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Empty America

Read "Beyond the End of the Road" in the January/February 2001 issue of ADVENTURE.

Cowboy Culture

The cowboys out there [around Elko, Nevada], they really live on the range. [They're] salaried employees. When they get done with a run they come into town for a few days of drinking, basically. Then they go back out.

They were telling me, in fact, that two days from when I met them they were supposed to be at a certain intersection in town and a bus was going to come and pick them up and drive them back out to the range, where they'd continue their cattle run or whatever they're doing.

When I was flying the airplane one day back from, I think, the Owyhee Canyon...I looked down. ...At first I couldn't see exactly what I was looking at, and then I realized it was a man on a horse with a white cowboy hat, riding at the head of...many hundreds of cattle. A bunch of cowboys were behind him, riding in and out of the cattle, sort of tending herd as they went. ...They were driving them up probably to the home range for the winter.

In the summertime they leave them out on the range to fend for themselves and graze. And then in the fall they bring them back to the ranch and keep them there, because it's too cold out on the range and there's not enough food. ...

Still Wild

I've made I don't know how many of these ADVENTURE trips over the years, but this was one of the nicest of all, in part...because this was not...was not a national park, not a national forest, not a wilderness-designated area. It was just something left over from history.

The law out there is whatever you make it. When we were in places out in the desert and we'd find things, like a boot, we'd think, "Well, where's the guy who was in this boot?" Somebody just disappeared him out there. You don't just leave your cowboy riding boot out in the middle of the desert for no reason—not if you're a cowboy.

You start thinking about what kinds of things went on out there in the old days and you realize it's still happening. It's still wild as can be out there.

  Life on Assignment
  Chased by Demons
Out of Empty America

The Stories Behind Our Cover Story

Wedged into a coffinlike cockpit, writer Laurence Gonzales and photographer Jonas Dovydenas set out to explore the biggest bunch of nothing the U.S. has to offer: the deserts that blur the border between Nevada and Oregon. It's all in the January/February issue's "Empty America: Beyond the End of the Road." Well, almost all of it.

As Gonzales reveals here, when the assignment ended, the adventure raged on.

 
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When [ADVENTURE] received the article and saw the photos, they liked [the story] very much and wanted it to be on the cover. We had one shot that was perfect for the cover except it wasn't shot as a cover—it was just a snapshot, basically.

We had landed the plane on a dry lakebed and spent the night there, and I had built this huge fire. The plane was in the background, and the sun was going down. I was sitting there in front of this great bonfire. ...But it wasn't framed right, and it didn't have space for cover lines and was just a little 35mm shot. So they sent us back to reshoot it for the cover.

 
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We jumped in the plane again and flew 11 hours back to Nevada to go out to the same spot and do the same thing and shoot the cover. We got to Elko, Nevada, which is our base of operations and jumping-off point for this great vast empty area. ...then got up the next morning and got our gear together to go out to the desert and land on the same dry lakebed.

As we were getting ready to go we noticed that the wind was picking up and the sky looked kind of bad. ...The weather briefer told us there wasn't supposed to be any rain until seven o'clock, and we figured that allowed us enough time. ...

The thing about that dry lakebed is it's this extremely fine powder that hardens to the consistency of concrete. But if you put any water on it at all, it immediately turns into this incredible muck. It's like quicksand. And so we had this image of ourselves setting the plane down there and it starting to rain and [us never getting] out—you know, our skeletons will be found a thousand years from now encased in this mud.

Anyway, we rushed out to the airport and started getting ready to shoot on out to the desert when this flight instructor came in from a flight. We asked her how it was and she said there was a wall of dust from the surface up to 7,000 feet (2,134 meters) tall, just rumbling in over the mountains as she hightailed it back to the airport.

...We raced back to the hotel, got all our stuff, raced back to the airport, dumped [our stuff] in the airplane, hot-fueled the airplane ...got fuel put in it while the engine was running.

We called the tower to get clearance for takeoff. As we were doing that we could see this wall of dust, which was the leading edge of the storm, come barreling over the nearest ridge. At the same time the wind picked up to about 30 knots.

The guy cleared us to take off and we rolled down the runway with a direct crosswind of probably 40 knots. They were calling nine miles (15 kilometers) visibility as we were rolling. We took off and turned away from the storm and he called four miles (6.4 kilometers). ...As we climbed out over the first ridge ...we saw this wall of dust enclose the airport. The airport literally disappeared from sight as we were climbing away.

That was about the closest call as pilots that we had had with some major weather. We did't take any pictures, obviously—we got out of there and headed home. We were going probably 170 miles an hour (274 kilometers an hour), so we were able to outrun the storm. But we basically outran it all the way across the country—chased by demons out of Empty America. ...

Some weeks later [ADVENTURE] had a local photographer [Mark Gamba] out on the West Coast go out there with another airplane. ... The photo was actually "faked." ... It wasn't our plane and it wasn't our shot.

By Laurence Gonzales, as told to Ted Chamberlain


January/February 2001:  Previews | Gear Guide | Destination: Vegas | Ask the Expert | On Assignment | Photo Gallery | Q&A | Forum | Adventure 365
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