Shoshone Mike's Stronghold
Copyright © 2005-07 by Richard S. Platz, All rights reserved

(Click on photos to enlarge)

Little High Rock Canyon Backpack
Little High Rock Canyon Wilderness
Black Rock Desert National Conservation Area
June 4-12, 2005

"Road signs riddled with bullet holes"

In the Spring of 1868 the transcontinental railroad dragged its greasy belly down from the High Sierra and crawled east across the high desert basin toward Promontory Point. Whores, gamblers, pistoleros, and swindlers of every ilk, smelling opportunity, dropped like ticks off the clanking beast at the newborn town of Reno on the Truckee River in the Nevada territory. Their prey were the miners and merchants of the Comstock Lode in Virginia City and Gold Hill and emigrants still jarring along the California wagon trails. Thus were sown the seeds of Nevadan character.

Reno and Sparks have since grown into a turbulent cesspool of mindless development, swamping the Truckee River Valley with high-rise casinos and shopping malls, factories, freeways, and low rent housing, and overflowing into adjacent desert valleys. Manifest destiny has gone mad. With an atavistic frenzy the inhabitants still embrace legal prostitution, gambling, and firearms. Jeep tracks and mine tailings scar the desert and surrounding hills. Road signs are riddled with bullet holes.

Ah, but to the north of this madness lay the territory we longed to visit, where the tap root of frontier mind draws sustenance from the austere alkali playa of the Black Rock Desert. The place has been popularized by the Burning Man Festival, which blooms and fades like a desert flower one week each September. But we wanted to go there not because Burning Man would be there, but because it would not. We wanted to see the land with cattle and sheep as its sole inhabitants. When no traffic would meet us on the dusty gravel byways. We wanted to see the land as it was seen from a Conestoga wagon following the Lassen Trail.

Much we did not know about that remote landscape and what grew there. How the Nevada desert nourishes a depraved twist of mind. Where genocide is labeled "frontier justice." Where long after the Indian Wars concluded elsewhere, the Sheriff of Elko County urged citizens to "kill all the Indians, and every Indian that may be found roaming the Idaho country." (Twin Falls Times, Thursday, May 12, 1910.) Where as recently as 1911 a posse hunted down and savagely massacred an impoverished band of Paiutes. All but four children. For we had not yet heard of Shoshone Mike.

Unspoiled wilderness is not something the Nevadan mind holds in high regard. Hell, spoiling things is half the fun! So it came as a shock when Congress, in the last days of Clinton's Presidency in 2000, designated three-quarters of a million acres as wilderness in the Black Rock Desert, High Rock Canyon, Emigrant Trails National Conservation Area. Now that the land was liberated from off-road vehicles spewing beer cans, bullets, and country music, we wanted to explore there. The first week of June 2005 gave us a perfect opportunity. Weather forecasts called for scattered showers and thunderstorms and temperatures fifteen to twenty degrees below normal. Perfect desert weather, we decided.

Gerlach, Nevada, would be our portal into the Black Rock Desert. Two roads led thither from Cedarville in the Surprise Valley of Northeastern California. East, just across the Nevada line, unpaved County Road 34 wound south from Vya through the scenic desert hills. But we were in a big hurry to get to Gerlach and get started, so we chose instead the faster two-lane blacktop of Highway 447 as it traced the valley south. We had no idea we would be seeing plenty of Road 34 before long.

Gerlach squats at the waist between two merging deserts, the Black Rock to the northeast and the Smoke Creek to the southwest. There a spring seeping from the base of the Granite Range provided water and forage for pioneers taking Noble's Cutoff on the Applegate Trail. The town later became a watering stop for thirsty steam locomotives on the Western Pacific Railroad. Diesels now pull long freights through town without slowing.

Expecting little, we were yet disappointed. Gerlach has no general store. No gas station. No museum. No roadside attraction. Just a crossroads with a few featureless houses, beached like dead whales on the edge of the vast alkali playa and dusted a ghostly white. Two businesses were open. One was a gloomy casino, cafe, and windowless motel called Bruno's, the other the local office for the Burning Man. A kiosk beside the old railroad water tower offered a terse BLM pamphlet warning travelers in the National Conservation Area of muddy sinkholes, blown tires, and death by dehydration.

The only store was at Empire, seven miles further down the road on the other side of the desert. As we crossed the playa on the ribbon of two-lane, a primordial terror crept like a spider across the back of my mind. The featureless sweep of vast white space overwhelmed reason. But the panic receded with the playa, and we pressed on to Empire, company town of the Empire Gypsum Company, where we ate sandwiches, purchased supplies, and topped off our water jugs. It was time to make a decision.

We had been able to find scant literature on the Black Rock Wilderness. Wilderness, as defined by the federal government, does not sit well with the Nevadan temperament. Unlike the Desolation and South Warner Wildernesses nearby in California, no permits are required in Nevada, no trail maps or descriptions available, and no fire or use rules published. No road signs point to wilderness access. Trailheads are unmarked. Parking is not designated. Even wilderness boundaries are unclear. Cell phones and weather radios are worthless. Our GPS, an old pre-wilderness Sierra Club guidebook, and contour maps were all we had to go on.

Arbitrarily we agreed on the first hike in the guidebook, a climb up McGill Canyon toward 8850-foot King Lear Peak in the Jackson Mountains rimming the Black Rock Desert on the northeast. There would be no trail, but we could find and follow McGill Creek as we climbed and camp along the stream. It looked like about a 75-mile drive on gravel roads. We headed back toward Gerlach, then, before recrossing the playa, turned north on the gravel Road 2048 signed "Trego Hot Spring 17 mi."

The road started out fine, rising and falling through the foothills above the playa, roughly paralleling the BNSF railroad tracks. But soon the surface became rough with sharp-edged rock. I slowed down to protect the tires. Little black spots on the road seemed to be hopping and crawling toward the playa. I tried to blink the spots out of my eyes. "Do you see things crawling across the road?"

Barbara squinted through the windshield. "Are they moving?"

We topped a rise, and the road was covered with hundreds of them. Thousands. "What the hell are those . . . things!" I screamed.

I slowed the van and Barbara leaned out the window. They looked like giant crickets, maybe two inches long. Too fat to fly. The creepy black-brown insects flowed west across the road in disorienting waves. Our skin crawled. Giant nuclear mutant bugs were breeding in the desert. Maybe feeding on tourists. We dared not stop.

Later we learned the little buggers are called Mormon Crickets. Not true crickets, they are shieldbacked katydids, and not the least carnivorous. In June of 1848 millions of the insects began to devour the crops of Utah pioneers. Settlers fought them without success and faced starvation. Then, in the "Miracle of the Seagulls," a white cloud of California gulls descended, gorged themselves on the crickets, threw up, and ate more, until the crops were saved. Can you say hallelujah! Apparently they are now a plague on the town of Empire. Prayer has so far proved ineffectual.

After a few miles the infestation thinned. Soon the bugs disappeared altogether. Our top speed was still only 25 mph, but the odometer told us we were approaching Trego Hot Spring. We thought we might test the waters there, maybe even spend the night and carry on to McGill Canyon the following morning.

There were, of course, no roadsigns. Occasionally parallel tire tracks would wander off into the sagebrush on the right or down to the playa on the left. But none were signed. The day was too warm to see steam rising from the hot spring. No other vehicle passed us. In a moment of inspiration, I plugged the GPS into the laptop, which found our road on the electronic topo map. Barbara watched the blinking cursor move along the road and called directions for turns. Unfortunately, the location of the hot spring on the topo map was off by a quarter mile. For a testy moment we considered, then dismissed the bumpy track into the sage indicated by the map. Instead we followed well-worn tire tracks to the hot spring (N40 46' 18.1", W119 07' 02.4").

Ah, this was what we were here to experience. Surrounded by miles and miles of uninhabited sagebrush and desert playa, we had Trego Hot Springs all to ourselves. Forty feet from the railroad track, 200-degree water bubbled up into a pool that fed a long trench. There it merged with cooler water, then spread out into a green oasis of reeds and rushes. A "T" of welded iron rail at the center of a flat area marked the Emigrant Trail, where pioneers had once set off toward the Black Rock in the middle of the desert, trusting there to find the next spring.

As we were unloading the van in the middle of the broad flat, we heard the growl of approaching motors. Three full-sized pickups, each with a hulking camper overbalanced on its back, rocked and trundled up the alkali road. One by one the campers parked alongside our van, and three middle-aged couples unfolded themselves stiffly from the cabs. Barbara, being amicable by nature, engaged them in conversation.

I was too miffed to join in. This was trailer-park mentality at its worst! Four vehicles huddled together in the vast desert emptiness as if circled against some hallucinated Indian menace. I promptly began tossing chairs and tables back into the van to by god find a more remote site. Sensing my mood, Barbara let me go. For fifteen minutes I tried one place after another, driving in widening circles in a futile attempt to escape. I was growing increasingly homicidal when at last I pushed the van around the end of the hot spring and up a rough, narrow path to a bare patch of ground 300 feet away between a dune and the railroad tracks. There I stomped on the emergency brake.

By dinner's end, my mood had brightened. In the distance to the northeast we identified the craggy spires of King Lear Peak blazing orange in the setting sunlight. They looked impossible far away, and we considered rethinking our next destination. The wind picked up and began to blow cold. West across the playa heavy black clouds gathered over the peaks of the Calico Range. By sunset the wind howled, blowing over our lawn chairs and everything else not tied down. The clouds looked nasty. We turned in without soaking in the hot spring. That night it rained a little. To my delight, every 90 minutes the blaring horn, rumble, and roar of a passing freight woke us.

Tuesday morning we arose early to calm winds and cold sunlight slanting across the desert. Fresh snow dusted the upper slopes of the Calicos. Wrapped in a towel, I padded over to the hot spring and eased down the slimy bank. Barbara caught my photo just as a BNSF freight rumbled past, then joined me in the soothing hot water. All was well with the world.

After breakfast we repacked the van. One of the campers was having trouble starting his diesel engine. They had pushed the truck around and opened the hood so the sun would warm the glow-plugs. We chatted for awhile. One of the men explained how they had once camped at Little High Rock Canyon, and recommended it. The canyon was beautiful. He described the entrance road circling a reservoir and ending at a grassy meadow.

We had already decided not to follow the rocky road on to King Lear Peak. For that we might return someday in a rented four-wheel-drive. So we retraced our route to Bruno's Casino and Cafe in Gerlach. As we ate lunch, we reviewed our literature. The Sierra Club guidebook had a provocative description of Little High Rock Canyon, and the west entrance appeared accessible by passenger car from State Road 34. On the laptop I found the coordinates of the turnoff and entered them into the GPS. After lunch Barbara visited the Burning Man office and learned that the festival was held at a BLM site on the playa accessed at the nine-mile turnoff north of Gerlach on Highway 34. We decided to check it out on our way.

Gingerly we drove down the access ramp and out on the playa, parked, and got out, scuttling like ragged claws across the floor of extinct Lake Lahontan, its surface once 500 feet above our heads. The ancient lake vanished shortly after the Pleistocene epoch, leaving only Pyramid, Winnemucca, and Walker Lakes and the Carson Sink as its remnants. The playa was huge and featureless, blindingly white, and disorienting. Distant mountains reflected in the mirage shimmering above the alkali surface as we strolled away from the van, which soon appeared minuscule and insignificant. A man could get lost out there, or stuck in the cloying white mud that followed a rain storm. A man could die of thirst. We found no sign of the Burning Man.

As we left the playa and climbed toward the western slopes of the Calicos, the pavement ended and the gravel road climbed up the canyon carved by South Willow Creek. Though well graded, the gravel gave way to steep, rocky dips where the creek flowed across the road. There a vehicle might get mired and swept away in a flash flood. The van fishtailed across two particularly treacherous crossings.

Where the GPS told us it should be, there was no turnoff to Little High Rock Canyon. No road sign. But back to the east was a cleft in the mountain rim we judged to be the canyon. A little further along, six-tenths of a mile north of the Duck Flat Road (N41 13' 34.6", W119 29' 26.6"), we found a rough, unmarked dirt track descending into the sagebrush toward the canyon. We crawled down the narrow, bumpy road, gunning across a few muddy ruts, hoping we would not have to turn around. We came to a fork, both roads appearing equally traveled. We chose the one to the right, which curved toward the canyon. (Later we learned the left fork led to Denio Camp.) Our track circled above a dammed reservoir (just like the fellow at Trego had said), a quarter full of water, then dropped to a muddy stream crossing in the middle of a broad wet meadow. For 30 feet the road was a bog where the stream flowed through deep, muddy ruts. We parked the van, a little over four road miles from Road 34.

We looked the place over. An amazing abundance of cow pies adorned the green sward, and cattle watched us from the surrounding tall sage. Bits of black obsidian peppered the rocky, alkali dirt. Here at the stream crossing, we agreed, would be a fine spot to camp. We locked the van to explore further down the road.

On the far side of the muddy crossing the road climbed a hill, then forked. The right-hand fork wound down toward the cleft in the mountain, which, as we approached, began to look like a chocolate-lemon layer cake that had been sliced open and a single piece removed. Sage frosted the slopes like mint icing. This had to be the mouth of High Rock Canyon. We followed the road for a half-mile until we came to a gate at the canyon's narrow entrance. A barbed-wire fence stretched high enough up into the rim rock on each side to keep the cows out. The wire gate, of course, lay wide open in neglect or defiance. This was Nevada. No signs were posted, but we surmised that we stood on the threshold of the wilderness (N41 15' 23.3", W119 25' 02.7").

Tentatively we took a few steps into the canyon's mouth. The walls were stunningly high rock cliffs, the bottom beautifully green and inviting. A definite trail followed the creek along the canyon floor, but we could not see past the first bend, so we could not tell how far. We lingered a while before returning to the van, closing the gate as we departed.

On the way back, at a ten-foot high strata of white alkali deposits exposed in the cliff above the road, we saw a short line of white tines sticking up like an overturned xylophone. We climbed up to investigate. There, before a shallow cave, lay the skeleton of a complete dead cow, ribs sticking into the air and a bit of hide still clinging to the hoofs and snout. We wondered if it had died naturally in that unlikely place, or if someone (or some thing) had dragged it there to eat, or as a warning to wolves, or rustlers, or to keep the herd in line, or for some mysterious dark ceremonial purpose only the Nevadan mind could grasp.

That evening, as we ate dinner, cows began to crowd around us. I threw a few lame rocks, but they refused to disperse. They faced our van in a picket line like disgruntled Teamsters striking for a new contract. With maddening bovine inscrutability they watched us eat. What did they want from us? Were we blocking their path? Or did they want us to feed them? We did our best to ignore them, and after a while they slowly melted back to their forage.

It rained a little on Wednesday morning, turning the soil and cow manure into a muddy paste that cemented in the waffle soles of our hiking boots. Then a bright sun played peek-a-boo with the lingering low clouds. As we lounged at the campsite, we saw a grey flycatcher, robins, a shrike, and killdeer. A melodious bird sang from hiding in the sage. Mid-morning coyotes wailed nearby, reminding us of the ceremonial cow skeleton down the road. We decided to spend the day reconnoitering in the canyon to see if the trail ran all the way down and whether there would be any place to camp.

Before noon we started into the canyon with daypacks, immediately crossing the shallow creek on wet rocks. The canyon curved sharply right, then slalommed back and forth beneath ever rising rimrock painted yellow with lichen. As we hiked, the canyon opened. The trail cut through tall sagebrush, eight-feet high in places, and crossed and recrossed the creek as it meandered from wall to wall. Growing in and along the stream were willow, western serviceberry, rye and bunch grass, wild rose and current, chokeberry, and, as we each painfully discovered, nettles. Larkspur, penstamon, phlox, yellow Mariposa buttercup, and other flowers we did not know brightened the slopes and meadows. Ahead swallows and magpies flew among the cliffs, and a red-tailed hawk soared high above. Barbara heard the descending trill of a canyon wren.

We found no sign of campsites or fire rings in the brush. But there was a massive quantity of horse and cow manure along the well-used corridor, which was probably a thoroughfare for working buckaroos. In places the creek grew still, deep, and muddy with alkali runoff turning the water milky. We wondered if our water filter would clog if we tried to camp in the canyon. Above us in the rimrock on the north slope several caves offered spooky shelter. The entrance of the largest one was barred by an elaborate grid of rusting welded-iron strap, the only sign of human presence in the canyon.

After a while the floor of the canyon broadened into a 300-feet wide pastureland. Sagebrush grew short and sparse, replaced by lush green rye and bunch grass. We encountered no grazing cattle. Overhead a peregrine falcon flew from wall to wall, keeping a wary watch on us. When we stopped for lunch, the bird flew to its nest at the mouth of a hanging side canyon. A group of large raucous birds, gray with boldly barred flanks, scolded us from the rimrock. We later keyed them out to be chukar.

"What's that?" Barbara asked, pointing out a square plaque at the base of the towering cliff across the creek to the south. It appeared to be a grave marker, or a memorial to someone coldcocked by a falling slab of rock. Even through the binoculars, Barbara could not quite make out the words. So I hopped and squished across the creek to approach the plaque. It read:

I found the Boy Scout marker annoying. The whole thing felt wrong. Discordant. From its rectangular carcass reeked the aroma of rotting fish and indoctrination. Like the stench that must have filled the halls when Hitler Youth were taught Aryan Supremacy. Or Andrew Jackson preached Manifest Destiny to land-hungry pioneers. Those bright-eyed little Boy Scouts, all wrapped in their flags and honor, had been fed the party line by some crew-cut scoutmaster not born when the incident took place. I wanted to hear the Indians' side of the story. Not until we returned home, however, was I able to dig out the complete story of the sad and sordid affair known as the "Last Indian Battle".

We hiked out beneath threatening clouds and intermittent drizzle, arriving back at the van around 4 P.M. The wind had picked up. As we pondered what to do, a bright yellow-and-black bird serenaded us from a stalk of sage. It was the Meadowlark we had heard, but not identified, that morning. After dinner we followed a spur road as it wound up the hillside above our camp. In the distance to the east we saw a mineshaft or shelter of some sort not far from the van. We crossed the creek and followed the road up the east fork until we came to an old homestead, with a collapsing shack built into the side of hill. The map identified the place as Woodruff Camp. It appeared long abandoned by sheep herders and buckaroos.

That evening we heard the coyotes again. In the night, something thumping and scraping beside the van, awakening Barbara. She told herself it was only cattle and fell back asleep.

Thursday morning the sky was clear and the sun warm, although thunderclouds still ringed the horizon. As we contemplated the ambiguous weather, Barbara identified a sage thrasher and brown-headed cowbird. I wanted to try backpacking into the canyon for at least one night. It had been ten months since our last backpack. Our last weather report, though a week old, had talked of a warming trend in the latter part of the week. Barbara expressed concern about getting caught in a flash flood in the canyon, but reluctantly agreed. But by the time we had loaded and strapped on our packs, the noose of dark clouds had tightened. Maybe it would pass over.

Once again we hiked down the road, past the ceremonial cow skeleton, and through the gate into Little High Rock Canyon. The familiar trail made for easy hiking. By noon we had reached the broad pasture that I now thought of as Shoshone Mike's stronghold. The sky had completely clouded over. Before we could find a place to set down our packs, the drizzle began. We whipped out our ponchos and helped each other don them over our packs. The drizzle turned into a steady rain. I spotted a fractured indentation in the cliff wall not far from the Shoshone Mike plaque, where the overhanging rock might keep us dry. In a steady rain we crossed the creek and unloaded our backpacks under the cliff. There we sat squeezed into the dry hollow and ate lunch. Soon it dawned on us that the jagged, sharp slabs of rock that made up the ceiling of our niche were loose and could fall on us from the overhang. We needed overhead airbags.

After lunch the rain tapered off, then stopped. We bided our time as showers came and went, trying to decide whether to stay or go. I built a campfire ring near the cliff and pumped water from the creek. The skies cleared overhead, but deep in the canyon we had no view of the horizon and what might be coming. Maybe the rain was done. In a glow of optimism, we set up the tent beneath blue sky (N41 15' 19.4", W119 23' 34.5"). (See Opening Photo). I tossed a line over a rock projecting from the cliff face and hung the food bags, although bears were unlikely in that treeless land. Then we cut firewood from a thick stump of sage with the new pocket chainsaw. We ate an early supper, just in case.

Barbara worried that in a mountain deluge the creek might rise. A flash flood might wash us away. I treated the possibility as remote, pointing out that the creek would have to rise five feet to threaten our tent. Besides, the weather forecast predicted that skies were bound to clear.

After dinner the sky grew ominously dark. Approaching thunder and lightning crackled on the cliffs. Barbara dashed into the tent as the first fat drops began to splatter. I found shelter standing in the cleft beneath the rock face. The rain fell in gusty sheets. The tent shook in the wind like a wet puppy trying to whip loose its tether.

I heard a droning howl I thought at first was an owl, but the sound began to rise and fall like an old Indian chant. "What the hell." My eyes explored the cliffs and canyons for a lurking band of renegades. Nothing. Straining to hear through the rain and wind, I thought the sound was coming from the tent.

"Are you saying something," I yelled into the gale.

"Can't . . . hear you," Barbara yelled back. "Turn on . . . radio."

I found the radio in my pack and turned it on. "Are you saying something?"

"Oh . . . ." There was a pause. "I was just beseeching the clouds to go away." Another pause. "I didn't know you could hear me."

I howled. Barbara howled. The wind continued to howl. Soon the howling ended and the rain let up. Barbara crawled out of the tent into a newly washed world. A few rays of dazzling sunlight glanced from the west, warming, but too feeble to dry. The storm had passed, and the humid air grew calm. Our wet tent drooped, but the inside remained dry. I reinforced the corner stakes with slabs of rock and tightened the lines. We crept in early and, warm in our down bags and soothed by the patter of intermittent showers on the taut rainfly, slept well.

Friday morning was magical. The canyon lay lush green and soaking in the bright sun. Fat droplets clung to every stem and stalk, reflecting each other like the jewels of Indra's web. We emerged from our chrysalises and unfurled our wings to dry in a sunny patch of grassland between the rock wall and the stream. Unhurried, seated on our mats, we sipped our tea and mocha, listened to a chorus of mourning doves and chukar, and traced the flight of a flicker and peregrine falcon across the clear blue sky. Ah, this! Nowhere better to be. Nothing better to do. The world seemed right. In serene peace we ate our oatmeal and dried fruit.

By midmorning the sun had dried our tent, but storm clouds grew in the "V" of canyon to the west. We decided to pack up and hike out. By noon, as we crossed the creek near the canyon mouth, the drizzle began. A steady rain fell as we climbed the road to the van. The rain soon ceased, but patches of blue sky were being crowded out by waves of swelling cumulus. It was time to move on.

A serious storm blackened clouds and closed in around us as we fled south on Road 34 toward Gerlach, hoping to cross the washes before they churned with flood waters. A few miles before the last and deepest stream crossing, the deluge hit. Rain poured down on the sage-covered hills and sheeted off slickrock canyons. We managed to careen across the liquefied gravel of the final stream bed before the water become impassible.

At Gerlach we stopped for lunch, then drove south on the two-lane blacktop of Highway 447 into the eye of another storm. Rain pelted the van until we passed through. The road followed the eastern flank of the Fox Range to Winnemucca Lake, another mostly dry playa remnant of Lake Lahontan cradled between the Lake Range and the Nightingale Mountains. The high desert was in bloom and a hatch of butterflies spattered our windshield.

The highway entered the Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation, with its impoverished little towns and isolated, lonesome houses, yards cluttered with junk and abandoned autos. Were these Paiutes or Shoshone? We had no way of knowing, but sensed smouldering resentment. The federal government's promise of Indian gaming was no economic deliverance for Nevada tribes, where legal gambling had long saturated the culture. Before long we passed Pyramid Lake, whose lovely, wild, wind-waved surface stretched far to the northwest. These sparkling waters formed the final sink for the abundant flow of the Truckee River. White men had neglected to steal this beautiful lake from the Native Americans. We wondered why.

Finally leaving the reservation, the road crossed the Truckee River at Wadsworth, and we felt ourselves spilling down a rabbit hole into another world. Everything was in restless motion. The I-80 corridor dazzled us with sodium lights, speeding traffic, neon advertisements, and casinos. We had reentered the realm of brash Nevadan hustle, where Boy Scout begat Boy Scout and the sole moral principle was profit. Forgotten was the drumbeat of the desert, the rhythm of the range, the voice of the vanquished.

Entering Fernley was like descending into the first circle of hell. The only vacancy we could find was at a place called the TruckInn, a surreal combination of truck stop, casino, motel, restaurant, and bar. A full-sized 18-wheeler had been erected on a fifty-foot pole outside as a bizarre icon of all the place had to offer. As we checked in, the clerk demanded a deposit to obtain a television remote, which spoke darkly of the usual clientele. In the hallways prowled unruly young men with baseball caps and bulging tattoos, while wild girls sauntered with exposed midriffs. We could not be certain that bandits and psycho-killers lurked in the dimly lit corridors, but we locked ourselves in our room until the morning sun drove them all back underground.

Saturday morning we drove west on Interstate 80, following the Truckee upriver. Everywhere the mountains had been clawed open and their chalky insides mined. The naked hills were defaced with roads, antennas, and ORV tracks. We glided past the infamous Mustang Ranch. At Sparks we entered the brown air of the Reno Valley. Bred in moist swamps along the river, the Nevadan culture had proliferated like a slime mold and climbed the valley walls. The freeway carved a path through the built out, paved over, and wanton sprawl. We escaped north on Highway 395 into California.

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