By Daniel Montero
Shadows were lengthening when we left Winnemucca, headed north and west toward the night into one of the largest dark spaces left in the Lower 48. In the gathering darkness the sky shines brighter than the greasewood scrub land alongside the highway and I drove with my eyes peeled for anything darting into the road: deer, rabbits, mice. One night along these dark ways I had to swerve to miss a wild horse standing stock still dead in the center of the roadway.
As we turn west onto Highway 140, we drop from the alluvial fan of the Santa Rosa Mountains down into a broad flat. Our destination, the Quinn River, flows out of the Santa Rosa Mountains and its course winds along these basins, curving north and south and tending westward as it finds its way through a maze of high desert ranges: south from its origin in them along the western face of the Santa Rosas Mountains, past Slumbering Hills to the south, The Double H Mountains to the north, the Jackson Mountains to the south, the Bilk Creek Mountains to the north before the river turns definitively south, blocked by the Pine Forest Mountains, to start a long journey into the Black Rock Desert. In a thirty-mile stretch the highway makes exactly one slight bend, the river course, meanwhile, meanders greatly in the nearly flat plan, winding its way along sagebrush and greasewood flats. I say river course, because the river we are approaching, the river that we have come this way to find, is in its very nature a chimera. It flows in sections when it flows at all, and it never flows year round. It is an ephemeral river. In Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape (edited by Barry Lopez and Debra Gwartney), Jeffery Renard Allen writes that “A stream or reach of a stream that flows only during and for short periods following precipitation is known as an ephemeral stream. Also called a stormwater channel, it receives no extensive long-term water supply from melting snow or other sources, and its channel is, at all times, above the water table.”
The river may been alternatively known as the Queen River (in the the 1870 census) and was called the River of the Lakes by Peter Skeen Ogden in 1828 (Helen Carlson, Nevada Place Names, “Quinn” entry). The course follows a 110-mile path from the Santa Rosas to the Black Rock playa and its basin encompasses 11,600 square miles of northwestern Nevada).
On this year of high flows the river is genuinely running and since the middle of the winter we have been thinking about and planning for an excursion on it. Floating on ephemeral water in the desert.
Our plan is to depart from the last crossing before the Black Rock Wilderness and so to float into the wilderness. This of course means that what we pack in, we will have to pack out, in this case a two-person inflatable kayak and all of our gear, so we plan to go light. On another trip, conditions permitting, it would be amazing to take it as far as we could, even floating all the way down to the playa (which we had also floated on recently), but given our work schedules and limited resources our excursion is a bit limited.
As we turn west onto Highway 140 the light is nearly gone and by the time we cross the pain to Sod House, what used to be a stage stop and with the remains of its namesake sod structure still visible from the highway we stop and walk to the fence marked No Trespassing and look into the gathering dark. There is water here, a broad bed of what seems to be standing water on what are generally dry pastures catching the glint of the shining light. This buoys us, the water is flowing, and we get back and drive into the dark. But farther along, where the plain narrows after Kings River Valley between the southern edge of the Bilk Creeks and the northern of the Jacksons and the river crosses the highway, we stop and the in the dark can make out that the channel is dry and it deflates us. But then, out on the next plain that goes south and becomes somewhere indistinct there the famous Black Rock Desert, at the next crossing of the river on Leonard Creek Road, we stop and it is flowing again. A mystery of the spring and water flow, or something else that I don’t know. But that final crossing is our point of departure and it means that in the morning this will be happening.
We are back there in the morning, inflating the boat and packing our lunch. The river here has cut a narrow channel into the alkaline playa that is maybe generally 4 or 5 feet below the general floor of the basin, so that when we push off into the brown-gray water it seems as if we have descended into the desert itself, that even beyond the fact that we are adrift in sinking pieces of crust between an ocean that is eventually spreading itself into existence, we are buried inside of that itself. As if we have returned to the true cradle of the earth. We must be submerged, as in amniotic fluid, in order to emerge again renewed. At least it feels that way as we push ourselves and float with the slow-moving current, as if we are being born of the desert. If we went on this as far as it would go we would emerge eventually at one of the flattest places on earth—the Black Rock playa.
Ephemeral water. Water that exists and doesn’t exist. That exists in this time, but not in that time or the time before that, or after that. And then it exists again. It questions our notions of permanence.
We paddle now and again. The current definitely moves us through sweeping oxbows constantly bending back and forth to nearly touch themselves. There are islands in them, and water, on this wet year is breaking between the oxbows in places. Retracing itself, the river draws a DNA strand of its existence into the soft soil of an ancient inland sea that will become an ocean again. Ancient by our standards, of course, really a baby of an inland sea compared to the vast stretch of time. Wandering in a boat along the upper reaches of a desert valley is a sublime place to contemplate the existence of time.
We pull up to an inlet. It is tricky easing out of our shifting little blow-up kayak onto the slick mud and then dry alkaline soil beyond, but we navigate ourselves onto dry land and climb up. On the surface of the Quinn River valley, as it becomes the Black Rock Desert, we are surrounded by mountains circling the horizon. In Basin and Range (via the compilation Annals of the Former World), John McPhee writes about the geologic processes of the basin and range, how the separation of the crust here will eventually open another ocean and California will be an island. In this discussion, he writes “the basin-range fault blocks in a sense are floating on the mantle.” Looking east, the massive pyramidal edifice of King Lear Peak adorns the Jacksons—they an oceanic volcanic island arc added to the edge of North America during the Jurassic period—and overlooks a vast swath of northern Nevada. West, the massive rounded peaks of the Black Rock Range have always reminded me of a school of whales diving and leaping south toward the equator. So it’s easy to imagine them floating, their scale and mine different only in degrees that are tiny compared to the cosmos. Holding my hand to them, the peaks are no larger than my fingernail although having climbed on them I can also feel their heft, know their steep slopes, massive cliff faces, and meadows and springs.
We continue on. Time doesn’t seem to mean anything anymore, only measured in the slow, brown and gray current. We float through jungles of willows, brushing through them or occasionally just brushing their tips. At some point I put my paddle straight down into the water, to see how deep the channel is below us. It extends most of the way down before hitting the soft mud at the bottom, itself flowing along at simply a different rate. In The Secret Knowledge of Water, Craig Childs writes “the voices in water are real, for whatever they might mean,” and for a little while we just drift in complete silence, listening to its murmur.
The afternoon drifting by, the way that perfect afternoons should. We pull alongside a steep bank face and eat sandwiches and drink hot soup in the kayak. Then we beach again and climb out of the river channel. The plain horizon to the mountains is now broken by an old tilted metal windmill, knocked askew by the settling ground and the tremendous wind that gusts up this valley. But I want to imagine it knocked over by Don Quixote.
We had planned to portage home, folding and drying the inflatable kayak, packing it backpack style across the plain to the county road. But as slow as the current is, we decide instead to paddle back up the river itself. So turning north, from a complete idyll of following the path of least resistance, we are thrust into sustained motion. Paddling in sync becomes a rhythm, a pleasure to strain against the flow of the water and to glide over top it. Until the rhythm is broken by one of us (usually me) and we turn and reset and paddle again into the gathering afternoon. When in rhythm it is a pleasure to glide over the water and through that willow tops, to work ourselves out and to feel our progress through the use of our muscles rather than letting the slow, meandering water simply carry us along.
A day that has has felt suspended out of time is still nearly ending by the time that we beach again at the county road and start to unpack. After the exertion of the paddle back up the river it feels good to get out of the boat and stretch. We unpack and deflate the kayak. The brown gray water starts to catch a bit of the blue of the day end light and we walk back and look at the river and the greasewood plain. For a river that floats on a flat, it hides so much, disappearing modestly a hundred yards or so into its own depths just a hundred yards or so from the bridge. It hides itself not only in time, but from the casual glance of the usual passer by. The mountains are starting to catch a bit of glow.
From here we turn forward, into the night of people. There is a Basque dinner at the Denio Community Hall. At it we will eat, and laugh, and talk to this river’s neighbors, who are mostly laughingly unbelieving about how we have chosen to spend our day, but also respect it, for this valley, with all of its seeming vast emptiness, is their home.
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