Nevada – The Silver State

Nevada

I thought it might be fun to set my books in Nevada, which is in the West and still pretty wild. You can still gamble, carry a loaded pistol, and go into a silver mine, and they still have saloons with swinging doors, boardwalks, and horses. – Carol Lawrence

Nevada usually brings to mind the bright lights and thrills of Las Vegas where millions go to try their hand at the casinos and see spectacular entertainment. It is guaranteed you’ll leave either overexcited from nonstop stimulation or depressed if your luck ran out at the roulette wheel – but whatever happens at Vegas, stays in Vegas.

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I lived in Nevada less than a year but I developed a real love for this barren, lush, bright, quiet, noisy land. Unfortunately I was severely allergic to something there and was sick from day one. I believe it was juniper, but whatever it was, the allergy became life-threatening and I had to leave my job as Field Manager for the Tuscarora Field Office with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). It was a wonderful job that allowed me the opportunity to manage over 3.1 million acres of public land with a base in Elko. In the short time I was there I oversaw programs in mining, ranching, wild horses, biology and so much more. I had an exemplary staff with the obligatory one or two problem employees thrown in to make life interesting. In one memorable day I flew over the Carlin Trend, a five-mile wide, 40-mile long geologic feature that is rich in mineral deposits, including gold, in a small aircraft and later that day I went 2000 ft. underground at one of the local gold mines. It was a day I will never forget and it left me with a deep respect for miners.

Nevada is largely desert and semiarid, broken up by many north-south mountain ranges and boasts world class recreation areas such as Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, Valley of Fire State Park, Great Basin National Park, Humboldt National Forest, Lake Mead National Recreation Area and Death Valley National Park. There are 68 designated wilderness areas protecting almost 7 million acres. Over 86% of the land in Nevada is managed by The U.S. Federal government, both civilian and military. The infamous Area 51 where supposedly alien remains and a crashed space vehicle are stored lies in remote southern Nevada. The base’s primary mission is unknown but it is most likely an area that supports the development and testing of experimental aircraft and weapons systems. The stealth bomber was tested there and I can imagine anyone seeing this black triangular aircraft could well imagine it to be a UFO.

Area51

The Nevada Test site, 65 miles NW of Las Vegas, was the site for the first nuclear bomb tests. I worked with a woman who was a small child when the first test was conducted and she recalls the mushroom cloud was visible from her school and the teachers took the kids outside to watch.  Many of her classmates died prematurely with cancer and other illness over the years and she has to go every year for medical testing. The field trip from hell.

And then, there are the legal brothels in Nevada. I did a work detail in Ely and I was so tempted to go visit the local “house”, purely for curiosity purposes. I wanted to see what they wore; probably not as exotic as I imagine. I decided against it, not wanting to see the headline, “Federal Employee Caught Entering Brothel – Just to Look around – She Says”. For a Christmas party, my field office rented a locomotive train that runs from Ely to the Ruth Mine and returns. When the train passes by the brothel the ladies come out and signal the train with hand-held lanterns swinging back and forth. An advertisement in the trains read, “Nevada’s Brothels – servicing the Old West since the 1800’s.”

The Ghost Train, Nevada Northern Railway Museum (steam train), Robinson Canyon near Ely, Nevada USA

Ghost Train, Ely, NV

What I will remember the most about Nevada is the overwhelming beauty. We used to take a Sunday drive on the 12-mile Lamoille Canyon Road, a National Forest Scenic Byway, where it was common to see white mountain goats defying gravity as they leapt from one narrow ledge to another.  Hiking in Red Rock Canyon and seeing the formations etched by wind, water, and time was awe inspiring. I also remember the warm, wonderful people who I met there who made me feel so at home and supported me through my illness. I was sad to leave. I needed more time to wander the roads of this amazing land and see the mountains, rivers, deserts, forests and possibly aliens.

 

Wyoming – Land of Freedom

Wyoming

The mountains knew the definition of freedom. They provided a place where he could find his mind. – Daniel J. Rice

In 2004 I accepted a position as the Assistant Field Manager for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in Pinedale, Wyoming. I had worked my whole Federal career in the USDA but I had come to realize that if I wanted to reach a higher grade I would have to leave the good old boy regime of the Natural Resources Conservation Service. I was pleased to see that about half the managers in the BLM were women and I liked the mission of protecting America’s public lands. It would be a move I never regretted and it was a turning point in my career that allowed me to reach the level of management and responsibility I felt my skills and experience warranted.

It was hard to leave North Dakota. I was content there, maybe too content. I have known people who worked their entire careers in one job and while there is nothing wrong with that, I have never wanted to be complacent. I like challenging myself to be the best that I can be and to keep learning and growing.

Devil

Devils Tower Monument

Having lived in North Dakota for three years I was used to wide open spaces but the vast sage brush plains of Wyoming are framed by the Rocky Mountains, which overlook their domain like stony guardians. Some of the most beautiful land I have ever seen is in Wyoming. Millions of people come every year to look upon the wonders of the world’s first national park, Yellowstone, Devils Tower National Monument or to ski on the slopes of the majestic Grand Tetons. It is the least populated state in the U.S. and the second least densely populated. It was the first state to allow women to vote. You can breathe in Wyoming and freedom surrounds you.

The Old West is alive and thriving in Wyoming. I will never forget seeing a local ranch moving its herd of horses, hooves pounding, through the streets of Pinedale as drovers in long yellow slickers and cowboy hats yelled and whistled to keep them running between the store fronts lining the streets. I lived in Sublette County where there are no stoplights. Wilderness was only a street away in any direction. It wasn’t unusual to have to wait at a stop sign while a big bull moose crossed the street in front of me and occasionally a mountain lion would stake out a claim on the local park until it could be relocated to a safer area. More than once I was transported to another time when a cattle drive crossed the road with cows mooing and drovers shouting. Herds of feral horses and burros roam the deserts, a living remnant from miners and ranchers.

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Horse drive through Pinedale, WY.

Wyoming is rich in natural gas, oil, coal and methane deposits and it never ceases to amaze me to think these petroleum products come from the decayed bodies of dinosaurs that roamed millions of years ago. It was common to have crocodilian and fish fossils along with giants ferns unearthed during the drilling process and it gives me pause, when people talk of climate change, to think that the semi-arid sage brush deserts were once tropical rain forests and swamps. The Wind River Mountains have rose and fell at least twice. The earth is a dynamic, living entity that belches and flexes, throwing landscapes and climate into an ever changing flux.

Wyoming gave us the artist Jackson Pollock; news commentator and author Dana Perino; Vice-President Dick Cheney; Olympic gold medalist Rulon Gardner and legendary sportscaster Curt Gowdy. Native Americans still maintain a large presence on the Wind River Reservation which is shared by the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes. Wyoming is rated number one for states to retire in as it does not levy an individual or corporate income tax and does not assess any tax on retirement income. Food for human consumption is not subject to sales tax and property held for personal use is tax-exempt.

Yellowstone

Old Faithful Geyser in Yellowstone National Park

Whatever you long for can be found in Wyoming. Want to fly fish? Try the Green or Snake Rivers for world-class angling. Do you like hiking? The bare granite peaks of the higher elevations of the mountain ranges attract climbers, hikers and scientists who study the icy glacier lakes. The doomed Challenger astronauts trained in the rugged mountains above Pinedale. Wyoming has hot springs, geysers, deserts, forests, grasslands, antelope, mule deer, grizzlies, elk, bison, prairie dogs, pygmy rabbits, sage grouse, skiing and snowboarding. It has everything.  I lived there for four years and it was some of the happiest years of my life because I grew, not only as a manager in a challenging field office, but as a person. It is a state steeped with history and the romance of the Old West and it is easy to reinvent or just refine oneself in this magnificent place called Wyoming.

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The Enchantment of North Dakota

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For me, walking in a hard Dakota wind can be like staring at the ocean: humbled before its immensity, I also have a sense of being at home on this planet, my blood so like the sea in chemical composition, my every cell partaking of air. I live about as far from the sea as is possible in North America, yet I walk in a turbulent ocean.- Kathleen Norris, author

The first time I saw North Dakota was when I flew there for a house hunting trip after accepting a position as a USDA Resource Conservation and Development Coordinator in Devils Lake, ND. As I was deplaning, I was focused on juggling my carry-on items so I was halfway down the stairs before I looked up and what I saw stopped me dead in my tracks. The prairie spread out before me in a seemingly never-ending vista. As comedian Red Skelton once quipped, “North Dakota is the only place I have been where I didn’t have to look up to see the sky.” I have never experienced such openness and I felt overwhelmed by the vastness of my future home. As a person who loves forests and mountains I felt bereft in this stark, near treeless environment. It was too late to turn back so I carried on with my house hunting, then returned home to my beloved Maine to begin the painful process of moving my family once again.

Sunflower Farm

Sunflower Farm

My husband Bill and daughter Hannah, along with our two cats and dog, made the four-day journey driving from Maine to North Dakota. It was a journey that started with tears as we left our home, friends and our daughter Julie in Maine, and it was a journey that ended in tears. Awaiting at our hotel in Devils Lake was a message that Bill’s Dad had died in a house fire. I remember lying on the bed, curled in a fetal position, crying my heart out, feeling I had made a huge mistake in relocating to this barren place. That night we went to eat and as we headed back to our room I looked up into the most breathtaking sunset I had ever seen. The sky was streaked with red, orange and yellow with splashes of blue and pink interspersed in the swaths of bold color. As I looked at this beautiful abstract it seemed it had been painted just for us and a sense of peace came over me and I knew everything was going to be all right.

I would come to love the wide open spaces and cherished the time I spent in my car traveling to and from the six counties that were in my area. You don’t measure distance by miles in North Dakota, you measure it by hours. Grand Forks is one and a half hours away, Fargo two and Bismarck three. The roads are long and straight and if you get lost, just keep taking right turns and you will come out on the road you started on. You can drive for miles with fields of cheery sunflowers waving at you and every so often an old-fashioned windmill will spin its blades in welcome as it sucks water up from the underground aquifers below waving fields of grain.

Buffalo at Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Buffalo at Theodore Roosevelt National Park

North Dakota is the least visited state but I discovered it has much to offer. It has 90,000 buffalo living there, including several sacred white buffaloes. Most of the pasta in America is made there from locally grown durum wheat on farmland covering the equivalent of twelve million city blocks.  It is the state with the most churches and not surprisingly, the most church-going people. There are no towns in North Dakota. Each place is a city no matter how small and the smallest has 5 people. North Dakota gave us bandleader Lawrence Welk, baseball legend Roger Maris, news reporter Eric Severeid, author Louis L’Amour and actress Angie Dickinson.

The International Peace Garden straddles the border of the U.S. and Canada. A cairn constructed of aboriginal hammerheads holds a plate that reads, “To God in his Glory… We two nations dedicate this garden and pledge ourselves that as long as men shall live we will not take up arms against one another.” The geographic area of North America lies in Rugby, ND, and it flies the flags of the U.S., Canada and Mexico. The Theodore Roosevelt National Park is located in scenic splendor in the badlands. Take a drive along the Enchanted Highway, a 32-mile stretch of rural highway in the southwest and you will see a collection of the world’s largest scrap metal sculptures, each one giving you whimsical vignette to enjoy. And then there’s Sully’s Hill National Game Preserve, a unique natural area located near Devils Lake where I lived and it would become a favorite spot to visit for a lazy Sunday drive.  Theodore Roosevelt designated it as a big game preserve, refuge and breeding ground for wild animals and birds in 1904. You can drive for four miles through woodlands interspersed with areas of grass prairie for up close and personal views of elk and bison herds. A favorite for us was to park near the prairie dog town and watch the antics of the dogs as they chirp and scurry about, popping in and out of holesas they watch you withwary eyes. There are more than 250 species of birds there and hiking trails provide the opportunity to enjoy the woods, a rarity in a state that is only 1% wooded.

Black-tailed Prairie Dog at Sullys Hill National Game Preserve

Black-tailed Prairie Dog at Sullys Hill National Game Preserve

I think I was the most content in North Dakota of any state I have lived in. Living in a small town in North Dakota is truly living in a Norman Rockwell picture and I believe it is the most under-appreciated state in the union. It is a very spiritual place and sometimes on my long drives I would catch a glimpse out of the corner of my eye of the long dead herds of buffalo that once wandered unfettered on the North Dakota prairies. I came to love and treasure the simple beauty of North Dakota and I miss it terribly. It brought a sense of peace in my life when I truly needed it and it gave me the strength to leave it when a career opportunity came along three years later. But I will never forget the majesty of those wide Dakota skies with red and yellow arms that seemed to reach down and embrace me at the close of day, assuring me, “Everything will be allright.”

Scrap Sculptures along the Enchanted Highway

Scrap Sculptures along the Enchanted Highway

Florida-The Sunshine State

Florida

I go to Florida sometimes for vacation. I actually really like Florida. It’s a weird place, it’s surreal. It’s so close, but you feel like you’re in another world or on an island. – Jemima Kirke, actress

I love Florida! I could easily see myself becoming a snowbird, leaving the cold bleakness of the long Maine winters just after Christmas and coming back in June to enjoy the beautiful Maine summer. It would be the best of both worlds. I first went to Florida when I was sixteen and I have been enthralled with it ever since.

I will never forget my first sight of the ocean at Panama City. As I stood with warm sand threading between my bare toes I looked in wonder across the vast expanse of the Gulf of Mexico and I knew I would never again see anything so magnificent. There are times when my heart longs for the sea and I can hear its siren song calling me no matter where I am. When I would return home on R&R from Afghanistan I usually flew into Portland, Maine and my family knew that the first thing I needed to do was to go to the sea. After forced confinement in high walls, razor wire and armed guards in a hostile war zone for months on end, only the expanse of the sea could bring back to me a sense of freedom.

Florida is the southernmost state in America but it is not the South. It is a place that transcends description in an ever changing population punctuated with visitors from all over the world, attracted by the lure of its tropical beauty and climate. I lived in Orlando after high school for almost two years. At that time Orlando was a medium sized town with a small town feel. Disney World was new and still small enough to visit and see everything in one day. One of my favorite memories is walking through orange groves as the hot sun released the fragrant perfume of the orange blossoms.

Florida has given us Pat Boone, Fay Dunaway, Butterfly McQueen and Sidney Poitier.  The Florida Keys bring to mind visions of Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart in “Key Largo” and to visit Key West is to imagine seeing the husky frame of Ernest Hemingway making his restless way home after a late night of drinking at Sloppy Joe’s bar.

Florida counts among its iconic wildlife the American alligator, crocodiles, black bear, manatees and the Florida panther. Bottlenose dolphins can be seen jumping and leaping out of the water as they swim alongside boats and often whales and sharks can be spotted in the clear blue waters. The air is joyous with the sounds of falcons, eagles, pelicans, kites and a myriad of songbirds. For me the memory of lying on Florida’s beaches is synonymous with the raucous calls of sea gulls as they circle overhead bickering over scraps of food.

Undoubtedly, Florida is the premier state for tourism. From Disney World, the 48 square mile kingdom of fantasy that attracts over 26 million visitors a year, to the small-scale alligator farms and rattlesnake ranches that line the rural roads, visitors are never far from a new adventure. Beautiful Silver Springs where the glass-bottom boat was invented, became famous when a series of Tarzan movies were filmed there as well as the “Creature from the Black Lagoon” and the popular television program “Sea Hunt”.

Many people are drawn to the weather in Florida with its mild winters but it can also be a cruel punisher when tornadoes and hurricanes rip through the skies. It is known as the lightning capital of the United States. One of my favorite places to visit is Naples, Florida. I stay at a small place called the Lemon Tree Inn and I always get a room that has a screened-in porch. On most evenings a brief, but furious thunderstorm will light up the sky and shake the ground as the deep rolling booms fade off into the distance. I love to sit on the porch and read, enjoying the raw power of the storm, breathing the fresh ionized air and feeling the mist of the rain as it penetrates the screen wire, dotting my bare feet with coolness in the humid night. As the last clap of thunder fades into the distance and the last of the rain drips from the eaves, small brown lizards emerge and run up the screens of the porch. They stop and look at me curiously, turning their heads to the side, smelling me with flicks of their little pointed tongues before they scurry busily away.

Florida heals me like no other place can. When I cannot find my way, spending time in Florida aligns my compass point in the right direction and I return home refreshed and filled with a sense of peace. It’s been a few years since I’ve been there and in a corner of my consciousness I can hear the breeze swishing through the palm trees and feel the sun warming my skin as I gaze into the endless sea that is whispering, “Come home. Come home.”