Getting stuck in the wilderness isn't all that bad

I am sitting in the car, its tires caked with 3-inch sticky gumbo and sunk into several more inches of soft sucking mud. The rain, only a mild but persistent drizzle, continues to run down the car windows.

The map designates this secondary, semi-gravel road as 724. Several hours ago, there was no indication this hard, rock-encrusted road could ever turn into trenches of gooey mud. The road links Tuscarora to Midas and Golconda. I am on my way back to Tuscarora, but it doesn't look like I'll make it, for a large gray-and-white GMC van sits crosswise on the road, blocking all passage.

It obviously failed to negotiate the downhill slope, and now its nose is jammed into the hillside and the mud is clear up over its customized chrome-plated running board. The sun is down, and my watch says it's 7:30. We're here for the night, waiting for the drizzle to stop, the road to dry up, and someone or something to come rescue us, although there have not been more than four cars on this road in the past five hours, so rescue seems a remote possibility.

If I should be lucky enough to get past the van eventually, I am not sure I have enough gas to get to Tuscarora. And there's no gas pump in Tuscarora, either, but why worry about that now?

At least I'm not alone. Hennie, my golden retriever, is in the back of the Jeep, and my former professor and mentor from Michigan State University, the one who changed the direction of my life when I was 22, is with me. Since Dave is also a latter-day cowboy who can, with a logging chain, pull a pickup that's upside down back onto its feet, I'm not as worried as I might be. Of course, we do not have a logging chain with us, but my faith in Dave is unshaken.

Dave and I would not be in this predicament if we had not made it our mission to find natural hot springs. Nevada has more hot springs (312) than any other state, but thus far, all we have found are two that have been cemented over, one that was too hot for my fingertips, much less a toe or foot, and two that were marked on the map but seemed to be nonexistent in real life.

We have been to Walley's, Carson's and Grover's, and enjoyed them all, but what we really want is to explore the unknown (or almost unknown). We are attracted by remote, inaccessible, mysterious regions of the map. One of Nevada's greatest appeals for us is the idea of wilderness. It touches every town and city, even Las Vegas. As if licking at the edge of civilization, beautiful emptiness awaits, and we are at one with the coyotes, low-flying crows or the moon, a pale reflection at noon over the Sierra. This attraction, as I have discovered, has its price.

Hennie was bitten by a rattlesnake last year (in the vicinity of Ash Canyon), her first close encounter after a lifetime of chasing jackrabbits and an occasional mule deer. I have been startled to find blood on the snow while hiking up behind Timberline, and once at dusk, up on Hobart Road, I spotted a baby bear in a tree and turned back, assuming the mother bear might be nearby.

A friend of mine once told me never to squat or bend over to tie my shoe, nor to run with my ponytail flapping in the breeze, for both behaviors attract mountain lions which, of course, are generally invisible to us. I have felt the weight of a baby mountain lion (declawed) on my back, and it is like being assuaged by a powerful, muscular pull of the ocean, or the weight of Niagara (as I imagine it). In comparison, my long-departed, ferocious hunter housecat Mozai's muscular strength was like a dusty moth's.

Nevertheless, I am drawn to the wild. Even here, stuck in the mud, 20 miles deep into semi-remoteness, I feel my heart sing. The two flat tires of yesterday are a nightmare I will never forget, but neither will I forget the scent of sunbaked dirt roads, the slight grittiness of dust on my lips, the way evening descended on Grass Valley Road.

I became a Nevadan after 25 years of living in Carson City on the day Hennie and I first began hiking the mountains west of town. Sandals on my feet, I nonetheless became the cowgirl of my childhood dreams as I followed Hank Monk's stagecoach and Mark Twain's footsteps up Kings Canyon's road to Spooner Summit, Hennie's gold plume of a tail waving like a beacon in front of me as we watched civilization fall away.

n Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., survived the night, the mud, and with her foot off the gas pedal, rolled into the first gas station she came to in Elko.


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