During our recent trip to the Nevada Desert, my husband and I explored an abandoned homestead at the suggestion of an acquaintance who sets out each morning in search of gold and instead discovers some of the most beautiful places in the high desert. We have followed a few of his recommendations for sightseeing and never been disappointed. This homestead was no exception. Its nestled canyon setting with rapturous views exudes the kind of beauty that stills the breath and slows the heart.
I love the desert in summer when seamless hours of sunlight weave around my shoulders a cloak of heat that draws from my bones the lingering ache of winter. Had we visited the homestead in summer, I would have dallied in a fantasy about living there, even as I was cognizant that romanticizing the desert is a folly which can be fatal. But in the dead of winter, with the freeze numbing my fingertips as I nipped at my shutter button, I was forced to confront the hardships that had been visited upon those who vacated this place.
My husband and I pieced together bits of the homesteaders’ story. Scattered mines in the area appeared to have been dug by man, not machine, and inside the house were remnants of a family: magazines, a backpack and some toys.
Outside, adjoining the house, a corral was suggestive of chickens and goats. Near that some posts resembled headstones but had probably supported an outbuilding since removed.
Walking around the homestead grounds it was easy to focus on views of Rye Patch Reservoir, Antelope Plains, and the Humboldt Range. But sights like these could distract from the facts of desert life which, in waking hours, consist of working to survive. In the high desert, winter cold is extreme and fuel for fire scarce. Gathering enough wood for the winter would take weeks and perhaps the homesteaders never really found enough and the cold, mechanical in its indifference yet predatory in its ways, exacted the fortitude of a family or the life of a sick child.
We saw no evidence of a well–perhaps we missed it–but water, if transported from the Humboldt River or a local spring, would also be a constant need and require a great effort.
Food is abundant for competent hunters–antelope and white-tailed deer–and furs would help to fend the cold.
But I wondered what price the family had paid for this dream. Nothing they left behind indicated they were so well off that money didn’t matter. Did they depart as broken as their home?
And where were they now, this family? Dreaming of the desert as I often do?
Or reflecting that they came searching for gold and left having discovered one of the most beautiful places in the high desert?