Rants from the Hill: Desert Insomnia

Living the not-so-quiet life in the rural West.


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

I don’t recall exactly what I was thinking when I decided it was a good idea to move out to this isolated hilltop in a remote area of the high desert, but surely it must have had something to do with a desire for quiet. (We writers, who talk incessantly and insist that people listen to us, are famously enamored of silence.) No less an expert on pastoral silence than Billy Wordsworth wrote that “with an eye made quiet by the power of harmony, and the deep power of joy, we see into the life of things,” and so I had been persuaded that true insight must be correlated with harmonious silence. If I could get away from the relentless din of humanity—so little of which has substantial or lasting value—I too might gain the power to see into the beauty of this Great Basin landscape, and the strange and amazing life we live within it.

Of course when we first came out here we didn’t have kids, and I now realize that when one is a parent there is no refuge from the incessant torrent of noise that we both produce and are subjected to. Trying to parent and have quiet is like trying to swim without getting wet. It isn’t only my daughters’ talking that breaks the silence around here, it is also their regrettable habit of waking throughout the night and feeling obliged to come tell me all about it. The other night Caroline, our eight-year-old, marched into our bedroom at 1:45 a.m. and blurted out, “Do you think if you crossed a camel with a monkey it could go without water and still climb trees?” I replied as any exhausted parent would. “Do you need to know the answer tonight, honey, or can I give that one some thought?” Hannah, our eleven-year-old, is even worse, because she breaks the silence in a creepier way: she sleepwalks. A week ago she zombied her way into our room at 2:30 a.m. to ask—in that eerie, flat affect of the somnambulist—why we had decided to turn our home into a seafood restaurant and had forced her to become a waitress, thus ruining the birthday party she had planned for her BFF, Taylor Swift. In our family, apparently even being asleep isn’t a good enough reason to stop talking.

In addition to these human distractions, my quiet is routinely disrupted by our worthless pets. My wife Eryn’s cat, Buster Posey, has a meow as loud as a barking dog, and frequently celebrates the witching hour by using my temple as his ass throne. My dog is worse. Beauregard not only has long, floppy ears, but also huge jowls, which gives him a ponderous, mint-julepy sort of look. But it is the acoustic force of his ears and lips that is most astounding. Whenever he shakes his head, which he does each time I’m about to enter deep sleep, there is a prodigious flapping, a sound so rhythmic, resonant, and loud that it sounds uncannily like the beating of helicopter blades. It is as if a Huey were landing at the foot of the bed, only it is a chopper that also strafes saliva up the walls in a uniform splatter pattern. Even when Beau is silent, which is rare, he is still deadly. His flatulence is so unspeakably toxic that when awakened by it I find myself wishing he would shake his head some more, just to fan the stink away with his billowing lips.

All these disruptions to my quiet occur within the house, but it is outside that the real acoustic trouble originates. Mice scurry along the window sills and frequently succeed in gaining access to the walls. Once they’ve breached the levee of the stucco exterior—which they can do through a gap as small as a quarter of an inch—they delight in using their little claws and teeth to scratch away at the drywall, which acts as a drumhead, amplifying the scraping sounds so that, as I lie in bed wide awake, I estimate the average mouse’s weight at seventy pounds. Worse are the packrats, gifted climbers that, in the absence of a handy cliff, scramble straight up the exterior of the house, where they gnaw away at the soffits all night in an attempt to enter the attic.

But if the rodents are small, the wind out here is huge, ripping down from the Sierra in winter, and blasting up from the desert canyons as the Washoe Zephyr in summer. It isn’t simply the unrelenting howling that is disconcerting, but also the associated effects of the big wind. Some of these are predictable: flying tumble mustard plants bouncing off the windows, or the familiar sound of our deck furniture first sliding along, and then tumbling out into the desert. But there are also weirder effects of the big wind. For example, once I’m awakened by the violent creaking and whistling of the gusts I sometimes stumble to the bathroom, where I stand above the toilet watching the water rock back and forth in the bowl; especially by moonlight, this gives me the peculiar feeling that I’m trying to take a leak from the deck of a pitching ship, where even the can is a moving target.

California Valley Coyote, photograph courtesy of Flickr user Justin.

It isn’t only the wind that howls, but also the coyotes. What could be more romantic than coyote song at night? Western nature writers croon about the experience of hearing the pack, a transformative moment in which one is apparently obliged to feel an overwhelming spiritual bond with the nonhuman world. I, instead, nurture a deep bond with the fantasy of someday getting five hours of sleep. Coyote song is not as advertised in the movies. Their chorus, if we want to stretch a valorizing metaphor so far as to use that term, is less a sonorous howling than a chaotic cacophony of yips and yelps. I’ll go with chorus only if I may stipulate that it is a chorus of inebriated kindergarteners. These selfish animals also refuse to yelp on my schedule, instead taking special pleasure in busting loose just about the time I’ve finally rid myself of sleeptalking daughters and farting dogs.

Old man coyote isn’t alone out there. There are also the great horned owls, which, like the coyotes, do not often produce the pastoral night song we have been led to expect. Gentle hooting? Forget it. The signature, charismatic Hollywood hoot comprises about a fifth of their repertoire, while the remainder is a dissonant amalgamation of cries, whistles, shrieks, barks, and hisses. And may I be wrapped in rattlers if an immature owl doesn’t sound like a human baby screeching in agony because its little leg has been caught in the teeth of a combine. We aren’t talking about a sound that shatters silence, but rather one that splinters sanity.

Last Sunday this immense desert night provided me with an unremitting sonic parade, a noisy nocturne in which the usual annoyances occurred serially over the course of what might otherwise have been a decent night’s sleep. Sleeptalking kid, face-sitting cat, lip flapping dog, scurrying mice, gnawing packrats, surging wind, yipping coyotes, shrieking owls. Then, at 3:45 a.m., our chickens started clucking and squawking. Yet another of my ill-advised pastoral affectations, these hens are almost as worthless as our pets. We feed them, clean their coop, keep them watered and warm, and generally enable their selfish, indolent lifestyle. They, in return, sometimes appear to perhaps be nearing the contemplation of maybe almost laying an egg, but then rarely follow through. Now, in addition to being unproductive, smelly, high-maintenance, and lazy, they were also being loud.

In a moment of pure frustration I succumbed to that special kind of exhausted anger that arises when a desperate need for rest has been thwarted one too many times. In this odd moment some biological imperative exerted itself, as a deeply buried survival instinct eclipsed my last shred of equanimity and convinced me that sleep was worth fighting for and, if necessary, worth dying for. Enough was enough. If the chickens were blathering of their own accord, I intended to shut them up—for good, if necessary. If it was instead Old Man Coyote who was riling up the birds, then I intended to holler until I drove him a mile into the sagebrush ocean, where his racket could be drowned out by wind ripping through bitterbrush. Jumping out of bed I grabbed the handle of my big, yellow flashlight, and stomped angrily out into the desert wearing only boxer shorts (lime green, with bright red ladybugs). “Shut up!” I shouted into the night. “All y’all chickens, coyotes, owls, zip it! I moved out here to get some damned peace and quiet! Shut . . . the . . . hell . . . UP!

As I cursed into the darkness, the darting beam of my flashlight caught a reflection in the sage. I now swung the beam back and panned slowly from right to left in search of whatever glint the light had caught. Suddenly I froze as the beam locked on two greenish-yellow lights that appeared to beam back at me. They were low in the sage—far too low to be the eyes of Old Man Coyote. They were also too far apart to be coyote, and in the penumbra of light glowing through the sage I could now make out the large, rounded face of a big cat.

I’m not afraid of rattlers or scorpions. I’m not even afraid of bears, which are scarce as hen’s eggs around here in any case. But I am afraid of mountain lions, whose mule deer kills I’ve found atop my home mountain, and whose immense paw prints I discover left like hieroglyphics in the hardened caliche mud out on the flats near the canyon spring. As I stood barefoot and paralyzed, with the wind ripping through my boxers, I suddenly had a profound sense of exactly what sort of mistake I had just made. Not only was I unarmed, nearly naked, away from the house, and twenty feet from the eyes of a big cat that was not budging an inch, but I had just screamed at the King of the High Desert Hills to shut the hell up. I had a momentary worry that in addition to being killed I’d also be featured in the Darwin Awards: “A Nevada man walked up to a mountain lion in the middle of the night in a remote area of the high desert and shouted at the big cat to ‘shut the hell up’. The cat responded by attacking the man, killing him quickly with a vicious bite to the neck. The kill was silent, an irony the man did not live long enough to appreciate.” I imagined what I myself would say had I read this entry in the Darwin Awards. “Hey, check it out. This guy was so mad about noise that he yelled—and loud enough to be killed by the quietest animal in the West. Totally got what he deserved. What a dumb ass!”

Trying not to focus on the comic potential of my looming death, I began to back away slowly, keeping the flashlight beam locked on those silent eyes, expecting every moment that the big cat would be upon me. But those greenish-yellow lasers remained unblinking, and after what seemed like forever I backed into the door, turned the knob behind my back while keeping those glowing eyes in sight, and eased into the house. Shutting the door quietly, I made several resolutions instantly. First, I would never, ever go outside again. Second, I would let my wife’s cat out immediately. Third, I would change my boxers as soon as possible. And, fourth, I would snap on the exterior light in hopes of spotting the cat. I quickly hit the switch and pressed my face to the window. Slowly, calmly, out from the sagebrush walked a huge . . . bobcat.

Bobcat, photograph courtesy Flickr user Valerie, ucumari photography.

Because bobcats can have a home range of over 100 miles, and are elusive and retiring under any circumstances, the odds of getting a good look at one are vanishingly slim, even for a wild desert hillbilly like me. In a decade living on the Ranting Hill—and walking around 13,000 miles in the hills, canyons, and playas out here—I’ve had only a single glimpse of Lynx rufus. Now, out of nowhere, came this desert ghost, strutting to center stage on a well-lit catwalk of its own. The bobcat strode gracefully across the desert flat beside our house and walked calmly beneath the girls’ swing set. I was surprised at how long and cheetah-like its front legs appeared. The rear haunches were muscular and powerful, an adaptation for pouncing, if not on Darwin Award winners, then on big jackrabbits. The coloration of the thick fur was spectacular, a wild combination of bars, dots, and bowed splotches that helped the animal remain invisible among the dappled sage.

Before the bobcat receded into the darkness beyond the reach of the porch light it stopped just once, momentarily turning its head in my direction. Its face was beautiful, unmistakably lynx-like, with upright, black-tipped ears, and bright eyes, while the broad, curved flair of its whiskered cheeks made its head appear impossibly large. And then it was gone. Although it was only 4:00 a.m. I made myself a mug of strong java, and sat in silence—at last, silence—looking out into the inky darkness, already treasuring the memory of the best night of sleep I never had.

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