Saturday, November 5, 2016

Wilderness Rambler

On a recent September afternoon, after having spent the day cooped up in my study productively hunched over the computer, I stepped out the front door into a haze of yellow autumn light.  The air was exquisitely mild, as it can only be on days when summer runs itself out into fall.  I went for the mail and then, unable to bear the thought of going back to my desk, I went to the desert.

I threw a bottle of water and my camera in the pick-up, and headed down the rural highway that bisects the valley where I live.  Just before the highway climbs out of the valley's south-east end, I took a left onto a washboarded dirt road that was smartly marked with new government signage: "Mud Lake Reservoir."  I felt a faint stab of resentment at the sign, maybe because I felt that some places shouldn't be too easy to find.  The dirt road winds around some scrubby outcroppings topped with gray crumbling volcanic rimrock, and through some seedings of crested wheat grass.  Then there's a long climb up a steep incline cut into a hill.  At the top, I stepped out of the pick-up to admire the view—sublime emptiness:

Shocks squeaking, I bounced along the road which winds through a sort of high canyon carpeted with sage and bunch grass, juniper trees clinging to the slopes above.  Eventually, my view opened out onto a vast dry lakebed, known as Horse Head Lake, though I can't say when was the last time it held any measurable amount of water.  It is a sagebrush flat, and today a lone pronghorn stood sentinel in the dead center of the vast clearing, ringed around by cliffs and broken rimrock.  I stopped to have a closer look, but he did not run from me.  He only looked, his great black eyes catching the light.


Onwards I rambled, through the shallow juniper-strewn canyon and at last to the banks of the prosaically named Mud Lake, though in these final summer days the name couldn't have suited better.  The lake was dried up to the point of being a marsh, populated by a rowdy crowd of Canada geese and a herd of pronghorns, who upon seeing me stirred themselves into a graceful slow motion flight across the lakebed.  Creeping low through the sage like a predator, I stalked the geese with my camera, until, increasingly nervous at my approach, they exploded into a wild honking blur of wings, outstretched necks, and webby landing gear.

I saw no one.  I heard no one.  Only my own boots crunching on the gravel, the distant hum of an insect, the occasional cry of a bird.  All else was silence.  The sun-warmed junipers breathed their astringent aroma into the air, and I crumbled a few leaves of sage between my fingers to better smell the sharp tang off my skin.  I was alone.  True, people come out here, but they are occasional visitors: a pair of hunters, a rancher moving cattle, the odd rambler like me.  And then they are gone.  

It is interesting to me that some (surely well-intentioned) people, in the name of "conservation," would have much of my remote desert officially declared a "wilderness area" by an act of Congress.  What does this mean? It means, among other things, that no motorized vehicles would be allowed.  In terms of access, the net result would be that most of the small number of people who delight in the beauties of this lovely place would no longer be able to do so.  Only a backpacker, physically able and fit, equipped with food and water for multiple days, along with tent and sleeping bag, would be blessed to enjoy these far-flung precincts.  The rationale is that these lands need "protection."  But from what?  There is no oil, gas, or mineral extraction in these parts.  And why lock people out when so few come?  This desert is already wilderness.  But it is a wilderness that can be enjoyed by any rambler who takes the trouble to find it.