It is the second week of spring and my husband and I have just arrived in the Nevada desert. Daylight dissolves as we carry provisions into the trailer which is our base here. The trailer sits in an RV park more accurately termed a paved lot with utilities and a few trees. The park is still and silent. Demand for accommodations is low in this region inhabited mainly by miners and employees in the hospitality or trucking industries and their families. Most of the one-person-per-square-mile population is strung like holiday lights along I-80. Beyond 80 lie hundreds of thousands of acres of desert wilderness.
I open a cupboard and scan for a rag to remove the dust which occupies every surface after our absence. I squirt a layer of lemony mist and wipe wide swaths of the counter. Antique lamps throw golden light onto oak-paneled walls. Hail raps on the roof, faster, pounding, prelude to a crescendo. The air grows frenzied and all night I lie awake listening to the wind whip the roof with the slender branches of a birch sapling the park owner has planted near our door.
After a night of no sleep, a panorama of new snow refreshes me. Jeff and I relax in preparation for the next day’s travel. By noon the snow has melted except on the highest peaks. We drive to French Boys Canyon where we eat ham sandwiches, admiring the snow-capped Humboldt Range. We enjoy a long soak in the cattle troughs at Kyle’s Hot Springs. We get a good night’s sleep and with the aid of strong coffee, do a quick check of the Land Rover. Jeff examines its vitals: oil, water, brake fluid—and I, although we plan to return that evening to the trailer, confirm that we have enough clothes, water, and food in the event of a breakdown. The Land Rover is also stocked with tools, recovery gear, navigation materials and–although it is early spring–dead-of-winter camping supplies.
As we are about to load the dogs, a man emerges from a neighboring trailer to introduce himself. We suspend our departure to chat with him; the offer of an acquaintanceship is not to be taken for granted in this land where outsiders are often suspect. An hour later M. agrees to a request to take our itinerary and notify authorities if we don’t return as planned. It is a dear favor because we routinely travel solo and the neighbor who formerly handled our itineraries has moved.
Access to the Black Rock Desert via Imlay is undramatic. The village is lined with modest stick homes, some fenced, many tended, others struggling to fend signs of age. It takes less than a minute to drive slowly past so as not to raise dust. Old Emigrant Road rounds the local dump and crosses a chunky cement bridge above the Humboldt River. It winds for a couple of miles between Rye Patch Reservoir and the treeless Eugene Mountains, then confronts an 11-mile straight-a-way that bisects Antelope Plains.
Far out on the horizon, rain blurs the slate sky like water on chalk.
We accelerate past a bullet-riddled sign that warns we are entering the Black Rock Desert where “no services” exist and there is “no help” available: Protect. Respect. Survive. After five years of journeying here, Jeff and I are aware that we never know what to expect. We are more prepared than we used to be and always strive to be more so. In the past we traveled hundreds of miles through this desert in a Nissan 200 SX. Once we brazenly chanced it in a Chevy HHR. The outcome of that venture directly resulted in the Land Rover. The Rover’s underbelly is newly sheathed in skid plates, not unlike an armadillo.
We ascend a chain of boomerang angles toward Imlay Summit, noting the effects of yesterday’s snow melt: one set of tire tracks crisply preserved in a shallow mud mold. The conditions are not wet enough to impede our speed and we easily crest the nearly 6,000 foot elevation. Ahead of us lie a valley and strands of non-contiguous mountains. There is not a soul in sight, nor a hint of civilization beyond this road. It is the moment when we grasp the vastness of this land and the smallness of our efforts; it is the moment when we understand that we are not in charge.