I’m reprinting this story, written in January 2009, in honor of my sister, Nancy, and her husband, John, who are celebrating their 50th Anniversary today.
Most of my wandering in the desert I’ve done alone. Not so much from choice as from necessity – I generally prefer to go into places where no one else wants to go. I find that in contemplating the natural world my pleasure is greater if there are not
too many others contemplating it with me, at the same time.”
— Edward Abbey (Desert Solitaire)
I remember my sister, Nancy, and her new husband, John, taking me away for long weekends – to their home in Sacramento, and, once, to John’s hometown in Nevada.
Nancy was fun – laughing a lot and telling stories, playing music. John was funny. He was able to make anything comedic. He was a satirist in his own right – and reminded me of George Carlin. But, as the little sister, it bothered me when he teased Nancy, which he frequently did. She laughed it off and took it in stride.
In Sacramento, I remember John building waterfalls out of driftwood and pipe for their little home. I seem to remember a flood of some sort one weekend I was there – some appliance or waterfall gone wrong. I loved their big dog, “Bear.” He did indeed look like a big black bear – and was the sweetest and most loyal dog I ever knew. John also gave me my first (and last) ride on a motorcycle. It scared the bejezus out of me. I was a tough kid in a lot of ways, but fast car rides and this ride on a motorcycle scared me. But I liked that John took the time for something special like that with me. I think we also floated in inner tubes or a raft down the American River.
John’s sister, Kathy, was a year older than I. A couple of times, John and Nancy arranged for us to be at their house on the same weekend. Kathy was nice to me – and I thought she was very cool. She and I kept planning what we would do when I visited her home in Nevada. At last, we bugged John and Nancy so much that they decided to do it – to take me to Kathy’s for a long weekend.
I had been through Nevada on family vacations – we had driven several times from Reno to Salt Lake City. But no one in my family had ever considered hanging out there or staying there for fun. There was always a great fear that our car would break down somewhere in Nevada and the buzzards would find us later. I thought it was absolutely hilarious that John pretended to prefer Nevada to California. (He must have been pretending, right?) As we drove over the Sierra’s and crossed the border, he shouted, “Look, Karie! God’s country!” He had to be joking.
As we descended from the heights of the Sierras to the Nevada desert, John pointed out the difference in the roads. It was something I, as an eleven-year-old, had never considered: road surfaces. The road did seem blacker and less bumpy. John said it was because of gambling revenue. Nevada had much better roads than California. Okay, I could give him that one.
We left Reno and headed east. John taught me that you could tell what county a Nevada car was from by reading their license plate. He taught me the code for Washoe County, his county. There were lots of cars with those licenses driving around. Soon we were in the desert.
“This is God’s country?” I asked. John scowled at me in the rear view mirror and shook his head.
At last we arrived in the small rural town where John had grown up. It was something like a movie set. I could picture Ben Cartwright riding into town. No, we weren’t in the Bay Area anymore. The home where John’s mother, stepfather, sister and brother lived completed the set. To me it was like Big Valley or the Ponderosa. The house seemed rather grand – with French doors leading in to the living room and shelves and windowsills full of antique glass. So, this was Nevada.
John’s mom introduced me to a feral cat living in their garage. I spent my spare moments that weekend attempting to tame it. I always had a special way with cats. I coaxed it into letting me pet it for a moment, but then some movement in the distance spooked it and it was gone in an instant.
John’s mother also took us all on a day of arrowhead hunting. It was fuel for the imagination. We drove out to the middle of nowhere and she said, “Okay, here it is.” I couldn’t imagine anything interesting in this bright white, hard desert. But sure enough, in just minutes we were finding tiny seed beads – real Native American beads. I imagined the people who lived and apparently fought or hunted here. We found arrowheads and parts of arrowheads. It reminded me of hunting for seashells – without the ocean.
Then we had some kind of car problem. A “float in the engine” – whatever that was – was causing us trouble. John’s brother rescued us with his pickup truck. John’s brother was a good looking older teenager. He was nice to me, quite mature, and reminded me of a cowboy.
Late that afternoon, things got exciting after we got home. The bright sunny day became cloudy in an instant and everyone ran through the beautiful house closing windows. I had never experienced a dust storm before. The wind blew black clouds of dust and then the rain came down in huge drops like mud. Nevada weather was more intense than I had experienced. I worried about the cat hiding in rafters of the garage.
In Nevada, I got acquainted with Kathy’s small town world. I knew she was always talking about boys. The boys in my life, who I talked about, were just that: sixth grade boys. The boys in Kathy’s world were something else.
On Saturday night, there was a street dance – something I’d never heard of. The girls in town wore their jeans skin tight. I mean skin tight. Kathy helped me to baste a seam in my baggier pants so that I wouldn’t look so out of place. Kathy was tiny and I could never have fit into her jeans. These were not boot cut jeans, though they did wear boots. I remember she had a technique involving a pencil to get her socks up under the bottom of her jeans. All of the girls at the dance were dressed identically. No we were not in the Bay Area – where we wore peasant blouses and faded, baggy jeans. And these were not boys asking Kathy to dance, these were young men.
There was live music – and the guys checked out the girls. We stood with other girls waiting for someone to come over and ask us to dance. I was out of my comfort zone and felt like a child. I don’t recall all of the details of the evening. I do know I was relieved when we finally got home, later that night. I thought California girls were wild. Nevada girls were wilder.
The next day, we went water-skiing, of all things. We drove for miles through a bleak landscape. But there, sure enough, in the middle of the desert was a huge body of water – Rye Patch Dam. I had experienced my first taste of water-skiing on Lake Leander in Minnesota, where my sister, Martie, now lived. I couldn’t wait to ski again. We skied all day and had a picnic on the rocky beach. But the thing I remember most was “Bear Dog” jumping out of the boat and off of the land, over and over – wanting to save us when we fell. It was the most endearing thing. This dog was fished out of deep water again and again because he was afraid John, Nancy, Kathy or I were going to drown.
At last, we were all packed up and ready to head home. I made one last attempt to befriend the cat. It peeked out from the rafters, but wouldn’t come down to say goodbye. I had a tiny bag full of beads and arrowheads to show everyone at home. I said goodbye to Kathy and promised to write her all summer – which I did. I also went home and mangled two perfectly good pairs of jeans trying to tailor them and wear them the way they did in Nevada.
As we drove out of Reno and over the Sierras, John looked at me in the mirror as we crossed the state line. “Okay Karie, say goodbye to God’s country…and get ready for pollution, crowded highways, and crappy California roads.”
I looked back out the window. The weekend had truly been an adventure – it introduced me to a completely different world. “Hmmm…” I thought, “Maybe Nevada is part of ‘God’s country’ too….” But I’d never give John the satisfaction of admitting it.