When I was a senior in high school, living in eastern Nevada, I went deer hunting alone on a late November day in 1961. It was a wet, cloudy day and the first snow of the year was melting. Driving up toward the mountains on a little-used road that was just two parallel ruts with water seeping down them, I saw several deer get up and pass over a ridgeline to the south. I stopped the pickup and hurried down through a gully and up the far slope to the top of the ridge. When I got there, I could not spot the deer.
I came back to the pickup about fifteen minutes later and found it sunk into the ruts so far that the running boards on both sides were resting on the ground. I tried to free the truck from the muddy ruts; but the more things I tried, the more mired it became. The afternoon was quickly draining away, and as I rested I looked up toward the mountains to see a storm rolling down toward me. About ten minutes later thick, heavy snow was falling. As the light faded, the intensity of the storm increased.
I knew that if I stayed in place, I would be snowed in. At this point of the year, deep snow could be on the ground for a long time. My only option was to strike out on foot down to the ranch road and to head toward Ely. I took with me only my father’s rifle, mostly because he would not want me to leave it and not because I thought I needed it for protection.
Within half an hour, the darkness was almost complete, and the driving snowstorm made everything disappear. The only way I could navigate was to feel for the brush rubbing against my jeans on the right side. When I did feel it, I would angle to the left until I felt the brush in the center brushing my left boot. I had walked for over an hour when I sensed something in front of me. I couldn’t see anything, but I had that feeling that comes when we come near something in the dark. I slowed down and, inching forward with my free hand in front of me, I bumped into a cow. I don’t know which of us was more startled; but the cow moved off the road and I passed by.
After walking for another hour or so, I came to the ranch road and turned north toward home. The snow did not let up but, as happens when everything turns white with snow, there seemed to be a bit more light by which to navigate. For the next hour I could feel the gravel crunching under my boots. Then everything was muffled as the snow continued to fall.
Looking back over all these decades, I don’t know what I might have been thinking about as I trudged along that road. To this day, however, I can feel the almost perfect stillness that surrounded me. It was the first time I experienced a true sense of detachment, almost as though I were watching myself walking mile after mile. I lost track of how much time passed and just kept putting one foot in front of the other.
As I walked I eventually came to the road that turned right off the ranch road and went to the old charcoal ovens that had been used in the late 1800s for charcoal production. I knew that from this point I had about two more hours of walking until I came to the paved highway that led to town. I had not eaten for several hours so I was growing tired; but the hope of catching a ride home on Highway 93 kept me moving.
After a few minutes, I heard a distant sound to my rear. Soon I recognized it as a large truck. My sense of relief grew as I heard it coming closer. Soon I could sense the headlights illuminating everything in front of me. Since the snow had been coming against my back from the south, I did not bother turning around. The cattle truck rumbled right past me, and I watched the tail lights disappearing in the storm ahead. Just as it occurred to me to fire the rifle at the truck’s tires, it stopped. I trudged up to the passenger side and opened the door. The old rancher stared at me and said, “Jesus Christ, son. I thought you was a ghost.”
I don’t know who that good Samaritan was, but he gave me a ride into town, dropping me off on the main street just a few doors from our house. I arrived home after 2:00 a.m., to find my parents and oldest sister anxiously waiting to hear from me. Once I told my story, my father said that we couldn’t leave the pickup out there all winter. He called my brother-in-law, who had a Toyota Land Cruiser and headed back into the country within an hour. I was exhausted, but since I was the only one who knew exactly where the pickup was, I had to go along. I don’t know what time it was when we arrived where the pickup was stuck, but by the time we got it pulled out and turned around, the sky was beginning to lighten.
I had the presence of mind to ask my father to clock the mileage from that spot to the coke ovens. He asked me several times, “You sure you walked this far?” Passing the turnoff, he announced that we had come just over 21 miles.
Maybe I should have realized then that the long walk taken would lead to a life of travel and long walks along paths and roadways. That experience as a teenager of seventeen seems to have marked my life—and set up what now lies ahead for me.