We leave Winnemucca, where we have spent the night in yet another dreary motel, and continue west on Interstate 80. At the rest areas, signs describe the hardships of the pioneers, especially as they crossed the 40-mile desert to reach the Sierras, their final obstacle.
One pioneer is quoted as saying he was so thirsty his tongue and lips were cracked and bleeding, and that he lay down and was ready to die. But somehow he gathered the strength to continue.
In Sparks, which appears to be a separate city on the map but has sprawled into Reno, we consult the office of the Forest Supervisor about camping opportunities in the Humboldt-Toiyabe Forest. The friendly woman there makes some inquiries and informs us that all but one of the forest campgrounds are already closed―not because it’s too cold, but because the Forest Service doesn’t have the budget to keep them open longer.
Lookout Campground, which is still open, has 22 sites and vaulted toilets. And yes, she says in answer to my question, it has drinking water, though she’s not sure it has shade trees. And getting to it involves driving several miles on a dirt road. But she assures us that the roads are well maintained.
Following her directions, we drive north on 395, stopping at a supermarket on the way to buy food and ice. We are down to our last small bottle of water, but we’re not worried. Soon there will be plenty of fresh water.
The road to the campground is not marked.
“Just turn left after the Smokey the Bear sign,” a young man at a gas station in Bordertown tells us.
We turn left and start driving. And driving. And driving. The road is not bad for part of the way, but our low-slung Camry is no match for some of the ruts, and it emits ominous grunts as its body hits the rocks. There are many confusing turnoffs, but we just keep going straight. There is no one to ask, and there are no signs. Finally, when we think we will never find the campground, a pickup comes toward us and its driver assures us we’re almost there.
Half a mile later (almost an eternity at 10 mph), we see a tiny sign with yellow letters: Lookout Campground.
I am so relieved. We are down to one-quarter of a bottle of water, and after last year’s bout of high-altitude dehydration that landed me in the hospital, all I want is to replenish our water supply.
We can see immediately that this is a beautiful place, with tall pines and firs, and we feel as though we’ve entered Paradise. And then we see the hand-lettered sign:
Non Potable WATER
DO NOT DRINK
Use this water to put out campfires
The campground appears empty, and we drive around it looking for the drinking water. We see a pipe with a faucet, but the faucet is dry. Then we see a camper and some movement inside. I call to out to ask where there is drinking water.
“There isn’t any,” a man answers tersely.
There is nothing to do but to drive on. It is already 4 p.m., too late to find another campground. Another night in a dreary motel awaits us.
Just as we are about to leave, a Forest Service pickup appears. We explain our predicament to the driver, who seems sympathetic, especially when he hears how far we are from home.
He asks who told us there would be drinking water here, and he immediately calls the office to set her straight. She apologizes profusely, but this doesn’t help us.
Then he explains that the “not potable water” used to be the drinking water, but that it did not pass some stringent tests
“Just boil it and you’ll be fine,” he says.
Then he gives us a map of the area, and as a parting gesture he offers us a gallon of bottled water.
It seems like a miracle. Our thirst will be quenched. This is Paradise after all.
Text and photograph copyright 2011 by Esther Hecht. No portion of this text or photograph may be reproduced in any form without the express permission of Esther Hecht.