DESERT RATS
             Stories and photos by Tracy Johnston

  Gene Churchill, the cowboy trying to raise two young boys. 

Gene Churchill, the cowboy trying to raise two young boys. 

 

DOWN CARSON pass from San Francisco came the urban woman in a Japanese car filled with Diet Cokes and Western history books, country music filling up every sensual space but the view, which at the moment was beyond the grasp of anything mortal: a vast, high desert stretching east to Utah filled with mountain ranges dropped from the cosmos like rumpled pieces of silk. Dry lake beds appeared like mirages; great swirling circles in chalk.

The woman headed into it all awash in melodrama, singing along with Willie Nelson:

"Mamas don't let your babies grow up to be cowboys,
They'll never stay home and they're always alone,
even with someone they love." 

 

I KNEW I'D COME to another country when I stopped to read a plaque at the top of the Carson Pass that described Kit Carson as a "fearless Indian hunter." In San Francisco, we’d say a “murderer,” but no matter; it’s another century on the backside of the Sierra-Nevada mountain range.

I suggested this trip to the editor of a German magazine when he came to the Bay Area looking for travel stories. He suggested Highway One but I told him to forget the coastline with all those bed-and-breakfasts. "Highway 395," I said, "runs through a desert and is flanked by two of the world’s great mountain ranges. The landscape there is vast and primal. It reminds me of Tibet.”

The editor, no fool, got out a map and allowed as how he might just take that trip himself to see what I was talking about. We discussed how to get there (over Tioga or Carson Pass) and two weeks later I got a fax from Hamburg: “Write about Highway 395, from Bridgeport to Lone Pine, in the style of the great American adventure travel writing.” All this in l500 words. Whew.

The sun was just setting when Bridgeport rolled into view—a tiny green oasis in an expanse of desert scrub and volcanic cones—and I pulled over for a moment to watch the light show and take a few notes. I would beat the word limit, focus on a single adventure; a microcosmic incident. I would

take the spare elegance of the landscape and make it rich with emotion—distill the essence, write the Great Basin novel.  OK. Haiku.

It was only much later that night, alone in my motel room, that I thought about the Great Basin’s human landscape—the people who live alone in trailers in the scrub. The desert rats. I knew there must be women out there but it was easier to spot the men—the left-over drifters of the country music songs. “Geezers” my father used to call them; geezers and coots. I’d always imagined that they knew something important—how to be poor and crazy and happy, for instance.

At a coffee shop the next morning, I overheard one waitress telling another how to get to a local hot springs: “Take the middle fork by old Pete’s trailer and keep to the left.”

“Old Pete’s trailer,” I thought. “Perfect” The waitress was friendly and drew a map for me, and then I asked her about the cowboys I remembered seeing in the cafe 15 years ago.

“The cowboys we get here, honey,” she said, “probably come from the Honeywell dude ranch down Twin Lakes road.  People from Florida and New York pay a fortune to dress up in boots and hats and work at the ranch.  We say they pay to shovel shit.”

  

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