“Rants from the Hill” are Michael Branch’s monthly musings on life in the high country of Nevada’s western Great Basin desert.
Some of you may remember the novelist William Faulkner’s famous Yoknapatawpha County, which, though fictional, was based upon the Mississippi town in which Faulkner lived. Well, I’m now 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.
One of the things that connects those of us out here in Silver Hills with the rest of the world is the U.S. Mail, though around here the experience of the mail smacks more of Dante than it does Norman Rockwell. First of all, our mailbox is 2.5 miles from the house, and the road between is a torturous gumbo of mud in winter and a jaw-rattling washboard in summer. And, since snow and dust are the only two seasons we have here, 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, sleet, and buckshot that it isn’t good for much other than keeping black widows out of the weather. Then there is the troubling matter of our postal delivery person, whom my neighbor unceremoniously calls “Femailman”—a title I’d reject as rude if it weren’t still better than “the carrier,” which, given this lady’s virulent personality, is less respectful but also more accurate.
Rural mailbox image courtesy Flickr user Seth Anderson.
The first week we moved out to Silver Hills I spotted an ancient, mud-brown jeep creeping along the row of mailboxes up at the main 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, and survivalists—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 was potentially cute but disturbingly out of place. As the furry arm stuffed the last box 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 the teddy bears fool you!”
I learned a lot about my 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), though one guy also received the dubiously named Garden and Gun magazine, which looked as if it might be advertised as “the only publication celebrating the skill and passion of the vegetarian hunter.” 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 I always enjoyed it when those two arrived on the same day.
Each morning my wife or I returned to our mailbox, raised the old red flag, and replaced the misdelivered mail, along with a polite note explaining the problem for the benefit of Femailman, who after six months was still batting under .200. Eventually we called the local post office, explained the issue, and were assured that a supervisor would talk with the carrier, who would affix a special label to the inside of our mailbox as a reminder of the pattern of delivery problems. The next morning our home phone rang at 4:20 a.m., which is so painfully close to O’Darkthirty 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 actually 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’d come home from a lousy day at work to check the mail, see the tag, and agree that Femailman was probably right about me after all.
That was six years ago, and while I do still get Muleycrazy now and again, Femailman more or less gets the right stuff in our box. Recently, though, we’ve had a new and very specific problem: we’re receiving all our mail except for my wife’s New Yorker, which the publisher swears they send dutifully to our correct address each week, and which they report has never been returned. When I called the local post office to explain the problem, the supervisor I spoke with asked politely, “Does it say ‘New York’ right on the cover?” “Well, yeah,” I answered, wondering where we were headed. “OK, I’ll do what I can,” she said, “but you got to understand that some of these carriers don’t much like that kind of stuff from the East.” I thought for a long moment about how best to reply. Then, like the true Silver Hillsian I’ve become, I said, “Yeah, that makes sense.” After all, I didn’t want to be cranky. Femailman still won’t deliver the magazine, but I keep up the subscription because I like to picture a red-nailed, hairy arm lining the cat pan with a fresh New Yorker cover every Friday afternoon.
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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Essays in the Just West blog are not written by the High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.