Leadbelly: Or a Girl, Her Dog, and Moving to Nevada

By Suzanne Stormon

I decided to quit my full-time job and school in Southern California one afternoon while lying on the bed of a college rodeo cowboy and movie extra who I’d met on campus a month earlier. We were listening to a scratchy old record by a blues singer named Leadbelly. I’d never heard of him before but his deep southern voice and his sad songs reminded me that I wanted a different kind of life.

I was exhausted and Jerry was pushing me for sex. I was still resisting. I didn’t want to be there anymore. I liked his friends and his music a lot better than I liked him.  It was time to be moving on.

“I’m going to Nevada and getting a dog. I’m going to name him Leadbelly,” I told Jerry. Then I asked him to take me home.

I was twenty-one in 1971, but not above taking a break with the family. I did move, joining my parents, brother, and sister on the three acre non-working ranch on Farm District Road in Fernley, Nevada, where they had moved the year before.

It was quite a step down from the suburban tract house I grew up in. The foundation sagged so the whole house slanted toward the back porch. Faded red paint peeled off the wooden siding. A small lawn grew in front of the house and there were plenty of cottonwood trees, but the rest of the acreage was bare dirt. My mom cried a lot at being there, but I loved the place. Back then funky equaled romantic in my mind. I’d always fantasized about living on a ranch. The property even had a horse, left behind by the farmer who sold my parents the land.

Soon after I arrived, the hunt for Leadbelly began. When I saw a newspaper ad which read “Collie/Lab mix puppies, six weeks old, ready to go”, I grabbed a box and headed off to Reno, thirty-six miles to the west.

There were only three puppies left when I got there. They were roaming around in an enclosure that looked like it was made of several old crib sides tied together out in the back yard. I climbed over the barrier and sat down on the grass with the pups. Two of the puppies ignored me, busy with their tussling. The one who would soon get the name Leadbelly came over and introduced himself gently; climbed right on to my lap, and covered my face with his kisses. He looked more like a collie than a lab. Collie coloring and long hair, but with a shorter nose, giving him more of a tough kid look. He was the dog I needed to play out my country girl dream.

I paid the lady, let Leadbelly say goodbye to the kids, and put him in a big cardboard box in the front seat of my old blue Falcon. He sat quietly and attentively for the forty minute drive home. I could tell he would be a great car dog. I planned on him going everywhere with me.

I had him housebroken within a week. I would wake up every time I heard him stir in the middle of the night. I’d throw on my boots and my robe and we’d head out to the yard. I’d look at the stars, so much brighter than they were in L.A., as he found a place to pee. Then I’d pick him up and carry him back inside so quietly that no one ever noticed, even though the house was so small you could hear snoring from some of the rooms all through the house.

Midwinter we both jumped into the Carson River on the edge of Fallon, the farm community twenty-eight miles east of Fernley. We were out exploring the area on one of those rambling drives dreamers take to get away. I had the habit in those days of just looking at a landscape and imagining my possible life in it. Anyway, when I saw the river, I hopped out of the car, let Leadbelly out, and we ran for it. We ignored the ice around the rocks on the edge of the river and jumped right in. We arrived home that day wet, cold, and crazed with adventure.

My old next door neighbor, Pam, moved up from California late in the winter. I had stayed with her family before I moved to Fernley. When she started having trouble with her parents she decided to join us. Having a friend to share ranch life with made it even more fun.

The days were cold and we weren’t used to that, so Pam and I kept pints of blackberry brandy in our sweatshirt pockets. We’d sip on them all day and be ready for bed by eight or nine each night.

This was pre-Amazon, pre-big warehousing in Fernley; not much nightlife, and our family of city-slicker/hippies was the talk of the town. My little sister was just starting high school and making friends with everyone she met.  Pam and I stayed out of town most of the time, just going into the store for cigarettes and brandy.

For four months the three of us, Pam, Leadbelly and I, tramped around that little corner of Nevada, but there was actually plenty of tramping to do just on our three acres. The farmer, who sold my parents the land, left the milking barn filled with old equipment and the detritus of a family that had moved on to a bigger place but left their junk behind. We spent hours in that barn, building and painting rickety tables and benches from old pallets and other scrap lumber we found. We never did get very good at it.

The farmer left his old buckskin horse in the corral with instructions on how to take care of him until he could move him to their new corral. Buck was there the whole time I lived there. I think the farmer forgot him. Pam and I would occasionally ride him, but we didn’t know what we were doing. We didn’t have a saddle or even a bridle for Buck, but we didn’t care. We’d climb on to the corral fence and one of us would jump on as the other held the horse still. We took turns riding Buck around the corral holding on just to his mane.  When he got tired of us he galloped to the corner and stopped short, sometimes sending us tumbling over his shoulder into somersaults. Leadbelly would rush to our aid, thinking himself an emergency medical technician. We usually passed his inspection and were allowed to resume in our folly.

Pam moved back to L.A. when her Japanese boyfriend came to pick her up on his chopper. He stayed for a day or two while Pam packed up her stuff. There wasn’t much diversity in Fernley, so this was just one more thing for neighbors to marvel at.

I stayed with my family for about six months altogether before I moved to Reno for the university and a casino job. Moving into a three bedroom house with five roommates, there was no room for Leadbelly.  He was to stay with my folks until I found a place where he could be with me.

Leadbelly, people pleaser that he was, made his way into my parent’s hearts. They wouldn’t let him go without a fight when I finally got a place where I could keep him. By that time, he was living at the silver mine that my dad and brother were working out near Lovelock. He was the mine’s ambassador and spent his days accompanying the two of them wherever they went when he wasn’t chasing wild horses.

If I had kept him, my life would have been different. I would have needed to get home every night, sober, and ready to feed and walk him. Looking back, I can see that I wasn’t to ready settle down. Being the non-custodial owner allowed me access but also freedom for the other adventures that awaited me in my new home of Nevada.

Leadbelly’s been gone for over thirty years now. I ended up living in Nevada for almost all of my adult life and I’m forever grateful for his company in those early days. His memory soothes me the way old blues music does on a lonely night.

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Your turn: Share the story of how you got to Nevada in the comments. If you’ve always lived in Nevada, share a story of your experience with an animal that helped you appreciate your time here.