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Know the West

Rants from the Hill: My home lake


"Rants from the Hill" are Michael Branch's monthly musings on life in the high country of Nevada's western Great Basin desert.

Edward Abbey began Desert Solitaire with the following words: “This is the most beautiful place on earth. There are many such places.” Well, my home lake here in Silver Hills is the most gorgeous place on the planet, in just the way Cactus Ed intended. It is nestled in a gently sloping basin surrounded by granitic hills that are dotted with bitterbrush and big sage. In the spring, balsamroot and lupine cover the upland slopes in a drapery of yellow and purple, while the pink flush of desert peach ignites the rocky draws. In late summer, golden domes of rabbit brush appear everywhere. Green fingers of ephedra, which emerge from a blanket of snow in winter, are grazed by pronghorn and mule deer. My home lake is also a jewel on the necklace of the Pacific inland flyway, and is home to at least 80 species of birds. All year round we see golden eagles here, and harriers, red tails, kestrels, ravens, great horned owls, mountain bluebirds. So perfectly lovely is this place that when it came time to marry, I decided to hike Eryn to the top of the nearby hills. There we rested on red granite boulders, gazed out across the stunning expanse of the lake, and decided to spend our lives together. In this place, as in no other on earth, there is a clarity of light, a play of shadow, a catharsis of wind that makes you want to change your life. And there is one more thing I should mention about my home lake. It contains no water.

Now I realize that some people are so shamefully effete, soft, and privileged that they might expect a lake to have water. Some folks may even think they deserve to have water in a lake—that they’re spoiled enough to feel entitled to it. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if there are even people who would argue that a big, empty bowl of land without a drop of water in it shouldn’t even be called a lake. I also suspect these are the same folks who want to dump nuclear waste in the Great Basin desert because there’s “nothing” there. Well, that same nothing fills my home lake, and those of us who live out here in the middle of what the “nothing” people call “nowhere” don’t see our lake as being empty of water. We see it as being full of light and wind. Full of coyotes and rattlers. Full of the kind of space that only the high desert can hold—space that is crowded out of other landscapes by irritating obstructions, like trees and water. Even if there aren’t trees blocking your view, how can you really see a lake if the damned thing is all filled up with water?

Although my home lake is what is called a “dry lake” or “alkali flat,” such lakes exist around the globe and carry a variety of lyrical names: kavir in Iran, takyr in central Asia, and abkha in much of the Arabic world; pan in South Africa, and salar in most of South America. The term most widely used in Mexico and in the intermountain West is “playa lake.” To scientists, this is an “endorheic” lake, which is a wonky way of saying that it exists in a closed basin, one in which water may flow in but never flows out. Moisture arriving here by any means will either evaporate or be absorbed into the ground. In this kind of internal drainage system the concept of “downstream” simply does not apply. This special place is where water comes to die, and to be reborn.

An endorheic lake like this one has a dry bed—around here we call the lakebed a “playa” (Spanish for “beach”)—which is among the flattest landscapes on earth. This is why desert playas are used for rocketry and for setting land speed records. It is also why huge playas like the Smoke Creek and Black Rock are the site of Nevada’s signature form of outdoor recreation. First, drive your truck out onto the playa. Then, weight the accelerator pedal with a chunk of granite, or jimmy it with a bitterbrush branch. 

As the vehicle begins covering ground, tune the radio to the baseball game, then clamber out your window and onto the top of your truck’s cab. Be sure to take the six-pack with you. Now, sit back and enjoy the sun, the breeze, and the scenery of the distant mountains as your unmanned truck drives itself randomly across the expansive sublimity of one of the most isotropic landscapes on the planet. Wear your shades, because playas are usually bright white from a coating of fine-grained saline sediment that contains evaporative minerals like borax and sodium carbonate. The playa is also the cradle of fantastic dust storms, as climbing spirals of hot desert wind whip the white dust into towering gyres that may be seen for miles. And recent research has shown that the particles liberated from playas in this way act as condensation nuclei. That is, they are the seeds from which clouds are grown in the wild garden of the sky.

My grandpa, who was a homebrewer during prohibition, used to tell me stories of accidentally over-sugaring beer batches and having the bottles explode beneath the beds where they were hidden. “A lot of people wet their beds back then,” he used to joke, “from the bottom up. Pop! Pop! Pop!” Playa lakes are often created in the same way: they are flooded from below. Even in the absence of runoff from snowmelt, it sometimes happens that the water table beneath the playa rises high enough to intersect the surface, at which point water percolates up onto the endorheic lakebed from below. When that happens, what looks like the sun-baked, rock hard surface of the playa is actually a thin crust beneath which looms the subterranean megalake of the aquifer itself. Every now and then some desert rat tearing across the playa at high speed fails to notice the telltale dimples that subtly reveal the upward movement of underground water. No matter. They figure it out when the crust of the playa breaks, like thin ice, and their truck is swallowed by the aquifer below.

Like many larger desert terminus lakes, my little home lake does have water in it now and then. Even in dry years there’s enough subsurface moisture around its margin to sustain tulles—the reeds traditionally used by my northern Paiute neighbors to fashion everything from houses to boats to delicate duck decoys. Coyote willow, which also grows around the lake, is handy on hard hikes; just break off a branch and gnaw it a little as you walk, and its natural salicin, which is chemically related to aspirin, has a pleasant analgesic effect. If we’ve had a big snow year, the runoff onto the playa during the melt out will create a broad expanse of gleaming water, though the lake is often no more than a few inches deep. In those years it becomes an oasis for wading birds including stilts, avocets, and white-faced ibis. If we’ve had several wet winters in a row the lake becomes more expansive and a good bit deeper, and in those years migrating tundra swans will join the resident Canada geese in wintering with us. In one unusually wet stretch we had more than a hundred of these graceful birds on the lake from Thanksgiving until we uncorked the Redbreast Irish whiskey on St. Patty’s. That was the winter we almost forgot that water is not a permanent feature of this landscape. Here in the desert, even a lake is like a swan, an antelope, a wildfire, a moment of clarity. It comes and goes.

In most parts of most years my home lake is bone dry, and sometimes it remains parched for so long that it becomes a vast garden of low weeds. It has been perfectly waterless for three years now—just as it was on that shimmering day, thirteen years ago, when I looked out over this light-filled basin and asked Eryn to set aside her usual good sense and instead marry me. On such a day, who needs water? Besides, all that water just gets in the way. I’m now accustomed to hiking through the lake and am not sure I’d want to go around it. And a lake without water speaks more to memory and to hope than it does to the kind of certainty that is so rare on this side of the vale of tears. Most of what we love is ultimately transient, and it takes a desiccated resilience to reconcile with that fact. So the term I like best to describe the intermittent, uncertain nature of this endorheic Great Basin playa lake is “ephemeral.” If the ephemerality of my home lake makes it less picturesque, its periodic waterlessness also gives it a hard, bright certainty that inspires an appreciation for what it means to live in this world. The water will return someday. Until it does, we’ll look out on the lakebed’s shimmering mirage and slake our thirst with light.

Michael P. Branch is Professor of Literature and Environment at the University of Nevada, Reno, where he teaches American literature and environmental studies. He has published five books and many articles on environmental literature, and his creative nonfiction has appeared in Utne Reader, Orion, Ecotone, Isotope, Hawk and Handsaw, Whole Terrain, and other magazines. He lives with his wife and two young daughters at 6,000 feet in the western Great Basin desert of Nevada.

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Black Rock Desert photo courtesy Shutterstock

Other images courtesy the author.