“Rants from the Hill” are Michael Branch’s monthly musings on life in the high country of western Nevada’s Great Basin Desert.
It is less than 90 miles, as the raven flies, from the Ranting Hill to Rough and Ready, California, a western Sierra foothills town that holds special meaning for a reclusive curmudgeon like me. Rough and Ready was settled as a miners’ outpost in 1849, after which it quickly grew to be a boomtown of 3,000. Just a year or so after its settlement, though, the people of Rough and Ready decided they were already fed up with the constraints of citizenship, and so held a gathering at which they voted resoundingly to withdraw from the Territory of California and secede from the United States. On April 7, 1850, the Great Republic of Rough and Ready was established, and for several months it made out just fine as one of the tiniest and most independent nations in the world.
However, on July 4th of that same year, so the story goes, the men of Rough and Ready ran into trouble when they rode the four miles to nearby Grass Valley to get good and drunk. (During the mid-nineteenth century Americans were both more patriotic and more inebriated than they are today, and even temperance societies offered their members a reprieve from the sobriety pledge for the 4th of July.) But, to their dismay, the thirsty men of Rough and Ready reached the Grass Valley saloon only to be told that they were now considered “foreigners,” and thus would be served no hooch—especially not on the day set aside to celebrate the great nation from which they had chosen to secede. Sticking to the principles most important to true patriots, the men quickly convened another meeting, resoundingly voted to immediately rejoin the United States, and then returned to the Grass Valley saloon, where cheers went up as the newly reassimilated Americans set to patriotically hammering corn liquor just like everybody else.
The tale of the Great Republic of Rough and Ready has a curious addendum. Just after World War II the U.S. Postal Service discovered that Rough and Ready had never formally been readmitted to the union, and so had been essentially operating as a rogue state for nearly a century. A few forms were filled out, and on June 16, 1948, Rough and Ready formally rejoined the U.S. No doubt there was more drinking to celebrate the occasion. These days Rough and Ready has a population of about 900 folks, approximately 700 of whom would shoot you just for stepping onto their porch; the other 200 are telecommuting Bay Area software designers, which is far worse. But I do love to think of the century during which Rough and Ready existed both within and outside the nation that did and did not quite contain it.
There is in fact a long tradition of secessionist movements in America, a nation itself born through secession. Though we often associate secession with the southern states that confederated against the union during the Civil War, folks all over the country have been talking about getting out ever since they got in. Texas was once a free country (though it seceded from Mexico rather than the U.S.), eight counties of western North Carolina existed briefly as the State of Franklin, Maine was born when it seceded from Massachusetts, and both Kentucky and West Virginia were formed through secession from Virginia. There have been a whole slew of 51st state proposals, from folks in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula wanting to become a state modestly named “Superior,” to Long Islanders whose inherent sense of superiority motivated them to try to avoid slumming with the rest of New York. Northern California has been trying to declare itself free of southern California since before the establishment of Rough and Ready, and has in fact never stopped trying. A number of entire states have attempted to remove themselves from the country—the usual suspects, including Vermont, Alaska, Hawaii, Texas, and California. The citizens of countless cities and counties have also followed Rough and Ready in attempting to sever themselves from the United States. And following the 2012 presidential election, secession petitions were filed from every state in the country.
Perhaps most interesting are regionalist and bioregionalist secession movements, which have been strongest in the West. In 1849, the same year Rough and Ready was founded, the Mormon church established the independent state of Deseret, which occupied most of the Great Basin. Communities around Yreka, California, have tried to leave the union to form the State of Jefferson, an effort that has been ongoing since 1941, when some independent-minded folks declared that they would attempt to secede from the U.S. “every Thursday until further notice.” Up in the Pacific Northwest advocates are attempting to form the bioregional state of Cascadia, which would comprise parts of a number of states and even British Columbia. Some Lakota people in Wyoming, Montana, Nebraska, and the Dakotas have created the Republic of Lakota to emphasize that they never chose to join the nation in the first place.
Crazy as they may sound, these attempts to live within a larger political structure while somehow escaping its constraints make a kind of sense. Conceptually, secession speaks to our urge to declare ourselves independent from systems we find inefficient, unjust, or limiting, though of course we tend to look right past the privileges and utility of social organizations. We’re all for decent roads and also against the taxes necessary to maintain them. I think it is human nature to form compacts and then rebel against their power over us. The urge to withdraw from most everything is intense out here in Silver Hills, where those of us who survive the fires, earthquakes, aridity, wind, snow, rattlers, and scorpions have implicitly declared a fairly extreme form of independence just by maintaining residence here. In fact, the stalwarts of Silver Hills recently disbanded our neighborhood association, which existed for the sole purpose of keeping the roads passable in winter. It is hard to figure the logic on that one. Maybe there is a fear of a kind of slippery slope: first they ask you to chip in for snow removal, then they come on their plows to take your guns away?
It is worth remembering that secession means not only “formal withdrawal from an organization,” but also “withdrawal into privacy or solitude.” In this latter sense I’m a secessionist of the first order. In fact, I wonder if I shouldn’t follow the inspiration of my neighbors in nearby Rough and Ready and formally declare the absolute independence of my place here in Silver Hills. I already feel myself to be more a citizen of the western Great Basin than of this county; I’m more a desert rat than a Nevadan. What if I could succeed in seceding from this county and state and instead establish the 49.1-acre Great Republic of Ranting Hill?
Well, some things would have to change right away. Nobody who roots for the Dodgers is allowed into the kingdom. The tribute required when entering the Republic of Ranting Hill is a box of IPA, payable down at my farm gate. This, by the way, is the extent of my immigration policy. No light beer is permitted to cross the border without imposition of a steep tariff: a pint of porter owed for every three Coors lights transported. People who whine on hikes or arrive late for fishing trips do not receive a return invitation. Anyone abiding in the Republic will be required, at some point during their residency, to own a donkey who wears a straw hat. People who describe the desert as “empty” or “barren” automatically receive an official declaration of imbecility, while those who support the disposal of nuclear waste in the Great Basin face extradition to California. I’ve also declared an immediate end to sentimental pining for greenness, and anybody who can’t tell you their elevation and name a dozen desert wildflowers is subject to community service in the form of weedwhacking. Drunken plinkers and illegal offroaders are barred from the kingdom, but are subject to witty heckling from across the border fence, which has a barbless bottom strand, to allow pronghorn to pass in peace. While I’m at it, I’ve also declared a moratorium on discussions of politics, religion, and the state of the economy.
My most significant act as the benevolent dictator of the Great Republic of Ranting Hill has been to appoint my two young daughters to my cabinet, a leadership move I’ve made after observing that children tend to be more sensible than their parents. So now the Rules of the Republic include no bullying, cutting in line on the monkey bars, or making fun of your sister’s glasses. Bed making is now optional in the Republic, and until further notice healthy breakfasts have been replaced with Froot Loops. Mom will serve as Vice-President of the Republic, and will be charged with attending the state funerals of guppies and goldfish. All government employees have as part of their compensation package sparkly shoes and two free popsicles per day. The official motto of the kingdom is “Girls Rule, Boys Drool,” though my cabinet has not yet reconciled this with the fact that our national anthem is a song by Justin Bieber.
Ultimately, what matters most about the Great Republic of Ranting Hill is not the specific rules that govern our citizenry, but rather the spirit of absolute independence in which we operate. Of course this is pure fantasy, since even the road that takes us from Silver Hills to town is maintained by the state of Nevada, and leads to a highway kept up by the Feds. But out here in the Great Republic, which is defined only by big wind, scorching heat, and alpenglow on the distant mountains, the concepts of state and nation seem abstract. But maybe there’s a way to split the difference: we’ll declare our independence but also celebrate July 4. And I hereby decree that everybody gets booze. Even foreigners.
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.
Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.
Photo courtesy Flickr user jimmywayne.