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Me at Salt Wells Villa in 1999

Me at Salt Wells Villa in 1999

Salt Wells Villa was about 15 miles east of Fallon. It was a sad array of trailers and chain link at the edge of the Salt Wells Playa, a vast white emptiness ringed by stark mountains still bearing the high arid rings of ancient Lake Lahontan. Even today, during the week there is nothing for miles in any direction. But on weekends, thousands of off-roaders flock to wondrous Sand Mountain, just a few miles up the road, to play on sand rails, quads, four-wheel drives and motorcycles up, down and around the massive pile of sand that has accumulated since the retreat of the lake that once covered the state.

When I was a kid, RVs were rare, and Sand Mountain was too stark, forbidding and … well, dusty, for most people to camp near. So those of us who traveled between Reno and just about anywhere east of Reno drove through an empty Salt Wells Basin. But once a year, there was a motocross race that pitted motorcycles against the barren environment in a long-distance chase across the playa and back. My step-dad raced that race. My mom, my little sister, my big brother and I were his pit crew. When he came into sight, we darted around refilling his gas tank, giving him water, checking the chain for mud, and wiping his goggles clean of dust. For about five minutes, it was pretty exciting. But then there’d be hours of waiting for him to come back through on another lap. It got cold during these fall races, so mom would let us go in the brothel to pee and have Cokes.

If you were from Gabbs, you drove through the basin for groceries, medical care, or hunting as you traveled west to a town that had food or medicine. If you were my husband as a child, the guy who took you hunting also stopped at the brothel on the way home. The boys, usually four or five prepubescent neighborhood kids, would hang out in the gaudy lobby and have Cokes.

The “girls” at the whorehouse (“whores” an acquaintance once told me was the right term, and I deferred to her expertise since that was how she was paying her way through college, but it still doesn’t feel right) played Monopoly with us, petted our blonde hair, asked about the race, and gave us all the Cokes and Shirley Temples we could stomach. Strangely, I never saw a customer there.

But there’s this one time I remember when my brother, sister and I weren’t the only kids in the whorehouse. There was a little gaggle of boys, bedraggled, and uniformed in denim and plaid, looking colder than us. I don’t remember anything besides the shock of seeing them.

My husband and his friends from Gabbs went hunting with a family friend every year. The friend was a big bear of a guy with a singing voice that was a baritone plea to all that was good in the world. I met him a decade later when he gave us the best dog my husband and I ever had. I’ve heard this guy sing at weddings, watched him cry at the funeral of a child, and laugh with his wife. But it wasn’t until ten years ago that I heard the story of the annual post-hunting Salt Wells visit. My husband, Jason, told me about it as we were on our way out camping, practicing the ageless Nevada art of guessing how many cars would be at the whorehouse as we drove across the desert.

Every year, the little band of boy hunters stopped at Salt Wells, and the girls gave Jason and his friends Cokes and Shirley Temples. He remembers this one year when there were little blonde girls out at the whorehouse. Two of them — one his age, one a few years younger. Maybe there was a blonde boy, too, but he won’t swear to it. He doesn’t remember anything besides the shock of seeing the little girls.

A few months before our 20th wedding anniversary, Jason and I were driving with our then-six-year-old son with our big RV past Sand Mountain and on to Stewart Creek for a week of dust, quads and family drinking. We laughed at the idea that we may have actually met at a whorehouse. We love that story.

But as we neared the trailers and chain link, passing the love notes written in rocks on the playa, passing the pink water and white salty sand, we saw black, char, a sign gutted and sagging, to find the brothel had burned down. Nothing left but a chimney, a shed and the frame of a sign that had once proclaimed “Girls Girls Girls.” You couldn’t even tell it was anything more than another burnt out trailer park in the desert.

As we drove on, we both craned to see the empty parking lot and lapsed into a silence that lasted for miles.

I know we “officially” met on the bus on the first day of school at Traner Middle School. I know we met through Jason’s friend Charlie, who lived right by my friend Dolly. I know we’ve been friends ever since. But I still like the whorehouse story better.

July 18, 1987

July 18, 1987

... and they lived happily after.

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The road to Gabbs

My Nevada is not Las Vegas. It is not the land of mega-hotels and dueling egos, silicone and stage shows. My Nevada is the land of ranches and mines, open range and barbed wire, the land of rabbitbrush and alkalai.

My Nevada is the place of solace my family fled to when my baby sister was allergic to Bay Area smog, when my father was looking for good pay and a lack of law enforcement, and when my mother was looking for the mountains she had sought out like most people seek out enlightenment. The vast warp and weft of non-Vegas Nevada is a tapestry of sky and mountains. It is a place where you can hear god if you listen and older deities if you listen closer. It defies its statistics. It belies first impressions. It is a place of profound reverence and venereal wonder not available to those who don’t bother to seek.

But it took me until adulthood to appreciate the hallowed desolation of a land whose beauty was defined by texture rather than color. A land more subtle and beautiful than those seeking groomed grass and over-developed stamens. It was a land I grew up in, but blind. A land that would never be sought out on Google, but rather discovered on the open road or the unmarked path.

It takes a discerning eye to see the beauty of this wasteland that stuns me at every turn of a washboard dirt road, that challenges me with the unexpected boulder and the seemingly random placement of a tree that proves the existence of god. This is a place of wonder not available to the casual eye. A place that converts the wanderer with the seduction of roots. A place where nothing comes easy, but what is found comes to define the profound.

Nevada is filled with transient beings made stable, where the ephemeral becomes enduring. This is the place where the misfits and lost find the voice of reason and maybe something more. Where everything makes sense beneath a big enough sky. This is the place where biology meets magic and the random meets the preordained. This is a place easy to travel past but hard to ignore. This is my Nevada.

Black Rock Playa

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Cindie Geddes

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