The vast glassiness of Washoe Lake overwhelmed me the first time I drove by on the 395 to Reno. The foothills of the Sierras Nevada rose to greet the clouds that were definitely full of snow---or so the weather report on the radio told me.
December had quickly become my new favorite month in college when my parents staked their new claims in the desert dust of Carson City. It became our home base after my sister and I left for school. But when Christmas rolled around with the first sharp inhale of colder weather after stepping off the Greyhound in Nevada, that always meant the desert was calling us home.
As I drove that morning to Reno to check out a coffee shop I’d read about, I could not keep myself from snagging glances at Washoe, absentmindedly searching for the wild horses I’d seen running across the shallows that still had yet to freeze. The lake came dangerously close to the highway and would probably flood the asphalt when the snow melted.
I switched the music to a playlist my dad had made. If you know my dad, you know very well that he is the reason why I love the music that I do. The twangy perfection of Jon Prine came through the speakers, sounding like every lonely road I’d driven in Nevada with my dad, humming along together like we always had.
No, we’re not the jet set, where the old Chevrolets at?
I thought about what this place must have been like when Virginia City was teeming with hopeful cowboys in search of silver, or what Genoa must have sounded like on any given might be the home of Nevada’s oldest saloon. I can’t imagine the number of beers that have slid down the bar, streaking it wet.
Our Bach and Tchaikovsky is Haggard and Husky.
What about the number of lonely harmonic tunes that must have been sung around a fire, as Pony Express pioneers sang about their women back home? Or the pattering feet of the Washoe tribe, navigating the tumbleweed-strewn trails of the valley?
No we're not the jet set, where the old Chevrolets at, but ain’t we got love?
What was it like to stand on the edge of one’s porch in the fall, suddenly feeling the piercing chill from the mountains find its way through the pine trees and golden hills? Would I be worried?
Voices like Jon Prine’s remind me suddenly of all the roads that lead to something good, as if the change in pitch of his voice bends and turns with each curve in the road, showing me the way home. I desperately loved the way the high desert made me feel too. Some might find it empty, but to me, it full of this openness that supplied so much wonder. It’s dustiness and sagebrush just put me in a mood.
It could have been related to the first time I camped in the high desert when I was 14. It wasn’t far from Carson, actually, in a national monument in Klamath Falls. I remember the crispness of the night and waking up under the stars around 3 am in my sleeping bag. I remember looking up at the sky and genuinely being terrified that it might fall and shatter into a million, beautiful starry pieces. I had never seen stars like that before. The moon shown over the cinder cone volcanoes like something out of the wild west movies, and all we needed was a lone coyote howling at it. I wanted to wake up my friends who were with me, so they could see how beautiful it was too. But something made me keep that first impression of the high desert to myself. As if my God, the same one who made all of those stars, knew it would later play a massive part in my life, and it was really important I pay attention to just how brilliant and full of life it was.
I always think of Klamath when I drive certain, more deserted parts of Nevada. It’s always a little intimidating during the day with the heat and the seemingly empty place that it exudes. But when the sun sets and suddenly a billion little universes feel like they could crush you, it makes you feel small in the best way.
I think that’s what gets me about the desert: the fact that I can drive through it, staring up at the sky from it, and experience a whole different level of beauty that comes with feeling small. It makes everything else feel like window dressing---a little less urgent. That feeling is a relief in my life: whatever I am experiencing in my day, whatever I feel, is ridiculously small compared to the rest of the universe. It makes me want to live my life vastly different.
Going home to Nevada has become a chance for perspective. I always look forward to finding a good spot to pull over and watch the stars when I drive back from Reno or when I walk my dog. The bigness of the desert makes my smallness feel like it too can be something grander.
I get to go home here in a month for Thanksgiving, and you can bet the pup and I are going to find some killer stars to wonder at. My dad and I will probably drive in the car together listening to Jon Prine, and my mom and I will most likely go in search of some snow near Tahoe. When home is no longer a place, but a feeling that makes all of the other things drift away, just like staring up at the stars, I don’t think I need any other reason to stay.