The Great Basin/July 10, 2001
It starts when you cross over Hoover Dam. The stars seem to get brighter, the night sky darker. You can smell hints of it: sagebrush and afternoon thunderstorms, freshly-cut alfalfa, the dairy if the wind is blowing the right way. You can picture the vast, comforting emptiness of the Great Basin, despite the darkness of the night and the interruption of Las Vegas. It doesn’t really hit you – that you’re home – until you’re well north of Las Vegas and its neon dreams. Vegas is merely a facade of Nevada. Ask someone from Las Vegas where they’re from, and they’ll tell you Las Vegas. Ask someone from Reno where they’re from, they’ll tell you Nevada. Someone from Carson City? Nevada will be their answer. Jackpot, Ely, Wendover, Austin, Gabbs, Dayton. All crappy little Nevada towns that you don’t care about, that no one really cares about, and if you’re from one of those places, you know it’s a place no one really cares about. So you tell them you’re from Nevada. If you press them, you will get the real answer (“small ranching community approximately 80 miles south of Reno“). Same if you disparage their crappy little town, or any other crappy little town in Nevada. Outside of Las Vegas, Nevada is a tie that binds. Wide-open spaces; hours, not minutes, between towns; half the town your relation.
And so it begins, 100 miles north of Las Vegas. Lights and tourists and artificial everything behind you, nothing but space and eye-blink towns in front. Human form in the Great Basin is a hiccup; it appears without warning, and is a memory before you know it. Towns so small your mind can’t grasp that they are anything but transient, desert gypsies. Cinder blocks under their mobile homes give them away, however; they are here for good. No one out here really travels. There is too much distance between you and what is next, and it’s too damn hot to do anything about it anyway. Nothing moves when it is this hot. A herd of wild burros so still I momentarily mistake them for iron sculptures. But they are real. Anything here not sculpted by the elements is an invasion, an optical distraction that steals from the overwhelming desolation of it all and focuses your eye on one particular object, and that’s not how this desert should be viewed. The Great Basin and its literally hundreds of mountain ranges are best spied from the valley floors. The closest ranges blended pinks, oranges, and whites, barren and scarred by hundred-year old switchbacks leading to some long-forgotten mineral deposit; the furthest ranges sparsely covered with pinon pine and shaded the same gray as the patched concrete roads stretching through the desert. Nothing is here that doesn’t belong. The things that are here fit, and the things that don’t fit are driving like hell to get out. The roads escort invaders to the exit: long stretches of open highway that present oncoming traffic from miles and miles away. Anyone can pass here, it’s just a matter of gauging the distance through the heat waves rising from the pavement. Telephone lines announce any confluence of dirt road with the highway; the poles, with their mid-slung cross beams and upright insulators, reminders of the giant Saguaros I just left behind. Or lonely grave markers for all those who came long before me, but failed to make it through this tired beauty. The roads, too, are lonely. So empty that if you’re not from here, you constantly question the map, straining to remember if you took a wrong turn somewhere despite the fact that the road hasn’t given you that option in a hundred miles.
I come upon a beat up old Ford, four shades of primer gray with knobbed-hands gripping the bus-sized steering wheel. He is from here, I can tell; he drives too slowly to be going anywhere else. There is an oxygen tank standing in the bed of the truck, and a small tube runs over the bed railing and into the open driver’s side window. As I pass, I see the opposite end of the tube wrapped around the driver’s head and inserted up each nostril. He turns and makes eye contact with me; wrinkled face and mouth toothless and open. He is a dead-ringer for Munch’s The Scream. He belongs here, as does his truck. So too the hundreds of species of sagebrush, the turkey-vultures, wild burros, rocks, ghost towns, and ten-thousand foot snow capped peaks.
I am home. I am going home, and I find myself driving like hell to get there.