IN APRIL 2001, I was on a solo road trip researching Nevada light, sage basins, indigo mountains, and small town casinos for my novel Going Through Ghosts. I’d driven down out of a blizzard in Ely into delicate snow, thin sunlight, and mist rising ahead of me. I stopped in a convenience store for coffee and yakked with the young clerk. She told me there was a warm spring in a nearby cottonwood grove. “Don’t tell anybody where it is,” she said. “It’s for locals only. We take care of it.”
I bought taquitos and my coffee and drove down the little dirt road into the cottonwoods. There was a rock wall around a little pool, a trickle of water running down into a smaller pool. Cress grew along the shore. I was alone. I took off my clothes and stepped into the spring. The water was softly warm. Snow sifted onto my shoulders. I wondered if I would ever again be so purely happy.
Nine years later to the month, I slid back into that silken water. Soft desert sunlight gleamed on the cottonwoods’ new leaves. I listened to the whisper of the old trees and the silvery rill of water trickling into a series of pools below me. The locals had continued to take care of the place. They’d reinforced the crumbling cinderblock walls around the spring. They had set up a bright red battered barbecue grill beneath the biggest cottonwood and a sign that read: Please clean up after yourself. Thank you.
I closed my eyes. I was a two day drive from my old home and less than two days from the not-home to which I had fled. My time in the old home had become a patchwork of finding myself in places and with people that had once been home — and aching with the knowledge that the place was no longer home. I had uprooted myself to a new town that seemed an affluent caricature of the Western Good Life.
Home. Not home. Home. Not home. “Perhaps there is home,” my friend CG had said, “and then there is Home.” I thought of his words as water, sun, and the huge old trees held me. I realized that on this eight-day journey I might have been coming Home. I was closer to being who I’d been in April of 2001 — a woman who had believed she was a local wherever she was. The drive from Flagstaff had taken me through little western towns. That morning I’d eaten eggs and fried potatoes served by a warm-eyed woman in a mom-’n’-pop cafe. The wall behind her had been plastered with bumper stickers attacking Socialists, Healthcareists, both Clintons, both Obamas, Harry Reid, Mexicans, and god-damned global warming nuts. The woman told me about surviving eight months of chemo and how laughter had been her best medicine. I told her of a friend who’d survived the same illness, whose friendship with a wounded eagle had sustained him through chemotherapy. I promised to send her a book. As she hugged me goodbye, I saw over her shoulder a bumper sticker that said: You f–in liberals can’t have my country — or my gun. When I unlocked the trunk of my car to put my pack away, I saw the old sticker I’d put there in 2006: My cats hate Bush.
In Flagstaff and Las Vegas, friends and I talked about our deep apprehension for America. We were stunned to find that more than anything we might fear from the corporate takeover of our country, it was the lockstep thinking of a growing number of our neighbors that chilled our blood. “It’s strange to me,” Kathleen said, “how seemingly kind and decent people can spew so much hate.”
“They probably wonder the same thing about us,” I’d said (in a rare moment of clarity from a woman who often longs for the guillotine and knows better than to ever own a gun.)
My friends and I had talked about the strange phenomenon of violence to wild places — developers who talked about nuking a building site, then mitigating it; wild animal corpses hung on barbed wire fences; dirt bike trails filthy with beer bottles and human shit. “It is as though these people are raging against the earth itself,” I said. “As though they are thinking, ‘Fuck you. I’m bigger than you are.’”
I sank deeper into the warm spring. I thought about how once a friend and I had set boards with nails under the soil of a dirt bike trail and posted signs: Beware. Trail Sabotaged. I grinned and let my thoughts fade away. For a precious time, there was only my body held by the silken water; the miracle of breath moving easily in and out; and the cry of a hawk diving for a kill. I thanked the water and green cottonwood light and climbed out of the pool. I dressed, picked up a couple of beer cans in the parking lot, climbed into the car, and headed home. I wondered when I would come back. I had no doubt I would.
I have just returned from the 2014 book tour for my novel, 29. My friend and I drove away from Reno and ate breakfast in the same café with the rabid bumper stickers. I dumped over my coffee. The tweak-skinny waitress cheerfully mopped it up, grinned and said, “Honey, I’m so buzzed you could have dumped that coffee on me and I would’ve laughed.” We tipped lavishly and got back on the road.
We drove south above the Pahranagat Valley, the brilliant green of cottonwoods lining the White River below. A few miles further my friend said, “There it is.” The cottonwood grove that surrounded the little hot spring lay directly ahead. We pulled onto the dirt road that led in. A gate and barbed wire fence closed the entrance. The sign posted on the gate read: No Trespassing. Closed to the Public.
“What?” my friend said, “Some rich retiree bought it for themselves?”
I shook my head. “Who the fuck knows? Let’s grab a sandwich for the road and ask some questions.”
We filled the car’s tank and walked into the convenience store. A dark-haired middle-aged woman was making sandwiches for a line of locals. We ordered and when she handed over our food, I said, “What happened to Ash Springs?”
She looked up from her work. “Vandals, honey,” she said. “Nobody knows exactly who. They broke the wall around the spring. The people who own the spring decided it was too risky to keep it open.”
“Why…” I started to say. She beat me to it. “Why do people have to be so rotten? Maybe you don’t know, but a bunch of high school kids built that little rock wall around the pool. Did it for free. Did it out of the goodness of their hearts.”
I thank her for letting us know what had happened. We paid for our sandwiches and climbed back in the car. My friend and I were quiet for a long time. We were driving along the marshes between Upper Pahranagat Lake and the lower lake when my friend finally said something. “Maybe we’ll never be in that spring again. Maybe we’ll just have to add Ash Springs to the list of the Once Was.”