“Watch for snakes,” said my wife’s uncle Jon. “If you see one, drive around it….unless it’s a rattlesnake. You can run over those.”
We were driving down a small dirt road off of Hwy 395 a half hour or so northwest of Reno, NV. Our destination was a potter’s studio in the middle of the High Sierra desert, a couple of hundred yards off of the two lane highway that crosses into California outside of “The Biggest Little City In The World.”
“How in the world did y’all ever find this place?,” asked my wife.
“We saw the sign that says ‘Pottery’ one day as we were driving down 395,” Jon responded. “Didn’t you see the yellow and black ‘Pottery’ sign?”
We hadn’t. Truth be told, we probably could have driven down that stretch of highway several times before we saw the fading hand painted sign that did indeed read, “Pottery.” It stood just in front of a small group of wooden buildings, and all of it blended perfectly into the tans and yellows of the High Sierra hillside.
The small group of buildings, and the “Pottery” sign, belong to Paul Herman, an artist that has been living on and working with the earth of the High Sierras all his life. Herman has been a full-time potter since 1974, and has been living and working on this particular piece of ground off of Highway 395 since 1983. Scattered across the property are a studio that contains his pottery wheels and finished items waiting to be fired, a hot spring whose water heats the studio, a vegetable garden, a two-seater outhouse, and two structures that house hand-built kilns (one gas, and one wood based).
What you’ll notice is missing from that list is a gallery space–somewhere to show the pottery for sale. That’s because there isn’t one. Instead, the finished pottery is scattered among shelves that line the outside of the buildings and the paths between them. One shelf might be full of pitchers, dishes, and vases, while another might contain an assortment of bowls, jars, tea pots, and mugs. The random placement of each finished piece gives the feel that each item was pulled directly from Herman’s imagination one by one, instead of them coming from the kilns in large batches. Each piece is unique in its design, glaze, or size, and the ones that Herman finds especially unique are easy to spot: “I give them a slightly higher price if I really like them,” he says with a chuckle.
For some, the thought of pottery sitting out in the elements year round might seem odd–especially in the dramatic swings of the High Sierra desert. I certainly thought so as we first pulled up and began brushing aside fallen leaves, dust, and cobwebs in order to examine some of the pieces. My mind quickly changed however, as the presentation gave rise to the realization that pottery is in its very essence a product of the environment around it. To display the pottery like this allows it to stand in contrast with the stark landscape from which it came, highlighting the ability of the potter to bring beauty and richness out of that landscape.
After talking with Paul for a while inside of his studio, and then taking one last look at all of the possibilities, we decided on two pieces to purchase. These two pieces now sit inside our Seattle home, but they carry with them an image of the High Sierras and a potter who calls that place home. And so, if you ever find yourself traveling northwest on Hwy 395 outside of Reno, NV, keep an eye out for a black and yellow “Pottery” sign on a hillside to your left. There you’ll find this potter who pulls beauty from the rocks and mud of the ground around him.
(You can also visit Paul’s website: http://www.greatbasinpottery.com/index.html for more details on Paul, his work, his location, and the wood-burning kiln he uses.)
As I’ve told people about our backpacking trip over Labor Day weekend this year, most of the responses have ranged from, “Wait, you went where?” to “What was the name of it again?”
Truth be told, I hadn’t heard of the Pasayten Wilderness in North Central Washington until a few years ago when my wife stumbled upon a trail report while researching potential places for a backpacking trip. Since then the Pasayten has landed in the 2nd or 3rd place position on our lists when it came time to choose a destination, always being bested by a trip that either didn’t require as much of a drive or that packed more “star power.”
And there-in lies a large portion of the anonymity surrounding the Pasayten Wilderness: it’s remote, it lacks an uber-famous destination point in a state full of uber-famous destination points, and it’s so big that we were never sure what portion we could bite off and still be able to chew it.
The anonymity surrounding the Pasayten does not, however, have anything to do with its lack of beauty. Still present are the 7,000-8,000 foot peaks and crystal clear lakes that the Cascades are famous for, but in a totally different form. Gone are the lush forested slopes, the jagged rock faces that appear to have burst forth from the ground only days before, and the seemingly endless supplies of water. In its place are high desert grasses and shrubs, rounded hills of grass or rock that appear to be crumbling with age, and a slower trickle of water that creates slashes of vitality across an otherwise monotonous landscape. The beauty of this place isn’t in the abundance of life and color seen in every direction, but in the way that life scratches and claws to hold on in a land that appears fairly barren.
One example of this came from the small lake that served as base camp for our two nights in the Pasayten. For the first day and a half I scanned the water, looking for signs of the trout whose pictures appeared in on-line reports of other people’s backpacking trips here. But for a day and a half my looking came up empty. This lake appeared to be too shallow and lacked the structure necessary to give reprieve from hot Summer days. I saw nothing–absolutely nothing.
The lake that we day-hiked past on our second day was in worse shape: it was approaching the point of being dried up entirely, and the bottom of the lake was entirely featureless. Returning by this smaller lake on our way back to camp, I realized that the only benefit of the fly fishing gear I had brought along was going to be the extra calories I would burn from carrying its weight. The creeks were barely big enough to pump water out of and the lakes were empty.
We arrived back at camp shortly before dinner time, and in a moment of borderline desperation I decided that I was going to put at least one fly on the water to justify the inclusion of the gear. As I walked to the edge of what turned out to be a soft, undercut bank, a sudden and surprisingly large eruption happened beneath my feet: a healthy rainbow, with a deep crimson stripe streaked from its holding spot in the undercut towards the slightly deeper middle. I started laughing….and then I quickly tied on a fly in hopes that the fish would return.
For the next 40 minutes I stood in the same spot, watching as 3 or 4 fish slowly circled their way around this slightly deeper end of the lake, occasionally coming into casting range. Blind casting was pointless here–the entire bottom of the lake was clearly visible, and therefore there weren’t going to be any surprise fish rising from the depths. You had to target a single cruising fish, and you had to do so with a precise, one false cast presentation. Anything more than that and the long shadows created by the evening sun or the ever-so-slight spray of water from a cast fly would send these fish into a hasty retreat. After a few minutes of staring into empty water, another fish would circle back towards you. Eventually the smallest of the 3 or 4 fish was fooled by my fly, but an errant hook-set led to only a brief connection. By that point, dinner was ready.
Now, if there’s one thing that my wife has realized from our marriage, it’s that I contain a certain stubbornness within me. This is especially true when it comes to fishing. Since I had seen fish and momentarily hooked a fish, I therefore wouldn’t be satisfied until I had landed a fish. So I returned to my casting perch as soon as the dishes were washed, teeth were brushed, and the bear bag was hung. With the sun gone, the shadows would obviously be gone with it, and I hoped that this would turn the tables in my favor.
Another 20 minutes of standing and looking revealed that the low sun had actually been working to my benefit as much as to my detriment. While the shadows of my 6x tippet had been a primary cause of spooked fish, I had also been relying on the shadows cast by the cruising fish to spot them. With the sun gone, the fish were now swimming beneath a mirror-like surface, making them almost invisible underneath the reflected image of the mountains, trees, and sky beyond the lake. In those 20 minutes I had spotted only one fish, which spooked before the first false cast had even gone overhead. With the light almost entirely gone now, the advantage firmly in the corner of the fish, and the cold of a high desert night setting in, I began to reel up and kick myself for botching my one solid shot at a fish.
I had taken only a few steps when I heard a fish roll 10-15 yards up the lake from where I had been standing, and as my eyes went in that direction I could make out the profile of a nice fish working its way down the shore towards me. Quickly pulling line from my reel I prepared to extend one more offering. With one false cast my fly landed about 5 feet in front of the fish, and instead of speeding off towards the center of the lake, one flick of the tail sent this rainbow barreling towards my size 20 adams. I hardly had time to twitch the fly before the fish exploded through the glassy surface. The clicking of my reel’s drag combined with the splashes of several acrobatic jumps and my child-like laughter pierced through the otherwise silent setting. After a respectable fight, a 13 inch rainbow with a thick middle and beautiful stripe slid into my hand. Removing the hook, I watched it swim away, back to the invisible under the reflective surface.
Later that night I rose to see a sky filled with more stars than I had ever seen before, and the next morning we ate breakfast to the sound of coyotes howling in the valley just below us. As we hiked past the deeper end of the lake on our way to the trail that would return us to our car, and ultimately to civilization, I stopped in hopes of seeing one more cruising fish. Whether I did or didn’t makes no difference at all–the fish are most certainly there. They, much like the rest of the life and beauty of the Pasayten Wilderness, exist in the middle of the unexpected and the seemingly barren.
Over the last 8 years of living in Seattle, I’ve heard the name Edward Curtis on several occasions. Curtis was a turn of the century photographer from Seattle, whose goal was to photograph every Native tribe in North America before their way of life was eradicated. This became a life-long pursuit that produced some of the most important (and in some realms, controversial) portraits of Native peoples ever captured.
In 2012, a book was written by Timothy Egan that chronicles this endeavor, from the birth of the idea all the way through the images being lost, and then rediscovered. If you haven’t read any of Egan’s works, I would highly recommend them. He has written on a wide range of topics, each of which combine historical facts and personal story. While I haven’t read Egan’s book about Curtis, “Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis,” I have no doubt that it is excellent.
Here is a brief video about Edward Curtis that I came across earlier today, narrated by Timothy Egan, that offers a brief glimpse into Curtis’ work.