Exploring Empty America
Beyond the End of the Road
Two airborne pilgrims set out on a quest to discover the heart of empty America.
By Laurence Gonzales
Photography by Jonas Dovydenas
We came into that land from the rich rolling green helds of the Midwest. The smell of cut hay and fresh manure drifted up through the vents as Jonas and I took long turns flying an airplane whose interior was so tight that sometimes it felt as if we were reclining side by side in dual coffins.
Over Nebraska, the land grew severe and a harder emptiness beckoned. Though we were still on its farthest edge, we could feel the whirling vortex of those vast spaces. Higher and higher we climbed into skies marked only by the smoke from range fires, until the last few scratchings of man were overblown by dust or overgrown by sage. Finally, we could see nothing man-made from horizon to horizon.
Look at any road map. It will show the entire United States, like a sad old bear, snared in a reinforced concrete net of interstate highways. But as you draw your finger out west to the 120th meridian, there's one spot at the 42nd parallel where it looks as if the bear could get a whole paw through. I-84 veers up toward Portland and I-80 dives toward San Francisco, leaving a great swath seemingly untouched. It was there that we had our compass set: the last empty place in the lower 48.
Though we felt increasingly lost, coming into Nevada's Great Basin upon a desolation so complete that neither eye nor airplane could measure it, we were intent on becoming more lost still. And on our second day out, we spotted our portal to Nowhere.
From 50 miles, the first few white patches were so bright that we thought they must be water. Then we dove down to investigate and saw what appeared to be dry lakes.
We surveyed several small lake beds and selected one in the Black Rock Desert between Jungo and Sulphur, Nevada. It was about nine miles long and clear of obstacles except for a double row of greasewood bushes cutting across it at an angle. Again and again we flew over, inspecting carefully. If the surface was sand or loose dust, we'd bury our wheels going 90, the plane would flip end over end, and... well, that would be bad.
I've worked on and off with my companion on this expedition, photographer Jonas Dovydenas, for years, and by now we don't need to say much when we're working. I know what he's going to do and mostly I know why, and sometimes I even know what he's thinking. On our third pass, we were both thinking the same thing: What can we see that will transform a deadly sinkhole into a hard, dry landing place?
Jonas skimmed low over the lake -- very low now -- and slowed down to minimize the blur, while I craned my neck to look. There was only one sign that we'd bet our lives on.
Neither of us discussed what we both knew: that since at least the big bang, Nature has been trying to make circles, as she did with Earth and moon and stars. But being infinitely patient, she had lost out to impetuous Weather, which dried circles into quick and dirty approximations and made hexagons instead.
"Hexagonal cracks," I said.
He put the gear down and dropped the flaps, and as the airplane settled, we felt the wheels touch a surface that was as smooth and hard as concrete. We both let out our breath as the plane rolled toward the line of head-high bushes.
It was a hot and windy afternoon as we tossed our gear out. We stood alone on alkali hardpack flat as a spirit level, bright as snow. And suddenly we were both seized by laughter: We'd done it. We had set down in the middle of Nowhere, right in the heart of America. Estimated population density: .04 persons per square mile, counting me and Jonas and our 50 square miles of lake bed. And beyond the lake. more saltbush, sage, and cheatgrass. No rules, no fences -- we were as free as we were going to get in this life.
As I set to work making camp, Jonas took the plane back up to shoot a few photos. I watched him taxi far down the lake bed and then make the takeoff run toward me, dragging a huge column of dust behind him. He took off right over me, then pulled hard into the sky and rocked his wings good-bye.
Then I was really alone. One bag of water, six beers in fast-melting ice, a few provisions. As the clatter of his engine faded into the dry gulches to the north, a consuming silence fell. The vast dome of the sky seemed to settle down upon the earth like a bell jar, and I felt like a speck of gristle inside it. I had wanted to be alone in the last empty place in America, and now I had only one thought: Be careful what you wish for.
I had a hard time finding even a single rock, but I located a small one, which I used to drive stakes to hold our tarp. It was like trying to pound nails into iron, every strike making a hollow tink!
Sunset brought out the dust devils as I scanned the sky, calculating in my mind how much fuel Jonas had left. At last I heard a faint buzzing and saw a tiny dot on the ridge. Jonas roared overhead, not ten feet off the ground, then popped up, rolled the plane triumphantly, and settled in a plume of white dust.
We sat on the tarp with a cooler between us. The light faded and the wind picked up, animating the oddly shaped bushes into almost human forms. As the last streaks of light withdrew behind the mountains, a smothering darkness closed around the playa.
I walked out onto that featureless tableland to view our campsite from afar. The wind made our fire roar like a smelter and drove Orange cinders dancing across the dry lake, leaping and vaulting in wild arcs. A trio of silent falling stars lit up the purple sky. Holes in the clouds sent spotlights down across the playa and made a death's-head of the moon until it breached the w all of cloud, luring mountains out of dark. The desert glowed all night with an eerie chemical light.
At dawn, the moon was a pale chip off the dry lake bed; walking beneath it, I cast a shadow to the distant hills.
We found an old abandoned campsite with a threadbare parachute for shelter and two La-Z-Boy armchairs. Archaeologists find arrowheads. We found weathered military cartridge casings. If you wanted to express yourself with a machine gun or settle a grudge, here was the ideal spot, where only you and your gods were in on the deal.
On the way back to the plane, we stumbled upon a shrunken boot, the toe curled up, filled with mud dried to concrete. But where was the man? The horse? The other boot? It put me in mind of grisly deeds this land must have seen.
The land looks so simple, flat and white, like a canvas on which nothing has ever heen painted. At first you think you get it. But the wise Elmore Leonard once advised looking closer: There's a mile of wire in a screen door.
Into the Heart of Nowhere
Susan Boswell, the president of Cartographic Technologies in Brattleboro, Vermont, once set out to find the spot farthest from any publicly maintained road. It turned out to be the Thorofare Ranger Station in the southcast corner of Yellowstone. And the distance was 20 miles.
On the other hand, Jonas and I would spend ten days visiting places that are a good deal farther from what your average SUV-driving suburbanite would call a "publicly maintained road." There are roads there, yes, like there are tracks on Mars. We drove some of them, too, and nearly destroyed our 4x4. A lot depends on how you define your terms.
I asked Lynn Nardella, an archaeologist with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), how the agency maintains those roads. He laughed. "We maintain them by driving them."
He shrugged. "Whenever."
At the time of the conversation, we were near Massacre Lake. Nevada, grinding along a boulder-strewn track in low four-wheel drive to view evidence -- in the form of Native American petroglyphs -- that this part of the world wasn't always so empty. Our speed: about a quarter mile per hour, the better to avoid highcentering his truck on a rock. We had two other vehicles following us, because that's how they do it: If the road kills two there is still one left; you don't want to try walking out.
"Are you maintaining this road now?" Jonas asked.
"Of course," Nardella said with a smirk.
If you want to get technical about Nowhere, the region surrounding the Black Rock Desert -- covering the northwestern corner of Nevada (but pouring over into California and southern Oregon) -- amounts to some 17,700 square miles without a single highway. And to the immediate north and east of the region are the Alvord and Owybee Deserts, the centers of similarly vast tracts ot nothing. You may see lines on the maps, indicating roads, but don't expect many to be paved or kept up. In 1992, a young Californian couple with a baby made that mistake just east of Massacre Lake. They nearly died when they became stranded for a week in a snowstorm and had to hole up in a cave.
Most lands in that area are publicly owned and therefore generally restricted from permanent habitation. The federal government alone owns 83 percent of Nevada, 53 percent of Oregon, and 63 percent ot Idaho. The combined holdings of the Departments of the Interior and Agriculture amount to more than a million square miles-a third of the U.S. -- and most of it is west ot the l00th meridian.
As for population density, Humboldt County, Nevada, which contains the Black Rock Desert, is home to 1.9 people per square mile -- a number skewed by the fact that nearly half of the county's population lives in Winnemucca, in the south.
On the other hand, I asked Nardella what the population density was in the area around Massacre Lake, and he gave me an odd look. "Zero," he said, then had a thought: "Oh, there's that one guy who bought a place just east, so if you count him, it's one."
So the 30,000 square miles (roughly speaking) that we set out to investigate -- an area about the size of Maine -- ought to satisfy even the most crazed misanthropes, some of whom we met on our hopscotch from Elko, Nevada, to Burns, Oregon, and from the Owyhee Canyon to the Black Rock Desert.
Our FAA charts showed an airstrip in Owybee, Nevada, on the eastern fringe of our target. Unfortunately, we found this, like the "maintained road," to be more myth than reality. After our night on the lake bed, we dragged in over the Owyhee airstrip, low on fuel, to find a crooked, badger-holed, dried-mud gash in the earth, overgrown with saltbush, hopsage, and greasewood -- not something we wanted to hit going 80. We crept back to Elko, watching the gauges dip into the red and singing, "Oh, bury me not on the lone prairie."
But then, the idea was, after all, to go to the last real wild place, not where some bureaucrat says we should go. We love Bob Marshall and Frank Church and all those guys with wildernesses named after them. But those places have trail maps. They have hiking thoroughfares with signs. Eager rangers. Set campsites. Happy tourists.
No. We wanted a place where no one told anyone what to do, where it was just us and whoever else was crazy enough to be there.
Destination unknown: The Falco floats westward near Oregon's Alvord Desert.
Back in Elko that first night, we walked into a tavern to find three cowboys with drooping moustaches drinking at the bar. They were covered with dust and wore battered boors, dirty jeans, and beaver cowboy hats curled back by the weather.
As we came in, the biggest one stopped in mid-sentence to size me up with steady red eyes. He said, to my face, "Well, it ain't got no cowboy hat and it ain't got no moustache. What is it?"
Jonas was dressed somewhat like they were (minus the beaver), but I was wearing flip-flops, a T-shirt, and swimming trunks. I was tired and thirsty and in some dim, distant way aware that we might be about to get into our first fistfight in a real cowboy bar.
The big guy was standing. The other two were sitting, and one was smiling and clocking me in a way that's both inviting and menacing, because you don't yet know what you're being invited to.
I walked up to the big one, close enough to smell his breath, and stuck my hand out. I said my name. He laughed and grabbed my hand and offered me a drink.
"Aw, he's all right," he said. "He's just a Messikan." Which was half right, my mother being a Mosher with a bunch of O'Sullivans falling out of her family tree.
The third man had not looked up from the contemplation of his beer. His name, we learned, was Michael, and he made it plain that he didn't like to be called Mikey, which was what the big guy kept calling him.
Mikey was a one-legged bull rider who had done well on the rodeo circuit until a bull fell on him and doctors took his leg off below the knee. He reached down and rapped on it. Now he fed cowboys from his chuck wagon. He gave me his recipe for biscuits and flapjacks, which he made from the same batter.
A few beers later, Mikev loosened up enough to lift his hat to show us 20 new stitches in his freshly shaved pink scalp. It hurt just looking at it. Early that morning, someone had knocked on his motel-room door and laid into him with a baseball bat.
"At's all right," Mikey said, his eves cold. "I'll find out who it was and fix him."
Everywhere we went out there, we encountered the same sense of justice -- the single boot on the dry lake bed -- coexisting alongside a courtly diplomacy. No one tells anyone what to do except the man who pays the wages, and he doesn't have to, because everybody understands what's expected. No two ranches are run by the same method, in fact, since no one tells anyone how to do anything and no one asks. Even seemingly insignificant things, such as the latches on the ranchland gates, are handmade, each one unique; it is out of such details that a life is made, and nowhere have I seen lives assembled with such singular care and precision.
So when a man came to Elko for a few davs of relaxatiom, he already understood all the rules he needed to know. As for the diplomacy, the people were polite because they assumed that you were either carrying a gun or could quickly locate one. Even the Sav-On drugstore in Elko sells handguns, rifles, and carloads of ammo. And if someone decided, by whatever mad logic, that he had to lay into you with a Louisville Slugger, well, all right. but it was understood that no one would question it when wild justice came at last to settle up.
Late that night found me listening to Mikey's tales from when he was a sniper in Vietnam. I would not have wanted to be the other fellow.
Where to Bones Go
The following day we would rent a big 4x4 so that we could go beyond even the worst vanishing tracks. We weren't going for any other reason than to be there. You couldn't call this recreation, where you take your snowboards or kayaks, your big rafts or bicycles, where wilderness becomes a larger playing field for a game with a name. Each time someone asked me what I was doing, I balked, unable to say what I'd always been able to say before: I'm going to hike Copper Canyon. I'm going to canoe the Brule River. I'm going to learn to surf in Kauai.
No, none of that certainty was here. We were wandering, lost, in a wild place that had no name and that didn't invite much in the way of recreation, either. Stiff, standoffish, luminous, harsh, ghastly, and beautiful by turns, the land received us but never quite accepted us. As days went on, speaking strictly for myself, I began to wonder if perhaps I had traveled there as my Irish ancestors had, those monks who went, in the words of Barry Lopez, "in search of Terra Repromissionis Sanctorum, the blessed landscape where one stepped over that dark abyss that separated what was profane from what was holy."
Let me first address the profane, where we began our next day's journey: At the Hertz counter in Elko, we stood waiting for the clerk to get off the phone. "We had a report of you throwing rocks at it," she was saying in a not unpleasant voice. "People at the cafe saw you throwing rocks at it. And now it's got $600 in damage." Pause. "Well, how would you like to pay for that?" It seemed that even the good folks at Hertz understood Mikey's brand of justice. You threw some rocks, and that's just fine. But how would you like to pay for that? (The implication being: You are going to pay.)
Elko is a heck of a fun town if you're there for the justice, or the great Northeastern Nevada Museum, or if you'd like to drink and gamble. You can even visit an old-fashioned brothel, where you sit at a timeless mahogany bar while the madam makes you a drink, then rings a dinner bell to alert the ladies, as they are delicately called. At Mona's, right around the corner from the Stockmen's Hotel, two women emerged like prizefighters at the sound of the bell. We told them we were there for purely journalistic reasons. What we were learning, it seemed, was that the profane is never far from the holy.
The next day, we drove the 4x4 as far up the eastern edge of our province as it would go and then got out and walked, navigating overland by sun angle. We had spotted the road from the air, and it had looked passable, given the right vehicle. It led over a hump in the mountains and down toward a little ranch, the Keddy. Jonas had visited here 25 years before while taking photographs that were eventually published in 1987 in his book Nevada, a Journey.
We crossed a shattered lava dome, immense fields of Jagged red stones, signatures of the monumental forces here, of the reality that this landscape was ultimately a sea of rock in turmoil.
Passing through alkali and pumice flats, we climbed up volcanic ravines, which cut my gloves or came out in big slabs as I reached for handholds. At each high vantage, we found eagle droppings bleaching the rocks. And yet nothing grew here but a few burnt-over sage. So where did the eagles find their prey?
As we topped the next rise, the aroma -- and the answer -- drifted up to us: Wherever you pour water on the stone, life explodes in a mystifying profusion. We descended out of that dead world of dust and rock to a slow-moving brook, rich with sedges and reeds and grasses, watercress and ferns, fairy rings of flowers in pink and yellow and purple. Iridescent dragonflies buzzed among reeds of biblical antiquity. Sign of fox, cat, rabbit: eagle prey Fish swam in the waters. Fish!
Jonas and I scrambled back to retrieve the truck and inched it through the rubble to ford the stream. We pushed on until we came to a dirt track, which we followed through low hills. Around a bend we found a cabin, a few tents set up around it, with a dog tied to one.
We entered the cabin and stood before a cold sandstone wall, which was carved with names and dates going back for decades. Jonas pointed out the name Howard Hughes with the date 1970. The owner of the Keddy, a man apparently not given to exaggeration, had told Jonas that Hughes used to stay there. I gave Jonas a skeptical look. Anyone could have carved it. He reached up and took a crudely framed photo down from above the door. It showed a tall, rough-looking man in a full beard -- a cowboy, I guessed -- standing in the gate through which we'd passed to reach the cabin. "Look again," he said. I did. Scrawled across the photo was a signature: Howard Hughes.
As we left, we saw a blue canopy half a mile away against the side of a cliff. We hiked over and found a group of archaeologists. They'd been drawn to the area because it had been well populated until perhaps a thousand years ago. They worked in the hot sun, sifting the dirt that seemed hammered into every pore of their grinning faces. Kelly McGuire, an owner of Far Western Anthropological Research Group, had brought along his nine-year-old daughter, Chloe, who was asleep with her head on a folding table in the shade of the blue canopy. One of his archaeologists, a very pregnant Kim Carpenter, showed us a perfect arrowhead, which someone had chipped out of green translucent stone thousands of years ago.
In the Great Basin, it seemed, all that was left were artifacts and the scientists who chased them. A few days later, we viewed the area's archaeology from the other side of the state. We crossed Surprise Valley to Massacre Lake with Lynn Nardella and other BLM archaeologists to view what they called "a mile-long art gallery." The nearly impassable (but "publicly maintained") road wound through crested wheat, where feral horses ranged free, and terminated in a stand of ancient junipers.
There we hiked a boulder-strewn wash to a crumbling rock rim 30 feet high. Chipped into the brown rock, one after another, were pictures of the world those people had seen or imagined. Some showed the looping course of rivers in the valley below. One depicted a huge fish hanging head down, as if freshly caught. Obviously, the land once had plentiful game and water and vast fields of grasses to provide a wild harvest of grain.
We found one of their grinding stones wedged into a crack in the wall. It was no different from the stone I'd seen my great-grandmother use to grind corn for tortillas when I was four or five. We also found one of their chiseling tools, which they had used to etch the petroglyphs. Those tools had been cached there, perhaps thousands of years ago, to await the tribe's rerurn. One day they didn't come back.
Another image was striking because it was so unlike the others. It showed a quarter moon in opposition to a bright sunlike figure. There were hash marks beneath. as if someone had been counting. According to the archaeologists, Chinese astronomers described a supernova that was visible in full daylight in A.D. 1054. It could have been seen from the spot where we were standing, and a quarter moon would have been out when it had appeared. The hash marks ticked along at regular intervals beneath the image and then stopped abruptly. I counted them. There were 23.
"How many days was the supernova visible?" I asked.
"Twenty-three," one of the archaeologists told me.
We climbed the reef and found more recent evidence of man. A bronze disk had been cemented into a rock near the precipice was inscribed, "Wallace L. Griswoid," and beneath "1918-1982." An archaeologist named Penni Carmosino picked up a fragment that I assumed was a porous white rock. "This is part of a human skull," she said. She picked up a black bit and said, "This is cinder, see?" Cinder that had been Wallace. She looked out over the valley and said, "Someone cremated him and put his ashes here. Wallace must have loved this place.''
We hiked back over ground strewn with evidence of arrow points, chipped-off bits of obsidian called bifaces. Obsidian doesn't form in that area, so someone had to have brought it there. As sun reached a certain low angle, the whole land lit up from reflections of the broken volcanic glass. We could see it glittering all way to the horizon. It was eerie, because it so clearly demonstrated how teeming and busy the place had been. That hypnotic light, which comes but once a day, and mostly when not a single living soul is there to bear witness to it, now gave form to the last luminescent bones of the people who had lived there.
Signs of Man
Because we had an airplane that could go 150 miles per hour without even trying, we were able to see in two weeks literally the entire 50,000 square miles that had caught our interest on the charts. And while there were a couple of big gold mines, which looked as if great inverted pyramids had fallen from the sky and sunk their stair-stepped impressions into the sides of mountains, there was little except a few ranches in the bottoms and a few circles of green where someone had poured water onto the stone to grow alfalfa. Meeting people was rare, though not for lack of trying.
One day, we achieved one of our goals: to be lost on a summit road somewhere. We had a GPS that was not much use without the airplane, and I had lost track of where we were while motoring through northeastern Nevada to the music of Hank Williams and Patsy Cline. We went veening along a sheer drop above a tumbling series of gullies and chasms. Pale green valleys fell away to the horizon's last sawtooth peaks, which seemed to chew up the sky in the misty gray distance.
Jonas and I left the road on a track that faded into far sage, grinding overland along time-blasted ruts. The two-track gulched out in stony dry washes a yard deep and clamored up rock-strewn reaches until the last traces were lost in grass. We drove on, up and up the hill, until we were stopped by heaps of stones at a place where the land dropped straight down several hundred feet on either side.
We walked the rest of the way to the promontory, from which we could see all around, and found our bearings in sheer, ragged red walls streaked with yellow, where scree slopes descended to a slow-moving, late summer river. I recognized the canyon that wound away to the west; Jonas and I had flown the same route a few davs earlier, not 20 feet above the boulder on which I now sat. The wind struck a different note on each bush, making the land cry out in dissonant harmonies.
Heading down, we found an empty ranch of rusted tin buildings in dry yellow hills of grass and hopsage. We gingerly climbed barbed wire and crossed among weathered corrals to a bunkhouse in back. Beside it, a white porcelain bathtub had been sunk into the ground. Cold water, dribbling from an iron pipe, overflowed the rim at ground level.
I lifted the steel automobile leaf spring that held the bunkhouse door shut. In the kitchen were two stoves: wood and gas. Red-checked oilcloths covered the tables. Two bedrooms with spring steel beds. A sixties-era, aqua-green, rotary-dial telephone on a wooden stand.
"Pick up the phone," Jonas suggested.
Putting it to my ear, I heard a dial tone.
Signs of man were plentiful: bone, bullet, telephone. But few and strange were the men.
As we descended through aspen, a stately buck kept pace, then bounded into the woods. The road narrowed as we crossed a cliffside, which was topped by mysterious animal shapes in stone, as if aspiring gods had auditioned here for the job of Creator. Our camp was in an aromatic forest along an ice-cold river above the old mining town of Jarbidge. The sun flared in purple shadows through the pines. The air at 7,000 feet couldn't hold its heat. We huddled near a fire of fallen branches and dead saplings.
In the morning, we headed up-canyon, watching the snowmelt dash over brown stones, pausing under the totems and spires of a cratered red rock wall, and crossing into a terrain of broad, rolling hills. Here we saw a small motorized vehicle bouncing overland. At last: human beings.
Half a mile later, we found two small girls climbing off the ATV beside a cabin. Giggling, they hurried away and disappeared inside. Utter silence. High sun. Low moon. Yellow grass.
A thin man, perhaps 70, emerged, wearing a sleeveless undershirt, a baseball cap, and jeans. His name, he told us, was Frank Bogue. His son-in-law, Danny Betancourt, followed him, along with the little girls, who jumped back on the ATV stifling laughter, and roared off, buck jumping through the brush.
We leamed that Frank had worked his whole life in an Elko hardware store that he didn't even own, dreaming of his own log cabin. "I read everything there was about building a log cabin," he told us. "A month after my 65th birthday, I told them good-bye and never went back. " A dozen years earlier, he'd found his 30 acres in that river valley, which had been a migration route for Stone Age peoples who fished and followed game and the fruiting of native grains through the seasons.
Frank and Danny had cleared land and planted trees and set pipe and built the cabin -- and a very nice job they did, too. A pumping system turned the garden green, and the wood was all split and stacked for winter. But in due time, the work was done and all the racket stopped. There must have been an epiphany of dread and awe as the colossal, almost willful, tranquility of that place descended upon them.
As we stood talking, I bent down to pick up something shiny. It was a .50-caliber machine-gun cartridge. I commented that Frank must be pretty serious about hunting, and he laughed. "No, we just shoot it at that hillside." And I thought: Noise. Yes. What else could fill a space that size?
"You see those bowling balls?" he asked.
Thirty yards away by the outhouse was a pile of them. It turns out that a bowling ball has the same diameter as the inside of a large oxygen cylinder. They had cut the top off one such tank and drilled a hole in the bottom for a shotgun-shell primer. They charged the bore with three ounces of powder, and they had a big answer to the big silence: a bowling ball mortar.
"See that clearing over there?" Yellow grass with small black dots on it. "Those are bowling balls."
Oh, the novelty had worn off that, too, but then someone came up with the idea of drilling extra holes in the balls to make them whistle in flight. "And we also stick a railroad flare in 'em so you can see 'em at night."
On the ride back, Jonas idly mused that it would be cool to have one of those mortars. "You know," he said, "I've probably got enough room on my farm...."
Flying Under the Earth
Our last day but one, we took off under a pale quarter moon, skimming low over the first colorless ridgeline and dipping down into a shadowed coulee. Giant owls loomed out of the darkness and went veering past the plane as we hammered on into the lifting dawn.
By the time we had crossed the low mountains from Nevada into Oregon, morning had begun to break. The desert sky was streaked with pink above a landscape of flint and bister.
Twenty minutes later, I dove the plane down into the Owyhee Ganyon and leveled off about 200 feet below the rim. We were going about 175 miles per hour down through that serpentine excavation, edging between jagged turrets of volcanic rock. It was daylight above, but down here it was still cool and dark, as a rust red rock face loomed ahead.
It appeared that the canyon simply ended there. Every instinct told me to climb, to get out, but I held on, waiting for a glimpse of daylight. I was confident that the canyon would open and that I could make the turn. For one thing, I was betting on the cutting power of time and water. For another, I was betting on the Falco I was flying, which Jonas had spent five and a half years building with his own hands. It would hold together, no matter how hard I flew it.
Neither of us said a word as we waited, my hand steady on the stick, to see if it was a right turn or a left turn or no turn at all.
We passed an invisible point where we understood that we carried too much momentum through too short a distance to turn back or climb away. The only way out was through. So we waited and waited some more, as the monolith seemed to take on human form. I began to see the dimples in its flesh.
Then, at last, the rock wall parted like a curtain. I threw the stick hard to the left, standing on the rudder and slamming the plane into a knife-edge turn, one wing up and one wing down. We drifted through the turn and snapped out level in another section of the gorge. I grinned over at Jonas, remembering at last to breathe.
"Cheated the devil again," he said.
I pushed the nose, accelerating deeper into the shade of ragged rimrock. The green swath made by the river's ropy course slipped beneath us in a blur as we neared the redline at 240 miles per hour. The music of that rocket violin moved through me to stir my hand, and we popped up, vertical. Blue sky filled the bubble canopy as the canyon reappeared over my shoulder. We rolled and pivoted: straight down for a shot of the startling lush arroyo.
"I got it," Jonas said, taking the controls and diving back into the canyon. I let go and put my hands in my lap as we dropped like a hawk folding its wings, headlong through castles of rust and stone, groves of ancient juniper and white-bark aspen. Clouds skated on mirror-blue pools of water. Kindred shrikes and herons dipped and dove around us. Coves of trees released mule deer to drink at the edge of the river. There was such a profusion of life there, and yet just on the other side of that lava wall was one of the emptiest deserts in the United States.
We leveled off, face-to-face with another rock wall. No more peekaboo turns; this was the end of the line.
A growing tightness in my chest told me that we'd never clear the rim in time. Then I felt the pull, the heavy G, as the wings loaded up and we took a huge gulp of blue sky. Shadows fell away like bolts of satin. We emerged into sunlight.
We flew west across the Oregon flatlands toward smoky Steens Mountain and landed on a remote strip of gravel. Our GPS read: "No Destination."
We shut down the engine and stepped down from the cockpit. Silence but for the whistling wind. Nothing but sagebrush in every direction. I knelt to examine the composition of the gravel as Jonas and I discussed the possibility of blowing a tire or not getting out of there for some other reason.
We took out the binoculars and glassed Steens Mountain. There on the highest ridge, a spindly antenna. A repeater. I powered up the cell phone and called home. "Guess where I am," I said to my daughter, Amelia.
Then Jonas called his wife, Betsy, his daughter, Elena, and his son, John. So as austere and remote and difficult to reach as that place is, we'd just had a family reunion there. A few days earlier, we'd flown the Black Rock Desert and found several hundred blue Porta Potties for the 24,000 people who would attend the annual Orwellian hippie rave that is the Burning Man festival. The last empty place was dwindling fast.
We departed the gravel strip and made a few more passes through the canyon. Heading back, I tilted a wing along the OwyLee River and spied a white hat far below, drawing a long train of dust behind. The cowboy on horseback was moving sleadily, leading hundreds of cattle, while other cowboys kicked zigzag patterns in and out, scouting the stragglers on the drive north.
I was reminded of something Ed Abbey once wrote. He had run into a hard-rock prospector out there and asked him why he loved the desert. "Them other so-and-so's don't," the old man said.
The Last Indigenous People
Our last day, Jonas and I drove the northern reaches to look for those cowboys. We spent the day groping across impossible landscapes and had nearly given up when we saw a great amoeba of dust, shot through with late sun, rising in the distance.
We found the Mori brothers teaching their sons calf roping. The calves came thundering out of a chute, the men and boys hard behind then on horseback, lariats whirling in the air. They communicated not in whoops and hollers but in whistles and muted syllables. I saw nothing they did with hands or feet that could have explained their complex maneuvers: Man and horse were one. Ropes from two directions caught head and back legs with an accuracy that was scarcely believable.
After roping half a dozen calves, they were done, and Sam Mori, who with his brother owned 3,000 deeded acres, rode over to the fence and sat his horse. He had a weathered face burned black by the sun and was covered from head to toe in dust. (When he told me his name, I at first thought he'd said Samurai. It would have been perfect.)
Mori wore white cotton gloves and worried a frayed rope over the saddle horn as he spoke. He talked of the particular differences among types of rope. He preferred a nylon-poly blend, but straight nylon was springier. But, he concluded, "it's about identical to golf clubs. It's whatever you like."
A moment before, he had been galloping in hard pursuit, raising a plume of dust. Thc lasso had shot out from his hand like a harpoon as the calf's head snapped around and its body hit the hardpack with a concussion that Jonas and I could feel 20 yards away through the soles of our boots. As I watched his hands gather up the rope and loop it precisely, I marveled that such violent work could take such a delicate touch, such finesse.
There are no indigenous people. They all come from somewhere and eventually go. But if they stay in one place long enough, another world will come and determine to displace them. The Indians came from Asia. The cowboys came from Europe. And now America's shifting paradigms -- environmental, economic, cultural -- may force them out.
I asked Sam how that struggle was going for him, and he squinted up through the dust, and a bemused smile creased the corners of his mouth and eyes. Like the land, his aspect was both inviting and fainting menacing. He said, "The less pretty the ground is, the easier it is to manage." By which he meant that while environmentalists were still blinded by a dazziing beauty elsewhere, he might just make a stand here for a bit longer.
Then he invited us to come out for the branding in the spring. And he touched the brim of his hat and rode off, quite literally, into the setting sun.