Chasing Dust Devils

Bobbie Ann Howell

Getting out into the open spaces this spring has been heaven, and the idea of a real slide show where you get everyone together and make them look at your travel photos like some grand explorer seems dreamy. I realize that it’s mostly fun for the person putting on the show. Slides shows have new life these days - with everyone instantly posting their experiences, dinner, oddities, etc… but the whole story at one sitting may be lost among the vast snippets of life we are endlessly shooting into cyberspace. I hope these blog posts serve to share a bit of the story as well.

On my way up to Reno for the annual Nevada Humanities Chautauqua, my friend Anne Hoff and I took a side trip to visit our state fossil, see the Pony Express Site at Middlegate, hike up Sand Mountain at sunset, watch fighter jet maneuvers in Fallon, look out for rattlesnakes and butterflies at Dayton State Park, learn about mining history at the Dayton Historical Society Museum, and see a Van Gogh at the Nevada Museum of Art.

It was a great day for dust devils; they were dancing everywhere. I have always enjoyed watching them move across the desert, swirling up dust and creating a little havoc. When I was a kid, I would chase them and try to get inside one and feel the swirling winds, getting dust and stuff all in my hair. Catching a dust devil is not easy and for some reason I thought it was fun. And knowing that at one time I could run across the desert in such a crazy pursuit still makes me smile.

The trip to the Berlin-Icthyosaur State Park is a quiet rolling drive into the mountains east of Gabbs on State Route 844, just south of Highway 50. Icthyosaurs (pronounced ick-thee-o-sores) were large “fish-lizard” creatures that lived in the seas that covered what is now Nevada. Looking at the long valley and noticing the huge swaths cut by water while imagining this world of the past is a good way to spend a Nevada afternoon.

When in Reno I saw that they were chopping down big trees in front of the historic downtown post office and I asked the workers, “why?” They had no answer.

I have been thinking of trees – trees burning up near Reno and the Spring Mountains west of Las Vegas. Watching the columns of smoke in their sinister risings above the bright blue sky is creeping into my dreams. I grew up in Lee Canyon, part of the Toiyabe National Forest. There was a fire on the mountain way back when I arrived in this world, a July hot and dry like now. Many trees in the area from that fire have finally grown to a respectable height and the seared landscape has slowly succumbed to the re-growth of the forest. I worry for those trees, I consider them survivors and I have watched them grow throughout my life. This is of course something that happens to forests, it is how they revive giving room for new seeds to germinate. It is also hopefully killing off large hordes of the beetle pests that have turned much of our woodlands across the country from green to rust red. Super heated popping pine beetles are a comfort at least.

Forest fires are part of the landscape. We see the broad paths with stark black sticks jutting from the hills, small patches spared, and marvel at the work of the people who set out to control these fires. Controlling fire - what a task, unimaginable. We reflect on the firemen lost in Arizona and look on with more dread - please be safe. Trees, which survived the sawmills when we were cutting everything for timber beams for the mines, building towns, and keeping us warm. Taking a life giving tree, the pinyon pine, used for food and trade by the Paiutes and turning it into charcoal for the smelters, and thinking how at one time the Truckee river had so much sawdust in it that fish could not swim. Trees, take care, we are slowly learning how much we need you.

I can see the light becoming more orange and shadows glow blue from my office window, the smoke is moving into the valley. I try to keep working and not be seduced into going to look again. We are all outside looking over the city and past the power lines to the mountains. I am hopeful that the remains of Tropical Cyclone Erick will bring us rain, no lighting, no wind. What are the chances? Good I hope.