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The Real Hell’s Kitchen

March 28th, 2020 · No Comments · Adventure, Eating

Bookseller and former desert rat Karen Wright recalls a cooking gig in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert.

The Black Rock Desert is best known as the location of the famous “Burning Man” event, where the ghosts of all those naked hippies and yuppies return from time to time to float like specters across the plain. The desert stretches from Gerlach, Nevada, north almost to the Idaho border. Near Gerlach lies a stretch of alkali flat that seems to be a million miles long where you can drive unimpeded by anything but occasional ruts, chunks of black obsidian, suffocating clouds of white alkali dust, bleached bones, and odd stacks of detritus, human-made and not.

Roll up your windows.

During full moon, the Black Rock shines like spun silver, and is nearly as silent as the grave, barring the occasional hoot owl, the squizzle of a lone sidewinder, or the scurrying footsteps of the little night critters … kangaroo rats, Gila monsters, and the like. The moon casts a preternatural glow there like no other place. Part snow-clad-looking, part ethereal, part moon-walk spooky, and without a single human-made light, this glow is breathtaking.

It was to this dry alkali flat that Jake, a long, lanky trail guide friend of mine, and his equally lanky, but not quite so long, wife, Diane, took an annual charter group of twenty-five horseback riders. The idea was to eat a nice barbeque dinner, knock back a couple of beers, and then, about eleven at night, saddle up ponies and ride, ride, ride, out into the alkali desert to bay at the moon.

Well, some idiot had to cook for them. I still don’t know why my friend and I decided we would be the idiots and do the cooking. It must have been the fat paycheck, or maybe the heat got to us, or maybe it was moon madness.

My friend Betty and I had it all figured out. The menu was pretty simple; steaks, baked potatoes, salad, corn on the cob, chocolate cake for dinner; bacon, sausage and scrambled eggs, fruit, and homemade campfire biscuits for breakfast. Coffee, tea, milk, red wine, beer, iced tea.

I was raised in the high desert, grew up on horseback, and I was once a professional cook and caterer, so I knew to do every single thing we could ahead of time: bake the potatoes until they were within fifteen minutes shy of done, then wrap them in foil and put them in the “hot” ice chest; make the salad, sans dressing, wrap it in plastic bags, and put it in the “cold” ice chest. I had baked two chocolate cakes and made the frosting, but left it in a plastic container so that it wouldn’t slobber all over the back of the truck and turn the cakes to mud pies.

We filled two huge, well-sealed plastic boxes with all the steaks marinating in tons of chopped garlic, a bit of salt, pepper, rosemary, Worcestershire, red wine and olive oil. We sliced ten loaves of sourdough French bread and garlicked the hell out of them, then wrapped them in foil. I cheated on the biscuits. I made them the morning before in my very own clean little oven, wrapped them in foil, put them in plastic bags, and stashed them in the bread box with the bread and cake.

Our truck is not really a truck, but a big, powerful Chevy Suburban—old, but very serviceable in the back country. We had to carry all the water we would need for dishes, cooking and our own personal hygiene. We arrived, sweaty, crabby, and covered with alkali dust late in the afternoon, just about the same time as the horsey crowd, and Betty and I got to setting up the camp kitchen. Jake had been there half the day by then and had dug a huge fire pit, had gotten a fire started, and laid a huge metal grill across the top with room at the end for me to bury the potatoes.

Dinner was pretty easy: throw the steaks on the grill, set the bread around the edges, toss the salad, frost the cakes, make coffee and tea, and ice down more beer every so often. No sweat, well, except for the blistering heat, bending over the camp fire, and our cooking exertions. After dinner, we cleaned up while everyone else settled back to rest a few minutes and smoke Camels or roll-your-owns.

Then the midnight riders began to saddle up. They rode off about eleven in the evening. Betty and I made up our beds in the back of the Suburban. I may be a desert rat, but I like to sleep in the truck where uninvited guests do not invade my sleeping bag.

I was solidly asleep when I heard rapid-fire hoof beats approaching. I woke instantly, thinking it was too early for them to be getting back, when one of the women rode up with her horse in a lather. I jumped into shorts and shoes and went to see what was what. One of the nightriders had been thrown and had broken a leg. Our midnight messenger was going for the ambulance in Gerlach, 40 miles down the road. Cell phones hadn’t been invented yet. She wanted to know if I would walk her horse for a while and cool him down.

Now I grew up with horses, but that was many years before. This horse was freaked from the race to camp and balky as he could be. But, naturally, I had to say “sure.”

So here I am, three in the morning, trying to Zen out a seventeen-hand-high horse. He started out as nervous as I was, but by the time she got back with the ambulance, he had fallen asleep on his feet as I rubbed him down. About twenty minutes later, the guy who broke his leg rode back on his horse with one of the other riders leading it very slowly, with the leg strapped tightly to a piece of wood.

The ambulance finally showed up and whisked him off to Reno. By that time, the sun was up full on, the campfire was roaring, and it was killer hot. It was time for me to start breakfast. I roused Betty, who had slept clear through most of the hullabaloo.

Breakfast was ready by the time the final riders arrived; they were all starved, in spite of the immense dinner they had consumed the night before. By the time we got the breakfast stuff cleaned up and the Suburban packed, it was my turn to be asleep on my feet.

We took our leave of the horse crazies, sped off through the alkali to our quiet little ranch on the Comstock. Betty drove, and I slept in the back, wrapped around muddy, alkali-coated dogs and dirty dishes.

©Karen Wright Used with permission. Born and raised a high desert rat and cowgirl near Virginia City, Nevada, Wright cooked for hay crews, round-ups, and then finally for tall ship crews. Wright is one of nine partners in the Booktown Books cooperative in Grass Valley, California. She also operates a long-time online bookstore at www.thewrightbook.com Note: Some names have been changed to protect the adventurous.

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