I’ve made the long trip from my high desert town in Mason Valley to the rugged, feral Jarbidge Mountains in the northeast corner of Nevada just twice in my life, both times in the passenger seat of my grandfather’s 1962 Ford truck, homemade plywood and metal horse trailer following behind. The Jarbidge Mountains north of Elko were, and are, prime mule deer hunting grounds, and for a week each fall my grandfather, his off-spring, and the many others in the Venn diagram that was his life would gather for a primordial return to drinking, hunting, and cooking that was, I would only later realize, my only significant Y chromosome exposure in my otherwise XX-filled adolescent world.
The 8-hour by car/12-hour by trailer-dragging truck odyssey started early in the morning for me, even earlier if you consider the amount of time my grandfather surreptitiously put in teaching me how to saddle a horse, how to shoot a rifle, how to crack preposterously silly jokes (including one that ended in returning, while standing in an elevator, a strange woman’s skirt to her ass-crack) – all skills needed to survive a week at deer camp.
My grandfather was efficient with his words, and my memories of those long drives are monopolized by the nostalgia-inducing rattles of hand-cranked door windows, a heater that worked remarkably well on my left leg but not so much on my right, a compass glued to the dashboard, seemingly bobbing in time to the Marty Robbins and Charley Pride 8-tracks grandpa alternated in the bolted-on stereo. We would stop for a quick breakfast at the Wig-Wam in Fernley, then drive onto a pristine I-80 pockmarked by the lonely alfalfa- and gold and copper mine-fueled economies of northern Nevada: Lovelock, Winnemucca, Battle Mountain, Carlin; even today, blips on an interstate causing only fleeting, sad astonishment to all those traveling between, precious home to those who know nothing else.
In Elko we would stop on Idaho Street downtown, both coming and going, but always at the base of the giant Styrofoam polar bear looming from the facade of the hundred year-old Commercial Casino, metal arrows shot from compound bows of alcohol and adrenaline-infused teens protruding from her exposed abdomen. I remember, once, waking from the narrow bench seat of my grandfather’s truck to see that white bear directly over me, spectral, back and bottom-lit by the soft red and yellow neon lights of the casino and contrasting starkly with the cold dark of a Nevada night and the foggy haze of my sleepy fourteen year-old eyes.
Deer camp itself was, in spite of night, snow, mountains and cold, the temporally organized chaos of men who, though arriving at different times on different days, possessed that institutional knowledge inherent to habit, the end result a harmony of horses, saddles, guns, and military surplus tents and equipment of an era congruent to the man who occupied or handled it: World War II for my grandfather, Vietnam for his sons, the Korean War for those falling in-between. Everything was durable and thick, huge cast iron stoves spewing wood smoke from heavy gauge, wax-coated canvas tents; bottomless Dutch ovens hanging over fires or warming on gas stoves; cheap beer and rot-gut whiskey flowing, oh the whiskey. The stuff was a marvel to me. It seemed to have no effect on my grandfather (I only later found out he had stopped drinking years prior), made one uncle talk even louder (a Marine Corps cannoneer in Vietnam, he was occupationally hard of hearing in one ear and genetically in both) and jollier, and made a great uncle frighteningly mean. I stayed away from him at night, but during the day and when sober he could be disarmingly nice. I shot a rabbit once and he taught me to skin and clean it, showing neither impatience nor condescension with my timidity and apprehension.
Of all the characters in the annual, week long rite of passage, the Ford looms largest. My grandfather had an aluminum Caravan Camper bolted to the bed of the truck, muted water-color western scene curtains (homemade) over the windows and door, a plywood table (homemade) bolted to one bed rail, a modified metal-spring cot bolted to the other. Sometimes my grandfather would sit in the camper, reading old newspapers by the light of a Coleman kerosene lantern, emerging occasionally with some treasure from years gone by. I rarely went inside any further than my arm would reach, partially out of some instinctual respect to not invade a place so obviously his, partially out of awe of the overwhelming number and variety of objects the camper would produce.
Now the truck is mine. I asked for it, ostensibly as a joke in one of the many moments of twistedness as my family negotiated the transition of my grandfather’s possessions from him to us as the last years of his life unhurriedly but unmistakably crept towards him. But I meant it, I wanted the truck, and though perhaps I wasn’t the most deserving, I think my grandfather knew I would take the obligations of owning such a thing seriously. I drove it, on my fortieth birthday, the ninety miles from Yerington to Reno, stopping three times to bang dirt out of the choking fuel filter as the engine sputtered prior to dying, me cruising to a stop on the shoulder of a snow dusted US Route 95A. The trip was different than all the other hundreds of times I’d driven that exact route, perhaps because I was now 40, but more likely, I suppose, because I was driving my dead grandfather’s truck and the rattling-windows brought back more than just memories of quarter-century old deer hunting trips. Right there I used to work for a man who, upon reflection, might very well have been some sort of pedophile; here is the dirt road entrance if you want to take the back way to one-hundred-fifty-year-old Fort Churchill; after this curve in the road you’ll see the little valley where, as a kid, my grandfather would invariably point out a herd of wild horses walking amongst the sagebrush and creosote.
I left the truck in Reno at my mother’s house, directions to a long-hauler as to where to pick it up and where to drop it off. I failed to prepare him for the verbosity that is my mom, and certainly failed to extrapolate for the fact that she would be seeing off a truck that was first her father’s and now her son’s. And now the truck sits here, in front of my house in Tennessee, where I can sit and look at it out of my window even as I type, visualizing what it will be and hoping I don’t forget what it was.