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home : columns : columns January 17, 2018

1/9/2018 1:10:00 PM
Black Rock blues
By Craig Rullman

I admit to a conservative streak in my nature. One problem with that is a tendency to paint the past in golden hues and promote a world that never really existed. And it's probably accurate that if we are ever to learn anything, and carry that knowledge forward, we can't do it by living too long in the rearview mirror.

This was brought home to me recently on a visit to Bruno's Country Club, in Gerlach, Nevada. I was by turns outraged and appalled to find it had undergone a severe modernization. Honestly, the end result was a wholesale ransacking of memories I've cherished for a very long time.

There were still some deer and antelope mounts on the wall. There was a faded picture of Scottish speed freak Richard Noble, looking admirably composed after surviving a 633 mph jet-car ride across the Black Rock playa, and there was still a dusty old pheasant flushing forever beside the new digital jukebox.

But the frontier flavor of Bruno's was erased, replaced by an absurdly modern bar - a kind of characterless theater in the round, adorned with flat screen televisions and ergonomic barstools, and worse - a faux granite bartop that released a sickening odor of scented bleach.

That was new, too. Bruno's idea of cleaning the bar was rubbing his shirtsleeve down the length of it, which somehow defeated dangerous microbes for about 40 years.

But Bruno is gone now and the remodel, I suspect, was an effort to appeal to the start-up unicorns and ecstasy executives who've turned the yearly Burning Man party into a grinding expression of self-indulgence tailor-made for YouTube.

Those modernist types have a problem too, it turns out, which is opposite of the one I have: they don't seem to appreciate anything that is more than 10 minutes old.

Don't get me wrong. I root for hippies, or hipsters, or whatever reluctant capitalists are called when they grow beards and man-buns and adopt that snarky millennial je ne sais quois, but who nevertheless can't quite change a tire, scramble an egg, or find Kansas on a map.

I really do root for them, because dancing around a dry lakebed with hockey pucks in their earlobes is probably, in the end, an inexpensive vote for humanity and our shared karma. And, no doubt, the world needs more angry middle-class white kids wearing dreadlocks and denouncing privilege while praising the divine rights of Haile Selassie and chortling artisanal bongs in a Nevada sandstorm.

And certainly - I can't resist - no lasting harm is done when a gentrified baby boomer tries to rediscover his glory years by fabricating a street-legal steam calliope, and then drives it from Portland to Gerlach with a backseat full of vaping tattoo artists and a jockeybox stuffed with Viagra.

I root for them because it's clear to me that we need these people now more than ever. Especially after the city of Chicago managed to clock out of 2017 with only 650 murders, which is perhaps an encouraging sign that meditation gardens and Saturday drum circles are finally having an impact on world peace.

But did they have to destroy the last good cowboy bar for a hundred and fifty miles in any direction?

I wonder this in light of Kerouac's aging but accurate diagnosis of so much that is wrong with humanity - which is the collectively desperate effort to appear cosmopolitan.

Granted, I was in a bad mood when we finally made it to Bruno's. That mood was born far out on the desert, around midnight, with the noisy braying of wild burros - mean-spirited little animals who wrecked a perfectly good dream featuring Raquel Welch in a deerhide bikini.

And, soon after, my companion and I were treated to a deluge of wind and freezing rain that drove us out of our bedrolls and into the cab of my truck, where we sat like pickled vagrants for six hours, listening to Burl Ives sing "Go Tell Aunt Rhody" on an endless loop.

We were only 60 miles of washboard road from Bruno's but I remained optimistic. In the morning we had planned to scout Little High Rock Canyon, where Shoshone Mike and the last free natives killed four sheepherders in 1911. Like Bruno's, that canyon is part of my own history in the region, but I'd forgotten how fast the weather can turn and snow had ruined the prospect.

So, at sunrise, our camp wrecked, our gear soaking and scattered across the desert, we passed on desert history, conceded defeat to the elements, and headed for the luxuries of town, where the rude discovery of Brunos' makeover awaited.

But even with its defeats, a trip like that can never be counted a loss.

Two nights earlier we had made our camp high above Summit Lake, in a grove of quaking aspens cut through by a fast creek. We ate like kings around a good campfire and slept soundly. There was an old line-shack near our camp, a sad and gutted thing leaning over in time, harried by the elements. I had known that shack in its prime, long before it fell into disuse.

But the shack was still there, and looking back now, I realize that in its own way, that old cow camp was both a warning about what we would eventually find at Bruno's, and an excellent reminder about living too hard in the past. It reminded me that nothing ever stays the same, and that the gift of grace is perhaps best realized when we honor all that has gone before - by learning to embrace the future that history made possible.

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