Packed Away

“I felt instinctively that should she ever decide to move one of the surrounding mountains to the other side of the canyon, she would go about it calmly and deliberately, some evening after supper, perhaps. And she would move it – every stick and stone of it – and would ask no help.”

~ Nell Murbarger
“Josie Pearl, Prospector on Nevada’s Black Rock Desert”
Desert Magazine, August, 1954.

The West is rich in stories about strong, independent women. You may have to scratch the surface to find them, but they’re always there. Of course there’s your standard-issue pioneer wives, cowgirls, and widowed ranch women who run the place singlehandedly once their man is gone. But there are others who don’t fit the comfortable categories we’re used to pinning on them. Lately I’ve been thinking about two such gals. They never knew each other but they have one odd thing in common, an extravagance I find hard to explain.

The first is Nellie Bly Baker O’Bryan. Early in life, Nellie seemed an unlikely candidate for becoming a gutsy mountain mama. She started out working as a secretary for Charley Chaplin’s film company, First National Studio. Chaplin noticed her and invited her to play bit parts in his silent films. Eventually Nellie acted in 13 films alongside the likes of Joan Crawford, Edna Purviance, and Chaplin himself. She wasn’t a star, but work was steady and the pay was good. She’d made it in Hollywood.

By 1939, Tinsel Town had lost its luster and she took off for the rugged Sierra. She bought the ramshackle remains of a remote mining camp named Lundy near Mono Lake. She built her home out of boards scavenged from weathered shacks. Eventually she constructed four more cabins, a store, and a restaurant and christened her place the “Happy Landing Resort”. She lived year-round in this remote, avalanche prone canyon and became California’s first licensed fishing and hiking guide. Nellie toughed it out in Lundy until she was almost 60.

I once heard a story about Nellie’s first winter. She was freezing in her makeshift cabin during a typical Sierra blizzard. Snow blew through the cracks and she’d thrown every quilt and blanket she owned on the bed. Through her shivering she remembered a full-length fur coat packed away in a trunk. In desperation, she dug through the trunk, found the coat, turned it inside out, wrapped herself up in the furry cocoon and got back into bed. She said it was the first time she’d been warm in a week.

Many years after hearing Nellie’s story, I encountered the tale of Josie Pearl. She was a bona fide desert rat whose “retirement” cabin sat in a canyon on the edge of the Black Rock Desert. Josie had lived in boomtowns most of her life. She waitressed, ran boarding houses, prospected, and mined — mostly for gold. She was good at it too. When journalist Ernie Pyle visited her in the 1930s, he wrote, “Her dress was calico, with an apron over it; on her head was a farmer’s straw hat, on her feet a mismated pair of men’s shoes, and on her left hand and wrist $6000 worth of diamonds! That was Josie — contradiction all
over …”

Pyle noted something else that, after Nellie’s story, came as no surprise. Inside Josie’s rough cabin was an “expensive wardrobe trunk with a $7,000 seal skin coat inside …” Of course! No hard-ass Western hermit woman would be without one.

There’s no mention of Josie ever sleeping in her fur coat. Or maybe she did sleep in it but didn’t think it worth mentioning. We’ll never know. The funny thing is, every winter when the blizzards start blowing, I think about those fur coats packed away in trunks. Now I’m not a fan of wearing furs. I was brought up when magazines featured Greenpeace pictures of pathetic baby harp seals about to be bludgeoned. But I realize that fur coats used to have a mystique for women that they don’t have now. They represented luxury and status. In cold northern cities, they actually kept you warm. But when Nellie and Josie were young, well-off married women, a warm fur coat was hardly necessary in Hollywood, California or Goldfield, Nevada.

So why did these women haul expensive fur coats out to their ratty cabins in the  sagebrush? It’s hard to imagine many opportunities to dress up in your fur and heels. If they didn’t have a practical use, what purpose did they serve?

Maybe they were like money in the bank — you could always take them to Reno and pawn them in a pinch. But jewelry or coins would have been handier for that.

Maybe it had to do with a certain feminine ideal they couldn’t part with? As long as they owned a fur coat, they were in some magical way, a “lady” by association. Maybe they remembered a woman who felt at home in a more glamorous world.

And they didn’t want to forget her.

Staff of Life

 

I’ll admit, growing vintage wheat varieties is kind of a weird hobby. It started when I came across an old photograph of Mono Basin pioneer Chris Mattly, standing waist-deep in a field of wheat. Surprisingly, this flourishing field grew near the alkaline shores of Mono Lake at an elevation of nearly 7,000 feet. The sage-covered slopes of the Eastern Sierra are hardly your classic wheat belt. The snows lie deep in that country and if you blink twice you’ll miss the growing season. Yet, back in 1922, acres of waving seed heads covered Mattly’s farm. How did he do it?

Mattly’s wheat field started me down a path of agrarian research from which I’ve never recovered. Wheat, being a domesticated grass, will grow just about anywhere. Since it’s easy to propagate new varieties, family farmers like Chris Mattly could breed grain to suit their climates and cuisines. Up until the so-called Green Revolution introduced petroleum-based fertilizers and insecticides in the 1950s, all wheat was grown organically. Successful varieties had to be hardy, adaptable, and disease and pest resistant.

During the Green Revolution, wheat breeders shifted their attention to new varieties that performed like athletes on steroids — yields were off the charts but artificially induced. When interest in growing wheat organically resurfaced decades later, the petroleum-dependent varieties failed. A handful of wheat breeders scrambled to find what remained of the pre-industrial strains. Wheat preservationists worried that valuable genetic resources were becoming extinct. Wheat preservationists? Yep. Even ancient crops have their passionate proponents and I became one of them.

How did I help preserve vintage wheat varieties when I’ve never owned more than a measly third-of-an-acre? I got acquainted with wheat breeders at Washington State University in Pullman. They sent me seeds to test based on my climate and organic methods. They also directed me to USDA seed banks so I could request more varieties to try. Many of these old varieties hadn’t been “grown out” for decades. Seed has to be fairly fresh to remain viable, so by growing, harvesting, storing, and keeping careful records of heirloom varieties we help keep them alive. I grew dozens of little patches in the backyard, checkerboards of bowing, graceful grasses. They have names like Pacific Bluestem, Regenerated Defiance, White Fife, Jumbuck, Quality, Burt, Coulee, and a modern upstart from Utah called Golden Spike.

My husband teases me about how I fuss over those rising stems. We barely grow enough to eat but they are stunning when their whiskered heads form, full and tall. There’s something primal and satisfying about cultivating wheat — the ancient staff of life — right in the backyard. Amazing. I can harvest a tiny remnant of an agricultural legacy stretching back ten thousand years to the Fertile Crescent!

It may not look like much, but if the world goes to hell in a handbasket, we’ll at least have enough wheat to make a dozen pancakes before we’re forced to survive on rangy jackrabbits.