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Lessons learned in the middle of nowhere

by Lisa Gavon
R-C Alpine Bureau

I marveled at the clouds flying across the huge Nevada sky and the light glistening off the distant peak. It felt like I was at the center of all creation, and that the mountain above me poured out everything there was in the universe, and more.

We were standing in the sun-drenched sage, the smell pungent and deep. A small family of wild horses were grazing in the broad expanse to the north of us. It was not actually the first time I knew I was in love with Nevada, but it was when I knew I could no longer admire it from afar. The very soil and air were calling to me. They were enticing me home to a place that was truly real. This vista would be my backyard, and it was here in the wilderness of the Great Basin that I learned important lessons in survival.

The late ’70s were a unique period in our culture. Our group was comprised of several families, and I was in charge of running the kitchen and homeschooling the children. We were striving to make enough money, but there was little work available then. Winnemucca was a good distance away, and there were periods of very treacherous snow and ice. Town was far enough that if you forgot something, you did without.

No one would choose to struggle or suffer deprivation, but there is understanding and appreciation that can be learned from hardship. Man has the ability to consider morals more thoroughly after his belly is full. If you are without sustenance, that is foremost on your mind.

One does not have the time to argue the finer philosophical points of existence while scrambling to meet basic needs. Ironically, it is living through these trials that allow you to see what is truly important.

The quarantine period in the current pandemic has made me think a lot about this time. There are many parallels. I had been raised by people who made it through the Great Depression, so I already had a strong foundation in frugality and planning. Even bits of string and wire, or old pieces of wood were tucked away “just in case.”

I was making bread pudding from the saved ends of loaves long before it became an in-demand dessert at fancy restaurants. We did not throw anything edible away, but found some sort of use for it. As the years passed I have added recipes and “tricks.” Even scraps of bread are made into herbed croutons and ever-versatile breadcrumbs.

We always carried guns back then, and decided we should start hunting. There were lots of jackrabbits and chukars. I had been a lifelong vegetarian and watching that first rabbit go down was heart-rending. I cried all night. I simply was not capable of it, no matter what the situation. The others in our group would eat meat when we could get it for them, but it was not often.

In college, two nurse friends who were active in the Hospice movement taught me a lot about more down-to-earth ways of cooking. Using some of these skills, I would soak and cook beans like adzuki, garbanzo, pinto, lima, and kidney. I made lentils and soybeans, and could easily prepare many variations of rice, pasta, and potatoes. I used texturized vegetable protein, nutritional yeast, nuts, and seeds to add nourishment to our meals. All of these were excellent storage foods and kept the trips into Winnemucca to a minimum.

I ground up leftover vegetables along with oats and other grains to make “veggie-loafs” and served them with a sauce. Any cut-off ends of such things as carrots, zucchini, onion peels, or the stalks of broccoli, I boiled into a stock, mashing everything down and then straining it. Here is where being poor met being gourmet. It is the way broth is made for rich soups and stews. Whatever was left went into the compost bin.

These were all inexpensive ingredients for putting together a meal, and they had to be. Everyone has things they like better than others, but one thing was certain, even if it was the 7th day of having peanut butter and jelly, we did not complain, but were thankful to have anything to eat at all. “It looks like you licked the plate!” is a regular comment people make when I am done eating. I find no shame in being made fun of in this way.

We had a wood burning stove to cook and heat water for baths when our solar set-up didn’t work. That seemed to happen all the time. So everything about our lives during that era took a lot of planning and preparation.

I found that powdered milk, while repugnant on its own was quite remarkable as an ingredient in sauces, creamy soups, and puddings. No one even noticed the difference. We dressed simply, making our own clothes and patching what we already had. Any gifts were always home-made and it was only on a birthday or Christmas that we made any sweets.

Every garden reduces pressure on the public food supply and increases well-being while saving money. Instant rewards can be found just by being out in a garden. Even when small, they make a huge difference in how meals are put together, and in your own health. Having a garden today is not “new” but a remembrance of what people in our country have learned so many times before.

The desert outside of Imlay was a tough place to have a garden. Climate, soil, and animals conspired to make it extra difficult. Back then no studies on comfrey had ever been done, and we ate it extensively, enjoying having a fresh green added in the winter. It was really the only crop that made it through the snow. We did keep jars of sprouts growing inside on the windowsills, and wild-foraged when we traveled elsewhere.

Many lovely days were spent at Rye Patch Reservoir collecting the beautiful tiny spiral shells that lay along the sandy shore. Their perfection was elegant and we would put out bowls filled with them. There were intense changes in the sky, the plants, and the earth on a daily basis. We lived in close connection and in such a way that we were acutely aware of everything that happened. It was all important to us. It allowed us to have a heightened sensitivity for our surroundings, and for each other.

I am extraordinarily thankful for my food, knowing what a great gift it is and never taking it for granted. There is no pickiness about only eating a certain brand or having something exactly as I prefer it. Those are traits of luxury and of always having plenty. Scarcity can be a gift if it is earnestly acknowledged.

Like anything, if you buy a fancy coffee every morning it becomes something routine. If you only get one a few times a year, it is a wondrous treat and something that is very special.

It was called “the middle of nowhere,” but for me, it was the very essence of “somewhere.” If it was nowhere, then nowhere is my favorite place to be. We chose the isolation and simplicity, and reveled in the benefits that both offered. My gratitude continues to multiply to this day.