Rants from the Hill: Walking to California

 

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

If you’ve ever driven I-5 through northern California and up into southern Oregon, you may have seen the memorable bumper sticker that Oregonians use to welcome their California neighbors over the state line: “Welcome to Oregon: Now Go Home.” Here in rural Nevada, our view of Californians is, if anything, less hospitable than that of our friends in Oregon. Out here in Silver Hills it can be dangerous to have California tags on your truck, and standard-issue summer attire around here is a Nevada blue T-shirt (with the sleeves cut off) featuring the recognizable shape of our state and emblazoned with the slogan “I Don’t Give a Shit HOW You Did It In California.” In short, my neighbors out here in the sticks are about as likely to say something nice about Californians as they are to spend their whiskey money to see The Vagina Monologues.

My own allegiances are more complex. As a Silver Hillsian, I too must publicly express a dismissive attitude toward Leftcoasters, for without an affirmation of this disdain there are certain of my neighbors with whom I would have absolutely nothing in common. My problem is that more than a decade ago, before I fully understood the consequences of my actions, I married a Californian. When Eryn asked me last year what I wanted as a tenth anniversary gift, I requested simply that she quit admitting to the neighbors that she hails from the wrong side of the Sierra Nevada. I didn’t get my wish, but she did give me a travel guitar, which I now use to croon the state anthem, “Home Means Nevada,” each time we cross Donner summit and begin the long descent into the Evil Empire.

I think empire is precisely the issue. Why do we western Nevadans deplore our neighbors from the Golden State? Because we exist as a far-flung colony of their economic and cultural empire. It is they whose prosperity is generated by provisioning our benighted colony with their vegetables and movies, smart phones and wine. And if it is they who Californicate our landscape with obscene McMansions built where sage grouse once strutted, it is also they who fuel our construction industry, bankroll our enterprise, and pull our slot handles. We need Californians very badly, as the current economic crisis has made painfully obvious. Because we rural Nevadans have staked our identity on our sense of ourselves as fiercely independent, we’re secretly resentful of our reliance upon Californians, in precisely the same way people who live in resort towns want desperately for tourists to visit—and then proceed to despise them the moment they arrive. This may also explain why many Nevadans demonstrate such fierce antipathy to the federal government, for our hostility obscures the awkward truth that without the substantial mining and agricultural subsidies we receive from Uncle Sam, quite a few of us would be out of business. And if that happened, we might even have to move to California.

My personal relationship to the Golden State is complicated by this additional fact: I walk to California now and then. Living at 6,000 feet in the extreme western Great Basin desert means that California looms on our sunset horizon. Westward from our home the sagebrush ocean is comprised of a series of lovely, undulating foothills, then a sweeping, windy trough of valley, above which crests the ridge of our 2,000-foot home mountain. One of the many interesting things hidden among the mountain’s beautiful summit meadows and shattered peaks is the Nevada-California state boundary. From home it is a walk of several hours to reach the mountain’s base, and then a 1700-foot climb to gain its ridge. Once atop the mountain’s spine, something curious and wonderful occurs: a view homeward, to the East, reveals the infinite sea of sage and sandstone that is the unmistakable skin of the Great Basin; but a view to the West features the exfoliating granite turrets and thickly carpeted conifer forests that bespeak the inimitable magnificence of the Sierra Nevada. It is an odd feeling to straddle the saddle summit of my Janus-faced home range, contemplating by turns the two very different worlds it both connects and separates.

The flora and fauna atop the ridge also reveal the mountain’s complexity, its hybridity and ecotonality. On the same slope you’ll find desert tree species like mountain mahogany growing alongside mountain species like Jeffrey pine. The wildflowers too offer an odd combination of the Great Basin and Sierra, with desert buckwheat and tower butterweed growing together in a sweeping summit valley where balsamroot and mule’s ear also mingle, and even columbine may be found hiding in the shade of aspen and coyote willow. Most of our desert birds are here—raven, magpie, harrier, golden eagle, meadowlark, pinyon jay—but they share the mountain with western outliers like the spotted towhee. This ridge is the annual highpoint for the pronghorn antelope, which prefer the drier, lower valleys but also use the mountain’s springs, near which, during autumn, pronghorn bucks hide their harems of does in the rocky niches of the summit valleys. Yet this is also where our largest mule deer herd crosses while moving in the opposite direction each fall, dropping from Sierra blizzard country down into the desert valleys where it can nibble bitterbrush and avoid becoming the snowbound prey of mountain lions. And while this mountain and its Sierra deer do keep a few lions in the area, it is also a place where I once tracked a black bear—an animal so alien to the desert that it must have snuffled the rabbit brush and sage and turned for the sunset again.

In a gridded world that is incised by arbitrary yet often very limiting artificial boundaries, our home mountain represents a real boundary, for its backbone is the far eastern or western frontier for hundreds of species that simply cannot endure a life that is any higher or lower, colder or hotter, wetter or drier. My home mountain is like a nameless bar at the very end of a long, dusty road somewhere in the remote interior of the intermountain West: a place where all manner of creatures wash up for the simple reason that this is the last place to patch a tire or check a baseball score, to get that hot coffee or cold beer you’ve been thinking so much about. But the unreal boundary separating Nevada from California is on the mountain too, and though I may unknowingly crisscross this invisible line twenty times during a long day’s walk, I never sense it as I pass. If I pause to ruminate on this transparent boundary—and on the identity politics it inspires in the inhabited valleys so far below me—it is only to conclude the spectacular irrelevance of the distinction it represents.

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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