"Rants from the Hill" are Michael Branch's monthly musings on life in the high country of Nevada's western Great Basin desert.
There’s nothing wrong with my old dog, except that she is unlucky thirteen years old, never recovered fully from a coyote attack, refuses to hike more than a few miles at a time, and snoozes while jackrabbits clearcut my gardens. Add to this that we have two young daughters constantly in need of photo opportunities, and it became pretty obvious that it was time for a new puppy on the Ranting Hill. Now, I’ve always owned mongrel bitches that I fetched from the pound for a few bucks and a promise to spay. But this time my wife, Eryn, suggested that I shouldn’t impose my own lack of good breeding on the new family pet, and instead proposed that we complete an online survey to determine which pooch variety would be right for us. It is now perfectly clear that I should never have agreed to this human-canine matchdotcom exercise, but at the time it seemed harmless enough to build a profile of the perfect dog. Did I want a dog that would be tireless in the field, better behaved than my children, and mellow even when I wail on the blues harp? You bet! So we clicked a bunch of boxes, and out popped the result: English Setter.
The day the eleven-week-old puppy arrived on the Ranting Hill I experienced a Great Basin-sized case of buyer’s remorse. “He’s sooooo cute!” the girls squealed, as Eryn rehearsed his pedigree in a futile attempt to reassure me. But I just didn’t see the kind of good looking dog that a sensible guy would trade a solid chainsaw for. First of all, he had a skinny little body but an oversized head—and worse, it looked like the wrinkle-faced head of an old man, which gave him a creepy, Invasion of the Body Snatchers look. His legs were thin as willow sticks, but at their ends were lynx-like paws the size of catcher’s mits, suggesting that if he grew into those feet he’d weigh as much as a ten-point muley buck. His tail was the classic, bird-dog pointer tail, only it had an angled crink where it looked like somebody had slammed it in their tailgate.
Beau also had a wagon load of rude habits. The abundant lipflaps on his crumpled face were perfectly adapted to amplify his already thunderous snoring, which continued unabated during the twenty hours a day he remained asleep. In fact, his snoring sounded very like the chainsaw I was by then so anxious to swap him for. During his few waking hours Beau would eat about thirty pounds of antelope scat, which was the culinary delicacy he preferred whenever he wasn’t chewing on rocks. This unusual diet resulted not only in an endless trail of pronghorn poop, which dropped one pellet at a time from the hidden caverns of his prodigious lips, but also produced flatulence so toxic that I banished him to the garage, where I then feared that the pilot light on the hot water heater might ignite a methane explosion. And while I had bought this dog in part to have a pet that would scare away critters, Beau was terrified of jackrabbits, cottontails, and even ground squirrels. He does, however, love to attack the toy monkey the girls bought for him, so if western Nevada is ever overrun by tiny squeaking chimpanzees, I’ll be all set.
Within a week I had generated a variety of nicknames for Beauregard. When he was especially dimwitted I called him “SLOWregard.” When he snuffled harvester ants out of his nostrils I referred to him as “BLOWregard.” I told him often that I held him in “LOWregard,” though that was only because when I gave him commands he responded with absolutely “NOregard.” I was eventually persuaded by my wife that it was in poor taste to call him “BeauRETARD,” though I failed to see how a house pet that routinely wolfs down antelope feces was in much need of tasteful treatment.
Beau’s only good habit is that he wakes me up each night at around 4:00 a.m. to go outside and pee, which means that I get to go outside and pee with him. I whiz first, after which slow Beau gets the hint and takes a turn, for which I praise him decisively: “FLOWregard. Well done, my boy.” Of course taking a leak exhausts him, so he flops down with his giant lip flaps parked in the dirt on either side of his broad snout. This is my cue to sit on a nearby boulder and take in the sky. The wind has settled a little, and I can just barely hear the upcanyon coyotes. Straddling the light bridge of the Milky Way is the summer triangle—a celestial pattern repeated in the freckles on my daughter Hannah’s back. The Pleiades sisters are rising, pulling Aldebaran aloft beneath them. At last, the spiral light of Venus crests the desert hills to the east. Reconsidering sleepy Beauregard by starlight, it now seems to me that he might fit right in here. After all, we not only tolerate eccentricity out in Silver Hills, we require it. If Beau is weird looking and poorly behaved, ill-mannered, comical, and glaringly imperfect, then he has that in common with me—and with every desert rat who has chosen to make a life in this high, wild place.
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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All images courtesy the author.