Ben and Scotty after installing experimental field sensors.
Ben and Scotty after installing experimental field sensors.

It’s kinda like standing on a downtown corner: spend enough time in the field, and you’ll see a lot of crazy things. Sometimes, those crazy things happen to you, but those stories aren’t nearly as interesting as the ones that happen to others. Certainly not as much fun to tell, in any case.

It was a somewhat chilly week in June when Scotty and Ben drove across the Great Basin on the loneliest road out to the Snake Range in eastern Nevada to help build a weather station and get some general maintenance done on the NevCAN systems. Scotty had made the trip so many times that he’d lost count, while Ben was coming out to see the science observatory for the first time. As each successive mountain range was passed on the journey from Reno, Ben was increasingly reminded that civilization as he knew it was being left far behind. At Scotty’s insistence, the two paused at the Austin Chamber of Commerce so that a commemorative Lincoln Highway coffee mug could be scored. This somewhat unusual pit stop was enough to start Ben’s brain wondering about what else was likely to happen on the trip.

The ceremonial Pouring of the Quarters.
The ceremonial Pouring of the Quarters.

Passing through Eureka, Scotty recounted the tale of “Nervous Katie and the Rest Room Graffiti”, providing confirmation that indeed, no field trip was complete without embellishment-worthy shenanigans. Ben chuckled at the story, but silently wondered if something similar was in store. He didn’t have long to wait, as the first day of fieldwork included attending a somewhat curious ceremony where the brand new Great Basin Quarter was unveiled.

“I should have realized how this trip was going to go when Scotty *casually* mentioned that he was former numismatist,” Ben later remarked.

After a couple of work days on Scotty’s climate monitoring sites high in the mountains, the pair descended to the valley floor to prepare for the next project: constructing the final climate station in the network. The rest of the crew was to arrive the next morning, and the hard labor would begin in earnest. Before diving into what was certain to be a stretch of lake-sediment dust and concrete, Scotty and Ben decided that a good washing was in order first.

“Let’s hit the Cow Shower before we set up camp,” Scotty suggested as they reached the bottom of the Pole Canyon switchbacks.

“Cow Shower?” Ben asked, wondering if this was some sort of joke.

The infamous Cow Shower in Spring Valley.
The infamous Cow Shower in Spring Valley.

Scotty stated affirmatively, “Cow Shower. It’s real. Not what you think though, it’s just a capped spring system that’s a great place to wash up.”

“Well, I guess that’s not a bad idea,” Ben acquiesced, “we had better hurry though, the sun’s almost down.”

The two pulled up to the managed wetland and spring head just as the sun was dropping. Scotty slapped the big Ford 1-ton into park and turned to Ben.

“You had better take the first shift, that way you’ll at least have some sunlight and not freeze.”

Even in June, the high valleys of the central Great Basin can get pretty chilly in the evenings, especially if there is a little wind. Scotty’s habit of wearing shorts even in the dead of winter was well-established, so Ben didn’t argue.

“Fine. Just give me about 10 minutes and it’ll be your turn.”

Ben hopped out with his travel bag in hand, but suddenly stopped short.

“Wait a second, what about them?” He gestured at the group of black cattle obliviously mowing the grass 100 meters away.

Scotty replied, “The cows? Just ignore them. They’re not looking for handouts.”

Once dressed, Ben recovered his wits enough to snap a photo of his audience before it was Scotty's turn.
Once dressed, Ben recovered his wits enough to snap a photo of his audience before it was Scotty’s turn.

Scotty seemed pretty sure of himself, so Ben went about his business while Scotty wandered off to explore the area. A series of shouts was soon heard coming from the general direction of the truck and the Cow Shower, but Scotty figured it was just the chilly water waking Ben up. After 10 minutes or so, Scotty headed back to the spring to take his turn. Upon arrival, he found a somewhat amusing scene. Ben was standing on one side of the spring cap in his skivvies with about 20 head of cattle mere feet away on the other side, appearing very interested in the human’s activities.

“Wait a second, Mr. Man,” Scotty called as he walked up. “You weren’t supposed to put on a show or anything!”

“I didn’t do anything but wash up! I tried to shoo them away, but that didn’t help,” Ben protested, edging towards the safety of the vehicle. The cows’ large lolling eyeballs followed him, and they slowly shifted their hooves to maintain proximity as Ben grabbed his shoes and managed to get his shirt on.

“Well, it’s not getting any warmer, I had better get this over with,” Scotty remarked as he picked up his own travel bag and sat down on the concrete cap. “I suppose they’re going to start staring at me now. I swear, cows can have the most vacant expression I’ve ever seen!”

Ben gets dressed and prepares to leave, unaware that it wasn't the truck and water that the cows were interested in.
Ben gets dressed and prepares to leave, unaware that it wasn’t the truck and water that the cows were interested in.

It turned out that even though Scotty was certainly whiter than Ben, and had slightly more facial hair, that didn’t impress the cattle. As Ben moved around the far side of the truck to take his own exploratory hike, the herd shuffled clear of the meadow and started after him.

“Hey! Leave me alone!” Ben called as he increased his pace.

“Have fun! I’ll make it fast,” Scotty called after him before dunking his head under the frigid flow, happy that the creatures were distracted.

The faster walk of the pursued field assistant did not deter the cows. In fact, it only increased their desire to catch up. The ones in back thought they were being left behind, so they broke into a trot that only increased the herd’s momentum. Soon the dirt road was obscured in a cloud of dust. Scotty had a difficult time staying focused on washing, as the scene only became more comical as Ben made a run for the nearest juniper tree. Fortunately, he reached the safety of the low branches before his admiring fans swarmed him (presumably for autographs), and Scotty was able to return to his task unsuccessfully suppressing laughter. After a few minutes, the chilly portion was over and Scotty was sufficiently re-clothed to check up on Ben’s status. At last check, the small grove of trees had been surrounded by the floppy-eared domesticated ungulates.

Scotty was relieved to find that Ben was rapidly approaching from a slightly different direction, apparently unmolested.

“I gave them the slip! Can you believe they had me surrounded in that tree over there?” Ben was looking a bit frazzled by the experience.

“What, were you wearing purple Calvin Kleins or something?” Scotty could not resist the opportunity to hassle his new field partner.

Ben was ready. “Clearly they followed me rather than you!” He wasn’t about to look bad on his first trip to the field sites. “There was a minute there that I thought they were going to go all stampede mode on me.”

Scotty couldn’t blame him for immediately hopping into the truck and shutting the door. “Well, I suppose you made an impression. Come on, let’s go set up camp.”

Later, after the pair had finished dinner and retired to their tents, Scotty called to Ben. “Now don’t wander off too far if you need to use the facilities in the middle of the night. We’re only about a mile away from your new buddies.”

“Yeah yeah, very funny.” Ben still sounded perturbed at his narrow escape.

Scotty let the night air settle as the breeze dropped and the stars slowly brightened. There was the occasional rustle as Ben turned the pages of the book he was reading by headlamp. All seemed peaceful and back to normal. There was still one more thing to do, however.

“Moooooooooooo!” Scotty called, as Ben shut off his lamp. Eerie silence, then surprised laughter. Apparently it was going to be a great trip after all.

Does this tale sound like the Great Basin you know or wish you knew? Tweet this story with the #GreatBasin hashtag!

Tales from the Field: Naked Ben & the Cow Shower

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