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Great Basin Roots: Memories from the High Desert

by Kirsten Johanna Allen, Publisher, Torrey House Press

The afternoon winds had died down and the sun was about to slip behind the mountains on the other side of the valley. I perched on the top step of the covered porch, my grandpa behind me on a folding chair Grandma Dale had brought out for him. Her apron still on after cooking and cleaning up after supper, she sat sideways on a wide ledge just above me. Across the quiet main street and through an alfalfa field, we watched the light turn yellow as the sun neared the cascade of mountains, each range over range a different shade of purple. My parents and I lived in New York City and came west each summer to stay with my grandparents in this tiny town where my mother grew up, riding her bike on dusty dirt roads and raising prize-winning livestock in the desert. The vertical steel canyons of the big city eclipsed sunsets, so I only saw them here in the White River Valley of eastern Nevada. I figured the sun always set over layers of mountains.

I figured the sun always set over layers of mountains.

My relationship with landscape is rooted in the sparse Great Basin Desert where horned toads hid in the sage and the best days were when my grandpa flood-irrigated the lawn or Grandma Dale baked apple pies and let me eat the pie-crust trimmings. My grandpa had lived here since he was a baby, one of the migrants sent by the Mormon Church in 1898-99 to settle a spring-fed parcel of land. The US government had turned this land over to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in compensation for assets that had been confiscated as part of the Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887, which punished the Mormon Church for practicing polygamy. This wagon trek by nearly twenty families from St. George to Lund, Nevada, was probably the last overland wagon migration of Mormon pioneers in the West. A grandchild of polygamists, my grandpa was one of six siblings, and I was related to most of the town. And I loved it. During the dry, windy, idyllic summers of my childhood, I caught swallow-tail butterflies on my grandma’s well-tended Sweet Williams, hunted trilobites with my older cousins in the foothills, and savored the pine nuts Grandma Dale harvested from nearby piñon forests.

As a young mother in Salt Lake City, I took my kids out to Lund as often as I could so they could see and be in the subtle wonders of the place and spend time with Grandma Dale, always full of love and still spry in her later years. “Let’s drive out to the field,” she’d say as day was closing, and we’d pile in my SUV and drive west in the slanting light toward alfalfa fields that covered most of the high desert valley. Once we scared up a handful of sandhill cranes as we approached the White River, a bare trickle of a creek just six feet across. A child of central Utah living in Lund since she married my grandpa, Grandma Dale was proud of those irrigated fields, the success they represented, the work they required to feed cattle and support families and make the desert blossom as a rose. She had raised four children, cooking every meal from scratch, running the post office and general store while my grandpa raised cattle and sold insurance. They’d made a good life together, and I was a part of it. My kids were, too. The sunlight spun fold and the fields’ emerald green sparkled against the muted colors of everything else. Weren’t there Indians around here when Lund was settled, I wondered aloud, imagining what the White River Valley had looked like before my grandpa arrived in a covered wagon as an infant. I knew the Duckwater Indian Reservation was over the mountains to the west, but it would be decades before I learned its Shoshone people had lived, hunted, and farmed for millennia around the springs of the central and northern Great Basin before being confined to small, isolated reservations in the late nineteenth century. “Well, the Indians, they weren’t even developing the land,” my grandma said.

It would be decades before I learned its Shoshone people had lived, hunted, and farmed for millennia around the springs of the central and northern Great Basin.

My mother idealized her childhood in Lund even more than I do. After growing up in a mid-century small town where everyone went to church together, gathered cows together, celebrated holidays together, she left for college at seventeen and never returned except to visit her parents. She wasn’t alone. As decades passed, homes and businesses were boarded up as fewer folks could make a living through agriculture in the drying