Is there poetry or adventure to be found among the silver sage, flat tires, and unlikely characters of the Black R…
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Outside Magazine, November 1998
Ode to a Buck-Naked Cowboy
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.