PHOTO: Reno author Joyce Rowntree Phillips with her book, "Close to the Land: Tales of Smith Valley, Nevada"

In Close to the Land: Tales of Smith Valley, Nevada,  Reno author Joyce Rowntree Phillips delivers tales filled with pitfalls, adventures, and pure western ingenuity. Based on her experiences and those of various relatives, the book offers stories about farming, sheepherding, hunting, early aviation, general mischief-making, and even a rooster chase – all in Smith Valley, Nevada. Her book reads like Olds’s “Fifty Miles from a Match,” and Twain’s “Tom Sawyer,” says Nevada State Assemblywoman Robin Titus, M.D. “From the first story to the last, this book will warm your heart.”

In addition, Phillips’ stories show the effects of national and some world events on people living in the isolated area. Readers will find history in story form a valuable example of how to construct an engaging family memoir. Teachers will find these stories an inspiration for children to write about their own experiences or the experiences of their relatives and ancestors, regardless of where they live.

Close to the Land: Tales of Smith Valley, Nevada is available in paperback and Kindle on Amazon. Here’s an excerpt from a story entitled A Nest on the Hillside, as told by Barry Davis. The story is about an 8-year-old boy who struggles to use a shotgun he can barely lift. He hopes to help his family survive the harsh Smith Valley winters. Due to tight space in his family’s tiny trailer, the boy must sleep in a tent, wrapped in two U.S. Army blankets:

 With the start of school, I didn’t have much time for my shotgun, but I did manage to kill a couple of cottontails and a red-tailed “chicken hawk”…nothing that was real game. Anyway, my supply of shells was running low. As the nights began to cool, my desire for a feather quilt grew. I could see I’d have to fend for myself to stay warm. 

 That fall Uncle Harry, Mom’s youngest brother, came to visit. He asked if I wanted to go duck hunting. What a thrill. He wasn’t just asking me to tag along—he was doing it for me. I was sure excited. We walked a half-mile east across an alfalfa field and crept to the edge of an 80-foot rim. Uncle Harry motioned for me to look over the edge of the cliff. “Keep low,” he whispered. 

 I edged to the drop-off and looked down. The West Walker River spread out a good half-mile on the valley floor. Over the years, channels had changed constantly. The older streams had formed numerous ponds and swamps, resembling a tangled braid. Sometimes the channels looped around on themselves and sometimes they crisscrossed. Dark green willows grew along the maze of banks. Beyond the riverbed where cattle grazed, meadows glistened in the sunshine. I sucked in my breath at the glorious shades of green and listened to the silence. 

 Uncle Harry crept up beside me. “Ducks are wonderful birds. They can walk, fly, and swim. The river isn’t great for hunting, but ducks love swamps and ponds. We’ll probably flush some once they spot us.” 

 Sure enough, when we stood, a mallard burst into the air below us. It quacked at our intrusion and quickly gained height. Uncle Harry shouted, “Take it.” My gun barrel jerked about as the bird flew upward. I cocked the hammer, aimed (sort of), and pulled the trigger just as the duck reached my height. With a puff of feathers, the drake dropped like a rock into the water. I don’t know who was more surprised, me or Uncle Harry. We slid down the steep drop-off of decomposed granite to retrieve the duck. For the first time, I had meat to take home…and the beginning of a feather quilt. 

 Grandma gave me some old pillowcases to hold my feather collection and showed me how to pluck breast feathers and the down beneath. “Duck and goose down work the best for stuffing quilts,” she instructed. “Chicken feathers will poke you in all the wrong places all night long,” she said with a laugh. The usable feathers from my duck settled into one puny clump in a pillowcase corner. Boy, I had a long way to go. 

 That night we ate roast duck. When our bellies were full, Dad said he’d make me a deal. “I’ll give you one shotgun shell for every duck you bring home. One for one.” 

I frowned. That meant I couldn’t miss any shots without getting behind on my half of the bargain, but at least I’d have a chance for more feathers. If I took my time and planned each shot, maybe I’d get lucky. 

 As the nights turned cold, I folded my Army wool blankets in half, which gave me four layers. I forced myself to sleep as still as possible. If I didn’t roll over, my blankets stayed in place, but I couldn’t hold still every night, and I’d feel a chill along my shoulders and backside. 

 Not long after Christmas, Dad and Grandpa were in conflict and Dad quit. Mom told me that even with all his genius, grandpa never learned how to get along with people. He was a difficult and frustrated man. The money we’d put into the beekeeping business had been depleted for supplies and equipment, so grandpa deeded us two acres of land for a house. We ended up with a hillside lot overlooking the lower valley, but little money for construction. 

 Dad took a job as a school bus driver and worked odd jobs, mostly as a carpenter. None of the jobs paid much. About that time, the battery in Dad’s truck gave out, and we couldn’t afford a new one. He would park on a slope, and I would push to start the engine. Naturally, Mrs. Ridley spotted us and shook her head in disgust. Her white hair flopped about. Dad climbed out of the truck and came around to me. “Don’t ever worry about people like her.” I tried to follow his advice, but it wasn’t easy. Fortunately, not everyone was like Mrs. Ridley.  

A woman named Edith Keeley cooked and served hot lunches at school. She was part Native American and lived a quiet life. Evidently, she could tell I wasn’t getting enough to eat. Her extra scoops of hash, stew, or Spam really helped. 
That summer I began to fish in earnest and brought home quite a few trout to feed our family. Additionally, I learned to catch carp by hand. Grandpa gutted and chopped them up, and Grandma pressure-cooked and home-canned the chunks. If you closed your eyes and used your imagination, the carp tasted kind of like canned tuna.  

When school started again Mom decided to dig potatoes alongside migrant workers. People in the valley called them “Okies” and “Arkies,” because they came from the depression-hit states of Oklahoma or Arkansas. The children worked in the fields alongside their parents and never attended school. One of our relatives told Mom she shouldn’t do that kind of work. “It sets a bad example for your kids.” The comment hurt Mom, but she didn’t quit. We needed every cent to build a house… 

The excerpt from  "Close to the Land" is reprinted with the permission of the author and publisher.

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