“If Thoreau drank more whiskey and lived in the desert, he’d write like this.”—High Country News
Welcome to the land of wildfire, hypothermia, desiccation, and rattlers. The stark and inhospitable high-elevation landscape of Nevada’s Great Basin Desert may not be an obvious (or easy) place to settle down, but for self-professed desert rat Michael Branch, it’s home. Of course, living in such an unforgiving landscape gives one many things to rant about. Fortunately for us, Branch—humorist, environmentalist, and author of Raising Wild—is a prodigious ranter. From bees hiving in the walls of his house to owls trying to eat his daughters’ cat—not to mention his eccentric neighbors—adventure, humor, and irreverence abound on Branch’s small slice of the world, which he lovingly calls Ranting Hill.
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About the Author
MICHAEL P. BRANCH is a professor of literature and environment at the University of Nevada, Reno, where he teaches creative nonfiction, American literature, environmental studies, and film studies. He has published five books and more than two hundred essays, articles, and reviews. Mike lives with his wife, Eryn, and daughters, Hannah Virginia and Caroline Emerson, in a passive solar home of their own design at 6,000 feet in the remote high desert of northwestern Nevada, in the ecotone where the Great Basin Desert and Sierra Nevada Mountains meet. There he writes, plays blues harmonica, drinks sour mash, curses at baseball on the radio, cuts stove wood, and walks at least 1,200 miles each year in the surrounding hills, canyons, ridges, arroyos, and playas.
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Rants from the Hill
On Packrats, Bobcats, Wildfires, Curmudgeons, A Drunken Mary Kay Lady & Other Encounters with the Wild in the High Desert
By Michael P. Branch
Shambhala Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2017 Michael P. Branch
All rights reserved.
THE GHOST OF SILVER HILLS
You may recall the novelist William Faulkner's famous Yoknapatawpha County, which, though fictional, was based upon the Mississippi town in which Faulkner lived. Well, I'm ready to give a fictional name to my own real home place: Silver Hills, Nevada. Silver Hills is much like Yoknapatawpha, only with a little less incest and a lot less rain.
I live with my wife and our two daughters in the high desert of the western Great Basin Desert, at 6,000 feet, on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, on a desiccated hilltop so mercilessly exposed to wind, snow, and fire that our house appears to lean away from the trouble, like a juniper canted by the constant blast of the Washoe Zephyr. It is a stark and extreme landscape, one that shows no concern for our flourishing or even our survival. To us, it is the most remarkable home imaginable.
A decade ago, when we first scouted the rural high desert where we ultimately bought land and later built our home, there weren't many folks out here from whom to get stories of whatever and whomever might have come before. We knew from the obsidian arrowheads we occasionally found on prominent outcroppings that, in the deep past, this was Northern Paiute hunting grounds, and the quartz-rimmed test holes dotting the steepest foothills marked the moment when silver prospectors had come and gone. But the recent human history of Silver Hills — from the era before the main road was paved and power brought in — consisted of little more than rusty, old, church key-style beer cans found beneath the sage. Among the few neighbors who had moved out here ahead of the grid, only scraps of stories remained. There was the day a black bear cub strayed over from the Sierra and terrified somebody's dogs, and the night a huge wildfire crested a nearby ridge and broke like a scarlet tsunami, flooding the valley with flames. Some folks said that a small plane had once crashed in the hills nearby — and that the pilot had survived and simply walked out of this rugged country — though nobody recalled the details. One old off-the-gridder told me that twenty years ago a neighbor who built on a remote BLM inholding had kept an elephant as a pet, though with this tale, as with all others, there never seemed to be anything behind the stories but more stories.
An unconfirmed legend that touched my family more directly was that of a man who was rumored to have lived on the land — just camping out in the desert someplace, it was said — in an area near the parcel we ultimately bought. But the follow-up questions I asked of the old timers led nowhere. No one knew who the man was or why he had been out here or where exactly he had camped. One neighbor claimed that the man's campfire had eventually drawn attention from the sheriff, who traced the smoke plume to the man's camp and moved him off the land. Another neighbor swore, instead, that the man had simply vanished, like a ghost.
A few years after purchasing our land, we designed and built a passive-solar, wood-heated home, which we occupied about the time of our first daughter's first birthday. I didn't think any more about the mysterious camper than I did about the crashed plane or the pet elephant, and I discovered no evidence to corroborate any of these local legends. In those first two years, I tramped several thousand miles in the nearby hills and canyons, until I felt I had found every juniper stump and packrat midden, every erratic boulder and red tail hunting perch within ten miles of home. I knew where the pronghorn moved and where the ravens nested, which arroyos were too snaky in summer and which were wind-protected in winter.
Then, during the early spring of our third year out here, I was walking on our property when I decided to take shelter from a biting wind that was driving a late season snow. I clambered down a rocky slope about a quarter mile from the house and got down on all fours to crawl into a copse of junipers that was too dense to be entered upright. After creeping eight or ten feet through the dirt, I discovered an opening in the center of the stand — a small, clear area that was ringed by an impenetrable halo of tangled trees. Suddenly, I realized what I had stumbled upon. In the center of the small clearing was a perfect circle of blackened rocks that had once been a fire pit, and next to it was a tidy pile of short juniper logs that looked as if they had been stacked that morning. Dangling from the higher boughs were strands of old cordage, which had at one time tethered a canvas tarp that was now half buried in the duff along with what appeared to be a timeworn bedroll. Beneath one of the trees was a small mountain of beer bottles, which I recognized from my youth as having contained Miller High Life — clear bottles from the dark days so long before the microbrew revolution that Miller could be called "the champagne of beers."
The most surprising item in this remarkable, wild digs was stacked neatly beneath one corner of the tarp: an impressive cache of surprisingly well-preserved Nixon-era Playboy magazines. In effect, I had made the astounding anthropological discovery of a western Great Basin Mancave, circa 1973. The cover of the September 1970 issue featured a blonde woman wearing a leather headband and wide macramé belt, accoutered with fringed purse, and flashing not her exposed breasts but rather a peace sign, which she displayed before breasts so completely obscured by a tasteful blue sweater that the entire effect resembled less Playboy than Good Housekeeping. Readers of the October 1971 issue were greeted by a cheerful woman with an enormous afro whose body was thoroughly obscured by a white, plastic chair resembling the head of giant bunny. The cover of the 1972 Christmas issue didn't even deploy a photograph, instead offering a stylized drawing of a woman dressed as Santa Claus — though she did look considerably less grouchy than a Santa at the mall often does.
What would this place have been like in, say, the early spring of 1973, when the ghost of Silver Hills sat alone by a crackling juniper log fire, hoisting Millers and fantasizing about whether he would prefer to share his sylvan sanctuary with the righteous hippie chick or the smiling stone fox with the huge afro? There would have been no home within several miles and no paved road within ten, and it was then a twenty-mile walk to the edge of town. Was he on the lam? Or was he, like me, simply a man who had chosen the hills and canyons over some other life? Was his juniper-bowered Mancave an indication of his sanity, or the lack of it? Would it be accurate to call him homeless, or was this his true home? Was he trying to get to someplace else or only hoping, as I so often do, that someplace else wouldn't catch up with him out here?
The ghost of Silver Hills had chosen the perfect spot, the kind of snug shelter where one might well wait out the Nixon administration — or a parole officer or creditor, or the draft board, or the millennium, or whatever else might need waiting out. As I huddled within the ghost's magic circle, sheltered from the blowing snow, I felt a sudden urge to kindle a small blaze of aromatic juniper, crack a sparkling High Life, and do some light reading until the gloaming swallowed these windswept desert hills.CHAPTER 2
A THOUSAND-MILE WALK TO HOME
Eight years ago this spring, I blew out a lumbar disc while running a jackhammer in the desert near my house — an accident that was the result of simple bad luck, with the odds skewed by the fact that a jackhammer was the wrong tool for the job and that alcohol may have been involved. After a long, miserable recovery period during which I was as ornery as a walleyed mule, I finally mended enough that Eryn could get me out of the house, which was a great relief to her.
As I began to get back on my feet, Eryn asked what turned out to be one of the best questions I have ever received: "Bubba, now that you're finally healing, how do you want your life to be different from before the injury?"
My reply was immediate and spontaneous. "I just want to walk and walk and walk."
In that moment, I came up with an idea that was absurdly arbitrary: I would walk 1,000 miles in the next 365 days, and I would start every walk from home — an approach that was practical, since we live adjacent to BLM lands stretching all the way to California. Why 1,000 miles in a year? A better question seemed to be, Why the hell not? I had not one single good reason, no justification, not a hint of a plan. Nor did I have any idea how far 1,000 miles really is, though it sounded like a lot. But once I started to break it down, I realized that I would not need to pull heroic, big-mile days of the sort long-trail hikers on the nearby Pacific Crest Trail do. While 1,000 miles sounds impressive, it amounts to just 2.74 miles per day, which seems incredibly modest. Just 2.74? I reckoned plenty of people probably walk their poodles farther than that in their suburban neighborhoods.
Within two weeks of walking toward my goal, however, I realized that 2.74 was the wrong number to have focused on. The number that mattered, as it turned out, was 365. It is rugged country out here, and if you subtract from 365 the number of days we have scorching heat, deep snow, blasting winds, or raging wildfire, you are down to approximately the number 7, and I had to admit that seven 143-mile walks seemed daunting. If I was going to get to 1,000 miles, it was not going to be as a weekend warrior — I had to approach these short desert hikes as something that happened every day no matter what. And so I was forced to rethink my experiment, which now seemed less about walking than about practice, in the same sense that a monk must meditate in the temple each morning or a bassist must rehearse every afternoon.
And that is how walking became for me a discipline that I practiced each day, regardless of mood or conditions. When the snow grew too deep to posthole the 2.74, I snowshoed it. If the blasting wind shotgunned sand up from the desert floor, I wore ski goggles. When temperatures soared to triple digits, I hiked by moonlight. Once, when an earthquake hit while I was walking, I was forced to squat down until the tremors subsided; then I stood back up and just kept walking.
I also walked in ways that would earn the censure of most nature writers, who insist earnestly that each saunter should be an ennobling, Thoreauvian pilgrimage that hones our attention to the natural world. I did take hundreds of walks of this ennobling variety, but many were far less solemn. If the San Francisco Giants were playing, I listened not to the breeze as it finned dried balsamroot leaves, but rather to the crack of the bat as it channeled in through my earbuds. One day while doing fuels reduction for fire control, I weed whacked more than half of the 2.74 — not very Thoreauvian, I'm afraid. That first year, I walked at least 100 miles pushing baby Caroline in her off-road stroller (which I customized by equipping it with knobby tires, slimed to protect against puncture by desert peach thorns), and I may have skipped at least four miles of that first thousand with our older daughter, Hannah. On days when I had been made to suffer fools in town, I ritually drank 2.74 beers as I walked.
It wasn't long before I managed not only to fit in these daily walks but could not survive without them. For the past eight years, I have continued the thousand-mile annual walks, which are exactly as arbitrary and as gratifying as they were when I began. Because I actually averaged more like 1,300 miles per year, the miles I walked in those years could have taken me all the way from the Great Basin down to Key West, where I might have enjoyed a bowl of conch chowder and a good spiced rum before rambling up to the coast of Maine to eat fresh lobster and drink imperial IPA. Then I could have hiked from there over to Montana to do a little fly fishing, after which I'd still have enough miles left over to saunter back down to New Orleans and catch a late set at the Bourbon Street Blues Club before walking across Texas and the American Southwest and back to my home in the western Great Basin.
But my miles did not tend that way. They were all walked here, in the high desert, on public lands, within a ten-mile radius of Ranting Hill. If my bioregionalist experiment of walking more than a thousand local miles each year has involved weed whackers and beer and skipping as well as pronghorn and golden eagles and the wordless beauty of moonlight gleaming on unbroken snowfields, that may be just as well. It is incremental work, but I have had a glimpse of how these walks might someday add up to a journey, in the same way that a life is comprised only of individual days, which are themselves nothing more than a series of moments in which we choose to take a small step, or do not.CHAPTER 3
One of the few things that connects those of us out here in the remote desert West with the rest of the world is the U.S. Mail, though here in Silver Hills the experience of the mail smacks more of Dante than it does Norman Rockwell. First of all, our mailbox is almost three miles from the house, and the road between is a torturous gumbo of mud in winter and a jaw-rattling washboard in summer. Since the four seasons here are distinguished by mud, fire, dust, and snow, we can usually walk to the mailbox about as fast as we can drive to it. The mailbox itself is so constantly blasted by wind, snow, and buckshot that it is good for little besides keeping black widows out of the weather. Then there is the troubling matter of our postal delivery person, whom Ludde, my closest neighbor and a wonderful old curmudgeon, unceremoniously calls "Femailman" — a title I would reject as rude if it weren't better than "the carrier," which, given this lady's virulent personality, is less respectful but also more accurate.
The week we moved out to Silver Hills I spotted an ancient, mud-brown Jeep creeping along the crooked row of mailboxes out at the paved road. It had no lights, signs, or insignia to indicate affiliation with the U.S. government — probably a wise safety measure here in the land of libertarians, cranksters, survivalists, and UFO conspiracy theorists — but the arm swinging out the open window and plunging into the boxes made plain that this was, in fact, the mail. In that moment two things struck me as odd. First, the hairy arm delivering the mail ended in a hand with long, red fingernails. Second, the back window of the Jeep was lined with stuffed animals, which might have been cute back in town but was disturbingly out of place here. As the furry arm filled the last mailbox and the jeep sped away, a guy driving by in a pickup slowed down just enough to shout at me through his open window, "Don't let those teddy bears fool you!"
I learned a lot about our new neighbors during those first few months in Silver Hills, because Femailman delivered us everybody's mail but our own. Among the magazines popular out here are Guns and Ammo and Muleycrazy (for deer hunters), although one guy also received the dubiously named Garden and Gun magazine. Several people subscribed to the Libertarians' even more dubiously named magazine, Reason, and Off Road was common. My favorite was the neighbor whose address received both Antique Doll Collector and Hustler, and, for some reason, I always enjoyed it when those two arrived on the same day.
Each day Eryn or I returned to our mailbox, raised the rusty red flag, and replaced the misdelivered mail, along with a polite note explaining the problem for the benefit of Femailman. But, after six months, she was still batting under .300. Eventually, we called the local post office, explained the issue, and were assured that a supervisor would talk with the carrier, who would then affix a special label to the inside of our mailbox as a reminder to them of the pattern of delivery problems. The next morning, our home phone rang at 4:45 a.m., which is so painfully close to o'dark thirty that it took me a moment to realize that it was Femailman on the line. She had just called to apologize, she said, but she sounded suspiciously unremorseful. When I pointed out that it was not yet daybreak, she abruptly hung up. That afternoon, we opened our mailbox to find the official U.S. Post Office decal inside, just as promised. On it, in the space left open for the postal employee to record the "PROBLEM," Femailman had noted, simply: "CUSTOMER CRANKY."
After that, however, our mail service did improve substantially, and I found, to my surprise, that I missed the guilty pleasure of perusing Antique Doll Collector or the magazine for retired prison guards — and I wondered if somewhere in the nearby hills someone was disappointed to no longer be receiving my Baileys chainsaw catalogue, Beer Advocate magazine, and High Country News. I even came to appreciate the label inside our mailbox, and, at least two evenings a week, I would come home from a lousy day at work to check the mail, notice the tag, and agree that Femailman was right about me after all.
Excerpted from Rants from the Hill by Michael P. Branch. Copyright © 2017 Michael P. Branch. Excerpted by permission of Shambhala Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
The View from Ranting Hill xi
The Ghost of Silver Hills 1
A Thousand-Mile Walk to Home 5
Customer Cranky 9
Trapping the Bees 12
Feral Child 18
Ground Truthing the Peaceable Kingdom 23
Lucy the Desert Cat 28
How Many Bars in Your Cell? 33
A Visit from the Mary Kay Lady 38
The Washoe Zephyr 43
Balloons on the Moon 48
Guests in the House of Fire 53
In Defense of Bibliopedestrianism 57
Lawn Guilt 63
Time for a Tree House 69
Harvesting the Desert Shoe Tree 75
Most Likely to Secede 80
Planting the Dog 86
My Home Lake 92
Chickenfeathers Strikes Water 97
Anecdote of the Jeep 102
Mockingbird on the Wing 107
What's Drier Than David Sedaris? 113
Hunting for Scorpions 119
Beauregard Puppy 126
Desert Insomnia 132
After Ten Thousand Years 138
Words and Clouds 143
Singing Mountain 148
Towering Cell Trees 153
Rantosaurus Silverhillsii 158
Hillbilly Cyborg 165
Out on Misfits Flat 170
I Brake for Rants 177
Wild Christmas Pinyon 182
An Assay on Auld Lang Syne 189
The Bucket List 196
About the Author 211