Rants from the Hill: After many years of essay writing, a wave goodbye

All good Rants must come to an end and this marks the final missive from the Ranting Hill.

 

Rants from the Hill” are Michael Branch’s monthly musings on life in the high country of western Nevada’s Great Basin Desert.

The Rants from the Hill essay series has appeared in High Country News online every month, without fail, since July 2010. A lot has happened in those (almost) six years as we—my wife, Eryn, and our daughters, Hannah and Caroline—have lived as fully as possible our shared life here on a remote hill in western Nevada’s Great Basin Desert. And now, with this farewell Rant, I draw the essay series to a close.

Occasionally I’m asked how I’ve managed to write 69 essays in a row about anything, let alone something as apparently mundane as daily life around my windy corner of the high desert. I like to answer this question with another question: Why would I spend a decade walking 13,000 miles within a ten-mile radius of my home? Both my writing and my walking recover (in both senses of that word) the same ground, circling it in all weathers and all seasons, turning this place over and over in my hands and in my imagination, appreciating each day anew that there is more to this wild desert and to our life within it than a lifetime of reflection and walking will ever reveal.

While it has often been difficult to choose from among the many things I wanted to write about each month, I have never lacked for ideas, even after so many years of exploring and celebrating this place in the Rants. Although we inhabit an arid, open landscape that many folks describe as empty, sparse, or bare, the fact that this place has been so fecund, so productive of fascinating topics for the essays, is a fitting testimonial to its richness. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in Nature (1836), “The ruin or blank, that we see when we look at nature, is in our own eye.” In other words, if you look at the sagebrush steppe desert and see “nothing” there, that is not the desert’s problem; rather, it is yours. The challenge is to inform and sharpen our perception to make the land’s perpetual miracle visible. For me, that honing of perception is best achieved through a daily practice of writing and walking. I don’t intend to pontificate. I mean only to say that this stubborn recrossing of the local territory has opened a small door through which I’ve entered the unscalable immensity of this vast desert.

The Ranter on a Great Basin sand dune, still climbing.

My omnivorous curiosity and idiosyncratic sense of humor have also played a role in the profusion of topics I’ve addressed since the series began. Looking back over these 69 Rants, I see that I have covered an eclectic range of experiences and ideas. There are many essays on features of the land, including sand dunes, dry lakes, and desert mountains, juniper, pinyon, and sage, as well as events including flash floods, blizzards, and wildfires, and localized weather phenomena like lenticular clouds and the seasonal diurnal wind we call the Washoe Zephyr. There are even more Rants about animals: harvester ants, bees, ground squirrels, packrats, pronghorn antelope, mountain lions, bobcats, birds, cattle, and scorpions all got an essay (or the better part of one), not to mention the family dog, cat, hens, and hedgehog. I even managed to cover ichthyosaurs, leprechauns, and space aliens!

Other Rants have turned to the few human neighbors we have around here: Ludde, our Road Captain; Mister Grumpledumps, the local curmudgeon; the unnamed hobo who once inhabited this patch of land before we took up residency here; an old man named Chickenfeathers who dowsed our well; the drunken Mary Kay lady who high-centered her pink Cadillac on an old juniper stump; even Femailman, our ornery postal delivery woman, who after ten years does occasionally put a few letters in the correct mailbox. There are essays on Boy Scout leaders and on cowboys, on desert writers like Mary Austin and Cactus Ed Abbey, even one on John Muir impersonators. And there are plenty of Rants that involve our young daughters, who are at once the most human and the wildest animals around this place.

Yet other Rants have recounted experiences we’ve had out here: taking many memorable hikes, visiting the desert shoe tree, throwing things off the Ranting Hill, building a tree house, finding a deserted jeep in a remote canyon, cutting a wild Christmas tree, my odd habit of reading while I walk, making a bucket list, walking from home to California, receiving as a birthday gift vanity license plates that read “RANTER.” Because so many of these Rants have been humorous, the list of things and people I’ve satirized would be too lengthy to recount. Let’s just say that, in return for their misinformed characterizations of Nevada, David Sedaris, Tonya Harding, and Kermit the Frog earned themselves Rants they’d perhaps just as soon forget.

Finally, I hope that many of these essays have been informative, and not only in the area of arid lands natural history, to which so many of the pieces are devoted. I’ve also tried to offer practical information about important things like building wildlife-safe fencing, cussing in old western slang, seceding from the United States, analyzing environmental bumper stickers, and developing a proper appreciation for flatulence as a form of independent self-expression that is fully enabled only by the freedom of wild landscapes.

An ocean of pogonip envelops the desert peaks.

Given the range of topics I’ve covered in the Rants from the Hill series, you might assume that the decision to “suspend my campaign,” which seems to be the going euphemism for dropping out, might be linked to my well of essay ideas running dry. In fact, the opposite is the case. As I write this final essay I am perusing a 13-page (single spaced) list of things I had hoped to Rant about. That list includes ideas enough for at least another 69 essays, which perhaps suggests the strange range of my interests and passions. I would love to explain both the science and the beauty of high desert winter inversions, during which the Ranting Hill rises majestically above a perfectly smooth ocean of pogonip that is broken only by a breathtaking archipelago of desert peaks. I want to think more about what it means that a small, rural graveyard out on the edge of town has recently been encircled by giant, concrete Amazon “fulfillment” warehouses. It is a poignant topic, but also one that would likely generate humor, since it seems to me there are two absurdly different kinds of “fulfillment” being enacted in this hybrid landscape. And I’m amazed that I haven’t yet written the story of the rare bird that I spent weeks trying to identify by its strange call, only to have it eventually revealed that the mysterious, raspy song was the developing crow of “Jimi Hen-drix,” one of our laying hens which turned out to be an immature rooster.

I had also hoped to write a Rant in honor of Hobo Cyrus, a local homeless man whose wildly imaginative balanced-rock sculptures have made our watershed’s river corridor a place my daughters always want to visit. And I was developing a nice comic angle on recent research attempting to discover a way to turn rabbitbrush into renewable rubber. Certainly I regret not having written an essay about the “memory jar” my daughters so kindly made for me—a large mason jar full of small, meticulously inscribed and scrolled scraps of colored paper, each one recording a moment so indelible that a king’s ransom could never buy it back.

riversculpture-jpg
Balanced rock sculpture by Hobo Cyrus. Truckee River, Reno.

I could go on. I had planned a Rant about white pelicans in the Great Basin, about this place as a rural food desert, about the madness of trans-basin water importation. Then there’s the unwritten comic essay about my failed interstate bottle scam: I dedicated myself to consuming as much beer as I could in Nevada so I could then drive the (impressively numberless) bottles to California in my dump trailer in order to cash in big on that state’s bottle refund. Another comic essay would have told the story of the Halloween I donned a “costume” consisting only of the actual gear I wear and carry when cutting fuelwood: heavy boots, oily chaps, sooty Carhartt jacket, gel-palmed gloves, full helmet and mesh visor, and a field ax with a blood-red face. My girls said it was “the lamest costume ever” because I appeared to them “totally normal,” but I had reckoned right: children in town screamed in terror, and even their parents looked at me as if it might be better for everyone if I just headed back to the hinterlands.

On my list an essay idea often exists as nothing more than a title. I suppose “Walking it Off” would have had something to do with the therapeutic value of my peripatetic habits, while “Arrival Time” might have meditated on the challenge of planning for the future while living in the present—two things that the desert inspires us to do. “Sense of Place, Sense of Humor” would perhaps have explored my fascination with the intimate, sustaining, and yet poorly understood relationship between landscape and comedy.

I have also enjoyed how, over the years, I’ve slowly shifted from writing about things I’ve experienced to experiencing things in order to write about them. In that category, I’ve been wanting to try to day-hike the 28-mile length of nearby Winnemucca Lake, a once bird-filled lake that was rendered a desiccated playa by water diversion projects in the early twentieth century. And the experience I most regret not having had in order to write about it was to live my life, for one full week, exactly as would a kid. Needless to say, this one was suggested by our daughters, who have come up with a number of my best Rant ideas all on their own.

As I look ahead to the prospect of looking back on the Rants from the Hill essay series, I already feel nostalgic. The word nostalgia has its roots in the Greek words nostos, which means “homecoming,” and algos, which signifies “pain, distress, or grief.” To be nostalgic is to feel pain because you can no longer return home; it is also to feel the distress of returning in memory to a home that no longer exists, or one that has been rendered unreachable by the forces of time and change. As the “algia” at the end of the word suggests, nostalgia was once thought of as an actual, diagnosable disease (think of related words like “myalgia” or “neuralgia”). During the American Civil War, the U.S. Sanitary Commission reported that by 1867 there had been 2,588 cases of the disease, 13 of which had proven fatal. Until relatively recently, the notion of “homesickness” naturally implied that the sufferer had been stricken with a very real illness. But even as I expect to be homesick for these Rants—to miss this monthly ritual of sharing with you some facet of our desert life that has fascinated and intrigued me—I certainly don’t intend to let up on writing, or writing about arid lands, or writing with humor about the absurd, revealing intersections of nature and culture that give us glimpses into what it might mean to inhabit the shifting territory of the New West.

The cover of Michael Branch’s new book, Raising Wild.

If you’d like to follow my writing beyond High Country News, my new book, Raising Wild: Dispatches from a Home in the Wilderness (which will be published by Shambhala/Roost Books and distributed by Penguin Random House) is now available for preorder at your local bookstore, and will be released on August 23, 2016. Much like the Rants, Raising Wild employs humor, natural history, and personal reflection to tell the story of raising young daughters in this remote, high desert wilderness. And for years I have been revising, reordering, renaming, and reenvisioning the Rants themselves. The “Ranty Book,” as our daughters like to call it, collects most of these Rants from the Hill (in improved form) and will be published in 2017 by GFT Books under the title Living the High Life Out West. I hope that even as the Rants from the Hill series comes to an end, you’ll want to “meet me on the page” in these two new books. And you can always connect with me through my website, where you’ll find photographs of this remarkable high desert landscape and many links to my writing: http://michaelbranchwriter.com/.

In closing this happy ending, I want to extend my thanks to the generous and hardworking folks at High Country News. My friend and former student Nick Neely suggested me to High Country News while he was working with the magazine as an intern, which put the series in motion. The support and assistance of editors Stephanie Paige Ogburn, Jodi Peterson, Paul Larmer, Tay Wiles, Michelle Nijhuis, Diane Sylvain, Cally Carswell, Emily Guerin, and Kate Schimel made it possible for a diverse and enthusiastic readership of folks to spend a few minutes each month with my unusual way of seeing the world. I’d also like to express my appreciation for the many teachers who have shared these essays; pieces included in the Rants from the Hill series have been taught in creative writing or environmental literature courses in twenty-five states. But, above all, thanks to you readers out there. The Rants have received around 100,000 page views online. Of course a cat video posted to YouTube receives more hits than this in an hour, so I’m certainly not bragging, but it’s gratifying to know that so many of you have enjoyed sharing glimpses of our small, dry slice of life in the high desert.

Day’s end on the Ranting Hill. Western Great Basin Desert.

Only recently has the wonderful word rant come to mean “an angry or aggressive tirade or diatribe.” I, instead, invoke rant in its earlier, nobler form. Starting around 1600, to rant meant to express oneself in “an extravagant or hyperbolic manner”—with the important caveat that this was understood to be a good thing. The archaic noun form is even more cheering, as a rant was “a boisterous, lively, or riotous scene or occasion; a festive gathering; a romp; a spree.” It is in that spirit that I have shared Rants from the Hill with you for the past six years. Take care of yourself, and your own small corner of the planet, and keep laughing.