Walking in the foothills east of Reno recently, I thought about what my first write-walk should be after the end of NaNoWriMo. Sometime last year I wrote a post about a day out that Renee and I shared in Reno on our bikes. It was, among other things, National Indie Bookstore Day, so our day started off with a stop at Sundance Bookstore. There I found a fascinating book called How to Read the American West: A Field Guide by William Wyckoff. Casting about for topics, and wanting to really focus on this blog, I remembered that post and thought what a better thing to write-walk than a landscape. And what a better place to read landscape than these tortured, volcanic, long and deeply used hills.
I pulled up the list that Wyckoff had created giving tips for reading landscapes. While there are many more to focus on than these, the ones that I want to focus on today are, “Appreciate the role of time,” “Recognize the importance of scale,” and “Remember that what you see depends on the experiences you bring with you, the questions you pose, and the details you emphasize.”
These hills east of Reno are the remains of volcanic activity that predates the rise of the Sierra Nevada, and the landscape would have then resembled the Cascades more than the current Virginia Range (more in my post on The Old Mother Who Sleeps and Wants to Be Left Alone ). The dominant plant and animal species came in waves: some “real” pine trees, the juniper and sagebrush, wild horses, later invasive species: cheat grass and mustard weed most notably. While I am walking across their slopes many jet planes, some obviously commercial, others more likely military, use the airspace above me to approach the Reno airport. There is day-long activity at the quarry that is Washington Hill. And there is much evidence of past heavy use: the remains of a stone house I see in the canyon bottom, a wide old road now an OHV path. At places I can almost see over to the Tesla Gigafactory. I crest over a hill and see in the canyon of the Truckee below me a place that was an important life source for native people. Then transformed into a major thoroughfare for the West: gold-seeking emigrant parties, the first transcontinental railroad, the first interstate all have used this narrow funnel into the Golden Land of California.
The scale of the landscape is dominated by the massive undertaking that scraped off the top of Washington Hill and that continues to haul it away for our purposes. A massive scale that is mirrored in the vistas of the river, of the sierra to the west, Clark Mountain to the east. Nearby rock formations, splashes of multicolored rock, pines spaced parklike in otherwise grassless volcanic parks all seem to be muted against the vastness of all else, and yet these are just little trackless mountains, blinks of the eyes on the interstates. Places to go through to get somewhere else. The juxtaposition is powerful.
Seeing Your Own Experience
I set out in the morning along a jeep trail that climbs along the side of the Washington Hill Quarry. There are numerous shooting sites here and the landscape, while still brilliantly volcanically colored, is tortured and adorned with litter and the trappings of modern gun culture: hundreds of shells, metal and plastic twisted by bullet holes, the remains of several destroyed pumpkins from recent Halloween. In the canyon bottom I notice a large piece of cardboard on which someone has scrawled cartoons of a man grasping his penis and a naked woman alongside. The crude drawings are labeled “DICK HEAD” and “SKANK” and are peppered with bullet holes. Something I hope was just the release of steam and not the prelude to tragedy. Beyond there someone has planted 2 trees, surrounded by stones as though they are meant to mark something. The place makes me nervous and I hurry past. Deeper in the canyon there is still evidence of people. I follow tracks, but the litter is less and I start to appreciate the presence of the volcanic parks dotted with not-juniper pines. Climbing out of the canyon I am struck by the vastness of the city basin from Mount Rose up to Peavine. The modest silhouette of Clark Mountain belying in the distance its grandness, the utility of Washington Hill. Walking back along the ridge line it is the Truckee and colorful volcanic outcroppings.
I think part of the reason I am so attracted by this landscape, by exploring in this area, is just this. It is a place in complete transit, unconsidered by many and used hard by others. It doesn’t reveal itself easily. And yet when it comes into focus its story is incredibly rich and is a microcosm for how Nevada has always been seen by people. While there is a growing sense of pride in place in Nevada, it still remains for many a place to use and go through. Real understanding of the landscape goes much deeper than that.