“Rants from the Hill” are Michael Branch’s monthly musings on life in the high country of western Nevada’s Great Basin Desert.
Last Saturday around noon I was still feeling desperate for more alone time when my daughters Hannah (age 10) and Caroline (age 7) asked if I was finally ready to play with them. I had been making excuses all morning, explaining that I needed to get Beauregard the dog out for a hike, that I had to spend some time splitting wood, that it was important for me to haul rock to riprap a drainage trench I had recut with the tractor. In truth these chores were an excuse to drink beer, listen to tunes, and have a little time to sift the week’s detritus through my partially clogged noggin filter. “It occurs to me that you girls haven’t watched enough TV today,” I replied, beer in hand. “Let me recommend Scooby Doo. Facilitates cerebral development. Worked for me, anyhow. Besides, your teachers aren’t going to help you learn important words like ‘Zoinks’ and ‘Jinkies’. Why don’t you meddling kids go fire up a couple of episodes?”
At just that moment my wife Eryn stepped around the corner of the house, frowning at her irresponsible husband. “Ruh-roh,” I muttered, changing my tune. “Girls, much as I hate to deprive you of more Scoob and Shag, let’s go play. What did you have in mind?”
“Let’s build something ginormous!” exclaimed little Caroline.
“I think we should build a gigantic one of those,” said Hannah, pointing at the label on my beer bottle. “What is that cool thing, Dad?” I had been drinking the best beer brewed in my town, an Ichthyosaur IPA from Great Basin Brewing – a barleypop fondly called an “Icky” by all brewfully inclined western Great Basinians.
“That, my dear, is an Ichthyosaur. It was a giant marine reptile that swam around Silver Hills when this place was beneath the ocean a couple hundred million years ago. It also happens to be the state fossil of Nevada.” At first the girls didn’t believe me that states have their own representative fossils. “Yup,” I continued, “but most of them aren’t as cool as ours. Arizona’s is petrified wood. Lame. In Tennessee it’s the bivalve. Bivalve? Lamer. Connecticut? Dinosaur tracks. Lamest of all, because the state fossil of Massachusetts was already dinosaur tracks. But Nevada has a big old sea lizard. We rock.” I hoisted the bottle in cheers and downed the last of my Icky.
With that Caroline raised both puny arms above her head and shouted “Let’s build a giant Itchy-sore!” Of course Hannah wanted to know what we would build it out of, and I confess that the prospect of constructing a giant sea lizard registered with me as the ten thousandth time I had felt myself inadequate to a task that was suddenly very important to my kids. “How about firewood?” Eryn suggested. I grinned in reply. “That, my friend, is genius. Let’s do it! Girls, y’all go make a quick sketch of a sea monster, and I’ll hook up the trailer and get your work gloves.”
Twenty minutes later I had us ready to haul wood, and the girls had drawn a prototype marine reptile. In addition to having a serpentine shape that would make it look like it was wriggling through the ocean of our Nevada desert, it would also have a series of big humps, each of which would be larger than the last as we worked our way toward the head. And Eryn added a creative twist: if we could build our sea beast with high humps but low saddles in between, a good snow would bury the arches and reveal the humps, making it look like our marine reptile was swimming through a frothy ocean of fresh powder.
In order to keep packrats from colonizing cover too close to our house (we’ve had Neotoma cinerea, that furry hell, nesting in the crawl space more than once) we keep the woodpile about a quarter mile down our half-mile-long driveway. The girls pulled on their gloves and climbed into my small utility trailer and we bounced down to the woodpile and started loading bucked juniper, pinyon, and ponderosa, a little sugar pine and white fir mixed in. Returning to the house we selected a flat area near the garage and began laying out the logs, starting at the tail and at first using only a single-log construction so as to establish the shape of our giant reptile. As we did, Eryn sat nearby in a lawn chair, reading about Ichthyosaurs to the girls from something she had googled on her phone.
“Ichthyosaurs lived from 245 to 90 million years ago and were widely distributed around the globe,” she reported. “Middle Triassic, Late Cretaceous. They evolved from a group of unidentified land reptiles that at some point moved back into the sea. The name Ichthyosaur is from the Greek, meaning ‘fish lizard.’ Although they swam like fish and looked a lot like fish, they were reptiles. The fact that they developed a lot of fishlike parts is called ‘convergent evolution.’ That means that although fish and Ickys are totally unrelated, they developed similar kinds of fins because it is just useful to have fins if you plan to swim.”
Cracking another Icky IPA along with my joke, I added: “The same way fathers around the world have all evolved the same beer drinking behavior, even though their cultures are unrelated.”
Wisely ignoring me, Eryn continued reading. The girls asked a few follow-up questions, decided to add an improvised fin-log to each of the monster’s humps, paused for water a few times, but mainly just worked at stacking the wood along the spine of their giant reptile, which was beginning to take shape, rising from the gravel pad in a very satisfying way.
“Ickys averaged six to thirteen feet long, but some were much larger,” Eryn continued. “The largest Ichthyosaur fossils ever discovered, which were almost fifty feet long, were found in . . . wait for it . . .”
“Nevada!” Hannah shouted. Eryn gave her a wide smile and two thumbs up.
Because our lizard was so long and sinuous, its body swallowed up a surprising amount of wood, and so we fetched a second trailer load and, eventually, even a third. By the time that third load was placed along the rising, humped spine of our giant reptile it was late afternoon and the already low winter sun was dropping fast. But the kids refused to quit, begging me to fashion a big reptile head, which was the only thing missing from what had become a truly respectable cordwood sea monster. Caroline and Hannah’s desert ocean lizard now wriggled impressively across the gravel and had imposing humps, the largest of which rose five feet from the ground.
Knowing I had so little time before dark and that my lack of artistic ability would be a serious liability even under better circumstances, I decided to quickly attach whatever dragony looking stuff I could find nearby. Fatherhood, after all, is the art of improvisation. I first took a twisted log and stuck it into the front hump to suggest a neck. Then I grabbed my drill from the garage and attached a piece of old barnboard to the end of the neck. From a trashcan full of scrap wood I salvaged two small log ends, which I repurposed as eyes, attaching them hastily to the barnboard brow with old deck screws. I screwed much smaller log ends onto the eyes to resemble pupils. I then bored holes down each side of the neck, and into them I jammed pinyon pine branches that I lopped off our Christmas tree, which was still lying on the ground near the wellhead. Finally, I used my chainsaw to cut a flange of root from a big juniper stump, and I inverted it and popped it on the forehead as an improvised horn.
Finishing my hasty work just at dusk, I popped another Icky and stepped back to consider what redneck art had wrought. So awful were the results of my effort that I momentarily wished I lived in Arizona, where I would presumably have been asked by my kids to make a state fossil that looked like petrified wood. Our giant reptile’s head left the impression of a gene-splicing experiment gone wrong, and rather than resembling the noble marine reptile of yore, the skull of this monster looked like it belonged to a cross between a giant lamprey eel, a misshapen desert unicorn, and an inebriated reindeer, and its face was disconcertingly reminiscent of Spielberg’s E.T. I had long since come to view fatherhood as the constant condition of having to publicly admit one’s shortcomings, but even I felt ashamed that at the end of the girls’ remarkable wood sculpture I had produced a head so abominably bad as to turn the wonderful beast into a sort of Jurassic jackalope.
“Well, girls, my work here is done. Thanks to me, your awesomely cool marine reptile does not in fact look like an Ichthyosaur. Not in the least. I’m really sorry about that.”
“That’s ok, Daddy,” Caroline offered. “Our monster doesn’t have to be any certain kind, so long as we made it ourselves. And it really is awesome. This guy can just be our own special made-up kind of desert sea monster.”
Big sister Hannah was even more consoling. “Dad, you spent all day building this with us, which is double awesome. Why don’t you write a Rant about our big lizard? Then we can just forget about the whole Icky thing and name him Rantosaurus!” As Caroline nodded in agreement, I found myself thinking that a kid’s universe is not only more imaginative than the grown-up world, but also kinder and more humane. Millions of years ago this desert had been ocean, and someday it might be ocean once again. But for one small, already disappearing moment in the life of this place, I was the flawed father of understanding children and the co-creator of a giant sea monster. It would be bad form to ever wish for more.
“Ok, y’all. Rantosaurus it is. Rantosaurus silverhillsii. Not only rare, but unique. Nothing like it anywhere else in the world.”
By now Eryn had come out to “admire my art,” as she put it with a grin, and to call us in for supper. “It looks pretty fierce,” she said. “What do you want it to protect us from? I’d like to be protected from rattlers in the garage and Beauregard slobbering on my work clothes. How about you, Bubba?”
I took one more swig of delicious Icky IPA. “Light beer, illegal offroaders, climate deniers, and the NSA. And house fires. Not necessarily in that order. Hannah, how about you?”
“OK, let’s see. I’m going with mountain lions and brussels sprouts. Caroline, how about you?”
“Dog poop. Oh, and math tests. And when teachers get mad. I want Rantasaurus to just gobble up mad teachers.”
“I think that’s a fine idea, sweetie,” I said in a tone of genuine approval.
Caroline had one last question. “Dad, I know our sea monster isn’t really an Icky, but is it as big as one – as big as one of those big Nevada ones, I mean?”
“Let’s find out,” I said, taking her hand in mine. We then paced off the length of our monster, starting at the head, which towered over her little body, and tracing the curves of its gracefully winding spine until we reached the tip of the tail. “Well, honey, your Rantosaurus is about forty feet long, which is impressive, but Mom read that the whopper Nevada ichthyosaurs were almost fifty feet long. Are you disappointed?”
“Naaw,” she replied without hesitation. “He’ll keep growing, and next year when we build him again he’ll be bigger.”