Whistling down the Amtrak line in the region of Fernley, Nevada, about five in the afternoon, in the observation car under a lid of smoke from Sierra Nevada fires, scanning the murky sagebrush hills for wild horses, I was startled for a moment by what appeared to be a rampant set of female hindquarters, bared and on display to the train. A second later my first impression was confirmed, and I saw we were passing a redneck swimming hole, where asses are probably bared daily. The whole thing was a gentle reminder of my own early days, when teen butt sightings no doubt marred many an otherwise picturesque photo of this or that pleasant stretch of railside streambank, if the teens I knew were anywhere in sight.
The purposes and goals of the BA as it has come down to us over the ages are no longer known, but to know it has survived over the decades, in spite of the overall climate of repression and conformity, improved my day almost as much as the quick view I then had of a dozen or so kids laughing and shouting at the train behind me while the moon flashed proudly to the last car, full of coffeed up old folks dressed in the simple garb of a farming sect.
The train left that sign of life behind and plunged into the heart of Nevada. That was probably the last swimming hole. East of Fernley are streams but not rivers, and political diversity dries up at about the same rate. Any flowing water is either captured for alfalfa or lost to the sun in rivers that feed salt ponds. Nevertheless, homes, even small towns, exist surrounded by brooding mountain peaks. OJ Simpson is incarcerated near the oasis of Lovelock, an irrigated patch a few miles south of the rail line, hours into the opening and flattening landscape which grows out of the arid hills east of Reno. The settlement is marked by trees that contrast sharply with everything around. It seems a fitting place to punish criminals. The bleak surroundings alone would shorten many lives, and depress everyone. Escape across the miles of harsh alkaline sand, commanded by guard towers, would be suicide. Anyone the guards couldn’t shoot could be run down by guards in Jeeps or Humvees, long before they reached enough cover to take an unobserved leak.
I was heading for Winnemucca, the next rail stop after Reno, but a good three hours distant, traveling at speeds comparable to a sane freeway driver. Traveling in Nevada is a journey in time, because, especially when the distances are obscured in deepening layers of smoke and a trained engineer is at the controls, all you can be sure of is that you are rattling onward past unfamiliar landmarks, and even these are blurred by distance.
My train was delayed near Colfax and was a little behind schedule, but the old timer from Seattle told me he lost three hours on the way down from Washington, so I didn’t feel bad. Freight service often interferes with passenger schedules, and when a freight breaks down somewhere travelers can spend long periods of time pushed onto sidings in remote areas, waiting. The engineer had explained that he would be able to make up the lost time during the run to Elko, several hours farther along the line. Provided no more freights broke down.
I had never seen Winnemucca, had only heard of it since my mother settled close by a few years ago. I knew it was located in an area of dry flatlands and slightly less dry hills, where the main occupation of people is mining, and people who don’t mine either raise cattle or alfalfa or both if not all three.
This had been the case all the way through the desert. Old mines and working mines were out there, sometimes a hill had been scraped clean, or another built of tailings. The laws of Nevada are known to favor industry and free enterprise, and not coincidentally the electorate strongly supports and encourages private gun ownership, an attitude likewise reflected in the state’s gun laws.
The train engineer had happily informed passengers when he saw wild horses along the waterway near Fernley, but it didn’t cause much of a stir where I was sitting, among strangers to the area. There were several horses looking a lot like normal horses one would see in a pasture, strung out on a sandy path, paying no attention to the train as it shuffled above them over a short trestle. Nevadans are apparently of two distinct minds about the wild horses, divided along the same lines as the Monroe/Gable dichotomy explored in The Misfits. Many horses are in fact either captured and adopted, or euthanized by BLM technicians, while impatient rural residents pick off a few of their own. The horses have public supporters as well, but apparently only in the UNLV and UNR student bodies or faculty. As far as I could see past Fernley the political and cultural world is firmly rooted in the right to bear arms and the assumption that they are there to be used, and they didn’t want to share sagebrush with horses.
I spotted a pronghorn a hundred yards or less from the train, feeding on an irrigated alfalfa field, one of those giant circles built around the long wheeled contraptions which emit the precious water in a controlled and apparently efficient mist. Pronghorns and alfalfa are closely associated. The fields are loosely patrolled if at all and the animals obviously benefit from the plentiful feed without seeming to put much of a dent in alfalfa production. Away from the mines, all human activity ends up centered around the circumference of gigantic pivot sprinklers which produce the green circles familiar to air travelers. Heaps of hay bales lie at the perimeters of certain fields, and sometimes a flatbed truck is spotted cruising between pastures, dominating the landscape like a freighter on the Suez canal.
The soil is either nonexistent or marginal, and only a vast effort makes even hay a worthwhile crop, from appearances. The landscape is dry for a reason. Harsh winds seem to blow at all times, and the sun wears everything down to the palest form.
In the presence of all the hay I thought of my great grandfather and his sons, scything down their crop and getting it into the barn. It was a much more personal approach than the mile-long sprinklers, but obviously not in touch with our times. I wondered what the old farmers in their quaint get-ups from Great-Grandpa’s time made of it, but when they spoke they used German. They were interested though. I could see them calculating the price of hay and the miles of emptiness.
At the train station I met my brother who took me to other brothers and relatives at a camp about an hour’s drive away. Unlike me, my brothers view Winnemucca not as a desolate farce perched lightly on shifting sands, but as a convenient place to find a Walmart, where they can get groceries, beer, and ammunition in one convenient spot. Nobody else finds any of it the least remarkable, or out of place in the modern world. My mother provides trinkets at Republican conventions and makes crumpets for Tea Party socials, a garish casino sits aside the main road like a blistering tumor, the feed store is the town’s principal business aside from the brothel, the casino robs those who have managed to get here but can’t manage Vegas or Reno. The bars no doubt reek of the desolation of those who work inside the earth, or gouge it away. The world here advances slowly if at all.
Our camp was reached by crossing miles of paved roads, then more miles of bone jarring roads engraved with little fanfare or sense of detail upon the loose rock and sand of the landscape. Other than knocking down the sage, pushing the tumbleweeds aside, and piling some of the loose stones in two rough lines, nothing much was done or needed. It was dark so I don’t really know how many miles of sagebrush we crossed before we arrived at a small grove of quaking aspen on a BLM holding where the mountains and poor soils prohibited even alfalfa farming. There were cattle on the road and some evidence that they could find forage, but it was not rich pasture.
Pronghorn hunting is tightly controlled by a lottery procedure, so only my cousin was actually there to hunt. My brothers and a nephew were there to tell stories, drink beer, examine and shoot their guns, listen to country music through pickup doors propped open, and relax. If the cousin was successful, they planned to celebrate with the traditional heart, liver and onion meal, then get back to the stories and beer.
After three days there, all I can really tell you about hunting pronghorns is that it all takes place at great distances. Once, while hiking unarmed through the sage, I saw several of them flowing at a steady pace over the rough ground, headed for parts unknown. Once, we saw some hunters skinning an animal they had shot near the border of an alfalfa field.
Golden eagles and a number of varieties of hawks patrolled the hills and valleys, there were a few coyotes, great numbers of jack rabbits which loved to dash out of the brush toward passing vehicles, apparently out of boredom, and crows which turned up whenever something was going on, of just before it was due to happen. The dusty record engraved down the chalky center of most any road revealed a stitchery of lizard and rodent tracks, coyote and jackrabbit tracks, and perhaps a pronghorn track or two.
Little else was to be seen.
There was a reservoir sitting in a crater surrounded by mountains where the bedrock bulged out of thin soil. In the murky water lay a flotilla of white pelicans, spread out across a great distance, unperturbed and immaculate. One had to consider their long flights over mountains and deserts, their patience. People had fished there before, at least there was a fragment or two of used tackle, but anyone who could get there could probably find someplace less forbidding to ride a jet ski or catch crappie, which were supposed to lurk in the depths.
For several days and nights, my brothers and I sat around camp, going through the gun collection, discovering who could hit what and at what range. We reviewed a few stories to find out who had been keeping things to themselves, and examined a few old photos. We had a few beers. It was miles over rough ground to the road, then who knows how far to find the nearest people. We saw a few tents and awnings pitched near the reservoir, and a few ranchers plunging up and down the roads, but not much else.
I told them about the moon I had seen rising out of the desert near Fernley, just about the time the smoky sky disclosed its own moon and I had my third beer. Everyone remembered something about similar incidents along the Skunk line, years ago, but nothing I can repeat here.