May 1. Five days after COVID arrived in Mom’s retirement home in Tucson, we (the siblings) decided to get her out. The elders have been sequestered in their apartments for six weeks. At first they came to their common area, floor by floor, to receive their meals, but then the breakfast came to them: a knock on the door, a masked person, a blue-gloved hand extending a bag of egg salad. Teetering on the precipice of dementia, this is not how we want Mom to deteriorate. So my brother picks her up, gets her a COVID test and drives north to Boulder City. We rendezvous at an RV park near Lake Mead, quarantined like everywhere else, all of a sudden it seems. The drive from Winnemucca had been ferocious, in a borrowed motorhome in the howling wind down the Powerline Road. We were not really thinking about traveling in the time of COVID—a lot of times at the ranch we won’t eat till the day’s work is done. So we have a bag of apples, four containers of Just Crack An Egg, some chips from the Area 51 gas station next to the Alien Cathouse, and not much else. The folks at the RV park desk had taped the reservation to the window. We never see them. Or anyone else, though the place is full.
Mom is weak from not doing anything- chair yoga has of course been cancelled– and not eating right since “who cares about eating another tuna sandwich and a salad that’s too big to eat with no knife.” She cannot go home to Nebraska; a pork plant near her town has 250 cases of COVID. So we bring her to the ranch. I think of England in 1943, the parents sending their children to the country.
She has never driven through Nevada. We eat microwaved eggs in an abandoned parking lot looking over Lake Mead, muscle the little motorhome through early morning traffic across Las Vegas, windy and surrounded by garbage trucks hauling refuse from the casinos, still open then, to be recycled north of town. Both hands hard on the wheel, the windows rattling, we make our way past the massive solar farm to the turn west, out of the big valley, and suddenly the frenetic energy of greater Las Vegas gives way to the Big Empty, tens of miles to the next turn, and you can see it coming.
Pahranaghat Valley, long stringer meadows between blond hills, punctuated by small hay farms, white-fence horse outfits—past Alamo, a couple of ranches, and then nothing, for a long, long time. A narrow canyon twists through welded ash flows; great walls of volcanic rock stand sentinel against the wind, marked by the passing of hunters, thousands of years ago.
Through Ely at midday, Eureka in the afternoon, we power on to Battle Mountain. The sun burns bronze, low over Winnemucca when we finally come around the last curve, some 700 miles from our morning cups of instant coffee over the blue expanse of lake. Exhausted, we will rest here for a few days. It is just 70 miles further to the ranch.
May. Town. There is no elementary school in Winnemucca, of course, but a third grade teacher friend has hung her flag out. She lives across the street from school, and every morning at 9:00 a.m. she has invited her students and whoever else is around to come and say the Pledge of Allegiance. A Paiute elder faithfully brings his grandson. Mom and I go too. At first there were many students, but now just a few near what would be the end of the school year. It’s surprisingly poignant, and somehow comforting.
She has a rough time at first, weak in every way. It is branding season, and we are back and forth from the house in town to the ranch every couple of days. She tries to walk around the block in town, resting on her walker, endlessly confused at what each day will bring. She stays in the new bunkhouse at the ranch: four steps up to the porch. Walk over for coffee in the morning, back and forth a few times a day.
June 8. Ranch. She rides with us in the UTV to check the progress of the water irrigating the lower meadows, spreading inch by inch across seven miles. Several pair of sandhill cranes arrive, and sometimes we can hear them in the fog. There is still snow on the Jacksons. In the chilly morning, hungry birds stalk bugs, tall new grass pokes up through the water. Splashing along in the side-by-side, watching those long-legged birds, her spirit lightens.
June 13. Mom’s first Zoom baby shower, for my sister’s daughter, the newly minted Navy doctor on her way to active duty on the west coast, just before the baby comes. A lovely brunch—in Kansas City. There are balloons, and all these dear familiar faces, from all over: grandparents from Virginia and Minnesota, cousins from Nebraska, the baby eating oatmeal with her fists in Denver; Allie and Nick, on Guam, the other side of the world. And Mom, incredulous, here in the desert, chatting with her dear ones.
She gets stronger, slowly. Abandons the walker. (It’s gravel between here and her bunkhouse.) She comes back for tea in the afternoon, rain coming down, shuffling in her slippers and my long red duster and a floppy hat, bright against the gray afternoon.
June 26. It’s still raining. I try to get her to watch “The Mandalorian,” but discover she has no recollection of Star Wars. How can this be? Such a large part of our younger lives, and she was right there all the time. Was she? Or maybe it’s just one of the things that has fallen through the cracks widening imperceptibly in her world, the pieces floating near, but not so near. Like Ellen Waterson’s ‘Madagascar,’ it is an ocean opening with imperceptible slowness until we see each other across the space, the vast unknown darkness, the depths of it.
June 27. Thunder rumbles, just after 7 a.m. In a moment, a cloudburst. Miles of mountain let go across a remote highway, the road that we travel to feed the mares and their new foals. Six feet deep, watery gravel, silt, boulders, cover someone’s Chevy Silverado, burying it to the roof. (The guy thought he could drive through it, make it to the other side.)
No one died.
The mountain’s scars, when we can see them, are magnificent.
July 1. Nevada’s ferocious spring mellows into a summer not yet brutal. We walk a little further every day. On the last day before she leaves for Nebraska, she can make it up the hill all the way to the Willow Corrals, and we sit up there, savoring the green meadows and the distance in the cool breeze of morning.
A focused cloudburst brings down miles of debris along the small highway between us and the mares and colts: Six miles long, deep enough to cover somebody’s Chevy Silverado to the roof, but it leaves a beautiful pattern in the hillsides. Streaks of boulders down the slide margins, fanning out into the dry lake, it covers the highway for days. When we can get through, I take her over to see the new foals. She is never happier than when she can see new life, in all its helpless, awkward effort.