I. I Drive Over Stuff
Like most Nevadans, I’m from somewhere else. And like many of us, that somewhere is California. I am a creature of California’s superlatives: the easy beauty of San Francisco in the summer fog, how casually it wears its fault lines and potential for catastrophe. And because I’m a Californian, Nevada’s understated intensity—its harshness, the things it does to the skin (my arms and thighs are dotted with weird eczemas and scaly blotches), the way it forces you to really stare at something for awhile if you want to see it. It’s the most arid desert in the US, full of tiny, ground-hugging plants and creatures, and a relentless dry wind. Moving here required a new practice of observation and a thicker skin. Nevada, the Great Basin desert. Some grating resistance about the place: America had failed for the most part to green it with dams, and for all that effort, the rain did not follow the plow, and those streams which did flow gushed in the torrential way that desert streams do—swelling the arroyos, rushing down mountains in muddy torrents—though mostly they were dry. And so we take pride in scarifying Nevada, bombing and mining and overgrazing its basins and ranges. What else could we do with our technology but destroy a place like this? We had failed to green it with dams, to make it look like an English Landscape Garden, and so we punished and humiliated the place for its sullen disobedience.
I bend down to see things; the grouse and the jackrabbit jump up and startle me. I’ve gotten used to bending down. I started seeing rocks and ground-hugging animals. I tried to come to them where they hid.
I try to learn defeat, the condition of desert humility. I try to get out of my images, try to avoid looking at the desert through the lens of movies, or to even think of it as a place that benefits from being looked at in any way. The bigness is not empty. It doesn’t require my vision, especially when that vision always tends toward the apocalyptic, toward looking at the desert as the disastrous wreckage of some prior life—which, looked at through the lens of conquest, it is, but looked at as a precursor to the end of the world I grew up in, it emphatically isn’t. That dread word desert, supposed endpoint of the destruction of the world, is pretty meaningless here. This habitat is unlike California, which contains multitudes (Nevada being almost entirely Great Basin Desert, its Southern tip touching the Colorado and Sonoran Deserts), and its abundance is subtle and mostly silent, so it’s hard to look at straight on. But to assume that it was once something else, and has now become a wasteland, misses the point: the desert is not post-apocalyptic. In fact, the desert refutes that peculiar sense of time which describes history as moving toward an end. No way! These rocks, shrubs and middens are festivals of antiquity and silent carrying-on: slowness, erosion. Not a bang, not a whimper, just dryness and sudden water.
You have to train yourself to see it that way, though: that shoal of chalk up there on the canyon rim, 2,000 feet above your head, is an ancient beach. In a truck it’s just too easy to mistake the blur of rabbitbrush and jagged rubble for nothing. I’m a Nevadan, now, coming on eight years, and I look good in a truck, and I drive around in a truck to look, so any gust of admiration or desire for tutelage is tempered by the crimped perception at speed in the cab of a truck. Eventually I get out and walk a bit, but I should walk more, carry more water, let the tips of my ears redden and burn, learn to run like a jackrabbit; hide, say nothing.
Because it’s so hard to distill the Great Basin Desert to an essential figure—Michael Heizer, the cantankerous land artist and creator of some of the paradoxically largest and most sensitive work about Nevada, talks of size here, not scale—one has to stop looking for familiar presences and get a loose feeling for the unfamiliar, abiding beige. It took me a few years to see exactly what Heizer was trying to say: that any attempt to gather a whole image of the place is distorted by the hugeness and clarity of mountain ridges set against the sky, the pale blue clarity of dry air as it rushes down the slopes; that the price of that clarity is the realization that things are either HUGE or tiny. There’s no middling, human-sized stuff.
I thought of Heizer’s formulation when, driving to work one day up the Mount Rose highway, my friend L. said “I love how much you love Nevada.” It surprised me to hear that. I must’ve been talking excitedly about something. But she’s right, I do love Nevada, though it occurred to me that I don’t know much about it. I know enough to see the beige smallness next to the beige hugeness. My love is an unambitious love, but it has at its core a hint of religious zeal—whether that’s just the regular old sublime at work, or a product of my family’s history in this part of the world, I’m not sure. I usually attribute it to the charge of static electricity on certain summer days, when, if you touch anything, a spark jumps between you and an other: gas pump nozzle, lover, stone, bush.
I come from desert people on my father’s side, Mormon migrants and homesteaders. They settled in Southeastern Idaho, fleeing religious persecution. Considering the way we talk about migration in 2018, this feels important to note: they, too, were refugees. I wasn’t raised Mormon. My parents divorced when I was pretty small, and my father had been kicked out of the church for drunkenness and brawling. But when my brother and I visited relatives in rural Oregon, I heard snatches of history and the scriptures, and it all sounded good, something like a spiritual version of the Conan the Barbarian films I watched: conquered cities and wooden characters with lofty, stentorian things to say that didn’t make much sense but sounded really good. Rooting around in my aunt’s basement, I found illustrated scenes from the Book of Mormon, in which someone called the Son of Jared, a musclebound hunk in a deer-colored loincloth, was said to have conquered some cities in South America. White guy standing in front of some kitschy mash-up of a step pyramid wielding a weapon. Ominous clouds. We had lots of fun with our cousins, but since we weren’t Mormon kids we stood apart.
I love this bumpersticker you see in Reno sometimes. It says ‘I don’t care how they do it in California.’ My friend, a native Nevadan, speculates that only California transplants to Nevada put that one on their trucks.
Though I came from desert people, I didn’t grow up in the desert. After the divorce, my mother, brother and I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. My brother and I were raised nominally Christian, though my mom was a bit of a dilettante—hers was a square version of the spiritual exploration that led hippies into all sorts of quests and paths. Mom married into a German Catholic family whose ancestors were early California oilmen. Once in a while we’d attend mass. This was the early ‘80s, during the height of liberation theology, the Latin American Catholic movement which tried to focus the church’s energy on fighting political, economic, and imperialist oppression. In this sliver of Marin County, that meant acoustic guitars, folk music and an image of Jesus as a well-meaning, middle class college student.
As a Westerner, I grew up between the cosmopolitan openness of the San Francisco Bay Area in the ‘80s and the willful Reagan-y, innocence and inwardness of my rural family, whether in the San Joaquin or Arizona or Oregon. I’m made of two ways of being a Westerner. I am a creature of the Bay Area, but I live way off in the distance, in Nevada, and my love for Nevada is the zeal of the convert, and therefore capricious, making me vulnerable to disappointment. Do my feelings of warmth and nearness to the ornamental figs, magnolias, and oaks of the Bay Area always subject me to a gaping sense of loss? I love this bumpersticker you see in Reno sometimes. It says “I don’t care how they do it in California.” My friend, a native Nevadan, speculates that only California transplants to Nevada put that one on their trucks.
I’m not sure if my father ever drove any car that wasn’t a truck. I only really saw him a few times as a child, during the short detente when he paid child support, maybe the first year or two after the divorce. They divorced when I was three. For a year or two afterwards, I would be sent on occasion to visit my father, who had moved back to Arizona, who was skidding on his way to down and out and had to move back in with his parents in Tempe. In the morning as we ate our Cheerios, roadrunners hopped the fence and sprinted across the lawn, with its tufts of greeny-beige, closely-cropped crabgrass. The heat of the day was usually unbearable; a host of spiders lived in the carport. Dusk and dawn were nice. On those trips, my father woke me early on Saturdays to go fishing at Lake Powell. We took his red F-150 with the silver panelling and a sparkly red stick shift. The memories are fragmentary, and involve the sound of feral donkeys braying from the bluffs above the lake.
One memory has us stopped on an empty two lane road in the Sonoran Desert—silver, pre-dawn moonlight on the ocotillo and the rocks. My father didn’t pull his truck over, he just stopped in the middle of the road, the headlights beaming into the blue-black desert ahead of us. He opened the door and got out of the truck, the door making that utilitarian, tinny squeak old F-150 doors used to make. He stepped out and walked around the hood of the truck. I unclasped my seatbelt, and stood on the seat. I was small and couldn’t see over the dash, so I stood up. I was anxious. I knew my father to be antic, and the desert, a playground to him, seemed to me desolate and frightening around us. I worried he would just walk off into the void and leave me in the truck: I could see myself sitting in the cab alone, the sun and heat rising, trying to decide whether it was OK to eat my baloney sandwich or ration it for the long walk back to civilization. I saw his face lit up from below by the large speedometer behind the red steering wheel. In the headlight beams he walked a few steps and then bent over. My father is a large man–six foot five and wide. He didn’t seem fat to me—more like the giant in “Jack and the Beanstalk.” Huge and powerful. He bent down at the hips, and reached both hands down onto the warm pre-dawn asphalt, his body a great expanse of denim and flannel. He rose, fell back on one leg, stood and then steadied himself. Trembling flannel. In the yellow light of the headlight beams, I could see he was holding something at a weird angle, something buff-colored and dull. My father already walked with a limp, the consequence of being so big and driving a cement mixer. He walked around, holding the buff thing away from his body; he came around to my side of the truck and opened the door, same tinny creak—the horizon beginning to come to blue light.
My father was holding a three or four-foot-long bull snake, which stuck its little face right into mine. It flicked its tongue, sensing, I suppose, my heat. I recoiled. Bull snakes look like rattlesnakes—camouflage so that other creatures won’t mess around with them. They’re harmless, but no matter, it scared the living shit out of me. I thought, with the grandeur of a child’s fear, that my father was trying to poison me with a desert creature. I cried. He laughed and pretended to kiss the snake, which frightened me even more. What if it bit him on the tongue and he died, or he survived after having his tongue blacken, shrivel up, and fall off? After a bit more fooling, my father withdrew the snake, saying “What? It’s a bull snake—it’s not going to hurt you, weenie.” He placed the creature on the shoulder, and came around the hood again, his big frame in the headlights, dawn coming. I peered through the truck’s window, could see the snake’s form move from the asphalt and into the roadside rubble. I cried, sat and snapped my seatbelt across me. My father started the truck, and we headed toward the lake. He laughed and rubbed his big dry hand on my face. It was rough and made a raspy sound against my cheek. I stared out the window at the cactus and rubble in the creaky silence of the cab. The air was cool. It whistled through the quarter window. We came to the boat launch. I ate my baloney sandwich in the little boat, the glistening water throwing desert light all around us, the aluminum hull sloshing and slapping in the white blue chop.
I could never see my father as quite human. He struck me more as a chunk of pillowy tufa that broke off and put on a trucker’s hat, an in-between creature, an unstable form. Biologically, a father, yes, but comporting himself more as a figure out of a dream—not my dream, but his. Or maybe not his dream, exactly—more like a Waylon Jennings or Desperadoes Waiting on Train dream. A dream in which children are at the periphery.
His photo albums feature the corpses of Pronghorn Antelope, and the walls of his room at my grandparents house had rattlesnake skins mounted on brown and beige felt. They hung from the walls in vertical stripes, the rattles still attached, tilting to the side. The skins scared me, too. Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys was on heavy rotation in those years. In a movie, Clint Eastwood drove a truck with an outgoing orangutan named Clyde, who knocked people out with the command “right turn, Clyde.” My dad loved trucks. Trucks, however, made me a wary kid: he kept a pistol in the glovebox.
He wasn’t much of a father, but his interest in animals, in staring at rocks and being outside is one thing I’ve taken from him. Even as I lived my little suburban teenage life, listening to the Smiths and taking guitar lessons, I knew he was out there, and that kept me a bit out of my head. As my mom and her husband worked in their offices, I could imagine this big truck driver—he drove a cement mixer, and later, hauled ore from the nickel mines—out there roaming the hinterlands in a way no adults I knew could or would. It was a mirage of course—a trick of the light the fatherless are susceptible to—but it had its uses: I could never look at my world as the world.
It’s not the desert, the great basin, that treeless monotonous blankness, that’s empty—it’s the trucks that run roughshod over it that make it seem so. The desert was always already there. Learn how little it needs you.
The irony is that this is a kind of cosmopolitan feeling in reverse. I thought the Bay Area was normal life, and that this other world—the one beyond the Sierras—was strange. Familiar through the movies, yes, but only in the way that Ancient Rome or Modern Tokyo are familiar through the movies. And to think of my father out there was to touch a masculine thing inside myself which ran against the grain of my taste in music and writing, everything I was inhaling through my ears and eyes. The Smiths, say, with that crisp guitar and Morrissey’s at-the-time-charming archness (“Why pamper life’s complexities / When the leather runs smooth on the passenger seat?”); anything lush, baroque, evocative, poetic, even—nowadays, we might call it say queer. That was what I was looking for, some stark contrast there between the bumbling, gigantic image of my father in a truck, and me, sitting cross legged on the floor in front of my stereo. He was masculine in the approved manner: there were cobwebs, a pistol, a Folger’s tin can full of nails, and various hammering implements. And so, maybe that’s why I think I should look good in a truck—because I’m a man, and men look good in trucks, even though, in truth, I have a real pencilneck vibe about me. I’m Pee Wee Herman to my father’s Large Marge.
There’s a truck parked down the street from my house that has a huge window decal which reads, “I drive over stuff.” I may look good in a truck, but I despise that attitude of casual contempt, that active hatred, in which the ‘thou’ of the world, the particularity of things, is reduced to that obnoxious, disregarding word “stuff.” I walk by and give the driver (a man) a dirty look, and don’t give myself a hard time for matching the decal’s statement of contempt with my own glaring face. Who do I think I am? Is this driver not my brother, by the plates a Nevadan? Am I his? Should I drive over stuff, should I take care not to shoot at rocks lest I start a brushfire? Nah. I’m more of a skulker, I don’t feel a necessity to advertise my predilections. I think of Michael Heizer driving a tractor in his Stetson, his body wearing that incredible mark, the skin of a white man in this desert; not white, a certain angry gray-orange. Skin which betrays a stupid sense of the desert as a test for men, not something complete in itself, but an opportunity to impose yourself on some implacable thing, some place like this that could kill you in hours: wide open range, room to swing your dick around, ruin a nice little patch of stuff. I’m starting to get skin like that.
II: My Daughter, Genius Loci
I was chatting with a medievalist at the university last month about medieval scribes. She explained to me how, when a scribe approached a fresh sheet of parchment, he did not think of it as a blank that needed to be filled. The parchment was already something—it had been skin and was now parchment, with its own surface and rough topography. But it was never a blank, waiting for the writing to bring the parchment into meaning. The scribe’s way of seeing parchment was very different from how we see paper without marking or writing today. Paper, in this state, is blank—white—waiting to be filled with the little marks that give it meaning. Or, more often, we see a blinking cursor of a blank Word document. Sometimes I think trucks, as a figure of manly Westernness and trampling, are a readymade way of writing into a sense of belonging here, that by driving a truck and buying into the mythology of truck-driving we lose a sense of the great age and pre-existence of the world around us. It’s not the desert, the great basin, that treeless monotonous blankness, that’s empty—it’s the trucks that run roughshod over it that make it seem so. It was always already there. Learn how little it needs you.
Which leads me to the figure of the man in the truck in Nevada. That man can be called to mind. That man has rough skin. That man has a smear of dust on his clothes somewhere. That man squints, that man slams the door of the truck with a resolute thwack, one that always catches. That man looks a bit older than that man actually is. There are crow’s feet. There may be blood somewhere in the vicinity. Surely there is dust on the cuffs of the pants of the man in the truck in Nevada. The man is white, though his skin is browned in some places, blotchy and red in others—the marks of exposure to the sun and the wind. I hate the figure of this man, because I can feel the duping pull of his dull veneer of authenticity. I love the indifference of a graffitied rock—it comes as close as a person can to affecting an anthropocentric look of the desert’s indifference. I want to belong to that indifference, then I remember how such indifference is earned—by disregarding the suffering of people and bushes—even the rocks, blasted as they are for gold, uranium, silver.
How romantic and ridiculous, and yet, some of my best friends drive trucks in Nevada, and they are neither romantic or ridiculous, and their feeling for this desert that wants to kill them is great, too. It makes me think about my daughter, who, at three, is more bookish than I am. She’s a Nevadan—Battle Born, as they say here, invoking the Civil War era motto emblazoned on the state flag—and I want her to drive a truck, to love the traipsing and skulking ways of this country as I have come to. I imagine her, a mixed-race kid who might look more at home on the streets of Los Angeles or Honolulu, driving a truck, covered in dust, being able to read the land in a way that I never could, like my friend R., pointing in any direction and saying the name of the ridge in the distance—Toiyabe. Schell Creek. Pah Rah. The glorious names!
That image of the man in the truck in Nevada is rooted in a past—a long-gone climate, a gone ecology, an old (but persistent) sense of who is most fit to drive a truck in Nevada. And just who is this kind of freedom for? And what if my daughter is, perhaps, a new genius loci of this place? Say she actually wants to come with me, drive along and read “Roadside Geology of Nevada, stopping at any road-cut that presents itself. Maybe—and now we’re really moving into the realm of fatherly wishes—her enthusiasm and mine will take the place of the indifferent man who drives a truck in Nevada. Someday, when I say “Trucks in Nevada,” maybe we’ll imagine a figure like her: mixed, female, sitting in a beat-up truck in the Desatoyas, pulled over, the door propped open, biting into an apple and reading the poems of Jayne Cortez, tasting the air. We see her instead of that flinty stoic man from the cigarette ads. In my mind, she holds the book open and spits with recognition when she comes across the lines “Don’t ask me / who I’m speaking for.” Maybe she won’t ever want to spend time out there, and she can live in that big brain of hers, cracking jokes to herself. Fine with me. Either way, I wonder after her life here on the edge of the Great Basin, how its legendary starkness looks next to her habitual joie de vivre.
I don’t want to be authentic or a destroyer—and I don’t want that fate, and the burden of that legacy, for my daughter either. I want her to be among, and to have her amongness mean more than the domination as practiced by our ancestors. But that brings us to the greatest and most pressing question of trucks, of truck driving, of our patrimony—generations of Western Men in trucks—is there anything in that tradition which is salvageable, beyond the material fact of feeling the desert on your skin? I am a white Westerner, and I have been worked over by the anger, the fear, the sentimental tropes of a flinty rural existence, the austere nobility that can be a part of even that tainted experience. I say here I reject it. I say here I am of it. I don’t know what my daughter will say.
Jared Stanley is the author of three books of poetry, most recently EARS (Nightboat 2017). Recent poems and essays have appeared in Harvard Review, Jacket2, Triple Canopy, Make Magazine (Chicago), and The Offing. He lives in Reno, Nevada, and teaches at the University of Nevada, Reno.