Another Round at the Say When: Meeting Junior, Sponge Bob and Tater
A journalist moves to a small town to write about life and a high school football team that never wins.
One in a series.
All night and into the morning, I hear the rumble of passing traffic along U.S. Route 95, those passers-through intent on getting somewhere else, anywhere but here.
Looking north from my kitchen window lies the empty sprawl of southeastern Oregon, where dirt roads are named after creeks, Rattlesnake and Crooked. An old wooden weather vane towering two stories high creaks and turns in the wind.
Out my front door is northern Nevada, equally untouched, shadowed by the sprawling Santa Rosa Range, high-desert mountains that are as dry as the moon.
I wake up in McDermitt, a frontier town with a foot in both states. The law takes a few hours to get here, from either Nevada or Oregon, depending on which side of the line the shenanigans take place.
In the parking lot of the Say When casino, long-haul truckers idle their rigs, catching some sleep as their engines purr a roadside lullaby. Motorists north of the state line stop to take selfies at the “Welcome to Nevada” sign, as the traffics comes and goes.
And that’s it for the Sunday morning action in my adopted home town.
I’ll be around throughout the fall, writing about the people who live and work here. And about a group of teenagers who play high school football.
The McDermitt Bulldogs.
They’re ranch kids and farmer’s boys and Native American grandsons whose lineage runs deep into this land, like blood and water.
Folks strain to recall the last time the Bulldogs won a game, maybe three seasons ago. In the meantime, they have lost, and how, by lopsided outcomes, like 68–0 and 70–2.
But their coach, Richard Egan, a muscular man of Paiute-Shoshone heritage, who played on the 1982 team that won the state title, will not let his team hang their heads.
You can teach kids to win; you can also show them how to lose, and do it gracefully.
The team’s first practice starts today, out on a football field that’s across the state line from the high school building, where the only observers will be the cows that graze in the rangeland just beyond.
Today marks the start of something new — a chance to begin again; to win, or more likely, lose, and still look your opponent in the eye, these boys becoming men.
To understand a small town, its subtle beats and routines, you have to live there.
You have to move in, unpack your things, and realize that from now on, the pace of life will be on its terms, not yours.
You have to stay awhile.
Only then will you know.
It’s like hurtling down some rural stretch of road, past woods and creeks and cornfields, and stopping your car, shutting of the engine, and stepping outside.
If you stay there long enough, and remain quiet, and listen, life will return to its normal thrum, before you motored past, interrupting things — unable to notice the fine details because you’re driving by too goddamned fast.
Only then will the crickets sing, the skittish birds return to their roadside perches. And if you’re lucky, and stay long enough, you might catch that old tortoise crossing the road.
Now that I’m finally in McDermitt, I plan to shut off the engine, and listen.
And hope I get lucky.
Even though it was afternoon, the sun remained diminished, a dim disc in the sky, as I drove north on Route 95 through northern Nevada, headed toward the state border.
Forest fires burning in California and Oregon had transformed day into twilight, making each smoky breath sting the lungs.
My landlords had left the door unlocked, because that’s what they do in small towns.
I walked inside my bungalow by the highway, instantly pleased with my surroundings.
The last time I had moved to a small town on a writing gig, I arrived in Haines, Alaska, at the beginning of winter. My room was dark and cold, the cracked living room window looking out over a mechanic’s parking lot. It got dark at 3 p.m.
When I arrived for another project in Tullamore, in Oz’s New South Wales, I slept in an old mobile home outside the main character’s house — in the Australian winter.
But not McDermitt.
The house was bright, with a big kitchen. I unpacked, set up my computer and writing post on the dining room table, and set out for a walk.
I have visited McDermitt a few times in the past. I know a few folks who live here.
But this was different; now I was here for the long run. I was going to meet people as a fellow resident who paid rent and utility bills. I was no longer the usual itchy motel denizen, ready to gas up and run.
Just outside, I heard a voice. My neighbor was in his yard. He was talking to someone. I turned to introduce myself. Then I noticed he was talking to himself, bending to pull weeds, and the conversation held a tinge of urgency.
I didn’t interrupt. I walked on.
A few steps away, on what once was McDermitt’s main business drag, where a half dozen bars once catered to ranchers and miners and men with six-shooters, I stood outside the White Horse bar, with its mascot stallion bucking on the signage.
The place is long shuttered, like the rest of this town.
Except for the Say When, which is thriving on a Saturday evening.
I turned west, toward the muted sunset, and walked along a country road, past a yellow open-range sign that showed a rearing bull that in most place would be chockfull of shotgun holes.
But not here. What was it about this town where the boys leave the road signs alone?
Then I spotted it. Octagonal red, where a dirt road met the tarmac.
So there are stops signs in McDermitt, I thought, this town without a traffic light.
It’s not so out-in-the-sticks as I thought.
And if there’s one, there are more, like kitchen insects.
As the sun dipped below the horizon, I turned for home. That’s when I saw the pickup truck heading toward me, out of town. Just then a dog ran out, on a collision course.
“Stop!” I yelled.
Then the big dog barked and nipped at the truck wheels, doing what yard dogs do.
I waved at the passing driver, who waved back. I walked up and made friends with the dog, as a kitten ran up and caressed my ankles.
That doesn’t happen much in Vegas.
My landlord stopped by on Sunday.
He’s 72 and has lived around here all his life, a professional rancher and entrepreneur who flies his own light plane that he keeps out in the garage next to my house.
His was born Howard, like his father. He calls himself №2, but goes by Junior.
Who calls him that?
“Everybody,” he says.
Junior filled in some of the gaps.
First off, my little rental house was built by his wife Lorraine’s grandfather in 1917. A few years back, Junior pulled it across the property to where it stands today, rolling it atop a couple of wooden utility poles, before doing a total refurbish.
My neighbor, Junior says, is an old codger named Sponge Bob, who’ll talk your ear off, maybe even is own. Which explains the previous evening’s monologue.
Junior was full of gossip and news, with a bottom line that life can be hard here. Along with the Delta variant, this summer brought a once-in-a-decade invasion of Mormon crickets that blackened the skies, followed by the forest fires.
Just last week, a mini tornado with 80 mile-an-hour winds blew through town, uprooting trees, damaging the old rodeo yard and no doubt making the weather near my house spin like a whirling dervish.
In better developments, he said, an out-of-towner just bought the old White Horse and wants to turn it into a marijuana motel, a so-called Bud-and-Breakfast.
And that big orange, truck-chasing dog I’d encountered the night before? Well, his name is Tater and he belongs to my landlord. Just like the little kitten that ran out between my legs, among a passel of newborns his wife is raising.
Lorraine has names for all of them, but Junior’ll be damned if he can remember.
And so I feel a little more at home in McDermitt.
I’ve reconnected with Junior, met Tater, and watched Sponge Bob in his element.
And football practice starts today.
I’m starting to feel right at home, feeling lucky to have missed those Mormon crickets, but still worried about the fires, and all that choking smoke.
John M. Glionna is a writer and freelance journalist based in Sin City.