Favre Lake is nestled at the bottom of a tight mountain cirque, with steep grassy slopes rising on three sides toward the crumbling ridgelines that tower above. As we approached its shoreline, it was time to choose where to set up camp for the night. That pressure I’d been feeling, in the car and then watching Tran sweat out half his body weight, rose up in me again. I wanted to find the perfect spot. As we came around the lake’s southern edge, I could see bright primary colors flashing in and out from behind a patch of lakeside trees. And then a group of horses. Farther up the hill, the outlines of several tents peeked out. There were a handful of adults unpacking gear alongside a large, frequently used backcountry campsite. I’d have preferred if Tran and I were the only ones at the lake, but a little company wasn’t too concerning. I was confident we could search out a little solitude farther down the shoreline.
About 75 yards ahead, a spur trail led up the hill to another site with a rock firepit, flat spots for tents, and several downed trees that made convenient benches. I’m a sucker for campsite benches, and there was a clear path leading straight down from the site to a small beach at the lake. It had all the “amenities,” but I hated the idea of hiking miles into the backcountry only to end up seeing and hearing more people than I would have if I’d just invited Tran to hang out in my own backyard. We both decided to continue on.
A thin, barely visible trail wound along the edge of the lake. There was a cluster of trees farther down that looked promising, so I picked up my pace, eager to explore the spot before losing out on the previous option. Going over the rise and dropping into the trees, I was met with a thick cluster of thorny shrubs that covered the entire area. A nagging voice began to whisper in the back of my mind. Maybe I’d been too picky. On our left, a thicket of waist-high bushes was now between us and the lake, and to our right, the mountainside pitched nearly straight up. The camping options appeared more limited than I’d thought. Had we already passed by our best choice?
Choosing a proper backcountry campsite is a careful balancing act—a high stakes game of musical chairs. As the afternoon waned, I was quickly beginning to fear Tran and I might end up the last ones standing. Our final hope was a flat stretch that opened up a hundred yards ahead, at the very end of the small lake. When we arrived, we were far away from the neighbors and seemingly out of sight and sound. The campsite views seemed cover-shot worthy too, set right alongside the mirror-like water of the lake and tight to the bases of the adjacent hillsides. But when we followed the trail down to the flat bottom, there was an issue. It was muddy, with a checkerboard of standing water and just a few small stretches of dry dirt. I started half-heartedly searching for some patches of high ground large enough for our tents, but it would be hit or miss. What if a storm came through overnight? I could see the water levels rising enough to cause significant issues. It was beautiful. Stunning, really. The kind of spot you dream of. But flawed.
We spent a little time debating the virtues of the gorgeous but waterlogged campsite. The safer option we’d left behind was much less sexy. But, searching for a silver lining, I reminded myself that there were those built-in benches.
We chose the benches.
An hour later, after setting up our tents, laying out our sweaty clothes, unpacking our food, and hanging our hammocks, a high-pitched scream came echoing down from the far side of the lake where the trail had originally led. Tran and I sat up, alert. “Is someone hurt?” he asked. Another scream and a holler, even louder and getting closer. I wasn’t sure what was happening. Could it be someone had fallen down the cliff? Or an animal attack? I stood up, looking back toward the trail and our neighboring campsite. Then I saw them.
The death knell to all that is quiet. The antithesis of peacefulness. A group of teenage boys.“Dude,” I said, catching myself, “we’ve somehow gotten really old and grumpy.”
They came in twos and threes, then a group of five, then eight. There were at least fifteen of them. Maybe twenty. I couldn’t keep track. A pack of gangly arms and legs burst past our camp, screaming at the top of their lungs, barreling down our lake-access trail and cannonballing into the lake just beneath us.
Tran and I exchanged wide-eyed glances. “I’m sure their parents will get them under control,” I said.
As the sun began to set a few hours later, we sat on our benches, eating reconstituted chicken and dumplings and sweet and sour pork while trying to ignore the theme park next door. We grumbled back and forth. These damn kids . . . Can you believe how rude they are? . . . We never could have gotten away with this when we were kids! . . . What the hell are these parents doing? . . . Should we go say something to them? . . . Can’t they think of anyone but themselves? This was not the wilderness backpacking experience I had hoped for.
“Dude,” I said, catching myself, “we’ve somehow gotten really old and grumpy.” Tran looked at me and started laughing, a laugh I’d known since grade school. It felt like ages ago that Tran and I had been teenagers together, but then again, it didn’t feel that far back at all. As evening shifted to night, we kicked back in the tent, telling stories from our youth, laughing ourselves to tears, drowning out the shouts coming from just down the lake.
We slept in, and apparently so did the high school down the way. It was nearly silent. Blissfully so. All I could hear were the needle-covered branches of the white pines whistling softly in the breeze above us and a watery song of soft splashing in the distance. The lake was flat as a mirror except for the dimples appearing along the edges—a clear sign that trout were feeding.
I came from a long line of early risers. My dad drank coffee and read the newspaper with his father at 4:30 every morning, ever since he was eight years old. Conversely, I’d made it my life’s mission—outside of hunting season—to avoid seeing 4:30 flash on my bedside clock. If I wasn’t exploring the outdoors, I was most happy kicking back on a Saturday, with nothing on the agenda but a good book or hearty breakfast. In the mountains, I had the very best excuse for a morning like that. Nowhere to be but here. We sipped coffee in our hammocks, read our books, closed our eyes, and filled our lungs with the evergreen air.
Just before noon, we got back on the trail. The plan was to day hike to the summit of Wines Peak, the high point of the Ruby Crest Trail, taking us up to 10,893 feet in elevation. We left the lake behind and came into a long, flat valley draped in pinprick yellow flowers and olive-brown shrubs. Each step kicked up clouds of dust behind us, and polished granite walls stood on all sides against a cloudless sky of robin’s-egg blue. We hiked up and down ridgelines and mountain passes, waving at the occasional passing hiker and rubbernecking all the way to soak in the alpine grandeur. There was a richness to the air here, earthy, almost loamy, but so dry. I entered a trance, placing one foot in front of the other, watching my step, then scanning the scene, watching my step, scanning the scene. “Most of the time you don’t think,” said Bill Bryson in his hiking classic, A Walk in the Woods. “No point. Instead, you exist in a mobile Zen mode, your brain like a balloon tethered with string, accompanying but not actually part of the body below. Walking for hours and miles becomes as automatic, as unremarkable, as breathing.”
Tran and I walked and we breathed, never thinking much about it. Coming down from the last pass before tackling the slopes of Wines Peak, we approached one of the few sources of water we’d seen since the lake—a tiny creek funneling through the center of a drainage leading down valley to North Furlong Lake. A yellow shelter was tucked underneath a cluster of trees just off the trail, and as we approached, we saw two camo-clad men sitting nearby. A bow was rested against a tree.
“Hunting season’s open already?” I asked.
“Opens tomorrow,” said the taller of the two. “Archery mule deer.”
I hadn’t expected to see any hunters in the thick of summer, but I’d forgotten that Nevada has one of the earliest seasons in the country. We bantered back and forth with the men about the area, their hunting plans, and what I had scheduled for my own hunting season later that year. It was surprising to see them set up to hunt near such a busy hiking trail, but they seemed confident that they’d find unpressured deer and plenty of space simply by getting off the trail and dropping into neighboring drainages. “Hikers and fishermen don’t tend to leave the comfort of the dirt path,” they said. They had a point. We got back on the dirt path, heading south and up the steep slope of Wines Peak’s northern shoulder.
“This is a perfect example,” I told Tran as we picked our way up the mountain, “of the multiple-use philosophy practiced on public lands.” I explained how, if managed in the right way, these landscapes could be shared and enjoyed by all sorts of people. Many of the nation’s national forests and refuges and BLM lands are multiuse—with hikers and hunters, fishermen and backpackers, horse riders and rock climbers all coexisting in the same space. In many cases, recreational uses coexist with commodity uses too. Loggers and bird-watchers often use the same forests. Hikers and ranchers might enjoy and utilize the same desert spread. “But challenges tend to crop up,” I said, “especially when one party feels like their use isn’t as valued as another, or when one use threatens the future existence of another altogether.” We talked a little about the Bundys’ takeover of the Malheur Refuge in 2016 and the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1980s that preceded it. I explained that we were embroiled in a similar struggle today, between conservationists campaigning for increased protections of wild public landscapes, and cattlemen, loggers, and oil drillers wanting to see increased use and reduced regulations of those same places.
Silence fell again as we plodded along, still heading up the rocky slope of the mountain. Tran was in the lead, and I could almost follow him with my eyes closed, just by trailing the whoopee-cushion noises emitting from his back end. I had begun to call him Stinky Tran. There was also an ever-widening dark spot of sweat on his gray T-shirt that was expanding out from his backpack straps to well past his shoulders. The guy’s body just seemed to emit things at an almost unnaturally high, somewhat impressive rate. We came over a rise and the final approach to the summit of Wines Peak appeared ahead of us. To our left, the world dropped away.
We were standing at the head of a deep canyon, with rockslides and talus slopes beneath us. Looking farther out, we could see across a vast flat valley, as far as the eye could see, until the scene faded into the blue horizon. In between were a few thin strips of irrigated green, with every-thing else painted army brown and gray, a parched and pastel desert that led to an expansive stretch of pure-white salt flats farther to the south. Almost everything within view was public land managed by BLM.
It was there, amid that somewhat forgotten corner of America’s public lands, that the Sagebrush Rebellion had found its cause and voice. Tran and I had talked a little about my interest in the rebellion and its connection to our trip, but standing there, struck by the significance of this silent scene, I laid it all out in detail. As the environmental movement picked up momentum in the sixties and seventies, I told Tran, public-land-management decisions increasingly leaned in favor of a “new conservation” movement defined by a preservationist land- and resource-management philosophy. While traditional public-land users such as ranchers, miners, and other extractive industries still had a voice at the table, the winds of change were blowing and all parties could tell in which direction things were headed. In a state like Nevada, where so much of the state is federally owned, many of these user groups were at the mercy of federal bureaucracies and management decisions—and when those decisions started being made heavily in favor of conservation, they became concerned.
An increase in BLM grazing fees was proposed, allotments were adjusted, conservation measures were required, and increasingly large chunks of land were sectioned off for wilderness study. There seemed to be cause for ranchers, miners, and other groups whose livelihoods depended on access to the land to feel overburdened by a distant federal government. The resulting grassroots uprising led to threats of violence against government workers, vandalism of public property, and state legislative action—first in Nevada and then across much of the rest of the West—calling for public lands to be taken from the federal government and given to the individual states. One nearby town’s newspaper published an op-ed that claimed, “Nevadans are hostile and for good reason. Perhaps when the central government and its agents in Nevada start to operate under the law by ending their claim to our public lands and their control over our private property, relations will improve. Until then the fight will continue.”
And it felt like, for the last few decades, it had. It was a grim idea to consider. Tran and I sat quietly looking over the vast public domain. “Time to eat,” I said, breaking the silence. I dug into my pack and pulled out a Ziploc of freeze-dried mandarin oranges, a packet of peanut butter, and a bag of beef jerky. Hiking snacks—if you aren’t a tuna-eating oaf—are delicious. This doesn’t mean they’re always good in a universal sense; for instance, dipping beef jerky into peanut butter, as I was about to do, probably wouldn’t be very appealing at home. But take that same concoction and throw it together on the side of the mountain after hiking up thousands of feet, and you’ve got yourself a pretty damn good meal. Nothing breeds an accommodating palate like fatigue.
A half hour later, with full bellies, we continued our final push to the top of the nearly 11,000-foot-tall Wines Peak. It was a silent affair. Nothing but deep breaths, the steady thump of our boots hitting dirt, and the occasional loose piece of shale clattering down. Gusts of chilled wind came over the summit ridge, providing a much-needed respite from the heat. Tran had continued to sweat so much that his ball cap began to show white salty lines along the brim, like elevation marks on a topographic map. We were working hard, and based on Tran’s condition and a blister I could clearly feel forming on my foot, I could tell we’d be paying for it later. But I knew it would be worth it. This was the best kind of hike, one with a true destination in mind—a goal, a challenge, a literal high point. George Mallory, one of the first men to attempt a climb of Mount Everest, was once asked why he wanted to climb the mountain, to which he famously responded, “Because it’s there.” We were driven by a similar pull. There are few things that offer a guttural sense of accomplishment more tangibly than literally climbing to the top of an obstacle and standing above it. And the views! They are always worth the work.
At the summit of Wines Peak, our views stretched 360 degrees for dozens of miles. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. The Rubies are a narrow mountain chain, and sitting atop them now, we could see the expansive valleys continuing off to the east and west of the range’s opposing flanks. The ridged peaks looked like a herd of stegosauruses lined up next to each other five deep. Each ridgeline was topped with a pinnacle of rock—some jagged, others rounded and eroding away—and had northern slopes cloaked in dark pines and intermittent olive-toned meadows of grasses and forbs. Tran climbed atop the summit rock pile and handed me his phone. “Snap a few pics of me, would ya?” I ran back down the hill to get a better perspective and, when I turned, I saw he was perched atop the highest boulder, striking a seventies disco pose, laughing hysterically. He was clearly enjoying the spoils of our efforts.
A few hours later, I couldn’t say the same. Tran had done amazingly well so far, given his lack of mountain experience, but exhaustion finally caught up to him, and he struggled to keep pace as we stomped our way back down the trail. Just before reaching our campsite, he stopped ahead of me, bent down, and grabbed his knees. There was some coughing and retching, and when he turned back to look at me, a thick stream of spit clung to his chin. “Uh, Tran, you might want to take care of that,” I said, pointing to his face.
“I don’t give . . . shit . . . no more. Go . . . let’s just go.” He barely got the words out while spinning back around and continuing the slog toward the lake. And as soon as we got back, he ripped open the tent door and collapsed inside. Ten minutes later, there were signs of life.
“I’m dehydrated, I think. I’m really sleepy. Really tired. Thirsty,” he said.
“Take a nap,” I shouted to him from my seat by the firepit.
“I’m talking to my vlog!” he shouted back. Peering through the tent mesh, I saw him lying half-naked on his sleeping bag, with his cell phone held out selfie-style. “Need to go get my water,” he groaned into the camera lens. “But it’s too far awaaay!” I left him to it. This was the millennial version of roughing it.
Just before dark, Tran had recovered enough to visit the lake. The sandy area closest to our campsite had been commandeered by the fleet of screaming boys, so we swung down the trail and revisited the place we’d almost decided to set up camp. The boys’ screams still echoed toward us, but the volume was turned down to a manageable decibel. Low enough that I could make out a splash on the lake’s surface, and then another. Trout. The Outdoors 101 education I’d been trying to craft for Tran included a course on fly-fishing. He’d given it a quick try the night before, but managed to hook more bushes than fish.
Tonight, the lake was flat as glass, except for the ripples the rising fish left behind. The setting sun shifted the sky from blue to purple, then orange and crimson. With each cast, willing and eager brook trout swarmed to our flies, slurping and smashing them with vigor. Tran missed most of the takes, but managed to land a few too. His hands were wet and slimy as he pulled a brightly spotted brook trout from the water for a quick photo. His catch was iridescent, a dark-olive body dappled with gold and purple dots. Bonfire-orange fins grew from its tail. Tran marveled as the fish splashed out of his hand and back into the lake. I cast again and watched the fly land on the water and rest for one Mississippi until the glass surface broke and a trout erupted from below, its body coming completely out of the water like an orca performing for a crowd. “Woooweee!” Tran hooted and hollered behind me loud enough to drown out the kids at the beach. He trained his camera on me as I reeled in the fish. “I got that one on the vlog!” he said, with a big dopey grin on his face.
Back at the campsite, we ate our last freeze-dried meal by headlamp light. Our dinner of choice came in a handy resealable bag. To prepare them, we simply boiled two cups of water, poured the liquid into the bag, sealed it, waited eight minutes, and then voilà—we had a hot meal that we ate right out of the bag, with no dishes or cleanup to worry about. A roar of laughter and squeals of delight erupted next door. “Were we ever this bad?” I asked, forgetting for a moment our performance at the lake.
“Probably,” said Tran with a grin. “Shit, we were probably worse.” He might have been right. I had vague recollections of pies thrown at dorm windows and cops being called for blaring music, jumping, and shouting. I spun my spoon around the bottom of my bag and took one last bite, licking off the very last bit of salty gravy. Nah, that couldn’t have been us, I thought.
I looked up to see a pack of flashlights coming our way, accompanied by nervous giggling and whispers. A high-pitched prepubescent voice rose from the trail beneath our site. “Excuse me, sirs, would you like some scones?” More giggling.
“No thanks,” I replied, rolling my eyes at Tran and shaking my head. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to be irritated or amused by these twerps.
“Are you sure? We think you’d really like our scones. They’re scrumptious!” The gaggle of 13-year-olds erupted in laughter again.
Whether or not I was ever as rowdy as this group, I knew that I would never take any food item offered by the teenage version of me, especially if I was pitching it as “scrumptious.”
“Nope, we’re all good,” I said, and the giggling moved farther away, in search of another target.
In the tent soon after, Tran and I got situated in our sleeping bags, headlamps illuminating our nylon shelter and our helter-skelter stacks of gear. Piles of dirty clothes were near our feet, and wadded up jackets and extra pants were heaped into makeshift pillows. I grabbed my journal and put pen to paper, relishing a momentary pause in the commotion next door.I hadn’t accounted for a teenage party next door, a live vlog of our adventures, or tent-side concerts. But in that moment, it all felt right.
As soon as my written words started to flow, I heard a loud twang rise from the other side of the tent. The mellow strum of an acoustic guitar. Tran was playing music on his phone. Recorded music, especially piping out of a cell phone, was the last thing I’d choose on a night like this. I wanted solitude, silence, a sense of repose, a separation from—not an injection of—humanity. A cell phone jam session in the tent was definitely not what I had in mind. I sighed, quietly.
Putting down my journal, I listened as the guitarist carefully picked away on his instrument, slowly at first, the hiss of fingers on strings just audible. Then the rhythm quickened. A gentle tap on the body of the guitar established a beat. There were no voices, just an increasingly passionate plucking of the metallic strings, a rising tension and then a fall. A steady bass drum joined. I couldn’t help but tap my toe to the beat as I closed my eyes. It was surprisingly intoxicating. There was nothing else in the world at that moment but me and one of my best buddies in a tent, surrounded by mountains and trees and fish and water, enveloped in an ocean of sound.
It hadn’t all played out the way I’d imagined. I hadn’t accounted for a teenage party next door, a live vlog of our adventures, or tent-side concerts. But in that moment, it all felt right. Maybe it had been exactly what I needed. Wild public places, I was reminded, mean something different to each person who sets foot in them. They can be enjoyed in so many different ways. My way—the totally disconnected, regimented plan—wasn’t really any better than someone else’s.
Tran, it seemed, wanted to enjoy his lakeside camping with the John Butler Trio as a soundtrack. The kids we’d passed hiking the day before wanted to sing Disney tunes at the top of their lungs. And the teens next door needed cannonballs, football-stadium chants, and scrumptious-scone sales to enjoy the out-of-doors. Sitting in that tent, listening to the rise and fall of the guitar, I was suddenly all for it. I was just glad they were there, enjoying the place that they owned as Americans, engaging with their land. If we limited outdoor experiences only to silent retreats, stealthy hunts, and meditative fishing, there’d be a whole lot fewer people experiencing these places. Selfishly, I might like that for a bit. Imagine all that peace and quiet. But if no one ever got to see public lands, to hear them, to feel them—who would fight for them? Another wave of acoustic harmony rose and crashed down over us. I looked at Tran; his eyes were closed and his head was bobbing to the music.
From That Wild Country by Mark Kenyon. Used with the permission of Little A. Copyright © 2019 by Mark Kenyon.