sight unseen

(photo by stephanie)

(photo by stephanie)

When I came into this high, windblown country some months back it was for the first time, my prior dalliances with the Silver State having been restricted to Reno (in passing) and the eastbound interstate, strung along on some cross-country family road trip. I was wholly unprepared for what awaited me in the desert. My head was filled with sandy notions, preconceived and ill-informed. Sure, some people had told me what to expect, but this in no way prepared me for the stark reality of living it.

I was told to expect heat, wide-open spaces, and recluse-worthy solitude. I was told to drink lots of water and wear sunscreen. I was told that the desert was no place to get lost or stranded or stuck, because the desert was a merciless place, unforgiving in the extreme. I was told a lot of things, most of them sane and common-sensical, and many eventually borne out by experience. But before coming out here, I was mostly going off hearsay. In fact, while being interviewed for the position over the phone, I was given so much exhortatory advice that the people in charge of hiring me stopped just shy of telling me not to take the job.

“So, you’re aware that the station is located in an extremely small town, in an extremely remote area, and that you will be required to remain here throughout the summer, and you will likely be bored out of your wits?”

“Yes, you did mention that.”

“And you’re aware that the area doesn’t get much visitation outside of Burning Man, and that you will probably be spending the majority of the time working by yourself, sitting at a desk, twiddling your thumbs and watching the cheatgrass grow?”

“Uh, yes…I guess so.”

“O-kaaay. Can’t say we didn’t warn you.”

I was told that there isn’t anything to do in Gerlach besides go to the bars and drink. I’m somewhat disheartened to report that this is essentially true. Clearing tabs is practically the only way to spend money in town outside of paying for gas or buying grub at Bruno’s (which is also a bar and a mini-casino). It’s where you’ll find anyone who’s anyone within dozens of miles—sitting on a stool nursing a cold one, smoking furiously, complaining loudly to all present about the BLM’s encroachment on their land or some such lament. Gerlach has but few underaged residents—ten or less—and this is probably for the best: there’s really very little for kids to do here, besides maybe watching tumbleweeds roll by on the omnipresent wind. I guess they could go fly kites.

Someone told me that the tap water in town contains an immoderate amount of arsenic, leached from who knows where. Given that most of the springs nearby are highly mineralized and/or laden with heavy metals, I concede that this rumor is likely true and almost certainly a concern of public health. But do I drink it? Well, sure. All the time. It’s either that or go to Bruno’s every day—which, if it weren’t for the cost of beer, might actually be the lesser of two evils.

I was told—on several occasions—to wear shoes. This one hasn’t stuck so well. “Boy, where are your shoes?” Zach asks, for the umpteenth time, as he catches me walking barefoot again from the station to the visitor center.

“They’re at my desk.”  Zach has asked that I keep my shoes in the center, stashed under my desk, perhaps in the hope that I would feel more inclined to wear them if they’re there.

“Well, why aren’t you wearing them?”

“Um…”

I was told that the nearby Great Boiling Springs, privately owned, were “understood to be open to locals.” This despite the fact that the springs are fenced off all around with barbed wire, posted with numerous signs exclaiming “NO HUNTING OR TRESPASSING”. They are a five minute walk from the station. I can see them from my desk. The temptation has proved too great to resist. I count as a local, right? Living here and all? I mean, it has to count for something.

Lately I’ve been ducking under the fence and swimming in the pond-sized spring every other day or so, keeping my clandestine dips to the wee hours of the nights and mornings. I’ve never run into anyone else there. Sometimes, staring out the window while at work, I’ll see a vehicle parked beside the spring and I’ll feel a pang of proprietary umbrage, as in, “Hey! Get out of my swimming pool! You jerks, probably gonna trash it up, ruin it for me—I mean, for the rest of us…”

But there’s a lot to this place I wasn’t previously apprised of. No one told me about the spectacular moonrises over the playa, for instance, or the spiraling ecliptic of planets and stars and galaxies that light up the night sky whenever I chance to look up. No one told me about the summer storms that boil up darkly from the west, dumping in an hour’s time more than an inch of rain across the desert and then dissipating, the wind scouring the sky clear of cloud as if nothing happened, the sagebrush afterward so fragrant and dewed. No one said the wild horses might sometimes race alongside my bicycle on the highway, gamely keeping pace for a couple dozen yards before turning off, shaking their manes and tails and watching me pedal on. Not once did anyone venture the possibility that I might actually come to enjoy this place. That I might find facets within to inspire an abiding love, respect, admiration. These I discovered on my own.

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