I find it unfortunate that we English speakers have so few words for “mud,” a substance that varies so greatly by location and conditions that it would be handier to have a hundred terms for it, as the indigenous Nordic Sami people do for “snow.” If a useless neologism like “ginormous” can make the Oxford English Dictionary, you'd think we could spare an extra line or two to distinguish one person's home mud from another's. Out here in Silver Hills, our mud is less a description of the ground than it is a full season, a marker of identity, and a way of life.
Lacking a hundred helpful synonyms for mud, I think instead of stories that suggest what's special about the thick, deep, slippery gunk that we Silver Hillsians call “gumbo.” One stretch of our driveway is so muddy that when I dumped a trailer load of three-quarter-inch drain rock on it the rock simply vanished into the mire. When driving on even the slightest slope it makes little difference whether you put your foot on the gas or the brake, since even while braking you simply slide along without resistance, like a capsule gliding through space. Our gumbo also has the unique quality of sticking to itself, gathering so thickly on our truck tires that it is limited only by the wheel wells, which shear it off with each revolution, neat as a spindle turning on a lathe.
The road to our house is sometimes so thick with gumbo that it becomes impassible even to high-clearance four-wheel drive vehicles. When that happens we have two choices: park at the paved road and slog in two and half miles through the muck, or wait until the mud freezes up, making it viscous enough that it becomes possible to pilot perilously across it. In seven years out here I've never completed a full mud season without sliding off the road, and we now run a “gumbo pool”: five bucks buys you a guess as to the first date on which one of us will end up in the ditch. But the very best thing about mud season in Silver Hills is the “gumbo luge,” which our young daughters love. Here's how it works: When mud season begins, the first dozen truck trips down our road leave shallow wheel ruts. Those ruts deepen by the day, and by mid-season are so deep that it is risky to try to avoid them, since a slide into the ruts results in a jaw-rattling drop that is bad for spines as well as transmissions. Instead, the trick is to get squarely into these twin tire canyons from the start, after which the impressive depth of the channels unfailingly prevents the vehicle from sliding off the road. The ruts are so deep that you can drive our road without ever placing your hands on the steering wheel. Instead, you simply slide along, secure in the deep tracks that guide your rig even around hairpin turns. No true Silver Hillbilly would ever be caught with their hands on the wheel while running the gumbo luge, and it is common practice to lace your fingers behind your head while gunning your truck along through the muddy slots.
One morning during the height of mud season I was sitting at my writing desk looking out the window--which is all I ever do at my writing desk--when I saw a spectacle so astonishing and surreal that I grabbed my birding binoculars to scope it out. There, in the twin tubes of the binocs, was a pink Cadillac, coming more or less sideways up our driveway. Understand that in all my years on the ranting hill I had never seen a two-wheel drive vehicle out here during mud season, that our driveway is an unbroken half-mile long sheet of hazardous gumbo, and that the only pink things I have ever seen around here are rock penstemon, long-leafed phlox, and my kid's pacifier. I instantly sprinted for the door, booted up, and headed out to see what would become of whoever was crazy enough to brave gumbo in a Caddy. My boots were soon covered with mud, so I crouched into ski jumper position and slid all the way down the ranting hill. I then slogged toward the next rise, wondering what I might see when I topped it.
From the crest of that knoll I witnessed an utterly indelible image: the pink Cadillac had gone sideways off the driveway, slid down a small hill, and lodged firmly atop a juniper stump, where it rested with its rear end up in the air and its wheels spinning madly, shotgunning mud everywhere. Covering my face with my forearm to deflect the gumbo strafing I worked my way down to the car, which had music blaring from behind its tinted windows. I rapped on the driver's side window and waited politely for a reply. Eventually the power window rolled slowly down, and Loretta Lynn came blasting out: “Well sloe gin fizz works mighty fast, when you drink it by the pitcher and not by the glass!” In the driver's seat was a middle-aged woman who looked uncannily like Loretta, only frosted blonde. She held in her hand a highball glass, from which she had apparently managed to spill not one drop of her cocktail. Rather than turning the music down, she instead held up her pointer finger as if to say “hold on a second,” took a sip of her drink, and then gunned the engine again.
“Your tires aren't on the ground!” I shouted over the cranking tunes, revving engine, and splattering mud. “What's that, hon?” she yelled back. “Your tires!” I screamed, pointing helpfully toward the part of her car that was three feet off the ground. She took another sip of her cocktail, leaned slowly out the window, craned her neck backward, and then began to laugh, reaching out to give me a fist bump, as if she had just slapped in the game-winning RBI. She then turned off the ignition, and in the silence that followed said in a gravelly voice, “I'm the Mary Kay lady. Want a drink?” If she looked like Loretta Lynn, she sounded more like Tom Waits. Though it was eleven in the morning I felt obliged not to let her drink alone, and so I promptly agreed. She spread her knees and without even glancing down pulled a thermos and second highball glass from beneath the driver's seat, pouring me a tall one of something that tasted like it was mostly gin. “I came to invite you to a party,” she said, “but I forgot the invitation. I don't want to get my heels muddy,” she continued, as she flipped open her cell phone, “so let's just have a drink.” She made a quick call, described roughly where she was, and instructed someone to “bring blush.”
We passed the next half hour pleasantly, she turning the Loretta back on and passing fresh drinks through the window, me standing up to my ankles in gumbo and receiving what I'm guessing were excellent tips about skin care. Just as we polished off the thermos, a large man wearing a huge hat came riding up the driveway on a ginormous horse. He dismounted with a wide smile, climbed down the hill, shook my hand firmly, then lifted the Mary Kay lady out through the window of the Caddy, drink still in hand, gently folding her over his broad shoulder like a sack of grain. Clambering up the slope he placed her on the horse, whose name, it turned out, was Blush. He then climbed up behind her and encircled her waist with his arms, and the two of them rode off together, laughing. I could see her clear plastic heels tapping Blush's flanks as the big man hollered back at me, “Thanks, chief. See ya after mud season!”
It took a few weeks for the gumbo to freeze up enough for a tow truck to get in and winch out the abandoned car, during which time I had the great pleasure of sitting at my desk, looking out at that beautiful wreck stranded down there among the gooseberry and rabbitbrush. And to commemorate the visit from the Mary Kay lady, whose name I never learned, I did what I think any socially-retarded recluse writer would have done: I composed a haiku.
Bright pink Cadillac
High-centered on an old stump
Wheels spinning freely.
Essays in the Range blog are not written by the High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.
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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Image courtesy Flickr user Jennifer Lamb.