Is there poetry or adventure to be found among the silver sage, flat tires, and unlikely characters of the Black R...

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside Magazine, November 1998

Ode to a Buck-Naked Cowboy
Is there poetry — or adventure — to be found among the silver sage, flat tires, and unlikely characters of the Black Rock Desert? Maybe.
By Tim Cahill

I was driving north, out of the flat and featureless sands of the Black Rock Desert, bouncing over a jolting gravel road that rose up into the Black Rock Mountains, a set of volcanic outcroppings with all the charm and color of a rusted anvil. Outside the air-conditioned comfort of my truck, northwest Nevada occupied itself in belching fits of ongoing and unforgiving geology. Exactly 32 miles out of the town of Gerlach ("where the pavement ends and the West begins") I acquired the second flat tire of the trip. Soon my map would blow away, and I would make an imprudent decision that would put me square in the middle of the Massacre Ranch, where, God help me, I would encounter the Naked Cowboy. But all that would come later.

For the nonce, it was midafternoon in late August, precisely 98 degrees in the shade — I hung a thermometer while I worked on the tire — and a blistering wind out of the north whipped itself into a series of imbecilic, whirling funnels of sand.

In Black Rock country, there are few road signs pointing the way (I counted four in seven days) and many, many gravel roads running in every which direction. Some of these roads are simply a pair of ruts running through the sage, and you think, This is a cruel joke and certainly not the road indicated on the map. But it is.

A traveler in the Black Rock needs a compass and a good map from the Bureau of Land Management. Maps of Nevada, purchased in gas stations, are useless and only include roads that skirt the desert. There are other maps, topo maps, that one might use, but the road signs have been erected by the BLM, and what the BLM calls Steven's Camp might be labeled Grassy Knob on some other map. What one map calls Table Mesa another might call Rocky Butte. On those startling occasions when one sights a sign, it will have been erected by the BLM, which does not care what anyone else calls a certain rocky butte. To them, it's Table Mountain.

You travel into this spare, barely inhabited expanse of sage, sand flats, and bare volcanic hills with food for two weeks, with water (14 gallons, in my case), with extra gas, and with a plethora of spare tires.

I lacked only the rubber plethora, so that when my right rear tire began to sound like a helicopter landing in the distance, I thought, Well, goodness, won't this be a jolly adventure.

Actually, I thought nothing of the sort. I thought, I am going to find a man named B.F. Goodrich and beat him to death with a tire iron.

An adventure is never an adventure while it's happening. Challenging experiences need time to ferment, and adventure is simply physical and emotional discomfort recollected in tranquility. This is the definition I'd recently spouted to several hundred people who'd actually paid to hear me speak. I had attributed the basic underlying quote to Ralph Waldo Emerson. Someone pointed out that in fact it was the gushy Romantic poet William Wordsworth, who said, "Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility."

So I was wrong. Does that make it any less true? Adventure and poetry seem to share a certain process.

I mean, William Wordsworth takes a walk, and sees a bunch of flowers, OK? No poem springs to mind spontaneously. He goes home and thinks about it. In the fullness of time and tranquility, this little ramble in the Lake District becomes a poem.

What was it that happened back there the other day? Wordsworth thinks. Well, I took a walk. No, actually I wandered. I was wandering. Why? Well, because I felt quite alone in the world. Just so. I was lonely. I wandered lonely as ... as what? As a rock? Oh, heavens, no. Rocks are lonely enough, one imagines, but they don't wander. So, once again: I wandered lonely as a ... a bug. A bug? Unfortunate thought, that. Perhaps the wind? Very nearly there, but perhaps a bit too fast. How about a cloud? Why, yes, a cloud. Clouds generally move quite slowly, and they do so in a properly ethereal fashion. I wandered lonely as a cloud. Splendid!

Wordsworth went home and flopped down on the sofa with a six-pack and bag of chips. He lay there for about a week ("For oft, when on my couch I lie / In vacant or in pensive mood") and thought about how some lakeside flowers lifted his spirits one forlorn and dreary day. ("They flash upon that inward eye / Which is the bliss of solitude; / And then my heart with pleasure fills, / And dances with the daffodils.")

Meanwhile, my own peculiar situation had not begun to ferment into anything resembling poetry. At this point, a mere 32 miles from the nearest town, I lacked the necessary tranquility and was experiencing only emotional discomfort.

There was no one on the road and no one likely to be coming along anytime soon, which is why one needs food and water for two weeks in Black Rock country. I maneuvered the truck about in such a way that the tire in question was positioned in the late afternoon shade, and I opened both of the doors to the wind in order to keep the cab cool. It worked. When the tire had been successfully changed, it wasn't much more than 110 degrees inside, quite pleasant really, and yet, as I sat there sweating, it occurred to me that something was dreadfully, terribly wrong. The big BLM map, which had been spread out on the passenger's seat, was gone. Blown away. Probably winging its merry way to Reno, more than a hundred miles to the southwest.

Presently I found myself out in the sage-littered hills, running around in a poetically futile series of ever-widening circles, searching for the damn map. But of course the map was gone, and I was intensely annoyed, and not very tranquil, and wished that there was someone with me who might be blamed for what had happened.

"You left the doors open and the map out? In this wind? You nincompoop! We could die out here without a map."

When there's no one to blame but yourself, solitude is not bliss.

In the words of the immortal Steppenwolf song, I was out looking for adventure in whatever comes my way. I had started my search in the Black Rock Desert proper, called the playa. It is the bed of the ancient Lake Lahontan, flat as a billiards table, 70 miles long and up to 20 miles wide. The playa occupies more than 1,000 square miles and is sometimes called the flattest place on earth. In 1848-49, emigrants on their way to the California gold fields made camp near Double Hot Springs, at the far eastern edge of the playa, a major stop on what is called the Applegate-Lassen Trail.

A wide track enters the sand near the town of Gerlach and runs northeast, toward the Black Rock that gives the desert its name. In the winter, several inches of water sometimes cover the playa, and people trying to drive the desert have buried their cars to the axles in greasy silt and then died of exposure, frozen to death out in the middle of the flattest place on earth.

In 1997, a British racing team, driving a car powered by a pair of jets, broke the sound barrier and set a new world land-speed record — 763.035 miles per hour — on the playa. My own drive across the sands was just a bit slower, and I dutifully kept to the established track, as per the usual BLM instructions. Dust devils danced in the distance, sometimes tracking miles across the plain to rock my half-ton truck with an audible thump, like a wrecking ball in a velvet glove. In those instances, sandstorms obscured the view briefly and then opened up to cloudless skies and terrifying monotony. Heat rose up off the scorched silt so that the flat and featureless plain ahead shimmered in rising waves, like a fun-house mirror.

Mirages glittered to the north. They covered the inane vacuity of the playa with mirrorlike blue waters, cool and calm as a child's dream, and they retreated before my advance, moving ever into the distance, like the rainbow's end. There were a half-dozen of these lakes, and they swam in the field of my parched and cracked-lipped vision like a series of especially vivid hallucinations. But mirages are not hallucinations; everyone sees them, and they are only a trick of refracted light. Emigrants moving across the desert to the California gold fields wrote in their diaries that their oxen, dying of thirst, were "driven mad" by these deceptions of luminosity.

The Black Rock itself sits at the southern foot of the Black Rock range. It is a limestone formation several hundred feet high at a guess and much darker than the brownish-orange mountains above. From the playa, the rock looks like a burned and fallen cake set on a rusted iron woodstove. Above the rock and to the north, the entire range is ridged with terraces formed by the receding banks of the late Lake Lanhontan as it slowly sank into the sand over a period of 14,000 years or so.

Double Hot Springs is at the far eastern boundary of the playa, set just above the sand, in a field of salt grass and sage. I camped there for three days in solitude that was a little like bliss, only hotter. The springs are set in oblong bowls perhaps 20 feet long and ten feet wide. The one to the east is larger and deeper, and small bubbles rise out of its emerald-black depths. The other spring, about ten feet to the west, is very clear and cornflower blue because the underlying rocks are light in color. They form a sloping funnel that dives under an overhanging ledge and appears to plunge deep into the earth. It looked precisely like the kind of sump I had often seen while exploring caves, and every time I looked at it I had the disturbing sense of the earth turned inside out. Somehow the sight embarrassed me, as if I had walked in on someone naked doing something I didn't want to know about.

Ralph Waldo Emerson met William Wordsworth on a trip to England in 1833. It is my entirely unfounded contention that Emerson spoke with Wordsworth about emotion recollected in tranquility, and that Wordsworth blithely snitched the line. The proposition is self-evident. Proof is not at issue here, only exoneration.

Ralph Waldo, I also found in my research, wrote an essay containing the dictum that "nature punishes any neglect of prudence." After changing the tire outside Gerlach, it occurred to me that if I wanted to experience a lot more adventure, or even write a poem, it would be wise, if not actually necessary, to neglect prudence. This would lead to discomfort and strong emotion, to be examined in tranquility, provided I survived the experience.

And so, my decision made, I drove off into the desert with no spare tire and only a schematic map — "not drawn to scale" — in an old BLM brochure I had found in the Gerlach gas station the last time I had my tire fixed there, which was yesterday. Yes sir, I would just drive out into the desert, with no spare tire and no map, looking for Waldo. Actually, I was looking for the emigrant trail through High Rock Canyon, a route I dimly recalled from the long-gone BLM map.

Every hour or so, I got out of the truck and examined my tires. The gravel road was strewn with obsidian chips, sharp as scalpels. You could perform heart surgery with some of the stones on the road to High Rock Canyon. Happily, the various tracks I chose did not go anywhere near the canyon but dumped me out in Cedarville, California, northwest of Black Rock country. It was Saturday and the BLM office there was closed. I drove another 25 miles to Alturas to buy a new tire and a topo map at the sporting goods store.

The topo included sites I didn't recall from the BLM map, including the ominous sounding Massacre Ranch, which is on Massacre Creek, near Massacre Lake. My BLM brochure explained that local ranchers are not in the business of providing food, water, or gasoline to stranded travelers. Still, the ranch covered a lot of territory, and I tried to imagine what a Massacre Ranch buckaroo might look like while I drove over a road layered with surgical instruments. He would be a lean man, on horseback, wearing a black hat and a white hockey mask. Instead of a rifle, he would be carrying a chainsaw in his scabbard.

Not far from Massacre Ranch, there is a place called Hanging Rock Canyon. Several families were camped nearby. I said hello and wandered up into the mouth of the narrow canyon. The rock wall towered 80 feet overhead but looked strangely hollow, like a domed cave room, and once again I had a sense of the earth turned inside out and naked.

In contrast, a small river ran along the valley floor, and in the well-watered shade there were dozens of giant aspen trees growing among wild roses and waist-high stands of silver sage. The water in the stream was clear and cool and six inches deep. It was running slowly and sounded like a fountain in a backyard birdbath. A freshening breeze murmured through the trees and the sounds were like a symphony of life after the silence of the playa. It was a place I could think about, lying on the couch. Maybe write a poem.

When I got back to my truck, several people were gathered about, staring at it.

"Did you know your right rear tire is flat?" one of the men asked.

He advised me to go back to Alturas, past Massacre Ranch, to get another tire. "I was out here last year and my car wouldn't start," he said. "We waited six days before someone came along."

"Look," I said, "I had a flat yesterday, one the day before, and now one today. What are the odds that I'll get another one?"

"One hundred percent," the fellow said.

But I went off in search of High Rock Canyon anyway, neglecting prudence once again, driving for several hours on progressively smaller tracks through the sage. At one point I topped a fairly steep ridge and was somewhat startled to see another vehicle, a battered old truck that was laboring up the hill. In these situations, the uphill vehicle has the right of way, and I pulled off the road. The truck had Nevada plates and was pulling a horse trailer. The driver was wearing a white cowboy hat of the type called a silver belly. The name sprang to mind because the cowboy was not wearing a shirt. This was more than just a little strange. I have lived in the mountain West for more than 20 years and have never seen a cowboy take off his shirt except to wash. They don't even roll up their sleeves.

As the truck passed, I could, from my position, look directly down into the cab. The driver wasn't wearing any pants, either. He glanced over at me, touched a forefinger to the brim of his hat, and smiled briefly, as if to say, "Howdy, pilgrim." He did not seem at all disturbed by the encounter and drove off into the distance at about 10 miles an hour. Was this the stuff of poetry? Frankly, it was not something I wanted to lie on the couch and contemplate. ("And then my heart with wonder quake-ed / Because the guy was bare-ass naked.")

The image of the Naked Cowboy pulling a horse trailer over the naked earth troubled my mind as the sun began bleeding to death in the west. There was a lake below, shining silver in the dying light. I thought it was Summit Lake, near the head of High Rock Canyon. Unfortunately, it was not to my south, as it should have been. I turned on the dome light and studied the map. The only place where I could be looking north at a lake was two miles from Massacre Ranch. It was, of course, Massacre Lake. Coyotes yipped and howled very near the truck, and I spent a sleepless night camped in the cab, listening to the gentle sigh of the breeze and wondering whether it was the air escaping from my tires.

When the sun rose, I drove north and west, toward home and out of Black Rock country. I hadn't yet had the tranquility to decide whether the experience had been a poem or an adventure. In any case, some lines from Emerson echoed in my mind: "Good-bye, proud world! I'm going home; / Thou art not my friend and I'm not thine."

Or maybe that was Wordsworth.

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