The other night while watching “Last American Cowboy” I was transported to the Nevada Desert–a place I love but cannot afford to visit now–when clouds shaped like fish scales, backlit by the sun and unidistant from one another, crossed the wide sky. The narrator’s voice faded and in its place I heard the growl of tires on volcanic rock as our Land Rover rolled around the east end of Rye Patch Resevoir across Antelope Plains, destined for Rosebud Canyon. I felt the tension in my body–anticipation–as I prepared to encounter the Nevada high desert. This in spite of the fact that I was snug in my living room and the sky might be the only thing shared between the setting of “Last American Cowboy”–Montana–and Nevada.
The northern Nevada Desert is perhaps one of the least glamorous places in the western United States. It lacks the drama of Utah’s arches, Colorado’s canyons and rivers, New Mexico’s mesas, Arizona’s Anasazi cliff dwellings. In northern Nevada, abundant turquoise and crystals promising renewal do not nest in shops under hand-hewn beams. Most establishments are connected to casinos: dark, smokey, draining. And apparently not even northern Nevada’s ghost towns can redeem it: last summer in Winnemucca I bought a big glossy copy of “American Cowboy” boasting a feature on western ghost towns, hoping it would direct us to one nearby but “American Cowboy” snubbed the entire State; Montana, however, did make the cut.
While the Nevada high desert might be too stark for some tastes, it is perfect for mine: quiet and empty of people except for discontinuous activity along 80. What, then, is so special about it? Space, solitude, and the promise of something more. That something is God’s wild card; it is how He surprises us on the journey. In the case of the northern Nevada Desert, it could include the appearance of mustangs, antelope, coyotes, a mountain lion. Or the occurence of a break down in 100-degree heat and a rescue by strangers suddenly entrusted with your life.
In life, belief in the promise of something more derives from faith and the following story illustrates how it works:
One night several years ago my husband witnessed the death of a star. Seated beside a bonfire on a beach in central Oregon, he scanned the sky, observed a star pulsing erractically, and fixed his attention on it. “It became brighter and brighter until after a couple of hours–poof, it disappeared.” As he recounts these events he animates them, retracting his fingers into his calloused palm before jettisoning them straight out like tentacles. He repeats the action a couple of times then ends the tale with an abruptly shut fist: “Gone.”
In spite of the simplicity of my husband’s demonstration, that stellar retirement on March 29, 2003 was one of the most memorable events of his life, magnificent even to those who prepare for such events: spend millions to “see” them, record them, analyze them. Astronomists would come to deem the event not merely a supernova but a hypernova, not merely the death of a star but a “Rosetta Stone” of astronomy because it established a link between gamma ray blasts and star deaths. The gamma ray bursts were the brightest recorded to date and the star’s explosion created a black hole.
It is startling to think how easily my husband could have missed this historical event simply by dismissing the star’s pulsing and turning his attention elsewhere. So many things compete for our attention in this world–why invest in something unseen, unproven, unfulfilled?
The odds of my husband witnessing a star’s death are incomprehensible, yet what strikes me as profound about his experience is the way he attended to the star: deeply, patiently, and with faith. I hope I remember to recall this story each time I begin to feel discouraged about our present circumstances. God has posed for us a new set of trials, a new round of suffering. Now that my husband has sufficiently recovered from the symptoms of his genetic disease to be able to work, he can find no work. The economy in our region has ground to a halt or God has designated impoverishment for us. We are incrementally but certainly losing the struggle to pay our basic bills and our dream of building a home in the northern Nevada Desert is distant.
Yet, as bleak as this seems, the other night I dreamed that my husband was a motivational speaker, preparing to appear before a packed auditorium, and that I was dancing on the tips of my toes as if a seasoned ballerina.
Our faith yields the promise of something more.