Nevada Desert Winter: Meditations on Cold

Star Peak in the Nevada DesertI cautioned my husband to reconsider our plan to drive over Antelope Range to Rosebud Canyon.  It is impossible to grasp the irony of my counsel without knowing that I am more adventurous than he.  And that I used to be the kind of tourist in the Nevada High Desert at whom locals guffaw or at whose bones they scoff when stumbling upon them.  But Jeff, an experienced wheeler, long schooled me on preparedness and sound judgment.  And yet it was he who wanted to head to Rosebud in spite of an adversary that daunted me.

Jeff and I departed for the high desert from our Santa Cruz Mountains home during the peak of winter’s first storm, amidst careening winds, felled trees and power lines splayed across our exit route.  Exhilarated by our escape, we made easy progress through northern California to Nevada, only to be confronted on I-80 east of Sparks by a head-wind so powerful, it seemed to have pitted a stubborn herd against our bumper.

Slightly before sundown we arrived at our orange-striped trailer.  My husband set about hooking up our water and power while I unloaded gear and supplies.   As the light drained from the sky I noted the temperature drop but in my industry, failed to anticipate its impact.

Mild chaos prevailed inside the trailer as I put away clothing and food.  In our absence a fine dust had settled on all the surfaces so I pulled a terry cloth from a drawer and bunched it under the kitchen faucet to moisten it.  I turned the faucet handle.  Nothing.  I turned to my husband: “Did you connect the water?”

Knowingly he launched into the night with a mag light and travel hair dryer.  And succeeded in thawing the blockage.

But within a couple of hours new ice formed in the pipe.  And again in the morning, before the sun rose high enough to lay its restorative rays on our brittle black lines.

Also that morning our sewer pipe froze.  My husband mentioned the problem, in passing, to our neighbor, the sort of man whose advice you would welcome under such circumstances but perhaps don’t know well enough to solicit.  Our neighbor suggested lighting a barbecue under the pipe.  He had never tried it, he said, but he had heard–and then he hurried off.  My husband grabbed the hibachi and a couple of hours later, whooosh.

Quite fed up by afternoon, my husband and I hopped into the Land Rover and headed to Winnemucca to buy insulation for the pipes.  We returned forty-five minutes before dark, confident that we would solve our problems the moment my husband, with my tender aid, completed his meticulous wraps.  By then it was dark and we were nearly frozen ourselves.

Back inside the glowing trailer I made and served dinner, then prepared to wash the dishes.  I stepped to the sink and turned the faucet handle.  And waited.  Until I had no choice but to inform and then beseech my poor husband.  He flew out in his slippers, his head bare in protest.  When he finally returned with the water flow restored, I elicited from him an agreement to leave the faucets trickling to prevent another freeze.  It was a sound suggestion but, habitually, when we finished with a faucet, we shut it off–thus reviving the cycle.

To complicate matters, our need for heat inside the trailer constantly tripped the breaker on our old furnace.  Without the furnace, only minutes passed before we could see our breath.  So again we drove to Winnemucca to purchase a heater and, when it did not suffice, back we went for an exchange.

Within a few days we understood that this was not to be a restful vacation, but a high desert hazing of sorts.

I, in particular, became acutely aware that our trailer maintenance issues which qualified as slightly more than nuisances, on the spectrum of high desert freeze complications, would upgrade to dangers if we risked a venture into the wilderness and lost.  A typical vacation itinerary for us was to drive 100 miles daily on isolated desert roads.  If we broke down in any other season, the nighttime cold would be conquerable.  But on this winter trip, lows at night hovered around five degrees.

We were not unprepared for the weather.  We had monitored the forecast on-line for a couple of weeks before our departure.  And prior to that, long prior, we began to collect gear for our first winter trip, perusing flea markets and surplus stores for insulating layers, and discovering, among our many finds, gray Swedish army pants of wool so tightly woven that when I tried mine on, they weighed more than all of my other clothing combined, including my boots.

Despite our preparations, I had to acknowledge that, in the event of a break-down which left us stranded, I would quickly detest the cold beset upon us.

So resignedly we cleaved to sites where, if necessary, we could access main roads within five or six hours of walking.

We revisited Kyle’s Hot Springs and Thunder Mountain Monument, and explored a couple of new spots: Imlay Canyon, the site of the Humboldt House, and an abandoned mining homestead with a view of Rye Patch Reservoir.

We also enjoyed one morning a quiet walk up the road toward Star Peak, and spent a meditative afternoon on the edge of Rye Patch Reservoir, where we witnessed a beautiful sunset.

At the end of each day we returned gratefully to our trailer, a hot meal and a warm bed.

Near the end of our vacation we decided one afternoon to risk a longer trip than our prior jaunts and aimed for Coal Canyon.  Upon our arrival I opened the passenger door to a loud hissing, then saw a rear tire relinquish its form to a rock.  My husband executed a temporary repair and we were back at the trailer by dark.

The sidewall puncture in the tire required two trips to Winnemucca for repairs, the integrity of the first repair compromised overnight by the freeze.  (The way things were going my husband was reticent to employ our only spare.)

Those events snuffed any residual longing for the wilderness on that still smouldered in me.

One evening inside the trailer, when it had warmed to a comfortable temperature (but the pipes had not yet frozen,) I reflected on the cold and quiet struggles visited upon our vacation.  They reminded me in their nature and persistency of some problems I was having back at home, particularly in my relationships with a couple of family members.  Before my vacation I had so looked forward to a break from those problems, to losing myself in the wilderness: to prayer, meditation, and surrendering my trials.  Instead the difficulties my husband and I encountered in the high desert curtailed our enthusiasm, consumed our daylight hours and thwarted our plans.

That evening, while my husband read in the soft light of our oak-paneled tin harbor and I curled on the comfy sofa, I contemplated the gap between my expectations and what I had received–until I acknowledged that every resolution is contingent upon God’s timing and after working hard on a problem, it is sometimes best to simply look forward to a thaw.

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