Keith is pushing this motorhome-sized lunchbox up the dirt road, misplaced radiator boiling coolant as we've got some winds coming up across the clear desert skyblue lake
. We stop occasionally so I can attempt to climb up on top of the lunchbox's spare tire
in hopes of snapping a decent picture of the needles in the lake, but the remnants of a thunderstorm I'd watched the night previous were hiding all the good light. We move in lurches, in tipsy command chairs, speeding up to slow down gradual at the next available viewpoint. A quarter mile before we hit paved road, the least rusted truck of the day, practically new but far too slow, and we shout Goat roper, begone!
He, with fascinating courtesy, obliges; we, softly, pray he rolled up his windows before disappearing into our billowy desert draft.
Dusting the sides of Pyramid are the skeletons of shepherds' shelters, splinters pressed together by the twisted will of the environment. This is old Paiute land, the lake was their proof of providence. The lake was alone. It provided for life, gave balance in life, constancy in life. We are recreationalists, coming from a small playa across the lake from Black Rock, near Smoke Creek, lunchbox liquidlike gliding back into town, away from hotsprings, oasises and burial grounds, still rotting husks of horse trailers poking through the ribs of desert hermits. Home for a night will last you a lifetime.
A lifetime includes this smell, this alkali permeation that has mixed with the bones of men who learned that you can't outlive your purpose. What is left behind are weathered lessons, reminders. They may tell you: the desert will not kill what is already dead. They may tell you: this is where you find out if you are alive.
There is so much sun in my head, I can barely hear him. I catch the important parts. We are barrelling down a side road to a destination ten miles out from camp, I look behind the truck and see almost no dust spray. Dave, salt white hair against clay tan skin
, is Keith's father, reserved, observant. There is this joke about the way he moves through the desert that Don showed us at lunch: he stood up, stabbed an invisible knife into his left hand, and squeezed silent blood
onto the playa below. He points out ahead, past the train tracks, Smoke Creek Desert, wet playa, no good for sailing. It expands around the lake up to nearly Empire
. Round brown cattle move placidly in the distance, along the playa's surface.
We cross into the Pyramid Paiute Reservation, improved road shifting to tire tracks that forge a swath through a brief excerpt of desert vegetation. Dave explains the five hot springs that made up the property, two behind the ranch house that were diverted underground to flow into a large pool of two in front. Further away, another spring bubbled under the alkali. We park under a lone tree and get down to our shorts on the way to the barbed wire fence in as orderly a fashion as possible.
The ranch is two buildings in bad need of a carpenter, a border of long strained cattle fencing, the shell of a truck or tractor consumed by rust. Appliances -- refrigerator, stove, oven -- rot just inside the main house, merging molecule by molecule with the natural world. Any city in the world and this would be transient housing. This prize was nature's to take, never again home to humans. It is a feature of the landscape now, a landmark for travellers.
We jump into the pool, followed by the dogs; then, shortly, Don, Nicole, and their kids. I am the only one who swims the span of it, fifty feet at the most. The middle is deep enough where I can hit darkness and have a strange morbid vision of a hand, blue and cracked, reaching up for mine, so I rocketmonkeykick myself upright and shoot to the surface, breaking into the warm air.
The runoff from the above springs forms a little basin before the larger pool. You can lift your hand under the water as it pours out of the rock to create a makeshift showerhead. You can wade in and lean backwards and catch a faceful of sunlight and sky refracted through the waterfall. Nicole throws me soap, eucalyptus, and it stings inside my blisters, but gets the playa out of my hair, so I don't complain.
Back at camp, we contest winds while: taking down shelter, dismantling boats, attempting to fix the lunchbox's alternator issues. Keith, fresh from a nap, notes that the lunchbox has two radiators, one for the air conditioner that conveniently blocks any airflow whatsoever to the primary. We have reached the heart of the lunchbox's overheating problems, though little can be done about this in the desert. The work is its own reward; together we swiftly dismantle camp, taking periodic sips from cold longnecks. Every five minutes everyone in camp turns to face north to avoid an eyeful, a mouthful, a gusty frontal assault of dust. When there is nothing left to do, after two jumps from Dave's truck, the lunchbox is ready. We depart, bathing the camp and everything near it in another layer of dust, indisinguishable from the rest.
By the light of this cigarette alone, I turn from camp to the darkness beyond and walk into it. There are three sounds in the desert tonight: coyotes, distant; shoes on sand, below; and, far from the range of our sleeping camp's lanterns, Keith rambling across Margaritaville
. I sit when I reach him and explore the cracks in the desert floor. It is a trick of ember and shadow, impossible
with anything but the faintest illumination, the blackest of nights. Tiny in my world, these are vast canyons to the beetle I spy making its nocturnal rounds. A knock of ash almost blinds us all, but my seven minutes of sight are almost up. By the will of this cigarette alone
, we are one-eyed men, easy targets in the land of the blind.
The last late stragglers join us alongside flashes to the north, miles across Pyramid, over Smoke Creek, prehistoric lake bed that steadfastly retains its last bit of storm. Miles-old thunder, low and sonorous, follows long dead lightning. Backs against the earth, we happily waste a night on old repertoire, entertained by flashes by the horizon. At our feet, our supporting light is slightly more ancient than the storm, vast bright sodium-neon castaway from Reno. The cigarette is long extinguished, carcass tucked away safely with its brothers; all other light sources are ancient, atomic. This was the vastness of space I feared and respected as a child, infinite and within reach. Keith's dog, Tiberious, hones in on us, faithfully oblivious to coyotes, thunderstorms, sudden loss of gravity, a universe with no boundries. Song and storm switch downtempo, camp begs us back. We walk the waves of the dry playa back to our arrangements. We sleep to ancient wavebreaks, dreams of echo and rumble.
Admission to camp was one fair sized pull of your choice of chest hair restoral tonics, the current favorite being Jägermeister, payable on arrival
, served hand-to-hand. Late afternoon, sunset winds kicking up across the southwest, there is one round when Dave gets back from sailing, then another before he stirs and tells me there's one last chance to sail tonight. My sister is at my side telling me this is my chance. The wind is easing up as we buckle in, and the lesson is this: lean into the wind
. Throw your weight to the side that threatens most to betray your craft. Sit back a little, bring in the sail, find your pocket and go. Five to seven o'clock is dead wind, impossible sailing. Turn upwind
or crash. Let the boom out easy or crash. Find peace with the air pocket, hijack it and treat it right, pull in as you turn, out to straighten, core of being aligned with the amount of tension that means accelleration.
Oneness with the craft is the essense, neccessary when Nicole takes out another sailer and Dave hands me the rope. He steers, I mind the sail, and we aim for the bogey. Tally-ho on sight is a minute at most from our target, wind whipping rope through my hands, tearing skin away from fingers as I pull furiously through the turn that sends a wall of dust on a rapid course toward quarry. We have sun enough for two passes, then drift easy back to camp, victorious and starving.
Don fixes burgers for himself and his kids two trailers away from the rest of camp. Dave's friends liberate the Jäger from the cooler after our early dinner, hand-to-hand, around the circle, skipping Josh who is driving back home tonight. Nicole abstains because Don requested her to stay sober. On epiphany, she offers to take Josh's shots for him. Nicole's offers get louder with each pass, into yells when he leaves to scare a burger from the other side of camp.
Josh! You are getting Wasted! comes right before China Girl starts playing, which prompts her into a tirade concerning the universal desire to fuck David Bowie in the early eighties. Sexual Healing grants us a demonstration: Nicole stands, grabs an imaginary girl by the ponytail, thrusts and Oh! Shaniqua! Shit, This is Good! I should write This Shit Down! and that's her theory on how the song had to have been born. More than half the bottle is tucked away and she muses Don is getting Laid Tonight! with a beat, a ponder, and a yell: Josh, I hope You're Ready!
The dragonflies that are swarming Don as I walk over are the length of a finger, battering themselves against the motorhome and lantern and grill. The light, the smell of meat, human sweat attracts them. Their flight grows lazy, careless around the propane. As they hit the table, go down for the count, we pick them up by their wings and toss them back to the night. Don says nothing about Nicole's behavior, not a single word of disgust or ache or anything. He doesn't approve, but he tolerates, and so he jokes and grills and removes insects and this happens every weekend. This is all in the manner of time and tide.
I am long out of the desert. My sunburn is faded, no hint of alkali dust remains on my belongings. I have left behind the dry heat, the sterile dirt, the endless sky, and I will return. Years from now, I will make my way alone, life enough for one task left in my blood. I will build my home and call it my grave long after I have died, in a time when a second means as much as a decade, when one is indistinguishable
from the other. The desert will take my body and I will remain, all permanent smile
and bleached by the sun, forever hiding myself amongst the playa cracks, conveyed by insect and animal, in true coalescence with my land.