The American Outback

Vegetation is sparse, and inhabitants are few, but beauty is abundant and vistas expansive

WHEN government mapmakers surveyed central Nevada shortly after the Civil War, they pronounced it a "wasteland." "No wood, no water, no grass," warns a map published in 1866.

More than a century later, most of Nevada (and much of Utah next door) is still the American outback. Weather is extreme in summer and winter, forage and fuel are scarce, and life is difficult and sometimes dangerous for humans and animals.

The landscape can be harsh. Early pioneers, including Mormon settlers, found this out as they looked for places to raise cattle and grow crops. The native peoples, Shoshone and Paiute, knew this too. But it's also beautiful country - and not just the spectacular red-rock canyons in national parks like Zion and Arches in Utah.

The beauty of the high desert is felt as much as seen - past contact with modern ways and means, at the edge of conventional sensibilities, outside of time. It's as if the scent of sage, the hawk's whistle, the velvet hills, with more shades of brown and gray than imaginable, move beyond backdrop to become ways of opening thought as wide as the steel or cobalt sky.

A big coyote dashes across the road, a blur of power and purpose. Who knows what he's seen or where he's headed or why? A golden eagle perches on a power pole, eyeballing the rocks and sparse vegetation for the quick movement that will betray a meal on the move. A half-mile down the road, the eagle's mate scans the terrain from another pole.

This part of the West, like most of the region, is best experienced alone and off the asphalt, even though it can be disconcerting to realize that the nearest human contact may be hours away. But not human evidence: Even in the silent stillness there are signs of human expression and endeavor, old and new.

Petroglyphs on canyon walls at Capitol Reef National Park mark an ancient artist's presence. Nearby, a one-room log schoolhouse, stone cabin, and orchard record the presence of a 19th-century Mormon settlement. Road signs mark the open range along the thousands of miles of unpaved road through federal land left over when homesteaders had staked their claims on the best.

Even the wild horse herds spotted now and then are not really wild but feral - descendants of stock left behind when some ranch went bust or a band of native Americans had been rounded up or wiped out during the Indian wars, maybe back to the Spanish mustangs of the 1500s.

There are ranch families out here whose nearest neighbors may be a mountain range away. And there are those who choose to live alone.

Lloyd Seaman is the caretaker at a Nevada ranch whose owner is in a dispute with the federal government over control of the range. Most of the time Mr. Seaman lives alone, except for the cats, dogs, and the pack horses he looks after. In his spare time he rebuilds wrecked pickup trucks, and sometimes he has unusual animal encounters.

Like the time he was riding in the mountains and came upon a bobcat caught by the toe of one paw in a steel trap. He went over to try to open the trap, but the animal saw him as attacker rather than savior. It lashed out in fear and anger, hissing and snarling, slashing with its daggered pads. Finally, Seaman piled brush on the cat, sitting on it to hold down the animal while he pried open the trap.

Man and beast survived the episode not much the worse for wear. Ingenuity. Determination. A fondness for animals. Qualities that remain as the American outback moves into the 21st century.

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