It must have been close to four when I pulled over at the Winnemucca dunes. There were no clouds in the sky, but smoke from a raging prairie fire to the east combined with dust from a sandstorm off of the western dunes to give the desert valley a melancholy overcast appearance.
The Great Basin is often a place of melancholy aspect. One of the many things, I suppose, that attracts me to its lonely reaches. "Lonely" being an inadequate word to describe a land where a cross country traveler could leave the highway on foot and walk for weeks or even months without seeing any sign of another human being except for aircraft contrails in the intense blue sky.
Some are frightened by such loneliness. I welcome it and actively seek it, allowing my mind to wander quietly over the silent seas of shadscale and greasewood while softly sighing winds bring the scent of sagebrush to my nostrils. In such solitude I have laid under desert stars, hearing the voices of long vanished friends across the darkness of the years, occasionally seeing the face of someone I had once loved and remembering every minute detail, every quicksilver laugh, every flash of autumn blue eyes. The desert sharpens my memories the way that fine leather hones a razor.
My memory worked overtime as I drove through Winnemucca for the third time in my life and the first time in five years, feeling hot wind rocking my car as it spawned whirlwinds of dust and trash along the cement gutters. A relic out of the old west, Winnemucca wears the trappings of a modern small town like an ill fitting suit. Interspersed with the usual motels, supermarkets, gas stations and restaurants, the gaudy flashing signs of casinos dominate the townscape. Down one dusty sidestreet, several brothels await weekend revelers who have tired of more mundane pleasures. Under the thin modern facade, ghosts from out of the desert's past lurk around every corner. A leathery faced cowboy leaned against a brownstone storefront, a cigarette dangling from his mouth. An old Indian wearing thick glasses walked down the street with a bag of groceries.
Myself, I was only passing through, a ghost from somewhere else. Where to? I did not really know. Once I entered the desert country, my main objective had been reached. From there it did not matter, just as long as I remained in the desert as long as possible, drifting with the tumbleweeds and the tawny sands, moving with the desert winds.
I searched, as I have always searched, for something elusive, indefineable and possibly non-existent, but the pleasure lay in that search rather than the finding. In all likelihood, that for which I searched lay within myself rather than across these remote and dusty distances. Or perhaps, forever out of my reach, across the panoramic stretches of time and space.
Some fifty miles east of Winnemucca, the little town of Battle Mountain sits just off the freeway like an abandoned colony on a distant planet. It is a quiet and sleepy looking place, isolated by the oceanic expanse of desert surrounding it. East of town, the Shoshone range rises skyward, a smokey purple wall guarding another flat infinity of desert beyond where the Tuscarora and Cortez ranges watch over the communities of Carlin and Elko.
People like Kit Carson and John C. Fremont had blazed the path across this area, and before them, the restless Spaniards in search of wealth and heathen souls to save. Even that venerable mountain man, Jedediah Smith had probably passed close to where I now parked my car in front of a motel with cracked, stained white walls of stucco.
No one came to answer the door when I pushed the buzzer. Moving on to the eastern edge of town I came to another small motel of about six or seven rooms, a few of which were in such a state of disrepair that they were obviously unused. The small office appeared to be long unused as well. The only car in the parking lot was an old black Volvo, covered with dust, all four tires flat, the rubber cracked from the long days of endless sun.
I began to turn away, believing the place to be no longer in operation when I noticed a small scrap of wrinkled paper pinned to the office door. Scrawled in pencil were the words, "Manager at gas station." I walked to the decrepit Chevron station which sat separated from the north end of the motel by a narrow paved alley. A rail-thin Mexican kid in a gray and white checkered shirt got up lazily from his seat in front of the cash register, a questioning look in his large dark eyes.
"Yea, I rent you room, nineteen dollar and ninety nine cents."
"Air conditioning?" I asked, squinting at him.
"Yea, air conditioning."
I pulled a pen from my pocket and filled out the paper he produced, then forked over a twenty in exchange for the room key and bid the boy good evening. He appeared to be about fifteen, but was probably in his twenties.
I found the room to be surprisingly clean and comfortable, but I quickly found that the television did not work and most of the room's lights and electric outlets were out of order. I sighed and walked back to the gas station. Without saying a word, the kid gave me a key for a different room. This time I found everything in working order, but then discovered that the room had no air conditioner. With an angry groan I started for the door to pay another visit to the laconic Mex kid, but stopped myself, realizing that the room did not feel uncomfortably warm. My pocketwatch said six o' clock. The temperature would be unlikely to rise between now and whenever I decided to go to bed. I estimated the current outside temperature to be roughly ninety five degrees. Since Battle Mountain sits at an elevation of 4510 feet, I knew that darkness would bring a swift cooling. I dismissed the question of air conditioning and went back to unpacking my essentials.
When I had finished, a temporary weariness came over me and I stretched out on the bed. I laid there for a time, contemplating silence until the memories came to haunt me again, this time the recollections a long gone brother, a strong, handsome and self reliant veteran of Viet Nam who had come home safely to meet his end years later at the wrong end of an American gun. Along with the momentary sadness that engulfed me, the words of a female country singer drifted through the room from the TV set to blend with the sound of dry winds whistling past the motel eaves with a mournful howl.
"Tumbleweed, you're living a cowboy's dream.
Tumbleweed, freedom is the air you breathe.
But if you don't stop long enough, to let
yourself fall in love.
Tumbleweed, you're gonna end up lonely."
The growling of my stomach pushed aside thoughts of past ironies and irritating sorrows. The reawakened knowledge that I had time, money and a desert to explore helped to push away the sudden sadness that had come over me.
A small supermarket across the str
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