Sometimes, on the right kind of morning, Nevada looks like waves frozen in rock. Long ridges roll away to the horizon. Broad stretches of sage and playa form paler troughs between them. From a distance, it all looks barren, lifeless, baking. But look closer: within hide riches for the senses and the spirit.
Just on the cusp of summer, we are riding the rocky creases in the shoulder of a granite mountain, moving cattle across the valley into their July and August pasture. It is my first journey into this canyon, into this part of the ranch. From down below, it looks forbidding, inaccessible. Stories of rattlesnakes always accompany the conversation about this place. But there's a good trail up the draw. I stop worrying and start looking around.
Six-foot tall water hemlock spread deceptively lovely leaves between the sagebrush along the stream. Curlleaf mountain mahogany and snowberry blanket the high draws. I ride up the canyon to a wet meadow; cattle scattered here take one look at me and charge off toward the flat. My husband is somewhere above me on the ridge. We'll clean this draw and then the next one to the north.
Dawdling along, distracted by the beauty of the place, I am startled to hear hollering above me. It's Tim, waving me further up the hill. I twist around, looking the way he's waving; but from down in the creek bed, I can't see anything. I trot up to where the canyon splits into two identically brush-choked draws. I can see him, but he's too far away for me to hear which way he wants me to go. Scanning the slope, I still don't see anything, but it's pretty plain there's something up there, and probably not just a beautiful flower. The rocky slope rises four hundred feet in a quarter mile. My horse scrambles and huffs. We switchback up the sidehill.
Way on top, tucked deep in the brush, the white face of one old Hereford cow betrays her hiding place. One whoop and she's obediently down the canyon. I lose sight of her and pick my way down, across the boggy meadow and up the other side to the ridge where my husband's waiting.
When I reach him, he gives me his inscrutable gaze, shakes his head and says, "You know, if I tell you to go back, it's because I can see something you can't." He turns his horse, we trot just a little farther, and before me spreads a whole world.
From the nameless ridge between two canyons where I sit, my eye scans perhaps three hundred miles. To the east, across the blond valley, long volcanic ridges march off to the skyline, punctuated by masses of granite poking through their ash-flow blanket. To the north, this range curves down into the sediment like the tailbone of a fallen giant half submerged in mud.
Westward through the pass, across the border into Oregon, flat basalt tables step off, black platters in the distance. Below are the waves of rock that make Nevada end here; a great fault has transformed the motion of the earth's crust from up and down to a hidden sideslipping. In just a few miles the entire terrain changes, and with it, our sense of place within.
You must climb up to a high place to see what you cannot see from below. The ranch, our home, lies behind us, a square shadow of dark green in lighter green alfalfa fields. From here it looks small, quiet, further away than its thirty miles across the flat. How many people can look back on their home, on their drive to work in the morning, and see the way they have come? Would things that look like disaster from down there, look like something else from up here?
Sometimes, on the right kind of morning, the light reveals details in the mountain never seen before, no matter how many times you've looked. Sometimes, although the trail is hidden, it's easy once you find it. Sometimes a friend can guide you, if you can stop a moment to see where they're looking. Sometimes, you just have to trust that voice floating across the blue sky, saying, "Go back. I can see something you can't."
Early Turnout to a Dry Spring
All the promise of the new season wither
in sullen gray clouds that refuse to share their moisture.
We raise our eyes to the north,
scan skies for a promise of rain,
breathe in the hope of that wet desert smell—
Springs in the high country draw on old water deep inside;
I cross the ridge in January,
a skiff of dry snow dusting
the road I've only known in summer.
We open the gates. The calves gambol out,
kicking up dust where the fuzz of green grass
I watch cattle turn back and look at me,
As if asking, "Now? Already? Are you sure?"
Spanish word for hope,
sound of softly running water.
Inside it, espera,
The old man looks off
across the meadow,
across the years:
"I remember seven years together
when the river did not run."
Wait for the water,
wait and hope.
is the echo that is left
when the memory of heaven