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Rants from the Hill: The Ghost of Silver Hills

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Michael Branch | Feb 15, 2011 09:10 AM

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

A decade ago, when we first scouted the rural high country where we ultimately bought land and built our home, there weren’t many folks out here from whom to get stories of whatever might have come before. We knew from the obsidian arrowheads we occasionally found on prominent outcroppings that in the deep past this was Northern Paiute country, and the quartz-rimmed prospect holes dotting the steepest foothills marked the moment when miners had come and gone. But the recent human history of Silver Hills—from the era before the main road was paved and power brought in—consisted of little more than rusty old churchkey-style beer cans found beneath the sage. Among the few neighbors who had moved out here ahead of the grid, only scraps of stories remained. There was the day a young black bear apparently strayed over from the Sierra and terrified somebody’s dogs, and the night the big fire crested our home mountain and supposedly broke like a scarlet tsunami into the valley. Some folks said that a small plane had once crashed in the hills nearby, and that the pilot had actually survived and walked out of this rugged country, though nobody recalled the details. One old off-the-gridder told me that twenty years ago a neighbor who built on a remote BLM inholding kept an elephant as a pet, though with this tale, as with all others, there never seemed to be anything behind the story but more stories.

An unconfirmed legend that touched my family more directly was that of a man who was rumored to have lived on the land—just camping out in the desert someplace, it was said—in an area near the parcel we ultimately bought. However, the follow-up questions I asked of the old timers led nowhere: no one knew who the man was, or why he had been out here, or where exactly he had camped. One neighbor claimed that the man’s campfire had eventually drawn the attention of the sheriff, who traced the smoke plume to the man’s camp and moved him off the land—though another neighbor swore instead that the man had simply vanished, like a ghost.

A few years after buying our land we designed and built a passive solar, wood-heated home, which we occupied about the time of our first daughter’s first birthday. I didn’t think any more about the mysterious camper than I did about the crashed plane or the pet elephant, and I discovered no evidence to corroborate any of these local legends. In those first two years I tramped several thousand miles in the nearby hills and canyons, until I felt that I had found every juniper stump and packrat midden, every erratic boulder and redtail nest within ten miles of home. I knew where the pronghorn moved and where the ravens perched, which arroyos were too snake-filled in summer and which were wind-protected in winter.

And then, during our third autumn out here, I was walking on our own property when I decided to take shelter from a biting west wind that was driving the season’s first snow. I clambered down a rocky slope about a quarter mile from the house and got down on all fours to crawl into a copse of junipers that was too dense to be entered upright. After creeping eight or ten feet through the dirt I discovered an opening in the center of the stand, a small, clear area that was ringed by an impenetrable halo of trees. Suddenly I realized what I had stumbled upon. In the small clearing was a perfect circle of blackened rocks that had been his fire pit, and next to it a tidy pile of short juniper logs that looked as if they had been stacked that morning. Dangling from the higher boughs were strands of old cordage, which had once tethered a canvas tarp that was now half buried in the duff along with what appeared to be a bedroll. Beneath one of the trees was a small mountain of beer bottles, which I recognized from my youth as having contained Miller—clear bottles from the dark days so long before the microbrew revolution that a brew as awful as Miller High Life could be called “the champagne of beers.”

Vintage playboyBut the most surprising item in this remarkable, wild digs was stacked neatly beneath one corner of the tarp: an impressive cache of surprisingly well-preserved Nixon-era Playboy magazines. In effect, I had made the astounding anthropological discovery of a western Great Basin Mancave, circa 1973. The cover of the September, 1970 issue featured a blonde woman wearing a leather headband and wide macramé belt, accoutered with fringed purse, and flashing not her breasts but rather a peace sign, which she displayed before breasts so completely obscured by a tasteful blue sweater that the entire effect resembled less Playboy than Good Housekeeping. Readers of the October, 1971 issue were greeted by a cheerful woman with an enormous afro whose body was thoroughly obscured by a white, plastic chair resembling the head of giant bunny. The cover of the 1972 Christmas issue didn’t even deploy a photograph, instead offering a stylized drawing of a woman dressed as Santa Claus—though she did look considerably less grouchy than Santa sometimes does.

What would this place have been like in, say, the autumn of 1973, when the ghost of Silver Hills sat alone by a crackling juniper log fire, pounding Millers, and trying to decide whether he would want to share his sylvan sanctuary with the righteous hippie chick or the smiling lady with the huge afro? There would have been no home within several miles and no paved road within ten, and it was then a twenty-mile walk to the edge of town. Was he on the lam, or was he instead, like me, simply a man who had chosen the hills and valleys? Was his juniper-bowered Mancave an indication of his sanity, or the lack of it? Would it be accurate to call him homeless, or was this his true home? Was he trying to get to someplace else, or only hoping, as I so often have, that someplace else wouldn’t catch up with him out here? It was a nice spot the ghost of Silver Hills had chosen, the kind of snug shelter where one might well wait out the Nixon administration—or a parole officer or creditor, or the draft board, or whatever needed waiting out. As I huddled within the ghost’s magic circle, sheltered from the blowing snow but also sensing winter coming on, I felt a sudden urge to spark a small fire, crack a bad beer, and do some light reading until the gloaming swallowed the windswept desert hills.

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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Vintage Playboy image (yes, it is the released-13-months-later Italian version; that's all we could find and publish legally) courtesy Flickr user Corrado Cambiaghi.


Steve Waclo
Steve Waclo
Feb 15, 2011 04:09 PM
Michael: Thanks for the fascinating and strangely sad story. One can only speculate on how the "mystery man" managed to survive, even briefly, in the primative man cave you describe. And thanks for the smiles, too.

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