Where the Sagebrush Grows
By Brittany BronsonJune 23, 2022
Outback Nevada: Real Stories from the Silver State by John M. Glionna
Most of Nevada’s land — almost 86 percent — is uninhabited by people, covered in sagebrush, and managed by the federal government. That leaves plenty of room for the imagination. Green corporations envision wind farms. Red politicians see a dumping grounds for the nation’s nuclear waste. Even for those who have driven one of those two-lane highways stretching across high desert, it is still easy to assume that there is nothing, and no one, out there.
John M. Glionna sets out to prove the opposite in Outback Nevada: Real Stories from the Silver State, a collection of reported essays profiling the inhabitants of “the real Nevada.” Written between 2013 and 2021, the essays span the rise and fall of President Donald Trump, a worsening drought, and a global pandemic. Glionna lets his subjects serve as the narrators, comedians, and political commentators, and his cast of characters is well curated. They disrupt any assumptions of Nevada as a culturally homogeneous place.
The book’s 45 subjects include a Catholic priest who conducts mass in casinos; elderly best friends who have outlived their cowboy husbands; a Shoshone activist who uses art to comment on the environmental impacts of mining; the Thunder Mountain Indian Monument; and the daily police blotters of the state’s smallest towns, full of “scandal, buzz or scuttlebutt.”
Some essays highlight the array of ideologies that give Nevada its swing state status. In “At This Joint, You Swallow Your Politics with Your Food,” Glionna interviews an Austin, Nevada, couple, who in 2016, turned their highway café into an “unofficial, unapologetic, in-your-face, join-us-or-be-gone Trump headquarters.” Later, in “Being a Gay Mayor in Nevada’s Outback,” Glionna features not one but two openly gay mayors elected in Trump counties.
Later, in “Dodging a Virus in Esmeralda County,” Glionna shows how the coronavirus managed to be both nonpartisan and nonexistent. Five months into the pandemic, Esmeralda was “the only Nevada county to report no COVID-19 cases” — no thanks to party politics but to the small-town habits of “locals looking out for locals.” Even in a globalized world, progress still requires the cooperation of next-door neighbors.
Other essays focus on the realities of a climate crisis in a state that already lacks water. In one of the shortest essays, “A New Vintage for Nevada Farming,” Glionna profiles Colby Frey, a fifth-generation rancher-turned-vintner who leverages the grains grown on his land to produce spirits. Unlike other ranch families whose businesses didn’t survive, the Freys adapted. It was Frey’s father who first planted more water-efficient grapes, telling his son, “This is not going to be the last drought here. We have to make a change.”
This is a snapshot with an economy of detail: it documents Nevada’s ranching history, the sanctity of generational trades, and the adaptation it will require for Nevadans to survive a dying planet, all in the span of three pages. Glionna masterfully weaves historical anecdotes and rich descriptions of the terrain with residents’ unique dialects, reminding readers that, in storytelling, it’s all in the details. Brevity does not require a sacrifice of depth.
His prose also maintains a lightheartedness that flavors the writing and makes the harsher realities that Nevada faces a bit easier to swallow. Big-city folk love small-town eccentricities, and Glionna always relies on the locals to bring the kicks. For example, Glionna’s first subject, Michael “Flash” Hopkins, describes life in Gerlach (population 36), as “living among 100 angry cousins.” Down south, a Gold Point bachelor doesn’t need a woman “who wants the luxury of a Walmart.” A divorcée describes her dating style as “catch and release.” The best quips always come from the residents themselves, letting the reader feel as if they, not Glionna, are speaking to them.
The essays are also well ordered, although readers have to do the work of drawing poignancy from the juxtapositions. For example, in “Jack Malotte: A Rural Native Artist Gets Political,” Glionna spotlights a Shoshone artist whose daughter came face-to-face with a wild coyote beneath the family car. Malotte tells Glionna, “[T]he coyote is like our father, the person who brought us here.” Two essays later, in “The Coyote Hunters,” Glionna reports on the annual Austin Coyote Derby. The contest draws in local “Nevada boys” and wealthier, out-of-state hunters who fly in on private planes to rack up the most coyote kills in 24 hours.
A third of these essays are accompanied by Randi Lynn Beach’s and David Becker’s stunning photography. The black-and-white images bring visual authority to Glionna’s descriptions of the “peerless panorama of somethingness.” Within single frames, the photographers bring an emotional heart to Glionna’s muses, a tone that is sometimes missing from the explanation-dense prose.
Also hanging over the book is the reality of too much land and not enough people. In “When Death Calls, Jay Gunter Answers the Phone,” Glionna interviews a rural funeral director who is responsible for a 268-mile stretch of highway. It is an unusually large territory for an undertaker to roam. In the most dramatic of Beach’s photos, the 65-year-old wears a suit and tie and leans against his white hearse, which he drives “600 miles round trip, clear across the state […] just to retrieve one body.” Behind him, the mountainous backdrop and brewing skies hint at what may be rural Nevada’s fastest encroaching challenge, one that Glionna’s reportage repeatedly unburies: the lack of youth to replace the dying. Glionna writes, “[I]n a rural Nevada the young are deserting, they can’t find replacements.” In “The Last Sheepherder,” Hank Vogler of White Pine discusses children who “want nothing to do with the business.” Another chapter, “The Rural Nevada Football Team That Rarely Scores,” documents how the McDermitt Bulldogs struggle to recruit players. The high school football team is made up of ranch and reservation kids who have to settle for “only eight players a game rather than the traditional 11.”
Meanwhile, Boyd Graham, a 77-year-old Shoshone elder, travels 150 miles a day to teach language classes to Native American youth in “Keeping a Dying Native American Language Alive.” To increase his class size, he also invites “anyone curious.” Here again, Beach’s photography brings the greatest emotion to the scene, showing the man poised in front of a white board of vowels and consonants, his eyes closed, face strained, and hand to forehead, as if in mourning.
The absence of young people to carry on the languages, businesses, traditions, trades, and ways of life raises serious questions about rural Nevada’s future and who will protect it. Readers may crave more analysis or wish to see these individuals, and the many communities they represent, placed in a larger moral context. Without more explicit interrogation, life in Nevada is at risk of being simplistically romanticized.
But Glionna carefully tends to both the sentences and the people they showcase, making for a funny, informative, and memorable statewide road trip. By its end, readers will accept not only that there is something out there in Nevada but also that there is something worth learning.
Brittany Bronson is a writer based in Las Vegas. She writes about the service industry, labor issues, and Nevada’s working class.
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