the discovery of a suicide victim in the Nevada wilderness
Dust Devils have intrigued me since I was a small child; watching them dance across the hot dusty fields of Central California, juggling a tumbleweed or two. There seemed to be something magical about them. As a child, everything in nature had an element of mystery, magic, and intrigue. I imagined that the dust devils wanted to tell me something, that they had a message for me. I never quite understood what it was.
What is a Dust Devil anyway?
Well, science will have you believe that it’s a common meteorological occurrence that not only occurs in Earth’s atmosphere but also that of Mars; a dust-laden vortex created when hot air rises from the ground through a pocket of cooler, low pressure above it. As the hot air rises, the cooler air fills the void left behind, forming a spinning vortex picking up dust and debris as it forms.
The Navajo word for a dust devil is chiindii, a derivative of Chindi. A Chindi is the spirit or ghost of a deceased tribal member. They believe that the final breath of a person releases their Chindi. When released outdoors, it can dissipate on its own, becoming a Dust Devil, a chiindii. If the funnel is spinning clockwise it is said to be “good” and if it spins counterclockwise it is “evil”
It was early summer, and we were camped in the high desert country of eastern Nevada. Our campsite lay amidst juniper, sage, and interesting quartzite boulder formations in a valley surrounded by forested mountain tops.
One afternoon while wandering the area near camp collecting rocks, I noticed a small pick-up truck partially concealed in a stand of juniper trees and brush about 100 yards from our campsite. Max had lost interest in my wandering and returned to camp only moments before. Not having seen anyone else in or around camp in days and suddenly feeling vulnerable without Max by my side, I hurried back to camp.
I had planned to run on a popular mountain biking trail originating near our campsite the next morning. However, I told Mr. RR that I wouldn’t be doing so after all because I had a strange feeling about a pickup I’d seen nearby. He offered to check it out later.
Why is it that all that remains of many a ghost town is the cemetery?
The next day, with the pickup forgotten, we loaded up the kids (Max and Lola, our dogs) and ventured off in search of ghost towns. Why is it that all that remains of many a ghost town is the cemetery? The first ghost town on our agenda consisted of a family cemetery and nothing more. The cemetery was well cared for and contained headstones dating from the late 1800s to the present day. Most of them referring to the same handful of surnames.
To reach the next ghost town on our agenda, we traveled a long dusty road to an area obviously mined back in the day. The road wound through a canyon of boulder rubble blown apart in man’s quest for gold over a century before. The townsite was marked by the remnants of a few old stone buildings and rusting old mining equipment. And of course, overlooking these remnants from a hillside above was the prerequisite cemetery.
Ghost towns, cemeteries, and wide horizons; it became a quiet introspective day, both of us lost in our thoughts and the quiet solitude of the juniper and sage country around us.
I’ve always had a fondness for cemeteries. I don’t know exactly why. It could be the quiet, the peace that one finds where a person’s remains are laid to sleep unto eternity. Or maybe it’s the reminder of how brief our time in this precious life is and that each and every life will at some point come to an end. They are a reminder. As the Rebecca Riots sing “…Don Juan said, “Keep death upon your shoulder. It will remind you to love.“
That afternoon, following our typical lunch fare of chips, salsa, and a cold one (Great Basin Brewing’s Ichthyosaur “Icky” IPA), Mr. RR suggested we check out the pickup I’d seen. We headed in that general direction, coinciding with the trailhead about eighty yards from our campsite. After walking about twenty feet down the trail, we caught sight of the pick-up, just off the trail camouflaged behind a pile of boulders in a small grove of juniper trees.
As Mr. RR climbed over the boulders he hesitated and asked if I smelled propane. I replied, “No, that smells like death.” We walked toward the pickup, repeatedly announcing our presence, and noticed a small tent just beyond the truck. We continued to circle the pickup looking in the windows and calling out. The dash was littered with maps, snack food wrappers, and a camouflage cap. The covered bed of the pickup contained multiple cases of bottled water, ice chests, and other camping supplies.
Seeing no one in the pick-up and not receiving any answers to our inquiries, we approached the tent with apprehension. One wall and the front of the tent door were littered with flies. As Don reached for the zipper, something moved, brushing against the inside of the tent, causing us both to jump back. Fearing that a person in dire need of help lay inside, I urged Mr. RR to open the tent. He unzipped the tent revealing a mummified body lying prone in a sleeping bag, clearly deceased and most likely by suicide.
As he zipped the tent closed, I stormed back to camp overwhelmed by feelings of anger and sadness. Sad that someone was unhappy enough to end their life, sad that a family will grieve, angry at whatever injustice caused this person to give up, angry at the selfishness of the act. My face was hot and wet from tears, my voice quaking as I called the authorities.
Release of the Chindi
Being as remote as we were, it took over an hour for the sheriff’s detective/coroner and his partner to arrive. After providing our fingerprints, impressions of our shoes and a brief statement, the two officers headed off in the direction of the deceased. From our campsite, we watched as the sheriff’s walked down the trail disappearing around a bend. Just about the time, they would have reached the tent, I heard a strange sound,. sI heard something I can only describe as a rustling roar that was increasing in volume. Just as I was about to say something about it to Mr. RR, a large dust devil materialized from the trees, coming toward us from the direction of the deceased. It was one of the tallest dust devils I’d ever seen. It traveled toward us, twisting and turning, gathering up dust and twigs, and growing in size. Just as it was close to approaching us, it veered off, following the dirt road up a knoll and down the other side out of sight.
Mr. RR and I just looked at one another. There wasn’t anything to say.
The sheriffs returned a while later, the coroner telling us that it appeared to be a suicide. He said that this was common in the county, their county having the fifth-highest suicide rate in the country. Nevada is the fifth highest state in the country with a suicide rate twice what the national average was. He said that many of the victims come from elsewhere, possibly for the solitude and stark beauty of eastern Nevada.
I didn’t notice whether the dust devil spun to the right or to the left. I don’t know if it was trying to tell me something.
All I do know is that from now on, every dust devil I see will be a reminder of the chiindii set free that day, and a reminder not to take even one moment of this precious life for granted.