The demise of the American wilderness has been lamented by a generation of journalists, myself included. Laden with our cameras, notebooks and sorrow, whole battalions of us have assaulted the slender remnants of forest, swamp and desert, sniffing the flowers, breathing the unsullied air and fuming at the dying of the wild. I have personally sought wilderness in Jeeps, mounted on skeptical horses and on foot. Alone and on safari. In Alaska and Florida and Maine and selected points in between. I've felt its satisfactions, not the least of which are the pleasures of enjoying precincts plainly marked for extinction.
But recent experience has muddied my perspective and pierced an illusion or two, and I am here to report that in the thorny reaches of this still expansive land it is no trick to find the wilderness. Wilderness sometimes finds you; it waits in ambush for you. And if you're not expecting it, as I was not on a recent expedition in Nevada, it can still scare the hell out of you.
My misadventure was overlaid with irony. I was at work on a book in TIME-LIFE'S series on The American Wilderness. My subject was the Great Basin, that vast region of sage-covered plains and dun mountains between Great Salt Lake and the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and my job was to describe and characterize the wild reaches of that country.
To do this it was necessary to hurl myself once more into the wilderness. In fact only a week before, I had emerged, unscarred and thoroughly satisfied with myself, from three days alone in an isolated corner of Nevada's Black Rock Desert. So I was into wilderness, you might say. I was no Jim Bridger, to be sure, but I flattered myself that I had a modest talent for survival in the wild and could cope with, and even appreciate, any obstacles I might encounter.
On this particular Friday afternoon in July I was on my way to an interview. I had rented a car in Elko, Nev. and obtained directions to a ranch 50 miles northeast of the city, where I had an appointment with its owner. The directions were simple enough—30 miles east on the highway, then north for 20 miles on a well-marked and graded gravel road. Since this was clearly a foray within the boundaries of civilization I would have no need for outdoor gear—boots, canteen, sleeping bag and the like. I was outfitted like the average Connecticut tourist I was: short-sleeved shirt, slacks, a light jacket and soft-soled suede loafers.
I had driven 10 miles north on the gravel road when I came to another road forking off to the east. It had not been mentioned in the directions, so I continued straight north as instructed. Four miles farther on, the car bounced over a little mound in the road and came down with a sharp thunk atop a boulder, perhaps a foot high, which had somehow escaped my attention. I looked in the rearview mirror and noticed I was leaving a trail of dark liquid. By the time I stopped and looked underneath, the last drops of oil were trickling out of the battered oil pan. I tried the ignition. Nothing happened.
It was 4:30 p.m., the temperature was about 90 and by my reckoning I was six miles from my destination. I had seen no other cars on the gravel road. In fact, as I looked around I saw no signs of man whatever, with the exception of the road itself; no fences, no ranches, no line camps, not even any cattle. It was absolutely still.
I decided that the best course would be to abandon the car and set out on foot for the ranch. I knew that this road was the only north-south route in a band about 100 miles wide, so it seemed reasonable to expect that another car would come by before long. More for appearance than anything else I took my jacket along. The road climbed up a gradual but persistent grade. The elevation here was about 7,000 feet and I was heading into higher country. I estimated that I could walk at least three miles in an hour, maybe five if I really moved.
After about 40 minutes I began to get thirsty. The late afternoon sun was hot, and I knew that my first requirement was water. A little after 5:30 I saw a building beside the road ahead of me, but as I came closer I noticed there were no vehicles about and no fresh tracks. The door was padlocked. I peered in a window and saw a single room with a large table in the middle and a sink along one wall. Was it a line camp? I walked around the house and discovered a metal pipe about two feet in diameter protruding from the ground. A piece of burlap had been lashed over the opening at the top. I untied the burlap and looked down—water gleamed unmistakably about 10 feet below. But how to get at it?
Then I noticed an oildrum-sized trash can near the door. Rummaging through it, I came up with a fairly clean coffee can and a long piece of wire. I cut a hole in the can with my pocketknife and strung the wire through it, then dipped it into the well. I took a long drink and refilled the can to carry with me, then replaced the burlap cover and started hiking again.