Straight Flossin’ and Other Stories of the American West by Danny Nielsen is a romp through the desert. These are stories of the open road, bird counts, rat research, close calls with fires and skunks, and those looking for the American Dream—or what’s left of it. It’s funny, rueful, and observant, with an eye for the absurd.

Michael P. Branch, author of On the Trail of the Jackalope, wrote, “Danny’s stories are lively, thoughtful and engaging. His love for these arid wilds comes through on every page … As a fellow desert rat, I loved riding shotgun on this book’s well-told adventures.”

Danny Nielsen spent his childhood exploring the woods of Alabama before moving to Utah in high school. Culture shock quickly wore off as he developed a love, perhaps an addiction, for sweeping desert vistas and mountain skylines. He has spent the last decade traveling the American West for research and pleasure, studying and writing about its flora and fauna, including the human characters that make their home there. Danny lives in Reno and is a Ph.D. student at the University of Nevada, Reno. Straight Flossin’ and Other Stories of the American West is his first book.

“Straight Flossin’ is a wild ride into the inspiring and intimidating vastness of the desert West. Whether he’s trapping packrats as a field biologist or racing to escape a devastating wildfire, Danny Nielsen’s stories are lively, thoughtful, and engaging. His love for these arid wilds comes through on every page, as does his concern for how human transformation of the landscape is putting the wild magic at risk. As a fellow desert rat, I loved riding shotgun on this book’s well-told adventures in America’s immense outback.” –Michael P. Branch, author of How to Cuss in Western and On the Trail of the Jackalope

Fire in the Desert: Excerpt from Straight Flossin’ and Other Stories of the American West:

Cassidy grumbled as he stood upright. He cracked open his beer and looked toward the column of smoke. “Shit man, it looked like it was rippin’ pretty good, but it’s way out by Lake Isabella,” he said.

I took another sip of my beer and watched the smoke rise into the atmosphere, flatten out, then flow southward like an airborne river of soot and particulate matter. “We were down in Weldon at the research station when it started this afternoon. They said something about a kid with fireworks,” I said uneasily.

“I had the radio on,” said Cassidy, as he searched the back of his SUV for a sweater. “Said it was growing fast but didn’t know how it started. It’s windy as hell out there today.”

“Yeah, been windy here too, only got a break from it just before you got here. Still some gusts, but it’s calmed down a bit,” I said with an eye on the smoke. “You don’t think it’ll spread all the way up here?”

“Hard to say. It’d need to cover a lot of ground, but…” his voice trailed off as his face grew serious.

“Dammit,” I groaned at the thought of the remote possibility. “When we got here earlier, the wind was blowing the smoke this way. Blocked the sun, turned everything orange. Apocalyptic,” I said with a forced smile. “But the winds died back, and it cleared some. Seemed like we’d be okay.”

“Yeah, I think it’ll be all right,” said Cassidy. “There’s a bunch of mountains in between. I don’t think it’ll get here.” His words calmed me some, but he continued, “I told Mara I’d call her and let her know we’re okay.”

I realized if Cassidy’s girlfriend wanted an update, I should probably let my fiancée know too. “We’ll have to drive back to Weldon for that,” I said. “No signal up here.”

“All right,” he said. “That’ll be good. We can get a better idea about the fire. But I think we’re fine,” he reiterated.

I was starting to regret all those traps. How stupid I was to go ahead with setting them. But I had been eager to get to work. Any new grad student would be. I checked on Michael. He was just tucking into his front seat nest, and I caught him before he donned his night mask.

“Hey, Michael,” I called through his window. He looked up, startled. “We’re gonna drive downcanyon and see about this fire and make some calls,” I said. “We should be back in about two hours.” He nodded, pulled down his night mask, and rolled over. “Goddam, how does he do it,” I thought.

I hopped in the SUV with Cassidy. He executed a three-point turn, slotting the rear of the vehicle between two rabbitbrush shrubs, and gunned it out of the wash. It was now almost nine o’clock, and the drive would take the better part of forty-five minutes. The sky was dark, and stars were making their nightly rounds. The smoke was beginning to fade in the darkness, but large gaps in the starry night sky indicated its presence. The Big Dipper was missing its handle. I glanced over at Cassidy and was startled to see him in large wire-rimmed glasses.

“Damn, Cassidy. I forgot how you look like Jeffrey Dahmer in those things,” I said, attempting to bring some levity to the situation.

“Hey, shut your foul mouth,” he grinned. “I need these to drive at night.”

It took us five minutes to crest the pass of Kelso Valley, giving us our first glimpse of the canyons to the north. Now on paved road, Cassidy hugged the shoulder as he raced around tight turns. The radio struggled to find a signal and settled on a curious medley of stadium country and fanatical voices of radio evangelists. Maybe the maniacal voices were right. Maybe it was the “End of Times.”

We had gone only 10 miles or so when we followed a bend in the road and approached a small community of homes. I looked ahead to a glowing ridgeline and felt my stomach sink.

“Shit,” I said. “Cassidy, the fire is climbing that ridge.”

“Jesus Christ,” he said as he slowed to a stop on the roadside. Tendrils of flame were visible through an orange haze.

The fire looked to be within 10 miles. We spotted a Bureau of Land Management fire truck in the driveway of a nearby ranch house. Cassidy slowly pulled in behind it and set the parking brake, leaving the engine running. Trees danced in flashing lights.

I stepped from our vehicle and approached the truck. “Hello,” I called to the firefighter behind the steering wheel.

“Hi,” she said as she stepped down from the vehicle. Her eyes pierced me from under a yellow helmet, then she turned sharply and made for the house.

“We’ve been up in Kelso Valley,” I said as I jogged to keep up with her, although I knew any questions about this fire had just been answered. “About 10 miles upcanyon.”

“We are advising everyone to evacuate,” she said promptly. “This fire is growing fast, and the wind forecast isn’t good. The situation is extremely unpredictable.”

Cassidy and I read each other’s minds. He had already shifted into reverse and was looking through the back window. I shouted our thanks to the firewoman as I ran back to the car. Other cars passed along the road on their way out of the community.

“Let’s go!” I said as I jumped in the passenger seat and slammed the door shut. “We gotta get Michael,” I said to Cassidy as he stepped on the gas. “And close those damn traps too.” If the fire did burn through the valley, it could very well kill wildlife, but I sure as hell wasn’t gonna let any helpless creatures cook in my traps.

Excerpts from Straight Flossin’ and Other Stories of the American West are published with permission of Whistling Rabbit Press.

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