Most people when they first arrive at Thacker Pass declare that she is very beautiful. She is very beautiful, yes, but she is also very sick – so sick, in fact, that her sickness is becoming terminal.
It is not difficult to see. Take a walk along on any of the dirt roads carved across Thacker Pass’ fragile soil and you’ll find cheatgrass growing in the wounds the roads cause. Cheatgrass chokes out Thacker Pass’ native annual and perennial grasses. This cheatgrass makes Thacker Pass more vulnerable to wildfires like the ones that have swept the tops of the Montana mountains who form the northern boundary of Thacker Pass. Those wildfires, exacerbated by climate change and drought, destroyed thousands of acres of some of the best old-growth sage brush left on Earth. The Bureau of Land Management must have recognized the danger to the old-growth sage brush in the Pass. With that twisted logic so peculiar to government bureaucracies, BLM decided to kill large swaths of sage brush to save the rest. Government workers on tractors and bulldozers created firebreaks by dragging heavy chains across the land to rip out long rectangles of sage brush just in case the rest of the sage brush is one-day threatened by fire.
It’s not the cheatgrass’ fault. The fault falls squarely on humans – invasive European humans – who spread cheatgrass along the railroad lines when they discarded the straw used for dry goods packing, imported cheatgrass seeds mixed in with cereal grains, and threw away the bedding straw and cow dung from cattle cars.
Beginning in April, the ranchers drive their cattle into Thacker Pass and the Pass’ wild songs of wind, meadowlarks, hawks, and coyotes are drowned out by the cows’ incessant, domestic mewling. The horizons, once rolling like unbroken waves of sage brush seas, are littered with the black-box bodies of cows. If, disturbed by the visual pollution of invasive cattle surrounding you, you drop your eyes to the ground, you will find it covered everywhere in the round plops of cow shit.
Even when there are no white people present, the cows symbolize settler domination of the region. After Europeans began pushing native people off their land for silver and gold in the 1860s, they brought large numbers of cattle to Nevada to feed the miners. Cattle have devastated places like Thacker Pass. There are times when the original grazers – antelope, bighorn sheep, and mule deer– can be seen amongst the cows. If you gaze into the eyes of an antelope munching on sage brush and then gaze into the eyes of a cow, you might recognize what has been stolen from those poor beings, the once-wild ungulates humans enslaved thousands of years ago and now known as cattle.
At the east end of Thacker Pass, no sage brush grows anymore. There is only cheatgrass. Sage brush and other native plants cannot grow there anymore because local water supplies have been so overdrawn that the subterranean water table has dropped too low for native plant roots to reach. The cheatgrass, growing brown already in May, droop their heads in respect for their lost kin.
Move west across Thacker Pass and you’ll stumble across Lithium Nevada’s test wells. The wells are marked by bright yellow and red metal tubes rising from the ground. Lithium Nevada has placed padlocks on all of the wells so that no one else can learn just how much water exists below Thacker Pass. The wells pierce the land like syringes. They puncture the earth to draw out Thacker Pass’ lifeblood: water. We are all addicted to water, of course. But, the padlocks are proof that mines are drug lords, hoarding what all of us need, extravagantly wasting water on other addictions like technology, wealth, and power.
Thacker Pass’ pain might tempt you to seek comfort in the sky. Look up and you’ll find the sky criss-crossed by the puffy lacerations of jet fuel exhaust. The combustion of that fuel contributes to the climate change that is intensifying the regional drought and speeding up the desertification of Thacker Pass and the rest of the Great Basin.
If you allow yourself to see all of this, you might smell Thacker Pass’ death rising from her ailments to stir with the dust in the wind.
What will you do, then, when you see Thacker Pass as she truly is? How will you respond when you learn that beneath her beauty, beyond her superficial sweetness, you confront the reality of her experience? Will you give up? Will you move on to some other remote place to pretend to be free from the ongoing destruction of Earth? Will you allow Thacker Pass’ blood and bile, the stench from her wounds, the ugly truth of her scars to push you away?
Or, will you realize no nurse is coming for Thacker Pass, no doctor is coming for Earth? Will you accept that, as powerful as she is, she cannot recover from her wounds on her own? Will you cling to the glimpses of beauty she has blessed you with and resolve to cut out the cancers afflicting her so that she can, at last, heal?