To all who love the land, the Nevada desert is a sanctuary with an edge. The rewards for entering are vast–I have not yet grasped their entirety even after many sojourns into that wilderness. But I can tell you that there is a juxtaposition of refined beauty and quiet ruggedness that is soothing. And sunlight as compelling as a house fire. There is cold to be intently fended. And moonlight so lovely that I want to linger in it despite the cold. Those who have chosen the desert embrace the land but tend to hold people at arm’s length unless a common ground is established.
Rural communities cluster on roads. Some residences are separated by mere yards yet their inhabitants remain strangers, observing one another’s comings and goings, until one of them feels inclined to broach the patch of land between them. During the initial encounter few words are exchanged and although the meeting appears casual, it is really a reconnaissance mission. I knew that the first time I met Julia but thought the conversation might bloom due to our shared interest in the arts and the fact that we were both part-timers in Nevada with primary residences in California.
We met one evening when we happened to pull in at our neighboring Nevada trailers within moments of one another. My husband and I emerged from our car and quietly introduced ourselves.
We had heard that Julia had health problems. We inquired about them. She replied that it helped to stay ahead of them.
As she spoke I noted that her light brown hair showed none of the amber tones mine had taken from the sun. I wondered to what extent Julia’s health confined her.
Julia remarked: you both look fit. We acknowledged that we felt fit. Well good-night, she said, pivoting toward her door. Then I asked about her exhibit.
Several months earlier I had observed a banner hanging from an old gas station at the edge of town. The banner advertised classes in writing and painting. The offerings seemed luxurious in a town where the only other enterprise was a store the size of a kiosk.
I learned from a neighbor, John, that Julia owned the gas station and was converting it into an art studio. John intimated by his tone that he thought a studio frivolous. I could understand his perspective in the context of his utilitarian world.
But I pondered my own relationship with the arts, how long and lovingly I had cultivated the practice of infusing my writings with the meditations of my heart, and how rich the unseen world in which I labored.
And in my new pursuit, photography, how blessed I felt each time I captured a moment of beauty on God’s transient canvas.
I sent Julia some photographs I had taken of the gas station when its large windows were alight with pink and gold.
Her thank you note came scrawled on a flier announcing an exhibit of local photographers to be held at the studio: If you send me a few more photos, I’ll frame them and put them in the show.
At my husband’s urging, I included a photograph of a windmill on Antelope Plains. I wondered if Julia knew the windmill, it was not terribly far from the studio. But perhaps her health precluded her from venturing out.
My mention of the exhibit seemed to prompt Julia: “You must come by the studio and pick up your photos.”
My husband and I bid her goodnight and retired to our trailer. Ours was a cozy retreat, small, clean and vintage.
For the next week my husband and I trekked around the desert, some nights returning to the trailer for a warm shower and a bed; other nights, camping under the moonlight.
On the morning that we were to depart for California, I walked to Julia’s studio. I looked forward to the visit with her. I knew that she loved the Nevada desert as much as my husband and I did. Once when I had spoken with her on the phone about some neighborhood business, she fleetingly referenced the feeling she had each time she drove from California to Nevada and passed a certain point in the journey where the desert began to dominate the landscape.
At the studio Julia greeted me and initiated a tour. She showed me what she had accomplished and what remained to be done.
“Next I will install bookshelves on this wall to be filled with art books. The studio will be a free art resource center for the community.”
She indicated with a gesture that we should progress into the open bay which had once been the gas station’s service center. There I saw how generous was the light admitted by those large windows.
Remnants of the exhibit hung on the north wall. I gazed at a silhouette of an owl with a hauntingly wide wingspan. And admired a reticent coyote caught by the same wildlife photographer.
Julia informed me, “He is a Vietnam vet who took up photography as part of his post-war therapy.”
I reflected on what it might mean to that photographer and the others to have their works displayed in a local venue.
Then I spotted my windmill. To my surprise, Julia said she would like to buy it; I insisted that she keep it as a gift.
“Thank you. I will enjoy it. When I was a child and my father worked in the mines, I used to swim in the cattle trough beneath that windmill.”
Her words gently convicted me of an assumption: that Julia had happened upon the Nevada desert as we had–seeking refuge from an overcrowded California. But her dream was as much about her love for the community in which she grew up, as it was her love for the land.
Julia handed me a t-shirt commemorating the exhibit. We hugged and said good-bye.
I returned to my waiting husband who had finished loading the car. As we were pulling out of the driveway, our neighbor, John, hailed us excitedly:
“Julia’s just had that exhibit at the studio. You should see them photos taken by a Vietnam vet. I’m out and about in this desert all the time–maybe I’ll buy a camera and take me some pictures.”
John is also a Vietnam vet. He lives as simply as anyone I have met. I nodded and smiled, not ready to talk about my visit to the studio.
My husband gave the horn a little toot as we rolled across the crunching gravel toward the road.
A month later when we returned, John hailed us again. He told us Julia’s health had taken a turn for the worse. She was in California and didn’t know if she could ever return.
The studio was up for sale.
As he spoke I noted the camera hanging from his neck.