“Rants from the Hill” are Michael Branch’s monthly musings on life in the high country of Nevada’s western Great Basin desert.
Three summers ago 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 perhaps skewed by the fact that a jackhammer was the wrong tool for the job and alcohol may have been involved. After a long, miserable recovery period during which I was as ornery as a walleyed mule, I finally healed enough that my wife, Eryn, could get me out of the house, which was a great blessing to her. At that time Eryn asked what turned out to be one of the best questions I’ve ever received: “Now that you’re able to walk again, how do you want your life to be different from life before the injury?” Without thinking I replied, “I just want to walk and walk and walk.”
In that moment I came up with an idea that was ridiculously arbitrary: I would walk 1,000 miles in the next 365 days, and I’d start every walk from home—an approach that was practical, since we live adjacent to BLM lands stretching all the way to California. Why one thousand miles in a year? Why not? I didn’t have a single good reason, no justification, not a hint of a plan. Nor did I have any idea how far 1,000 miles really was, though it sounded like a big number. Once I started to break it down, though, I realized that I wouldn’t need to pull heroic, big-mile days of the sort done by long-trail hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail. While 1,000 miles sounds impressive, it amounts to just 2.74 miles per day, which seemed incredibly modest. Just 2.74? I reckoned people probably walk poodles farther than that.
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 rough country up here, and if you subtract from 365 the number of days we have scorching heat, wildfires, deep snow, or blasting winds, you’re down to approximately the number 7, and I had to admit that seven 143-mile walks did seem daunting. If I was going to get to 1,000 miles, it wasn’t going to be as a weekend warrior, but rather because I approached these short desert hikes as something that happened every day no matter what. And so I was forced to rethink the whole experiment, which now seemed less about walking than about practice, in the same sense that a monk must chant in the temple each morning or a violinist must rehearse every afternoon.
The author walks on BLM lands outside his home.
And that is how walking became for me a discipline that I practiced each day, regardless of conditions. When the snow drifted too deep to posthole the 2.74, I snowshoed it. If the blasting wind shotgunned sand up from the desert floor, I wore goggles. When temperatures soared above the mid-nineties, 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 up and 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 to the Holy Land, a means of honing our attention to the natural world. I did take hundreds of walks of the ennobling variety, but many were far less solemn. If the Giants were playing, I listened not to the wind as it finned balsamroot leaves, but rather to the crack of the bat as it came through my radio headset. 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. Because we have two young daughters, I walked at least 100 miles pushing our youngest in my customized, off-road stroller, and I may have skipped at least four miles of that first thousand with our older daughter. If on that particular day I had been forced to suffer fools, I would ritually drink 2.74 beers as I walked.
It wasn’t long before I not only managed to fit in these daily walks but in fact couldn’t survive without them. For the past three years I’ve continued the thousand-mile annual walks, which are every bit as arbitrary and as gratifying as they were when I began. The miles I’ve walked in those three years could have taken me from here to Key West, where I might have enjoyed a bowl of conch chowder and a good spiced rum—and had enough miles left over to stroll up to New Orleans in time to catch a late set at the Bourbon Street Blues Club. But my miles didn’t tend that way. They were all walked here in the high desert, on public lands within a ten-mile radius of our home. And if my ongoing bioregionalist experiment has involved weedwhackers and skipping and beer and as well as pronghorn and golden eagles and the impossible beauty of moonlight on unbroken snowfields, that may be just as well.
Michael P Branch is Professor of Literature and Environment at the University of Nevada, Reno, where he teaches American literature and environmental studies. He has published five books and many articles on environmental literature, and his creative nonfiction has appeared in Utne Reader, Orion, Ecotone, Isotope, Hawk and Handsaw, Whole Terrain, and other magazines. He lives with his wife and two young daughters at 6,000 feet in the western Great Basin desert of Nevada.
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