Rants from the Hill: In Defense of Missiles


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

The hill from which I rant is good for many things: to hold our house up high into the teeth of the desert wind and generate an updraft on which harriers kite; to give us the pitch necessary for quality tobogganing and to ensure that we’re snowed in often enough to enjoy it; to keep us above winter inversions so we may look down on an archipelago of broken peaks emerging magically from a valley-wide, flat-topped ocean of pogonip below. Perhaps the most satisfying thing about living atop a high hill, however, is that it offers so convenient and pleasing a place to throw things off of.

View, from the ranting hill, of peak islands in pogonip sea.

Maybe I should be ashamed of my passion for hurling things off my hilltop, but judge not lest you be judged. How often do you feel an urge to throw something? Perhaps I’m angrier than the average bear, but approximately every eighth time I pick up an object--a jammed stapler, ringing cell phone, cold cup of coffee, mind-numbing meeting agenda--I have a secret desire to launch it. Of course, most of us have learned to repress this basic human desire to throw things, or at least to sublimate our desire into the congenial tossing of Frisbees or softballs. But I believe that we each harbor a deep longing to convert the latent energy of our daily frustrations into the more visually satisfying form of a flying object. For me, the most rewarding means by which to make objects fly is to perch atop my home hill and, in illuminating bursts of rage, throw them as far as I can out into the desert.

When I sing the praises of my home as an excellent place from which to throw stuff, I mean to advocate the chucking of objects not as a form of mere petulance, but rather as a deeply ennobling form of self expression. Consider the etymology of the word missile, which, used as an adjective, denotes objects that are “capable of being thrown”—a quality shared by nearly everything I can get my hands on when I’m sufficiently irate. Now reflect on that word’s older cousin, missive, which derives from the Middle Latin missivus and was often used in the phrase littera missiva, which means “letters sent.” When in a fine fit I heave things off my hill, I am expressing the zeal of a missionary (another related word) who wishes earnestly to send things forth. Like this essay, which is a small missive launched toward you from the crest of an unnamed Sierra foothill in the western Great Basin, the things I pitch off this place are dispatches. They are my letters to the world.

Of course the objects I’ve thrown off the hill aren’t letters in the conventional sense, but rather are missives in the form of cheap tools, beer bottles, broken toys, ugly patio furniture, dead rodents, blown-out work boots, empty ballpoint pens, torn Kevlar chaps, dull saw files, nearly dead rodents, or anything else—other than my young daughters--that annoys me and thus suddenly seems in need of aerial relocation to packrat country down in the sage below. For me, these missile launches are a survival mechanism. If I am a pleasant neighbor and colleague and a patient husband and father, as I believe I am, it is simply because I can purge my frustrations with a healthy toss now and then. The therapeutic value of this tossing, however, depends upon the strictest solitude, which is a luxury those who do not live in the rurals can scarcely afford. Like urinating outside one’s home--a gesture universally understood by Ruralians as a sublimely satisfying expression of personal freedom—it requires both privacy and space to really throw stuff properly. If you toss things out of your apartment window, you’re arrested; if you fling stuff around your suburban yard, you’re socially outcast. But out here in the Silver Hills you can throw whatever you can afford to do without for awhile, just so long as your children aren’t around to learn from your poor example.

For many years I steadfastly maintained the self-discipline to hurl things off our hill only in private, but on one recent night my fury overcame what small bit of good sense I still possess. My Mother-In-Law happened to be visiting at the time, when a smoke alarm that had been giving me a world of trouble went off in the middle of the night. Bear in mind that this malfunctioning alarm had awakened my family three nights in a row, that my attempts to fix it had all failed, that I had managed that day to get both my truck and tractor stuck in the same icy ditch, and that I had not discovered until noon that I had accidentally been drinking decaf all morning. When, at 2:00 a.m., this smoke alarm--which now had the formerly snoozing Mother-In-Law beneath it--went off again, I rose slowly from my bed, walked calmly up the stairs toward the deafening chirping, stepped up onto the Mother-In-Law’s bed (with her still in it), reached up, and with a sudden yank pulled the unit, wires and all, clean out of the ceiling--leaving a gaping hole from which gypsum dust rained slowly down onto the Mother-In-Law. There followed a nourishing silence, during which I apologized quietly before turning to head for bed. In the next moment, however, the very worst happened: the alarm released one final, shorted-out little beep. It was just a death chirp, really, but by this point my patience and I were both exhausted, and my decisions were being made in the part of my brain that evolved long before smoke alarms were invented. I excused myself politely, opened the slider door, stepped out onto the second-story catwalk, pretended emphatically to wipe my rear end with the alarm--a gesture I hardly need add was purely instinctual--and then heaved the device as far as I could into the night. I watched with satisfaction as it sliced away into the moonlight, as if in slow motion, toward a distant, solitary juniper. Although I injured my triceps slightly on the throw, it was a moment so deeply gratifying that I find it impossible now to fully express the pleasure it brought.

Early that morning a foot of beautiful, fresh snow fell, burying the smoke alarm and a number of other missives I had air-mailed into the desert in recent weeks. We won’t see a melt-out for months now, but when spring comes--which at this elevation may happen anytime between late March and early July--my little girls and I will go on a “treasure hunt” out in the sage. And what we will find there will be artifacts from a time long past, a period of ancient history when barely remembered moments of intense frustration gave wings to earthbound objects like alarm clocks and broken sunglasses. We don’t know precisely what we’ll discover down there, but we’re already looking forward to finding out. For now, the snow just keeps falling, and we are the better for it.

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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