North of Gerlach, Nevada

If you want to really get away, you should consider Nevada. Esmeralda County is one of Nevada’s smaller and more populous counties (leaving the Reno and Las Vegas areas out of this equation). In 1996, its 1,344 inhabitants had 2,284,800 acres all to themselves. Nye County looks to be the size of Maine, and has far fewer (you can’t accurately include the headcount for the secret Air Force test facility in Area 51 that officially does not exist). In all, Nevada has more than 70 million acres, 60 million of which are federal, state or local public land. 50 million of those acres are owned by the federal Bureau of Land Management (the BLM).

"Public Land," though, doesn’t mean the same thing everywhere. In Nevada, it means that you’ve got 50 million acres to choose from when you’re looking for a place to wander during the day and unroll your sleeping bag at night. The landscape may be a bit repetitive, it’s true, but on the other hand no one puts up signs that say they’ll shoot you if you enter their "public" land, as they do a couple states over in New Mexico. Some of them mean it.


True, the BLM land in Nevada, like BLM land everywhere, is virtually all leased to ranchers (if its not leased to a copper, lead, silver or gold mining operation, mostly inoperative). But this land can only support a few head of cattle per square mile, so you won’t see many of them, although their impact on the habitat is profound. What you will see are wild horses, pronghorn antelope, vultures, magpies, ravens, golden eagles (if you’re lucky), shrikes, kites, hawks, cottontail and jackrabbit and lots of Edward Abbey’s anonymous “little grey birds.”


About 40 miles north of Gerlach, I finally (remember? No jeep trails) saw a likely looking jeep track ducking across a ditch on the west side of the road. A couple hundred yards later, it petered out on a likely looking piece of flat ground next to a spring surrounded by soaring grass and sage covered mountains. With no rain or bugs to worry about, making camp takes as long as unrolling your sleeping pad and bag.


It’s very easy to do nothing in a place like this except watch the light change as the day turns to night. The silence is palpable. For days, you can hear nothing other than birds. With no clouds, the show at sunset isn’t in the west, but in the east, as alpenglow sets the mountains ablaze in heightened color. Gradually, the shadows of the mountains to the west chase the glow higher and higher up the mountains to the east, until it’s extinguished at the top of a peak like the light of a candle. The little grey birds twitter until the light goes, and then they stop.


The insects take over then, as the temperature swiftly drops from the nineties into the fifties, and the sky comes alive again. First the planets, then the stars emerge, eventually filling the sky more fully than you can imagine until you’ve been far away from city lights on a clear night at a high altitude. Eventually, the trilling of the insects subsides, and the silence is total.


You want to be a light sleeper on a night like this (helpful hint: drink a couple of beers before retiring), waking every few hours to watch the show. The big dipper and Venus set, and Orion — blazing like nothing you can imagine from a city’s glow)– rises, as does Saturn, each incredibly bright, wheeling majestically and timelessly overhead along the Milky Way. Nothing around me moves, and all is still, except for the sudden snort of a wild horse, drinking at the spring in the middle of the night, that has just caught my scent.