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Warrior Woman Stacey

You know how sometimes you meet people and instantly think, “Oh, I want to be like you when I grow up” whether or not they are actually older than you? Well, my friend Stacey Spain is one of those for me. She has been since I met her some ten years ago. She has one of those electric smiles that seem to start in her face and go all the way to her toes. She has a big personality to go with a big brain and hugs with her whole being.

Stacey was one of my warrior women at Burning Man. She was one of my tethers during the Temple burn. It was her leg I clung to when I cried.

After we all got back and decompressed (and got clean!), she sent me a piece of writing, and it knocked the wind out of me. It is her POV of what I wrote about last time (though she wrote hers first). I have always loved her writing, even though she doesn’t do nearly enough of it. So I asked if I could post it on my blog. Then I asked her to write a little intro. Then I was so embarrassed by the complimentary nature of her intro I didn’t post it. Since I am trying really hard to get past the voices in my head that tell me I suck, I am finally trying to post it. Because it’s too pretty not to take flight.


I’m supposed to be writing an introduction for a another bit of writing I did – but I can’t yet because I’m not done writing about Cindie – forgive me, indulge me – let me say these words and then I’ll give you the three sentence mouthful you need to set the scene for our small playa adventure.

Maybe I only need a handful of friends – but these few are the ones I can say all the words to, they can hear it all without blinking.  Cindie Geddes, when I met her, was completely engaged in working with kids helping them find their voices in writing.  She was a quiet, soft and strong presence for these young women and honestly I wished I was one of them.  She is a contradiction: shy and blunt, whip smart and so soft hearted … it took me a while to unravel her a bit – she gave me a present, said:  “You’ll make a hugger out of me yet!”  I expect that bravery from her, I expect her to be healing and growing and finding her fullness.  I see her as complete because I know the arc of her journey.

When I speak of my girlhood I have to take care for the listeners – I know it is difficult to hear and understand my particular truth.  But Cindie, also a survivor (stupid word – is there a word beginning with triumphant embracer of the gifts of her life?). Cindie has heard my story and we can even laugh at it, them, us, being who we are now.  She is also blessed with her J man and boy people, her Jason and Joe, who I know are bedrock for her growth.  When someone you see as strong allows themselves to be vulnerable it can be healing for all who witness it – I was a witness and am grateful.

Ok – so I write plays, the words I put down on paper are usually meant to be said aloud.  I am a performance artist and have five one-woman shows in my bag of tricks.  I have worked professionally in the theater and completed my education with a bunch of initials behind my name.  That gave me time to only do the thing I love, so I am grateful.  Now I have an amazing 24-year-old son, a sweet 6-year-old daughter and a busy happy full life, counting the dog and the goldfish.  I also act and direct locally and am lucky enough to get to teach theater along with my full-time job as an arts administrator.  Sometimes I forget to write (you know, for years) and then someone nudges me to get going again.  Cindie did it to me – this is her fault.  Thank you, Cindie – now I have to go write about the rest of my handful of friends.  But her – she is my bird woman, and I love to see her fly.

What Remains on the Ground

(by Stacey Spain)

Quiet reverence broken by drunken yells rolling back to silence.  Holding small bird hand on one side and beloved strong moving hand on the other – but the connection is felt to others – the echo of a younger self one handspan away.  This temple burns low to the ground connected to us through alkali dust. She is in flux, in flamed and sends embers to wet our dry eyes.  Dust spins toward us with collected memory rising, taking away thoughts, devotions, intentions on a column toward stars – this the best night cathedral.  The flames lick us, embers tease and bite but no harm floating over heads … sweet male voice from behind: “Goggle ups folks, protect your eyes.”  And we do, protect our eyes as they witness this burning that marks a new year.  Then she is down, hurrying toward the ground to embrace it with her ember and ash arms. People rush forward to dance there in the heat, the circle shrinking fast but by the sound I know our job is to stay here.  This sound, for me makes it possible to release, this sobbing eases my throat around a hard spot, and I cry.  Our bird woman is left on the ground as they rush around her toward their joy.  I rise and stand over her – no one will disturb this moment, no one will hurt her here and now.  We are a triangle around her – maiden, mother and crone.  We make the river of people move like water around us by our grounded presence and she has the space to breathe, to cry, to heal.  Standing four feet away that sweet man in dusty clothes hovers, not too close, to see we can do this, to witness this rebirth, to be a guardian in this night.  And after, laughter and breathing with a chorus of Stand by Me.  I will – stand by her — and them, to witness and grow together on the ground.

How lucky am I?!


Nevada is 87 percent public lands. That means the federal government owns the deed on most of my state. And since they could, they leased big chunks of it to anyone who wanted to dig it up for about 140 bucks. They called these chunks mining claims, and they still go for less than an RV space. If you have a claim, you have to maintain it (dig holes in it) and follow some other rules. But what it boils down to is this: the government doesn’t appreciate sagebrush and dirt.

Nevada was granted statehood because the Union needed our silver and gold in the Civil War. Everyone wanted our silver and gold. Everyone wants our silver and gold. Some things don’t change. But not every hole dug turned up precious metals. That’s why folks had to buy a bunch of claims and get fancy equipment and professionals and maps and computers. Or just get a dousing wand like one of our state’s successful miners.

What happened to the holes that didn’t strike gold is this: they stayed holes. Until about a decade or two ago there was no requirement to fill in the holes you dug if you didn’t want to. No matter how big the holes were. So, go figure, my state is filled with holes. Technically, they are mine shafts and adits. Shafts go down, adits go in. The way the holes were kept open is by framing the dirt with timber. Just about every forest in the state was reduced to stubble to meet the requirements of hundreds of miles of underground mining. There is no old-growth forest in Nevada.

The timber used to frame the tunnels was treated with tar. Components of that tar are carcinogenic – they give you cancer. But only technically. Technically, so long as you don’t burn the timber and inhale the tar you won’t get cancer. Technically, so long as you don’t absorb that tar through your skin you won’t get cancer. It’s the same tar they used to treat railroad ties. It’s the same tar they still use on all those decorative railroad ties folks use for landscaping their suburban yards.

Problem was, the mines caught fire. All that tar-soaked timber went up like so many charcoal briquettes. But if you were a miner, fire wasn’t your only worry. You had to worry about being scalded by underground steam pockets, suffocating, poisoning by gas leaks, being crushed by collapsing tunnels or having your partner hammer a steel pike through your head because you were working in near-complete darkness in a space about as wide as a shower stall and half as tall. As many as one in five miners died within six months of joining the rush for gold. When you die before you’re old enough to have a midlife crisis, you don’t worry so much about cancer.

Once the mines were worked clean, once there was no more gold or silver or barite or copper or lead or zinc or manganese or tungsten or lithium or diatomite to make it cost-effective to keep digging holes, once that happened, the mine owners just closed up shop and moved on, taking the miners and the economy with them. What they left behind was crumbling mine shafts and adits, a couple of “caution” and “beware” signs, some barbed wire and a lot of dead and dying towns. The ones constructed of wood are called ghost towns, and tourists take pictures and accidentally burn them down with discarded cigarettes. The others are primarily made up of listing trailers with broken windows, and empty schools. They are called the rest of Nevada except Reno and Las Vegas. These are the parts of the state with legalized prostitution. Legalized prostitution, rattlesnakes and big gaping and crumbling holes in the ground. All in all, a great environment to be a kid (that is not sarcasm; it rocked to be a kid in rural Nevada – no pun intended).

Even in the sort of trailer-park suburb of Reno that was Sun Valley, even here there lurked abandoned shafts and adits. Every kid over the age of about six knew where to find them. We hiked on out to the best ones – the ones off Seventh Street — carrying our frayed ropes, temperamental flashlights and extra water.

The holes off Seventh were mostly shafts – they went down. Barbed wire drew us in, rebar stakes with bullet-riddled warning signs told us there was something good to be found. Dirt long grown to brush mounded around the edges like a scabbed but open wound. You didn’t want to stand too close to the edge for fear of the rocks and dirt and brush sliding toward center and taking you with them. Every family had gleeful gruesome warning tales of kids falling into abandoned mine shafts never to be heard from again. That’s why we brought rope. If you fell in, you could get pulled out. If the whole shebang collapsed, the search and rescue guys could follow the rope through the tons of rock to your dirt-covered body.

The best time to go shaft-spelunking was right around noon, when the heat made it feel so good to descend into the darkness and when the sunlight pierced as deeply as possible. Seventh Street was only about a five-minute bike ride from where my family lived and another ten took us along the old access road to the mines. Just beyond the mines were The Pits where people shot bottles and targets, watermelons and a whole lot of dirt. The bottles were always beer bottles. Bring your own.

On the other side of The Pits, stood the Castle. In my memory it is stone and iron with turrets and a widow’s walk. But I think I’m confusing it with Stokes Castle in Austin (Nevada. I didn’t know there was one in Texas until near-adulthood). The Castle in the Sun Valley (Nevada. Didn’t know about the one in Idaho either. My grasp of geography has always been sketchy) desert is actually two floors of corrugated tin and plywood. Graffiti, used condoms, dead wine bottles, a needle or two – layers of delinquency. When my brother- and sister-in-law bought a brand new track house about half a mile from there I went and checked.

The Pits are right off the main road now, a holding area of gravel and those big decorative boulders people use for landscaping. Tractors, backhoes and big yellow dump trucks park haphazardly. A huge U has been gouged from the side of the hill, obliterating all those spent shells and broken bottles. I like to imagine them mixed in with the gravel used as a poor excuse for xeriscaping in the public areas of that housing development.

Back then, it seemed all we had to do was walk out into the desert, and we’d flat-out stumble upon abandoned mines, rattlesnakes, blasting caps. Blasting caps were currency. Fireworks for the mining set. Most of us in the valley knew blasting caps by sight. Hardly any of us were from the valley. We’d all done our early years in other podunk, low-rent trailer towns, all knew about changing schools when the mines busted, knew about airplane glue and brush fires, knew about black eyes, knew AA was for pussies.

But when I went back, I couldn’t find the old adits. I’m sure they’re still there, but I’ve lost that kid radar for dangerous places.

The Js at an adit at Berlin, Nevada

The Js at an adit at Berlin, Nevada

Stokes Castle, Austin, Nevada

Stokes Castle, Austin, Nevada

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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.

Category: Stories  Tags: ,  8 Comments

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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