The Rock of If

Before the bulldozers leveled hills and filled valleys, before dynamite blasts cracked our foundations, before the perma-cloud of dust and incessant rumble-meeping of machines, before the city of Sparks approved hundreds of new homes in every direction, when we first moved into our brand new home in a cul-de-sac named after a back-East city, there was a rocky outcropping that my daughter Tabitha named The Rock of If.

A minor desert landmark. Scrubby plants and gray craggy rocks inflected with rusty discolorations. Its crannies provided hiding places for bunnies, snakes—though we never saw any—and a teenager’s cigarettes. Not remarkable.

But atop The Rock of If, view happened. In the foreground, desert panorama in taupe, pale sage, cheatgrass purple and faded gold. Below to the east, the glitz-green of manicured D’Andrea golf grass. To the south, Slide and Rose mountains. To the west, skylines with miniature casinos dwarfed by Sierra foothills. The northwest—Peavine and, closer, the cul-de-sac we’ve called home since 2002.

That year, I’d stood on the flat, empty lot atop a hill and said, “This is it.” Gleefully, I chose trim, cabinets and flooring for my new home. One night, I woke up in a sweat, thinking that I could not bear a kitchen with tile the color of slime mold.

That year, The Count of Monte Cristo, starring James Caviezel as Edmond Dantes, opened in the theaters. Perhaps my daughter identified with Dantes’ unfair prison. We’d moved to the outskirts of the city, away from friends, several miles from the 1,700-square-foot box we’d purchased when we moved to Sparks in 1993.

We’d moved away from our apple tree with inviting, climbable branches. At our new house, landscapers stuck a fat stick in the ground, tied it to metal posts and called it a tree.

Mornings, coyotes howled outside our new double-paned windows. The first week, we found a tarantula and kept it for the winter, feeding it the crickets that had invaded our home by the scores.

The salesman who sold us our lot had said that the desert beyond was owned by the Bureau of Land Management. We enjoyed a couple of years before learning that he was wrong.

The desert healed. We’d take our dogs on futile, rabbit-chasing runs. Rocky outcroppings provided places for reading, writing, pondering life.

The Rock of If.

In the film Masked and Anonymous, Bob Dylan’s character, Jack Fate, says: “Some of us pursue perfection and virtue, and if we’re lucky, we catch up to it. But happiness can’t be pursued. It either comes to you, or it don’t. … If is a state of mind that we get into when we feel deprived.”

Not long ago, Tabitha and I took our dogs for a Sunday walk in the hills. She wore sandals not suited for hiking. The wind was colder than I’d expected. At the crest of the hill, bulldozers were parked in a line. The desert’s new shape: Flat terraces ready for single-family houses.

Repeated applications of dynamite had reduced The Rock of If to heaps of fist-sized stones. I’d felt the explosions.

“It’s our fault,” my daughter, now 20 and living on her own, said. “We built our house up here. How can we say that other people can’t?”

I stumbled up onto a heap of sharp rubble. My dog followed me, scraping his paws on the rocks’ edges.

“I can’t even tell where it was,” I told Tabitha.

She wasn’t distraught. She called the dog, who limped to her.

I picked up one gray rock with rust discolorations.

This sits on my desk. What’s left of If.