Desolate as their reputation remains among people who are looking for a handy place to test weapons or dispose of nuclear waste, American deserts have had as allies an impressive bunch of talented, passionate writers. Among these lyrical defenders I’d include Wallace Stegner, Cactus Ed Abbey, Ellen Meloy, Ann Zwinger, Leslie Marmon Silko, Charles Bowden, Gary Paul Nabhan, and Terry Tempest Williams. And at the headwaters of this dry river of sparkling prose I’d place Mary Austin, the early-twentieth-century writer who once described arid landscapes as “forsaken of most things but beauty and madness and death and God.” We don’t need to agree on what God might be to recognize how powerfully this expresses the exhilarating experience of desertness. In her 1903 book The Land of Little Rain, Austin writes of the desert that “There are hints to be had here of the way in which a land forces new habits on its dwellers.”
As a desert dweller myself, I’m fascinated by Austin’s geographical determinism—by her conviction that folks who live in the desert long enough are profoundly shaped by it. Out here in Silver Hills we’re buffeted by uncontrollable desert forces, from aridity, wind, and snow to earthquakes and fire. But we’re also profoundly influenced by the crisp, thin air and the unique quality of the light, by the unforgiving openness of the land and the monstrous silence it engenders. Lately I’ve been thinking about this towering desert silence, and how it might be shaping us even as we speak, or choose not to. I’ve long observed that raven and coyote talk more than we laconic Silver Hillsians do. The few folks scattered along our rural road seem to have tacitly agreed that words are best left in town, and out here we ration them as we do whiskey when we’re snowed in for too long. To illustrate how this desert silence has shaped us, I offer these three small stories of unusual encounters with my rural neighbors.
The first occurred atop our home mountain, whose base is several miles west of the Ranting Hill, and whose summit ridge sits a little under 8,000 feet. To appreciate this story you must first understand that in a decade of walking these hills, canyons, and valleys—a total of over 10,000 miles logged in all seasons and all weathers—I have seen a grand total of two recreational hikers. When you run into another walker only every five years or 5,000 miles (whichever comes first), you forget that such an encounter is even possible. Although I walk every single day, presidential elections happen more often than I see another desert rat like myself out in these dry, high wilds. One June morning my dog and I had climbed the 2,000-foot grade to the mountaintop, and were picking our way south along the boulder-strewn knife edge of the summit ridge. The wind was howling, the views were spectacular, and we were—if I may presume to speak for the dog—very happy. As we cleared a rough notch in the summit ridge I looked up and saw, to my great surprise, a guy about a hundred yards ahead, making his way toward me along the ridge, and also accompanied by a dog. I thought to myself how unlikely this meeting was, and how much we two must have in common. On the other hand, I wasn’t sure what I should say to him, since life in Silver Hills has taught me respect for a kind of inviolable solitude that now seemed oddly endangered by this chance meeting. At last we were almost face to face on the ridge. The guy looked at me and smiled. “Hey,” he said. “Hey,” I replied, smiling back. Neither of us even broke stride.
The second encounter happened one September afternoon when I was coming home from the Sierra with a load of white fir and ponderosa pine for the wood stove. I had just banked my pickup and dump trailer through the sharp double curve out on the paved road a few miles east of the Ranting Hill, when I decided to pull over and check the load before starting up the washboarded gravel road to our house. As I was testing the tension on the straps securing the logs I heard a vehicle enter the double curve, and I could tell from the sound of the gunning engine and squealing tires that the driver was taking the upper hairpin too fast. I looked up to see a pickup blast out of the top curve, leaning dangerously on its shocks and fishtailing. The driver managed to straighten it out and slow down, but the wobbling caused two boxes to fly off the full load in the truck’s bed. The first box turned out to be a cooler, which I discovered when it hit the asphalt, exploded into pieces, and sent a shower of beer cans skidding and rolling toward me. The other box was a plastic pet carrier, which bounced a few times before sliding across the road and coming to rest near the toe of my boot. The truck shuddered to a stop, and out jumped a portly guy wearing brown Carhartt pants, a Nevada blue T-shirt, and a yellow tractor cap. He slalomed toward me, gathering the cans that had not ruptured into his T-shirt, which he used as an improvised brew hammock. When he finally reached me he must have had eight beers cradled in his shirt, and his belly, which was impressively hairy, was hanging out. He reached into his suds pouch, pulled out a dented can of a local Buckbean brew which I recognized as Tule Duck Red Ale, and handed it to me with a grin. “Here,” he said cheerfully, as if to apologize for nearly clobbering me with flying beers and pets. “Thanks,” I replied, cracking open the can and raising it slightly. He then leaned over and grasped the pet carrier through its air holes with his thumb and middle finger, as if he were grabbing a six-pack. Walking back to his truck, he tossed the beers and pet box into the cab and drove away. I assume the pet carrier was empty, but I can’t say so for sure.
The third encounter occurred on a clear, snowless winter day. I was walking along a dirt road in an open valley not far from home when I noticed the high-pitched drone of a little prop-engine plane above me. This wasn’t unusual, since it was only about three miles to our local airstrip, which is used mostly to stage firefighting efforts along this stretch of the Sierra front. Soon, however, I heard the plane’s engine surge and then cut out. After a few seconds of noiseless gliding the engine fired again, but a moment later resumed missing, and now I noticed that the aircraft was losing altitude. Tracing a wide, descending circle above the valley floor, the plane banked behind me, the drone of its engine irregularly interrupted by moments of eerie silence. I continued to walk, but now found myself speeding up, looking over first one shoulder and then the other at the plane’s surprising descent. At last it became clear that the pilot intended to use this dirt road as an emergency landing strip, and so I broke into a run, crashing off into the sage and rabbit brush to get as far clear of the roadbed as I could. The next moment the plane dropped over me and touched down gracefully in the middle of the road, pulling a swirling cloud of yellow dust behind it. It coasted to a stop, the door flew open, and a skinny man wearing a cowboy hat climbed out. Instead of coming toward me, though, he marched straight out into the open desert, heading in the general direction of the distant airstrip. “Sorry!” he hollered at me over his shoulder as he waded into the sage. “No problem, buddy!” I yelled back, as in the same instant I regretted the terrible wordiness of my reply.
How is it that in a world brimming over with talk we Silver Hillsians became so dry, so laconic? Maybe we worry that spouting words might leave us desiccated and vulnerable to dehydration, or that the act of speaking might cause us to shed layers that provide a defense against hypothermia. Or is there simply so much space between us that we surprise each other when we meet, and are struck with an aphasia induced by the vastness of the desert itself? Or perhaps we hesitate to speak because everything we say must be shouted into the wind, which sweeps our words away to Utah—or, when the Washoe zephyr quarters from the southwest, to Idaho. So we clench our teeth to avoid eating the wind, and also to hold our souls in good and tight. I think Mary Austin was right. Dwelling here has made us like the desert plants, which have lived long enough in the wind to know the silent value of keeping a low profile.
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