Chapter 17, Great Basin Good-bye
Finisia and A Pot Belly Stove Named Jesus
About 60 miles north of Winnemucca, we freelance camped amid some very thorny bushes, four feet high and intense green against the white clay pan, in the Black Rock Desert, just off Bottle Creek Road.
Clouds grew inky over mountains in the west; the scattered showers promised by the weatherman appeared to be rapidly changing to something less pleasant. Rain began soon after we set up camp and continued through the night, 14 hours. The fine white clay powder changed to muck and we had several leaks to deal with. Amid visions of Greenup, Kentucky, where six inches of rain one night flooded our flat field and left us to sleep in two inches of water, we snuggled together tighter than usual.
Fortunately for us, the Black Rock Desert was very thirsty. In the morning, there were small lakes here and there, but our site was spared. Everything was sticky with gray clay muck that would make wonderful clay for throwing pots. By the time we got Zippy pushed to the road his tires and brakes were globbed with the stuff and he threw it all over us when we started down the road.
Black clouds still raced in from the west and curtains of rain hung before us. Considerable gloom also hung over our heads.
Our gloom was to be short lived. Sunshine rolled toward us in the form of a Connestoga wagon. Pulled by three horses driven by a teenage boy, the wagon was escorted by two dogs and the imposing figure of Finisia Medrano. A stovepipe poked through the canvas, puffing away cheerfully just ahead of the large painted sign, “Pulling For Christ.”
“Where you folks comin’ from?” Finisia recognized us as fellow vagabonds, and we began the road bonding that only travelers of the fringe know.
Finisia is a cowgirl poet and Christian of indeterminate middle years; a good sized woman, and hard as a rock, with a smile that could crack one.
She went on the road a dozen years ago, walking at first, adding a horse and pack horse and recently the rubber tired connestoga. The wagon has everything a vagabond could want, including the small wood stove she named Jesus, her comfort.
The teenager, son of a divorcing couple, is along for the summer. “He doesn’t need to be around all that hate.” Finisia puts her Christianity into practice. The boy smiled and cuddled a puppy too young to walk beside the wagon.
Finisia asked us if we would like to hear a poem. You bet.
Against black sky, road and wagon, she waved her arms, stamped her feet and implored the heavens, coaxing the poem alive. It is a poem about freedom and respect for the land and love of life. With the last lines, a chorus of coyotes began to sing with her (I am not making this up) and continued as she finished. We listened and grinned at each other and at the pure joy of it all.
We talked by the roadside, comparing vagabond stories and life stories until we had to get going, she south, we north. We hugged the hug of fellow travelers from the fringe; hugs of understanding, good wishes and shared love.
After we left Finisia the rain ran parallel to us for miles, hanging in diaphanous striated sheets in front of dark mountains. It would have been more beautiful had it not been inexorably cutting us off before Denio Summit.
The rain and a headwind drove us into a highway maintenance station in the middle of nowhere. Several employees were finishing up lunch and invited us in out of the wind. We talked as we warmed ourselves and discovered how much these people love this remote country. We also heard the good news that Denio Junction had a motel and restaurant. Soon the rain passed on, the winds diminished and we began the climb to the pass.
Here the mountains come close and the soft blue of sagebrush gives way to bright green grasses that climb steeply to rounded summits. It reminded me of the highlands of Scotland. It is no wonder that this is Basque sheepherder country. It looks like sheep heaven to me.
We were told by a highway worker that the Basque still tend flocks all summer in the high valleys, living in traditional wagons that they take great care to site with vast and beautiful views.
I would love to visit: leaning against the wagon wheel, a cup of strong camp coffee warming my palms, watching sheep bedding down for the night across the valley, stars burning in overhead, the throbbing of pink lightning behind distant clouds… They must be persons of great wealth.
We had planned to get food and water and head into the desert to camp, getting a head-start on the 127 miles to Lakeview, Oregon. However, a cough Claire had acquired from me was getting worse along with the weather and we opted for a day off.
After we got settled into the motel room, we rode the two more miles into Denio where there was supposed to be a store; it was a bar with a few groceries. The old wood bar was beautiful and the owner friendly.
He told we had just missed a couple who had passed through, headed north, with their three children. They were with a wagon pulled by a single horse that mostly carried their possessions. They walked up all of the hills, to spare the horse, and rode the wagon down.
They were Scots and have been traveling the world for over five years. They will go across Canada this summer and then home. I’m beginning to like this wagon idea. Now if we only knew something about horses.
Denio is having a community dance here next weekend (swing, waltz and squares) and we will miss it. They have a beautiful dance floor too. Darn.