“If you love the desert and live in it, and lie awake under its low hanging stars, you know you are part of the pulse beat of the Universe. And you feel the swing of the spheres through space and you hear all through that silence, the voice of God.”
Ida Strobridge, The Loom of the Desert (1907)
Already, at just over a month into my desert sojourn, I find myself afflicted with something that can only be described as station fever. Chronic, invidious, it is a peculiar unease associated with long hours of forced sessility, lack of long-distance transport, and the perception of being marooned on an isle of convenience amid a sea of beckoning wilderness. It is self-diagnosed and possibly incurable, but treatments so far have proved promising.
Because I don’t own a car, and because Gerlach is around 70 miles away from anything interesting (I’ve already explored most of the surrounding environs on my regular bike sallies after work), I take every available opportunity to hitch rides out of town on my days off, even if it involves accompanying people on their workaday routines. Sometimes my boss Zach allows me to join him on reconnaissance of the Black Rock Desert’s more remote campsites and attractions, bumping along on rough roads to places 60, 80, 100 miles distant, stringing together a loop of destinations to make a day of it. We check to see if signage has been vandalized, trail markers torn out, fences dismantled, that sort of thing. As it turns out, the practice of destroying government property on BLM land is dishearteningly commonplace. “Sometimes people in my position will say, ‘Oh, it’s all job security,’ this sort of stuff that we’re seeing,” Zach says, eyes on the road as he navigates his truck across a rocky, rutted two-track. He spits tobacco juice into an empty water bottle. “I fucking hate it when people say that. It’s bullshit. Some people just have no respect for the work we do out here, and they fuck shit up and no one’s around to bust them. It’s a constant struggle.”
Another excursion—Zach calls these trips of mine “pro bono work”—finds me en route to the Smoke Creek Desert with a plant survey crew from Winnemucca. That morning they had swung by the station to grab ice and I, rather impetuously (and with the slightest whiff of desperation, I’m afraid), asked to tag along. “Of course!” says Bettina, the crew leader. “We might put you to work, though.” She goes on to warn me that I’m in for a long day of standing around in the hot sun. “You sure you want to do this on your day off?” she asks again, for perhaps the third time, as I throw my backpack into the bed of their truck. “It’s probably not going to be very fun, is all I’m saying.” I assure her that yes, I want to go, please take me away from the station and its glassy-eyed inhabitants crowded around an ever-glowing television screen.
Bettina and her crew members, Erin and Emerson, are in their twenties, all of them seasonal workers from the Winnemucca Field Office. They have been conducting plant surveys together for several months now, checking up on preexisting plots to record species diversity, density of ground cover, soil conditions, and evidence of grazing, among other variables. Some of the plots have seen several years pass without a recent survey. Data gleaned by Bettina’s team and others help the BLM develop land use parameters: the amount of grazing and prevalence of invasive species could determine whether a given plot of land is allowed to remain in its current standing, or earmarked as an area in need of reclamation. These plots are sometimes located far off the beaten path. Often there’s some hiking required to find the plot’s exact coordinates via GPS. It feels a bit like a scavenger hunt, following vague written directions to unmarked roads and then getting out and walking until the degrees of latitude and longitude read true.
In the truck, driving toward the first plot of the day, I am given the impression that the three of them are eager to have someone new to talk to. I am a curio, an oddity; I attempt to field questions that come from three directions simultaneously. “What do you do all day?” asks Erin, not unfriendly-like, referring to my job in the barely-visited visitor center. She seems skeptical of my claim that the quietude suits me nicely, that the unpeopled hours occasionally give rise to rarified thought and enlightened rumination. “Well, I have lots of time to myself, so I’m reading for most of the day,” I say, no longer sheepish about it but simply stating the facts.
In the field, walking along the transect lines, I am shown how to conduct point-intercept sampling, a method of assessing a plot’s groundcover systematically. This basically involves poking a thin metal rod into the soil at regular intervals down a compass-derived line, taking note of the plant species, their height, and the type of substrate encountered with each poke. Bettina lets me try poking one 50-meter line, calling out the species by their abbreviated names—“ATCO” is Atriplex confertifolia, or scadscale; “BRTE” is Bromus tectorum, the invasive and ubiquitous cheatgrass—and labeling various substrates by what lay directly on top: gravel, clay, leaf litter, lichen, moss. Bettina is a patient instructor but I’m clearly moving way too slow. “How about you record the data on the next line and I’ll do the points,” she says, handing me a clipboard and taking the rod. This is a good idea. I can write down numbers and four-letter plant names, no problem. “Great job, though,” says Erin from a line over. “Next time you’ll just have to work on getting faster.” There’s a pause. “I mean, not that you have to work at all, seeing as it’s your day off. But still, good job.”
Later, Emerson shows me how to test the soils. It is a curiously delicate procedure, involving a multiply-sectioned, water-filled tray in which tiny samples of dirt and clay are dipped to determine their rate of erosion. We sit cross-legged in the dust, bent over thimblefuls of desert. After this the soils are “colored”: set against a hued palette reminiscent of a hardware store’s paint selection, each sample is color-coded according to its mineral content. Finally the sample is “textured,” where water is added to a palmful of soil and worked into a squishy ball; this chunk is then allowed “to emerge from the hand” by squeezing, according to the procedural sheet, and thence rated as being “gritty, somewhat gritty, or smooth.” I remark that the texturing is kind of fun, like playing with clay. We’re still hunched down in the dirt and the early afternoon sun is at our backs. It’s probably 95 degrees out. “It is pretty fun,” Emerson admits, shaping his sample into a two-inch worm that emerges, lifelike, from his hand.
We camp on a bluff near Poodle Mountain. Spread below us to the east is the Smoke Creek Desert; peaks of the surrounding Granite and Fox Ranges shoot up from the saltpan to etch the horizon. Gerlach is only 15 or so miles away but is tucked behind the mountains and is, for all intents and purposes, gone: out of sight, out of mind. For the first time in many nights I allow myself to stay up and watch the stars flicker on, their gleaming motes awash in the turbid glow of the Milky Way. It feels great to get out.