Michael Branch

Michael P. Branch

Island Press author Michael Branch is Professor of Literature and Environment at the University of Nevada, Reno. He has published five books many articles and essays, including recent environmental creative nonfiction in Utne Reader, Orion, Ecotone, Isotope, Hawk and Handsaw, Places, and Whole Terrain. New installments in his essay and podcast series, Rants from the Hill, appear monthly at hcn.org and iTunes.
Photo Credit: Birds on a Wire by Flickr.com user Kiwi Flickr

Rants from the Hill: After many years of essay writing, a wave goodbye

The Rants from the Hill essay series has appeared in High Country News online every month, without fail, since July 2010. A lot has happened in those (almost) six years as we—my wife, Eryn, and our daughters, Hannah and Caroline—...

This post originally appeared on High Country News and is reposted with permission.“Rants from the Hill” are Michael Branch’s monthly musings on life in the high country of western Nevada’s Great Basin Desert.

The Rants from the Hill essay series has appeared in High Country News online every month, without fail, since July 2010. A lot has happened in those (almost) six years as we—my wife, Eryn, and our daughters, Hannah and Caroline—have lived as fully as possible our shared life here on a remote hill in western Nevada’s Great Basin Desert. And now, with this farewell Rant, I draw the essay series to a close.

Occasionally I’m asked how I’ve managed to write 69 essays in a row about anything, let alone something as apparently mundane as daily life around my windy corner of the high desert. I like to answer this question with another question: Why would I spend a decade walking 13,000 miles within a ten-mile radius of my home? Both my writing and my walking recover (in both senses of that word) the same ground, circling it in all weathers and all seasons, turning this place over and over in my hands and in my imagination, appreciating each day anew that there is more to this wild desert and to our life within it than a lifetime of reflection and walking will ever reveal.

While it has often been difficult to choose from among the many things I wanted to write about each month, I have never lacked for ideas, even after so many years of exploring and celebrating this place in the Rants. Although we inhabit an arid, open landscape that many folks describe as empty, sparse, or bare, the fact that this place has been so fecund, so productive of fascinating topics for the essays, is a fitting testimonial to its richness. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in Nature(1836), “The ruin or blank, that we see when we look at nature, is in our own eye.” In other words, if you look at the sagebrush steppe desert and see “nothing” there, that is not the desert’s problem; rather, it is yours. The challenge is to inform and sharpen our perception to make the land’s perpetual miracle visible. For me, that honing of perception is best achieved through a daily practice of writing and walking. I don’t intend to pontificate. I mean only to say that this stubborn recrossing of the local territory has opened a small door through which I’ve entered the unscalable immensity of this vast desert.

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Photo Credit: Birds on a Wire by Flickr.com user Kiwi Flickr

Rants from the Hill: A romance in Reno, land of the second chance

The Ranter remembers being struck down by love for Tonya Harding, the fallen ice skater.

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

David Fenimore. That is the good name of a good man who has been a good friend to me for a quarter century. In fact, it is so good a name that I call David Fenimore “David Fenimore” rather than “David” or “Fenimore.” David Fenimore. It just has a nice ring to it. David Fenimore is also a good name in the sense that David Fenimore comes from a good family, a highly respectable family of noble Philadelphians whose pedigree dates to the Fenimores whose name is familiar from the name of well-heeled nineteenth-century American novelist James Fenimore Cooper. David Fenimore was among my first friends when I moved to Reno more than twenty years ago. David Fenimore officiated my wedding ceremony on a bright day up in the Sierra sixteen years ago. David Fenimore has been among my closest colleagues at the university where I teach. David Fenimore even subjected me to his legendary hot tub ordination ceremony, making me a perfectly legal mail-order minister and giving me the formal title Mystical Philosopher of Absolute Reality. In my world he’s as good as it gets: David Fenimore.

Tonya Harding. Now that is not a good name. You will recall this diva of American figure skating, spectacle, and scandal, whose very public rise and fall charted a peculiarly American trajectory. Born in 1970 to an abusive mother and her fifth husband, Tonya, who grew up in a trailer, began skating at age three. She dropped out of high school to commit herself to what was by then a meteoric rise to fame. By 1991 she had recorded a number of firsts, including becoming the first woman to land the triple axel jump in international competition. 1991 was also the year she won the U.S. Championships, receiving the first 6.0 ever given to a single female figure skater for technical merit.

Tonya’s precipitous fall from grace began on January 6, 1994, when Nancy Kerrigan—Harding’s skating rival—was attacked by unknown assailants, who used a police baton to brutally whack her leg. Severely injured, Kerrigan withdrew from competition, and Harding won the national championship that year. However, it was soon suggested that Tonya was behind the attack, and a uniquely American media frenzy ensued. In January, 1994, Tonya appeared on the cover of both Time and Newsweek, and her short program at the Olympics in Lillehammer in February was among the most-watched events in TV history. By March the jig was up. Harding accepted a plea bargain, three years’ probation, 500 hours of community service, and a whopping fine. She was stripped of all her medals and banned for life from professional figure skating.

Tonya Harding Olympic practice at Clackamas Town Center 1994 3
Harding's practice sessions in preparation for the 1994 Winter Olympics were attended by thousands of spectators and dozens of reporters and film crews. By Andrew Parodi, via Wikimedia commons

Tonya would quickly rise again, although in a very different way. Within three months of being rung up, America’s former sweetheart appeared on a professional wrestling show as manager of the wrestling stable Los Gringos Locos. Before the year was out she and her then-husband had sold their home sex tape to Penthousefor $200,000 each, plus royalties. She would go on to a one-off with a crappy band called the Golden Blades, followed by a short, checkered career as a boxer, in which her most highly publicized bout was with Paula Jones—she of the pre-Monica Lewinsky Clinton sex scandals. Tonya had hit a new low among disgraced American celebrities. Tonya Harding. Not a good name.

It now seems inevitable that the spectacle of humiliation that tawdry Tonya had become would involve Reno, my hometown. Reno. That is not a good name either. My town has long been associated with unseemly activities, from heavy drinking and unfettered gambling to quickie divorce and legalized prostitution. We have a bad reputation, and we’ve earned it. That said, Reno has always been the land of the second chance, the place where the down and out come for a last shot at redemption. As Jill Stern wrote back in 1957, Reno is “a symbol of failure to some, of release to others, of despair to the unloved, of the promised land to the domestically trapped.” “Could be, might be, maybe this time, maybe next time,” wrote Stern, who described Reno as “a symbol of the second chance and the chance after that which every man always believed awaited him.”

This Rant tells the story of how David Fenimore and Tonya Harding came together here in Reno, the land of the second chance.

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Photo credit: Fountain by Flickr.com user Nicola

Rants from the Hill: Reno is a desert city with a river heart

The Ranter recalls playing an unexpected concert on the banks of the Truckee River.

“Rants from the Hill” are Michael Branch’s monthly musings on life in the high country of western Nevada’s Great Basin Desert. This post originally appeared on High Country News and is reposted with permission.  

Reno is a desert town with a river heart. The Sierra Nevada snow-fed Truckee River, which is the only outlet from nearby alpine Lake Tahoe, passes through the city on its 121-mile-long slide out to Pyramid Lake, which is among the most spectacular desert terminal lakes on the planet. Although the Truckee is the lifeline between these two gorgeous lakes, which are separated by 2,500 vertical feet, it has not generally received good treatment as it passes through the center of this western Great Basin city. Once an old cow town attempting to shift to a new resort economy, Reno turned its back on its river corridor, choosing instead to focus visitors’ attention on the impoverishing entertainments offered just around the corner, where casinos sprouted up along Virginia Street. The river, so nearby, was relegated to a concrete trough with few access points. Its riparian zone became home to hobo camps, while the Truckee itself was regarded primarily as something to be crossed on one of the city’s old bridges. For a long time our river gave sacred water but received profane treatment.

Signage discouraging use of the Truckee River. Photo Courtesy of Michael Branch

This denigrating view of the Truckee has mostly changed these days, with a series of ambitious and largely successful river core urban renewal projects. We now have a whitewater park, pedestrian bridges, improved access, and more greenspace along the floodplain. And while all this exists in the shadow of towering casinos, it offers a helpful reminder that we desert rats had better pay tribute to the Truckee, without which our survival in this arid place would be tenuous. Even in the desert, a city without a home river seems to me a lonely proposition. I’m grateful that we’ve begun to appreciate ours.

Twenty years ago, before the Truckee corridor through Reno had been revitalized, I used to hang out down by the river a lot. At that time I wasn’t married, didn’t have kids, and had not yet begun to build our home out on the Ranting Hill, far north of the city and up in the remote, high-elevation canyons and ridges along the California line. Back then I was a new arrival in the Great Basin. My desert rat whiskers had only just begun to sprout, and I still felt more comfortable keeping water in view.

It is with the bittersweet sensation of a lost place and time that I return two decades later to revisit well-worn memories of those old days and nights along the Truckee. One of my closest friends at that time was Brad, a guy whose aplomb and cool had earned him the nickname “Smoo B” (as in “Smooth Brad”). I had plenty in common with Smoo B, but perhaps most important was our love of playing music together, something we did at every opportunity. He picked guitar and I blew blues harp, and we bonded over the fact that neither of us had ever met a note we didn’t want to bend. As a little, two-man jam band we played out at cheap bars now and then—the kinds of dives that were adjacent to tattoo parlors, and once we even played in an acrid-smelling saloon that slung both rye and, in the back room, skin ink. One-shop stopping for Harley dudes. We never used the same band name twice, and I’ve forgotten all of them now, save “Jeebies and Stankeye.” I no longer recall how we came up with that name, or which one of us was which, or if we even stopped to ask such questions at the time.

Mural of Truckee River on old riverside cafe in the shadow of a casino hotel. Photo Courtesy of Michael Branch

Mostly, though, we played on our own, whenever we could and wherever we felt like it. One unexceptional summer day, we agreed to meet down by the river in the late afternoon, just to pick and bend a few tunes before dark. We sidled along the Truckee for a while before sitting down on an old concrete landing near the south buttress of the Virginia Street Bridge, in the heart of downtown Reno. A double-arch gem built back in 1905, this bridge became famous in legend as the place from which newly liberated women tossed their wedding rings after finalizing a divorce in the nearby courthouse. In The Misfits (1961), John Huston’s immortal cinematic tribute to the loss of the Old West, a fragile Marilyn Monroe contemplates doing just that.

Smoo B led, and I followed, as he unfolded a spontaneous set of river music: a relaxed take on Neil Young’s “Down By the River,” followed by a meander through Bob Dylan’s “Watching the River Flow,” which segued magically into B’s crazy, mellow cover of the Talking Heads’ cover of the Reverend Al Green’s classic “Take Me to the River”—a tune he strummed with a staccato rhythm that made it sound like it was being played by Bob Marley rather than David Byrne. 

“Dip me in the river / Drop me in the water / Washing me down / Washing me down.” As Smoo B finished those lines and looked up, and I lowered my harp from my mouth and opened my eyes, we both noticed something curious. While we were jamming, three people had planted themselves on the landing not far from us. There was an older man, a middle-aged woman, and a very young man. They looked as if they knew each other, and yet they did not quite seem to be together. They appeared to have been attracted by the music, but despite a few furtive glances our way, they made no eye contact with us as they sat staring toward the afternoon light rippling on the river. All were shabbily dressed. The young man had a grimy backpack and bedroll, the woman a bulging, oversized canvas sack, the older man a plastic garbage bag half full of crumpled aluminum cans. It was clear enough that they were homeless. Here, in the shadow of the casinos, lived the river people whose luck had run dry.

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