On our second date, when I asked Jennifer if it seemed obvious that I wasn't much of a camper and she fought hard to suppress a grin, I detected a challenge. So last month I declared my outdoorsmanship and brought her with me to Pyramid Lake.
Not the one off Interstate 5 near Santa Clarita. This Pyramid Lake is about 35 miles north of Reno. It's one of the country's largest desert lakes, a place whose otherworldly backdrop of scattered tufa formations is partly why the local highway was designated one of the nation's first scenic byways.
Here, given 99 miles of shoreline, practically anything goes in terms of camping: You can park an RV, pitch a tent or simply unroll a sleeping bag in the bed of a pickup and conk out under copious stars. We weighed the merits of camping against the conveniences of staying in a Reno hotel and decided on a little of both.
The easiest way to reach Pyramid Lake is to fly into Reno and drive north on Nevada 445. You'll see the lake just as explorer John C. Frémont did in 1844, "set like a gem in the mountains, which, from our position, seemed to enclose it almost entirely." What type of gem — sapphire, emerald or other — depends on the hour and the sunlight.
The surroundings are just as stunning, as Frémont's journal suggests. Set among the dusty, sagebrush-smudged flats and sandstone ranges of Nevada's high desert, Pyramid Lake is a sensational chiaroscuro study and emphatically not Tahoe, its celebrated alpine neighbor to the south.
It's drastically less crowded here. The notion of a timeshare, for instance, could apply only to the standing arrangement between the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, whose 475,000-acre reservation surrounds the lake, and the Nevadans who visit it.
We arrived one Friday by sunset, driving past the almost-town of Sutcliffe, an insouciant scattering of low-slung homes with unkempt yards, and a caravan of RVs roosting near the waterline. We parked somewhere to the north, near Warrior Point on the western shore.
The lake, withdrawing into shadow, was glassy and purplish. Clouds cycled through a series of muted ambers and tawny salmons and roseate blushes. We could hear the gentle lapping of water on the shore, and for a while birds and crickets grew chatty, but otherwise silence prevailed. A few pelicans, like distant ships in formation, set off from the shore and drifted away to meet the night. That left Jennifer and me with only each other as evidence of civilization. She seemed enraptured; I gloated.
We headed back to Reno for a night at the Colonial Motor Inn, dwarfed by the nearby hotel giants and chosen for its underdog charm, its auto-club discount and its unusual style, best described as mafioso-retro-chic. Our room ($52.20 plus tax), with ash-colored carpeting and wall-mounted hi-fi console, made no effort to seem contemporary.
Dinner reconnaissance involved a walking lap of downtown, where the blare and the flash of neon were relentless. Young lotharios roamed, puffed up and reeking of cologne, flinging bottles from their truck windows.
Our senses marauded, we retreated to the car and nosed south on Virginia Street. All the authentic Mexican places were closed, but somewhere in the reaches of Renoburbia we found an outlet of the On the Border chain. Over beans and beers, we ruminated on the lake's seclusion and serenity, already lost.
Pioneers against Paiutes
Saturday we were relieved to return, and Pyramid Lake felt as though it was all ours — a common sentiment, historically. In 1859, after it had been inhabited by indigenous people for thousands of years, the government issued a directive to create a reservation. But the land wasn't surveyed until 1865 nor officially set aside until 1874. Meanwhile, there was bloodshed between Paiutes and pioneers as well as the beginning of a cooler, more protracted conflict, characterized by New Yorker writer A.J. Liebling in 1955 as "the longest-running Indian war in United States history."
Frémont named the lake Pyramid because of the conspicuous tufa-and-rock formation near its eastern shore. But the Paiutes call the lake Cui-ui Water, after the pouting fish species that lives here and nowhere else in the world. (The Paiutes call themselves Cuyui Ticutta, which translates to Cui-ui Eaters.)
It is a bitter, if familiar, irony that the cui-ui eaters may no longer eat their cui-ui; the species is federally protected because a U.S. government reclamation project endangered the animal nearly a century ago. Pyramid's enormous cutthroat trout remain fishable, but only because the lake is regularly restocked.
Liebling limned these conflicts, and the landscape, in a series of beautiful essays, now published together by the University of Nevada Press. The reason he was out here in the first place was common: a quick divorce. That's also what brought playwright Arthur Miller, who was inspired enough to write the screenplay for the 1961 film "The Misfits."
"What intrigued me about Nevada," Miller said, "was that the people were so little and the landscape was so enormous." I admired how right he got it in his script, as in this pithy exchange between Marilyn Monroe as Roslyn and Thelma Ritter as her landlady, Isabelle:
Roslyn: "What's behind those hills?"
Roslyn: "What's that beautiful smell? It's like some kind of green perfume."
Isabelle: "Sage, darling."
Roslyn: "Is that sage? I always wondered what sage was! Oh, Isabelle — it's beautiful, isn't it?"
Isabelle: "Oh, it's just bare, beat-up range country, honey."
We were with Roslyn. We happily picked up our camping permit at the marina visitor center in Sutcliffe. We checked out the educational exhibit, undeterred by its location behind the snack chips and squirt guns for sale and unfazed by the dated, high-octane pop music pumped through ceiling speakers. We absorbed the lake's complex political history with audio accompaniment from Survivor and Foreigner.
The afternoon consisted of a leisurely trip to the eastern shore for a closer look at the pyramid and prospective campsites. Here the flatlands were grassier, the roads rougher and the tufa rubble covered with vivid, multicolored lichen. The air smelled more of smoke than sage, and soon we discovered why. The area was beset with revelers. The throb of music, perceptible for disconcerting distances, bounced around the rocks. It occurred to me that these folks might have enjoyed the exhibit at the visitor center. We left.
Magnificent views mitigated the 45-minute schlep back to the western shore. We set up the tent a few feet from the water, sharing the beach with only one family. After dinner — a rustic picnic of fire-cooked Italian sausage, sheep's milk cheese, a bottle of Berbera and s'mores for dessert — darkness slowly pulled the stars into focus. Their numbers taxed the imagination.
By midmorning Sunday, I'd already had a bracing swim and the foundation for a bad sunburn. It's such a dry heat that you tend to forget daily highs average in the 80s to low 90s during summer.
We packed the car, veered south onto Nevada 447 at the almost-town of Nixon and turned off at the sign for the Numana Hatchery. Behind it lies a tranquil, little-known nature trail that runs near the Truckee River under a canopy of cottonwoods. Again, we were alone.
Comparing it with Reno, Liebling called Pyramid Lake "as remote as the Late Stone Age from the Late Nylon-Chromium-Plastic." Though suburbia has since engulfed no small amount of its surrounding desert, the area by the lake's shores is largely the same. The Paiutes have preserved that feeling of isolation and, mercifully, shared it.