My Life in the Land of the Tumbleweeds

How land that I hated became my greatest comfort

“Looks like we’ll be living in Tumbleweed Valley,” I said, elbowing my brother on the way to our new home.

Yeah, he said, talk about Sagebrush City.

L.O.T. — Land of the Tumbleweeds!

The nicknames we had for what’s more commonly known as Nevada were endless — a coping mechanism, I’m sure. My parents had given my brother and me two weeks’ notice that we’d be moving from our hometown in central Wisconsin to Minden, Nevada, which I promptly renamed “Satan’s asshole.”

We were moving to take care of my grandfather, whom I’d only met maybe twice up until that point. He had cancer, and lots of it: lung, kidney, brain. He also had emphysema — in fact, he had to have part of one of his lungs removed shortly before our arrival because of his smoking habit. Of course, he kept smoking — after the surgery, and after a close call with a pillow set aflame after he’d fallen asleep with a cigarette in hand.

He was dedicated.

Once we arrived there, it became a competition between my brother and I to see who could come up with the wittiest names or puns for our new desert home —it was different than any place we’d ever been, which didn’t include many (various parts of Wisconsin and Illinois) and was a stark contrast to our former home.

Nevada’s state “flower”

The metaphor is tired, but just imagine what Earth and Mars look like juxtaposed. One is green with large bodies of water and is clearly inhabitable, and one is dry, destitute, and brownish red with no clear signs of life.

Now, imagine moving from the lush, green Earth (ignore the fact that there’s climate change for a minute) to Mars (with no incentives, monetarily or otherwise — Donald Trump isn’t President yet) and you’re 16, which means you can’t indulge in the only “fun” activities Mars has to offer aside from touristy things (gambling, prostitutes). Now, you can probably start to understand why we amused ourselves with jokes like, man, now we really live out in the sticks!

A Google search result for “sagebrush” gives us insight

At this point, you may be thinking, but the only things Wisconsin has are cows, snow, and corn. That’s not entirely wrong, but we also have trees, and enough bodies of water that bonfires and fireworks aren’t threats to our state and the ones next to it, too (it is illegal to burn or set off fireworks without permits in many parts of Nevada).

Here’s some proof that Wisconsin has more going for it than cheese and the Packers (I should add here that Nevada doesn’t even have a team in the NFL, so they have to root for their neighbors, and none of the Nevadans I’ve met knew what cheese curds or bratwursts are):

Devil’s Lake, WI. This is about 1.5 hours from my hometown. Look at all of those trees!

And, for the uninitiated, these are cheese curds. The deep fried ones:

Both a staple and a stereotype.

To say I was unhappy about moving to Nevada would be an understatement — I was in my junior year, I had a good group of friends, I loved Wisconsin, and I didn’t understand why we’d uproot our lives for someone who’d had nothing to do with us until he had one foot in the grave and needed help avoiding falling the rest of the way in. We were basically giving up everything we knew for a person we didn’t — our home, a lot of our stuff (my parents sold a lot of my favorite possessions, I’d find out later), and even my dog, who I had to give away because she was an outside dog and “wouldn’t be able to handle the desert air.”

Nevada killed a lot for me before I even got there.

My grandfather was a CEO of an internationally-renowned company that produced control valves for elevators. He’d built the company himself, starting it up in California and eventually moving to Nevada (still not sure why he made that change). In other words, he was wealthy, and my parents struggled quite a bit financially, which made his not speaking to us previously seem even worse. My dad said it was because of my grandfather’s wife (my dad’s stepmother). She was controlling. Angry — those Italians! Kept him from having relationships with his children. Even tried to shoot him once (he was having an affair, but he bailed her out and didn’t press charges). Although, to her credit, she did send us some fantastic candied apples at Christmastime.

Now, the witch was dead (my dad even burned her portrait), and we could make up for lost time. My grandfather even gave me her gaudy jewelry and mink jackets. An apology. I could almost hear the ding-dong in his voice when he talked about her.

We had visited my grandfather a few months prior, following his surgery, before we knew that we were actually going to move to Nevada. I anticipated some of his eccentricities — he drove recklessly, spoke his mind (he gave me an awkward “guys think with their little heads” talk and apparently made frequent death threats to those who wronged him), gambled excessively, had piles of illegal weapons on the living room floor, and was clearly a hoarder (not limited to weapons).

His house, garage, and property were all full of stuff. Everything you could imagine — three big piles of rifles throughout the house, pistols under the tables, jackets, jewelry, junk. A “hot tub” that came in a box — Spa-N-A-box (yes, these are a real thing — you can find them here). Shelves full of Crown Royal from patronizing local casinos so often. A pool table that you couldn’t use because it was under so much stuff. A shitload of things from Home Shopping Network. Pots, pans, all over the kitchen, trinkets. Like five of those elderly mobility scooters that fall over if you turn too sharp. Gopher Grabbers galore.

A Gopher Grabber. Courtesy of He once threatened to grab my boyfriend’s balls with it if he thought with his “little head.”

Once we moved in, UPS would come to know us all by name because they came everyday, and I once heard my grandfather chew out an HSN representative on the phone because the limit on the HSN credit card was $700.

“700 dollars? I spend more than that on fucking ice cream in a week.”

And then, “Fucking foreigners.” Click. (There were still landlines, at this time).

That’s how my grandfather was.

Just from seeing his house earlier in the summer, I anticipated that living with Grandpa would be interesting, at the very least.

What I didn’t anticipate was that my parents would leave us there for two months alone while they worked on selling their house in Wisconsin.

You won’t be alone, alone, my mother said. Your grandfather isn’t completely helpless. And besides, she added, Tim will be there.

Photo credit: Interstate Guide

Tim was the ideal man to leave your children with: he was short, fat, and creepy with yellow eyes and skin from years of alcohol abuse, he wore a used-to-be-white T-shirt and the same pair of jean shorts every day, and he lived in an old RV on the property because my grandfather had fired him and he was homeless (even Fleischmann’s and POPOV do a number on your wallet if you buy and drink enough of it).

Tim’s RV

But, my mother (and grandfather) assured us, Tim had stopped drinking and had started taking care of my grandfather in our absence anyway — he could show us how to refill oxygen tanks, take our grandfather to medical appointments, do our laundry, help me practice driving (I’d just turned 16 and didn’t have my license yet — the move interrupted my getting it). He was funny and not as creepy as he looked. He was helpful and turning his life around.

Probably the only property in the area with real grass.

To their credit, it sure seemed like it. He took care of my grandfather’s lawn — most people in Nevada used football turf if they wanted a lawn that didn’t look like a sandbox with bundles of sticks in it, but my grandfather, for some reason, had to have real grass.

And Tim cooked sometimes, did dishes, drove my grandfather places. He even picked us up from the airport when we got there. He drove one of my grandfather’s Lincoln Town Cars — my grandfather owned several vehicles, being a rich hoarder. Two Lincoln Town Cars, two Ford Broncos, a Mustang convertible, two Ford pickups and eventually, a Dodge Viper that he’d buy on a whim.

Grandpa’s Viper. Brother and grandfather cropped out for confidentiality reasons.

“Hop in, Sissy!” Tim patted the Town Car door while I grabbed my bag, hoisted it into the trunk. I wasn’t amused by my new nickname — he called me that because he liked my brother and apparently saw me as an extension of him, so he shortened “sister,” to “sissy.” I don’t understand the logic, either.

It was quite a sight — this man whose stomach bumped against the steering wheel, whose scraggly goatee flapped in the wind like a biker’s, driving a Lincoln Town Car, whose white paint made his white t-shirt look as yellow-tan as his skin. This was the man — sweet and excited and haggard and rough, all at once — that we’d be spending the next two months with, trying to take care of our grandfather. Trying to take care of ourselves.

My grandfather lived just South of Carson City, which is part of a valley in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Lake Tahoe was just on the other side of the mountains — about an hour drive. I often joked that I wish we had just moved there — it is, indeed, the only significant body of water in Nevada, but more importantly, it’s what I imagine is the very definition of the word “breathtaking.”

Lake Tahoe, NV

If Nevada had one redeeming quality, it was Lake Tahoe. It was the mountains.

Mountains are called majestic for a reason — they demand your attention, make sunrises and sunsets their backdrop. They’re planted, firm, rugged, authoritative. So big, they seem close enough that you could touch them just by reaching out a window.

The view of the mountains from our side of the valley.

The mountains are cold, if you get high enough. Rough and jagged, half-burned in some spots. You fear them, you respect them, like God.

In the valley, they surround you. Hug you.

It’s so comforting you could cry.

The first time Tim hit my brother, it wasn’t very hard, but it was still unexpected. My brother and I were arguing over who was going to do the dishes and Tim told my brother he had to do them.

But I have homework, he said. Why can’t she do it?

Then Tim hit him. Caught him in the arm. Not hard enough to bruise; Tim laughed it off as a playful punch. I could see my brother redden, eat his words. He did the dishes.

I didn’t say anything.

After my mother left from flying us out, Tim was generally helpful. He took care of pretty much everything having to do with my grandfather’s health: taking my grandfather to appointments, refilling his oxygen tanks, washing out cups that my grandfather started urinating in when he couldn’t make it to the bathroom. Tim seemed supportive — he’d ask us how school was going, offer to help with homework, help us paint RC cars that Grandpa had bought for us to race — his friend had built a track for that sole purpose (apparently, this is how rich old men amuse themselves).

On the left: an RC car like my brother’s. On the right: an RC car like mine.

He took us to casinos for elaborate dinners — Grandpa had thousands of dollars racked up in restaurant credits. We could eat whatever we wanted, even ridiculous things for kids to regularly eat, like filet mignon, lobster. Casinos in Nevada go all out — they’re like casino supercenters that include 5-star restaurants and bars, business cards for hookers, and basically endless possibilities for obesity and debauchery. And, Nevada has casinos everywhere, including in gas stations and grocery stores.

Tim seemed fond of my brother and even came out with us for my brother’s birthday since our parents weren’t there to celebrate — we didn’t expect Tim to do much with us, as he still seemed much like an employee for my grandfather. He took us to our favorite casino-restaurant in Carson City for my brother’s birthday: Casino Fandango.

Photos courtesy of

Casino Fandango seemed like a magical land to us — it had buffets of every food imaginable. American, Chinese, Sushi, Italian. Seafood. Salads. Ribs. Tables and tables of desserts. Chefs carving hunks of meat off of spits. All the tables lit up like rides at a carnival.

Photos courtesy of Tripadvisor

But the best part was not the food — it was the fake parrot attached to the ceiling that made its way around the casino, dropping money to the floor for lucky patrons at random. We’d follow it around the casino, just waiting for it to drop the cash. It was about the only chance we had at winning there.

My brother only won once, and it was $5.00.

He’s not drinking, my grandfather said when we tried to tell him about Tim. But why is there vodka in the fridge, then? I said. My grandfather made an excuse I can’t remember anymore.

Tim had started regularly hitting my brother. Usually kicking him in the shins. He made fun of both of us for being chubby, played it off as a joke. He’d quickly assumed an authoritarian parent role — taking the phone away if we didn’t have homework done, disciplining. I imagine he didn’t really know what to do, suddenly having two teenagers in his care who resented moving there. But I do know he was worse when drinking, and, since I was too passive to tell him to stop in the moment, I tried to tell my grandfather, his friends, our parents.

I don’t know why anyone had a soft spot for Tim. Grandpa consistently denied his drinking. Grandpa’s friends, whom we visited to ride horses and race RC cars, didn’t know what to do besides offer us a sanctuary or shrug it off. Our parents didn’t do much and couldn’t over the phone anyway, didn’t even kick him out right away when they got there. No one, apparently, thought it was that bad. I started to understand what being alone meant.

Soon, I started driving even though I didn’t have a license because Tim either couldn’t do so safely or was passed out. We visited my grandfather’s friends more often, and I’d look at the mountains and the sunset behind them while riding the tallest, most muscular horse I’d ever seen, the nice one who only tried to buck me off once, when he became scared of some movement in a sagebrush. I’d stare into the mountains, grip the saddle’s horn, ride in circles, breathe it all in. I’d imagine myself riding the horse to the other side of the mountains.

Against the mountains, even sagebrush looked beautiful.

My parents arrived in early November, about two weeks before my grandfather died. I didn’t see it coming — his death — even though he was clearly declining, both physically and mentally. Early on, my grandpa lost his voice, so he’d only talk in a raspy whisper. He lost control of his bladder. Refused to obey doctor's’ orders, drove on Percocet and kept smoking his Basics (might as well have smoked the tumbleweeds). Snuck out to buy them in the middle of the night after my father forbade it, only to get stuck in a hole in the driveway and give himself away by spinning up gravel, which hit the house like rain. Drove his mobility mobiles as recklessly as his cars. Hid pornography under his bed.

It became hard to tell if his lapses in judgement were normal, if they came out of pride, or if they were caused by the brain cancer or lack of oxygen. I came to conclude that a lot of it was a combination of the latter after he crapped in a paper bag on the trip to San Diego to buy his Viper and ran his Town Car into a semi on accident (it had a tire track across the driver’s side for the rest of its life). See, brain cancer makes you do strange things — pee in cups, parking lots, cranberry juice bottles when you can’t hold it. Forget things. Pull off your oxygen tube in the middle of the night. Maybe or maybe not accidentally kill yourself.

That’s what the paramedics said — that he accidentally killed himself. That he must have taken his oxygen tube off in the middle of the night and fallen asleep, forgot to put it back on. But I didn’t know. He’d managed to tell us all he loved us, he’d gifted my mother a boob job and liposuction and a tummy tuck (a whole ‘nother essay), he’d given me a car — one of the Broncos. Earlier in the week, when my parents were gone on a business trip, I’d taken him to the doctor but hadn’t gone in the room. I wondered if the doctor had told him something we didn’t know and if my grandfather had tried to end things early.

Either way, I was angry. I’d come to love this man and his idiosyncrasies, his love for vanilla bean ice cream, and only vanilla bean, his crusade to get gas stations to sell me cigarettes with permission slips he’d written, as if I could buy them. I’d come to regret my resentment, to smile at his awkward sex talks, to think fondly on his gifts of ridiculously large jackknives to my boyfriends. I’d come to treasure the gaudy jewelry, the pink leather jackets that I didn’t wear but touched, often, with affection. I’d come to tolerate sleeping in the living room because we didn’t have enough beds; I’d come, even, to tolerating Tim still living with us. Like everyone else, it seemed, my grandfather had abandoned us.

Soon after my grandfather died, my parents found Tim in his own feces, nearly dead in his RV. He’d told us he’d been bitten by a black widow spider (yes, Nevada is also home to these, and scorpions, which we found in the house frequently, thankfully all dead). My parents had never been inside Tim’s RV, which was apparently full of feces, cigarettes, empty bottles, and trash.

Inside Tim’s RV

It took seeing that, and seeing Tim nearly dead, for my parents to kick him out. They visited him in the hospital — he was there for a week — got his car going, packed his things. Of course, he was angry, jaded. The last time I ever saw him, he left us his diaper, in the sink.

After a lot of deliberating, my parents decided we’d move back to Wisconsin at the end of the school year. Until then, there was a lot to be done, a lot of clean-up. My uncle, his bipolar ex-wife, and their three children would all move in with us to help. It would take us almost the rest of the year to clean out his house and his property, to sell the vehicles, the backhoe, the golf cart, the Spa-N-A-Box. And a lot else would happen. My mom would get her boob job, her liposuction, be confined to a wheelchair, nearly kill herself — a bad reaction to Wellbutrin. The police would come because my aunt and uncle would get physical in the middle of the night. The police would turn their heads away from the illegal guns on the floor. My aunt would leave, taking my two younger cousins with her while the older one, 15, cried under the pool table, fetal.

I’d make friends with that cousin. We’d try to smoke sagebrush. Pop Oxycontin to amuse ourselves. Race on grandpa’s scooters. Dump Crown Royal in our Kool-Aid (bad combination). Make stupid videos, blast emo music, ride dirt bikes and four-wheelers into the desert until we became afraid we’d be material for the next The Hills Have Eyes movie. We’d joke about bodies being found (fun fact: there was one found just after we moved back, about a mile near where we lived), terrorize nearby ostriches, who hated the sound of golf carts.

I’d find the first boy I loved — a Calvin Klein model and Ashton Kutcher look-alike; he’d break up with me for an ex but dance with me at prom anyway, next to a swan ice sculpture. I’d meet another boy, a Native, who’d make me a keychain out of beads and give me a teddy bear and sexually assault me on Valentine’s Day. My parents would be gone then, too, for another business meeting.

On mornings, I’d watch the sunrise behind the mountains to the east, imagine myself driving over them to see my friends again. Freedom is just on the other side of the mountains, I’d think, looking across the valley, which somehow, then, seemed smaller. I’d drive around Lake Tahoe, imagine myself under the blue-green water, the cold in my ears and nose, taking it all in.

I’d reach my hand out the window and try to touch the mountains.

Copywriter, ex-academic, amateur cyclist, literature enthusiast. Hides behind a pen name.

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