I joined Val Taylor, 85, in front of the School of the Natural Order main house in Baker, Nevada to learn what her 40+ years in rural Nevada had taught her. After growing up in Chicago, Val spent 25 years in the business world in Chicago and San Francisco Bay Area. Then she found her home.
Val Taylor, relaxed and sipping her iced tea, explained how she first came to Baker, Nevada, located in the east-central part of the state.
“My younger brother moved out here [to Baker, and] they had a new baby that I had to come and get acquainted with and find out what in the world my well-educated brother from the University of Chicago was doing out in the desert.”
Val had traveled all over the world but had never been to rural Nevada.
“I was newly divorced, midlife crisis, etc, etc. This is 40 years ago,” she said. “As I was driving on the loneliest highway from the Bay Area to Baker, I was saying to myself and my friend who was with me, ‘Who in the world would choose to live out here?’” She smiled as she remembered, “I got here and it was so quiet and so peaceful.”
Val saw her brother and his family were thriving. She became acquainted with the School of the Natural Order, which teaches a philosophical, Eastern religious orientation, located on the Home Farm, a retired ranch located about three miles up the mountain from Baker and close to today’s Great Basin National Park.
Val decided to take a year-long sabbatical and help the older lady who was running the School of the Natural Order.
“I never left when my year was up. I really didn’t want to leave this rural haven and go back to the city. So I called a friend in the real estate business in the Bay Area and said, ‘Put my condo on the market.’ It sold in three days for twice what I had paid for. So that’s how I got here. It was a miracle. And I certainly never expected to spend the rest of my life here.”
Justice of the Peace
For 20 years, Val served as the Justice of the Peace for Baker. Her court wasn’t very busy.
“Mostly I processed tourist traffic tickets. I collected the money and submitted it to the treasurer at the county courthouse in Ely. But in that time, I did over 100 weddings, and it was great. It was really the highlight of my judicial career.”
Val recalls going to her first seminar for lay judges, attended by people from all over Nevada.
“I had my little badge on. (It) was in the shape of the state. And it said Baker, and most of the judges had no idea where Baker was. I was standing in a meeting room at the cocktail time having a drink. And this gentleman came up to me and looked at my badge and said, ‘You tell those people in Baker, they’re going to get their water and sewage program.’ And I said, ‘I’d be happy to do that.’
“Then I looked at his badge, and it was Senator Reid. And because I’ve always been a political animal, I knew who Harry Reid was. And I was thrilled that he knew where Baker was, because not many people did or do until we gained some notoriety when we were fighting the MX missile system out in the desert. That was one of the first things I got involved with out here. We used our mimeo machine [at the School of the Natural Order].”
The MX Missile Mobile System was a plan in 1979 by President Jimmy Carter to move 200 nuclear missiles around to 6,900 different shelters out in the remote parts of western Utah and eastern Nevada. The $33 billion idea was that the Russians wouldn’t have enough of their own missiles to target all the moving trucks and shelters. Of course, anyone living anywhere nearby didn’t think this was a great plan. The people of Baker put up a strong fight along with many other Nevadans, including Senator Paul Laxalt, and eventually President Ronald Reagan nixed the program.
Changes in Baker
Over the years, Val has seen many changes. She observed how Lehman Caves National Monument was expanded into Great Basin National Park. She celebrated the win of the water project to avoid Southern Nevada Water Authority pipelines taking water down to Las Vegas. She watched as the economy of the valley moved from agriculture to tourism and the resulting Airbnb phenomenon. She’s watched how classes taught by the School of the Natural Order changed from in person to Zoom-based. Fortunately, not everything has changed.
“When the new visitor center in Baker for the Park Service went in, I was down in the parking lot one day and a family of, I believe three generations, Grandma, Dad, and kids pulled up to go into the visitor center down there and they were parked next to me. And I saw the children get out of the car.” Val paused. “I stood there for a minute to see how this family unit was going to proceed. And I heard the father say, ‘Wait a minute.’ And they all stopped and looked at him, and he said, ‘Do you hear the quiet?’” Val smiled widely. “It was just one of those moments.
“Although we’re at the edge of the world here at the Nevada/Utah borderland, looking out 30 to 35 miles across the valley, and there’s virtually nothing between us, and as far as the eye can see, although with the fires all around us, it’s a little hazy. But pre computers, when people learned, for instance of our settlement here, and would call and say, ‘I heard about you. I saw a book by your founder and so forth. And I’d like to come to visit,’ and of course, the address is Nevada. So they assume that we’re either near Las Vegas or Reno. And that’s, I suppose, the biggest misunderstanding that a lot of people in the state of Nevada have.”
Val reflected on the effects of Covid-19.
“I think 7 billion people [are on this planet] and I’ll bet there is not one of them who hasn’t in some way been affected by this pandemic.”
This isn’t the first pandemic that has affected her family. Val’s grandmother on her mother’s side died during the 1918 pandemic. Her mother was just 13.
“I knew that that was a very impressionable thing in her lifetime that helped mold her into the Elizabeth I knew. I have a whole new understanding of that now. I view it very differently.”
She doesn’t worry about the isolating effects of Covid-19.
“You know, maybe that’s why a pandemic doesn’t distress me so much, because I like the peace and quiet.”
Advice for Life
I asked Val what advice she had for people, given that she had lived a life she was happy with. At first she said she didn’t want to give advice, because she resented it when other people gave advice to her. But then she thought about it a minute longer and decided she did want to impart some of her wisdom. Val’s best advice: “Be true to yourself.”
“One of those things is what I’ve learned since I moved into this school headquarters and represented it a bit to anybody that came along who wanted to know more,” she elaborated. “Our founders said, ‘get understanding of yourself,’ and I guess one of the things that I’m learning on my way out is, if you don’t know yourself, how do you know anything?”
“I had a very strong religious upbringing. Love your neighbor as yourself and that certainly was very good foundation point. But I never quite gave myself as much credit as I might because the emphasis was so strong on help the guy next door and I’m not sorry for that. But I could have been more helpful if I’d known myself a little better.
“I really have no regrets that I left Chicago, the Bay Area, and wound up in rural Nevada. It’s been delightful. And how many old people can say that about their lives? I know how blessed I am. I just know it.”
Gretchen Baker is an ecologist at Great Basin National Park, and previously worked at six other national park service areas. She and her husband reside with their two children on a ranch in Snake Valley, Nevada. Support her work in the Ally.