Ode to Sagebrush Country

by Marko Capoferri

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The Great Basin is wide open topographically but introspective in spirit, turned in on itself; and news from outside seems like mythology, rumor, entertainment…To think of a figure in this vast western space of the Great Basin is to see a solitary on an empty stage… —Rebecca Solnit

No place is a place until it has found its poet. —Wallace Stegner, from Crossing to Safety

A thousand praises have been sung for the Rockies, the Sierra Nevada, the Cascades, Southern Utah’s red rock country. The American prairie stands on the periphery, not totally excluded from the canon. Even the Mojave Desert has received a few choruses here and there. There’s another region which seems to elude the recognition that has been bestowed upon those lands previously mentioned. Perhaps its austerity, its loneliness, or even its humility have kept it beyond the reach of popular imagination.

It should be established up front: I am an outsider to Sagebrush Country. I am not claiming to be the poet that Stegner speaks of. Nor is this intended as a comprehensive survey of our vast sage lands (found in every state west of the 100th meridian). But, to paraphrase Thoreau (a failed poet himself), I wish to speak a word for America’s lost dog of a landscape.

Basin and Range, the Great Basin, Sagebrush Country: these terms all mean something very different in truth, but in the imagination they all speak to a certain emptiness of space that is synonymous in theory. For my purposes they could be used interchangeably, and they all converge conceptually, and literally, in Nevada. To me, Nevada is the ultimate expression of Sagebrush Country’s uncanny otherness, some untouchable quality that repels as much as it intrigues. Nevada is where Sagebrush Country achieves its apotheosis. Obscure tectonic forces are pulling the land apart into a succession of ranges and basins, a series of rain shadows from west to east that drain the sky and dry the land by the time it reaches Utah. Being there and engaging the land with all senses is like staring into the void that stares right back into you. It demands an openness equal to the openness possessed by the land, or one will be sorely disappointed, even outright rejected.

And besides, Nevada has always felt lawless to me, another aspect which makes it my capital, my locus, of Sagebrush Country. It could be the legalized gambling and prostitution, or it could be the million-acre tracts of BLM land, that most-unregulated portion of our public domain. I get the feeling out there that anyone can get away with anything illicit, and they probably are. Which is a divine comedy, because there’s nothing there to hide behind, but there’s more than enough space to hide or get lost in. You could literally hide in plain sight because of the immensity of space; “vanishing point” takes on a real meaning. Where other desert regions give you cacti, Joshua trees, or junipers to break the plane, in the long basins of Nevada what you get are depthless fields of knee-high sagebrush, massive sheets of pale green static blending with the salmon-bronze of soil. The smell of heated sagebrush on the bush permeates the air like a warm and smoked vanilla. It’s a scent that you want to wrap yourself in. It might be one of the only inviting things about that landscape, to go with the soft colors. This is a hard elemental land of few rules with soothing sensuality and loaded with contradictions.

Across Sagebrush Country, there are few signs at the entrance to each town announcing the population, but inevitably there’s a sign announcing how many feet above sea level you are, and it’s always above 5,200’ (or, about a mile). Which says: “you are very far from the ocean.” Which says elevation decides character, not the number of people. Which says: “winter here is brutal.” A drive through under the stiff summer sun makes it hard to imagine winter. But then you realize: it’s always brutal there. There’s very little forgiveness.

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It always feels like Sunday in Sagebrush Country, like the Biblical seventh day, like the world has just been created and only a couple of people are on the scene, somewhere far off. It always feels like people are somewhere far off. Where sagebrush is most prolific is also where you’ll find the fewest people.

I was last in Nevada on a Sunday. I camped with a friend in the Ruby Mountains the previous night and we parted ways in the morning; she headed northwest towards Elko, I turned to the east and the unknown, a shortcut to the two-lane road that would take me all the way to Missoula. The pavement soon ended. I rattled over 20 miles of dirt road, gritting my teeth with every washboard tremble, anxious over my car’s paper-thin street tires, fearful I would end up that city boy who blindly follows his GPS into the outback and certain disaster. In hindsight I’m reminded of Aldo Leopold’s dictum that a life free from fear would be a poor one: there was also an exhilarating sense that I was utterly alone, and thrilled to it. The only person who had any faint idea of my whereabouts was long gone in the opposite direction, and in my fragility I could truly feel the vastness of the unpeopled country all around. Although it wasn’t necessarily welcoming me, I chose to meet the austerity with a nod and a welcoming embrace. It was either that or suffer in exile. I reached into the arid void for reciprocity. It’s hard to put into words what I got in return, but some inner voice told me I was richer for having been there. Sagebrush Country isn’t a place for words.

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Take a look around. Feel the sweep of space that curls outward and only breaks at the climbing mountains. This land rejects all desires. You can’t populate it with anything, because you can’t see yourself reflected in it; that’s why it is so appealing to me. It’s the starkest reminder that we have limits. At the same time, the gaze has no limits out there, goes off wildly to distant ranges with nothing human in between and yearns to go further over those mountains to find something civilized to hold on to.

One month ago, driving near Battle Mountain, Nevada, I listened to an interview with Luis Alberto Urrea in which he spoke these words: “I think liminal space is where all writers go. That place of crossing, that place of pressure, of two things meeting.” There’s an irony, an idiosyncrasy, of Sagebrush Country: it feels limiting and limitless all at once, a collision of thwarted desire and inspired longing in a vast, arid space. Sagebrush Country is enticing in its liminality, in the incoherent frictions that spark a sublime fire in the open mind.