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The Amnesia of the Desert

The Amnesia of the Desert

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Published by David Oppegaard
An essay about researching my novel Wormwood, Nevada, originally published in The Nevada Review. A harrowing, surreal tale of the desert!
An essay about researching my novel Wormwood, Nevada, originally published in The Nevada Review. A harrowing, surreal tale of the desert!

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Published by: David Oppegaard on Aug 10, 2010
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The Amnesia of the Desert By David Oppegaard

Note: This essay was originally published in The Nevada Review

When I set out to research my second novel, Wormwood, Nevada, I was twenty-seven years old and had resided in Minnesota my entire life. My first novel hadn’t sold yet, seemed like it might never sell, and I thought it might be a good idea to move to a strange, distant land for a while. To shake things up. And so, like the adventurous hobbit Bilbo Baggins, I decided to head out the door and see where the road took me. I’d driven across the West on a few camping trips. Out of every city I’d visited, Boise, Idaho stuck out in my mind as the kind of place that I’d like to live in. A small, manageable city, Boise was an oasis set at the bottom of beautiful foothill mountains, a nicely situated hub between six other beautiful states (including Nevada). I imagined a dozen future camping trips across Oregon, Montana, and Washington, as well as tantalizingly mild weather. I quit my unpleasant job of five years. I somehow convinced my girlfriend at the time, Sarah, to move West with me. At the end of June we loaded our cars, her cat, Opie, and we drove, drove, drove. # I’d already been working on, Wormwood, Nevada, for several months before I decided to head west. Set in a fictional desert town in the middle of

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central Nevada, the novel would follow the lives of several different residents while they experienced the impact of a meteor crashing in the middle of their little town and the resulting chaos it brought. I imagined a sprawling, multiple point of view novel totaling at least four hundred pages, Charles Dickens-style. Only a few weeks before we left for Boise, I’d gotten a call from my agent informing me that St. Martin’s Press was offering me a two book deal for my first novel The Suicide Collectors and a second novel, which at the time had been nothing more than a brief summary of what I imagined Wormwood, Nevada would become. I had only two weeks to soak up the congratulations of friends and family, to try to comprehend that my lifelong dream of being a professional novelist had finally come true, before I found myself over fifteen hundred miles distant with only one friend in town and no boss to answer to except a blank computer screen. Somehow, I’d gone into the desert and woken up this new, shiny person— this writer dude who didn’t need to apologize anymore for not being published when he mentioned that he wrote books at parties. I could just say that I was a novelist, matter-of-factly, like a farmer declaring it was going to rain soon. I volunteered at a children’s writing camp in the foothills for a few weeks, but after that ended I spent nearly all my time hanging out in the house we’d rented, drinking on the backyard patio and watching Opie prowl through the high grass. I wrote five pages a day, nearly every day, because it was suddenly the only way I could justify my existence. By October, I’d only left Boise for two days, for a visit to the Oregon Coast. All my visions about trips to Montana and Washington and California had

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disappeared, just like my small advance for The Suicide Collectors would a few months later. I was deep into Wormwood, Nevada and knew that I’d put if off for as long as possible: it was time to head for the desert. # I’d driven across plenty of open American countryside before. The flat plains of southern Minnesota, eastern North Dakota and, god help them, most of Kansas. I’d been through the badlands of South Dakota and the over-salted flats of Utah. The sky opens up in Montana, bares its soul in Wyoming, and flails wildly throughout southern Idaho, wondering what do with all this goddamn space. But nothing quite compared with the openness I felt pouring in through my car windows as I crossed the bleak Idaho/Nevada border, headed south. Clusters of sagebrush dotted the landscape all the way to the horizon, literally an ocean of windblown sagebrush, and not much else. It was October, well into fall, but the quality of sunlight in Nevada seemed brighter somehow, brighter even than in Idaho, as if it had been run through a filter until it was so distilled that it made you wince through your sunglasses (and this wasn’t even summertime). Gradually a small mountain appeared, and that mountain became a mountain range running from north to south, and then the mountain range appeared never to end, even while driving at speeds of eighty miles per hour. Actually, the mountain range did finally end, and then a new range appeared almost immediately to take its place and proceed for an even longer span of time. One of the books I’d read on Nevada had described the topography of the state like a corrugated sheet of metal; I imagined a giant putting his enormous hand

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around the state of Nevada and squeezing it together until a series of mountain ranges popped up. The longer I was on the road, the further the highway seemed to stretch. I listened to music and the most appropriate CD for the landscape seemed to be Andrew Bird’s The Mysterious Production of Eggs, a spooky, lyrically-strong album with plenty of whistling and haunting melodies. Road trips and rocking out go well together, but now I was also listening to music for comfort, to hear another human voice in the car, for a blanket of noise. As often happens to me on long road trips, I started ticking off the miles in my head and imagining what it would be like if my car broke down here, or here, or what about here. The towns were few and far between, and it dawned on me that you actually needed to plan out your gas station stops with some accuracy, because the next gas station could be a hundred miles away, and it might be a while before a friendly vehicle came along to help. My first major stop in Nevada was at Lehman Caves, on the east-central border of the state. The caves didn’t have anything to do with my novel, but exploring underground seemed like an interesting way to spend the rest of the afternoon before I spent the night in Ely. I joined a group of tourists and we were lead through the caves by a park ranger armed with a flashlight. The caves were damp, beautiful, and filled with your usual wealth of stalactites and stalagmites. The ranger encouraged us to imagine what it would have been like to explore the caves originally, before the strings of artificial lights and without a map. You’d often be forced to resort to worming your way through narrow passages, beneath

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tons of rock, with only a flickering candle to light your way. This, I thought, was as good a metaphor as any for writing a novel’s first draft. At the end of the tour, everyone fell silent as we came up the long exit tunnel toward the earth’s surface. The ranger turned off her flashlight and, without warning, pounded on the metal exit door. The sound rebounded down the tunnel, into the web of caves, and came back to us in the deep, thunderous echo, an amazing sound that went right up your spine. She pointed out that the echoes sounded just like a heartbeat, and turned her flashlight back on. # The next day, I woke before dawn and left Ely headed southwest on Highway 6. It was a cold, cloudless morning and the sun began to rise as I drove, turning the entire eastern horizon a stunning dark pink. As the rising sun passed above the mountains, its light reflected in my driver side mirror with such intensity that I was momentarily blinded. It was as if I’d had an intense, beatific vision, some kind of contact with the Luminous. This same flash of light would reappear in first chapter of Wormwood, Nevada, causing Tyler Mayfield to adjust his rearview mirror and look into the dark eyes of an otherworldly being. There’s bright light, and then there’s LIGHT. My first destination of the day was Lunar Crater, roughly one hundred miles from Ely. There were only two towns in between those hundred miles, and I passed through so quickly I barely noticed them. I listened to music and fell into a trancelike state as more mountains and sagebrush blurred past. I should have been thinking about the book, probably, or noticing crucial environmental

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details for later use, but I’m pretty sure I just zoned out until I turned off onto the access road for Lunar Crater. The exit had been marked with a Lunar Crater sign, but what I thought was a simple access road turned out to be a long, bumpy road that led into the desert and kept on going. I kept thinking I’d reach the crater sooner or later, but as the minutes went on and the road grew increasingly rough, causing my poor car to bottom out frequently as its underside was vigorously scraped by the prickly local vegetation as well as chunks of cinder, and after a half hour of this endless driving I felt I’d gone down the wrong road, but I’d be damned if I was turning back. The terrain, officially called the Lunar Crater Volcanic Field, was gray with ash hills and cinder cones and seemed very much like the surface of the moon. I was seized with that irrational feeling of rage you get when you’re lost and don’t want to be (which seems ridiculous, now. I was making my own schedule, had no particular place I needed to be. But then again, the point of irrational feelings is their irrational nature, right?). I saw nobody else on the road until I was way off the main highway, where a truck pulled out of the driveway of the loneliest ranch I’d ever seen. I thought the truck would head toward me, that its owner would stop and demand what I was doing on his land, but the truck passed by without slowing, as if out there a strange car with Minnesota plates was the most natural thing in the world. Eventually, I came across a fork in the now almost non-existent road and took the one headed back west, reasoning that it’d have to run into the main highway, sooner or later. After fifteen tense minutes, I saw a sign for Lunar Crater, on my left.

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Jesus. Somehow, I’d found it.1 # The Lunar Crater is not an impact crater left by a meteor landing, like the crater that would be the centerpiece of my novel. Instead, scientists think the Lunar Crater was a result of subterranean waters growing so hot they exploded through the earth’s surface and created the wide crater it is today2. But, I thought, a big Nevada crater is a big Nevada crater, and I couldn’t really tell the difference, anyway. I got a beer out of the cooler in my car, as well as a cigar, and I parked myself on the sturdy bench positioned along the eastern edge of the crater. I couldn’t remember ever visiting a windier, lonelier place in the world, with the possible exception of the Great Wall of China. First I sketched the crater, hastily, and then I just sat there and tried to absorb all that loneliness and isolation. I stared into the gray crater with its sloping walls and allowed my mind to drift. I felt very much the writer, the lone wolf, the wandering soul who’d driven far. It was great. I didn’t want to leave; I wanted to keep meditating and allow the amnesia of the desert to unfold upon my mind. But the wind was messing with my cigar, I was getting hungry, and more Nevada miles lay waiting ahead of me. The world was pulling me back. As I got up, I noticed a small plaque behind the bench. It was in memory of a Vietnam vet named John, now deceased. This had been his favorite spot for quiet reflection. #
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I’ve learned since that I’d been driving on the Lunar Crater Back Country Byway. Supposedly it’s only eight miles from the north entrance on Highway 6 to the crater, but I could have sworn it felt more like fifty. The moral I took away from this? A desert will mess with your head, every damn chance it gets. 2 Geologically defined as a maar.

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There’s something stubborn in my nature that rises up from time-to-time and causes me to do something even I don’t expect. I’d planned to turn south near the town of Warm Springs and head south on Highway 375, otherwise known as Extraterrestrial Highway, and drive along a highway touted for its contact with space aliens and proximity to Area 51, the secretive government base rumored to be a storing house for alien spaceships, time travel machines, and other covert technologies. The drive would have been very much in keeping with the moods and themes of Wormwood, Nevada, and maybe it was for that very reason I decided not to do it and kept driving west, toward Tonopah. Maybe, deep down, I didn’t want to see Extraterrestrial Highway with my own eyes and risk being disappointed by its normality, by the town of Rachel and the tacky alien kitsch the guidebooks had told me to expect. Or maybe I just didn’t feel like driving an extra hundred miles and risk further road madness. Whatever. The point is, I ignored 375 and the alien promises it held and kept heading west, unable to remember the last time I’d seen another vehicle on the road. # I ate lunch in Tonopah, at a restaurant that was part of a casino. These small casino restaurants are somehow worse than death. I don’t know what it is, exactly, about the proximity of slot machines, black jack tables, and waves of elderly tourists, but they seem to lay waste to everything near them, sucking all juice and life from the world, rendering the food bland and the people unhappy. I ate my lunch quickly, staring out the bay window at the bleached landscape beyond it. It seemed impossible that I’d set out from Boise only the day before, bright eyed and bushytailed, the young writer dutifully headed into the world for

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research purposes. I could have been on the road for weeks, months. The peaceful, grassy backyard behind my house, complete with prowling cat, might as well have been five thousand miles away. I refueled the car after lunch and returned to the highway. I drove for about fifteen spacey minutes before I realized I was still headed west, when I’d meant to backtrack a few miles and take 376 through central Nevada. Suddenly furious with my own idiocy, I stopped the car right there, in the middle of the highway. The traffic was so sparse, and the road so wide open, I could see any vehicle approaching for miles. I turned around, right there on the highway, and headed back into town. I passed through Tonopah for a second time that day and came roaring out the other side, going about eighty-five. I drove for maybe a half an hour before I decided I must have passed the turnoff for 376 a ways back and, also for the second time that day, stopped in the middle of a major highway and whipped a highly illegal U-turn. This time it hadn’t even crossed my mind that stopping like that was dangerous, and as I drove west again I started to wonder if my mind was slipping, just a little bit. I drove more slowly this time, as much as it pained me, and managed to find the exit for 376. I was headed straight north now, back on track, and I was finally able to relax a little and take in some truly central Nevadan terrain, which meant some more flat expanses, long north-south mountain ranges, and pale green scrub brush. I was no naturalist, but I knew this was some damn lonely desert, right here. My mind, once again, drifted off track, and it was easier to think of nothing than to bring it into any kind of sharp focus. North of the town of Hadley a car rose up, seemingly popping up from nowhere, and drove along on

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a dirt road of its own, traveling parallel to the highway and my own car, a cloud of high-speed dust in its wake. The first question that occurred to me, in my traveler’s, just-passing-through arrogance, was exactly where could anyone out here be going in such a hurry? From that question, I was launched into another reverie, and that reverie led to a revelation. My fictional town of Wormwood would be roughly modeled on Hadley. It would be nestled against a mountain range, and those mountains would play a part in the novel’s story. Before my trip to Nevada I’d imagined Wormwood in the middle of flat desert, in the middle of nothing, fed, perhaps, by a dying river. But a town needed a reason for existing in the first place, even a very small town, and of course that reason would be the mineral rich Nevada hills and the gold that had been extracted from those hills. Wormwood was an old mining town, perched at the edge of a subterranean abyss that was partially of its own making. How ominous. How potentially apocalyptic. # More sunshine filled driving. At the termination of Highway 376, I headed back east on Highway 50 and eventually found myself in the town of Eureka. Small but well kept, Eureka had a handful of touristy hotels that were all surprisingly expensive (at least to me). After eating some cheese and drinking a beer at the small rest stop outside of town, I decided to get back on the road instead of forking over the extra cash. I’d practically become a driving zombie at this point, unfazed even by the miles and miles of desert around me, and by dusk I found myself in the biggish town of Elko, right off Interstate 80. I got a motel room for around thirty dollars and went out to eat at a sports bar. I felt hollowed

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out, as if all the road and hills and sunlight had scooped out my brain and left me with almost no personality at all. I stopped by a casino on my way back to the room, but my heart wasn’t in it and I gave up after losing twenty dollars at the slot machines. I went back to my room, drank the rest of the beer in my cooler, and decided I needed more booze. I walked a block away from my motel room to a gas station. I knew I was in Nevada, the Party State, but even armed with this knowledge, I was surprised to find an array of hard liquor bottles displayed beneath the front counter. I asked for a bottle of whiskey, addressing the tan, wizened clerk as “Sir”, and was wryly told by the clerk that he was in fact a woman. Stumbling over my Minnesotan self to apologize, the clerk cut me off and gamely told me not to worry about it, that people made the mistake all the time. Back in my motel room, I watched cable TV (still a novelty for me) and got good and drunk. I ended up watching “The Girls Next Door” for the first time, bemused to find that someone had created a reality TV show not only set in the Playboy mansion, but featuring the group of Playboy Bunnies currently in residence. The overly tan, twenty-something girls spoke about sharing the sexual attention of the ancient, octogenarian Hugh Hefner and who was the hottest and who the most fun and, as the marathon of episodes blared on, I realized that I’d made the right decision in ignoring Extraterrestrial Highway. The real aliens were right here, on my very own motel TV. # The next day I was woken by a group of cleaning maids talking among themselves in Spanish loudly and with vehemence, as if they’d decided to form a

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union right then, at seven A.M. on a Wednesday. I dragged my hungover self out of bed, got ready to seize the day, and headed to downtown Elko, where I ate breakfast and visited the Northeastern Nevada Museum and Historical Society, where I saw an impressive and seriously freaky collection of dead, stuffed Nevadan animals. Owls, bobcats, mountain goats: the dead, well-preserved creatures numbered in the hundreds and were eternally posed for viewing, their shiny eyes ceaselessly watching me, the groggy intruder, as I shuffled though their mausoleum. The museum/animal purgatory was my last touristy stop in Nevada. Satisfied I’d gathered enough impressions for the new book, I headed home to Boise and arrived by dinnertime. The house we were renting was still there, including the grassy backyard and its prowling cat. I felt like a character in a book or a movie who has just emerged from a strange, especially vibrant dream. My task now was to take the impressions I’d formed of Nevada, especially the lonely heart of Nevada, and fuse them into the fictional narrative I wanted to tell: the simple story of a lonely town suddenly brought into contact with the extraordinary. The desert and its light had seared the unnecessary from my mind, brought other details into sharper relief, revealing their true importance, and now I just had to sit down until that light was transferred to the page.

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