Rants from the Hill: Greetings from Nevada

 

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

I live with my wife and two young daughters in the high desert of the western Great Basin, at 6,000 feet on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada, on a desiccated hilltop so mercilessly exposed to wind, snow, and fire that our house appears to lean away from the trouble, like a tree canted by the blast of the Washoe Zephyr that sweeps these hills every afternoon. It is a stark and extreme landscape, utterly empty of any concern for our flourishing, or even survival. It is also, to us, the most remarkable home imaginable. I look forward to telling you more about this place and its human and nonhuman inhabitants in the monthly essays that will follow.

But first, in this essay of greeting, I offer a few reflections on how we human neighbors greet each other out here in the rural high desert. The fact that we are so few and far between in this big country profoundly conditions our modes of communication, increasing our dependence upon each other even as it intensifies the isolation we have chosen in coming here to dwell. Our challenge is to affirm the bonds of mutual aid so as to have them ready in times of blizzard, fire, and accident, while simultaneously protecting each other’s elaborate fantasies of independence. This is more difficult than it might sound, and it accounts for the ubiquity of discussions of the weather, without which my neighbors and I—there are eight of us strung along this nearly impassable, three-mile dirt road snaking through the sage and juniper hills—would have a rough time getting along. We’re all isolatoes here, distinguishable on any given day by our varying degrees of orneriness—by where we might each be placed on a narrow spectrum ranging from Tolerably Genial at the Mailboxes on up to Sociopathically Misanthropic. Despite our curmudgeonliness, we also know how to help each other when the need arises, which it does out here.

The dominant ethic on our road—the key to preserving harmony in our little desert kingdom—is extreme physical isolation intensified by unflinching social restraint. One of my neighbors will use his tractor to repair our road, but not if we embarrass him by mentioning it, never mind if we insulted him by offering money. Another will plow you out after a big snow now and then, but never if you ask or expect him to. Above all, we adhere strictly to the cardinal rule that there is to be no discussion of anything outside the immediacy of our local circumstances: weather, varmints, and road conditions are permitted; religion, politics, and economics are not. What each of us might do to make a living in the distant city is vaguely known and never spoken of. The fact that 97% of topics common to human social discourse are strictly off limits obviously necessitates conversations that are delicate, resourceful, and brief, but our happiness is dependent upon adherence to this tacit code. Maybe we fear that in admitting aloud the existence of the city we might suddenly be banished to it.

A practical example of how we perform this ethic of restrained communication is provided by the greetings we offer each other along our road—greetings that are confined entirely and inflexibly to the wheel wave. That is, we lift one or more fingers off the steering wheels of our trucks as we roll by each other in the mud, dust, or snow. This is a rich and subtle form of communication, with a complex variety of nuanced, unwritten rules, but I’d summarize this way. You lift only your pointer finger off the wheel for a routine howdy to a neighbor. Lifting the pointer and middle fingers in the two-fingered salute is appropriate when greeting a truck carrying kids or old people, but it is best to flash the fingers at an oblique angle so as to avoid having it be misunderstood as a peace sign, which, in a sideways sort of way, it is. But under no circumstances do you ever, ever allow your palm to leave the wheel, which would be a greeting so effusive and emotional—so perfectly hysterical—that anyone foolish enough to display such a loss of self-control would never recover the respect of their neighbors.

The complex, invisible protocol for wheel waving constitutes an interactive social symbol system that, like other kinds of coded language, is highly functional. In a world replete with noise, ambiguity, miscommunication, distortion, obfuscation, and deceit, this system is crystalline in its clarity, elegant in its simplicity and directness. You might object that the desert, so dry, has made us dry as well, and you may speculate that the wheel wave is not a human-scale gesture on the order of the more demonstrative greetings so regularly exchanged in town. And yet, in a desert landscape that is emptied of everything save glaring light and huge wind and unspeakable beauty, a sideways peace sign may be sufficient—at least until the next big fire or storm.

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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Wheel wave
Nicholas Neely
Nicholas Neely
Jul 15, 2010 11:32 AM
I'd always wondered how, precisely, to interpret that gesture--well explained. Since my return to the Eastern Sierra, I've notice my finger lifting now and then, ever so slightly, as if on its own. Something about washboard roads ...

Looking forward to more, Mike.
Good piece
john lane
john lane
Jul 15, 2010 01:44 PM
Glad to see you writing these pieces! I'll look forward to hopping a several thousand miles west (and a few thousand feet up) to your landscape each time they appear. Two fingers off the wheel to you, buddy, and how's the weather? It's hot here in piedmont South Carolina.
Column
Brad Lucas
Brad Lucas
Jul 15, 2010 02:23 PM
As one B.L. Jefferson once said, "Word."
wheel done
Cheryll Glotfelty
Cheryll Glotfelty
Jul 15, 2010 10:12 PM
I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which must yet have had a long foreground somewhere, for such a start. I rubbed my eyes a little to see if this sunbeam were no illusion; but the solid sense of the blog is a sober certainty. It has the best merits, namely, of fortifying and encouraging. --what Ralph Waldo Emerson would have written to Walt Whitman had it been the 21st century
waves wearying and welcome
marty weiss
marty weiss
Jul 16, 2010 07:01 AM
Nobody waves in Chicago.
Privacy, diplomacy and anonymity are at a premium in the dense urban scene.
So when I moved to the woods of Missouri, at the end of a three-mile gravel road, the novel phenomenon of waving caught me unprepared. People I didn't know were waving at me as we encountered each other on the roads. After awhile, I began to get acquainted and wave back. But that Chicago reticence to expose oneself kept me from returning waves from those I didn't recognize.
Eventually, I became acclimated to automatically returning the wheel-waves of everyone, until the sheer obligation of ritual became annoying. But, isolated as I was, I kept waving anyway, awkward or not. In the back country, friendliness is a survival trait.
So when I drove up to Chicago for a visit, I was relieved at the absence of the obligation to wave all the time. Until I spotted a Missouri license plate approaching in oncoming traffic. And, sure enough, I got a wave. Then I was happy to return the gesture, acknowledgment of commonality, us two Missourians meeting here amid the Chicago traffic. A rare greeting and friendly exception to the impersonal crowd.
The Wave
Eve Quesnel
Eve Quesnel
Jul 17, 2010 11:43 AM
This small town (desert hermit community)gesture validates the choice to live exclusively and privately and symobizes the comradry among those who choose to live 'out there' instead of 'in there.' Loved your article, which recalled the days when Bill and I lived in Alturas and lifted those fingers in response to the passing pickup trucks with old Bud or Glenn in the driver's seat and his faithful border collie, front paws carefully balanced on the upper rails of the truck bed, nose stretched to meet the air mixed with washboard dirt.
Rural Roads
Colin Robertson
Colin Robertson
Jul 17, 2010 10:10 PM
This assessment of the phenomena of the rural waves brought me back to my childhood in Minnesota, driving and riding rural miles over minimum maintenance county roads, where one- and two-finger lifts from the steering wheel are part of the lived experience of rural life. Thanks for the reminder of that...
salute
Kenny Walker
Kenny Walker
Jul 18, 2010 02:01 PM
From one fellow rural Nevadan to another: (insert here: oblique two fingered salute, and subtle half-grin).

looking forward to more . . .
Of Wheel People
Crystal Atamian
Crystal Atamian
Jul 26, 2010 04:24 PM
This nice reminder of days spent winding my way through the rural roads of eastern Nevada while surveying sage grouse, as well as driving the non-county maintained dirt roads of my youth in the Sierra foothills. There is something about owning land, about choosing a life more isolated, that establishes a unique set of physical and social boundaries.
I have to wonder at the penchant of certain suburbanites who try to maintain this same attitude and sense of isolation, who inhabit closer spaces without even the courtesy of a finger wave. In spite of the curmudgeons, I often think rural living is more intimate than it often seems.
Finger Wave From Utah
Chris Cokinos
Chris Cokinos
Nov 16, 2010 01:44 PM
HCN readers are lucky to have Mike Branch to read. Thanks for this piece Mike. I look forward to others.