by Suzanne Stormon
A Paiute legend tells of Pyramid Lake’s origin. The father and mother of all the Indians had children who fought constantly. The father finally decided to separate the children. He sent a boy and a girl west and another pair to the east. The other children stayed with their mother near the place that would become known as Pyramid Lake. The mother was overcome with grief and loneliness for her missing children. She sat down in the desert and began to cry. She cried enough to fill the lake and sat there until she turned to stone. Her remaining children became the ancestors to the Paiute tribe on the Pyramid Lake Reservation. You can see the Stone Mother and her basket across the lake from beaches on the west side.
Other stories tell how the lake is home to magical beings who cry like babies in the night. The cries of the water babies entice the curious and the concerned to the water’s edge and then into the lake where they drown. The water babies are said to be especially fond of luring children into the lake. These stories have always been in the back of my mind as I visit the lake.
Even though I’m not a Native American, I’m a person who loves these stories. I can’t say I believe them literally, yet I find myself attracted to them in a deep way. I’m offended when strictly rational people make fun of these kinds of stories; but, the problem is, I’m a more-or-less, strictly rational person. I know logically that a woman cannot cry that many tears. I know that babies don’t live in the water, calling out for the comfort of a playmate. That doesn’t seem to make a difference for me. These stories are always in the back of my mind when I visit the lake.
I discovered Pyramid Lake for the first time while on a drive with my parents soon after I moved to Nevada. We drove out there from Fernley, through the dry brush in the desert, only seeing a few cottonwood trees around the lake and along the Truckee River that empties into it.
We had my young dog, Leadbelly with us. Leadbelly always hung out near us and answered our calls whenever we wanted him. Because of this, we let him out of the car without a leash. He sniffed around for a few minutes then caught the sight of a rabbit in a bush not too far away. He was off, topping the hill and out of sight. We waited, expecting him back as soon as he gave up on the rabbit. A half an hour later, still no Leadbelly. I got out of the car to wait for him while my father and mother took the car up the deserted road to look for him.
This was the first time I was ever alone at Pyramid Lake. From the road I could see the lake sparkling down below the small ravine to the east of me. To the west, hills bereft of trees, but covered with sagebrush with its sharp, high desert scent. The only noise, wind blowing softly, rattled through the dry branches. Above me, buzzards circled.
I never felt so alone. It seemed certain that Leadbelly would never return and that my parents would never find me again. I was an adult that felt very much like a small child. Would my mother cry like the Stone Mother or would she eventually forget me and go on with her life? We hadn’t gotten along for many years and were just healing those wounds, would my being missing make life easier for her?
I don’t know how long I stood there before the car rounded the corner, my parents in the front seat and Leadbelly, covered in brambles, waiting eagerly in the back. I was glad to get back to Fernley that day but I was fascinated by the way I’d felt out there. I knew I’d go back.
On a later trip to Pyramid, I was with my boyfriend, Stan. Stan Halemano was Hawaiian born and raised. Some of that time he lived in Honolulu, but when he was young he lived in a little rural farm and listened to the traditional Hawaiian stories of the gods and spirits tied to the land and to the water.
I’m not a religious person. I don’t believe in any sort of personal god. I am not comfortable with the idea of the supernatural. At the same time, it fascinates me. I avoid Ouija boards because I don’t believe in them; but really because, just in case, I don’t want to get into anything over my head. I continually dance around these feeling. A couple of times in my life I’ve become lovers with men who were a little more at home with the mysteries involved in stories like these. Stan was one of these men.
Stan and I camped on one of the deserted beaches that could best be reached by boat or four-wheel drive. We had a blue Ford Falcon that we later discovered was prone to get stuck in the soft sand at the end of those bumpy dirt roads. We camped like the young poor people that we were, with only a little pup tent and a couple of sleeping bags. We had hot dogs, buns, bananas, and tomatoes with us for all of our meals. No need for pots and pans or silverware.
We had a small fire for warmth. While we sat next to the fire that night, I told him the stories that I’d heard about the lake; about the Stone Mother and the water babies.
Stan listened and evidently took the Paiute stories more seriously than I did; He woke several times in the night.
“Did you hear that?” He asked me.
Something scurried around our camp.
“Probably a raccoon.” I told him.
I curled up next to him and he seemed to go back to sleep.
Later we woke to the sound of moaning.
“Just the wind,” I said.
We tried to go back to sleep as the wind strengthened and threatened to tear down our tent.
Later still the coyotes set up an alarm in the nearby hills.
Neither of us got much sleep that night. Trash was strewn around our camp when we got up in the morning.
We decided to go home instead of staying one more night like we planned.
We picked up the trash, folded up our tent, rolled up our bags and sat down by the lake to eat our bananas. As we sat, a big fish jumped out of the lake and onto the beach about ten feet away from us. We ran to catch him as he lay there flopping. We didn’t recognize the species but he was big and we thought he could make several meals for us. We couldn’t believe our good luck. We took the beer out of the foam ice chest and threw him in.
On the way home we discussed the way that fish just offered himself to us. What a gift, we thought. Stan told me about the ways they cooked whole fish on the islands. Maybe we could cook it up and invite the neighbors.
On the way home that fish began to worry us.
“Why do you think he jumped on the beach?” I asked. “Do you think he was sick?”
“Do you think we should eat him?” Stan asked.
“I don’t know.”
We were quiet for a while. Our sense of uneasiness grew.
“That fish could be bad,” Stan said. “Do those stories you told me last night say anything about fish?”
“I think they had a traditional fish, the Cui-ui, but I haven’t heard any stories about them.”
We got home and unpacked. We were hungry and thought about the fish in the ice chest.
“I don’t think we should eat him,” Stan said. “Just in case.”
“He might have worms,” I said.
“He could be some sort of trick.” Stan said.
I felt relieved that Stan had made that decision. I was afraid of that fish and was glad to let go of the idea of eating him.
We had the rest of the hot dogs for dinner and put the fish, ice chest and all, out by the trash. They picked it up the next day.
I’ll never know whether we squandered a gift from the gods or saved ourselves from a trickster that could have introduced more trouble into our already shaky relationship.
Stan and I camped out at Pyramid many more times before we broke up, staying close by the fire or in the tent after dark. We never had another fish jump for us. If the water babies cried in the night, they were drowned out by the howling of the coyotes.
Fish weren’t the only surprising animals on the beach at Pyramid. One day at the beach with my daughter and her dad, I sat reading in a low beach chair. It was cooling off and I was thinking about getting up and calling them in from the water when I looked down to grab my drink. A baby rattlesnake slithered right below me, between my outstretched legs. I watched as it wound its way down to the water, slipping in and heading in the general direction of MaiLynn and Hoat out there floating in an inner tube.
“Get out of there now,” I yelled. “There’s a snake in the water.”
Their heads snapped toward me.
“Go around this way.” I pointed away from the snake.
Hoat ducked out of the tube and pushed MaiLynn into shore, kicking faster than I’d ever seen him move. Soon they were up on shore away from the danger and we packed up and left.
I told Hoat the water babies story on the way home and he told us about a cousin who had drowned in the Mekong River. After that, a number of kids in the extended family and the surrounding village drowned as well.
Hoat always started his discussions about the traditional Vietnamese explanations of mysterious things, especially as they concerned death with the comment:
“I don’t think so, but…,” almost apologetic about bringing up these ideas to someone he didn’t quite think could understand. Then he’d go on to tell the story the way his family understood it. He always seemed so lonely when he told these stories, so far from the people and the land he’d grown up with.
He said the drownings didn’t stop until they had an exorcism to send away the spirit of the lonely cousin who didn’t have anyone to play with.
“Just like the water babies,” he said. “After the exorcism, the deaths stopped.”
It was a long time before any of us went swimming in the lake again. But on a hot day it’s impossible to stay out for long. I never saw another snake there.
Years later I went on another camping trip at Pyramid, this one much more complicated and needing of organization than that first camping trip. I was the teen director for the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Reno and another woman from the fellowship and I had planned to take five of our teens on a camping weekend at the lake.
I worked the weeks leading up to it, helping the teens develop the lists of what they needed and who was responsible for each item. It looked like things were going well and I had almost forgotten about the trickster nature of the lake.
The morning of the trip, the other woman called with a family emergency and told me she could help caravan the kids and their stuff out to the lake, but she would have to leave right away and couldn’t stay either of the nights. I couldn’t find any other available adults. I wouldn’t cancel at that late date, but I got an immediate headache and expected a weekend of continual struggle. I worried about how I would deal with any emergencies. We would be several miles from the pay phone at the visitor’s center and I was the only driver. Even considering the trip was foolish, but I have sometimes been known as a fool.
Things went further downhill when I arrived at Sherry’s house to pick her up. Sherry had a congenital condition that affected her muscles. Her legs were somewhat withered and the muscles in her hands and arms were tight; these disabilities made walking and getting around difficult. She was in a wheelchair nearly all the time. When I got to her house she informed me that she wasn’t going to take her wheelchair no matter how much I argued for it. I gave in.
There were two sleeping bags and two backpacks in the driveway. When I asked what that was about, she asked if her friend Melinda could come along.
One more couldn’t make much difference and we were always looking to expand our little band.
I called Melinda’s mom and got the go ahead and we piled into the car and went to pick up two more kids. Brooke met us with the other kids at the visitor’s center out at the lake. Her car was packed with the big tent, the cooking equipment and more gear. She stayed long enough to help set up the big tent where the teens would be sleeping while I set up my little tent right next to it.
I watched her drive away on that dirt road out of the campground while the kids headed down to the lake. I had a sinking feeling but I was pleased to see that two of them had created a kind of chair with their crossed arms and were carrying Sherry along with the group.
Sherry’s friend stayed behind to talk to me.
“Call me Suzi.”
“Suzi, I forgot my medication. I thought I should let you know.”
That sinking feeling was getting worse.
“What kind of medication?” I asked.
“It’s for schizophrenia. But I’ll be fine.”
Oh yes, I thought; the trickster was here for sure. The headache was getting worse. I was almost sure we would have to load the kids in the car at some point over the weekend and take them all home after I dropped one of them off at the hospital.
Sometimes expecting the worst allows you to celebrate the miracle of chance success.
All of the campers took turns, working in pairs, locking their arms to create a traveling litter for Sherry. They carried her around like a queen all weekend. Melinda stayed close to Sherry and to me. She was quiet, friendly, and fit in beautifully.
After dark that first night, sitting by the fire, I listened to the soft talking from inside their tent. No psychotic breaks – good. My headache was fading and I fell asleep in my own tent.
The next day a peace group on retreat set up in the camp just beyond the small tufa mound next to us. They had teens with them and the two groups of kids merged. We shared food, cooking, and companionship. I felt the weight of my responsibility lift as I was surrounded with gentle caring adults. As we sat and sang around the communal campfire, my headache disappeared.
In this case, the trickster was on my side. That weekend was a gift. The lake and the people attracted to it combined to make it so.
After all these experiences, I never go to Pyramid Lake without feeling its spirit. It is a special place for me. There is danger and the thrill of being out there on the almost bare earth, among the strange tufa deposits. The place is open and the wind ruffles through the sagebrush. I feel as stripped down as the landscape and my worries blow away for a time. I’m at home in the mystery.
See a Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe slide show of pictures of the lake here.