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.

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.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by the High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

High Country News Classifieds
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • OFFICE ADMINISTRATOR AND BOOKKEEPER
    Posted: July 19, 2021 Application deadline: August 27 or until position is filled. Western Colorado Alliance for Community Action is seeking a fulltime Office Administrator...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Posted: July 15, 2021 Application deadline: August 21, 2021 or until position is filled Western Colorado Alliance for Community Action is seeking three full time...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, HIke the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • AUDIENCE ENGAGEMENT EDITOR
    High Country News (HCN) seeks an audience editor to attract and acquire new audiences and deepen engagement with them - in our newsletters, on our...
  • COMMUNITY MARKETER
    High Country News (HCN) is looking for a Community Marketer to build and strengthen relationships between HCN and other organizations and individuals, with the aim...
  • FINANCE & OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Job Announcement: Finance and Operations Manager Announcement date: July 16, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: August...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement: Development Director Announcement date: July 16, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: August 9, 2021...
  • HECHO POLICY AND ADVOCACY MANAGER
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • HECHO NEW MEXICO SENIOR FIELD COORDINATOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • IDAHO STATE DIRECTOR
    The Wilderness Society is seeking a full time Idaho State Director who will preferably be based in Boise, Idaho. This position is part of our...
  • CAUCASIAN OVCHARKA PUPPIES
    Strong loyal companions. Ready to protect your family and property. Proven against wolves and grizzlies. Imported bloodlines. Well socialized.
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is dedicated to saving the lands and waters on which all life depends. For more than 30 years, TNC has...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, CLIMATE AND ENERGY PROGRAM
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING https://westernlaw.org/career-opportunity-climate-energy-staff-attorney/ ************************************************** Position Title: Climate and Energy Program Staff Attorney Reports to: Climate and Energy Program Director Location: Helena, Montana; other...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, WILDLANDS AND WILDLIFE PROGRAM
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING https://westernlaw.org/career-opportunity-wildlands-staff-attorney/ ************************************************** Position Title: Wildlands and Wildlife Program Staff Attorney Reports to: Wildlands and Wildlife Program Director Location: Portland or Eugene,...
  • DISCOUNT SOLAR PANELS
    New w/25 year warranty. Shipped anywhere in the lower 48. Minimum order of 10 units. Call, text or email for current prices. .50-.80/ watt
  • SWEET MOUNTAIN HOME
    3.8 acres in pine and fir forest on a year round creek. Custom home, 2x6 framing, radiant heat, wrap around decks and established berry patch....
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!