“Rants from the Hill” are Michael Branch’s monthly musings on life in the high country of western Nevada’s Great Basin Desert.
Last night I got a phone call with the bad news that I have received what my neighbors out here in the remote Silver Hills refer to as a “redneck promotion.” To be specific, I have been promoted from plain member and citizen to Road Captain, which is a position no sensible person would covet. Despite the cool name and apparently elevated rank, the job is without compensation or administrative support, is unelected, and descends on you by fiat when the current Road Captain tells you you’re it.
The road to the Ranting Hill is 2.3 miles in length and has eight houses scattered along it. It is a terrible road which sometimes degenerates to pure caliche mud in winter and bone rattling washboard in summer. There have been times when it was so dry and abused as to be barren of gravel; at others it has been impassable because the water flowed across it in an unbroken sheet. Many seasons it is so muddy that we Silver Hillbillies must resort to hanging around in town drinking beer after work just to kill enough time for the mud to freeze up so we can cross it to reach our homes. There have been winters when the ruts in the muddy roadbed became so deep that if your wheels dropped into them your truck would glide along like a vegetable peeler, the skid plates cleanly shearing off and polishing the surface off the road. The road’s ditches are full of silt, the few culverts have crushed heads, and if there were ever any road signs they have long since blown away in the Washoe Zephyr or been hung on a horseshoe nail in somebody’s pole barn. (Our mailboxes are all crooked and our addresses are out of numerical order, too, but that’s a story for another day.) Here’s the kicker: this is a “private” road, which means that while the county won’t maintain it nobody else wants to either. So who, by default, is in charge of stewarding this mess? The Road Captain.
Many years ago we had a neighborhood association out here, to which we paid modest annual dues that were used for nothing but road work and snow removal. But most Silver Hillbillies are by nature unsociable, misanthropic, and paranoid, a worldview that inclines us toward conspiracy theories and radical libertarianism. As a result, a majority of my neighbors voted to get rid of the association, which they regarded as oppressed peasants do an occupying foreign army. The theory seemed to be that anybody who would collect association dues would soon come for our whiskey and guns. Once the association was disbanded it was every man for himself, which is precisely the arrangement most of my stubborn, independent, and heavily armed neighbors prefer.
Ever since the neighborhood association was busted up the roads out here have become even worse, and some roads have even descended into social chaos. On one nearby road which has only four houses, each neighbor has adopted the same strategy of trying to outwait the other three to see who will find the road so intolerable that they give in and fix it themselves. So far nobody has surrendered, even when for weeks at a time they were all forced by deep mud to park out at the paved road and hike up to their homes. On another road a guy who is especially entrepreneurial bought an expensive grader in hopes he’d have a field day, but because he was once seen having a beer with our local real estate developer nobody would hire him, and the bank took his shiny grader back pretty quick. On a third road a guy who had repaired the roadbed at his own expense threatened to install a toll gate if his skinflint neighbors wouldn’t pony up.
On our road this sort of chaos was averted only through the leadership of my friend Ludde, the seventy-year old man who lives on 60 acres across the draw from the Ranting Hill. He is hands down the toughest and most curmudgeonly guy I’ve ever met, which is another way of saying that he is my role model. Ludde has for some years been our Road Captain, and it is a role that suits him perfectly. He doesn’t speak often, but when he does everybody pays attention. For example, while riding his big horse out in the desert he is fond of mentioning to illegal off-roaders, wherever he finds them, that “this is my favorite place to shoot, because I’d never expect anybody to be riding here. Why, a fella could get himself killed.” You’d be scared of this guy even if he didn’t have a twelve-gauge in a saddle scabbard by his right shin, which he does. On another occasion Ludde confronted a dirt biker who was shredding our road. The biker, who didn’t know who he was talking to, cussed the old man out and tore off. Ludde climbed into his F-350 and chased the motorcyclist for several miles along BLM roads at high speed until the biker finally laid it down on a loose turn. Ludde left his truck running and walked slowly up to the young man, who lay sprawled near his wrecked bike with a badly broken arm. Looking down with a grin Ludde said, “Looks like your arm is bent funny, partner. Well, nice day for a walk.” And with that he cocked his buckaroo hat, climbed back into his rig, and drove contentedly home.
It takes that kind of grit to be an effective Road Captain. One time a neighbor on the road to the south of us went rogue and drove overland across her property and some public land to use our road because hers was in such bad shape. On the day the lady pioneered her new route, Ludde intercepted her and explained that if she wanted to use our road she’d have to pay the same amount the rest of us do to keep it up. The woman not only refused, but produced a .30-06 deer rifle, which she gripped while responding that she’d do as she pleased. Ludde didn’t blink. As he walked away, he said only “We bought a little rock for the road. Let me know by morning if you want to pay your share.” The next morning Ludde had two end dump truck loads of road base deposited in in the mouth of the makeshift driveway the lady was using to access our road. I’ll spare you the math: this is a quarter of a million pounds of gravel. Ludde left that monster pile there for the better part of a year, by which time the woman had learned what the rest of us already knew: you don’t mess with our Road Captain.
To be such a tough guy, though, Ludde is also resourceful and flexible. Whenever a neighbor couldn’t afford to pay their fair share he’d offer to cover them until their cash flow improved. Once he let a neighbor work off his road dues doing roofing work on Ludde’s barn, after which Ludde paid the man’s share. Another neighbor who has a big tractor but little money contributes by doing ditching work along the road. Yet another never pays American dollars, but always produces two loads of “rock” (shorthand for type two road base gravel), which is a meaningful contribution even though no money changes hands. Indeed, Ludde understands that rock is the coin of the realm out here—a kind of redneck Bitcoin—and that it can be traded for almost anything. A neighborly trade might involve farrier tools, a case of rye, a calf, or a truck winch, and that is fine with Ludde, so long as the exchange ends in the common currency of rock, which then goes down on our road.
When I answered the phone last night, Ludde’s first words were “I’ve got some good news for you.”
“Let me guess. You didn’t shoot anybody today?” I replied.
“I’ve already told everybody else on the road,” he continued, ignoring me. “And more good news: this redneck promotion comes with a six-pack. Congratulations.”
“Ludde, please tell me this isn’t what I think it is. Please. What have I ever done to you? Haven’t I been a good neighbor all these years?” I asked.
“Yup. That’s why I have confidence in you, Captain,” he replied, only emphasizing the word “captain” a little.
“Listen,” I pleaded. “You were born to do this job. I don’t have the cojones to run this road. Why in hell would you want me?”
“Because you’re fair. Not very tough, but fair. And you’re one of the only folks on the road who hasn’t been threatened with a gun,” Ludde explained.
“Yeah, but that’ll change as soon as I’m Captain. These Silver Hillbillies will eat me alive.”
“Comes with the territory, son. Besides, this is easy. What did I do when old lady Jenkins said we should reckon each person’s dues by their distance from the paved road?” he asked.
“Nothing?” I guessed.
“How about when Matt wanted to figure dues by how many vehicles each family drives?”
“Not a thing,” I answered.
“And when Smitty complained about the weight of Roper’s flatbed? Or when Bill said he wouldn’t pay up until Janie did? Or when Jesse put buckshot into the side of the Fed Ex truck because it was going too fast?”
“Nothing,” I repeated. “Not a damned thing.”
“Got the picture, Captain? Everybody pays the same amount, due at the same time, unless they make a trade or show up with rock. Simple.”
“I really don’t want to do this, Ludde, but you’ve left me no choice. Can I at least call on you for help when things get rough?”
“Nope,” he replied. “Now you go share this good news with Hannah and Caroline. It isn’t every little girl has a Daddy who’s a Road Captain. And drop by for that six-pack anytime.”
All photographs are by the author.