I’ve always been fascinated by people who can endure the stark realities of desert life. Here is an excerpt from “The Side Bar,” one of the stories in my collection SURVIVAL SKILLS. Set in the Nevada desert, this story concerns a handful of characters who work in a hotel casino.
It’s not just the people here who have stories, it’s the land. In Elko County there’s a town that was built on a blizzard-whipped mountaintop where someone found gold in the 1860s. The elevation was 10,000 feet and nearly everything the townsfolk needed had to be hauled up the icy slopes—whiskey was cheaper than water.
Every month or so I drive to a ghost town I haven’t been to before. I’ve walked into listing, cobwebbed shacks, found tin cups and plates still on the tables. Today I’m in Rosamund, about two hours east of White Horse. There isn’t much left: stone foundations, a roofless drugstore, parts of the sagging saloon. Dealers and collectors have picked the place clean, but roughing up the dirt I find two unbroken bottles: “Hamlin’s Wizard Oil Liniment” and “SOS Vermin Killer.”
While April is usually a cool month in the high desert, the temperature today is over eighty, so I hike up a stony slope and eat lunch in the scant shade of a juniper. The sky is blue, the mountains brown, just two colors taking care of everything. There is no sound, no chirping birds, no babbling brooks, no car engines, just a huge silence to slip into. I could be the last person on earth.
I take a bite of my ham sandwich and ponder the crumbling square of a house where people once ate, slept, fought, made love, had children, got sick and died. Looking at the drugstore, I have no trouble envisioning the miners, dirty, coughing, walking in and out of the door. I conjure up an old yellow dog lying in the shade, a couple of prostitutes leaning up against the posts, laughter and piano music coming from the saloon. It doesn’t take much imagination to evoke those days. Nevada has more ghosts than living people and the land is strewn with what’s left of their dreams.
It’s dark by the time I got to the outskirts of White Horse and there’s a gorgeous pink line in the west, just above the black horizon. I stop the car and roll down the window, let the night air wash over my face. It smells of sage and silver, of mica and cold clean bone. Out there, all around me, are creatures I can’t see, small desperate animals darting over the rocks. What I can see are the neon lights of town and, even from this distance, the White Horse Casino sign: a tall smiling cowboy holding the ace of hearts.
The coyotes are howling. They do this almost every night, launch their plaintive chorus into the starry heavens. Are they joining forces, organizing a hunt? Or do they just need to know they’re not alone?
Last month a chef in Reno pricked his thumb on a contaminated chicken bone and died ten days later. A friend of mine was struck and killed by a falling eucalyptus tree while she was jogging. Take all the precautions you want, staying alive is a stroke of luck.
I think that’s why I like the desert so much—all this terrifying space, this nothingness, and me just a dot in the middle of it.
Okay. Here I am. Come get me.