here — visiting, trespassing — I am ruinous in my way, and prone to feeling rotten about it.
The place never fails to move me, in more ways than one. Usually, not long after I arrive here, I get a bad reaction. Something to do with the altitude and dryness, or the aesthetic assault of Reno’s slapdash gaud-mod architecture, or the sudden fuse-flip switching on of whatever synapses, formerly dormant, are required to function out here. It comes on as a headache, like a migraine or a horrible hangover but also worse, like some metaphysical thing inside me has become petrified and must be cracked into pieces and expelled. Most times I’ll throw up and feel better. It feels transformative, so I romanticize it into a kind of deliverance, a conversion into some mode of wildness essential for local survival. Then Ellen will pour me a Pepsi or a Sauvignon Blanc and we’ll sit on the deck with some cheese and crackers and talk about books we’re reading or how expensive San Francisco has gotten or whatever.
It’s not going home again, exactly, because you can’t do that, and because I didn’t grow up here. I only got to know the place after the end of my childhood, though I expect it to keep me young for the rest of my life. Ellen and my father came out from the East Coast in 1988. He died a few years ago, and we buried his ashes, with only the most insouciant of ceremony, on his own land. Dad loved the hell out of this place, and turning me on to it may be the best gift he ever gave me. But it was also a gamble. Now, he wasn’t a gamer, and the only reason you’d ever find him in one of those casinos was to get lunch at the reliably cheap, enormous buffet. But with the desert and me, he chanced it, played the odds. I might have missed the appeal entirely, found it barren and boring. It might have really spooked me. It is a place, after all, where solitude is magnified; my parents’ house is four miles from its own mailbox. Worst of all, it might have irreparably pissed me off: You left me in Connecticut for this? But sure enough, it took. In the silence I could hear the music. When I came I made claims, and when I left I always looked back. Being closer, keeping this place in range, has a lot to do with why I finally replanted myself on the West Coast. Its gravity has me.
* * *
Now I wonder if it’s okay that I have this impulse-after the headache and the vomiting have cleared-to stay here indefinitely, to forsake my urban life once and for all. At my age, would I be weak for making that choice, or strong? Wise, or stupid? The fantasy of holing up here and catching up on reading, writing, and contemplation is not so easily actualized. And there’s more to it than the fantasy. It has thrown my rootlessness into relief because it seems so rooted. Whenever my Bay Area friends make the trip across the Nevada border, it’s with some Tahoe timeshare as the destination. They pile into their Volvos and Subarus and indulge their privileges, snowboarding, partying, sophisticatedly recreating in sizable packs. I never want to join them.
Instead, I nose around alone in Ellen’s old Toyota pickup, with the cracked windshield and the coat-hanger antenna, exploring the dramatically less-crowded environs of Pyramid Lake, the gem of the desert. The notion of a timeshare could only apply to Pyramid Lake as an ironic euphemism for the standing arrangement between Nevadans and the Paiutes, whose 475,000 acres surround it. That arrangement allows me the satisfying privilege, completely innocent of urbanite chauvinism, to describe this as a strangely backward American place — it’s where people go to the Indian reservation to get away from the casinos.
It is easy to feel as if Pyramid Lake is all yours. Historically, that has been a problem. In 1859, several millennia after the locals had settled in, the American General Land Office decided to earmark the area around the lake for a reservation-but the land wasn’t surveyed until 1865, nor officially reserved until 1874. In that crucial meantime, there was bloodshed, and also the beginning of a cooler, more protracted conflict. Whether it has been resolved remains a matter of interpretation.
Before the reservation was formalized, a handful of white ranchers managed to set themselves up on several acres of the area’s most agriculturally viable land. Confounding their pioneer-spirited neighbors, however, the Paiutes weren’t especially inclined toward agriculture because 1) they lived in the desert, and 2) until their fish supply was decimated by a dam on the Truckee River (Pyramid Lake’s only tributary), they hadn’t really needed agriculture anyway. So there’s always been some tension.
The marina’s visitor center used to have a good exhibit on Paiute history. It explored the legacy of the area’s initial development by explorer John Fremont in 1844, and, four years later, by the gold rush. When I saw the exhibit, its poignancy was heightened by the fact that ceiling speakers were blasting Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger.”
Scored by suggestions of hangin’ tough and stayin’ hungry, a placard on the wall read, “In less than twenty years from Fremont’s visit, we went from being the richest people in the Great Basin to some of the poorest.” To the tuneful thrill of the fight, the rise to the challenge of a rival, the taking of prey in the night, another placard explained: “We were forced to depend on the white people for our survival. They had destroyed our food sources and taken away our land.”
The voice in my head said, Trespasser! Why don’t you just buy your soda and Slim Jims and get the hell out of here? Congratulate yourself for spotting the irony, get back on the road, get pulled over, and get that you-probably-think-you’re-not-part-of-the-problem look from the Paiute cop, and deserve it.
Okay, I know it wasn’t me destroying the food sources and taking away the land. But I’m a product of the culture that did those things. The culture that then went on to produce that God-awful music, with which I grew up, so it’s no wonder that when I finally show up here its as a reluctant tourist, a fetishist of natural spaces, desperately starved for the better music of dry silence.
When I wrote about this place for a big metropolitan newspaper, it awakened an unsettling possessiveness. Come see this, I implied, it’s gorgeous, it’ll amaze you. It was a version of what my father had said to me, what I had said to close friends and girlfriends over the years. Ostensibly a loving gesture. But I had misgivings. Isn’t describing something so purposefully just another way of staking a claim on it? Didn’t this make me just another grasping developer? Before long I was fighting hard not to write, “No, stay the hell away from this place. It’s mine, goddamn it.” Well, here I’m at it again.
I think these places to which we turn for nameless solace will, in the final analysis, gauge our impact on the world more truly than the places in which we live. It doesn’t matter if we’re here less often and don’t know as many people, if we consume fewer resources or make less waste. Even if it’s only to make sure the place wasn’t a dream, to see what’s become of ourselves since the previous visit, we come to be nourished. We make profound demands. Why is it the land’s responsibility to keep me young for the rest of my life? Hadn’t I damn well better do something for the land in exchange? Maybe telling you about it, bearing witness, is the beginning.
My parents’ Palomino Valley house is filled to the gills with rocks, arrowheads, animal bones, fossils, plants, shells, buffed glass, and other stuff gathered from hours-long expeditions of combing, sifting, prospecting. It’s a hobby, merely; we search not for the bones of people who killed and died for the sake of owning this land, and not for the landscape’s mineral riches, as earlier generations did. Just for the little earthen treasures that strike our fancy on a given day. I’ve never gone out with a metal detector or anything. It isn’t like that. I’m not looking for something in particular. I’m looking for whatever I might find or whatever might find me. I’m looking, in essence, for nothing in particular. A pattern of color, maybe, a pleasing shape. I know it when I see it, and can be almost religiously grateful for that clarity. Sometimes I pick stuff up, turn it over in my hand, carry it for a few paces, and toss it back. Very, very subtly, you understand, I am rearranging nature.
If you’re a beachcomber, you get it: In so expansive an environment, when you can see to the horizon in more than one direction, and you choose to focus instead on what’s right in front of you, what’s right at your feet, it may be an aggression against your evident smallness in the scheme of things, but it is also inevitably a way of staying connected. And what constitutes the difference between self-imposed myopia and finely honed meditation? Well, when I’m in the city staring at my computer, I get myself all worked up with stupid rhetorical questions like that. When I’m in the desert, I have a good time looking around for interesting rocks.
You could say collecting is a way of converting the exotic into the familiar. There’s so much of this stuff at the house, actually, that it’s become unreasonable. It’s an arbitrary, unregulated collection. It threatens to engulf the furniture, implying that these imported natural elements will soon outnumber and dominate the man-made, and then what will be the point of collecting them? On a grander scale, geologic time will achieve the same end: burying, eroding, reducing to rubble. Have we been trying to bury ourselves? The mantra of ecologically responsible outdoorsmanship is Leave No Trace. It becomes a kind of self-erasure. How but by actually being made of its elements can you really call a place yours? How but by being swallowed?
* * *
In the final decade of the twentieth century, Nevada’s population grew by sixty-six percent, more than any other state. I saw it. The forty miles between Reno and my parents’ house, once empty by anybody’s definition, sprouted a new, sprawling development with every visit I made. And they keep coming. Years ago, when a new house went up a few hundred yards away from our backyard deck, my father groused that it was much too close, and I told him he was spoiled. Now I take it back. A lot of the new neighbors are retirees. They’ve decided to make this place the end of their line. I can understand that, and in a way I’m heartened by the apparent wisdom of their priorities. But I’m alarmed by their numbers. It’s still a place of purity, of beauty in roughness and life defying the presumption of lifelessness, but how long will it be before the emptiness, the patience and permanence, is gone-before the cops can’t tell you to go find another open road nearby if you want to drive too fast?
I should know better than to think, “I was here first.” I’m a slow study, but I’m learning. We have too many ways of laying claim to the land. We try to own it, to develop it, to farm it or rent it out to tourists, to collect its detritus or mentally internalize it, to describe it on paper. We point our cars into it and go, unveil it for our friends and lovers, get buried in it. But we’re always trespassers, at its mercy, because it never was ours to begin with.
Dad was a naturalist and lifelong teacher of biology. Foremost, he was a bird guy, and something interesting happened on the day we put him in the ground. We came back in the house and gathered solemnly in the living room, saying nothing-until we noticed, one at a time, a golden eagle hovering outside. It swooped and circled and let us look. Ellen said she’d seen a few before but never this close to the house. It had come out of nowhere. It got closer, arcing gently, spreading its enormous wings-kind of showing off a little, actually, now that I think about it-and finally sailed right over the apex of the roof. My cousin Jeremy grabbed the camera and rushed outside, but somehow the bird was already gone. You can see for at least a quarter mile in any direction from this house, and you can count the nearby trees on one hand. It doesn’t make sense for such a conspicuous creature to simply disappear from the sky, any more than it made sense for it to simply appear. But around here that seems like the only way to travel.
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