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Russell Wangersky: Finding refuge in the desert

Fifty miles north of the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, past the flat playa at Gerlach and the dry mountain creek beds that flood wide with spring rains, passing the acres of sage, ticking off the occasional springs with stands of poplars and willows, you approach Fly Canyon, a stone gorge that nature has cut straight into the rock.

Outside, it’s as dry as the dust in your nose, the alkali flats white and crusted over hard and cracking, and what wildlife there is, is occasional. The warble of packs of coyotes calling back and forth; jackrabbits exploding out of low sage cover; the distant croak of crows; other than that, it’s almost completely soundless.

And there (though I hesitate to say exactly where), there is a thing that almost restores faith in humanity. It’s a simple thing, actually, a one-room cedar-shaked cabin with a small attached covered corral in case you have horses. The cabin has a wood stove in one corner, a pile of wood at the ready, a countertop, a wooden pad for you to unroll a bedroll on, a single steel folding chair. It is tidy and well-kept, and the wonder is that it is not so much kept up by anyone, but by everyone who comes to use it.

No reservations, no schedule, no lock on the door — a simple drop-latch that you open and you’re inside in shelter for the night.

The cabin has a diary that spells out the variety of its guests: bird hunters, others sighting larger game for hunts, rovers, tourists, and sometimes, just those who come across the place by sheer accident, people driving through vast and vacant Bureau of Land Management lands who spot its small structure across the flat of the desert and drive the long bullied and battered road in to see just exactly what it is. There’s no water, no electricity, but a remarkably pleasant pit toilet.

Windows on three sides of the building, a couple of heavyset picnic tables out front. Mountains in the distance on almost all sides, their colour and nature changing with the light and the time of day. Sometimes, the ranges are as purple as second-day bruises — sometimes, a solid stone grey. In the morning and evening, pink or a deeper burgundy.

And last thing before darkness, a matte black that makes them look as if they could be black paper cutouts of themselves, as if they might simply have been pasted up there to make you believe there were mountains.

The cabin was recent repaired, the roof fixed, new shingles replacing ones that had aged and split. Volunteers came in to do the work, with workers drawn from people who had used the cabin before.

Some leave canned goods; others, toilet paper and even ammunition. Some have written instructions for lighting the cantankerous wood stove. Others have left board games and books and a Coleman lantern to provide a little light in the otherwise jet black darkness.

The diary has different handwriting, different inks, and the tone is a simple one: how wonderful that this place is here, that it is cared for by its users, that it is treasured and shared and appreciated.

The desert is a place that often amazes — amazement at the things that can live there, that plants and animals survive in conditions that are far beyond harsh.

No reservations, no schedule, no lock on the door — a simple drop-latch that you open and you’re inside in shelter for the night.

When the moon slips down over the line of the horizon, when the temperature plunges and the stars blaze out in huge profusion, it is beyond breathtaking. When the one ranch you can see in the distance goes dark, and the world has emptied of other humanity. When there is so little sound that it’s possible to imagine that you’ve actually gone deaf, when some small cactus flower bursts out of dust, or when you set foot on a trail used by the gold miners of 1849, the wheel-ruts still obvious in the sand, where you fit in the whole scale of time and distance is humbling.

So often, travelling means seeing the worst of human behaviour, rather than the best — the need to break empty bottles or pitch them in the ditch. To break windows and tag everything from rock formations to old buildings with paint. Signs shot through with bullet holes; things defaced, abandoned buildings burned. It is often discouraging to see how little we care for our shared surroundings.

But at this small cabin, and at another bunkhouse near the High Rock Canyon, it was more about the act of sharing a place with people you would never know or meet. At the bunkhouse at the Stevens Camp, their diary has a sharp rebuke for a group who didn’t share the best behaviour, who left that bunkhouse stove filled with their empty beer cans.

But that was the exception, rather than the rule.

It’s wonderful to know that we can actually do that: share, rather than simply take things for ourselves. Build up together, rather than tearing down.

It’s something I will never forget.


Russell Wangersky is the SaltWire Network’s Atlantic regional columnist. His columns appear in 36 newspapers across the region. He can be reach at Twitter: @wangersky.

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