“’Cause I’m a makin’ my own way,
Across Nevada’s mighty land,
I’m soaking up the grandeur
While I’m spittin’ out the sand—
Those wide open space and the lonely places
Try to call me home,
But home’s everywhere that I’ve ever been
And it’s a feelin’ all its own.”
—Walkin’ Jim Stoltz
Blog post by Bill Huggins
Nevada’s claim to artistic fame resides in the many writers, artists, photographers, and landscape visionaries who have made the area famous through their work. The quote that begins this piece is from a song by Walkin’ Jim Stoltz, an amazing individual gone from us far too soon, who walked over 25,000 miles during his life, and wrote dozens of songs about his experiences. I was lucky enough to host him as guest at my house before a concert in Las Vegas several years ago, and he told me how much he loved walking in Nevada, how open and wide it was, the incredible solitude. I saw him perform twice and he always had a good word for the state, and had walked it several times. His “Nevada Walking Song” is a tune I often play when I’m headed into our wild spaces. It defines the Basin in a pretty humorous and truthful way.
Open spaces have a tendency to open up hearts and minds, get the creative juices flowing. John McPhee’s classic Basin and Range articulates the grandeur of these spaces in terms simultaneously scientific and awe-inducing. Through his intelligence and clear prose you get a sense of the vastness and uniqueness of these landscapes.
Wallace Stegner understood that sense extremely well. He wrote often about the joy of driving deserted highways, open basin and range. His “Wilderness Letter” stands testament to the value of keeping open space open: “We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.”
Words like these kindle fires in others of an artistic bent, usually writers who understand the value of what Terry Tempest Williams, herself inspired by Stegner, calls the “open space of democracy.” Public lands represent that opportunity for anyone to wander out and become inspired. Williams’ writing echoes Stegner’s calls for protection, and indeed translated into activism at her arrest protesting continued nuclear operations at the Nevada Test Site, which she writes about in Refuge. One person’s open space, sacrifice area, is another’s home, especially when prevailing winds blow the residue across state lines and affects the health of our fellow citizens. This is the art of the basin translated into action, something Edward Abbey would have approved of. He loved traveling the eastern Basin, its long, rolling roads calling him back time and again.
Perhaps the Beat Generation had the strongest line on the Basin. Though his original plan to take Highway 6 through Ely fell through, Kerouac writes of skips along its northern rim in On the Road, the classic novel that started an artistic diaspora across the United States. Gary Snyder, a friend and contemporary of Kerouac, took the Basin most to heart. One of his longest and best poems, “Finding the Space in the Heart,” tracks his experiences in and around the Basin over several decades.
Artists and photographers have taken to central Nevada to document its uniqueness in their own curious ways. Ansel Adams’s “Road: Nevada Desert” took him out of his comfort zone and showed a different way of looking at open space. Recently Great Basin National Park has provided facilities for Artists-in-Residence. Since 2007, they have hosted 4 photographers, 3 painters, a sculptor, and a poet. And driving through the town of Ely, which Kerouac truly should have visited, the main street is decorated with unusual iron sculptures, proof that artistic vision is alive and well in the Basin.
From the novel to the poem to painting, sculpture, and photograph, artist Michael Heizer’s “City” takes the idea of landscape art to new dimensions. Probably the largest sculpture of its kind in the world, this amazing structure at the southern edge of the Basin defies language. It has to be seen to be believed. Once completed, the artwork should be a draw for tourists, which would greatly benefit the economy of the area.
As an introduction to students, the Great Basin Institute also offers several courses for college credit through its Environmental Field Studies Program. Students are taken into wild places, usually on horseback, immersed in the wild and encouraged to think creatively. They usually also come to understand firsthand why protecting these areas and keeping them wild is essential to feeding that very creativity. In my experience, once someone gets a taste of this special area, they will return. Our artists, poets, writers, painters—they keep the fire that makes us burn alive. Like the petroglyphs scattered through this area, our modern art retains the connection to the deeper culture of the land that flows below, just waiting to be tapped. Getting away from the hectic pressure of our lives to quiet places that allow us to think, dream, and create, makes tapping that creative energy easier.