Rants from the Hill: Running into winter


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

When my father-in-law’s sixtieth rolled around we got together as a family and asked him what he wanted for his birthday. Without hesitating he replied, “I want you all to run a half marathon with me.” To this proposal I responded as would any supportive person who cares deeply about honoring an important birthday wish: “No, seriously, what do you really want?” Assured of the unhappy news that he was serious, I pointed out that the farthest I have run since age fourteen is from my computer to my beer fridge. Indeed, the fact that I have a beer fridge may help you to gauge my level of interest in distance running. I also observed that, from an evolutionary point of view, running only makes sense if one is chasing or being chased. He responded that since I was certain to do very poorly I would have the opportunity to chase all 6,999 other participants. My motivation would thus be to avoid coming in last. This did seem a compelling incentive, but still I resisted, this time telling my father-in-law that while he is a full-blooded Okie, running is rather a yuppie activity--unless one is running to nab a possum for the stewpot. Entirely unpersuaded, he ended the conversation by genially characterizing my arguments as “the sophistry of the chickenshitted.”

Unfortunately for my wife and daughters, I have matured very little since age 16, when I dove off a 90-foot cliff because another kid made chicken sounds at me. So if I told you that the joke about the redneck whose last words are “Hey, y’all, watch this!” was written about me, you’d guess correctly that despite my lack of experience, interest, motivation, or fitness, I ran that half marathon. And while three or four thousand people did cross the finish line before me, including a bunch of Girl Scouts, an 86-year-old woman, a really friendly guy in a wheelchair, and, of course, my father-in-law, I eventually crossed too. I was soon surfing a fat endorphin buzz, drinking a lot of free beer, and reveling in the fact that I was demonstrably not a chicken--and it wasn’t even 10 a.m. yet. In that moment I experienced a disconcerting realization: I actually liked running.

Why disconcerting? Those of you who follow these Rants know that the landscape of my home in the 6,000-foot hills of the western Great Basin desert is extreme and unforgiving. It is a hard place simply to live, never mind run. Summers are hot and dusty, spring and fall can happen in the time it takes to fetch a whiskey, and the wind howls all year around. But it is winter that makes running here almost inconceivable. I’ve seen it snow every month of the year except July and August, and it is common to have snow on the ground from November through March. Before my half marathon euphoria even subsided I had already begun to wonder if in becoming a runner I had started something the high desert would never let me finish.

As the snows of winter buried my hopes as a runner, I began to despair. The temperature of my cabin fever ran higher than usual, and even snowshoeing didn’t do much for my morale. Finally, in a despondent fit I remembered a Danish maxim that had been shared with me by the Norwegian wife of a Swedish friend in Finland: “Det er ingenting som daarligt vejr, det er kun daarlige paaklaedning.” While these words of wisdom look on the page as if they might translate as “Those who ingest some dark beer, will eat their blackest hairy goat,” it apparently means “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just being badly dressed for it.” Perhaps I was simply ill equipped! Certainly there must be runners in other parts of the world who had conquered the challenge I now faced. I had a Nevada problem, but I needed a Nordic solution. Research led me to the “Icebug,” a studded running shoe developed in Sweden by Peter Öberg and Erik Öhlund, guys whose impressive athleticism, self-described “freakish interest in shoes,” and names with umlauts were precisely the credentials I sought. The ad copy suggesting that I’d soon be streaking across ice seemed sanguine, but I was desperate, and so I placed my order and waited for the experiment to arrive.

My first midwinter run up into the Silver Hills was among the most memorable experiences of my life. I dressed for the occasion, laced up the black Icebugs--which more closely resembled Medieval torture devices than running shoes--and headed out hopefully into the snow. My route would be up the BLM canyon road into the white hills above, my destination a perennial spring in a wintry valley at about 7,000 feet. I had read that the shoes worked best on compacted snow or ice, and I knew that my neighbor, Ludde, had already been up the canyon road on his chained-up ORV, breaking trail to give his ten dogs a slot in which to run. And so I took off, laboring uphill through the snowbanks, following the track made by Ludde and his pack of pointers. The further I ran the better I felt, my growing elation inspired by the feeling that the tools on my feet had opened my high home hills in an entirely new way. The glistening gates of winter swung upon before me, and I experienced a satisfying sense that snow would never hold me prisoner again.

Having run three or four miles up to the spring, I paused there to drink, and to admire my looming home mountain, whose massive, snow-covered crest was etched against the cobalt western sky. The tips of bitterbrush, ephedra, and sage protruded from the drifts here and there. A pair of glossy ravens appeared on cue, slicing black over palisades of white granite on a nearby ridgeline. Then I tightened the laces on the black Icebuggies and began running down the mountain. The further I ran the more I trusted the crazy shoes, and with that trust came comfort, and with comfort speed, and with speed the return of that species of exhilaration that is unique to running. I was alone in the total silence of the high desert hills, and I was streaking downhill on naked ice, dropping toward home through a sinuous slot in an unbroken wilderness of snow. It was my apotheosis as a runner. I felt effortlessly strong, agile, and swift--exactly like a pronghorn, I thought at the time. In reality I was of course graceless, panting, and running 54 miles per hour more slowly than a pronghorn, but no matter. In that brief and shining moment, drunk on endorphins and desert light, my studded, winged heels had made me the Mercury of Silver Hills.

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.

Follow Rants from the Hill and other Range blog posts via High Country News RSS feeds.

Not an RSSer? Get weekly updates on new HCN content, including the Range blog, by signing up for our e-mail newsletter.

Icebug photo courtesy -- who else? -- Norwegian Flickr member Ole Husby.

High Country News Classifieds
    California Coalition for Rural Housing (CCRH) seeks a strategic and visionary Executive Director: View all job details here- https://bit.ly/CCRHED
    The new novel by Ray Ring, retired HCN senior editor, tackles racism in the wild, a story told by a rural White horsewoman and a...
    Title: Digital Engagement Specialist Location: Salt Lake City Reports to: Communications Director Status, Salary & Benefits: Full-time, Non-Exempt. Salary & Benefits information below. Submission Deadline:...
    Title: Conservation Field Organizer Reports to: Advocacy and Stewardship Director Location: Southwest Colorado Compensation: $45,000 - $50,000 DOE FLSA: Non-Exempt, salaried, termed 24-month Wyss Fellow...
    Who We Are: The Nature Conservancy's mission is to protect the lands and waters upon which all life depends. As a science-based organization, we create...
    Apply by Oct 18. Seeking collaborative, hands-on ED to advance our work building community through fresh produce.
    High Country News is hiring an Indigenous Affairs Editor to help guide the magazine's journalism and produce stories that are important to Indigenous communities and...
    Staff Attorney The role of the Staff Attorney is to bring litigation on behalf of Western Watersheds Project, and at times our allies, in the...
    Northern Michigan University seeks an outstanding leader to serve as its next Assistant Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion. With new NMU President Dr. Brock...
    The Clark Fork Coalition seeks an exceptional leader to serve as its Executive Director. This position provides strategic vision and operational management while leading a...
    Help uphold a groundbreaking legal agreement between a powerful mining corporation and the local communities impacted by the platinum and palladium mine in their backyard....
    The Feather River Land Trust (FRLT) is seeking a strategic and dynamic leader to advance our mission to "conserve the lands and waters of the...
    COLORADO DIRECTOR Western Watersheds Project seeks a Colorado Director to continue and expand WWP's campaign to protect and restore public lands and wildlife in Colorado,...
    Whitman College seeks applicants for a tenure-track position in Indigenous Histories of the North American West, beginning August 2024, at the rank of Assistant Professor....
    Dave and Me, by international racontuer and children's books author Rusty Austin, is a funny, profane and intense collection of short stories, essays, and poems...
    Rural Community Assistance Corporation is looking to hire a CFO. For more more information visit: https://www.rcac.org/careers/
    The Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness Foundation (ABWF) seeks a new Executive Director. Founded in 2008, the ABWF is a respected nonprofit whose mission is to support...
    Field seminars for adults in natural and human history of the northern Colorado Plateau, with lodge and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
    Popular vacation house, everything furnished. Two bedroom, one bath, large enclosed yards. Dog-friendly. Contact Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
    We characterize contaminated sites, identify buried drums, tanks, debris and also locate groundwater.