Authors: Edward Abbey
The Best of Edward Abbey
The Best of Edward Abbey
Edited by Edward Abbeywith his own illustrations
The Best of Edward AbbeyCopyright © 1984 by Edward AbbeyCover art to the electronic edition copyright © 2011 by RosettaBooks, LLC
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
Electronic edition published 2011 by RosettaBooks LLC, New York.ISBN e-Pub edition: 9780795317453ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
Acknowledgments for previously published material included in the first edition:
The selection fromJonathan Troyfirst appeared inJonathan Troy, Dodd, Mead, 1954.
The selection fromThe Brave Cowboyfirst appeared inThe Brave Cowboy, Dodd, Mead, 1956.
The selection fromFire on the Mountainfirst appeared inFire on the Mountain, Dial Press, 1962.
The selection fromBlack Sunfirst appeared inBlack Sun, Simon & Schuster, 1971.
The selection fromThe Monkey Wrench Gangfirst appeared inThe Monkey Wrench Gang, Avon Books, 1976.
The selection fromGood Newsfirst appeared inGood News, E. P. Dutton, Inc., 1980.
“Cowboys,” “The Moon-Eyed Horse,” “Havasu,” “The Dead Man at Grandview Point,” and “Bedrock and Paradox” first appeared inDesert Solitaire, McGraw-Hill, 1968.
“The Great American Desert,” “Death Valley,” “Manhattan Twilight, Hoboken Night,” and “Telluride Blues—A Hatchet Job” first appeared inThe Journey Home, E. P. Dutton, Inc., 1977.
“Anna Creek,” “The Outback,” “A Desert Isle,” “Sierra Madre,” “Down There in the Rocks,” “Science with a Human Face,” “In Defense of the Redneck,” “Fire Lookout,” and “The Sorrows of Travel” first appeared inAbbey’s Road, E. P. Dutton, Inc., 1979.
“Down the River with Henry Thoreau,” “Watching the Birds: The Windhover,” “Of Protest,” “My Friend Debris,” and “Floating” first appeared inDown the River, E. P. Dutton, Inc., 1982.
Selection fromAppalachian Wildernessfirst appeared inAppalachian Wilderness, E. P. Dutton, Inc., 1973.
The publisher gratefully acknowledges permission to reprint additional selections from the following copyrighted sources:
“Bonnie’s Return” fromHay duke Lives!by Edward Abbey. Copyright © 1989 by The Estate of Edward Abbey. By permission of Little, Brown and Company, Inc.
“Down to the Sea of Cortez” inBeyond the Wall: Essays from the Outsideby Edward Abbey. Copyright © 1971, 1976, 1977, 1979, 1984, by Edward Abbey. Reprinted by permission of Henry Holt and Company, LLC.
Pages 437 to 440 inThe Fool’s Progress: An Honest Novel byEdward Abbey. Copyright © 1988, 1990 by Edward Abbey. Reprinted by permission of Henry Holt and Company, LLC.
Three poems fromEarth Apples: Collected Poemsby Edward Abbey. Copyright © 1994 by Clarke C. Abbey. Excerpts fromConfessions of a Barbarian: Selections from the Journals of Edward Abbey. Copyright © 1994 by Clarke Abbey. Reprinted by permission of Clarke Abbey and Don Congdon Associates, Inc.Contents
The Author’s Preface to His Own Book
FromThe Brave Cowboy(1956)
FromFire on the Mountain(1962)
The Moon-Eyed Horse
The Dead Man at Grandview Point
Bedrock and Paradox
FromThe Monkey Wrench Gang(1975)
Seldom Seen at Home
FromThe Journey Home(1977)
The Great American Desert
Manhattan Twilight, Hoboken Night
Telluride Blues—A Hatchet Job
A Desert Isle
Down There in the Rocks
Science with a Human Face
In Defense of the Redneck
The Sorrows of Travel
FromDown the River(1982)
Down the River with Henry Thoreau
Watching the Birds: The Windhover
My Friend Debris
FromThe Rites of Spring(novel in progress)
FromBeyond the Wall:Essays from the Outside(1984)
Down to the Sea of Cortez
FromThe Fool’s Progress: An Honest Novel(1989)
To the Mississippi
FromEarth Apples:The Poetry of Edward Abbey(1994)
Down the River
A Sonnet for Everett Ruess
FromConfessions of a Barbarian(1994)
Selections from the JournalsThe Author’s Prefaceto His Own Book
TheReaderas literary object has two useful functions: it can serve as a convenient one-volume introduction to a writer’s work for those not previously acquainted with it, leading to deeper intimacies; or theReadermay suffice to confirm one’s doubts and suspended contempt, thus sparing the critic the bother of looking further. I trust that my book will satisfy the expectations of both types ofReaderreaders.
In compiling this one-man show I have endeavored, as an author naturally does, to present what I think is both the best and the most representative of my writing—so far. The emphasis falls on the latter term. Most of my writing has been in the field of the novel, explorations in certain aspects of the human comedy, especially the traditional conflict between our instinctive urge toward fraternity, community, and freedom, and the opposing demands of discipline and the state. The human versus human institutions—a conflict as old as the development of agriculture, urbanism, militarism, and hierarchy. That theme, like a scarlet thread, runs through everything I have written, binding it together into whatever unity it may have. Seeking to develop this theme in dramatic form, the best and most deeply felt of my writing flows toward fiction, toward the creation of symbolic structures, the telling and retelling (always trying to get it right) of one of our oldest stories.
Excerpts from novels, however, make poor material for an anthology. At least in the kind of fiction I have been writing, few of my excerpts or chapters make much sense in isolation; nonehave the independent coherence of a good short story. Nevertheless, I chose to insert in thisReaderone episode from each of my novels, not to please or amuse, but in hope of tickling enough interest to lure the potential reader into the ambuscade of the originals. But these episodes are brief and there are only seven of them.
The bulk of the book consists of chapters from four collections of informal, personal (sometimes highly personal) accounts of travel, ideas, people, nature, places, adventures—Desert Solitaire, The Journey Home, Abbey’s Road, andDown the River. I like to call such writing personal history. Most of the selections qualify, I think, as essays, another adequately vast, vague, and self-defining label. We know that in this world there are actually only two kinds of books: (1) good books, and (2) the others. But books require finer labels so that librarians, in a culture built on the babble of numbers and words, may not go clinically insane.
My first book(Troy)was published in 1954. According to the calendar on the wall, I am writing these words in the year 1984. Thirty years in the book-writing business—appalling! For so prolonged an effort my output has been small, about a dozen volumes worthy of the title “book” plus the texts for four or five scenic-photography coffee-table compendiums, which I do not count as legitimate books and which in any case nobody reads. (One of those things, if you attached legs to it, would do as a coffee-table in itself.) Of the eleven or twelve legitimate books only one,The Monkey Wrench Gang, goes beyond 300 pages. Hardly enough to gain my union card.
Where have the years gone? Why, into the usual vices of the romantic realist: into sloth and melancholy, each feeding upon and reinforcing the other, into love and marriage and the begetting of children, into the strenuous maneuvers of earning a living without living to earn, into travel and play and music and drink and talk and laughter, into saving the world—but saving the world was only a hobby. Into watching cloud formations float across our planetary skies. But mostly into sloth and melancholy and I don’t regret a moment of it.
If I had stayed in Hoboken when I had the chance, holed up in the urban hive while acid rain pattered on the roof and drug-crazed killers stalked the alleyways, I would now be the Dostoyevsky of Hudson County, New Jersey. Two of my American heroes are Nelson Algren and Dr. William Carlos Williams. But I left after one year.
Nothing can be more fatuous than a writer writing about his own writing and the serious reader is advised to skip what follows; I intend to go on probing this same vein for several pages more. It may be of interest to other essayists and novelists. I know thatIlike to read such stuff, up to a point, if there is one.
Despite the meagre production (so far), I have been able to earn my keep at writing for nearly fifteen years. I know that it’s vulgar and offensive to talk about money—most authors would far prefer to describe their latest sadomasochistic daydreams—but the grim truth is that I have been well rewarded for my plodding work at the typewriter, with an average income in the period referred to of about 20,000 dollars per year. A handsome sum, more than sufficient for a comfortable life in the country. After centuries of dogged striving at least one member of the Abbey clan (Allegheny Mountain branch) has succeeded in climbing to the uppermost rungs of the lower class.
How did this come about?
Not through institutional assistance. My books are never reviewed inTimeorNewsweekorNew YorkorThe New Yorkeror theNew York RevieworEsquireorHarper’sorAtlanticorVillage VoiceorNational RevieworPartisan RevieworCommentaryorTV GuideorMs. orMother JonesorRolling StoneorLadies’ Home JournalorVogueorSewanee RevieworThe Wall Street Journal. Each of my books, each defenseless child, has been met with a sublime, monumental, crashing silence—a freezing silence. (Some did receive friendly notices in the SundayNew York Timesand other regional newspapers.)
When not ignored, my books are greeted with what I must recognize as a coolness verging on outright frigidity, particularly by the doctrinaire buzzsaws of chickenshit liberalism: “The authorof this book,” said one reviewer aboutThe Monkey Wrench Gang, “should be neutered and locked away forever.” A Miss “S. C.,” reviewingAbbey’s RoadforThe New Republic, attacked me as “smug” and “graceless” because of a careless remark I let drop about Annie Dillard’s theological nature writing; the reviewer was so infuriated by that slip that she even ridiculed the publisher’s jacket copy. In the moldy, angst-ridden pages ofThe Nationone Denise Drabelle, identified as an “environmental lawyer,” whatever that is, described the author ofDown the Riveras “puerile, arrogant, xenophobic and dopey.” Why? Because I had foolishly confessed, in a casual aside, to sharing in the popular belief that mass immigration from the Latin South (or from any other source) is not a good thing for the working people and material well-being of the United States. And one more critic, in a survey of Western American writers for theNew York Times Magazine, called me a “smirking pessimist,” apparently in response to my novelGood News, in which I foresee the collapse of our military-industrial civilization. I could cite other examples but this is enough to indicate the general tenor of the resistance.
A near unanimous indifference sprinkled with peppery pockets of abuse—such has been the overall critical reception of my thirty years of part-time literary travail. No help at all. Am I complaining or boasting? A little of both, but my essential point is this: a serious writer writing what are meant as serious books can survive and even flourish in the face of official indifference and hostilityifhe has something to say and says it well, something which interests a sufficient number of his fellow citizens. Except for that first and highly forgotten novel, not one of my books has failed to sell at least 10,000 copies in its original trade edition and some, like the hatedAbbey’s RoadandDown the River,;are approaching the 40,000 mark and still selling at a modest but steady annual rate. In one form or another, every one of my books (again with the sole and welcome exception ofJonathan Troy)has remained in print and available. My smug pride in this fact is self-evident but more importantly I offer my experience to other writers, especially the new, the young, the struggling, asproof that the author need not subserve a mass market or pander to the East Coast literati in order to enjoy a satisfactory audience. There is a middle way, a strait, tricky, but feasible channel between the rocks on the swift river of Mod Am Lit. That should be good news indeed. Be of good cheer, my fellow scriveners! Ignore the critics. Disregard those best-selling paperbacks with embossed covers in the supermarkets and the supermarket bookstores. And waste no time applying for gifts and grants—when we want money from the rich we’ll take it by force. The honorable way.
Death before dishonor, as it were.
Live free or die.
That about sums up (and may well conclude) my literary career. Which is not and never was a career anyway, but rather a passion. Apassion!Fueled in equal parts by anger and love. How can you feel one without the other? Each implies the other. A writer without passion is like a body without a soul. Or even more grotesque, like a soul without a body.
Yes, I am aware that what I have written above requires certain qualifications. I am happy to acknowledge that some of the American writers I most admire—Doctorow, Vonnegut, Heller, Pynchon, for example—have won an enormous audience. I only wish it were far bigger. And others whom I respect—Gaddis, for example, and Wendell Berry, Joan Didion, Peter Matthiessen, Edward Hoagland, Alan Harrington, William Eastlake, Robert Coover, Barry Lopez, Thomas McGuane, Gary Snyder, Galway Kinnell, Annie Dillard, Robert Creeley, Diane Wakowski, to name but a few—have received the official critical acclaim but not (so far) the number of readers they deserve. Never mind. I stand by and upon the central meaning of my words. There is a middle way. You do not have to write endless disquisitions about suburban hanky-panky, Toyota dealers, self-hating intellectuals, male mutilation, lesbians in bearskins, to live and live happily as a writer in America, God bless her.
You do not even need to be psychoanalyzed, Rolfed, estered, altered, gelded, neutered, spayed, fixed, Mooned, acupunctured,meditated, Zenned, massaged, Cayced, yogied, New Aged, astrocharted, holisticized, computerized, megatrended, therapized, androgynized, evangelized, converted, or even, last and least, to be reborn. One life at a time, please.
Whatisboth necessary and sufficient—for honest work—is to have faith in the evidence of your senses and in your common sense. To be true to your innate sense of justice. To be loyal to your family, your clan, your friends, and your community. (Let the nation-state go hang itself.) Stand up for the stupid and crazy. Love the earth and the sun and the animals. Read Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Henry Thoreau, Jack London, B. Traven, Thomas Wolfe (the real Tom Wolfe, not that other one), John Steinbeck, Nelson Algren, and Dr. William Carlos Williams. When you are appointed to the Nobel Prize Committee, vote for Lewis Mumford for literature, Noam Chomsky for truth, and David Brower for peace. And that about covers it. So far.
So far as America is concerned. As for the remainder of the earthly world, we know what’s going on out there. The best of our brother novelists and sister poets are in prison or in hiding or in exile, are being “disappeared,” tortured, murdered, from Tierra del Fuego to Mexico, from Siberia and Peking to Prague, from Cairo to Capetown, from Hanoi to Istanbul. What should we do aboutthat?I don’t know.
In such a world, why write? How justify this mad itch for scribbling? Speaking for myself, I write to entertain my friends and exasperate our enemies. I write to record the truth of our time, as best as I can see it. To investigate the comedy and tragedy of human relationships. To resist and sabotage the contemporary drift toward a technocratic, militaristic totalitarianism, whatever its ideological coloration. To oppose injustice, defy the powerful, and speak for the voiceless.
I write to make a difference. “It is always a writer’s duty to make the world better,” said Samuel Johnson. Distrusting all answers, to raise more questions. To give pleasure and promoteesthetic bliss. To honor life and praise the divine beauty of the world. For the joy and exultation of writing itself. To tell my story.
Well now, says the old wolf,vox clamantis in deserto, that should keep him busy for a while.
Edward Abbey March 1984 Oracle, ArizonaFROMJonathan Troy(1954)
He was awakened, hearing laughter, in the dark tunnel of the night, caught between frayed dreams, and sat up and stared into the blackness, hearing from the other end of the room now, weaving through the dark, not the wild trill of leaves in laughter which had awakened him, but only the dismal whine, the dim and melancholy wind (like the song of a ghost in the black and ruined farmhouse which rose, shaking and creaking with misery and age, from dark tangles of bramble-briar and hawthorn, hedged in by plum trees grown wild and apple trees grown tall and shaggy and barren, fronting a yard of Queen Anne’s Lace and waist-high witch grass, trailing across its black eyes a hairy skein of Virginia Creeper and volunteer columbine, facing the narrow rutty rocky road that once was and in flood-time still is the bed of a creek, pushing up above its sagging walls and black splintered boards a sway-backed roof as cracked and open as a trellis, with the soft-moulded remains of a red-brick chimney where a catbird family nested in the spring and early summer, where a whippoorwill haunted himself in the autumn, beyond the last farm beyond Falling Rock Cabin way up the hollow in the vine-covered hills behind Tanomee, the old farm which nobody wanted any more and which nearly everybody had forgotten except the boy and (in the fall) the red-jacketed hunters from town with their clean shotguns and pipes and wrinkled eyes on the lookout for rabbits, squirrels, Ringnecks, wild turkeys) of his father, old Nat Troy, rolled asleep in his stolen Army blankets and turning in a nightmare, creaking the broken springs, the oboe sound of his father’s snores, a sound too familiarand elemental and old, too interveined with the bedrock of his being and existence, with the stream of his history from its black beginning to its gray present, to be more than simply noticed, an awareness indicated, its real and fundamental message already buried in the chamber of his dreams; he could forget and at once did forget the ancestral nightchant, remembering only the vivid and in memory still-immediate skirl of laughter, feeling the deep and thrilled commotion of his heart, the tingling of his hair, the shaking and trembling of his sweating hands, still hearing, in the black vault of silence, the silent echo of the wind in leaves, and sitting up in bed, stiff with shock and surprise, he turned his head toward the open window, searching for something, and saw, framed in the gray rectangle, a diffusion of undersea light—of light shining through a curtain of falling rain—an unexpected vision which drew him out of his bed, naked, and across the littered floor to the window, where he leaned out head and shoulders, shivering slightly, the wild churning in his mind and heart heating his blood, opening his mouth, exciting his loins, and remembered the green sources and the swing of steel blades over a moon-meadow of frozen moonlight and the slim body of the girl—her knees, the grave level gaze of her eyes, the whirling skirt, the wind of speed lifting her hair—and the flight, the trail of laughter and the taunt or dare or challenge coming back to him over the blue ice and through the air—find me!—and he smiled as he remembered, his hands tightening on the window-frame’s edge, and leaned farther out, seeing the dead neon of the Blue Bell Bar, the streetlamps glowing through the soft rain, the street empty and wet-shining and earless, and the silent town abandoned to sleep and night, and he thought of the girl waiting for him a mile or so away through the wet air, past all the steel and concrete and bare-limbed urban trees, somewhere on the other side of the hill beyond the Fair; enthralled by the green joy of love and the urgent delight of sex, he thought of her, and watched, from where he was, a little past the end of the first hour in April, the wordless tireless falling of the rain….FROMThe Brave Cowboy(1956)
She came slowly out of sleep, dreaming of the surrealistic past, hearing in the present and not far away the click of a light switch, light footsteps on the kitchen floor, the scraping sounds of a heavy object in motion. Alarmed, she reached out to touch Paul—he was not there. The weary pain of loss and separation swept over her; in the twilight of consciousness between sleep and awakening she felt the full weight of all the fear and sorrow and loneliness that in her waking hours she had partially suppressed beneath a routine of activity and facile optimism. Again she heard the unfamiliar sounds; unwillingly she opened her eyes and turned her head and saw, under the door to the kitchen, a splinter of yellow light. She was startled, then afraid, caught for a moment in the paralysis of the unknown and unexpected. She wanted to get out of bed but was afraid to make any noise; she caught at her breath, swallowed hard and finally forced herself to speak. She called out:
“Who is it?”—a scarcely articulate croak.
Which brought no answer; the sounds of activity in the kitchen continued: she heard something hard and heavy strike the wooden floor. “Who’s there?” she said, louder and clearer.
A moment of silence, then the voice of Jack Burns: “It’s me, Jerry. It’s Jack. You awake?”
She slid out of bed, gave her hair one quick brush with her hand and went to the door and opened it. There was Jack, grinning wanly at her, blinking in the light; he had his saddlebags on one shoulder, his rifle in his right hand. She stared at him and rubbed her eyes. “Where’ve you been?” she said. “Were you in jail?”
“I was. In and out. How about—”
“Where’s Paul? Is he all right? Has anything happened?”
“Everything’s fine. Paul’s right where he wants to be. How about makin some coffee? I gotta start off in a few minutes.”
“What happened to your face?” she said. “You look awful.”
“It’s nothin much—just a little trouble.”
“But good God, Jack …” She hesitated, floundering among her fears and impressions, still not fully awake. “What happened, tell me. Did you break out of jail?”
“You’re shiverin,” he said; “why don’t you put somethin warm on?” She stared at him. “Go ahead—I’ll start a fire in the stove and tell you everything that happened. Hurry up; I can’t stay long.”
She heard his words, became aware then of the chill in the air, of the taut roughness of her skin. She went back in the bedroom and shuffled into her slippers and put a heavy jacket on over her pajamas. When she re-entered the kitchen she found Jack stuffing paper and kindling-wood into the firebox of the stove. “Matches on the shelf,” she said, and in a continuation of that reflex act she went to the cupboard and measured four table-spoonfuls of fresh coffee into the coffeepot. Burns lit the paper under the kindling, set several chunks of juniper on top of that and replaced the stove lid; the fire began to crackle and roar. Jerry dipped about four cupfuls of water out of the bucket, then set the pot on the stove; she closed the damper and the fire settled down to a muted, steady rumble. All of this required no more than a few minutes; they worked quickly and without speaking, conscious of the cold and the approaching dawn.
When she had finished Jerry said: “What are you going to do?” She stood close to the stove, catching the first radiations of heat from the old iron. “You did break out, didn’t you?”
“Sure,” he said, “what else could I do?” He had one foot on a chair, buckling his spurs to his boots.
“Are the police after you now?”
“I hope not. They’ll be scramblin around pretty soon, though. There’s a good chance they’ll be lookin for me right here, too.” He stood up and stretched his arms and yawned mightily. “God,it sure is good to be outa that cage!” He relaxed and smiled awkwardly at Jerry—the condition of his face made normal smiling difficult. “How’s that coffee comin along?”
“What?” she said. Then: “It’ll take a few more minutes.”
He picked the saddlebags up from the floor. “I’ll go out and saddle up.” He opened the back door and looked out into the darkness. “Won’t be long,” he said; “there’s a light blue streak above the mountains now.” He could see, through the miles of starlit space, a faint sheen of snow on the crest of the range. Jerry, looking out the doorway over his shoulder, saw the white gleam and shivered again. “Wouldn’t wanta be up there now with only my spurs on,” Burns said. He grinned at her, lifted the saddlebags to his shoulder, ducked under the top of the doorway and walked out; she watched his thin legs and narrow back retreat in the direction of the corral, fading into the purple night. Feeling cold and desolate, she closed the door, hearing a whinny from the mare at the same time, and went back to the stove and moved the coffeepot to what appeared to be the hottest area on the stove. She stared at the black charred handle of the vessel, at the round lid under it, at the yellow glint of fire visible through the crack between stove lid and center section. She roused herself again, set the skillet on the stove and peeled half a dozen strips of bacon into it. She put another skillet on the stove, poured a little bacon grease into it, and cracked five eggs and let them fry. She tossed the cracked eggshells toward the woodbox and missed; she did not bother to pick them up.
Something has happened, she decided; something terrible has happened.
From outside came the sound of hoofs beating on the hard earth, the soft coaxing voice of Burns, the mare Whisky’s answering nicker. Again she heard, as in a dream, the jingle of spurs and the cowboy’s steps across the porch.
“Hey, somethin smells mighty good,” he said, coming in; he spotted the bacon and eggs on the stove. “Jerry, you’re my angel.”
“I’m a damned worried angel,” she said, setting a plate, knife, fork, two cups, on the table.
“What’s wrong? What’s right?” The coffee began to perk and bubble; she flipped the eggs over, forked the strips of bacon out of the skillet and onto a doubled-up paper towel. “Sit down,” she said. “Soon as you eat I’m going to put something on that massacred face of yours. What on earth happened to you?”
“Is that all that’s frettin you?” Burns sat down at the table and gave the plate a spin; he remembered his hat, took it off and set it on the floor beside his chair. “Huh?”
“You men make me sick,” she said. “You act like children. Even my son or that mare out there would have better sense. Here you are with your face cut up and running away from the police and there Paul is in the county jail waiting to go to a Federal prison for a year or two. What’s the matter with you people?” She dished out the eggs and bacon onto his plate and turned back to the stove to rescue the coffee, already beginning to boil over. “I think you’re both crazy, that’s all.”
“You might be right there,” Burns agreed. “Question is—what can you do about it?”
“Don’t make me angry,” Jerry said; she filled his cup with coffee, then her own. “There’s plenty I could do,” she added.
Burns gazed sombrely into his black coffee. “Maybe so,” he said, “maybe so.” The vapor rising from the coffee clouded his face, giving him a temporary intangibility.
Jerry sat down. “What kind of extra trouble is Paul in now?” she asked.
“None that I know of.” Burns began to eat. “He helped me get out but there’s no call for anybody to learn that.”
“What are you going to do now?”
Burns spoke between mouthfuls of bacon and egg. “… Up to the mountains. Hide—” He gulped down some of the steaming coffee. “—Hide out maybe a few days. Get some meat, make jerky.”
“I can give you some things.”
“Can’t take canned goods—too heavy, too bulky.”
“I baked yesterday. I’ll give you some bread.”
“That’d be fine, Jerry.”
“You say you’re going to hide for a few days—what does that mean? What then? Where will you go?”
Burns ate heartily; a touch of egg adorned his beard. “I can go north, west or south. Winter’s comin so I guess I’ll go south: Chihuahua or maybe Sonora, dependin on how things look.”
“What will you do down there?”
“I dunno. Just live, I guess.” He swabbed his plate with a piece of bread. “I like Mexico—I have friends there.”
“But Jack—” Jerry hesitated. “You’ll be back, won’t you?”
“Sure. When I’m nothin but a face on the post office wall I’ll come a-sneakin back. You’ll see me comin down across the mesa out there some evening when things are peaceful.”
“Don’t talk to me like that. You know you can’t go on like this—you’re in the Twentieth Century now.”
“I don’t tune my life to the numbers on a calendar.”
“That’s ridiculous, Jack. You’re a social animal, whether you like it or not. You’ve got to make some concessions—or they’ll hunt you down like a … like a … What do people hunt down nowadays?”
“Coyotes,” Burns said. “With cyanide guns.” He finished his coffee and wiped his mouth. “I better get a move on.”
Jerry gripped her cup tightly, though it burnt her fingers. “Jack—” she said.
He looked at her over his hand. His lean worn face, beaten and discolored, harsh, asymmetrical, homely as a hound, touched her to the heart. She wanted to reach out to him, laugh and weep for him; instead she forced a smile, saying: “Like some more to eat?”
He stared at her for a long moment before answering. “Thanks, Jerry … I’ve had enough.”
“I’ll fix you something to take with you.”
“That’d be mighty nice of you, Jerry.” He pushed back his chair, put on his hat and stood up. “I gotta get goin right away, though.”
“Won’t take me but a minute.” She got up too and started to demonstrate her words. Burns was about to interfere, changedhis mind, picked up his rifle and bedroll, and went outside. Jerry finished packing a paper sack with a half loaf of dark bread wrapped in tin foil, with cheese and salami and oranges. She hurried out after him. “Don’t run off,” she said.
Burns had slipped the rifle into the saddle scabbard and was tying the bedroll on behind the cantle when she came out. “Here,” she said, “take this. It’s bread.”
“Thanks a lot,” he said, taking the package and jamming it into the top of the saddlebag. He knotted the last thong, then went to the pump to fill his canteen; she followed him. The air was chill enough to vaporize their exhalations, lending their speech a vague, smoky visibility.
“I want to give you back the money,” she said.
Burns unscrewed the cap of the canteen, held it under the spout and began pumping. Jerry picked up a can full of water and poured the water slowly into the top of the pump. “You have to prime this damn thing,” she said. Flecks of ice glittered in the starlight.
“I forgot.” He pumped the handle up and down and after much groaning and gasping the pump started to give water, splashing over the cowboy’s hand and over the canteen.
“I don’t need the money, you know. Not really …” She turned to go back to the house. “I’ll get it.”
“I could use the ammunition,” he said at last. “And I’ll take back half the money.” Jerry started toward the porch. “No more,” he said after her.
She went inside; Burns walked to his outfit and hung the canteen on the saddlehorn. He waited; the mare snorted and twitched her ears, pawing the ground, eager for the dawn and the ride. He looked to the east: the mountains seemed darker now, the snow almost blue; above the rim the sky was fading in waves of green and yellow, a hint of the sun burning below the horizon. But far in the west the night still held, deep and brilliant with the ice-blue crackling points of light from the stars.
Jerry hurried out of the house toward him, the bandoleer in her hands. “All right, I kept half the money. Now take it.”
He accepted the bandoleer without a word.
“I almost forgot,” she said. “I want to do something for your face.”
“My face is hopeless,” he said, trying to grin. “What can you do for it?”
“That broken tooth may give you trouble.”
“You might at least let me wash the blood off your cheek.”
“That ain’t blood, that’s skin. I washed everything off that would come off before I got here.”
He smiled painfully. “In an irrigation ditch.”
“That’s what I thought,” she said. “Come on inside; there’s warm water on the stove.”
He patted the mare on the shoulder and the horse turned nervously and blew some of her foggy breath in his face. “Jerry, I gotta vamoose. Me and Whisky got a long ways to go.” Awkwardly he faced the mare. “Ain’t that right, girl?” he said, slapping and rubbing the gleaming shoulder.
“Don’t start loving up that damned horse in front of me,” Jerry said. “Anything else you need?”
Burns put a hand on the pommel, a foot in the stirrup, ready to mount. “No,” he said, and stopped to think. “Well I don’t have any tobacco. They took it—”
“Wait,” she said, “just one more minute!” And shuffled in her slippers as fast as she could back into the kitchen.
“They took it all away from me …” Burns concluded, addressing the kitchen door. He surveyed the eastern horizon again, then turned his narrowed and anxious eyes toward the house and past it and looked up the road that led toward the city.
Jerry came out of the kitchen. “Here,” she said, a little breathlessly, “here’s some of Paul’s old pipe tobacco.”
“I ain’t got a pipe, Jerry,” he said softly. “Could you find any cigarette papers?”
“I know, I know,” she said. “No, I couldn’t find any papers. But here’s a pipe he never uses.” She gave Burns a handsome briar pipe with a slender stem. “I know he wouldn’t miss it,” sheadded, as the cowboy hesitated; “it’s one I bought him for his birthday. Please take it, Jack.”
“Well … okay,” he said. “I’m sure obliged to you. To both of you. Just hope this fancy tobacco don’t spoil me.” He put the pipe and tobacco inside his shirt. “Pockets all fulla junk,” he explained sheepishly.
“Yeah?” Again he prepared to mount, his foot in the stirrup, his back toward her.
“Jack …” She stepped forward and touched his shoulder and he faced her again, waiting. “Kiss me,” she said.
“I want to,” he said. But he made no move. “I want to.”
“What are you afraid of?”
“I don’t know. Nothin, I guess.” He reached out then and embraced her and kissed her gently and quickly on the lips. “What I’m afraid of,” he said slowly, “is me. That’s all.”
“We’re both afraid of the same thing, then,” Jerry said. She smiled at him while her vision dimmed. “You’d better go,” she managed to say.
“What’s so funny?” He returned her smile with a stiff, uncertain grin.
“You’d better go, Jack.”
“Yes,” he said. “I know.” He released her and turned and pulled himself up, a little wearily, into the saddle. He adjusted the bandoleer on his back, tugged at the forebrim of his hat.
“Goodby, kid,” he said. “Say goodby to the boy for me.” He touched Whisky with the reins and she turned, facing the mountains. “Take care of your old man,” he said. “When I come back I wanta see you both out here.” The mare pranced and whinnied and shook her head, impatient, indignant, eager for flight.
“Yes,” Jerry said. “I hope so. God, I hope so.”
“I’ll see you in a year or so. Maybe sooner.”
“Yes,” she said; she shivered in the keen air, blinking the mist out of her eyes. “Be careful, Jack.”
“Adios,” he said, and flicked the mare with the leather, and at once she began to trot, then canter, away from the house andcorral and toward the mountains. Burns reined in a little and slowed her to a brisk trot. Jerry, watching, saw him turn in the saddle and wave back at her. Weakly she pulled one hand out of a jacket pocket and held it up for him to see, but he had already turned and straightened and was facing the east.
She stood in the bleak gray light, huddled and cold in the jacket and her pajamas, and watched Jack Burns ride away: she saw him cross the embankment by the big irrigation ditch and disappear for several minutes and heard or thought she heard the rattling dance of Whisky’s iron shoes across the wooden bridge; she saw horse and rider reappear on the higher ground beyond the ditch, figures already greatly diminished by the perspective of distance; she saw them slowly mount the rise to the edge of the mesa and there, where she knew there was a fence although now it could not be seen—the light obscure and shifting—she saw the cowboy dismount and work at something in front of the horse, then remount and ride on; she saw them, the man and his horse, fade, melt, diminish by subtle gradations of light and dimension into that vast open expanse of stone and sand and space that swept on, mile after mile after mile, toward the dark mountains.
From a cottonwood tree near the ditch came the whirring call of a grouse hen, the cawing of approaching crows. Jerry shivered, urged her cold aching limbs into motion and returned to the kitchen. She had water to carry, she remembered, a breakfast to make ready for her son, lunches to pack, dishes to wash, a job in the city at nine o’clock—no end of things to do….FROMFire on theMountain(1962)
The sun was hanging close to the shoulder of the mountain when Lee and I regained the old wagon road and measured its final few switchbacks up to the bench of level ground where the corral and cabin stood. We saw the sorrel stallion, barebacked and glossy, staked out in the little dry park in front of the corral. A thread of smoke dangled over the cabin chimney and Grandfather himself, when he heard our horses, appeared in the open doorway.
“Evening,” he said. “I thought you boys would show about now. I got three cans of beans and a panful of corned beef warming up on the stove.”
“That’ll do for a start,” Lee said.
We dismounted and unsaddled our horses. I was tired. In fact the saddle, as I lugged it to the corral fence, seemed to weigh approximately five hundred pounds.
“You can just turn old Blue loose, Billy,” Grandfather said. “He’ll stick close to Rocky. You might brush him down a little.”
Lee picketed his horse. We curried our animals with juniper twigs and then went into the cabin, following the scent of food. The inside of the cabin was neat and clean, furnished with an iron cot, a table and chairs, a cupboard full of canned goods, a kerosene lamp, and other supplies, including a sack of grain suspended on baling wire from the rafters to make life more difficult for the mice. A pot of coffee simmered on the stove.
“That smells good,” Lee said.
“Ain’t quite ready yet,” the old man said, stirring the cornedbeef with a fork. He handed me the empty water bucket. “Billy, would you mind filling that? We’ll be ready to eat as soon as you get back.”
“Yes sir.” I swallowed my disappointment, took the bucket, left the cabin and walked along the footpath toward the spring at the head of the ravine. The path led downward along the base of a cliff, winding among boulders big as boxcars and under tall stately yellow pines, until it reached a sort of glen or grotto in a deep fold of the mountainside. The air felt cool, the light was green and filtered down in there—I thought of the lion. I knelt by the sandy basin of the spring and drank from my cupped hands before filling the pail. The glen was very quiet; I could hear no breeze, no bird cries, no sound at all except the gentle purr of the water as it glided over moss-covered rocks and sank out of sight into the mud and weeds below the spring.
I returned to the cabin, the bucket of water pulling down my arm and shoulder. Grandfather was dishing out the food into tin plates and pouring the coffee. Lee stood near the corral, feeding grain to the horses.
“Come and get it!” Grandfather shouted. To me he said, “Put the water on the stove, Billy, and bring your plate outside. Too hot to eat in here.”
The three of us sat on the grass against the cabin wall, in the shade, and faced the sunlit world below. We were silent for a while and too busy to admire the spectacular view, eating what I thought was probably the best meal I had ever had in my life. Later, after second helpings all around, full and comforted, we set our plates aside and began to talk and look at things again.
“How could I forget my cigars.”
“Have a tailormade,” Lee said, offering a cigarette to the old man.
Grandfather examined the cigarette. “They say women enjoy these things.”
“That’s right,” Lee said, “and I enjoy women.” He offered his pack to me. “Cigarette, Billy?”
I hesitated. I wasn’t allowed to smoke, of course. Besides, Ipreferred the corncob pipe I had hidden in my suitcase back at the ranch-house.
“Put them back,” Grandfather said. “Don’t give the boy one of those.”
“It’s a filthy, evil, despicable habit, a disgrace to the human race.” Grandfather lit his cigarette and took a deep drag. “He’s too young. Put them back.”
They smoked. I pulled a stem of grass and chewed on it and looked. There was much to look at from where we sat. With the great mountain at our backs, we had a full and open view to the north, east and south—one-half the known world. I could see four different mountain systems, not counting the one holding me up, the lights of two cities, and about seven thousand square miles of the desert in between. I saw the San Andres Mountains rolling north, the Sacramento Mountains beyond Alamogordo forty miles away to the northeast, the Guadalupe Mountains some eighty miles due east and the Organ Mountains and the hazy smudge of El Paso far to the south, with the deserts of Chihuahua spreading toward infinity beyond.
The sun dropped lower. We watched the shadow of Thieves’ Peak creep across the plain toward Grandfather Vogelin’s ranch, toward the village of Baker, toward the Guadalupe Mountains, reaching out to meet the curtain of darkness coming toward us from the east.
“Did you ever climb that mountain?”
“The one above us. Thieves’ Mountain.”
“No, can’t say I did. And I never will. This cabin here’s high enough for me. About as close to Heaven as I ever want to get. You can bury me here.”
“We’ll need dynamite for that,” Lee said.
“Here Lies John Vogelin: Born Forty Years Too Late, Died Forty Years Too Soon,” Grandfather said.
“Why forty years too soon?”
“I figure in forty years civilization will collapse and everything will be back to normal. I wish I could live to see it.”
“Why? You’d be right back where you started from.”
“I’d like that. That’s the place to end up.”
“Don’t you want to get ahead?” Lee grinned at me.
“I’d rather stay behind. I already got a head.”
“You already got a behind, where your head ought to be.”
“Don’t confuse me. It took me seventy years to figure this much out. Who’s going to water the horses?”
Nobody spoke. I stared out at the approaching union of light and dark. Lee and Grandfather stared at me.
“Okay,” Grandfather said, “we’ll try again: who’s going to wash the dishes?”
“I’ll water the horses,” I said.
“Fine. If you start right away you’ll still have time to wash the dishes.”
“I’ll light the lamp for you,” Lee said, “when you’re through watering the horses. So you don’t have to wash the dishes in the dark.”
“Thanks,” I said. “But us real cowboys always wash our dishes in the sand.”
Lee was silent.
“Lee, you lose,” Grandfather said. “You wash the dishes. The boy’s whipped you again. Billy, you’ll find another old bucket inside the corral.”
“Why can’t I just take the horses down to the spring?”
“That boy asks a lot of questions,” Lee said.
They stared at me hopefully.
“All right,” I said, “why not? That’s all I asked. Wouldn’t it be easier to take the horses to the spring than to carry the water back here to the horses?”
“A bucket of water is lighter than a horse,” Lee pointed out.
“The horses can walk,” I said.
“But they’re tired.”
“Will you please answer my question?”
The old man smiled and patted my knee. “You’re right, Billy, it should be easier to do it your way. But the horses don’t like itdown in there. And the trail is too tight for all three at once; you’d have a rough time. And besides, think what a mess three big horses, full of water and grass and grain, would make of one little spring which is barely big enough to dip a pail into. We drink out of that spring too.”
“I guess you’re right, Grandfather. I should’ve thought of that.” I stood up.
“Someday we’ll cover the spring, run a pipe from it down to a water trough the horses can get to.”
“How long have you been using this place?” Lee asked, winking at me. “How many years, John?”
“You shut up and wash your dishes.”
I walked to the corral, found the bucket and started down the path to the spring. Lee and the old man rose to their feet, stretching. “We’ll give you a hand, Billy,” Grandfather said, “as soon as we clean up.”
The twilight was moving in. I had to go carefully to find my way, for the trail seemed awfully vague in the deep shadows under the cliff. When I reached the spring the tree toads were bleating, a dismal noise and a sure sign of night. There was no other sound, except the murmur of the flowing water. A few fireflies twinkled in the gloom above the weeds.
The long day in the desert sun had drawn a lot of water from my body. I was thirsty again. I squatted close to the spring, scooped up a double handful of water and drank. I dipped up more and bathed my face.
When the last tinkle of falling drops had died away I became aware of a deep and unexpected silence. The toads had gone silent and the water seemed to run more quietly than before. Even the fireflies had disappeared. I waited for a moment, listening to the silence, then reached cautiously for the bucket and dipped it into the water as quietly as I could, afraid to make too much noise. Looking around in all directions I could see nothing, nothing but the damp weeds, the wall of rock, the grand trunks of the yellow pines, the dusky woods. I looked up.
I should not have looked up. On the brink of the crag abovethe spring I saw a pair of large eyes gleaming in a sleek head, saw a dark powerful shape of unforeseeable hugeness crouched as if to leap. I could not move, I could not make a sound. I stared up at the lion and the lion stared down at me. Paralyzed, I squatted by the spring, gripping the water bucket, unconscious of the ache in my muscles, and waited for death to fall upon me.
My grandfather called through the silence, from the far-away cabin out of sight and out of reach beyond the twilight: “Billy?”
I tried to answer but my throat was numb. The lion watched me.
My grandfather called again: “Billy? Where are you?”
This time the lion turned its massive head and with yellow, luminous eyes looked blandly, without curiosity or fear, up the pathway.
I heard the old man’s boots scraping on the stones of the path, coming toward me, and at last the big cat stirred itself and rose and vanished, all at once, suddenly, with uncanny grace and stillness, into the night and the forest.
Grandfather called me for the third time, coming closer, and now I thought I could answer. “Here,” I croaked. “I’m here.” I managed to stand up, the heavy bucket frozen in my grip. As the old man came toward me down the path I took a few leaden steps to meet him.
He stared at my face. “What happened to you?”
I told him.
He put one arm around my shaking shoulders and with his other hand unwrapped my fingers one by one from the handle of the water bucket. Carrying the water himself, he led me up the pathway among the boulders to the cabin where Lee waited for us in the welcome glow of the lamp.
“What’s wrong?” Lee said, wiping a tin plate with a bandana.
“He saw it.”
“Ah …” said Lee. He looked at me and smiled, his deep eyes tender. “You’re a lucky boy.” He gripped my arm. “How about a cup of your grampaw’s coffee?”
“Yes,” I said calmly. “I can drink anything.”
A little later all three of us went back to the spring, with both buckets, and looked around. Lee even climbed up to the ledge above the spring but by that time it was too dark to see any tracks. We went back up the trail, watered the horses, built a little squaw fire outside between the cabin and the corral, and unrolled the sleeping bags which the old man kept in the cabin. We sat around the fire for a while after that, watching the moon over the eastern ranges, and talked of the lion, the lost horse, the next day’s work, in which Lee announced he would not be able to join—he was leaving us in the morning. But he promised to come back to the ranch in two or three days.
“What does a mountain lion sound like?” I asked.
“Well,” Grandfather said, “like a woman. Like a woman screaming. How would you describe it, Lee?”
Lee considered. “Compadres, a lion does sound something like a woman. Like a vampire-woman wailing for her demon lover.”
“Are we going to hunt the lion, Grandfather?”
“No, we’ll let well enough alone. If we don’t hunt him why he won’t hunt us. Besides, it’s the only lion left on the place. I can’t afford to lose him.”
“Do you think he’s watching us now?”
“I wouldn’t be surprised.”
Nobody said anything for a minute or so. The moon crept up into the stars. I added more sticks to the fire.
Grandfather stretched his arms and yawned. “I don’t know about you fellas but I am tired. Anybody want to sleep on the cot inside?”
Lee grinned. “Is there room for all three of us?”
“Not with me in the middle there ain’t.”
“Then let’s all sleep out here.”
“By the fire,” I said.
“You boys do that,” Grandfather said, “but somebody might as well use that cot. I’ve been sleeping on the ground for about seventy years now, give or take a few.”
“You ought to be used to it,” Lee said.
“I’m used to it. But I never did like it much.” Picking up his bedroll, the old man walked toward the cabin door. “Goodnight, gentlemen.”
“Goodnight,” we said.
Lee and I shook the scorpions and black widow spiders out of the sleeping bags, spread them on the ground close to the fire, removed our boots and hats and crawled inside. We did not use our saddles for pillows. A saddle is hard enough just to sit on.
At first I lay on my side, gazing at the coals of the burning pine. Then I lay on my back and stared straight up at the stars. The flaming blue stars. Out in the little park the horses stumbled around, munching grass, and I heard one of them staling on the hard ground. A meteor stroked quietly across the sky.
“Up there on the peak: Was it—something like the lion?”
He did not answer at once. “Would you mind repeating that question?”
“What you found up there—was it something like the lion?”
“Oh. Yes. Yes, Billy. It was something like the lion.”
I thought about that as I looked straight up at the stars. The marvelous stars. A marvelous day. The stars became dimmer as I watched them, as if they were drifting farther and farther away from us. I closed my eyes and slept and dreamed of the missing pony, fireflies, a pair of yellow burning eyes….FROMDesert Solitaire(1968)Cowboys
June in the desert. The sun roars down from its track in space with a savage and holy light, a fantastic music in the mind. Up in the mountains the snow has receded to timberline—Old Tukuhnikivats and the other peaks take on a soft spring green along their flanks; the aspen is leafing out. The roads up into the meadows and forests are open again and all the Moab cattlemen who hold grazing permits up there (and some who don’t) are moving their stock out of the desert and into the national forest, where the animals will stay until September and the return of the snow.
Springtime on the mountains. Summer down here.
Yesterday I helped Roy Scobie clear his cows out of Courthouse Wash, which runs mostly to the west of the park and through the south end of it. We started early, about six, after a hot breakfast in the morning twilight. Three of us—Roy, his Basque hired man Viviano Jacquez, myself.
Roy is a leather-hided, long-connected, sober-sided old man with gray hair, red nose and yellow teeth; he is kind, gentle, well-meaning, but worries too much, takes things too seriously. For instance, he’s afraid of having a heart attack, falling off the horse, dying there on the sand, under the sun, among the flies and weeds and indifferent cattle. I’m not inferring this—he told me so.
What could I say? I was still young myself, or thought I was, enjoying good health, not yet quite to the beginning of the middle of the journey. I listened gravely as he spoke of death, noddingin an agreement I did not feel. His long yellow fingers, holding a cigarette, trembled.
Roy’s no Mormon and not much of a Christian, and does not honestly believe in an afterlife. Yet the manner of death he fears does not sound bad to me; to me it seems like a decent, clean way of taking off, surely better than the slow rot in a hospital oxygen tent with rubber tubes stuck up your bodily orifices, with blood transfusions and intravenous feeding, bedsores and bedpans and bad-tempered nurses’ aides—the whole nasty routine to which most dying men, in our time, are condemned.
But how could I tell him so? What did I know of it? To me death was little more than a fascinating abstraction, the conclusion to a syllogism or the denouement of a stage drama. What do old men who don’t believe in Heaven think about? I used to wonder. Now we know: they think about their blood pressure, their bladders, their aortas, their lower intestines, ice on the doorstep, too much sun at noon. But so do the others.
I met Roy and Viviano at a place called Willow Seep near the upper end of Courthouse Wash and there we began the drive. We were only about ten miles from the stockpens near Moab, but would have to check out all the side canyons along the way.
We unloaded the horses from Roy’s truck, gave them each a little grain, saddled up, and moved out with the old man in the middle. A fine morning—a sweet cool stark sunlit silent desert morning—before the heat moved in and the deerflies, the sweat, the dust and the thirst came down on us.
Not far down the canyon we found the first small bunch of cows and calves. They saw us coming and trotted off in various directions through the brush, making things more difficult than was really necessary. In the cool of the morning they were feeling lively; also, not having seen a man or a horse all winter, they were half-wild. The little calves had never seenanythinglike us and were, understandably, terrified.
We collected them all after a time and got them moving together down the wash, pushing them steadily but not fast. Only half the cows wore Roy’s brand and earmarks but in accordancewith custom we herded everything we found toward Moab; the other ranchers would do the same and in the stockpens each man would sort out his own property from the rest. Any cow without a brand—”slick”—belonged to the finder. (Many a famous cattle outfit had been started with no more than a rope and a good horse.) Cooperation is necessary because in this part of Utah there are not many fences. The cattle wander far over the open range, driven by hunger and thirst, and forget who they belong to. Why no fences? Because in much of the canyon country there is no ground to dig postholes in—nothing but solid rock.
Old Roy had something on his mind. When the sun burst out above the canyon rim, flaring like a white scream, and its hot breath burned my neck, I knew what he was thinking about.
The cattle plodded before us, slowing down as the heat rose, reluctant to keep moving. When they stopped we yelled and whistled at them, beat their gaunt hipbones with our bridle reins, kicked them in the ribs. They jogged ahead, half-trotting, and the green dung streamed down their legs. Ugly brutes, bound for a summer in the high meadows and then the slaughter house—too bloody good for them, I was thinking.
Side canyons appeared. Viviano took one, I took the other, while Roy stayed with the bunch we already had. The canyon I faced was choked with brush, impossible to ride through; the prickly pear grew knee-high in great clumps hairy with spines, scrub oak obstructed the path, the branches of juniper and pinyon pine struck at my face, knocked my hat off. I had to tie the horse and go in on foot. The heavy air was swarming with flies and the numerous trails in the thickets were well beaten and dusty, strewn with cow droppings. Real cattle country all right. I picked up a club, went on, stooping under the tangle. The canyon was short and boxed in and at the head was a cow and her calf; I drove them out and back to the main canyon. I was glad to get on my horse and rejoin Viviano and Roy.
Viviano was happy that morning. He sang and whistled continually, winked and grinned when he caught my eye andcharged after straying cattle like a maniac, spurring his thin-skinned palomino through the brush, up over rocks, down mud-banks and between trees with what looked to me like complete indifference to life and limb, the vulnerability of the flesh. Not showing off, for I’d seen his exhibitions of recklessness at other times, but simply out of high spirits, for the fun and the hell of it.
Viviano Jacquez, born in the Pyrenees somewhere (he never cared to tell me more), had been imported with his parents into Utah to herd sheep for some congressman’s favorite constituent, then drifted from job to job until he came to Roy Scobie’s combination dude and cattle ranch. He’s a good cowboy, I suppose; at least he knows the basic skills of the trade: can shoe a horse, rope and brand and castrate a calf, fix a flat tire, stretch barbed wire, dynamite a beaver dam or lay out an irrigation ditch. His English is about fifty percent profanity, rough but intelligible, and he can sing, play the guitar, and read your fortune in the cards, the rewards of what I would call his liberal education. He is short, dark and savage, like most good Basques, with large brown glamorous eyes that seem to appeal to the ladies; from thirteen to thirty-five he pursues them all, and if I can believe his lies, makes out with every one.
What else about him? This: he does not understand American clock time and has no sense of responsibility; he is completely and dependably totally unreliable. But, in his favor, he is inexpensive; he is economical; he works full-time seven days a week for room and board and a hundred dollars a month. Employers like that; but it would be false to say that Viviano is exploited. How can you exploit a man who enjoys his work? He’ll work for nothing, almost, if necessary, requiring only a token wage or salary in recognition of his professional status.
Not that he never bitches and grumbles. When he isn’t singing or whistling or telling lies in some woman’s ear he complains loud and bitterly about his pay, the long hours, the lousy food, the skunks under the bunkhouse, the treacherous and conniving women, the stupid dudes. He threatens to quit, gets drunk anddisappears for a couple of days. But always comes back. Or has so far.
Poor Viviano with so much to his credit has one problem which he’ll never be able to outlive. Two or three beers and he reveals it to me. He has been infected by the poison of prejudice. Infected and victimized. With his dark skin and Spanish accent he is often taken for a Mexican, which he resents, because he despises Mexicans. He also despises Indians. Even his own heritage: “dumb Basko” he once called himself. Inadvertently when drunk he exposes the wistful desire to somehow disappear and merge into the pale-faced millions who own and operate America.
Useless to try and reassure him that he has more to lose than gain by such assimilation; somewhere, in a way we all know, his pride was damaged and his confidence shaken. In our occasional rambles through the beer halls of Moab I have not seen him rebuffed in any way; but he may be alert to signals of rejection too subtle for me. In any case, at one time or another, perhaps unknown even to Viviano himself, the damage was done. And his reaction is the typical one; he responds to prejudice by cultivating a prejudice of his own against those whom he feels are even lower in the American hierarchy than he is: against the Indians, the Mexicans, the Negroes. He knows where the bottom is.
Too late to make a liberal out of Viviano Jacquez.
The sun climbed noon-high, the heat grew thick and heavy on our brains, the dust clouded our eyes and mixed with our sweat—Viviano’s white teeth gleam through a kind of pancake makeup of sweat and dirt when he laughs at me or at the hard-mouth beast I’m riding. The cows groan against the forced migration as if they know where it will eventually bring them. I think of the second movement from Beethoven’s Eroica.Marcia funebre. My canteen is nearly empty and I’m afraid to drink what little water is left—there may never be any more. I’d like to cave in for a while, crawl under yonder cottonwood and die peacefully in the shade, drinking dust…. I look aside covertly under my hat brim at old man Scobie who thinks he is going to have aheart attack and fall off his horse: he rides steadily forward, eyes sad and thoughtful, watching the green rumps of his cattle, cigarette hanging from his lower lip, flicking the reins casually back and forth across the mane of his equally thoughtful, abstracted horse. Lunchtime maybe? I think, glancing at the sun. But nobody says anything about lunch.
Some of the cows bunched up in the shade under an overhang in the canyon wall. They refused to move. Their calves stumbled close to them, bawling piteously. The drive was starting to drag. Have mercy on us all, I thought. But Viviano like a sun-crazed madman rode savagely into the cattle, screaming and whistling, lashing at the cows with a length of rope. “Crazy son of my bitches,” he was screaming, “let’s pick up the feet!”
Roy raised a hand. “That’s all right, Viviano,” he said, “we’ll take a break now. Don’t want to run them little beeves right into the ground.”
Good man, I thought, heading at once for the nearest shade, where I tied my horse to a log, unsaddled, and dropped. I was too hot and tired at first even to care about food or water. Viviano and Roy joined me, unhurried, lay down in the shade nearby and lit up cigarettes. Above us was the green canopy of the cottonwood tree filtering the light to a tolerable dimness. A few red ants crawled over my belly; I didn’t care.Tengo sed, I said to myself. I finished my water. But appeasing thirst brought back hunger. Who brought the lunch? I began to worry, realizing for the first time that no one had said a word about it yet. I didn’t say anything either. But I was worried.
“I’m worried,” old Roy said.
Tengo mucho hambre, hombre—I’m worried too. How did it go in that other language?Faim? J’ai faim? Je suis famine?I looked toward Viviano. He was already asleep, the fancy twenty dollar Stetson over his eyes, a pair of flies circling above his open mouth. For a hatband he wore a sterling silver chain—in the mouth a golden tooth. The goddamned lady killer.
“You know what happened to Ernie Faye?” Roy said, evidently addressing me though he was staring up at the leaves.
“No,” I said; “what happened to him?”
“You wouldn’t know him; this happened three years ago.” Roy paused. “He was picking peaches one day in his own backyard, taking it easy, and he had a stroke. When his wife went out to look for him he was on the ground on top of a bushel basket and he was dead. A big strong man, too. Sixty-six years old. That’s for a fact.”
“It happens. Did you bring any lunch, Roy?”
“Lunch?” He continued to stare at nothing. Thinking. Worrying. “Sixty-six years old,” he said.
“It happens. But only once.”
“Once is enough.”
“Did you bring any lunch?”
“Lunch?” At last he turned his head to look at me. “Well no, I didn’t. You hungry?”
“A little bit, now that you mention it.”
“Sorry we didn’t bring anything. We’ll eat good when we get back.”
“That’s all right,” I said. “I’ll survive, maybe.”
But Roy had lost interest in the subject. He wasn’t listening to me. The vacant look was in his eyes as he resumed the study of his problem. After a while he let his head drop back against his saddle and closed his eyes. The red nose, the gray hair, the yellow teeth and fingers, a white stubble of whiskers on his bony jaw, his leathery flat cheeks—he looked like an old horse all right but still tough and viable. He was only about seventy years old.
Old Roy is a good man in most ways, but he has his troubles. I’d been spending some of my days off at his ranch, doing a little work around the place in return for room and board. (There’s a girl there, one of the paying guests.) I was sharing a bunkhouse room with Viviano one night when I heard the shuffling of feet, the sound of a mumbling voice. It was very late; Viviano was sound asleep. I got up and stepped outside and saw Roy walking by in his long underwear and boots, a revolver in his hand, talking to himself. What’s up? I asked him. Insomnia, he said. I said, Try getting a little sleep. I tried, he said, and I can’t. What’s the gun for? Skunks, he said—they been at the chickens again.Well they’re no chickens here, I said. No but there’s skunks and they’re living right under that room where you’re sleeping. And he walked away, unhappy and preoccupied.
He has troubles, God knows. He fights with his wife—third or fourth wife—and has difficulties with the bank, with his horses, with his hired help, with the ranch machinery. Mortgaged over his head, he tries to economize by getting by with old trucks and a second-hand tractor, and by hiring cheap and irresponsible help like me and Viviano. He thinks he is saving money by always paying Viviano one month late. Worst of all he skimps on food.
His pack trips are notorious for their frugality. He does the cooking, of course, so that someone else is morally obliged to wash the dishes, and so that he can control the consumption of supplies. “One egg or two?” he’ll ask at breakfast time, when you are hungry enough to eat the skin off a bear. Slowly, his old yellow hands shaking, he shovels two little Grade C eggs onto your plate. Then he says, “You want any bacon with that?”
He tries to justify his miserliness with food by pretending that he is observing some time-honored Western tradition. “It’s a fact,” he will claim, “them old timers never ate much when they was out working on the range. A man rides better on a hard stomach. It’s a fact. But we’ll eat good when we get back.”
The lying old bastard. He hopes that by starving his employees they won’t live long enough to collect their wages. The paying guests don’t fare much better and as a result seldom come back for a second season at Roy Scobie’s Redrock Ranch. It’s a beautiful ranch and his pack trips take them into an unknown world—but they don’t often return. As a small businessman Roy is getting smaller every season. Bankruptcy and heart attacks loom ahead.
I’ve endeavored to warn him. He is interested in my opinion and listens at first with some care. Then his attention wanders. The habits of a lifetime are impossible to break. When we bed down at night, out in the open, he always looks for a slab of sandstone to spread his bedroll on. “Rock is softer than sand,”he explains. “That’s for a fact.” His words trail off into the vague mumble, “Slept on rock all my life, goddamnit….” The empty stare follows: a foolish thrift is driving him to ruin and all he cares about is his heart; he is thinking about falling off his horse again like Ernie Faye fell off the ladder picking peaches. Dead on the rock.
I can help him with that question, too, I sometimes think; I have a supply of classic philosophical lore ready to offer at the slightest provocation. Our life on earth is but the shadow of a higher life, I could tell him. Or, Life is but a dream. Or, Who wants to live forever? Vanity, vanity. Recall Sophocles, Roy: Lucky are those who die in infancy but best of all is never to have been born. You know.
All kinds of ideas spring to mind but an instinctive prudence makes me hold my tongue. What right have I to interfere with an old man’s antideath wish? He knows what he’s doing; let him savor it to the full. He’ll never have another chance as good as this. Each man in his humor. Every cobbler gets clobbered at last, etc. Let him shamble through the dark at night in his underwear, looking for the black skunk with the white stripe down its back, the ultimate enemy.
The weird silence woke me up. I looked around. Everything seemed to be withering in the heat, blasted and shrunken under the furnace of the sun. I dreamed of water and wondered if it would be worth the effort to dig a hole through the ceramic mud of the canyon floor. While I debated the matter in my head, Roy opened his eyes, staggered up, glanced blearily at me to see that I was awake, nudged Viviano in the ribs with the toe of his boot. “Let’s get on, boys,” he said.
We saddled our horses and got on. On with the death march,marcia funebre, the stations of the cross,el jornado del muerto. The cows faced us stubbornly, their red eyes full of hatred. The poor little white-faced calves trembled on their shaky legs, hides coated with dust, hind-ends crusted with sunbaked excrement.Miserere.
Roy moved his horse stolidly against them, implacable. Viviano, undaunted by the heat and still showing off, sprang onhis horse—yes, literally vaulted into the saddle—and rode yelling and flailing and whistling into the herd. (One leap and he was in the saddle; five beers and he was on the floor.) I climbed onto my horse like a man dragging himself through a bad dream, got both feet in the stirrups and rode after the others. After a few minutes of milling struggle the weary beasts gave up and headed down the canyon, moving in the right direction toward their fate.
Not that their fate was so terrible: a summer in the high mountain meadows eating flowers, far above the heat and hay fever of the desert; I envied them. The cows would live to breed again, those that didn’t eat too much larkspur; the new crop of calves had a life expectancy of at least one full year; only the yearling steers would be shipped off in the fall to meet the hook and the hammer. I nursed my sympathies, saving them chiefly for myself, who could better appreciate them and deserved them more—hungry, tired, dirty and thirsty as I was.
More side canyons came into view—Two-Mile, Sleepy Hollow, and others without names—and we had to separate, explore each one in search of the outlaws and the fugitives, drive them out of the thickets where they were shaded up and add them to the herd.
There is water in Sleepy Hollow, a big pool under a seep in the canyon wall, fenced off from the cows. We paused for a few minutes to drink and refill canteens, then moved on. No time for a swim today. The drive continued.
As the herd became bigger the dust and the heat got worse. The cattle complained but we were merciless. One old cow, followed by her calf, slipped aside into the tamarisk and lay down. Since she was on my flank of the drive I had to get her out. Again I had to dismount and go in on foot, fighting my way through the brush and clouds of gnats and the vicious yellow-backed flies. The cow didn’t want to get up; she preferred the shade. I beat her with the club, kicked her in the ribs, yanked at her tail. At last, groaning and farting with exaggerated self-pity, she hoisted her rear end, then her front end, and plodded off to rejoin the gang. When I got back to my horse I was too tired toclimb immediately into the saddle; it seemed easier for a while to walk and lead the horse.
Second movement, seventh symphony, Beethoven again—the slow, ponderous dirge. Had the sun moved at all? Not that I could tell. But as I came up with the others, Viviano, grinning through his dusty face, yelled at me:
“Around the bend, only nine son of bitch more, we get the Jesus Christ out of here.”
“Good,” I said but something in my face must have given me away; Viviano laughed, spurred his horse and dashed off singing.
I parked my beast for a minute close to a mudbank and hauled myself onto the saddle the easy way. But dropped the reins and nearly fell off retrieving them. Recovered. Both feet in stirrups, I took a few gulps of water and proceeded.
Puddles of quicksand lay ahead of us. We drove the herd around to the side but one cow, stubborn and stupid, managed to get into the stuff. Deliberately, I was sure. The sand quivered like jelly beneath the cow’s hooves, broke open, sucked at the plunging feet. Panicked, the cow struggled through, splashing mud and sand. Safe. As we went on I looked back and saw the holes the cow had made fill up and brim over with water, like suppurating sores.
More quicksand. This time we weren’t so lucky. The pool extended clear across the canyon floor from one sheer wall to the other. We rushed the herd through but one cow, the same one as before, got herself bogged down. Really trapped this time. Belly-deep in the soup, willing to give up, she neither struggled nor bellowed. This cow didn’t want to fight anything anymore.
The sun beat down on our backs and the sweat trickled into our eyes. Roy and Viviano discussed the situation briefly; we went to work. Keeping their mounts clear of the quicksand, they each tossed a loop over the cow’s head, drew the knot firm around her neck, taking in the slack, and dallied each rope to the horns of their saddles. As the ropes tautened and the horses prepared to pull, I slogged into the mud and tugged at the cow’s tail to give her hindquarters whatever lift I could.
We were ready. Roy and Viviano urged their horses forward; the horses squatted, braced, heaved; the ropes squeaked under the strain. For a moment nothing seemed to be happening. Then something was happening. Like a cork from a bottle the cow was being drawn from the suction of the quicksand. She struggled feebly, the horses swung ahead, the mud made a violent raw gasping noise, exploded, and out she came.
Roy and Viviano stopped and gave me some slack; I removed the ropes from the cow’s neck as she stood trembling on firm ground. Her eyeballs protruded like a pair of onion bulbs; the tongue, purple in hue and coated with scum, hung loosely from the side of her mouth like a rag of spoiled meat. It was the longest tongue I had ever seen outside of a butcher’s shop.
“Seventy dollars worth of cow,” Roy explained, coiling his rope. “A fact. Couldn’t hardly afford to leave it there.”
The cow had still not moved. Viviano rode up and lashed it across the rump. “Heeyah!” he shouted, “lez go man, Jesus Christ!” The cow stumbled toward the herd, Viviano pressing it hard. “Heeyah! goddamn!” Whacking it across the rear with his heavy, wet rope. “Goddamn son of bitch cow!”
The herd began to move, the choking dust filled the air. I climbed on my horse, loading the poor brute down not only with my own weight but with two bootfuls of mud and water.
An hour later we descended the jump-off, a stairway of stone ledges in the canyon floor where trickles of water oozed down over mats of algae, through slick sculptured grooves and into the sandy basins below. The cattle clattered and skidded on the bare rock; sparks flew from the iron-shod hooves of the horses. Lagging behind, I stopped to admire a tiny spring bubbling out of the the sand above the ledges, well off to one side of the trail. The water was so clear, so perfectly transparent, that only the dance of grains of sand in the bottom of the spring, where the flow came up through a fissure in the rock, revealed that it was under pressure and in motion. I took a quick drink—cool and sweet—and rode on through the blessed shade of the canyon walls; the sun had finally dropped below the rim. Life began to seem plausible again after an afternoon of doubt.
We went on for another mile and emerged abruptly and to me unexpectedly into full day again, the glare of the sun and the scalding heat. We were in the mouth of the canyon. Ahead lay the highway, the Colorado River, the outskirts of Moab. We pushed the cattle on over the bridge, across the cement and asphalt, and into the big corrals in the fields beyond. We unsaddled the horses and brushed them and turned them loose in the pasture. Free at last, frolicking like colts, they galloped after one another in circles, lay down and rolled in the dust, got up and galloped some more. I knew how they felt.
Roy’s truck was parked near the stockpens. We adjourned the field for a pitcher of beer in Moab. It was, of course, only the usual Mormon 3.2—for which may God forgive them—but never had beer tasted better, or been drunk by more deserving men. Old Roy treated us each to a bag of peanuts and talked a little about tomorrow’s work: trucking the cattle up to his allotment on the southern slope of Tukuhnikivats. A tedious job in which I would not participate—back to the Arches for me, I reminded him. Roy’s expression saddened; he would have to hire someone to take my place for the day, someone who would probably expect to be paid in United States hard dollars. He looked away and into the emptiness, thinking again; the smoke from his forgotten cigarette rose slowly into the haze beneath the ceiling.
Stop that, I wanted to tell him.Stop that thinking. I wanted to put my arm around his old shoulders and stroke his thin gray hair and tell him the truth about everything, the entire wild beautiful utterly useless truth. But I didn’t.
Viviano ordered a second pitcher of beer, got up suddenly from his chair, tripped over my outstretched legs and fell flat on the floor. He pulled himself slowly to his feet and scowled about through the gloom to see if anyone had noticed; nobody had. Nobody could have cared less. I should have apologized and helped him get up but I didn’t. He tramped bitterly, soggily, toward the men’s room and disappeared in a dim, rancid, yellowish light. He was a cowboy,muy macho, mucho hombre. Very sensitive.
* * *
Years later, still wandering in circles, I will come back to the Arches and the canyon country and inquire about my old acquaintances. Where are they? I will ask and the people will say to me:
Viviano Jacquez? You mean that little Mexican that worked for Roy Scobie? Well, who knows? Some say he went to Ouray, Colorado, to work in a silver mine; some say he married Scobie’s cook, that white girl from Oklahoma, and they went to California; some say he went back to sheepherding; some say he went to Spain.
And old Roy? You didn’t hear? Well he had to sell out a couple years after you left. He went down to Arizona and started an Indian jewelry store near Sedona. He’s dead now. He was hanging a picture on the wall of his store and had a heart attack. He was standing on a chair at the time.The Moon-Eyed Horse
When we reached Salt Creek we stopped to water the horses. I needed a drink myself but the water here would make a man sick. We’d find good water farther up the canyon at Cigarette Spring.
While Mackie indulged himself in a smoke I looked at the scenery, staring out from under the shelter of my hat brim. The glare was hard on the eyes and for relief I looked down, past the mane and ears of my drinking horse, to something near at hand. There was the clear shallow stream, the green wiregrass standing stiff as bristles out of the alkali-encrusted mud, the usual deerflies and gnats swarming above the cattle tracks and dung.
I noticed something I thought a little odd. Cutting directly across the cattle paths were the hoofprints of an unshod horse. They led straight to the water and back again, following a vague little trail that led into the nearest side canyon, winding around blackbrush and cactus, short-cutting the meanders of the wash.
I studied the evidence for a while, trying to figure everything out for myself before mentioning it to Mackie, who knew this country far better than I ever would. He was a local man, a Moabite, temporarily filling in for Viviano Jacquez, who’d had another quarrel with old Roy Scobie and disappeared for a few days.
“There’s a horse living up that canyon,” I announced; “a wild horse. And a big one—feet like frying pans.”
Slowly Mackie turned his head and looked where I pointed. “Wrong again,” he said, after a moment’s consideration.
“What do you mean, wrong again? If it’s not a horse it must be a unicorn. Or a centaur? Look at those tracks—unshod. And from the wear and tear on that trail it’s been living out here for a long time. Who runs horses out here?” We were about twenty miles from the nearest ranch headquarters.
“Nobody,” Mackie agreed.
“You agree it’s a horse.”
“Of course it’s a horse.”
“Of course it’s a horse. Well thank you very much. And no shoes, living out here in the middle of nothing, it must be awildhorse.”
“Sorry,” Mackie said. “Wrong again.”
“Then what the hell is it?”
“Old Moon-Eye is what you might call an independent horse. He don’t belong to anybody. But he ain’t wild. He’s a gelding and he’s got Roy Scobie’s brand on his hide.”
I stared up the side canyon to where the tracks went out of sight around the first bend. “And this Moon-Eye lives up there all by himself?”
“That’s right. He’s been up in that canyon for ten years.”
“Have you seen him?”
“No. Moon-Eye is very shy. But I heard about him.”
Our mounts had raised their heads from the water; shifting restlessly under our weight, they seemed anxious to move on. Mackie turned his horse up the main trail along the stream and I followed, thinking.
“I want that horse,” I said.
“I don’t know.”
“You can have him.”
We rode steadily up the canyon, now and then splashing through the water, passing under the high red walls, the hanging gardens of poison ivy and panicgrass, the flowing sky. Where the trail widened I jogged my horse beside Mackie’s and after a while, with a little prodding, extracted from him the story of the independent horse.
First of all, Moon-Eye had suffered. He had problems. His name derived from an inflamed condition of one of his eyes called moonblindness, which affected him periodically and inflamed his temper. The gelding operation had not improved his disposition. On top of that he’d been dude-spoiled, for old Roy had used him for many years—since he made a poor cow horse—in his string of horses for hire. Moon-Eye seemed safe and well-behaved but his actual feelings were revealed one day on a sightseeing tour through the Arches when all his angers came to a boil and he bucked off a middle-aged lady from Salt Lake City. Viviano Jacquez, leading the ride, lost his temper and gave the horse a savage beating. Moon-Eye broke away and ran off into the canyons with a good saddle on his back. He didn’t come back that night. Didn’t come back the next day. Never came back at all. For two weeks Viviano and Roy tracked that horse, not because they wanted the horse but because Roy wanted his saddle back. When they found the saddle, caught on the stub of a limb, the cinch straps broken, they gave up the search for the horse. The bridle they never recovered. Later on a few boys from town came out to try to catch the horse and almost got him boxed up in Salt Creek Canyon. But he got away, clattering over the slickrock wall at an angle of 45 degrees, and was seldom seen afterward. After that he stayed out of box canyons and came down to the creek only when he needed a drink. That was the story of Moon-Eye.
We came at noon to the spring, dismounted, unsaddled the horses and let them graze on the tough brown grass near the cottonwoods. We dipped our cupped hands in the water and drank, leaned back against a log in the cool of the shade and ate some lunch. Mackie lit a cigarette. I stared out past the horses at the sweet green of the willows and cottonwoods under the hot red canyon wall. Far above, a strip of blue sky, cloudless. In the silence I heard quite clearly the buzzing of individual flies down by the creek, the shake and whisper of the dry cottonwood leaves, the bright tinkling song of a canyon wren. The horses shuffled slowly through the dead leaves, ripping up the grasswith their powerful, hungry jaws—a solid and pleasing sound. The canyon filled with heat and stillness.
“Look, Mackie,” I said, “what do you suppose that horse does up in there?”
“Moon-Eye. You say he’s been up that dry canyon by himself for ten years.”
“What does hedoup in there?”
“That is a ridiculous question.”
“All right it’s a ridiculous question. Try and answer it.”
“How the hell should I know? Who cares? What difference does it make?”
“Answer the question.”
“He eats. He sleeps. He walks down to the creek once a day for a drink. He turns around and walks back. He eats again. He sleeps again.”
“The horse is a gregarious beast,” I said, “a herd animal, like the cow, like the human. It’s not natural for a horse to live alone.”
“Moon-Eye is not a natural horse.”
“He’s crazy. How should I know? Go ask the horse.”
“Okay, I’ll do that.”
“Only not today,” Mackie said. “Let’s get on up and out of here.”
We’d laid around long enough. Mackie threw away the butt of his cigarette; I tanked up on more water. We mounted again, rode on to the head of the canyon where a forty-foot overhang barred the way, turned and rode back the way we’d come, clearing out the cattle from the brush and tamarisk thickets, driving them before us in a growing herd as we proceeded. By the time we reached the mouth of the canyon we had a troop of twenty head plodding before us through the dust and heat, half of them little white-faced calves who’d never seen a man or a horse before. We drove them into the catchpen and shut them up.Tomorrow the calves would be branded, castrated, ear-marked, dehorned, inoculated against blackleg, and the whole herd trucked to the mountains for the summer. But that would be a job for Mackie and Roy, not for me; for me tomorrow meant a return to sentry duty at the entrance of the Monument, the juniper guard and the cloud-formation survey.
As we loaded the horses into the truck for the return to the ranch I asked Mackie how he liked this kind of work. He looked at me. His shirt and the rag around his neck were dark with sweat, his face coated with dust; there was a stripe of dried blood across his cheek where a willow branch had struck him when he plunged through the brush after some ignorant cow.
“Look at yourself,” he said.
I looked; I was in the same condition. “I do this only for fun,” I explained. “If I did it for pay I might not like it. Anyway you haven’t answered my question. How doyoulike this kind of work?”
“I’d rather be rich.”
“What would you do if you were rich?”
He grinned through the dust. “Buy some cows of my own.”
I hadn’t forgotten the moon-eyed horse. A month later I was back at the spot by Salt Creek where I’d first seen the tracks, this time alone, though again on horseback. We were deep into the desert summer now and the stream had shrunk to a dribble of slimy water oozing along between sunbaked flats of mud.
As before I let my pony drink what he wanted from the stream while I pondered the view from beneath the meager shelter of my hat. The alkali, white as lime, dazzled the eyes; the wiregrass looked sere and shriveled and even the hosts of flies and gnats had disappeared, hiding from the sun.
There was no sound but the noise of my drinking mount, no sight anywhere of animate life. In the still air the pinkish plumes of the tamarisk, light and delicate as lace, drooped from the tips of their branches without a tremor. Nothing moved, nothing stirred, except the shimmer of heat waves rising before the red canyon walls.
I could hardly have picked a more hostile day for a venture into the canyons. If anyone had asked I’d have said that not even a mad horse would endure a summer in such a place. Yet there were the tracks as before, coming down the pathway out of the side canyon and leading back again. Moon-Eye was still around. Or at any rate his tracks were still here, fresh prints in the dust that looked as if they might have been made only minutes before my arrival.
Out of the heat and stillness came an inaudible whisper, a sort of telepathic intimation that perhaps the horse did not exist at all—only his tracks. You ought to get out of this heat, I told myself, taking a drink from the canteen. My saddle horse raised his dripping muzzle from the water and waited. He turned his head to look at me with one drowsy eye; strings of algae hung from the corner of his mouth.
“No,” I said, “we’re not going home yet.” I prodded the animal with my heels; slowly we moved up into the side canyon following the narrow trail. As we advanced I reviewed my strategy: since Moon-Eye had learned to fear and distrust men on horseback I would approach him on foot; I would carry nothing in my hands but a hackamore and a short lead rope. Better yet, I would hide these inside my shirt and go up to Moon-Eye with empty hands. Others had attempted the violent method of pursuit and capture and had failed. I was going to use nothing but sympathy and understanding, in direct violation of common sense and all precedent, to bring Moon-Eye home again.
I rounded the first bend in the canyon and stopped. Ahead was the typical scene of dry wash, saltbush and prickly pear, talus slopes at the foot of vertical canyon walls. No hint of animal life. Nothing but the silence, the stark suspension of all sound. I rode on. I was sure that Moon-Eye would not go far from water in this weather.
At the third turn in the canyon, two miles onward, I found a pile of fresh droppings in the path. I slid from the saddle and led my pony to the east side of the nearest boulder and tied him. Late in the afternoon he’d get a little shade. It was the best I could do for him; nothing else was available.
I pulled off the saddle and sat down on the ground to open a can of tomatoes. One o’clock by the sun and not a cloud in the sky: hot. I squatted under the belly of the horse and ate my lunch.
When I was finished I got up, reluctantly, stuffed hackamore and rope inside my shirt, hung the canteen over my shoulder and started off. The pony watched me go, head hanging, the familiar look of dull misery in his eyes. I know how you feel, I thought, but by God you’re just going to have to stand there and suffer. If I can take it you can. The midday heat figured in my plan: I believed that in such heat the moon-eyed outlaw would be docile as a plow horse, amenable to reason. I thought I could amble close, slip the hackamore over his head and lead him home like a pet dog on a leash.
A mile farther and I had to take refuge beneath a slight overhang in the canyon wall. I took off my hat to let the evaporation of my sweaty brow cool my brains. Tilted the canteen to my mouth. Already I was having visions of iced drinks, waterfalls, shade trees, clear deep emerald pools.
Forward. I shuffled through the sand, over the rocks, around the prickly pear and the spiny hedgehog cactus. I found a yellowish pebble the size of a crab apple and put it in my mouth. Kept going, pushing through the heat.
If you were really clever, I thought, you’d go back to MoonEye’s watering place on Salt Creek, wait for him there, catch him by starlight. But you’re not clever, you’re stupid, I reminded myself: stick to the plan. I stopped to swab the sweat from my face. The silence locked around me again like a sphere of glass. Even the noise I made unscrewing the cap from the canteen seemed harsh and exaggerated, a gross intrusion.
Something breathing nearby—I was in the presence of a tree. On the slope above stood a giant old juniper with massive, twisted trunk, its boughs sprinkled with the pale-blue inedible berries. Hanging from one of the limbs was what looked at first glance like a pair of trousers that reached to the ground. Blinkingthe sweat out of my eyes I looked harder and saw the trousers transform themselves into the legs of a large animal. I focused my attention and distinguished through the obscurity of the branches and foliage the outline of a tall horse. A very tall horse.
Gently I lowered my canteen to the ground.
I touched the rope and hackamore bunched up inside my shirt. Still there. I took the pebble from my mouth, held it in my palm, and slowly and carefully and quietly stepped toward the tree. Out of the tree a gleaming eyeball watched me coming.
I said, “That you, Moon-Eye?”
Who else? The eyeball rolled, I saw the flash of white. The eye in the tree.
I stepped closer. “What are you doing out here, you old fool?”
The horse stood not under the tree—the juniper was not big enough for that—but within it, among its branches. There’d be an awful smashing and crashing of dry wood if he tried to drive out of there.
“Eh? What do you think you’re up to anyway? Damned old idiot….” I showed him the yellowish stone in my hand, round as a little apple. “Why don’t you answer me, Moon-Eye? Forgotten how to talk?”
Moving closer. The horse remained rigid, ears up. I could see both eyes now, the good one and the bad one—moonstruck, like a bloodshot cueball.
“I’ve come to take you home, old horse. What do you think of that?”
He was a giant about seventeen hands high, with a buckskin hide as faded as an old rug and a big ugly coffin-shaped head.
“You’ve been out here in the wilderness long enough, old man. It’s time to go home.”
He looked old, all right, he looked his years. He looked more than old—he looked like a spectre. Apocalyptic, a creature out of a bad dream.
“You hear me, Moon-Eye? I’m coming closer….”
His nineteen ribs jutted out like the rack of a skeleton and hisneck, like a camel’s, seemed far too gaunt and long to carry that oversize head off the ground.
“You old brute,” I murmured, “you hideous old gargoyle. You goddamned nightmare of a horse…. Moon-Eye, look at this. Look at this in my hand, Moon-Eye.”
He watched me, watched my eyes. I was within twenty feet of him and except for the eyes he had yet to reveal a twitch of nerve or muscle; he might have been petrified. Mesmerized by sun and loneliness. He hadn’t seen a man for—how many years?
“Moon-Eye,” I said, approaching slowly, one short step, a pause, another step, “how long since you’ve stuck that ugly face of yours into a bucket of barley and bran? Remember what alfalfa tastes like, old pardner? How about grass, Moon-Eye? Green sweet fresh succulent grass, Moon-Eye, what do you think of that, eh?”
We were ten feet apart. Only the branches of the juniper tree separated us. Standing there watching the horse I could smell the odor of cedarwood, the fragrance of the tree.
Another step. “Moon-Eye….”
I hesitated; to get any closer I’d have to push through the branches or stoop underneath them. “Come on, Moon-Eye, I want to take you home. It’s time to go home, oldtimer.”
We stared at each other, unmoving. If that animal was breathing I couldn’t hear it—the silence seemed absolute. Not a fly, not a single fly crawled over his arid skin or whined around his rheumy eyeballs. If it hadn’t been for the light of something like consciousness in his good eye I might have imagined I was talking to a scarecrow, a dried stuffed completely mummified horse. He didn’t even smell like a horse, didn’t seem to have any smell about him at all. Perhaps if I reached out and touched him he would crumble to a cloud of dust, vanish like a shadow.
My head ached from the heat and glare and for a moment I wondered if this horselike shape in front of me was anything more than hallucination.
“Moon-Eye….?” Keep talking.
I couldn’t stand there all afternoon. I took another step forward, pressing against a branch. Got to keep talking.
He lowered his head a couple of inches, the ears flattened back. Watch out. He was still alive after all. For the first time I felt a little fear. He was a big horse and that moon-glazed eye was not comforting. We watched each other intently through the branches of the tree. If I could only wait, only be patient, I might yet sweet-talk him into surrender. But it was too hot.
“Look here, old horse, have a sniff of this.” I offered him the pebble with one hand and with the other unsnapped a button of my shirt, preparing to ease out the rope when the chance came. “Go on, have a look….”
I was within six feet of the monster.
“Now you just relax, Moon-Eye old boy. I’m coming in where you are now.” I started to push through the boughs of the juniper. “Easy boy, easy now….”
He backed violently, jarring the whole tree. Loose twigs and berries rained around us. The good eye glared at me, the bad one shone like a boiled egg—monocular vision.
“Take it easy, old buddy.” Speaking softly. I had one hand on the rope. I stepped forward again, pushing under the branches. Softly—”Easy, easy, don’t be scared—”
Moon-Eye tried to back again but his retreat was blocked. Snorting like a truck he came forward, right at me, bursting through the branches. Dry wood snapped and popped, dust filled the air, and as I dove for the ground I had a glimpse of a lunatic horse expanding suddenly, growing bigger than all the world and soaring over me on wings that flapped like a bat’s and nearly tore the tree out of the earth.
When I opened my eyes a second later I was still alive and Moon-Eye was down in the wash fifty feet away, motionless as a statue, waiting. He stood with his ragged broomtail and his right-angled pelvic bones toward me but had that long neck and coffin head cranked around, watching me with the good eye, waiting to see what I would do next. He didn’t intend to exert himself unless he was forced to.
The shade of the tree was pleasant and I made no hurry to get up. I sat against the trunk and checked for broken bones. Everythingseemed all right except my hat a few feet away, crushed into the dirt by a mighty hoof. I was thirsty though and looked around for the canteen before remembering where I’d left it; I could see it down in the wash, near the horse.
Moon-Eye didn’t move. He stood rigid as stone, conserving every drop of moisture in his body. But he was in the sun now and I was in the shade. Perhaps if I waited long enough he’d be forced to come back to the tree. I made myself comfortable and waited. The silence settled in again.
But that horse wouldn’t come, though I waited a full hour by the sun. The horse moved only once in all that time, lowering his head for a sniff at a bush near his foreleg.
The red cliffs rippled behind the veil of heat, radiant as hot iron. Thirst was getting to me. I stirred myself, got up painfully, and stepped out of the wreckage of the juniper. The horse made no move.
“Moon-Eye,” I said—he listened carefully—”let’s get out of here. What do you say? Let’s go home, you miserable old bucket of guts. Okay?”
I picked up my flattened hat, reformed it, put it on.
“Well, what do you say?”
I started down the slope. He raised his head, twitched one ear, watching me. “Are you crazy, old horse, standing out here in the heat? Don’t you have any sense at all?”
I did not approach him directly this time but moved obliquely across the slope, hoping to head him down the canyon toward the creek and the trail to the corral. Moon-Eye saw my purpose and started up the canyon. I hurried; the horse moved faster. I slowed to a walk; he did the same. I stopped and he stopped.
“Moon-Eye, let me tell you something. I can outrun you if I have to. These Utah cowboys would laugh themselves sick if I ever mentioned it out loud but it’s a fact and you ought to know it. Over the long haul, say twenty or thirty miles, it’s a known fact that a healthy man can outrun a horse.”
“But my God, in this heat, Moon-Eye, do you think we should? Be sensible. Let’s not make fools of ourselves.”
He waited. I squatted on my heels and passed my forefinger, like a windshield wiper, across my forehead, brushing off the streams of sweat. My head felt hot, damp, feverish.
“What’s the matter with you, Moon-Eye?”
The horse kept his good eye on me.
“Are you crazy, maybe? You don’t want to die out here, do you, all alone like a hermit? In this awful place….” He watched me and listened. “Them turkey buzzards will get you, Moon-Eye. They’ll smell you dying, they’ll come flapping down on you like foul and dirty kites and roost on your neck and suck out your eyeballs while you’re still alive. Yes, they do that. And just before that good eye is punctured you’ll see those black wings shutting off the sky, shutting out the sun, you’ll see a crooked yellow beak and a red neck crawling with lice and a pair of insane eyes looking into yours. You won’t like that, old horse….”
I paused. Moon-Eye was listening, he seemed attentive, but I sensed that he wasn’t really much interested in what I was saying. Perhaps it was all an old story to him. Maybe he didn’t care.
I continued with the sermon. “And when the buzzards are through with you, Moon-Eye—and you’ll be glad whenthat’sover—why then a quiet little coyote will come loping down the canyon in the middle of the night under the moon, Moon-Eye, nosing out your soul. He’ll come to within fifty yards of you, old comrade, and sit for a few hours, thinking, and then he’ll circle around you a few times trying to smell out the hand of man. Pretty soon his belly will get the best of his caution—maybe he hasn’t eaten for two weeks and hasn’t had a chance at a dead horse for two years—and so he’ll come nosing close to you, tongue out and eyes bright with happiness, and all at once when you’re hardly expecting it he’ll pounce and hook his fangs into your scrawny old haunch and tear off a steak. Are you listening to me, Moon-Eye? And when he’s gorged himself sick he’ll retire for a few hours of peaceful digestion. In the meantime the ants and beetles and blowflies will go to work, excavating tunnels through your lungs, kidneys, stomach, windpipe, brains and entrails and whatever else the buzzards and the coyote leave.”
Moon-Eye watched me as I spoke; I watched him. “And in acouple of weeks you won’t even stink anymore and after a couple of months there’ll be nothing left but your mangled hide and your separated bones and—get this, Moon-Eye get the picture—way out in eternity somewhere, on the far side of the sun, they’ll hang up a brass plaque with the image of your moon-eyed soul stamped on it. That’s about all. Years later some tired and dirty cowboy looking for a lost horse, some weary prospector looking for potash or beryllium will stumble up this way and come across your clean white rib cage, your immaculate skull, a few other bones….”
I stopped talking. I was tired. Would that sun never go down beyond the canyon wall? Wasn’t there a cloud in the whole state of Utah?
The horse stood motionless as a rock. He looked like part of that burnt-out landscape. He looked like the steed of Don Quixote carved out of wood by Giacometti. I could see the blue of the sky between his ribs, through the eyesockets of his skull. Dry, odorless, still and silent, he looked like the idea—without the substance—of a horse. Plato’s horse: pure horseness.
My brain and eyes ached, my limbs felt hollow, I had to breathe deliberately, making a conscious effort. The thought of the long walk back to my saddle pony, the long ride back to the pickup truck, made my heart sink. I didn’t want to move. So I’d wait too, wait for sundown before starting the march home, theanabasisin retreat. I glanced toward the sun. About four o’clock. Another hour before that sun would reach the rim of the canyon. I crawled back to the spotted shade of the juniper and waited.
We waited then, the horse and I, enduring the endless afternoon, the heartbreaking heat, and passed the time as best we could in one-sided conversation. I’d speak a sentence and wait about ten minutes for the next thought and speak again. Moon-Eye watched me all the time and made no move.
At last the sun touched the skyline, merged with it for a moment in a final explosive blaze of light and heat and sank out of sight. The shadow of the canyon wall advanced across the canyonfloor, included the horse, touched the rocks and brush on the far side. A wave of cooling relief like a breeze, like an actual movement of air, washed through the canyon. A rock wren sang, a few flies came out of hiding and droned around the juniper tree. I could almost see the leaves of the saltbush and blackbush relax a little, uncurling in the evening air.
I stood up and emerged from the shelter of the broken tree. Old Moon-Eye took a few steps away from me, stopped. Still watching. We faced each other across some fifty feet of sand and rock. No doubt for the last time. I tried to think of something suitable to say but my mouth was so dry, my tongue so stiff, my lips so dried-out and cracked, I could barely utter a word.
“You damned stupid harr….” I croaked, and gave it up.
Moon-Eye blinked his good eye once, twitched his hide and kept watching me as all around us, along the wash and on the canyon walls and in the air the desert birds and desert bugs resumed their inexplicable careers. A whiptail lizard scurried past my feet. A primrose opened its petals a few inches above the still-hot sand. Knees shaking, I stepped toward the horse, pulled the ropy hackamore out of my shirt—to Moon-Eye it must have looked as if I were pulling out my intestines—and threw the thing with all the strength I had left straight at him. It slithered over his back like a hairy snake, scaring him into a few quick steps. Again he stopped, the eye on me.
Enough. I turned my back on that horse and went to the canteen, picked it up. The water was almost too hot to drink but I drank it. Drank it all, except a few drops which I poured on my fingers and dabbed on my aching forehead. Refusing to look again at the spectre horse, I slung the canteen over my shoulder and started homeward, trudging over the clashing stones and through the sand down-canyon toward my pony and Salt Creek.
Once, twice, I thought I heard footsteps following me but when I looked back I saw nothing.Havasu
One summer I started off to visit for the first time the city of Los Angeles. I was riding with some friends from the University of New Mexico. On the way we stopped off briefly to roll an old tire into the Grand Canyon. While watching the tire bounce over tall pine trees, tear hell out of a mule train and disappear with a final grand leap into the inner gorge, I overheard the park ranger standing nearby say a few words about a place called Havasu, or Havasupai. A branch, it seemed, of the Grand Canyon.
What I heard made me think that I should see Havasu immediately, before something went wrong somewhere. My friends said they would wait. So I went down into Havasu—fourteen miles by trail—and looked things over. When I returned five weeks later I discovered that the others had gone on to Los Angeles without me.
That was fifteen years ago. And still I have not seen the fabulous city on the Pacific shore. Perhaps I never will. There’s something in the prospect southwest from Barstow which makes one hesitate. Although recently, driving my own truck, I did succeed in penetrating as close as San Bernardino. But was hurled back by what appeared to be clouds of mustard gas rolling in from the west on a very broad front. Thus failed again. It may be however that Los Angeles will come to me. Will come to all of us, as it must (they say) to all men.
But Havasu. Once down in there it’s hard to get out. The trail led across a stream wide, blue and deep, like the pure upperreaches of the River Jordan. Without a bridge. Dripping wet and making muddy tracks I entered the village of the Havasupai Indians where unshod ponies ambled down the only street and the children laughed, not maliciously, at the sight of the wet white man. I stayed the first night in the lodge the people keep for tourists, a rambling old bungalow with high ceilings, a screened verandah and large comfortable rooms. When the sun went down the village went dark except for kerosene lamps here and there, a few open fires, and a number of lightning bugs and dogs which drifted aimlessly up and down Main Street, looking for trouble.
The next morning I bought a slab of bacon and six cans of beans at the village post office, rented a large comfortable horse and proceeded farther down the canyon past miniature cornfields, green pastures, swimming pools and waterfalls to the ruins of an old mining camp five miles below the village. There I lived, mostly alone except for the ghosts, for the next thirty-five days.
There was nothing wrong with the Indians. The Supai are a charming cheerful completely relaxed and easygoing bunch, all one hundred or so of them. But I had no desire to liveamongthem unless clearly invited to do so, and I wasn’t. Even if invited I might not have accepted. I’m not sure that I care for the idea of strangers examining my daily habits and folkways, studying my language, inspecting my costume, questioning me about my religion, classifying my artifacts, investigating my sexual rites and evaluating my chances for cultural survival.
So I lived alone.
The first thing I did was take off my pants. Naturally. Next I unloaded the horse, smacked her on the rump and sent her back to the village. I carried my food and gear into the best-preserved of the old cabins and spread my bedroll on a rusty steel cot. After that came a swim in the pool beneath a great waterfall nearby, 120 feet high, which rolled in mist and thunder over caverns and canopies of solidified travertine.
In the evening of that first day below the falls I lay down tosleep in the cabin. A dark night. The door of the cabin, unlatched, creaked slowly open, although there was no perceptible movement of the air. One firefly flickered in and circled my bacon, suspended from the roofbeam on a length of baling wire. Slowly, without visible physical aid, the door groaned shut. And opened again. A bat came through one window and went out another, followed by a second firefly (the first scooped up by the bat) and a host of mosquitoes, which did not leave. I had no netting, of course, and the air was much too humid and hot for sleeping inside a bag.
I got up and wandered around outside for a while, slapping at mosquitoes, and thinking. From the distance came the softened roar of the waterfall, that “white noise” as soothing as hypnosis. I rolled up my sleeping bag and in the filtered light of the stars followed the trail that wound through thickets of cactus and up around ledges to the terrace above the mining camp. The mosquitoes stayed close but in lessening numbers, it seemed, as I climbed over humps of travertine toward the head of the waterfall. Near the brink of it, six feet from the drop-off and the plunge, I found a sandy cove just big enough for my bed. The racing creek as it soared free over the edge created a continuous turbulence in the air sufficient to keep away all flying insects. I slept well that night and the next day carried the cot to the place and made it my permanent bedroom for the rest of July and all of August.
What did I do during those five weeks in Eden? Nothing. I did nothing. Or nearly nothing. I caught a few rainbow trout, which grew big if not numerous in Havasu Creek. About once a week I put on my pants and walked up to the Indian village to buy bacon, canned beans and Argentine beef in the little store. That was all the Indians had in stock. To vary my diet I ordered more exotic foods by telephone from the supermarket in Grand Canyon Village and these were shipped to me by U.S. Mail, delivered twice a week on muleback down the fourteen-mile trail from Topocoba Hilltop. A little later in the season I was able to buy sweet corn, figs and peaches from the Supai. At one time for aperiod of three days my bowels seemed in danger of falling out, but I recovered. The Indians never came down to my part of the canyon except when guiding occasional tourists to the falls or hunting a stray horse. In late August came the Great Havasupai Sacred Peach Festival and Four-Day Marathon Friendship Dance, to which I was invited. There I met Reed Watahomagie, a good man, and Chief Sinyala and a fellow named Spoonhead who took me for five dollars in a horse race. Somebody fed my pick a half-bushel of green figs just before the race. I heard later.
The Friendship Dance, which continued day and night to the rhythm of drums made of old inner tube stretched over #10 tomato cans while ancient medicine men chanted in the background, was perhaps marred but definitely not interrupted when a drunken free-for-all exploded between Spoonhead and friends and a group of visiting Hualapai Indians down from the rim. But this, I was told, happened every year. It was a traditional part of the ceremony, sanctified by custom. As Spoonhead told me afterwards, grinning around broken teeth, it’s not every day you get a chance to wallop a Hualapai. Or skin a paleface, I reminded him. (Yes, the Supai are an excellent tribe, healthy, joyous and clever. Not only clever but shrewd. Not only shrewd but wise: e.g., the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Public Roads, like most government agencies always meddling, always fretting and itching and sweating for something to do, last year made a joint offer to blast a million-dollar road down into Havasu Canyon at no cost whatsoever to the tribe, thus opening their homeland to the riches of motorized tourism. The people of Supai or at least a majority of them voted to reject the proposal.) And the peach wine flowed freely, like the water of the river of life. When the ball was over I went home to my bunk on the verge of the waterfall and rested for two days.
On my feet again, I explored the abandoned silver mines in the canyon walls, found a few sticks of dynamite but no caps or fuses. Disappointing; but there was nothing in that area anyway that required blowing up. I climbed through the caves that led down to the foot of Mooney Falls, 200 feet high. What did I do?There was nothing that had to be done. I listened to the voices, the many voices, vague, distant but astonishingly human, of Havasu Creek. I heard the doors creak open, the doors creak shut, of the old forgotten cabins where no one with tangible substance or the property of reflecting light ever entered, ever returned. I went native and dreamed away days on the shore of the pool under the waterfall, wandered naked as Adam under the cottonwoods, inspecting my cactus gardens. The days became wild, strange, ambiguous—a sinister element pervaded the flow of time. I lived narcotic hours in which like the Taoist Chuang-tse I worried about butterflies and who was dreaming what. There was a serpent, a red racer, living in the rocks of the spring where I filled my canteens; he was always there, slipping among the stones or pausing to spellbind me with his suggestive tongue and cloudy haunted primeval eyes. Damn his eyes. We got to know each other rather too well I think. I agonized over the girls I had known and over those I hoped were yet to come. I slipped by degrees into lunacy, me and the moon, and lost to a certain extent the power to distinguish between what was and what was not myself: looking at my hand I would see a leaf trembling on a branch. Agreenleaf. I thought of Debussy, of Keats and Blake and Andrew Marvell. I remembered Tom o’Bedlam. And all those lost and never remembered. Who would return? To be lost again? I went for walks. I went for walks. I went for walks and on one of these, the last I took in Havasu, regained everything that seemed to be ebbing away.
Most of my wandering in the desert I’ve done alone. Not so much from choice as from necessity—I generally prefer to go into places where no one else wants to go. I find that in contemplating the natural world my pleasure is greater if there are not too many others contemplating it with me, at the same time. However, there are special hazards in traveling alone. Your chances of dying, in case of sickness or accident, are much improved, simply because there is no one around to go for help.
Exploring a side canyon off Havasu Canyon one day, I wasunable to resist the temptation to climb up out of it onto what corresponds in that region to the Tonto Bench. Late in the afternoon I realized that I would not have enough time to get back to my camp before dark, unless I could find a much shorter route than the one by which I had come. I looked for a shortcut.
Nearby was another little side canyon which appeared to lead down into Havasu Canyon. It was a steep, shadowy, extremely narrow defile with the usual meandering course and overhanging walls; from where I stood, near its head, I could not tell if the route was feasible all the way down to the floor of the main canyon. I had no rope with me—only my walking stick. But I was hungry and thirsty, as always. I started down.
For a while everything went well. The floor of the little canyon began as a bed of dry sand, scattered with rocks. Farther down a few boulders were wedged between the walls; I climbed over and under them. Then the canyon took on the slickrock character—smooth, sheer, slippery sandstone carved by erosion into a series of scoops and potholes which got bigger as I descended. In some of these basins there was a little water left over from the last flood, warm and fetid water under an oily-looking scum, condensed by prolonged evaporation to a sort of broth, rich in dead and dying organisms. My canteen was empty and I was very thirsty but I felt that I could wait.
I came to a lip on the canyon floor which overhung by twelve feet the largest so far of these stagnant pools. On each side rose the canyon walls, mainly perpendicular. There was no way to continue except by dropping into the pool. I hesitated. Beyond this point there could hardly be any returning, yet the main canyon was still not visible below. Obviously the only sensible thing to do was to turn back. Instead, I edged over the lip of stone and dropped feet first into the water.
Deeper than I expected. The warm, thick fluid came up and closed over my head as my feet touched the muck at the bottom. I had to swim to the farther side. And here I found myself on the verge of another drop-off, with one more huge bowl of green soup below.
This drop-off was about the same height as the one before, but not overhanging. It resembled a children’s playground slide, concave and S-curved, only steeper, wider, with a vertical pitch in the middle. It did not lead directly into the water but ended in a series of steplike ledges above the pool. Beyond the pool lay another edge, another drop-off into an unknown depth. Again I paused, and for a much longer time. But I no longer had the option of turning around and going back. I eased myself into the chute and let go of everything—except my faithful stick.
I hit rock bottom hard, but without any physical injury. I swam the stinking pond dog-paddle style, pushing the heavy scum away from my face, and crawled out on the far side to see what my fate was going to be.
Fatal. Death by starvation, slow and tedious. For I was looking straight down an overhanging cliff to a rubble pile of broken rocks eighty feet below.
After the first wave of utter panic had passed I began to try to think. First of all I was not going to die immediately, unless another flash flood came down the gorge; there was the pond of stagnant water on hand to save me from thirst and a man can live, they say, for thirty days or more without food. My sun-bleached bones, dramatically sprawled at the bottom of the chasm, would provide the diversion of the picturesque for future wanderers—if any man ever came this way again.
My second thought was to roar for help, although I knew very well there would be no other human being within miles. I even tried it but the sound of my anxious shout, cut short in the dead air within the canyon walls, was so inhuman, so detached as it seemed from myself, that it terrified me and I didn’t attempt it again.
I thought of tearing my clothes into strips and plaiting a rope. But what was I wearing?—boots, socks, a pair of old and ragged blue jeans, a flimsy T-shirt, an ancient and rotten sombrero of straw. Not a chance of weaving such a wardrobe into a usable rope eighty feet long, or even ten feet long.
How about a signal fire? There was nothing to burn but my clothes; not a tree, not a shrub, not even a weed grew in this stony cul-de-sac. Even if I burned my clothing the chances of the smoke being seen by some Hualapai Indian high on the south rim were very small; and if he did see the smoke, what then? He’d shrug his shoulders, sigh, and take another pull from his Tokay bottle. Furthermore, without clothes, the sun would soon bake me to death.
There was only one thing I could do. I had a tiny notebook in my hip pocket and a stub of pencil. When these dried out I could at least record my final thoughts. I would have plenty of time to write not only my epitaph but my own elegy.
But not yet.
There were a few loose stones scattered about the edge of the pool. Taking the biggest first, I swam with it back to the foot of the slickrock chute and placed it there. One by one I brought the others and made a shaky little pile about two feet high leaning against the chute. Hopeless, of course, but there was nothing else to do. I stood on the top of the pile and stretched upward, straining my arms to their utmost limit and groped with fingers and fingernails for a hold on something firm. There was nothing. I crept back down. I began to cry. It was easy. All alone, I didn’t have to be brave.
Through the tears I noticed my old walking stick lying nearby. I took and stood it on the most solid stone in the pile, behind the two topmost stones. I took off my boots, tied them together and hung them around my neck, on my back. I got up on the little pile again and lifted one leg and set my big toe on the top of the stick. This could never work. Slowly and painfully, leaning as much of my weight as I could against the sandstone slide, I applied more and more pressure to the stick, pushing my body upward until I was stretched out full length above it. Again I felt about for a fingerhold. There was none. The chute was smooth as polished marble.
No, not quite that smooth. This was sandstone, soft and porous, not marble, and between it and my wet body and wet clothinga certain friction was created. In addition, the stick had enabled me to reach a higher section of the S-curved chute, where the angle was more favorable. I discovered that I could move upward, inch by inch, through adhesion and with the help of the leveling tendency of the curve. I gave an extra little push with my big toe—the stones collapsed below, the stick clattered down—and crawled rather like a snail or slug, oozing slime, up over the rounded summit of the slide.
The next obstacle, the overhanging spout twelve feet above a deep plunge pool, looked impossible. Itwasimpossible, but with the blind faith of despair I slogged into the water and swam underneath the drop-off and floundered around for a while, scrabbling at the slippery rock until my nerves and tiring muscles convinced my numbed brain thatthis was not the way. I swam back to solid ground and lay down to rest and die in comfort.
Far above I could see the sky, an irregular strip of blue between the dark, hard-edged canyon walls that seemed to lean toward each other as they towered above me. Across that narrow opening a small white cloud was passing, so lovely and precious and delicate and forever inaccessible that it broke the heart and made me weep like a woman, like a child. In all my life I had never seen anything so beautiful.
The walls that rose on either side of the drop-off were literally perpendicular. Eroded by weathering, however, and not by the corrosion of rushing floodwater, they had a rough surface, chipped, broken, cracked. Where the walls joined the face of the overhang they formed almost a square corner, with a number of minute crevices and inch-wide shelves on either side. It might, after all, be possible. What did I have to lose?
When I had regained some measure of nerve and steadiness I got up off my back and tried the wall beside the pond, clinging to the rock with bare toes and fingertips and inching my way crabwise toward the corner. The watersoaked, heavy boots dangling from my neck, swinging back and forth with my every movement, threw me off balance and I fell into the pool. I swam out to the bank, unslung the boots and threw them up over thedrop-off, out of sight. They’d be there if I ever needed them again. Once more I attached myself to the wall, tenderly, sensitively, like a limpet, and very slowly, very cautiously, worked my way into the corner. Here I was able to climb upward, a few centimeters at a time, by bracing myself against the opposite sides and finding sufficient niches for fingers and toes. As I neared the top and the overhang became noticeable I prepared for a slip, planning to push myself away from the rock so as to fall into the center of the pool where the water was deepest. But it wasn’t necessary. Somehow, with a skill and tenacity I could never have found in myself under ordinary circumstances, I managed to creep straight up that gloomy cliff and over the brink of the drop-off and into the flower of safety. My boots were floating under the surface of the little puddle above. As I poured the stinking water out of them and pulled them on and laced them up I discovered myself bawling again for the third time in three hours, the hot delicious tears of victory. And up above the clouds replied—with thunder peals.
I emerged from that treacherous little canyon at sundown, with an enormous fire flaring in the western sky and lightning overhead. Through sweet twilight and the sudden dazzling glare of lightning I hiked back along the Tonto Bench, bellowing theOde to Joy. Long before I reached the place where I could descend safely to the main canyon and my camp, however, darkness set in, the clouds opened their bays and the rain poured down. I took shelter under a ledge in a shallow cave about three feet high—hardly room to sit up in. Others had been here before: the dusty floor of the little hole was littered with the droppings of birds, rats, jackrabbits and coyotes. There were also a few long gray pieces of scat with a curious twist at one tip—cougar? I didn’t care. I had some matches with me, sealed in paraffin (the prudent explorer); I scraped together the handiest twigs and animal droppings and built a little fire and waited for the rain to stop.
It didn’t stop. The rain came down for hours in alternate waves of storm and drizzle and I very soon had burnt up all thefuel within reach. No matter. I stretched out in the coyote den, pillowed my head on my arm and suffered through the long night, wet, cold, aching, hungry, wretched, dreaming claustrophobic nightmares. It was, all the same, one of the happiest nights of my life.The Dead Man at Grandview Point
Somnolence—a heaviness in the air, a chill in the sunlight, an oppressive stillness in the atmosphere that hints of much but says nothing. The Balanced Rock and the pinnacles stand in petrified silence—waiting. The wildlife has withdrawn to the night, the flies and gnats have disappeared, a few birds sing, and the last of the flowers of summer—the globemallow—have died. What is it that’s haunting me? At times I hear voices up the road, familiar voices … I look; and no one is there.
Even the tourists that creep in and creep out in their lumbering, dust-covered automobiles reveal a certain weariness with desert travel, a certain longing to be elsewhere, to be where it’s high, cool, breezy, fresh—mountain or seashore. And they should. Why anyone with any sense would volunteer to spend August in the furnace of the desert is a mystery to me; they must be mad, these brave tourists, as I am mad.
Each day begins clean and promising in the sweet cool clear green light of dawn. And then the sun appears, its hydrogen cauldrons brimming—so to speak—with plasmic fires, and the tyranny of its day begins.
By noon the clouds are forming around the horizon and in the afternoon, predictable as sunrise and sunset, they gather in massed formations, colliding in jags of lightning and thunderous artillery, and pile higher and higher toward the summit of the sky in vaporish mountains, dazzling under the sunlight. Afterward, perhaps, comes a little rain—that is, a violent cloudburst above some random site in the desert, flooding arroyosand washes with torrents of mud, gravel and water in equal parts, a dense mixture the color of tomato soup or blood that roars down the barren waterways to the river, leaving the land an hour later as dry as it was before. The clouds melt away, the thunder fades and the sun breaks through again, blazing with redoubled intensity upon sand and rock and scattered, introverted shrub and tree. Rainy season in the canyonlands.
One morning I am requested via the shortwave radio to join a manhunt. Not for some suspected criminal or escaped convict but for a lost tourist whose car was found abandoned in the vicinity of Grandview Point, about fifty miles by road from my station in the Arches.
Grateful for the diversion, I throw canteens and rucksack into the government pickup and take off. I go west to the highway, south for three miles, and turn off on another dirt road leading southwest across the mesa called Island in the Sky toward the rendezvous. There I find the other members of the search party holding a consultation: Merle and Floyd from park headquarters, the county sheriff and one of his deputies, a relative of the missing man, and my brother Johnny who is also working for the Park Service this summer. At the side of the road is a locked and empty automobile, first noted two days earlier.
Most of the surface of this high mesa on which our man has disappeared is bare rock—there are few trails, and little sand or soft earth on which he might have left footprints. There are, however, many gulches, giant potholes, basins, fissures and canyons in which a man could lose himself, or a body be hidden, for days or years.
There is also the abyss. A mile from where we stand is the mesa’s edge and a twelve-hundred-foot drop straight down to what is called the White Rim Bench. From there the land falls away for another fifteen hundred feet to the Colorado River. If he went that way there won’t be much left worth looking for. You could put it all in a bushel sack.
Learning from the relative—a nephew—that the missing manis about sixty years old, an amateur photographer who liked to walk and had never been in the Southwest before, we assume first of all that the object of the search is dead and that the body will be found somewhere along the more than twenty miles of highly indented rimrock that winds northwest and northeast from Grandview Point.
The assumption of death is made on the grounds that an airplane search by the sheriff failed to find any sign of the man, and that at least two days and possibly more spent in the desert in the heat of August with only what water (if any) he could carry is too much for a man of sixty, unfamiliar with the terrain and the climate.
We begin the search by dividing as evenly as we can the area to be investigated. Assigned the southernmost sector, my brother and I drive down the road another five miles to where it deadends close to the farthest reach of the mesa—Grandview Point itself. Here we share our water supply and split up, Johnny hiking along the rim to the northwest and I taking the opposite way.
All morning long, for the next four hours, I tramp along the rim looking for the lost tourist. Looking for his body, I should say—there seems little chance of finding him still alive. I look in the shade of every juniper and overhanging ledge, likely places to find a man besieged by thirst and sun. I look in the gullies and fissures and in the enormous potholes drilled by wind and sand in the solid rock—deep pits like wells, with perpendicular sides … mantraps.
At times I step to the brink of the mesa and peer down through that awful, dizzying vacancy to the broken slabs piled along the foot of the wall, so far—so terribly far—below. It is not impossible that our man might have stumbled off the edge in the dark, or even—spellbound by that fulfillment of nothingness—eased himself over, deliberately, in broad daylight, drawn into the void by the beauty and power of his own terror.
“Gaze not too long into the abyss, lest the abyss gaze into thee,” said Nietzsche. He would, wouldn’t he?
I watch also for a gathering of vultures in the air, which might be a helpful clue. Not forhim, of course, now perhaps beyond such cares, but for us, his hunters.
The sun burns in a lovely, perfect sky; the day is very hot. I pause when necessary beneath pinyon pine or juniper for rest and shade and for a precious drink of water. Also, I will admit, for recreation: to admire the splendor of the landscape, the perfection of the silence.
The shade is sweet and desirable, but the heat very bad and early in the afternoon, out of water, I give up and return to the truck. My brother is waiting for me and by the lost expression on his face I understand at once that he has found our man.
We radio the rest of the party. Johnny and I wait in the shade of the truck. They arrive; we wait another hour until the undertaker, who is also county coroner, comes from Moab with his white ambulance, his aluminum stretcher and his seven-foot-long black rubber bag. Johnny leads us to the body.
The route is rough and long, across rocky gulches and sandstone terraces impassable to a motor vehicle. We walk it out. About a mile from the road we come to a ledge rising toward the rim of the mesa. Near the top of the rise is a juniper, rooted in the rock and twisted toward the sky in the classic pose of its kind in the canyon country. Beneath the little tree, in the shade, is the dead man.
Coming close we see that he lies on his back, limbs extended rigidly from a body bloated like a balloon. A large stain discolors the crotch of his trousers. The smell of decay is rich and sickening. Although the buzzards for some reason have not discovered him, two other scavengers, ravens, rise heavily and awkwardly from the corpse as we approach. No canteen or water bag in sight.
The nephew makes a positive identification—I can’t imagine how. But the coroner-undertaker nods, the sheriff is satisfied, and together with the deputy the three of them begin the delicate, difficult task of easing the swollen cadaver into the unzippered rubber bag.
Johnny and I retrace what we can of the dead man’s course. There is no discernible trail on the slickrock but by walking around his final resting place in a big half-circle we cut sign—intersect his tracks—in a ravine a hundred yards away. There on the sandy floor we find his footprints: where he had entered the ravine, where he became panicky and retraced his way not once but twice, and where he had struggled up an alluvial bank to the ledge. From that point he could see the juniper with its promise of shade. Somehow he made his way to it, laid himself down and never got up again.
We return to where the others are waiting, gathered about the black bag on the stretcher, which the undertaker is in the act of zipping shut. The sheriff and the deputy are scrubbing their hands with sand; the undertaker wears rubber gloves.
We are not far from Grandview Point and the view from near the juniper is equally spectacular. The big jump-off is only a few steps south and beyond that edge lies another world, far away. Down below is the White Rim; deeper still is the gorge of the Colorado; off to the right is the defile of the Green River; looking past Junction Butte we can see the deep gorge where the two rivers join to begin the wild race through Cataract Canyon; beyond the confluence lies the wilderness of the Needles country, known to only a few cowboys and uranium prospectors; on the west side of the junction is another labyrinth of canyons, pinnacles and fins of naked stone, known to even fewer, closer than anything else in the forty-eight United States to being genuineterra incognita—The Maze.
Far beyond these hundreds of square miles of desiccated tableland rise the sheer walls of further great mesas comparable in size and elevation to the one we stand on; and beyond the mesas are the mountains—the Abajos and Elk Ridge forty miles south, the La Sals and Tukuhnikivats forty miles east, the Henrys fifty miles southwest.
Except for the town of Moab, east of us, and the village of Hanksville near the Henry Mountains, and a single occupied ranch on this side of the Abajo Mountains, the area which weoverlook contains no permanent human habitation. From the point of view of political geography we are standing on one of the frontiers of human culture; for the man inside the rubber sack it was land’s end, the shore of the world.
Looking out on this panorama of light, space, rock and silence I am inclined to congratulate the dead man on his choice of jumping-off place; he had good taste. He had good luck—I envy him the manner of his going: to die alone, on rock under sun at the brink of the unknown, like a wolf, like a great bird, seems to me very good fortune indeed. To die in the open, under the sky, far from the insolent interference of doctor and priest, before this desert vastness opening like a window onto eternity—that surely was an overwhelming stroke of rare good luck.
It would be unforgivably presumptuous to pretend to speakforthe dead man on these matters; he may not have agreed with a word of it, not at all. On the other hand, except for those minutes of panic in the ravine when he realized that he was lost, it seems possible that in the end he yielded with good grace. We see him staggering through the fearful heat and glare, across the tilted ledge toward the juniper, the only tree in sight. We see him reach it, at great cost, and there, on the brink of nothing and everything, he lies down in the shade to rest. He would not have suffered much after that; he may have died in his sleep, dreaming of the edge of things, of flight into space, of soaring.
We are ready to go. A few flies are already circling above the dark shape on the stretcher. A few dark birds are floating on thermals far out over the chasm of the Colorado, somewhat below the level of the mesa. It is possible from here to gaze down on the backs of soaring birds. I would like to stay for a while and watch the birds but the others are ready to go, the sun is very hot, the corpse is stinking, there is not enough shade for us all under the one small tree, and the world—the human world—is waiting for us, calling us back. For the time being.
There are eight men here, alive. More or less alive. Four pick up the stretcher and begin the march back to the road and the ambulance. The other four walk alongside to relieve when needed. We soon need relief, for the weight is greater than itlooks, and the rock, sand, brush and cactus make walking with a load difficult. The sun is pitiless, the smell is worse, and the flies are worst of all, buzzing in swarms around the putrid mass in the rubber sack.
The dead man’s nephew, excused from this duty, walks far ahead out of earshot. We are free as we go stumbling and sweating along to say exactly what we please, without fear of offending.
“Heavy son of a bitch….”
“All blown up like he is, you’d think he’d float like a balloon.”
“Let’s just hope he don’t explode.”
“He won’t. We let the gas out.”
“What about lunch?” somebody asks; “I’m hungry.”
“Why’d the bastard have to go so far from the road?”
“There’s something leaking out that zipper.”
“Never mind, let’s try to get in step here,” the sheriff says. “Goddamnit, Floyd, you got big feet.”
“Are we going in the right direction?”
“I wonder if the old fart would walk part way if we let him out of that bag?”
“He won’t even say thank you for the ride.”
“Well I hope this learned him a lesson, goddamn him. I guess he’ll stay put after this….”
Thus we meditate upon the stranger’s death. Since he was unknown to any of us we joke about his fate, as is only natural and wholesome under the circumstances. If he’d meant anything to us maybe we could mourn. If we had loved him we would sing, dance, drink, build a stupendous bonfire, find women, make love—for under the shadow of death what can be wiser than love, to make love, to make children?—and celebrate his transfiguration from flesh to fantasy in a style proper and fitting, with fun for all at the funeral.
But—we knew thee not, old man. And there is, I suspect, another feeling alive in each of us as we lug these rotting guts across the desert: satisfaction.
Each man’s death diminishes me? Not necessarily. Given thisman’s age, the inevitability and suitability of his death, and the essential nature of life on earth, there is in each of us the unspeakable conviction that we are well rid of him. His departure makes room for the living. Away with the old, in with the new. He is gone—we remain, others come. The plow of mortality drives through the stubble, turns over rocks and sod and weeds to cover the old, the worn-out, the husks, shells, empty seedpods and sapless roots, clearing the field for the next crop. A ruthless, brutal process—but clean and beautiful.
A part of our nature rebels against this truth and against that other part which would accept it. A second truth of equal weight contradicts the first, proclaiming through art, religion, philosophy, science and even war that human life, in some way not easily definable, is significant and unique and supreme beyond all the limits of reason and nature. And this second truth we can deny only at the cost of denying our humanity.
We finally reach the road, which I had begun to fear we would never see—the death march seemed everlasting—and shove stretcher and burden into the undertaker’s ambulance, a white Cadillac glittering with chrome and powdered with the red dust of Utah. He slams shut the doors, the undertaker does, shakes a few hands and drives off, followed by the nephew driving the dead man’s car.
The air is clean and sweet again. We can breathe. We rest for a while in the shade of the other cars, passing around water bags, smoking, talking a little. Someone tells a bad joke and the party breaks up. We all go back the thirty-five miles to the highway and from there by separate ways to our separate places, my brother south to Blanding, myself to the Arches.
Evening now, a later day. How much later? I’m not quite sure, I can’t say, I’ve been out here in the heart of light and silence for so long that the numbers on a calendar have lost their meaning for me. All that I can be certain of at this moment is that the sun is down, for there is Venus again, planet of beauty and joy, glowing bright and clear in the western sky, low on the horizon, brilliant and steady and serene.
The season is late—late summer on the high desert. The thunderstorms have been less frequent lately, the tumbleweeds are taking on the reddish tinge of their maturity, and the various grasses—bluestem, fescue, Indian ricegrass, grama grass—which flourished after the summer rains have ripened to a tawny brown; in the slanting light of morning and evening the far-off fields in Salt Valley, where these grasses are most abundant, shine like golden velvet.
The nighthawks, sparse in numbers earlier, have gone away completely. I haven’t seen one for a week. But not all the birds have left me.
Southwest, toward Grandview Point and The Maze, I can see V-shaped black wings in the lonely sky, soaring higher and higher against a yellow sunset. I think of the dead man under the juniper on the edge of the world, seeing him as the vulture would have seen him, far below and from a great distance. And I see myself through those cruel eyes.
I feel myself sinking into the landscape, fixed in place like a stone, like a tree, a small motionless shape of vague outline, sand-colored, and with the wings of imagination look down at myself through the eyes of the bird, watching a human figure that becomes smaller, smaller in the receding landscape as the bird rises into the evening—a man at a table near a twinkling campfire, surrounded by a rolling wasteland of stone and dune and sandstone monuments, the wasteland surrounded by dark canyons and the course of rivers and mountain ranges on a vast plateau stretching across Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona, and beyond this plateau more deserts and greater mountains, the Rockies in dusk, the Sierra Nevadas shining in their late afternoon, and farther and farther yet, the darkened East, the gleaming Pacific, the curving margins of the great earth itself, and beyond earth that ultimate world of sun and stars whose bounds we cannot discover.
The tourists have gone home. Most of them. A few still rumble in and ramble around in their sand-pitted dust-choked iron dinosaurs but the great majority, answering a mystical summons, have returned to the smoky jungles and swamps of what we call, in wistful hope, American civilization. I can see them now in all their millions jamming the freeways, glutting the streets, horns bellowing like wounded steers, hunting for a place to park. They have left me alone here in the wilderness, at the center of things, where all that is most significant takes place. (Sunset and moon-rise, moaning winds and stillness, cloud transformations in the metamorphosis of sunlight, yellowing leaf and the indolent, soaring vulture….)
Who am I to pity the degradation and misery of my fellow citizens? I, too, must leave the canyon country, if only for a season, and rejoin for the winter that miscegenated mesalliance of human and rodent called the rat race(Rattus urbanus). Today is my last day at the Arches; tonight I take a plane for Denver and from there a jet flight to New York. Of course I have my reasons which reason knows nothing about; reason is and ought to be, as Hume said, the slave of the passions. He foresaw the whole thing.
The old pickup truck will stay here. I’ve already jacked it up on blocks in a friend’s backyard, drained the radiator and engine block and covered the hood with a tarp to keep out the rain and dust.
Everything is packed, all my camping gear stored away, even my whiskers shaved off. Bald-faced as a bank clerk, I stood in front of a mirror this morning and tried on my only white shirt, recently starched. Like putting on chain mail. I even knotted a tie around my neck and tightened it in the proper style—adjusting the garrote for fit. A grim business, returning to civilization. But duty calls. Yes, I hate it so much that I’m spending the best part of a paycheck on airplane tickets.
Balance, that’s the secret. Moderate extremism. The best of both worlds. Unlike Thoreau who insisted on one world at a time I am attempting to make the best of two. After six months in the desert I am volunteering for a winter of front-line combat duty—caseworker, public warfare department—in the howling streets of Megalomania, U.S.A. Mostly for the sake of private and selfish concerns, truly, but also for reasons of a more general nature. After twenty-six weeks of sunlight and stars, wind and sky and golden sand, I want to hear once more the crackle of clamshells on the floor of the bar in the Clam Broth House in Hoboken. I long for a view of the jolly, rosy faces on 42nd Street and the cheerful throngs on the sidewalks of Atlantic Avenue. Enough of Land’s End, Dead Horse Point, Tukuhnikivats and other high resolves; I want to see somebody jump out of a window or off a roof. I grow weary of nobody’s company but my own—let me hear the wit and wisdom of the subway crowds again, the cabdriver’s shrewd aphorisms, the genial chuckle of a Jersey City cop, the happy laughter of Greater New York’s one million illegitimate children.
If I’m serious, and I am, the desert has driven me crazy. Not that I mind. We get some strange ones out here. Last night for example came a fellow in suspenders and short leather britches who spoke English with a Bavarian accent. A toolmaker in a Porsche on vacation from Munich, he carried a case of Lowenbrauunder the hood of his car where the motor should have been. He spotted my campfire burning out back of the housetrailer and invited himself over, along with his beer. I was glad enough to see him. He turned out to be a typical comical Nazi, his feelings still wounded by the fact that the United States had fought against instead of with Hitler; Americans, he said, are very much like Germans and should with them the dirty Russians together fight. Courteously I declined the intended honor of the comparison: not yet, I said, not quite. We argued all night long. I defended the Americans—no one else was available—while he explained to me the positive aspects of anti-Semitism. Thus two monologues converged, near dawn, upon a murder. I could have opened his skull with a bottle of his own Lowenbrau, and was powerfully tempted. Maybe I would have done it, too, but fatigue set in, and besides I didn’t have the heart—after all he hadn’t seen the Arches yet or even the Grand Canyon. When he finally departed my best wishes went with him: may his fan belt snap, his tires develop blisters, his fuel pump succumb to chronic vapor lock—may he never come back.
October. Rabbitbrush in full bloom. The tumbleweeds on the move (that longing to be elsewhere, elsewhere), thousands of them rolling across the plains before the wind. Something like a yellow rash has broken out upon the mountainsides—the aspen forests in their autumn splendor. Sunsets each evening that test a man’s credulity—great gory improvisations in scarlet and gold that remind me of nothing so much as God’s own celestial pizza pies. Followed inevitably by the night with its razzle-dazzle of stars in silver, emerald and sapphire blue, the same old routine.
For tonight I prophesy a snowstorm. I feel it in the cold stillness of the air, the strange uncertainty of the sun, the unbroken mass of aluminum-gray clouds that hang all day above the north and east, an enormous lid soon to be shoved into place above the canyons and plateaus. Theimmanenceof snow.
In the government truck I make a final tour of the park. Eastpast the Balanced Rock to Double Arch and the Windows; back again and north and east to Turnbow Cabin and up the trail to Delicate Arch; back again and northwest beyond the Fiery Furnance into the Devil’s Garden, where I walk for the last time this year out the trail past Tunnel Arch, Pine Tree Arch, Landscape Arch, Partition Arch, Navajo Arch, and Wall Arch, all the way out to Double-O Arch at the end of the path. My own, my children, mine by right of possession, possession by right of love, by divine right, I now surrender them all to the winds of winter and the snow and the starving deer and the pinyon jays and the emptiness and the silence unbroken by even a thought.
In deep stillness, in a somber solemn light, these beings stand, these fins of sandstone hollowed out by time, the juniper trees so shaggy, tough and beautiful, the dead or dying pinyon pines, the little shrubs of rabbitbrush and blackbrush, the dried-up stalks of asters and sunflowers gone to seed, the black-rooted silver-blue sage. How difficult to imagine this place without a human presence; how necessary. I am almost prepared to believe that this sweet virginal primitive land will be grateful for my departure and the absence of the tourists, will breathe metaphorically a collective sigh of relief—like a whisper of wind—when we are all and finally gone and the place and its creations can return to their ancient procedures unobserved and undisturbed by the busy, anxious, brooding consciousness of humankind.
Grateful for our departure? One more expression of human vanity. The finest quality of this stone, these plants and animals, this desert landscape is the indifference to our presence, our absence, our coming, our staying or our going. Whether we live or die is a matter of absolutely no concern whatsoever to the desert. Let men in their madness blast every city on earth into black rubble and envelope the entire planet in a cloud of lethal gas—the canyons and hills, the springs and rocks will still be here, the sunlight will filter through, water will form and warmth shall be upon the land and after sufficient time, no matter how long, somewhere, living things will emerge and joinand stand once again, this time perhaps to take a different and better course. I have seen the place called Trinity, in New Mexico, where our wise men exploded the first atomic bomb and the heat of the blast fused sand into a greenish glass—already the grass has returned, and the cactus and the mesquite. On this bedrock of animal faith I take my stand, close by the old road that leads eventually out of the valley of paradox.
Yes. Feet on earth. Knock on wood. Touch stone. Good luck to all.
Throughout the afternoon the mountains are wrapped in a storm of clouds, a furious battleground. Tukuhnikivats has gone under, drowning in wild vapors, and a blue light covers the desert. In coat and hat and scarf and gloves and long underwear, freezing, I linger on my terrace near the ramada, which is now being unroofed branch by branch in the winds, the red flag whipped to shreds, the windbells jangling like a Chinese fire alarm. All of my old cedar posts and juniper logs have gone into one last magnificent bonfire, flaring like a transparent rose on the open rock, my signal to the world—unheeded. No matter, it’s all one to me and the red dust of Utah. Five hundred and sixty tumbleweeds roll toward the horizon, herded by the wind; may they, too, never come back. All things are in motion, all is in process, nothing abides, nothing will ever change in this eternal moment. I’ll be back before I’m fairly out of sight. Time to go.
The trailerhouse is cleaned out, locked up, water lines drained, gas disconnected, windows shut tight, power plant under canvas. My own belongings are packed in the truck. The red bandana, the bells? I’ll leave them here in place to wave and jingle all through the winter, unseen and unheard, more power to the both of them.
All is ready for departure and I see by my clock I’ve already put in ten minutes of free overtime for the government. I had hoped to see the mountains in full glory, all covered with fresh snow, before leaving, but it looks as if the storm will last all night. I had wished also to see the red rock of our 33,000-acre garden,the arches and buttes and pinnacles and balanced boulders, all lit up in evening light but the sun too is buried in clouds.
The fire is dying, the sparks scattering over the sand and stone—there is nothing to do but go. Now that all is finally ready I am overtaken by the insane compulsion to be gone, to be elsewhere, to go, to go. Abruptly I cancel plans for a ceremonial farewell to the hoodoo rocks and the lone juniper with its dead claw snagging the wind—I had planned a frivolous music—and turn away and hurry to the truck, get in, slam the door, drive off.
When I reach park headquarters near Moab I telephone the airport and learn that nobody is flying from here to Denver tonight; the storm has ruled out all flights in the area. A new ranger, Bob Ferris, offers to drive me up to the town of Thompson where I can catch a Western & Rio Grande night train to Denver. I accept and following a good dinner by his gracious wife, we load my baggage into his car and drive to the railway, thirty miles north.
No end of blessings from heaven and earth. As we climb up out of the Moab valley and reach the high tableland stretching northward, traces of snow flying across the road, the sun emerges clear of the overcast, burning free on the very edge of the horizon. For a few minutes the whole region from the canyon of the Colorado to the Book Cliffs—crag, mesa, turret, dome, canyon wall, plain, swale and dune—glows with a vivid amber light against the darkness on the east. At the same time I see a mountain peak rising clear of the clouds, old Tukuhnikivats fierce as the Matterhorn, snowy as Everest, invincible.
“Ferris, stop this car. Let’s go back.”
But he only steps harder on the gas. “No,” he says, “you’ve got a train to catch.” He sees me craning my neck to stare backward. “Don’t worry,” he adds, “it’ll all still be here next spring.”
The sun goes down, I face the road again, we light up our after-dinner cigars. Keeping the flame alive. The car races forward through a world dissolving into snow and night.
Yes, I agree, that’s a good thought and it better be so. Or by God there might be trouble. The desert will still be here in the spring. And then comes another thought. When I return will it be the same? Will I be the same? Will anything ever be quite the same again? If I return.FROMAppalachianWilderness
Going back to the Big Smokies always reminds me of coming home. There was the town set in the cup of the green hills. In the Alleghenies. A town of trees, two-story houses, red-brick hardware stores, church steeples, the clock tower on the county courthouse, and over all the thin blue haze—partly dust, partly smoke, but mostly moisture—that veils the Appalachian world most of the time. That diaphanous veil that conceals nothing. And beyond the town were the fields, the zigzag rail fences, the old gray barns and gaunt Gothic farmhouses, the webwork of winding roads, the sulfurous creeks and the black coal mines and—scattered everywhere—the woods.
The trees. Vegetation cradle of North America. All those trees transpiring patiently through the wet and exhilarating winds of spring, through the heavy, sultry, sullen summers into the smoky autumns. Through the seasons, years, millennia. Sensitive and sensible plants, with who knows what aspirations of their own.
The hill country in North Carolina, eastern Kentucky and eastern Tennessee seems today something like Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania fifty years ago. Like Seneca and Powhatan, like Shawnee and Home, Pa., where we grew up. All of it Appalachian, winter or summer, then and now. Land of the breathing trees, the big woods, the rainy forests.
Through town and into the hills, I’d follow a certain road for about seven miles until I came to a church and a graveyard on top of a tall hill. (I worked there once, tending that graveyard and the dead, firing the furnace in the church on winter Sundaymornings, mowing the lawns in spring and summer, me the sexton, best job I ever had, that rich grass, that meditation, those ghosts that haunt the human mind, that deep dark dank earth rich in calcium, those lonely clouds with rosy bottoms drifting pensively on the horizon for a while after sundown, inviting questions, when it was time to go home.)
Time to go home. From the top of the hill you can look down into a long emerald valley where a stream meanders back and forth in lazy loops through overgrazed pastures in which cows drift along as slowly as clouds. All facing in the same direction. Beyond the end of that particular valley, in the woods and submarginal cornfields that lay beyond, was my home.
You go down into the valley, an easy, pleasant sort of walk, past the little farms, barns, tile springhouses, pickup trucks, hayrakes and mowing machines, until you come to Crooked Creek, then take a red-dog road under a railroad trestle through a tunnel in the woods. I call it a tunnel because the road is so narrow and winding that the trees on either side interlace their branches overhead, forming a canopy that in winter looks like a network of fine cracks in a plaster ceiling, and in spring and summer like an underwater vision of translucent green, and in the fall, naturally, like the scales of a fire dragon. From shady green to dying flame.
At the far end of the living tunnel stood the house. An austere clapboarded farmhouse, taller than wide when seen from the road, it had filigreed porchwork and a steep-pitched roof with lightning rods pointing straight up at the sun or stars. In winter you’d see smoke winding out of the chimney and amber lamps burning behind the curtains of the windows.
Slinking toward me across the damp grass would come a familiar dog, older, more arthritic than before. Too timid to growl, too shy to bark, she still remembered me. Her job was to guard those doors that in nearly thirty years had never been locked. Nobody even knew if there was a key.
Home again.TREAT YOURSELF TO THE BEST
That’s what the sign says on the side of most any barn in these parts, “Chew Mail Pouch, Treat Yourself to the Best.” That way a farmer gets at least one wall of his barn painted free, by the tobacco company. Coming down through the extreme southwest corner of Virginia into Tennessee we see that legend many times, as often as “Jesus Saves” and “Get Right with God.”
On the way to Gatlinburg, Gateway to the Big Smokies, which is our goal, we drive down a highway with shoulders sprinkled and ditches lined in irredeemable litter. Immortal beer can, immutable chicken basket, eternal plastic picnic spoon. At night the round ends of the cans gleam in your headlights like the glowing eyes of foxes. The hillsides are carpeted with a layer of automobile hulks. This is Trentville, Tennessee, where all old cars come to die, explained a man at a filling station. Poor hillbillies buy them used in Cleveland and Detroit, he explained, get laid off and come home, abandon them when the clutch gives out, the valves burn up, the retreads peel off, the pistons freeze within the worn-out rings.
Orphans. Another thing we notice coming into the South is this: while most of the farmhouses get smaller and flimsier, a few of them get bigger and heavier. Along the road are unpainted frame shacks one story high, but here and there on a hilltop you see a grand brick plantation house with white columns framing its entrance, the house centered in a spacious park of lawn and shrub and tree, approached by a winding asphalt drive.
Comical conical hills appear, like the hills in hillbilly comic strips—Snuffy Smith, Li’l Abner—with sagging gray shacks snagged on their summits. The leafless trees of winter, looking like the bristles on a brush, stand against the skyline. In each yeoman’s frontyard there is a great pile of coal. The deadly fumes of coal smoke float on the breeze. Somewhere nearby, somebody’s home and farm is being disemboweled by dragline and power shovel to provide such fuel for the family in the shack, for TVA and Oak Ridge, for you and me.
It’s all legal. As local boosters point out, strip mining doesprovide jobs as well as fuel for the turbines. What would you have those men do, weave baskets? fire bricks? bake biscuits?
We drive through fields of dead goldenrod in the gray chill of December. Snow gleams in bald patches on the blue mountains beyond. We pass tawny hills, more ramshackle shacks, then pause for a while at a deserted crossroads to contemplate an abandoned country store.
The store just sits there in the cloud-filtered daylight, its old silvery clapboards warped and sprung, shakes dangling from the edge of the roof, screendoor ajar and hanging by one rusty hinge, the long front porch sagging in the middle, the whole aching creaking vacant structure canted to the east, in line with the prevailing winds.
We read the messages placarded in tin on the walls:
Chesterfields Are Best for YouDrink Dr. PepperDrink Coca-ColaDrink Nesbitt’s California OrangeTake Home Kern’s BreadTry W. E. Garrett & Sons’ Sweet, Mild Snuff: A Taste TreatBuy Merita Bread Vitamin-Enriched
Failure. Free enterprise sounds good in theory but look at this old store. Heartbreak and bankruptcy. The metal signs are rusting, they are loose, they flap and rattle in the wind. We pass on.
Past rocky pastures. Beautiful gray-green boulders mottled with lichen rise from the tough winter grass. Cows lounge about in the vicinity, ruminating and thoughtful. Sumac and willow stand with glowing skin along the fencerows. Mighty white oaks grow on the higher ground, their red leathery leaves still clinging to the stems.
Dead trees and dying trees draped in vine come into view on both sides of the road. They are victims of the creeping kudzu,Pueraria lobata, a parasitic vine imported from the Orient back in the late 1920’s. Entire trees are enmeshed in the smothering stuff, wrapped like flies in a spiderweb. A gift, like karate andkamikaze, from Japan, this fast-growing exotic has spread over much of the Smoky Mountain area.
More trees and different trees appear—hemlock, white pine, pitch pine and other conifers, and rows of planted Scotch pine for the Christmas tree market.
Here’s an ancient country church, painted white but faded to gray, with a high cupola on the roof and the bell missing. The New Era Baptist Church—like the store we had passed a mile before, this church looks derelict.
Into the hills we roll, into the past. Far up on the mountainside hangs a log cabin with blue smoke rising from the chimney. Near the road we pass an old barn made of squared-off logs, its roof covered with rusty tin. The barn is wreathed in wisteria.
We enter a little valley. Here we find farms that appear to be actually inhabited and worked. Some of the houses are painted. The barns, while not nearly so grand as Pennsylvania barns, look fairly well kept up; they have gambrel roofs and overhanging eaves at one end to shield the open gable from rain; through the opening under the end of the roof hay is carried by hayfork and pulley into the mow. Above, on a graded, grassy hill, we see another red-brick chateau; it makes a lovely picture from the road below with its white fluted pillars two stories high, the classic pediment, the tall windows flanked by shutters. The landlord’s house.
Beyond the valley we enter foothills again. More hillbilly shacks come in sight, chimneys smoking, doorways full of staring children. Why aren’t those children in school? I ask, scenting something sociological. Because it’s Saturday, says my wife. But the style of poverty is unmistakable.
We see a stand of trees that look like eastern red cedar orJuniperus virginiana. There is no true cedar in the Western Hemisphere, the botanists assure us. I think of an old song I once heard, somewhere, long ago:
You just lay there by the juniperWhen the moon is shining bright,And watch them jugs a-fillin’In the pale moonlight …
Clair de lune, white lightning, lead poisoning and rusty-red radiators. Shine on, harvest moon. We hain’t paid no whisky tax since 1792.
We drive through the country, out here where the people used to live, among forgotten general stores and deconsecrated churches. Hysterical hens tear across the path of the car, hogs root in the oak groves, an old horse rests his chin in the crotch of a butternut tree and watches life pass him by. We see hand-built WPA bridges arching polluted but pretty streams where great leprous-skinned sycamores lean above the water. We pass a farmhouse with a somewhat crumpled look, like a worn but comfortable shoe; a swing hangs by chains on the long front porch. We see an antique John Deere tractor, the kind with iron lug wheels, a flatbed Ford with two flat tires. A poor but honest scene.
And then we come round a turn into the Knoxville-Gatlinburg highway and the mainstream of the way things are. By this I mean Sevierville, Tennessee, and the Little Pigeon River, full of acid, and walls of billboards on either side of the pavement drumming up trade:
GOLDRUSH JUNCTION—Cowboys, Indians & Outlaws: Gunfights Every Day
FORT APACHE—Gunfight Hourly—Live Saloon Shows
FRONTIERLAND—See Real Indians—Cherokee, N.C.
Don’t Miss the New WAX MUSEUM—See Alan Shepard, Sgt. York real-as-life
See GHOST TOWN, MAGGIE VALLEY, N.C.—Real Life Gun Battles!
FABULOUS FAIRYLAND—Exciting Fun Rides for All Ages
MYSTERY HILL—Amazing Force of Gravity
GHOST TOWN IN THE SKY—Realistic Indian Battles
HILLBILLY VILLAGE—Copter Rides, Flea Market, Souvenirs
CAR MUSEUM & KAMP GROUND
JUNGLE CARGO—Indian Moccasins, Ice Cold Cider, Thick Rich Malts
CHRISTUS GARDENS—Outstanding All-Year All-Weather Attraction
GATLINBURG SKY LIFT—Your Shortcut to Heavenly Delight
Oh well, it’s only innocent fun. Like any fungus. No harm in it. We proceed past the motels, filling stations, and Frigid Queen shake-and-burger joints—about ten miles of them—to the bright clean tourist town called Gatlinburg. The Gateway to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Here we make camp for the night in a pleasant motel room with a wood fire burning in a genuine fireplace. (Small extra charge for use of firewood, says a sneaky notice inside the door.)
Tomorrow we shall conquer Clingman’s Dome. By Volkswagen. In the meantime we make a walking tour of Gatlinburg, a town as tidy, efficient, quiet and sanitary as a Swiss ski village.
What’s the alternative to this comfortable mediocrity? A grand European-style luxury hotel that most of us would not be able to afford? Or a return to the mode of a century ago, coming into a mountain village on horseback, having a cold supper by lamplight in the cabin-kitchen of some morose mountaineer while savage coon dogs howl and slaver on the other side of the door, then going to sleep in the early dark on a cornshuck mattress, prey to a host of bloodsucking vermin?
Which would I prefer?
You won’t believe me but I’ll tell you: I fancy the latter, i.e., the horse, cabin, dogs and bugs.
Thus we see the secret failure of American commerce. For all of its obvious successes and benefits, capitalism has failed to capture our hearts. Our souls, yes, but not our hearts. There is something ugly and mean about it which most of us can never accept.
So much for political economy. Walking at night through the quiet streets of Gatlinburg—where have all the tourists gone?—I look up, above the motel-hotel rooftops, and see the dark forms of the mountains bulking beyond, snow gleaming in the starlight.
Real mountains.A WALK IN THE WOODS TO ALUM CAVE
An inch of virgin snow covers the ground—I am the first to walk this trail today. I cross the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River on a wooden footbridge, pausing in the middle to admire the view upstream. It looks like a picture invented by Eliot Porter: granite-like boulders lodged in the torrent, sheathed in ribbed, rippled layers of ice; spillways and plunge pools, the roil and rush and roar of the complicated waters; giant hemlocks leaning over the stream, fresh snow clinging to their bark; the stones and pebbles of the creekbed gleaming through the clarity of the water; and over all, illuminating the scene and blending with its shadows, the soft gray light of the mountain air.
Across the bridge, I sign my name in the registration book at the trailhead. I’m not only the first tourist today, I’m the first to come this way in a week. Winter time does have advantages. But on the wooden box that shelters the registration book somebody has inscribed Nazi swastikas. The good old boys were here too.
Walking up the snowy trail under snowladen trees, I feel an immense goodwill, despite the swastikas, toward my fellowman. Perhaps because I’m alone. Anthropy, not misanthropy, is what I feel today, and that’s unusual for me. I feel a special benevolence toward the national park system and the Federal agency that administers that system. As a one-time employee of the Park Service, I was always impressed by the high esteem which the general public seems to hold for Park Service rangers and naturalists. Impressed and a little puzzled. Most of us most of the time feel toward the uniformed functionaries of the state, especially police and quasi-police like rangers, no more at best than a grudging tolerance, as of a necessary evil. Why should the Park Service enjoy a special privilege in this regard?
Now, today, it seems to me that I have hit upon the answer. Maintaining the national park system is almost the only nice, decent, friendly thing the Federal Government does for ordinary people. Nearly all of its other activities, carried on at our expense, are for the benefit of the rich and powerful, or for thesake of secret, furtive, imperial causes that can inspire feelings only of shame and dread.
But the national parks belong to everyone. To the people. To all of us. The government keeps saying so and maybe, in this one case at least, the government is telling the truth.
A dead tree has fallen across the creek, forming a natural bridge. In the soft fresh snow on this bridge I see the footprints—like tiny handprints—of a raccoon going halfway across, turning, coming back. Apparently he lost his nerve midway over the icy current. Or maybe he only changed his mind.
A giant birch looms beside the trail, encrusted with cankers; one of the cankers resembles a tragic mask, scowling horribly. Dead trees stand here and there with stacks of saprophytic fungi, big clamlike shapes, tough and rubbery, clinging to their trunks. Elaborate filigree of ice and crystal decorates the water’s edge. The rocks are coated with lichens, moss, frozen slime. I see the tracks of a small animal that has dragged something—its own tail?—across the snow into the brush.
High on the mountainside now, above most of the birch and hemlock, I come to what the mountaineers called a “laurel slick” and the botanists call a “heath bald.” Hard to see why one term is more useful than the other. It is a treeless area on an exposed shoulder of the mountain covered with a dense growth of shrubbery, head high, mostly members of the heath family—mountain laurel, rhododendron, sand myrtle, blueberry. The complete absence of trees in such places as this in the otherwise well-forested Smokies has not been satisfactorily explained. Perhaps eventually the trees will work their way back and resume their climactic place in the natural order here.
Trails like tunnels burrow through the thicket. A man could hardly crawl through there on hands and knees. Far below in the foggy valley crows are yawping. Good hiding place up here, I’m thinking. The thought recalls another old mountain song:
I’m gonna build me a cabinUp on the mountain so highThat the blackbird can’t find me,Nor hear my sad cry …
The sun is a pale white disc behind the flowing clouds, like a holy wafer in the sky. I’ll be fogbound pretty soon if I don’t get myself down off this smoky mountain. But first—Onward. Upward.
To Alum Cave, which is not a cave but a great overhanging bluff a hundred feet high. The inside is coated with a film of minerals, including alum. The brow of this bluff is festooned with curtains, chandeliers, draperies, fangs and tiers of gigantic icicles, massive sabers of ice ten to twenty feet long. If one of those were to drop on a man it would cleave him from head to toe. I retreat beneath the shelter of the overhang and look out over the valleys, into the clouds, feeling as if I were inside the gaping mouth of Leviathan, peering outward past his teeth.
How strange and wonderful is our home, our earth, with its swirling vaporous atmosphere, its flowing and frozen liquids, its trembling plants, its creeping, crawling, climbing creatures, the croaking things with wings that hang on rocks and soar through fog, the furry grass, the scaly seas. To see our world as a space traveler might see it for the first time, through Venusian eyes or Martian antennae, how utterly rich and wild it would seem, how far beyond the power of the craziest, spaced-out, acid-headed imagination, even a god’s, to conjure up from nothing.
Yet some among us have the nerve, the insolence, the brass, the gall to whine about the limitations of our earthbound fate and yearn for some more perfect world beyond the sky. We are none of us good enough for the world we have and yet we dream of Heaven.
Bitter as alum. Lonely laughter in the mountains. I’m close to a mile high, up among the balsam and the spruce, evening and fog are creeping close. I watch the tip of a slowly dripping icicle near my nose. Slower and slower the water oozes down. Whenthat last drop freezes on the point it will form a little bulb, like the button on a fencing foil. Ice daggers, glassy swords and crystal knives crash around me. Time to get out of here.
Out yonder in the purling mist a lank and long-connected bird, dark as a shadow, comes drifting toward me, scarcely moving its black wings.
Time to go.THE LONG WAY HOME
We check out of the Bearskin Motel. Churlishly I refuse to pay the extra charge for use of firewood, explaining that I think it immoral and unethical for a hotel, even a motel, to advertise as this one does—”YUP, REAL FIREPLACES”—and then penalize the unwary lodger for not bringing his own firewood. The clerk, an insouciant Southerner, smiles graciously and accepts my refusal.
My wife salvages our laundry from the Snow White & Seven Dwarfs Washateria (free Baptist literature on the walls) and we are off, once more up the mountain to Newfound Gap and down the other side into North Carolina and the town of Cherokee, Cherokee Capital of the World.
Here we find more charming and picturesque absurdities: The Wigwam Motel, with wigwams made of reinforced concrete (try dragging one of those down the Platte, Mrs. Crazy Horse); a green stegosaurus made of chicken wire and plaster leering at the passing motorist from the doorway of a curio shop where authentic Indian spears, made in Hong Kong, are offered for sale; The Mystery House, Closed for the Season; Frontierland—20 Rides and Shows, One Price; Deadwood Gulch; Fort Cherokee; Redskin Motel—50 Ultra-Modern Units; Honest Injun Trading Post (behind a gateway of totem poles); and the Twin Tepee Craft Shop.
Accelerating, we come next to the town of Sylva where I had lived for one brief term, long ago, while teaching English (I think) at the nearby University of Western Carolina.
Sylva must once have been a lovely place. Small, with a population of 5,000, nestled in the green hills below the Smokies, full of beautiful old houses, bisected by the waters of the Tuckasegee River, enjoying the life of a market center and the dignity of county seat, Sylva may have been beautiful. Now it is something else, for the streets are grimy and noisy, jammed with traffic, the river is a sewer, and the sky a pall of smog. The obvious villain in the picture is the local Mead’s Paper Mill, busily pumping its foul garbage into the air and into the river, but general traffic and recent growth must bear the rest of the blame.
When I commented to one of the town’s leading citizens, a fine old Southern gentleman, about the perpetual stink in the air, he replied, “Why, sir, that there smells lahk money to me.” Smug and smiling all the way to the bank, where—I hope—he drops dead on the doorstep. Pascal said somewhere that in order to grasp the concept of the infinite we need only consider human stupidity.
I don’t know. One suffers from hope. Maybe we can learn something from what we have done to this land. Probably not. And in any case is it any better elsewhere? Is it not far worse? No matter in what nation I lived I am certain I would find much to regret. All big social organizations are ugly, brutal, inhuman—prone to criminal acts which no man or community of men, on their own, would even think of. But just the same I despise my own nation most. Because I know it best. Because I love it, suffering from hope.
Enough of these gloomy thoughts. It’s time to begin the journey home.
And where might that be? Where is home? That old gray gaunt Gothic farmhouse along a red-dog road in the hills of northern Appalachia? No more; never again. Where then?
A Russian writer named Prishvin said, “Home is where you have found your happiness.” I think I know where that may be,at least for myself. Til reveal this much: it has something to do with those mountains, those forests, those wild, free, lost, full-of-wonder places that rise yet (may they always!) above the squalor of the towns.
Appalachia, we’ll be back.FROMBlack Sun(1971)
Driving beyond the little beach, which he remembers well, too well, and past the big willow tree where even now he can find, if he wants to search, the blackened stones of a fireplace, he continues for another mile to the end of the road. Where things have changed. There is a ranger station here now, and a commercial marina with store, docks, a launching ramp and boats for rent.
Gatlin chooses a small boat of the type called whaler, double-hulled fiberglass, with a powerful eighty-horsepower outboard engine. Alone, he races up the river at full throttle, through the afternoon, over a waterway that gleams under the sun like polished brass, golden and dazzling, under the red cliffs of the canyon. The wake of his boat flashes in the light, spreading from wall to wall, splashing against the rocky shore and against the white sand of lonely beaches overgrown with young willows and tamarisk. Against the wind blowing in his face, above the roar of the motor, he sings.
Rejoice, Columbia’s sons, rejoice,To tyrants never bend the knee,But join with heart and mind and voiceFor Jefferson! And Liberty!
In the middle of the channel he twists the boat to the left and works his way around a sandbar into a cove he knows and likes; shutting off the motor, he ties the bow line to a tree growing out over the bank, baits a hook with salmon eggs. The fish are biting; he catches several catfish and a couple of rainbow trout but alltoo small. Planted fish, hatchery fish. He throws them back into the water.
The heat becomes oppressive. He strips and dives over the side, swims around the boat twice and then to the beach, where he walks up and down for a while, naked and alone. Birds flit darkly through the willow thickets, chattering. A hawk sails overhead in the strip of blue between the cliffs. He lies in the shade, on the warm sand, unable to sleep, dreaming awake.
Late in the afternoon he swims back to the boat, climbs aboard, casts loose and lets it drift with the current down the river. Half in shade, half in sun, he sprawls on the seat and watches through half-closed eyes the slow ponderous movement of the canyon rim a thousand feet above turning against the sky. Carved in that monumental rock he sees alcoves and arches, pillars and buttresses, and on the skyline the profiles of blind, silent, implacable gods, bird gods in stone with the mask of hawks.
A beaver swims by, headed upstream, passing within six feet of the boat. Gatlin watches it go. On shore he sees another, standing, balanced like a tripod on its hind legs and tail, preening its sleek head with the two dexterous forepaws.
The sound of human voices. He is floating past the marina, out of the upper canyon and through an opening in the cliffs toward the lower canyon. Toward the great canyon. Already he can hear, from a mile ahead, the first dull murmur of the rapids. A shout of warning from onshore.
Gatlin starts the engine and turns upriver toward the docks. Hesitates, changes his mind and turns the boat around again. He switches the fuel line from the near-empty tank to the full one, puts on a lifejacket and stands up behind the wheel in order to see more easily what lies directly ahead. Slowing the motor to idling speed, he bears for the smooth shining tongue of the first rapids.
A wave curls before him. He passes around the first rock, a pale slab of limestone dim beneath the green water, and into the rapids. The boat yaws and pitches, shipping water by the bucketful, between two rocks and into a trough in the waves. Heguns the motor as a rolling wave crashes into the boat, setting everything loose afloat. His shoes and socks, his rod and tackle box and water jug float around his ankles. Beyond the rapids, in quiet water again, he unscrews the drain plug in the stern and lets the motor pump the boat dry.
Cruising on down the river, between gravel bars and submerged boulders, crashing through more minor rapids like the first, he enters deeper and deeper into the gorge, into deep shadow under a sky charged with evening sunlight, toward the beginning of the wilderness.
Around a bend. Not far ahead he can now see what looks like the end of the river. The water seems to come to a sudden fall or dropping-off place beyond which the river cannot be seen. Along this edge hovers a mist of spray, pale against the darkness beyond, and into the mist, at irregular intervals, writhing waves leap from below.
Down there. Gatlin stares into the chaos before him. Down there, he thinks. Where? How far? Somewhere, down in there, a hundred miles below.
He beaches the boat and walks along the shore toward the rapids, clambering over a delta of boulders washed down from a side canyon. On one of these, surrounded by swirling water, he sits and contemplates the heart of the tumbling river. Fangs of rock split the current as it drops from ledge to ledge, descending twenty feet in a distance shorter than a football field. There are waves in there twelve feet high, holes and explosions in the water, a whirlpool of foam and fury. He might if extremely lucky get the boat down through here; he could never get it back again.
Gatlin is tempted. Why not, he thinks. Go on. Into it. Keep going. All the way into the underworld. Somewhere down in there she may still be alive, waiting for you, hoping for you, dreaming of you as you dream of her. Living on what? On watercress and mesquite beans and the bloom of the sacred datura. On hope and memory.
No. There is no remedy. The river sings, a mad chaotic babble of many voices …
Through the twilight he walks slowly back to the boat, deafened by the dull deep roar of the rapids. He almost blunders into a rattlesnake. Stopping suddenly, he is seized for a moment by the primeval fear.
The snake is a diamondback, six feet long and thick as his forearm; agitated, hostile, it lies coiled in the middle of the path, the heavy spade-shaped head aloft and weaving from side to side, ready to strike. The tail vibrates in nervous frenzy, inaudible, however, against the uproar of the river.
Gatlin backs off a step. He crouches low and peers directly into the eyes of the snake. He places his hand on a loose stone.
“Cousin,” he cries, “what have you done with her?”
The bleak and dusty eyes stare back at him, the thin black tongue slips in and out as the snake attempts to sense the nature of this unknown danger.
“What have you done with her?” Gatlin cries again. He lifts the stone, advances a step.
On guard, ready to lunge, the big rattlesnake retreats slowly toward the side of the path, toward the shelter of the cactus and tumbled rocks.
Gatlin drops the stone, lifts empty hands palm upward toward the snake.
“Where is she?” he begs. “Where is she?” …FROMThe MonkeyWrench Gang(1975)SELDOM SEEN AT HOME
Green River, Utah. Susan’s house. The watermelon ranch. An easy day’s drive from Sheila’s place at Bountiful, which was in turn an easy day’s drive from Kathy’s house near Cedar City. He’d planned it all that way, of course, from the beginning. Seldom Seen Smith hearkened to the prophet Brigham: he was polygamous as a rabbit.
Three o’clock in the morning and the bedroom was full of dreams. Oh pearl of great price! Through the open windows floated the smell of ripening watermelons, the sweet odor of cut alfalfa. (Second cutting of the summer.) Also the smells, poignant and irrevocable, of apple trees, horseshit, and wild asparagus along the irrigation ditches. From the embankment only one field away came the sound of whispering willow, the flat whack! of a beaver’s tail slapping the river water.
That river. That river, that golden Green, flowing down from the snows of the Wind River Range, through Flaming Gorge and Echo Park, Split Mountain and The Gates of Lodore, down from the hills of Ow-Wi-Yu-Kuts, from the Yampa, Bitter Creek and Sweetwater, down the canyon called Desolation through the Tavaputs Plateau to emerge from the portal of the Book Cliffs—which John Wesley Powell thought “one of the most wonderful facades in the world”—and there to roll across the Green River Desert into a second world of canyons, where the river gives itself to Labyrinth and Stillwater and the confluence with the Grand, under the rim of The Maze and into the roaring depths of Cataract…
Smith lay in his bed beside his third wife and dreamed his troublesome dream. They were after him again. His truck had been identified. His rocks had rolled too far. The Search and Rescue Team was howling mad. A warrant for his arrest had been issued in San Juan County. The Bishop of Blanding raged like a strictured bull over half of Utah. Smith fled down endless corridors of sweating concrete. Under the Dam. Trapped again in the recurring nightmare of That Dam.
Down in the dank bowels of Reclamation. Engineers on skateboards glided past, clipboards in hand. Pneumatic panels opened before him, closed behind him, drawing Smith deeper and deeper into the dynamo heart of The Enemy. Magnetic webs pulled him toward the Inner Office. Where the Director waited, waiting for him. Like Doc and Bonnie and George, also locked up somewhere in here, Smith knew he was going to be punished.
The final door opened. Smith was dragged inside. The door slid shut and sealed itself. He stood again before the ultimate eye. In The Presence.
The Director peered at Smith from the center of an array of metric dials, scintilometers, temblor screens, Visographs and sensorscopes. Tape reels spun, their circuits humming, before the quiet buzz of electronic thought at work.
The Director was monocular. The red beam of its unlidded Cyclops eye played on the face of Seldom Seen, scanning his brain, his nerves, his soul. Paralyzed by that hypnotic ray, Smith waited helpless as a babe.
The Director spoke. Its voice resembled the whine of an electronic violin, pitched in highest register to C-sharp, that same internal note which drove the deaf Smetana insane.“Smith.”the voice began,“we know why you are here.”
Smith gulped. “Where’s George?” he croaked. “What you done to Bonnie?”
“Never mind that.”The red beam glanced aside for a moment, shifty-gimbaled in its hooded carapace. The tape reels stopped, reversed, stopped, rolled forward again, recording all. Codedmessages flickered in sleek electric flow, transistor-relayed through ten thousand miles of printed circuitry. Beneath the superstructure the dynamo purred on, murmuring the basic message: Power … profit … prestige … pleasure … profit … prestige … pleasure … power …
“Seldom Seen Smith,”the Director said, its voice now tuned to a human intonation (modeled it would seem on the voice of an aging teenybopper balladeer whose scraggly-bearded unisex face has appeared on the cover ofRolling Stoneseventeen times since 1964),“where are your pants?”
Pants? Smith looked down. Good Gawd Almighty!
The scanning beam returned to Smith’s face.“Come closer, fellow,”the voice commanded.
“Come closer, Joseph Fielding Smith, known informally as ‘Seldom Seen,’ born Salt Lake City, Utah, Shithead Capital of the Inter-Mountain West, for behold art thou not he who was foretold in 1 Nephi 2:1–4, The Book of Mormon, wherein it is written, ‘The Lord commanded him, even in a dream, that he should take his family and depart into the wilderness’? With ample provision, such as organic peanut butter, and with his family known as one Doc Sarvis, one George W. Hayduke, and one Miz B. Abbzug?”
Some tongue from a higher world answered for Smith, in words he knew not: “Datsa me, Boss.”
“Good. But unfortunately for you, fellow, the prophecy cannot be fulfilled. We cannot allow it. We have decreed, Smith, that thou shalt become as one of us.”
Four green bulbs winked in the Director’s frontal lobes. The voice changed again, becoming clipped and cryptic, clearly Oxonian.“Seize him.”
Smith found himself pinioned instantly by rigid, though invisible, bonds. “Hey—?” He struggled feebly.
“Good. Affix the electrodes. Insert the anode into his penis. Quite so. The cathode goes up the rectum. Half a meter. Yes, all the way. Don’t be squeamish.” The Director issued his orders to invisibleassistants, who bustled about Smith’s paralyzed body.“Good. Imprint the flip-flop circuits on his semi-circular canal. Below the ear drum. Right. Five thousand volts should be sufficient. Attach sensor wires by strontium suction cup to his coccyx. Firmly. Plug the high-voltage adapter into the frontal sockets of his receptor node. The head, idiots, the head! Yes—right up the nostrils. Be firm. Push hard. Quite so. Very good. Now close circuit breakers. Quickly. Thank you.”
Horrified, Smith tried to speak, to protest, But his tongue, like his limbs, seemed gripped in an absolute and infantile paralysis. He gaped in terror at the cables now joining his head and body to the computer bank before him.
“Well now, Smith,”the Director said,“—or should we call you (heh heh) Seldom Scanned?—are you ready for your program? What’s that? Now now, buck up. That’s a good lad. You have nothing to fear if you can pass this simple test we have prepared for you. Nothing to fear but fear itself, so to speak. Call the taper, please. Good. Insert the magnetic tape. No tape slot? Then make one. Between the anode and cathode attachments, of course. Right up through the old perineum. Precisely. Never mind the blood, we’ll have George clean that up later. Ready? Insert the tape. All the way. Hold his other foot down. What? Then nail it down! Good. Quite so.”
The Director’s single eye beamed into Smith’s pineal gland.“Now Smith, your instructions. We want you to expand the simple exponential function y = exinto an infinite series. Proceed as follows: Bn: transfer contents of storage location n to working register; Tn: transfer contents of working register to location n; +n: add contents of location n to contents of working register; xn: multiply contents of working register by contents of location n; ÷ n: divide contents of working register by contents of location n; V: make sign of contents of working register positive; Pn: transfer address n to accumulator if contents of working register are positive; Rn: transfer address in location n to accumulator; Z: stop program. Is that clear, Smith?”
Numb as novocaine, Seldom could not speak.
“Good. Get ready. You have 0.000012 milliseconds in which to perform this basic operation. If you fail we will have no choice but totransplant your vital organs into more adapable specimens and to recycle your residue through the thermite crucibles. Are you ready? Good lad. Have fun now. Set the timer, please. On your toes, Smith. Count down from five. Here we go. Five! Four! Three! Two! One! Zero! THROW THE GODDAMNED SWITCH!”
“Aaaaaaaaaaaaaah …” Smith rose in his bed, filmed with cold sweat, turned and clutched at his wife like a drowning man. “Sheila,” he groaned, struggling toward the surface of consciousness, “great almighty Gawd—!”
“Seldom!” She was awake at once. “Wake up, Seldom!”
“Sheila, Sheila …”
“There’s nobody here named Sheila. Wake up.”
“Oh Lord …” He fumbled at her in the dark, feeling a warm hip, a soft belly. “Kathy?”
“You were at Kathy’s last night. You have one more guess and it better be right.”
He groped higher and fondled her breasts. The right one. The left one. Two of them. “Susan?”
Vision adapting to the starlit darkness, he found her smiling at him, reaching for him with both arms from the warmth of their lawful conjugal bed. Her smile, like her sweet eyes, like her bountiful bosom, was rich with love. He sighed in relief. “Susan …”
“Seldom, you are a caution. You are something else. I never.”
And she consoled, caressed and loved him, her trembling, stricken man.
While outside in the fields of desert summer the melons ripened at their leisure in the nest of their vines, and a restless rooster, perched on the roof of the hencoop, fired his premature ejaculation at the waning moon, and in the pasture the horses lifted noble Roman heads to stare in the night at something humans cannot see.
Far away in Utah on the farm, by the side of a golden river called the Green.FROMThe Journey Home(1977)The Great American Desert
In my case it was love at first sight. This desert, all deserts, any desert. No matter where my head and feet may go, my heart and my entrails stay behind, here on the clean, true, comfortable rock, under the black sun of God’s forsaken country. When I take on my next incarnation, my bones will remain bleaching nicely in a stone gulch under the rim of some faraway plateau, way out there in the back of beyond. An unrequited and excessive love, inhuman no doubt but painful anyhow, especially when I see my desert under attack. “The one death I cannot bear,” said the Sonoran-Arizonan poet Richard Shelton. The kind of love that makes a man selfish, possessive, irritable. If you’re thinking of a visit, my natural reaction is like a rattlesnake’s—to warn you off. What I want to say goes something like this.
Survival Hint #1: Stay out of there. Don’t go. Stay home and read a good book, this one for example. The Great American Desert is an awful place. People get hurt, get sick, get lost out there. Even if you survive, which is not certain, you will have a miserable time. The desert is for movies and God-intoxicated mystics, not for family recreation.
Let me enumerate the hazards. First the Walapai tiger, also known as conenose kissing bug.Triatoma protractais a true bug, black as sin, and it flies through the night quiet as an assassin. It does not attack directly like a mosquito or deerfly but alights at a discreet distance, undetected, and creeps upon you, its hairy little feet making not the slightest noise. The kissing bug is fondof warmth and like Dracula requires mammalian blood for sustenance. When it reaches you the bug crawls onto your skin so gently, so softly that unless your senses are hyperacute you feel nothing. Selecting a tender point, the bug slips its conical proboscis into your flesh, injecting a poisonous anesthetic. If you are asleep you will feel nothing. If you happen to be awake you may notice the faintest of pinpricks, hardly more than a brief ticklish sensation, which you will probably disregard. But the bug is already at work. Having numbed the nerves near the point of entry the bug proceeds (with a sigh of satisfaction) to withdraw blood. When its belly is filled, it pulls out, backs off, and waddles away, so drunk and gorged it cannot fly.
At about this time the victim awakes, scratching at a furious itch. If you recognize the symptoms at once, you can sometimes find the bug in your vicinity and destroy it. But revenge will be your only satisfaction. Your night is ruined. If you are of average sensitivity to a kissing bug’s poison your entire body breaks out in hives, skin aflame from head to toe. Some people become seriously ill, in many cases requiring hospitalization. Others recover fully after five or six hours except for a hard and itchy swelling which may endure for a week.
After the kissing bug, you should beware of rattlesnakes; we have half a dozen species, all offensive and dangerous, plus centipedes, millipedes, tarantulas, black widows, brown recluses, Gila monsters, the deadly poisonous coral snakes, and giant hairy desert scorpions. Plus an immense variety and near-infinite number of ants, ticks, midges, gnats, bloodsucking flies, and blood-guzzling mosquitoes. (You might think the desert would be spared at least mosquitoes? Not so. Peer in any water hole by day: swarming with mosquito larvae. Venture out on a summer’s eve: The air vibrates with their mournful keening.) Finally, where the desert meets the sea, as on the coasts of Sonora and Baja California, we have the usual assortment of obnoxious marine life: sandflies, ghost crabs, stingrays, electric jellyfish, spiny sea urchins, maneating sharks, and other creatures so distasteful one prefers not even to name them.
It has been said, and truly, that everything in the desert either stings, stabs, stinks, or sticks. You will find the flora here as venomous, hooked, barbed, thorny, prickly, needled, saw-toothed, hairy, stickered, mean, bitter, sharp, wiry, and fierce as the animals. Something about the desert inclines all living things to harshness and acerbity. The soft evolve out. Except for sleek and oily growths like the poison ivy—oh yes, indeed—that flourish in sinister profusion on the dank walls above the quicksand down in those corridors of gloom and labyrinthine monotony that men call canyons.
We come now to the third major hazard, which is sunshine. Too much of a good thing can be fatal. Sunstroke, heatstroke, and dehydration are common misfortunes in the bright American Southwest. If you can avoid the insects, reptiles, and arachnids, the cactus and the ivy, the smog of the southwestern cities and the lung fungus of the desert valleys (carried by dust in the air), you cannot escape the desert sun. Too much exposure to it eventually causes, quite literally, not merely sunburn but skin cancer.
Much sun, little rain also means an arid climate. Compared with the high humidity of more hospitable regions, the dry heat of the desert seems at first not terribly uncomfortable—sometimes even pleasant. But that sensation of comfort is false, a deception, and therefore all the more dangerous, for it induces overexertion and an insufficient consumption of water, even when water is available. This leads to various internal complications, some immediate—sunstroke, for example—and some not apparent until much later. Mild but prolonged dehydration, continued over a span of months or years, leads to the crystallization of mineral solutions in the urinary tract, that is, to what urologists call urinary calculi or kidney stones. A disability common in all the world’s arid regions. Kidney stones, in case you haven’t met one, come in many shapes and sizes, from pellets smooth as BB shot to highly irregular calcifications resembling asteroids, Vietcong shrapnel, and crown-of-thorns starfish. Some of these objects may be “passed” naturally; others can beremoved only by means of the Davis stone basket or by surgery. Me—I was lucky; I passed mine with only a groan, my forehead pressed against the wall of a pissoir in the rear of a Tucson bar that I cannot recommend.
You may be getting the impression by now that the desert is not the most suitable of environments for human habitation. Correct. Of all the Earth’s climatic zones, excepting only the Antarctic, the deserts are the least inhabited, the least “developed,” for reasons that should now be clear.
You may wish to ask, Yes, okay, but among North American deserts which is theworst?A good question—and I am happy to attempt an answer.
Geographers generally divide the North American desert—what was once termed “the Great American Desert”—into four distinct regions or subdeserts. These are the Sonoran Desert, which comprises southern Arizona, Baja California, and the state of Sonora in Mexico; the Chihuahuan Desert, which includes west Texas, southern New Mexico, and the states of Chihuahua and Coahuila in Mexico; the Mojave Desert, which includes southeastern California and small portions of Nevada, Utah, and Arizona; and the Great Basin Desert, which includes most of Utah and Nevada, northern Arizona, northwestern New Mexico, and much of Idaho and eastern Oregon.
Privately, I prefer my own categories. Up north in Utah somewhere is the canyon country—places like Zeke’s Hole, Death Hollow, Pucker Pass, Buckskin Gulch, Nausea Crick, Wolf Hole, Mollie’s Nipple, Dirty Devil River, Horse Canyon, Horseshoe Canyon, Lost Horse Canyon, Horsethief Canyon, and Horseshit Canyon, to name only the more classic places. Down in Arizona and Sonora there’s the cactus country; if you have nothing better to do, you might take a look at High Tanks, Salome Creek, Tortilla Flat, Esperero (“Hoper”) Canyon, Holy Joe Peak, Depression Canyon, Painted Cave, Hell Hole Canyon, Hell’s Half Acre, Iceberg Canyon, Tiburon (Shark) Island, Pinacate Peak, Infernal Valley, Sykes Crater, Montezuma’s Head, Gu Oidak, Kuakatch, Pisinimo, and Baboquivari Mountain, for example.
Then there’s The Canyon.TheCanyon. The Grand. That’s one world. And North Rim—that’s another. And Death Valley, still another, where I lived one winter near Furnace Creek and climbed the Funeral Mountains, tasted Badwater, looked into the Devil’s Hole, hollered up Echo Canyon, searched for and never did find Seldom Seen Slim. Looked forsatorinear Vana, Nevada, and found a ghost town named Bonnie Claire. Never made it to Winnemucca. Drove through the Smoke Creek Desert and down through Big Pine and Lone Pine and home across the Panamints to Death Valley again—home sweet home that winter.
And which of these deserts is the worst? I find it hard to judge. They’re all bad—not half bad but all bad. In the Sonoran Desert, Phoenix will get you if the sun, snakes, bugs, and arthropods don’t. In the Mojave Desert it’s Las Vegas, more sickening by far than the Glauber’s salt in the Death Valley sinkholes. Go to Chihuahua and you’re liable to get busted in El Paso and sandbagged in Ciudad Juárez—where all old whores go to die. Up north in the Great Basin Desert, on the Plateau Province, in the canyon country, your heart will break, seeing the strip mines open up and the power plants rise where only cowboys and Indians and J. Wesley Powell ever roamed before.
Nevertheless, all is not lost; much remains, and I welcome the prospect of an army of lug-soled hiker’s boots on the desert trails. To save what wilderness is left in the American Southwest—and in the American Southwest only the wilderness is worth saving—we are going to need all the recruits we can get. All the hands, heads, bodies, time, money, effort we can find. Presumably—and the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, the Friends of the Earth, the Audubon Society, the Defenders of Wildlife operate on this theory—those who learn to love what is spare, rough, wild, undeveloped, and unbroken will be willing to fight for it, will help resist the strip miners, highway builders, land developers, weapons testers, power producers, tree chainers, clear cutters, oil drillers, dam beavers, subdividers—the list goes on and on—before that zinc-hearted, termite-brained,squint-eyed, near-sighted, greedy crew succeeds in completely californicating what still survives of the Great American Desert.
So much for the Good Cause. Now what about desert hiking itself, you may ask. I’m glad you asked that question. I firmly believe that one should never—I repeatnever—go out into that formidable wasteland of cactus, heat, serpents, rock, scrub, and thorn without careful planning, thorough and cautious preparation, and complete—never mind the expense!—completeequipment. My motto is: Be Prepared.
That is my belief and that is my motto. My practice, however, is a little different. I tend to go off in a more or less random direction myself, half-baked, half-assed, half-cocked, and half-ripped. Why? Well, because I have an indolent and melancholy nature and don’t care to be bothered getting all thosethingstogether—all that bloodygear—maps, compass, binoculars, poncho, pup tent, shoes, first-aid kit, rope, flashlight, inspirational poetry, water, food—and because anyhow I approach nature with a certain surly ill-will, daring Her to make trouble. Later when I’m deep into Natural Bridges Natural Moneymint or Zion National Parkinglot or say General Shithead National Forest Land of Many Abuses why then, of course, when it’s a bit late, then I may wish I had packed that something extra: matches perhaps, to mention one useful item, or maybe a spoon to eat my gruel with.
If I hike with another person it’s usually the same; most of my friends have indolent and melancholy natures too. A cursed lot, all of them. I think of my comrade John De Puy, for example, sloping along for mile after mile like a goddamned camel—indefatigable—with those J. C. Penny hightops on his feet and that plastic pack on his back he got with five books of Green Stamps and nothing inside it but a sketchbook, some homemade jerky and a few cans of green chiles. Or Douglas Peacock, ex-Green Beret, just the opposite. Built like a buffalo, he hefts a ninety-pound canvas pannier on his back at trailhead, loaded with guns, ammunition, bayonet, pitons and carabiners, cameras, field books, a 150-foot rope, geologist’s sledge, rocksamples, assay kit, field glasses, two gallons of water in steel canteens, jungle boots, a case of C-rations, rope hammock, pharmaceuticals in a pig-iron box, raincoat, overcoat, two-man mountain tent, Dutch oven, hibachi, shovel, ax, inflatable boat, and near the top of the load and distributed through side and back pockets, easily accessible, a case of beer. Not because he enjoys or needs all that weight—he may never get to the bottom of that cargo on a ten-day outing—but simply because Douglas uses his packbag for general storage both at home and on the trail and prefers not to have to rearrange everything from time to time merely for the purposes of a hike. Thus my friends De Puy and Peacock; you may wish to avoid such extremes.
A few tips on desert etiquette:
Carry a cooking stove, if you must cook. Do not burn desert wood, which is rare and beautiful and required ages for its creation (an ironwood tree lives for over 1,000 years and juniper almost as long).
If you must, out of need, build a fire, then for God’s sake allow it to burn itself out before you leave—do not bury it, as Boy Scouts and Campfire Girls do, under a heap of mud or sand. Scatter the ashes; replace any rocks you may have used in constructing a fireplace; do all you can to obliterate the evidence that you camped here. (The Search & Rescue Team may be looking for you.)
Do not bury garbage—the wildlife will only dig it up again. Burn what will burn and pack out the rest. The same goes for toilet paper: Don’t bury it,burn it.
Do not bathe in desert pools, natural tanks,tinajas, potholes. Drink what water you need, take what you need, and leave the rest for the next hiker and more important for the bees, birds, and animals—bighorn sheep, coyotes, lions, foxes, badgers, deer, wild pigs, wild horses—whoselivesdepend on that water.
Always remove and destroy survey stakes, flagging, advertising signboards, mining claim markers, animal traps, poisoned bait, seismic exploration geophones, and other such artifacts of industrialism. The men who put those things there are up to no good and it is our duty to confound them. Keep America Beautiful. Grow a Beard. Take a Bath. Burn a Billboard.
Anyway—why go into the desert? Really, why do it? That sun, roaring at you all day long. The fetid, tepid, vapid little water holes slowly evaporating under a scum of grease, full of cannibal beetles, spotted toads, horsehair worms, liver flukes, and down at the bottom, inevitably, the pale cadaver of a ten-inch centipede. Those pink rattlesnakes down in The Canyon, those diamondback monsters thick as a truck driver’s wrist that lurk in shady places along the trail, those unpleasant solpugids and unnecessary Jerusalem crickets that scurry on dirty claws across your face at night. Why? The rain that comes down like lead shot and wrecks the trail, those sudden rockfalls of obscure origin that crash like thunder ten feet behind you in the heart of a dead-still afternoon. The ubiquitous buzzard, so patient—but only so patient. The sullen and hostile Indians, all on welfare. The ragweed, the tumbleweed, the Jimson weed, the snakeweed. The scorpion in your shoe at dawn. The dreary wind that blows all spring, the psychedelic Joshua trees waving their arms at you on moonlight nights. Sand in the soup du jour. Halazone tablets in your canteen. The barren hills that always go up, which is bad, or down, which is worse. Those canyons like catacombs with quicksand lapping at your crotch. Hollow, mummified horses with forelegs casually crossed, dead for ten years, leaning against the corner of a barbed-wire fence. Pack-horses at night, iron-shod, clattering over the slickrock through your camp. The last tin of tuna, two flat tires, not enough water and a forty-mile trek to Tule Well. An osprey on a cardón cactus, snatching the head off a living fish—always the best part first. The hawk sailing by at 200 feet, a squirming snake in its talons. Salt in the drinking water. Salt, selenium, arsenic, radon and radium in the water, in the gravel, in your bones. Water so hard it bends light, drills holes in rock and chokes up your radiator. Why go there? Those places with the hardcase names: Starvation Creek, Poverty Knoll, Hungry Valley, Bitter Springs, Last Chance Canyon, Dungeon Canyon, Whipsaw Flat, Dead Horse Point, Scorpion Flat, Dead Man Draw, Stinking Spring, Camino del Diablo, Jornado del Muerto … Death Valley.
Well then, why indeed go walking into the desert, that grim ground, that bleak and lonesome land where, as Genghis Khan said of India, “the heat is bad and the water makes men sick”?
Why the desert, when you could be strolling along the golden beaches of California? Camping by a stream of pure Rocky Mountain spring water in colorful Colorado? Loafing through a laurel slick in the misty hills of North Carolina? Or getting your head mashed in the greasy alley behind the Elysium Bar and Grill in Hoboken, New Jersey? Why the desert, given a world of such splendor and variety?
A friend and I took a walk around the base of a mountain up beyond Coconino County, Arizona. This was a mountain we’d been planning to circumambulate for years. Finally we put on our walking shoes and did it. About halfway around this mountain, on the third or fourth day, we paused for a while—two days—by the side of a stream which the Indians call Nasja because of the amber color of the water. (Caused perhaps by juniper roots—the water seems safe enough to drink.) On our second day there I walked down the stream, alone, to look at the canyon beyond. I entered the canyon and followed it for half the afternoon, for three or four miles, maybe, until it became a gorge so deep, narrow and dark, full of water and the inevitable quagmires of quicksand, that I turned around and looked for a way out. A route other than the way I’d come, which was crooked and uncomfortable and buried—I wanted to see what was up on top of this world. I found a sort of chimney flue on the east wall, which looked plausible, and sweated and cursed my way up through that until I reached a point where I could walk upright, like a human being. Another 300 feet of scrambling brought me to the rim of the canyon. No one, I felt certain, had ever before departed Nasja Canyon by that route.
But someone had. Near the summit I found an arrow sign, three feet long, formed of stones and pointing off into the north toward those same old purple vistas, so grand, immense, and mysterious, of more canyons, more mesas and plateaus, more mountains, more cloud-dappled sunspangled leagues of desert sand and desert rock under the same old wide and aching sky.
The arrow pointed into the north. But what was it pointingat?I looked at the sign closely and saw that those dark, desert-varnished stones had been in place for a long, long, time; they rested in compacted dust. They must have been there for a century at least. I followed the direction indicated and came promptly to the rim of another canyon and a drop-off straight down of a good 500 feet. Not that way, surely. Across this canyon was nothing of any unusual interest that I could see—only the familiar sun-blasted sandstone, a few scrubby clumps of blackbrush and prickly pear, a few acres of nothing where only a lizard could graze, surrounded by a few square miles of more nothingness interesting chiefly to horned toads. I returned to the arrow and checked again, this time with field glasses, looking away for as far as my aided eyes could see toward the north, for ten, twenty, forty miles into the distance. I studied the scene with care, looking for an ancient Indian ruin, a significant cairn, perhaps an abandoned mine, a hidden treasure of some inconceivable wealth, the mother of all mother lodes….
But there was nothing out there. Nothing at all. Nothing but the desert. Nothing but the silent world.
That’s why.Death Valley
SUMMERTIME. From Daylight Pass at 4,317 feet we descend through Boundary Canyon and Hell’s Gate into the inferno at sea level and below. Below, below … beneath a sea, not of brine but of heat, of simmering shimmering waves of light and a wind as hot and fierce as a dragon’s breath.
The glare is stunning. Yet also exciting, even exhilarating—a world of light. The air seems not clear like glass but colored, a transparent, tinted medium, golden toward the sun, smoke-blue in the shadows. The colors come, it appears, not simply from the background, but are actually present in the air itself—a vigintillion microscopic particles of dust reflecting the sky, the sand, the iron hills.
On a day in June at ten o’clock in the morning the thermometer reads 114 degrees. Later in the day it will become hotter. But with humidity close to zero such heat is not immediately unpleasant or even uncomfortable. Like the dazzling air, the heat is at first somehow intoxicating—one feels that grace and euphoria that come with just the right ration of Old Grandad, with the perfect allowance of music. Sunlight is magic. Later will come…. Yes, out of the car and standing hatless under the sun, you begin to feel the menace in this arid atmosphere, the malignancy within that silent hurricane of fire.
We consider the dunes, the sea of sand. Around the edges of the dunes grow clumps of arrowweed tall as corn shocks, scattered creosote shrubs bleached out and still, a few shaggy mesquite trees. These plants can hardly be said to have conqueredthe valley, but they have in some way made a truce—or found a point of equilibrium in a ferocious, inaudible struggle between life and entropy. A bitter war indeed: The creosote bush secretes a poison in its roots that kills any other plant, even its own offspring, attempting to secure a place too near; in this way the individual creosote preserves a perimeter of open space and a monopoly of local moisture sufficient for survival.
We drive on to the gas station and store at Stovepipe Wells, where a few humans huddle inside beneath the blast of a cold-air blower. Like other mammals of the valley, the human inhabitants can endure its summer only by burrowing deep or by constructing an artificial environment—not adaptation but insulation, insularity.
Sipping cold drinks, we watch through the window a number of desert sparrows crawl in and out of the grills on the front of the parked automobiles. The birds are eating tourists—bugs and butterflies encountered elsewhere and smashed, baked, annealed to the car radiators. Like the bears of Yellowstone, the Indians of Arizona, and roadside businessmen everywhere, these birds have learned to make a good thing off passing trade. Certainly they provide a useful service; it’s a long hot climb out of here in any direction and a clean radiator is essential.
The Indians of Death Valley were cleverest of all. When summer came they left, went up into the mountains, and stayed there until it was reasonable to return—an idea too subtle in its simplicity for the white man of today to grasp. But we too are Indians—gypsies anyhow—and won’t be back until September.
FURNACE CREEK, SEPTEMBER17. Again the alarming descent. It seemed much too hot in the barren hills a mile above this awful sinkhole, this graben (for Death Valley is not, properly understood, a valley at all), this collapsed and superheated trench of mud, salt, gravel, and sand. Much too hot—but we felt obliged to come back once more.
A hard place to love, Death Valley. An ugly place, bitter as alkali and rough, harsh, unyielding as iron. Here they separatethe desert rats from the mice, the hard-rock prospectors from the mere rock hounds.
Cactus for example. There is none at all on the floor of the valley. Too dry or too brackish or maybe too hot. Only up on the alluvial fans and in the side canyons 1,000 feet above sea level do we find the first stunted and scrubby specimens of cholla and prickly pear and the pink-thorned cottontop—poor relation of the barrel cactus.
At first glance, speeding by car through this valley that is not a valley, one might think there was scarcely any plant life at all. Between oases you will be impressed chiefly by the vast salt beds and the immense alluvial fans of gravel that look as hostile to life as the fabled seas of the moon.
And yet there is life out there, life of a sparse but varied sort—salt grass and pickleweed on the flats, far-spaced clumps of creosote, saltbush, desert holly, brittlebush, and prickly poppy on the fans. Not much of anything, but a little of each. And in the area as a whole, including the surrounding mountains up to the 11,000-foot summit of Telescope Peak, the botanists count a total of 900 to 1,000 different species, ranging from microscopic forms of algae in the salt pools to limber pine and the ancient bristlecone pine on the peaks.
But the first impression remains a just one. Despite variety, most of the surface of Death Valley is dead. Dead, dead, deathly—a land of jagged salt pillars, crackling and tortured crusts of mud, sunburnt gravel bars the color of rust, rocks and boulders of metallic blue naked even of lichen. Death Valley is Gravel Gulch.
TELESCOPE PEAK, OCTOBER22. To escape the heat for a while, we spend the weekend up in the Panamints. (Summer still baking the world down below, far below, where swirls of mud, salt, and salt-laden streams lie motionless under a lake of heat, glowing in lovely and poisonous shades of auburn, saffron, crimson, sulfurous yellow, dust-tinged tones of white on white.)
Surely this is the most sterile of North American deserts. Nomatter how high we climb it seems impossible to leave behind the influence of aridity and anti-life. At 7,000 feet in this latitude we should be entering a forest of yellow pine, with grassy meadows and freshwater brooks. We are farther north than Santa Fe or Flagstaff. Instead there are only the endless barren hills, conventional in form, covered in little but shattered stone. A dull monotonous terrain, duncolored, supporting a few types of shrubs and small, scattered junipers.
From 7,000 to 9,000 feet we pass through a belt of more junipers and a fair growth of pinyon pines. Along the trail to Telescope Peak—at 10,000 feet—appear thin stands of limber pine and the short, massive, all-enduring bristlecone pine, more ancient than the Book of Genesis. Timberline.
There is no forest here. And fifty or sixty airline miles to the west stands the reason why—the Sierra Nevada Range blocking off the sea winds and almost all the moisture. We stand in the rain shadow of that still higher wall.
I walk past three wild burros. Descendants of lost and abandoned prospectors’ stock, they range everywhere in the Panamints, multiplying freely, endangering the survival of the native bighorn sheep by trespassing on the latter’s forage, befouling their springs. But the feral burros have their charm too. They stand about 100 feet from the trail watching me go by. They are quite unafraid, and merely blink their heavy eyelashes like movie starlets when I halt to stare at them. However they are certainly not tame. Advance toward them and they trot off briskly.
The bray of the donkey is well known. But these little beasts can make another sound even more startling because so unexpected. Hiking up some arid canyon in the Panamints, through what appears to be totally lifeless terrain, you suddenly hear a noise like a huge dry cough behind your shoulder. You spring ten feet forward before daring to look around. And see nothing, nothing at all, until you hear a second cough and scan the hillsides and discover far above a little gray or black burro looking down at you, waiting for you to get the hell out of its territory.
I stand by the cairn on the summit of Telescope Peak, looking out on a cold, windy, and barren world. Rugged peaks fall off southward into the haze of the Mojave Desert; on the west is Panamint Valley, the Argus Range, more mountains, more valleys, and finally the Sierras, crowned with snow; to the north and northwest the Inyo and White mountains; below lies Death Valley—the chemical desert—and east of it the Black Mountains, the Funeral Mountains, the Amargosa Valley and farther mountains, wave after wave of wrinkled ridges standing up from the oceanic desert sea until vision gives out somewhere beyond the curving rim of the world’s edge. A smudge hangs on the eastern horizon, suggesting the presence of Death Valley’s counterpart and complement, the only city within 100 miles: Las Vegas: Glitter Gulch West.
ECHO CANYON, NOVEMBER30. A hard place to love. Impossible? No, there were a few—the prospectors, the single-blanket, jackass prospectors who wandered these funeral wastes for a century dreaming of what? Sudden wealth? Not likely. Not Shorty Borden, for example, who invested eight months of his life in building by hand a nine-mile road to his lead and silver diggings in Hanaupah Canyon. Then discovered that even with a road it would still cost him more to transport his ore to the nearest smelter than the ore itself was worth.
Echo Canyon. We are deep into the intricacies of the Funeral Mountains. Named not simply for their proximity to Death Valley, but also for shape and coloration: lifeless escarpments of smoldering red bordered in charcoal, the crags and ridges and defiles edged in black and purple. A primeval chaos of faulted, uplifted, warped, and folded dolomites, limestones, fanglomerates of mud, sand, and gravel. Vulcanism as well: vesiculated andesite, walls embellished with elegant mosaics of rose and yellow quartz. Fool’s gold—pyrite—glittering in the black sand, micaceous shales glinting under back light, veins of pegmatite zigzagging and intersecting like an undeciphered script across the face of a cliff: the writing on the wall: “God Was Here.”Shallow caves, holes in the rock, a natural arch, and the canyon floor littered with boulders, deep in coarse gravel.
Nowhere in Echo Canyon can I find the slightest visible trace of water. Nevertheless it must be present under the surface, at least in intermittent or minute amounts, for here and there stand living things. They look dead but are actually dormant, waiting for the resurrection of the rain. I mean the saltbush, the desert fir, the bladderweed, a sprinkling of cottontop cactus, the isolated creosote bush. Waiting.
You may see a few lizards. In sandy places are the hoofprints of bighorn sheep, where they’ve passed through on their way from the high parts of the range to the springs near Furnace Creek. Sit quite still in one spot for an hour and you might see a small gray bird fly close to look you over. This is the bird that lives in Echo Canyon.
The echoes are good. At certain locations, on a still day, one clear shout will create a series of overlapping echoes that goes on and on toward so fine a diminuendo that the human ear cannot perceive the final vibrations.
Tramp far enough up Echo Canyon and you come to a ghost town, the ruins of a mining camp—one of many in Death Valley. Deep shafts, a tipple, a rolling mill largely intact, several cabins—one with its inside walls papered with pages from theLiterary Digest. Half buried in drifted sand is a rusted model-T Ford without roof or motor, a child’s tricycle, a broken shovel.
Returning through twilight, I descend the narrow gorge between flood-polished walls of bluish andesite—the stem of the wineglass. I walk down the center of an amphitheater of somber cliffs riddled with grottoes, huge eyesockets in a stony skull, where bats hang upside down in the shadows waiting for night.
Through the opening of the canyon I can see the icy heights of Telescope Peak shining under the cloud-reflected light of one more sunset. Scarlet clouds in a green sky. A weird glow pervades the air through which I walk; it vibrates on the canyon walls, revealing to me all at once a vision of the earth’s slow agony, the convulsive grinding violence of a hundred millionyears. Of a billion years. I write metaphorically, out of necessity. And yet it seems impossible to believe that these mountains, old as anything on the surface of the planet, do not partake in some dim way of the sentience of living tissue. Genealogies: From these rocks struck once by lightning gushed springs that turned to blood, flesh, life. Impossible miracle. And I am struck once again by the unutterable beauty, terror, and strangeness of everything we think we know.
FURNACE CREEK, DECEMBER10. The oasis. We stand near the edge of a grove of date palms looking eastward at the soft melting mud hills above Texas Spring. The hills are lemon yellow with dark brown crusts on top, like the frosting on a cake. Beyond the hills rise the elaborate, dark, wine-red mountains. In the foreground, close by, irrigation water plunges into a pool, from which it is diverted into ditches that run between the rows of palms.
The springs of Furnace Creek supply not only the palms but also the water needs of the hotel, the motel (both with swimming pools), Park Service headquarters and visitor center, an Indian village, and two large campgrounds. I do not know the output of these springs as measured in gallons per minute. But I do know that during the Christmas and Easter holidays there is enough water available to serve the needs of 10,000 people. Where does it come from? From a natural reservoir in the base of the bleak, fatally arid Funeral Mountains. A reservoir that may be joined to the larger underground acquifers beneath the Amargosa and Pahrump valleys to the east.
This does not mean that the Furnace Creek portion of Death Valley could support a permanent population of 10,000 drinking, back-scrubbing, hard-flushing suburbanites. For the water used here comes from a supply that may have required 20,000 years to charge; it is not sustained by rainfall—not in a country where precipitation averages two inches per year.
That’s the mistake they made in central Arizona—Tucson and Phoenix—and are now making in Las Vegas and Albuquerque. Out of greed and stupidity, but mostly greed, the gentry of thosecities overexpanded their investment in development and kept going by mining the underground water supply. Now that the supply is dwindling, they set up an unholy clamor in Congress to have the rest of the nation save them from the consequences of their own folly. Phoenix might rise again from ashes—but not, I think, from the sea of sand that is its likely destiny.
There are about 200 springs, all told, within the boundaries of Death Valley National Monument, counting each and every tiny seep that produces any flow at all. None except those in the northeast corner of the park are comparable to the springs at Furnace Creek. In addition to the springs there are the heavily saline, undrinkable waters of Salt Creek, Badwater, and the valley floor itself.
All this water is found in what meteorologists believe to be the hottest place on earth, year in and year out hotter than the Sahara, the Great Karroo, the Negev, the Atacama, the Rub’-al-Khali (“Empty Quarter”) of Arabia, or the far-out-back-of-beyond in central Australia. The world’s record is held by Libya, where a temperature of 136 degrees Fahrenheit was once recorded at a weather station called Azizia. Death Valley’s high so far is a reading of 134 degrees at Furnace Creek. But Azizia has been unable to come near repeating its record, while temperatures at Furnace Creek consistently exceed the mean maximums for Azizia by ten percent. And Badwater, only twenty miles south of Furnace Creek, is on the average always four degrees hotter. It follows that on the historic day when the thermometer reached 134 at Furnace Creek, it was probably 138 at Badwater. But there was nobody around at Badwater that day (July 10, 1913).
Official weather readings are made from instruments housed in a louvered wooden box set five feet above the ground. In Death Valley the temperature on the surface of the ground is ordinarily fifty percent higher than in the box five feet above. On a normal summer’s day in Death Valley, with the thermometer reading 120 degrees Fahrenheit, the temperature at ground surface is 180.
Curiosities: There are fish in the briny pools of Salt Creek, farout on the hottest, bleakest, saltiest part of the valley floor—the inch-long cyprinodon or pupfish. There is a species of soft-bodied snail living in the Epsom salts, Glauber’s salt, and rock salts of Badwater. There are fairy shrimp in thetinajasor natural cisterns of Butte Valley in the southwest corner of the park; estivating beneath the clay most of the year, they wriggle forth to swim, rejoice, and reproduce after that rarest and most wonderful of Death Valley events, a fall of rain.
More curiosities: Blue herons enter the valley in winter; also trumpeter swans; grebes, coots, and mallards can be seen in the blue ponds of Saratoga Springs; and for a few weeks in the fall of one year (1966) a real flamingo made its home among the reeds that line the shore of the sewage lagoon below Park Village. Where this flamingo came from no one could say; where it went the coyotes most likely could testify. Or perhaps the lion.
A lean and hungry mountain lion was observed several times that year during the Christmas season investigating the garbage cans in the campgrounds. An old lion, no doubt—aging, possibly ill, probably retired. In short, a tourist. But a lion even so.
But these are mere oddities. All the instruments agree that Death Valley remains the hottest place on earth, the driest in North America, the lowest in the Western Hemisphere. Of all deathly places the most deadly—and the most beautiful.
BADWATER, JANUARY19. Standing among the salt pinnacles of what is called the Devil’s Golf Course, I heard a constant tinkling and crackling noise—the salt crust expanding in the morning sun. No sign of life out there. Experimentally I ventured to walk upon, over, among the pinnacles. Difficult, but not impossible. The formations are knee-high, white within but stained yellow by the dusty winds, studded on top with sharp teeth. Like walking on a jumble of broken and refrozen slabs of ice: At every other step part of the salt collapses under foot and you drop into a hole. The jagged edges cut like knives into the leather of my boots. After a few minutes of this I was glad to return to the security of the road. Even in January the sun felt uncomfortably hot, and I was sweating a little.
Where the salt flats come closest to the base of the eastern mountains, at 278 feet below sea level, lies the clear and sparkling pool known as Badwater. A shallow body of water, surrounded by beds of snow-white alkali. According to Death Valley legend the water is poisonous, containing traces of arsenic. I scooped up a handful and sampled it in my mouth, since the testing of desert waterholes has always been one of my chores. I found Badwater lukewarm, salty on the tongue, sickening. I spat it out and rinsed my mouth with fresh water from my canteen.
From here, the lowest point in all the Americas, I gazed across the pale lenses of the valley floor to the brown outwash fan of Hanaupah Canyon opposite, ten miles away, and from the canyon’s mouth up and up and up to the crest of Telescope Peak with its cornices of frozen snow 11,049 feet above sea level. One would like to climb or descend that interval someday, the better to comprehend what it means. Whatever it means.
I have been part of the way already, hiking far into Hanaupah Canyon to Shorty Borden’s abandoned camp, up to that loveliest of desert graces, a spring-fed stream. Lively, bubbling, with pools big enough and cold enough, it seemed then, for trout. But there are none. Along the stream grow tangles of wild grapevine and willow; the spring is choked with watercress. The stream runs for less than a mile before disappearing into the sand and gravel of the wash. Beyond the spring, up-canyon, all is dry as death again until you reach the place where the canyon forks. Explore either fork and you find water once more—on the right a little waterfall, on the left in a grottolike glen cascades sliding down through chutes in the dark blue andesite. Moss, ferns, and flowers cling to the damp walls—the only life in this arid wilderness. Almost no one ever goes there. It is necessary to walk for many miles.
DEVIL’S HOLE, FEBRUARY10. A natural opening in the desert floor; a queer deep rocky sinkhole with a pond of dark green water at the bottom. That pond, however, is of the kind called bottomless; it leads down and down through greener darker depths into underwater caverns whose dimensions and limits arenot known. It might be an entrance to the subterranean lakes that supposedly lie beneath the Funeral Mountains and the Amargosa Valley.
The Park Service has erected a high steel fence with locked gate around the hole. Not to keep out tourists, who only want to look, but to keep out the aqualung adventurers who wish to dive in and go all the way down. Within the past year several parties of scuba divers have climbed over and under the fence anyway and gone exploring down in that sunless sea. One party returned to the surface one man short. His body has not been found yet, though many have searched. If supposition is correct, the missing man may be found someday wedged in one of the outlets of Furnace Creek springs.
Death Valley has taken five lives this year—one by water, two by ice, and two by fire. A hiker slipped on the glazed snow of the trail to Telescope Peak and tumbled 1,000 feet down a steep pitch of ice and rock. His companion went for help; a member of a professional mountaineering team, climbing down to recover the victim, also fell and was also killed.
Last summer two young soldiers from the Army’s nearby Camp Irwin went exploring in the desert off the southwest corner of Death Valley. Their jeep ran out of gas, they tried to walk home to the base. One was found beside the seldom-traveled desert road, dead from exhaustion and dehydration. The body of the other could not be found, though 2,000 soldiers hunted him for a week. No doubt he wandered off the trail into the hills seeking water. Absent without leave. He could possibly be still alive. Maybe in a forgotten cabin up in the Panamints eating lizards, waiting for some war to end.
Ah to be a buzzard now that spring is here.
THE SAND DUNES, MARCH15. At night I hear tree toads singing in the tamarisk along the water channels of Furnace Creek Ranch. The days are often windy now, much warmer, and rain squalls sail north through the valley, obscuring both sky and sun. The ground squirrels scamper from hole to hole in the mudhills, the Gambel’s quail swoop in flocks low over the ground, alight, and run in unison through the brush, calling to one another. Tawny coyotes stand bold as brass close to the road in broad daylight and watch the tourists drive by. And the mesquite thickets, black and lifeless-looking since last fall, have assumed a delicate tinge of spring green.
Death Valley’s winter, much too lovely to last, is nearly over.
Between winds and storms I walk far out on the dunes. How hot and implacably hostile this sea of sand appeared last June when we saw it for the first time. Then it seemed to be floating in heat waves, which gathered among the dunes and glistened like pools of water, reflecting the sky.
I bear for the highest of the dunes, following the curving crests of the lesser dunes that lead toward it. On the way I pass a few scraggly mesquite trees, putting out new leaves, and a number of creosote shrubs. No other plants are deep-rooted enough to survive in the sand, and these too become smaller and fewer as I advance and the dunes rise higher. On the last half mile to the topmost point there is no plant life whatsoever, although in the sand I find the prints of ravens, coyotes, mice, lizards. The sand is firm, rippled as the seashore, and virginal of human tracks; nobody has come this far since the last windstorm a few days ago.
Late in the afternoon I reach the summit of the highest dune, 400 feet above the valley floor. Northward the sand drops abruptly away to smaller dunes, mud flats, a scatter of creosote and mesquite—and what looks to be, not a mirage, but a pond of real water encircled by the dunes.
Glissading down the hill of sand, climbing another and down the far side of that, I come to the margin of the pool. The sandy shore is quick, alive, and I sink ankle deep in the mud as I bend to taste the water and find it fresh, cool, with hardly a trace of salt—fit to drink. The water must be left over from the recent rain.
I struggle out of the wet sand onto the dunes. Here I’ll make camp for the evening. I scoop a hole in the sand, build a tiny fireof mesquite twigs and sear a piece of meat on the flaming coals. Mesquite makes excellent fuel—burns with a slow hot flame, touching the air with a nut-sweet fragrance, and condenses as it burns to a bed of embers that glow and glimmer like incandescent charcoal. Fire is magic, a purifying and sanctifying magic, and most especially a mesquite fire on a sand dune at evening under desert skies, on the shore of a pool that gleams like polished agate, like garnet, like a tiger’s eye.
The sun goes down. A few stray clouds catch fire, burn gold, vermillion, and driftwood blue in the unfathomed sea of space. These surrounding mountains that look during the day like iron—like burnt, mangled, rusted iron—now turn radiant as a dream. Where is their truth? A hard clean edge divides the crescent dunes into black shadow on one side, a phosphorescent light on the other. And above the rim of the darkening west floats the evening star.Manhattan Twilight, Hoboken Night
Hoboken, New Jersey, is not one of the five boroughs of New York City. But it should be, for it’s closer and quicker to the center of Manhattan from Hoboken than from any point in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, or Staten Island. Fifteen minutes by bus, via the Lincoln Tunnel, takes you from Washington Street in Hoboken to the Port Authority Bus Terminal on Forty-First Street; ten minutes by train via the Hudson Tubes takes you from the Erie-Lackawanna Terminal to Ninth Street and Sixth Avenue—the Village. A dash under the river, a roar of iron, and you’re there: in Glitter Gulch, U.S.A.—Times Square, the Big Midway, the hanging gardens of electricity. Or down yonder in Green Witch Village. What more could you want? And if New York is not Manhattan, it is nothing. A little worse than nothing. Meanwhile the insane, medieval burgs of New Jersey—Union City, West New York, Jersey City—lie divorced from Hoboken by a wall older than the Great Wall of China. I mean the Palisades, that sill of diabase left over from the Triassic period.
I make this effort to incorporate Hoboken into New York City (where it belongs) rather than allowing it to remain in New Jersey (for which it is much too sweet, pure, romantic) because it is from the Hoboken point of view, the Hoboken mystique, the Hoboken metaphysic, that I must describe what I remember and what I know of New York. Meaning Manhattan. Of the rest I know nothing. The other four boroughs are as remote to my imagination as the Malebolges of the Eighth Circle of Hell. Perhaps only Dante could tell us the truth about them. Perhaps onlyDante—and Dostoyevsky—could tell us the truth about New York.
For one year I lived in Hoboken, far from my natural habitat. The bitter bread of exile. Twelve months in the gray light and the sulfur dioxide and the smell of burning coffee beans from the Maxwell House plant at the end of Hudson Street. In a dark, dank, decaying apartment house where the cockroaches—shell-backed, glossy, insolentBlatella germanica—festered and spawned under the linoleum on the sagging floors, behind the rippled wallpaper on the sweating walls, among the teacups in the cupboard. Everywhere. While the rats raced in ferocious packs, like wolves, inside the walls and up and down the cobblestone alleyways that always glistened, night and day, in any kind of weather, with a thin chill greasy patina of poisonous dew. The fly ash, ubiquitous, falling softly and perpetually from the pregnant sky. We watched the seasons come and go in a small rectangle of walled-in space we called our yard: in spring and summer the black grass; in fall and winter the black snow; overhead and in our hearts a black sun.
Down in the cellar and up in the attic of that fantastic house—four stories high, brownstone, a stoop, wide polished bannisters, brass fittings on the street entrance, a half-sunken apartment for the superintendent, high ceilings, high windows, and a grand stairway on the main floor, all quite decently lower middle class and in the better part of town, near the parks, near the Stevens Institute of Technology—hung draperies of dust and cobweb that had not been seen in the light of day or touched by the hand of man since the time of the assassination of President William McKinley.
In the sunless attic the spiders had long since given up, for all their prey had turned to dust; but the rats roamed freely. Down in the basement, built like a dungeon with ceiling too low to permit a man of normal stature to stand erect, there were more rats, of course—they loved the heat of the furnace in winter—and dampish stains on the wall and floor where the great waterbugs, like cockroaches out of Kafka, crawled sluggishly fromdarkness into darkness. One might notice here, at times, the odor of sewer gas.
The infinite richness. The ecology, the natural history of it all. An excellent workshop for the philosopher, for who would venture out into that gray miasma of perpetual smoke and fog that filled the streets if he might remain walled up with books, sipping black coffee, smoking black Russian cigarettes, thinking long, black, inky thoughts? To be sure. But there were the streets. The call of the streets.
We lived one block from the waterfront. The same waterfront where Marlon Brando once played Marlon Brando, where rust-covered tramp steamers, black freighters, derelict Dutchmen, death ships, came to call under Liberian flags to unload their bananas, baled hemp, teakwood, sacks of coffee beans, cowhides, Argentine beef, to take on kegs of nails, Jeep trucks, Cadillacs, and crated machine guns. Abandoned by the Holland-American Line in ‘65, at least for passenger service, the Hoboken docks—like Hoboken bars and Hoboken tenements—were sinking into an ever deepening state of decay. The longshoremen were lucky to get two days’ work a week. Some of the great warehouses had been empty for years; the kids played Mafia in them.
The moment I stepped out the front door I was faced again with Manhattan. There it was, oh splendid ship of concrete and steel, aluminum, glass, and electricity, forging forever up the dark river. (The Hudson—like a river of oil, filthy and rich, gleaming with silver lights.) Manhattan at twilight: floating gardens of tender neon, the lavender towers where each window glittered at sundown with reflected incandescence, where each crosstown street became at evening a gash of golden fire, and the endless flow of the endless traffic on the West Side Highway resembled a luminous necklace strung round the island’s shoulders.
Who would believe the city could be so beautiful? On winter evenings when the sun went down early and all the office lights stayed lit, the giant glass buildings across the river glowed likeblocks of radium with a cool soft Venusian radiance, magnetic and fatal. And above them all stood the Vampire State Building with its twin beams stroking through the mist and the red spider eyes on the radio mast blinking slowly off and on, off and on, all through the New York night. While deep-sea liners bayed in the roadstead, coming up the Narrows, and tugboats shaped like old shoes and croaking like alligators glided by in the opposite direction, towing freight trains or barges filled with traprock. Once I saw a large dark ship, no visible running lights at all, pass between me and the clustered constellations of the city—a black form moving across a field of stars.
One night Manhattan itself became that dark ship. Under moonlight the city appeared to be deserted, abandoned, empty as a graveyard except for the dim beams of automobiles groping through the blacked-out canyons, fumbling for the way home. From where I stood in Hoboken, on a hill above the waterfront, I could hear not the faintest sound of life, not a heartbeat, from New York. The silence was impressive. But by the next night the power was back and the city shining like a many-colored vision of wealth and glory. From the little park in Weehawken where Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton (good shot!) you could look right down the center line of Forty-Second Street. With glasses powerful enough, you could watch the sports and pastimes of the folk who dwell in the City of Dreadful Night.
If the Lower East Side is now the East Village, Hoboken was (still is, if urban renewal has not yet destroyed it all) the West Village. Down on River Street just past the gothic gables of the Christian Seamen’s Home began our own little Bohemia, where the otherwise omnipresent odor of sewer gas, burning coffee beans and the Hudson River was sweetened by the smell of marijuana and smoking joss sticks. Under the vacant eyes of condemned tenements lived the Peace People, the Flower Children, in happy polygamous squalor. Woven god’s-eyes dangled from the ceilings; on once blank and dusty storefront windows appeared the American flag, handpainted, with five, six, or seven stripes and anywhere from a dozen to twenty stars, asymmetricalas nebulae. The men wore bands on their heads, beards on their jaws, and their old ladies were as slender, sweet and comely as their tresses were long. My friend Henry the painter was painting nothing but gas stations that year. Esso gas stations. And Rini the sculptor was busy welding and reworking junked auto parts into surreal hobgoblins of iron.
“Look here, Rini,” I said to her, “instead of dragging the goddamn junkyard into the art galleries, why don’t you throw the goddamn art galleries into the junkyard?”
“That’s exactly what we’re doing,” she replied.
They had a coffeehouse—the Baby Bull—and nocturnal police raids and finally even a murder of their very own. Anything Haight-Ashbury had we had too.
Hoboken may be the only city in America where some of the police were actually caught red-handed in the act of tampering with the voting machines: There was a resolution on the ballot in the election that year which if approved would have authorized a substantial pay increase for the fuzz and the firemen.
Which suggests the role ofpoweragain: When I lived in Hoboken it was the most densely populated, square-mile city in the United States, inhabited largely by babies; you could not walk down the main drag, Washington Street, at any time during daylight hours without threading your way through traffic jams of loaded baby carriages, many of them containing twins, some triplets, each carriage powered by a pregnant mother with two or three toddlers dragging at her skirts. And who ruled this fecund mass?
The character of the population was mixed, a typical American polyglot boiling pot of Italians, Irish, Puerto Ricans, Poles, Jews, Germans, and Blacks. But there could be little doubt whichethnosdominated the structure of authority when you read in the local paper of the latest gathering of dignitaries at the Union Club: “Present wereMayor Grogan, Councilman Hogan, Bishops MalarkeyandMoone, Commissioners HoyleandCoyleandBoyle.”
Who were those others we sometimes glimpsed on rare occasions, those heavy short swarthy men with Homburg hats, velvet-collaredovercoats, fat cigars, who rode far back in the rear corners of black limousines rolling swiftly, quietly (no sound but the hiss of rubber on asphalt) down the evening streets? Who were the two Mongolian wrestlers in front dressed like FBI operatives, one driving, one scanning the sidewalks with stonefish eyes?
Hoboken. Weehawken. Hohokus. Secaucus. Paramus. Manhattan. And the five boroughs of New York. True, we were separated by a river from the center of the city. But are not the others also cut off by water? The Harlem River. The East River. What is the Brooklyn Bridge for? What is the function of the Staten Island Ferry? New York is a city of waters and islands, like Venice, floating on sewer lagoons, under a sea of fog and smoke and drizzling acid mists. You have to be tough to live there—even the clams on the offshore shelf are full of polluted pride. The chickadees, starlings, sparrows and alley cats of Hoboken were a hardier meaner breed than you find elsewhere. The old trees in the little parks along Boulevard East and Hudson Street seemed lifeless as statuary most of the year; yet in April there came an astonishing outburst of delicate green along the length of those blackened limbs. As if leaves should grow upon gun barrels and—but why not?—bright, fuzzy flowers spring up from the mouths of cannon.
Perhaps I liked best the sunflowers along the railroad tracks and the little purple asters that rose between the ties, out of the cinders. Or the cattails in the ditches and the rank nameless weeds that flourished by the iron wheels of rotting boxcars—Erie-Lackawanna—The Great White Way—Route of the Phoebe Snow—forgotten on sidings. Or the feral hollyhocks tall as corn along the walls of the gate tender’s shack at the railway crossing, transpiring through July. There was a bitter, forlorn yet stubborn beauty everywhere you looked in Hoboken. Even the smog of heavy summer evenings played a helpful part, enhancing the quality of light and shadow on old brick walls, lending to things only a block away the semblance of magic and mystery.
When I was there I thought New York was dying. Maybe itreally is. I know I was dying to get out. But if it’s dying then it’s going to be a prolonged, strange, infinitely complex process, a death of terror and grandeur. Imagine a carcinoma 300 miles long, a mile thick, embracing 50 million souls. Whatever else (I tell myself) you may think about New York now, looking back at it from this desert perspective, you’ve got to admit that Wolf Hole, Arizona, can never have so rich a death.
There are three ways to get from Hoboken to Manhattan. There were four. You can take the Number 6 bus, dive into the Lincoln Tunnel (holding your breath), roar through that tube of tile and light, where the tunnel cops pace forever up and down their cement walkways or stand in glass boxes built into the walls (we used to discuss the question, which is the world’s worst job: subway motorman? city bus driver? slaughterhouse worker? switchboard operator? or tunnel cop?), to emerge suddenly into the blue air of the Port Authority Bus Terminal. Or you can take the Hudson Tubes under the river, ride the trains through the sweating tunnels, where little green lights blink dimly beside the rails, and come out in the Village or stay on the train and ride it uptown as far as Macy’s, Gimbel’s, Herald Square. The third way, if you have a car, is to drive through either the Lincoln Tunnel or the Holland Tunnel and drive back through the other way when you realize finally that there is almost no place on all of God’s Manhattan where you can park your machine.
The fourth way was to take the Lackawanna Ferry and although the slowest this was by far the best (A fifth way will be to walk on the water when the Hudson finally coagulates.) Getting to the ferry slips at the railway terminal was part of the pleasure: For whether you went by Washington Street, Hudson Street or River Street, you passed not only such places as the hippie communes and the Christian Seamen’s Home but also the most shabby dingy rundown smelly half-lighted dangerous and downright picturesque little Mom and Pop bars in North America.
It was said, on good authority, that Hoboken had more taverns per square block than any other city in the world exceptAnchorage, Alaska. I believe it. I never did get into all of them, though for a year I tried. Some I remember: the Old Empire, the Seven Seas, Allie and Jopie’s, Anna Lee’s, Portview, El Jim’s, the Dutch Mill, the Elysian Fields Bar and Grill, the River Street, the Cherokee, the Old Holland House, McSharry’s Irish House, the Continental, the Little Dipsy Doodle, the Grand, the Inn, the Idle Hours (how true), Pat’s, Pete’s, Lou’s, Joe’s, and Mom’s. And the Silver Trail, Hoboken’s only genuine western bar, with live western music and authentic cowboy stomp dancing every Saturday night; and Nelson’s Marine Bar and Grill, my favorite, where the bartender, Herman Nelson, sole owner and proprietor, is or was the man whoalmostbecame world welterweight champ in 1931; and the stand-up bar of the Clam Broth House, men only (then), free clam broth, Lowenbrau on tap, the crackle of clamshells underfoot.
Anyway, if you made it past all the bars and the three Chinese laundries—Sam Toy’s, Harry Lew’s, Gong Lee’s—and past the hash peddlers, cops, hippies, Christian seamen, bohemes, bums, panhandlers, whores, winos, shoeshine boys, muggers, rapists, and shiv artists, you arrived at the Erie-Lackawanna building. End of the line. Mouth of the tubes. Home of the ferryboats. The E-L building (is it still there?) looked like a square fruitcake coated with green mold. It was enormous, its cavernous interior capacious enough for a dozen trains plus shops and offices and waiting rooms. Paying our fare at the turnstiles, we stormed up the ramp onto the “Next Boat.”
All on board, gangplanks winched up with a rattle of chains, the ferry surged out of the slip and bore east-southeast across the Hudson toward the Barclay Street docks on the far side. Moving partly with the current and partly across it, the ferry left a curving wake as it churned from shore to shore. In winter we glided among drifting ice floes the color of urine; in summer through trails of garbage bobbing in the wake of ships, seagulls screaming as they wheeled and dove for supper. I liked to stand on the open forward deck facing the wind and the solemn monuments of lower Manhattan. For a few minutes at least wewere all free, commuters, drifters and students alike, liberated from the confines of lubberly life and at home—so we thought—with sailors and seabirds, the allure of the open sea. It seemed to me I could read on the faces of even the most resigned commuters an emotion the same as mine: exultance.
It was strange, that approach to Manhattan over the open water. No sound but the slap of waves, the wind, the gulls, the distant signals of other boats. The city itself swung slowly toward us silent as a dream. No sign of life but puffs of steam from skyscraper chimneys, the motion of the traffic. The mighty towers stood like tombstones in a graveyard, leaning against the sky and waiting for—for what? Someday we’ll know.
And then as we came close we began to hear the murmur of the city’s life, the growing and compelling roar, the sound of madness. Newspapers were folded, overcoats buttoned, hat brims tugged—those gray near-brimless little felt hats that all the men wore and which had the peculiar virtue of rendering the wearer invisible. Everyone crowded toward the front of the boat. You could see the tension stealing over each face as 200 full-grown men prepared themselves for the stampede to taxis, buses, the subway trains.
But those were the mornings. Mornings were always absurd and desperate in New York. In the evening, going to the city, the mood was different, only a few of us on the boat, going the wrong way—the right way—against the mainstream of human traffic. In the evening the great glittering ship of Manhattan seemed to promise the fulfillment of every desire, every wish; one sailed toward it through the purple twilight with a heart full of hope. Hope for what? Hard to say—hope for those things a young man desires so much he hesitates to name them: for love; for adventure; for revelation; for triumph. All of it waiting there in that golden city of electric glory. All of it almost within reach.
That was the view from the water, the fantasy of the river crossing. Close to, the scene came into a different focus; we found ourselves back in the profane world of people with problems, embittered cab drivers, Sam Schwartz and his roastedchestnuts, the quiet tragedy of human relationships. No amount of weed or booze or sex or heavy art could permanently alter any of that.
I was a walker. I usually walked from Barclay Street up to the Village, preferring the grim and empty downtown streets to the infernal racket and doomed faces of the subway. Pausing at the White Horse for a drink to the memory of Dylan—the one from Cardigan Bay—the real Dylan, and thence to Dillon’s where Imightmeet somebody I knew, and from there to the Cedars, international intersection of all Volkswagen Bohemia where Ialwaysmet somebody I knew, where anybody meets somebody, we threw a few back while deciding whose opening, whose screening, whose party to crash on this wild, full-of-wonder, high-blossoming night.
After a quick trip to the john to read the writing on the wall—Socrates Loves Alcibiades; Joy Shipmates Joy!; Here I Sit Anonymous as Hieronymus Bosch; Caligula Come Back; Mene Mene Tekel—it was out on the jam-packed streets again, through the multitudes, and up a tunnel of stairways into somebody’s loft—THIS FLOOR WILL SAFELY SUSTAIN A LOAD OF 70 LB PER SQUARE FOOT—and into The Party.
The Party was permanent, like the revolution, always in swing somewhere, with the same conglutinate crowd, the same faces, the same wilted potato chips, the same sour wine, the same dense atmosphere of smoke and heat and intellection, the same blonde lovely girls down from Boston for the weekend, the same paintings of Esso gas stations on the walls, the same raccoon-eyed lank-haired crepe-clad pale-faced vampire lass hesitating in the doorway, to whom some catty chick would say, “Well do creep in.” Somebody like Norman Mailer was always there, a drink in each hand, and Dwight MacDonald, and Joel Oppenheimer, and Joseph Heller, and the man who invented Happenings, I forget his name. Everyone was there but the host, who usually could not be found.
There were other parts of the town I got to know, a little. For a while I had a girl friend who lived on Fourteenth Street, nearUnion Square; I worked briefly as a technical writer for General Electric in an office building on Lower Broadway, editing training manuals for DEW Line soldiers on how to dispose of sewage in permafrost; we all had to wear white shirts—that was mandatory—and I was fired at the end of two weeks for spending too much time staring out the window. I was invited a few times to publishers’ offices in the midtown region, to an agent’s office in Rockefeller Center, to lunches at Sardi’s. My wife had an M.D. with an office in the East Sixties. Once I went to Wilt Chamberlain’s nightclub in Harlem. And I worked for a time as a welfare caseworker in the Atlantic Avenue district of Brooklyn—but that is another story, that was another world, that was lower Mississippi we were dealing with there; let us now praise famous men. But I lived in Hoboken.
The Party is over, for me. In the gray light of dawn with the SundayTimes, world’s most preposterous newspaper—all those dead trees!—rolled under my arm, I navigated the deserted streets. Bleak and God-forsaken Sunday. Down into the subway entrance, down into the dim calamitous light of the tubes. Into an empty car. The placards on the walls implored me:GIVE:multiple sclerosis; muscular dystrophy; heart disease; lung cancer; mental illness; cystic-fibrosis; nephritis; hepatitis; cerebral palsy; VD; TB; acute leukemia. Buy Bonds: Keep Freedom in YourFuture!Good God. The train jolted forward, began to move; the dripping steam pipes, the little blue lights, the sweating walls slide greasily by. Just a happy little journey through hell. The train paused at the Christopher Street station. Before it moved on again I had time to contemplate a pair of rubber gloves lying in a pool of oil beside the tracks.
We plunged beneath the river. I slept all day. At evening I walked once more along the waterfront and gazed across the river at the somber forms of Manhattan, the great towers largely dark, for on Sunday no one is at work over there but the janitors. I don’t know how New York can survive.
I believe the city is doomed. The air is poisonous, not so much with filth and disease as with something deadlier—humanhatred. Yes, there’s hatred in Arizona, too, but here it is easily dissipated into the nothingness of space: Walk one-half mile away from the town, away from the road, and you find yourself absolutely alone, under the sun, under the moon, under the stars, within the sweet aching loneliness of the desert.
That loneliness is not enough. We must save the city. It is essence and substance of us all—we cannot lose it without diminishing our stature as a nation, without a fatal wound.
My words therefore are dedicated to that city we love, that visionary city of the prophecies, humane and generous, that city of liberty and beauty and joy which will come to be, someday, on American earth, on the shore of the sea.Telluride Blues—A Hatchet Job
The town of Telluride was actually discovered back in 1957, by me, during a picnic expedition into the San Miguel Mountains of southwestern Colorado. I recognized it at once as something much too good for the general public. For thirteen years I kept the place a secret from all but my closest picnicking cronies. No use: I should have invested everything I had in Telluride real estate.
In 1970 a foreigner from California named Joseph T. Zoline moved in with $5 million and began the corruption of Telluride. Formerly an honest, decayed little mining town of about 300 souls, it is now a bustling whore of a ski resort with a population of 1,500 and many more to come. If all goes badly, as planned.
“We shall develop,” announced Zoline, “a ski area bigger than Vail, as large as Ajax, Aspen Highlands, and Buttermilk combined, and twice as big as Mammoth Mountain in California.” Two cheers for Zoline. The county Chamber of Commerce was delighted, but those who preferred Telluride as Telluride wept in their beers, prayed in the alleyways. It didn’t help. Nothing worked.
Men weep, men pray and barf, butmoney talks. Money walks and talks and gets things done. Four years after his announcement (four years! it took twenty years to get the Wilderness Preservation Act through Congress, forty years to have one tiny remnant of the California redwoods given shabby and inadequate protection as a national park), Zoline has completed five operating double chairlifts, thirty-two miles of trails, and an eighty-seven-cell condominium.
Merely the beginning. Though the town offers only 1,200 beds for hire at present, Zoline’s Telluride Company expects 170,000 skiers by 1985. To accommodate such multitudes, Zoline plans to build a village for 8,000 on the mountain meadows at the foot of the lifts; cabin sites or “ski ranches” are already being offered for sale (at $5,000 to $10,000 per acre); and Holiday Inn has begun to make inquiries. The twenty-year plan for Big-T envisions, on paper, a cable monorail system and a total of seventeen lifts with the combined capacity for transporting 17,000 skiers per day up a vertical distance of 4,000 feet; from there dropping them at the head of sixty miles of trail. Bigger than Vail! Better than Aspen!
Yes, but different. Telluride’s growth will be controlled and orderly, say the company executives, with “full environmental protection.” The vague phrase rolls easily from the mouths of all developers these days. “Aspen grew without controls, under inadequate zoning laws,” says Zoline. “We shall profit from that lesson here.”
Will they? One may hope so; but the ambitious plans make the nature of that profit ambiguous. How can anything so big happen in a place so small as Telluride without changing the town beyond recognition? For those opposing the change the best hope is that Telluride will never make it as a big-time ski resort. There are problems.
Telluride is a hard place to get to. The nearest big town is Denver, 325 miles away on the other side of the Rocky Mountains, an eight-hour auto drive under the best conditions. The nearest primary air access terminal is at Grand Junction, 130 miles to the north. There is no rail line to Telluride, and the buses, at present, arrive only on weekends. If you elect to go by car, during the winter, you must drive the last thirty miles on a two-lane winding mountain road often surfaced with snow and ice, chains advisable. Below the road is the deep canyon of the San Miguel River. Above are the high-pitched mountain walls and thousands of tons of snow, hanging there.
Avalanches have been a problem in Telluride ever since the 1880s. Built in a narrow valley under 14,000-foot peaks, Telluride was hit by death-dealing avalanches in 1902, 1926, and 1927. Smaller ones occur every winter. With an average annual snowfall of 165 inches (Aspen averages 135), the next killer avalanche may come at any time. Even the summertime visitor to Telluride can see on the steep slopes above the town the swaths of destruction cut through the forest by snowslides both old and recent.
Of course this heavy snow cover makes possible good skiing and a long season. Among the runs already open is one called The Plunge. The Plunge drops 3,200 vertical feet in a distance of 2.5 miles—perhaps the longest continuous steep run in North America. Even the experts need time to work their way down that one. The Big-T also offers helicopter transport to areas above and beyond the lifts, providing those skiers who can afford it a chance to play in the deep and virgin powder of the more remote mountain snowbowls.
But the skiing is good everywhere in the Rocky Mountains, and the scenery at Telluride, though magnificent, is merely routine Rocky Mountain magnificence—no grander, for example, than the landscape of Sun Valley, Taos, Vail, Aspen, Alta, Snowbird, Park City, or any of a hundred other crowded, frozen, expensive established ski resorts in the intermountain West. What some of us liked so much about Telluride was not the skiing but that quality of the town which Zoline and his developmental millions must necessarily take away: its rundown, raunchy, redneck, backwoods backwardness. That quality is one you cannot keep in a classy modern ski resort, no matter how much money is spent for preservation, no matter how many town ordinances are passed attempting to protect Telluride’s antique Victorian architecture.
Some Telluriders, naturally, the crafty few who got in on the ski boom early, are becoming rich. Do I begrudge these native few their sudden unearned wealth? I sure do. That’s normal spite and envy. (Christ, I could have bought the old Senate Barand Whorehouse for $4,500 in 1962, if I’d had the $4,500. Last year the place was sold for $100,000. Vacant lots that used to sell for five or ten dollars in back taxes now are priced at $10,000. And so on.)
Others among the town’s original population, those too slow to speculate, manipulate, scam and scheme are going to have to suffer. A lot of the old folks who have lived in Telluride for many years, sometimes for most of their lives, are going to have to leave. Why? Most of them are pensioners; their fixed and humble incomes will not permit them to pay the runaway property taxes that have multiplied ten times over in the past three years. For instance, a lot formerly assessed at $100 is now appraised at $1,000; a leaning clapboard shack with gingerbread filigree had a valuation of $300 before—now it’s $2,500.
You might think it a simple matter to change the rules so that the old folks are taxed for the inflated value of their homes only if they choose to sell out. It would be a simple matter; but that’s not the way we do business in this country. Business in this country depends on high volume and fast turnover. That’s what keeps the real estate industry operating—displaced human beings. “Our retired people with fixed incomes will have to leave,” says Don O’Roarke, the county treasurer. An honest man.
In come the hippies then, the trust funders, the idle rich, the rootless ones, the middle-class proletariat with their beards and unisex ponytails, all of them, male and female, wearing the same bib overalls, Goodwill workshirts and waffle-stomper boots, all trying to look different in the same way. The air is thick with flying Frisbees, the sweet smell ofCannabis sativa, the heavy rock electric jungle sound, the industrial beat of hard-core imitation-Negro music.Rock, beneath the mountains, where once we heard only the sigh of spindrift from the snowfields and Eddie Arnold on the jukebox. But they have money, these freaks, and want to invest.
All of which poses a serious problem for the natives. A serious psychic bind. On the one hand, the natives want the newcomers’ money; on the other hand, they hate their guts. Excruciatinginner conflict. What to do? Well, why not take their money first, then call in the cowboys from the outback every Saturday night and have them beat the living shit out of these long-haired weirdos? Such has always been the traditional style of hospitality in the Golden West; still is in Wyoming.
But something has gone wrong with the Colorado cowboys. Although they continue to wear the funny hats and the tight snap-button shirts, they don’t seem to like to fight so much anymore, even when they’ve got the opponent outnumbered by the customary ratio of ten to one. Even on Saturday nights. The bartender at the Sheridan Hotel and Opera House explained it to me: “It’s like this. It’s that sex revolution. It finally come to San Miguel County about two years ago. Now even cowboys can get laid.”
A break for the horses. And the sheep. With the cowboys pacified by sex, the solution to the hippie problem came to rest in the hands of Telluride’s former one-man law-enforcement agency, Town Marshal Everett Morrow. Born in Oklahoma, seven years in Telluride, a welder by trade and police officer in his spare time, Morrow wore the classic western lawman’s costume: boots, leather vest with tin star, concho-banded Stetson, the quick-draw artist’s low-slung .45. Each shady looking newcomer got a personal welcome to Telluride from Marshal Morrow, including identification check with police-record follow-up. His tactics, sometimes rough on the younger generation, made Morrow a focal point of the cultural conflict between Telluride’s conservative native establishment and the long-haired newcomers who have swarmed into the town during the recent years.
“The ski area will be the best thing ever happened to this town,” says Marshal Morrow, “if we can get it without the goldamn hippies. It ain’t the hair bothers me, it’s the drugs.”
The chief drug being dispensed in Telluride today, however, is the same as it was ninety years ago—alcohol. The town has twelve bars, three package stores, and a special 3.2 beer joint and poolroom for teenagers. With a current population of 1,500,that’s one liquor establishment for every 100 citizens—man, woman, child, babe in arms. Contrariwise, there are only three churches and one part-time barbershop. That’s the way things go in Telluride: downhill.
One afternoon a few years ago a man named Wayne Webb purchased a bottle of peppermint schnapps in the Belmont Liquor Store, Telluride. (Peppermint schnapps!) From there he went on to every liquor establishment in town, which includes the restaurants, and had a drink or bought a bottle. An hour later he was followed on the same circuit by Town Marshal Morrow, who presented the manager of each place a summons charging him or her with the sale of liquor to a minor. Wayne Webb, who has the looks and manner of a man of thirty, was twenty years old. The legal drinking age in Colorado is twenty-one. Webb, employed by the marshal, was a plant. Every liquor dispenser in Telluride had been entrapped into breaking the law.
That kind of law enforcement does not set well in a town of only 1,500 people. A stormy town meeting promptly followed the citations, during which the bar owners and their partisans (an overwhelming majority of those present, mostly the young long-haired new residents) demanded the resignation or ouster of Marshal Morrow. The town council, consisting largely of old-timers, declined to take action against Morrow but also dropped all charges against the liquor dispensers. This compromise was not sufficient to appease the anger of the crowd, for whom Morrow’s entrapment bit was simply a final straw in a long history of alleged abuses. One of the most indignant of those present at the meeting was young Pierre Bartholemy, owner and operator of a restaurant he calls,naturellement, Chez Pierre. Around Telluride they call him Chez. He is a newcomer, both to Telluride and to the United States. In the course of his harangue, which was long and passionate, Bartholemy urged the town council to take away the marshal’s TV set. “Zis Marshal,” he said, “he watch too much zat how you call it? horseopera?too much goddamnGunsmoke!”
Marshal Morrow replied by asking for an interpreter, saying,”Sorry but Ah cain’t understand Chez’s kinda Anglish….” Someone in the back of the standing-room-only crowd shouted “Fucking bigot!” and crept quickly out of the hall. Another person suggested that it was Chez who needed the interpreter since no new arrival to the American hinterlands could reasonably be expected to understand Oklahoman Morrow’s “boll weevil English.”
I braced myself for action. Nothing happened. Morrow merely smiled. A stand-down. A draw. The cowboy had the long-hairs outnumbered: There were only 300 of them. He lounged in the swivel chair behind the judge’s stand at the head of the hall, listening in scornful silence as the indignation against him ranted on, peaked, leveled off, waned, and petered out. Meeting adjourned. The mob straggled into the night, defeated by the bland inertia of the town council, and dispersed to Telluride’s twelve principal establishments of nocturnal worship. Democracy had suffered another crushing setback. Nothing new in that.
I wanted to interview the town marshal and managed to intercept him at his car. “I’m writing a story about Telluride for a magazine,” I explained.
Morrow considers. He shakes a precise measure of Bull Durham into his ungummed Wheatstraw and checks me over briefly with a pair of the regulation chill blue eyes. “Let’s see your ID,” he says.
I offer him my old pinkLifecard with the scowling passport photo, plainly stamped “Good Only for March—April 1971.” (Issued for a trip to Sinai, called off on account of sloth.)
“So you’re from the media,” he says.
“That’s right. I’m a medium.”
He rolls his cigarette with one hand, holding my card in the other, hardly glancing at it. His little cigarette, licked and twisted shut at one end, looks exactly like a joint. ThatwasBull Durham, wasn’t it? In the little cotton sack with the black label and the yellow drawstrings?
“I ain’t been treated too good by the media,” he says. “Theytake a man like me, they like to make him look like a fool. Like a goddanged hick.” (He’d been written up inColorado Magazine.)
“I’m different from the others,” I said.
“I’ll treat you different.”
He lights the little cigarette, takes a deep drag down into the delicate lung tissues, holds it for a moment, then blows it out past my nose. It doesn’t smell much like tobacco. Smells like a blend of dried cornsilk and half-cured horseshit. That’s Bull Durham all right. (And if he tries to draw on me, I thought meantime, I’ll grab the tag on his Bull Durham pouch and yank him off balance. That way he’ll shoot me in the groin instead of the belly. The groin’s nothing but a lot of trouble anyway.)
Marshal Morrow studies me for a few more seconds, his cold steady eyes looking straight into mine, if I’d been standing two feet to the left and about forty miles back.
“I kinda doubt it,” he finally says, handing back my obsolete press card.
“What you said.”
“You mean the answer is no?”
That old Morrow, the bartender at the Sheridan explained to me shortly afterward, he’s mean but he’s fair: He treatseverybodylike shit.
I sulked for a while in a remote corner of the bar, trying to hear myself think against the continuous uproar at ninety decibels from the speakers mounted on the walls. The juvenile voices of what sounded like criminal degenerates united in teeny-bopper song: I believe it was a group called the Almond Brothers. Followed by the Ungrateful Dead. I missed Hank Williams.
Next day I investigated Joe T. Zoline’s million-dollar condominium. From the highway it looks like a haphazard arrangement of apple boxes; close up it looks bigger but the same. The roofs are flat. They won’t hold up well under 165 inches—aboutfourteen feet—of snow. The walls seem to be made of plywood. I noticed some of the exterior paneling beginning to peel and warp already, though construction was completed only a year ago. The interiors are cleverly designed: Each of the eighty-seven apartments, whether big or small, has high ceilings, a view of the mountains, and a little private sun deck. Each apartment (priced at $31,000 and up) contains a fireplace, but the fireplaces are miniaturized, more decorative than functional; all heating, as well as all cooking, is by electricity. All-electric homes in the nine-month winters of Telluride, at 8,800 feet above sea level, must bemightyexpensive. In more ways than one: I thought of the canyon and mesa lands of Utah and northern Arizona—my country—being disembowled, their skies darkened by gigantic coal-burning power plants, in order to provide juice and heat for frivolous plywood ski hutches like this. Sad? No, not sad—just a bloody criminal outrage, that’s all.
I stopped at the office for a few words with Mr. Zoline. Not available, the secretary told me; back in Los Angeles raising more millions. As I walked out of the place I paused for a final look back. The whole condominium rests on a boggy piece of bottomland beside San Miguel Creek. Drainage problems are considerable. May the whole thing sink, I prayed, down into the muck where it belongs.
That afternoon I took the Telluride Company’s free bus tour and chairlift ride. Anything to add to the overhead and help hasten the company into its inevitable bankruptcy. The chairlift ride up over the mountain meadows was quite enjoyable. The view of Mount Sneffels and Mount Wilson, two of Colorado’s most spectacular 14,000-foot peaks, is certainly a good one. Routine but good. Our tour guide, full of enthusiasm, told us that Mr. Zoline had started his new ski empire by purchasing, for only $150,000, a 900-acre sheep ranch. Sheep ranch? I might have known that a goddamnsheepmanwas at the bottom of all this.
On the way back I asked the guide about the Telluride Company’s official symbol, the significance of which escapes me. Theofficial symbol of the Telluride Company is a fried egg with one quarter section cut away.
“That ain’t no fried egg,” the guide (a local boy) said, “that there’s the sun a-comin up behint a mountain with sunshine all around it. What they call a logograph.”
“It looks like a fried egg.”
“Yessir but it ain’t it’s a logograph. Ask anybody.”
Evasive answer and typical: All you ever get from these company people is doubletalk.
Telluride. To hell you ride. All-year mountain playground. And why not? The people need their playgrounds. We all need a place to escape to, now and then, as the prison of the cities becomes ever more oppressive. But why did they have to pick on my Telluride? One more mountain forest, virgin valley, untainted town sacrificed on the greasy altar of industrial tourism and mechanized recreation. Soon to become, like New York, like L.A., like Denver, like Tucson, like Santa Fe, like Aspen (thus the development proceeds), one more place to escapefrom. Someday soon, if this keeps up, there will be no places left anywhere for anybody to find refuge in. Whereupon, all jammed together in one massive immovable plenum of flesh and machinery, then we may think, at last, in Fullerian-Skinnerian-McLuhanian-Herman Kahnian telepathic unison: Ah! if only! if we had only thought….
Thought what? By that time perhaps even the thought of freedom, even the memory of what (if only) could have been, that too will be lost. Perhaps lost forever.
Forever? Never sayforever, pardner. Forever is a long time. But say—for a considerable spell of time. For one long long hellof a ride. Until those little voices on the mountain summits, one mile above, calling
don’t fret Telluride we’re a-coming
have their way, and the huge white walls come down.
P.S.: Since this story was written (many years ago) a few changes have taken place in the Telluride scene. Marshal Morrow’s contract was not renewed; he has retired from the law-enforcement business. Mr. Zoline has sold a majority interest in the Telluride Company to Mr. William H. Lewis, a New York investment specialist. The town now has a full-time resident physician. The Idarado Mining Company, a subsidiary of the Newmont Mining Company of New York, which owns the 1,500 acres of prime flat land east and west of Telluride, plans to develop this property for a jet-port, second homes and recreational facilities when skier volume makes it “feasible.” The permanent population of Telluride, now about 1,500, could grow to 10,000 or even 20,000 within a decade. (If the ski development does not fail.) The generational conflict within Telluride has largely faded away; many of the old-time residents have sold their homes (at an exponential profit) and moved to places like Sun City and Young-town in Arizona. The freaks, long-hairs and hippies who have taken their places now own and operate most of the shops, restaurants and other small businesses within the town. They have also taken over the town council and the local Chamber of Commerce and are determined to prevent—somehow—the transformation of Telluride into another Aspen. Two things have not changed: Chez Pierre still offers the best French dinners on the western slope of the Rockies; and Telluride remains this writer’s favorite mountain town. I go there every summer and have failed four times now (out of sloth, ineptitude and fear) to climb nearby Mount Wilson, 14,247 feet of rotten rock and ice-glazed snow. I plan to fail to climb it again next year, thereby setting a new world’s record.FROMAbbey’s Road(1979)Anna Creek
Deep in South Australia, west of Lake Eyre and 700 miles north of Adelaide, lies the Anna Creek cattle station. Big is the word: 11,000 square miles. Running 20,000 cattle, give or take a few thousand, and 700 horses, half of them wild, the mustangs or brumbies of the Australian bush. Plus sixteen domesticated camels, broken to harness, and nobody knows how many wild ones still roaming the open ranges around Lake Eyre.
At the center of this uncaged menagerie stands Dick Nunn, presiding. He is the manager, the boss, the chief among many mates. If I’d thought I’d meet him in an office, dressed like some kind of overseer, I was headed for a surprise. I found him in the main courtyard of the ranch headquarters making beef sausages. Under the bright outback sun of early May, he and old Norm Wood, his chief assistant, stood at the tailgate of a Toyota pickup truck mixing ground beef, ground meal, spices, and preservatives with their hands. In a tub. Flies swarmed over the raw feast. Dick Nunn’s handshake was a bit on the greasy side, under the circumstances, but firm.
“Well, Yoink,” he said, meaning me, “welcome to Anna Creek. Where the bloody hell’ve you been?” (I’d written to him from the States months before. He’d invited me to visit.) I tried to explain the delay. Passports and visas. This awkward body of water between San Francisco and Brisbane. The side trip to the barrier reef. Trying to get my bedroll through Australian Customs five minutes before our plane took off for Adelaide.
“Never mind all that,” he says. “Give me a hand with this tub.”
We carried it into a nearby shed, a kind of butcher shop a century old. Ten thousand flies followed us in random formation. The huge chopping block inside was black with ancient blood, rounded and eroded with years of use. Another man, Bob the Meatax, as he’s called, stood at the sausage-packing machine. Bob is from Trieste. Or was, many years ago. Now he works as Anna Creek’s chief butcher, almost a full-time job, and sometimes as Dick Nunn’s agent in the nearby opal-mining town of Coober Pedy—only 100 miles to the west over a one-lane track of red sand and auburn dust. Out here, that’s “nearby.” I’m from the American Southwest; I can share the perspective these Aussies have on distance.
I watched Bob the Meatax fit one end of a limp, slimy, translucent casing—part of a cow’s intestine—to the nozzle of his machine. He switched the machine on; it pumped the meat into the empty entrail, filling it and extending it like a long, constricted balloon. When the casing was full, Bob shut off the machine and knotted the eight-foot sausage into manageable, natural-looking six-inch links. He hung these chains of pale pink flesh on spikes in the wall and without pausing dumped our tub of sausage meat into the maw of his machine and went on to the next. We talked for a little while of Trieste, of Italy. I’d been there myself once, decades ago, after a certain war. Did he ever get homesick?“Nunca,”he said,“nunca, nunca.” Never! He had a wife and children right here at Anna Creek. Did he ever go back to Italy? About once every two years. When he could afford it. Seeing my smile, he added that his kids would grow up genuine 100 percent bona fide dinkum Aussies.
I returned to my host, Dick Nunn, back at his sausage mixing. The manager of this multi-million-acre, multi-million-dollar cattle operation was wearing nothing but Hong Kong thongs on his feet, faded shorts around the middle, and something that vaguely resembled a cowboy hat on his head—one of the most decayed, grease-stained, sweat-soaked, salt-rimed, degenerate bonnets I’ve ever seen, anywhere, including the Flagstaff Arizona city jail. “It’s the salt holds it together,” he explainedlater. “Till it rains.” I thought of the red desert and the huge blazing salt pans—dry lakes—I’d seen when I’d flown from Adelaide to Coober Pedy. When did he expect the next rain?
“Couldn’t say,” he answered. “Only been here twenty-three years.”
And then he offered me a chilled can of Southwark’s Bitter Beer, the most popular beer and apparently the only beer anyone drinks between Adelaide and Alice Springs. He opened another for himself. I couldn’t help but notice that Nunn carried low over his shorts a formidable belly; like most professional beer drinkers in Australia—and in Australia most of the men are professional beer drinkers; theirs is the national religion—he was proud of his big gut. And what the hell, why not? It was big, but it looked hard. He’d earned it. Dick Nunn is fifty-one years old now, but I wouldn’t want to tangle with him. He has blue eyes, a round ruddy face with the inevitable redveined nose, a wide and easy smile, the unselfconscious assurance of a man who knows what he is doing and knows that he is good at it.
Dick Nunn has been resident manager of the Anna Creek station since 1953. The ranch was founded over a century ago, has passed through several ownerships, and now is the property of the Strangways Peake Syndicate, a corporation of one hundred or so stockholders, with offices in Adelaide. Nunn came here from northern Queensland, where he had worked many years—for most of his life—as a stockman and stock drover. A stockman is a cowboy. A drover is one who helps drive a herd of cattle from home range to shipping point. In most of Australia, before the recent improvement and extension of roads made trucking available, it was often necessary to drive cattle on foot for hundreds of miles, in some places a thousand miles (as on the Canning Track in Western Australia) in order to reach a railroad. These great trail drives would take months to complete, for the cattle had to forage off the land as the drive moved slowly forward from day to day.
Nunn was reluctant to talk about himself; but as I would learn later from others, he had been one of the best of the trail bosses,acquiring a reputation that eventually brought him the managership of the largest cattle station in South Australia and one of the half dozen largest in the entire nation. Dick is paid a salary and occasional bonuses, but no share of the net proceeds. “We ain’t had any net proceeds anyway for several years,” he said. “The cattle business is null and void these days.” Australia has not escaped the worldwide recession of recent years, that peculiar combination of unemployment and inflation that so baffles the economists. The beef-growing industry has been harder hit than most.
“The frustrating thing,” Nunn went on to say, “is that we’ve had heavy rains the past three years. Even Lake Eyre is full of water now. Our range is in better shape than it’s ever been before.” He glanced around at the rolling plains, covered with tawny native grasses, that surrounded the homestead. “We could raise five times the cattle we’ve got on it now. But there’s no market for them.”
I was curious about various aspects of cattle growing in this part of Australia, which so much resembled my own Southwest and yet was oddly different. “That grass out there looks short and dried up,” Nunn said, “but it’s good sweet feed for stock, the best there is. Up around Alice Springs you’ll see the grass growing up to your waist, but it’s sour. Cattle don’t do well on it.”
What about water? I’d seen a few tanks and windmills around the place, but Anna Creek itself was bone dry, a broad sandy wash lined with gum trees. “We have 150 dams and 120 bores on this station,” Nunn said. Bores: drilled wells. Most of the bores were artesian, he explained, producing water under natural pressure from the great artesian basin that underlies much of South Australia. Only fifteen of the wells required windmills to pump the water to the surface. “But some of that bore water is very hard,” he said, “salty. Stock will drink it, they can get by on it, but to thrive they need fresh water. That’s what the dams are for. They hold the rainwater.”
Dams—in the Southwest we’d call them stock ponds or tanks. I’d seen many of them from the air as I was flying towardAdelaide: small rectangles of water flashing under the sunlight, caught by the earthen dams built across drainage channels, scattered out at regular intervals across what otherwise looked, from 5,000 feet above, like an empty wasteland of red and brown. How did they manage before bulldozers were invented?
“Not very well,” Nunn admitted. “We used to try to get by with only the bores and the natural springs. And the spring water is usually worse than the bores. It was a chancy business in them days, growing cattle.” He grinned at me. “Still is. Gets chancier all the time.”
And was there enough rainfall to keep those man-made ponds filled? I knew the precipitation in this area of Australia was said to average two to four inches a year. Not much better than Death Valley. Drier than the canyonlands of southern Utah and northern Arizona. “If the rain comes every year,” Nunn replied, “and at the right time of year, we can make it. This station is 100 miles wide and 110 miles long: When it don’t rain in one part, it rains in another. We hope. Some years we never get any rain at all. Then we get too much, all at once. Right now there’s so much water in Lake Eyre that it’s overflowing back down some of the creeks. And that’s salt water.”
Lake Eyre lies fifty feet below sea level, covering 3,000 square miles. Bigger than our own Great Salt Lake. Ordinarily Lake Eyre is so dry, hard, and smooth that its glittering salt flats are used as a racecourse for land vehicles, like the Bonneville Salt Flats of western Utah.
There was one more thing I had to know about the cattle operation here: Did he raise hay? “Don’t need it,” Nunn said. “We run our stock on the range all year round. You see, mate, we don’t have any real winter here.”
How true that statement was, I soon came to realize. May in Australia is Australia’s late autumn. And though I’d wake up many a morning with frost on my sleeping bag, the days were always bright, sunny, warm. Thus the ever-present flies. Thus the flocks and swarms and squadrons of always-yammering birds.
I’ve never seen so many birds in what is supposed to be adesert region. As Dick Nunn and I talked, the kite hawks soared fifty feet above us, scavengers waiting for leftovers. Flocks of crows flapped about from the trees to the rooftops and back again. They looked like American crows and they squawked like American crows, never stopping, but their cries had a way of falling off at the end. There was something maddening about that incessant yawping and groaning. If I ever came to live in central Australia, I’d keep an automatic shotgun handy and about a carload of twelve-gauge shells.
Nobody else seemed to mind the crows. What the people at Anna Creek did complain about were the cockatoos and their games with the telephone line. I soon saw what the complaint was about. Walking south of the station headquarters one day, I observed parrotlike birds swinging from the telephone line that connected Anna Creek to the exchange at William Creek and points beyond. Taking off, landing again, in well-drilled multitudes, hanging upside down from the wire and swinging back and forth, sometimes flipping clear around, the cockatoos were slowly but surely pulling the line to the ground.
“Goes on all the time,” Dick Nunn told me. “God knows how much time we spend restringing that line for them bloody birds to play on.”
In the evenings we drive the corrugated dirt road to William Creek. The road is ribbed like a washboard and six inches deep in a reddish flour the outbackers call bulldust. We raise a roostertail of the stuff, a mile-long golden plume that hangs above the road, waiting for a breeze to disperse it, a trace of wind that may or may not come. Penny Tweedie, Sydney photographer, with her cameras and meters and filters and lights, and I with my can of bitter beer, are driving to William Creek, population seven. William Creek is the social center and cultural heart of the world of Anna Creek. Dick Nunn may be the boss of Anna Creek, but William Creek belongs to Connie Nunn. His wife. She runs the William Creek store, post office, petrol station, airport, and hotel.
Penny and I buzz along in our little rented Suzuki, which has afour-cylinder two-stroke engine and sounds like a lawn mower. Like a hornet in a tin can, according to Geoffrey the Road Grader, a man whom we shall soon be seeing again. Must have a few words with him about this traffic artery. We hang a right at the junction with the road to Oodnadatta, drifting around the corner through the soft dust in true Mario Andretti style. Well done, I tell myself. I am driving on the wrong side of the road, of course, but that’s the custom here in Australia; they all do it.
A mile ahead in the clear light of evening appears William Creek. It looks like showdown town out of some classic Hollywood western.High Noon. A couple of trees. Windmill and water tank. A couple of buildings. One is a depot of the Central Australian Railway, where five of the seven William Creekers live. They work for the railroad. The other building, a single-story structure with tin roof and rambling white wings, is the William Creek Hotel with its pub, the only beer joint and watering hole within 100 miles, in any direction.
This tiny outlier of what is called the modern world sits alone at the center of an enormous flat, red, empty circle of sand, dust, meandering dry streambeds (like that which gives William Creek its name), and open space. No hills, no woods, no chimneys, no towers of any kind break the line of the clean, bleak horizon.
We cross the railroad tracks. There’s the gasoline pump with the cardboard sign dangling from its neck: “No Petrol Today.” Across the way, beyond a pair of giant athel trees (product of North Africa), are two diesel-powered road graders, a flatbed lorry loaded with fuel drums and other gear, and a small primitive housetrailer—what the Aussies call a “caravan.” When not working the highway, Geoffrey Leinart and his mate Butch do some of their living—cooking, sleeping—in that little wheeled box. Not much. I always find them in Connie’s pub.
We enter. Geoffrey and Butch are sitting there as usual, on stools at the bar, drinking the bitter beer. Brawny, red-faced blokes. Solid. No one else in sight at the moment. “By God,” I say, “good to see some fresh faces in here for a change.” They smile, patiently.
“It’s the bloody Yoink again,” says Butch.
Connie appears, a friendly face behind the bar. Penny orders a Scotch and soda. Connie looks at me.
“I want to buy a beer for every man in the house,” I say. “If any.”
For just a moment, for the finest split hair of an instant, Geoffrey’s smile freezes. I give him my All-American grin to make it clear I’m only kidding. He relaxes. “I mean,” I say, “if any beer.”
“He’s a card, this Yoink,” Geoffrey says.
Butch echoes the sentiment. “Yeah, he’s a card.”
Connie produces three cans of Southwark’s finest. We salute one another and drink. There’s going to be a party here tonight, a barbecue. Through the ceiling of the pub I can see thin slices of the evening sky. A notice behind the bar: “Spirits a Nip.” On the end wall is a big drawing, caricatures of Dick Nunn and Norm Wood standing at either end of Connie’s bar, with Connie behind it. In lieu of a jukebox, the radio—which outback Aussies still call “the wireless”—is playing American country-western songs, broadcast from Adelaide. The nearest city, 700 miles to the south.
Connie and Dick Nunn have been separated, more or less, for ten years and by the ten miles of dirt road that lie between the Anna Creek homestead and William Creek. But they are still good friends. “Better friends now,” Connie would say, “than ever we was when we was bunked down in the same humpy.” Hard to doubt: Connie strikes me as being every bit as shrewd, tough, and independent as the boss himself. Independent as a hog on ice. The sparks must fly when these two cross each other. I tried to imagine Gloria Steinem explaining women’s rights to Connie Nunn. Connie would laugh and pour Gloria a beer. Connie was born liberated.
Now it’s Geoffrey’s turn, his “shout.” He buys me a beer. He asks me about Ronald Reagan: I tell him what I think, and ask him about Gough Whitlam, the recently deposed Labour Party prime minister. He tells me what he thinks. I see we’re not going very far together in politics and change the subject to horses. Ihad just missed by a couple of weeks the race meeting at William Creek, which was why Dick Nunn had chided me for arriving late. But we’re all going up to Oodnadatta this weekend for the next round of outback horse racing. Geoffrey speaks with mixed pride and affected scorn of his son Phillip, “that wiry little runt,” who wants to become a professional rider. A small, fierce, handsome boy of seventeen, Phillip works now as one of Nunn’s stockmen or “ringers.” Everybody calls him Jockey. He’ll be here tonight, along with most of the other young Anna Creek cowboys, all coming in from four weeks on the open range. Most of them not even old enough to buy a legal beer at Connie’s pub.
Did I say cowboys? Strictly speaking—Aussiewise, in the Strine lingo—there is only one “cowboy” at Anna Creek. He is the old man named Burt Langley whose principal tasks are tending the garden and milking the Guernsey cow back at station headquarters. He seldom gets on a horse anymore.
I slip outside to inspect the brief outback sunset and the railway installations. The sunset is a red glow on the northwest horizon under a huge aquamarine sky untouched by the hint or whisper of a cloud. Three empty boxcars stand at rest on the siding. Farther up the line is a spur with a string of cattle cars parked on it. Dick Nunn will be loading them tonight—after the barbecue. I climb through the open doors of one of the boxcars and discover a hobo jungle beyond.
A dozen Aborigines, men and women, squat on the ground under an athel tree, making tea in a blackened billycan that rests on the coals of a very smoky wood fire. All seem to be talking at once, loudly and rapidly, with many shrieks of laughter from the women and a constant gesturing of thin black arms. They see me and fall silent.
One man wears a condemned sport coat that looks exactly like the one a girl friend of mine stuffed in a garbage can back in Tucson fifteen years ago; the one she called my “wino jacket.” The whole mob, men and women both, are dressed in skid row castoffs. They are waiting for the next freight train to Oodnadatta. Like the rest of us, they are going to the races. FromPort Augusta up to Alice Springs,tout le monde, anybody who is anybody is bound for Oodnadatta.
They stare at me; I stare at them. No one speaks. Their dark faces with the luminous eyes, with the cast of features made from a genetic mold more ancient than that of any other race on earth, seem to withdraw before me as I look at them, receding into the twilight and darkness under the tree. They are a people hard to perceive, even in the sunlight. The losers in one more among a thousand routine historical tragedies. They are the unwanted guests, the uninvited in their own country. They look at me across a gulf of 20,000 years. I turn away, start back to the pub. As I go I hear their voices begin again, the laughter resume.
“Dole bludgers,” one Aussie would tell me later. Welfare parasites. “They won’t work. Or they’ll work for a month and then go walkabout for six months. The only thing those blacks really want to do is sit under a tree and tell stories. That’s about all theyeverdid.” Really? Come to think about it, that’s what I would like to do. Sit under a coolibah tree, drinking wine with friends and telling funny stories, sad stories, old stories, all the day long. And into the night.
When I return to the pub, it is full of boisterous Aussies. Dick Nunn fills any room the moment he enters. And I don’t mean with his girth. Much of his family is there, too: his subteen daughters Anna, Jane, and Margaret; his sons Stewart, Eddie, and Richard; his niece Sue, the homestead cook.
Most of the young stockmen also are here now, a crowd of teenage cowboys, among them Richard, Nunn’s youngest boy. Though only sixteen, he works as trail boss of the range crews. He has been out “on camp” for a month, hunting, mustering and branding cattle, breaking horses, sleeping on the ground. He seems a friendly though cocky lad, with bright eyes, freckles, an easy grin. He looks something like Huckleberry Finn, but more like Billy the Kid. He wears high-heeled boots with spurs, dusty jeans, an old faded flannel shirt, and on his head a wide-brimmed, filthy slouch hat ornamented with silvery studs and atooled leather band. What the Aussies call a “forty-liter” (ten-gallon) sombrero. Like most of the other stockmen, all of whom look like the wildest of desperadoes, Richard is drinking a Coke.
I construct myself a “chuppity-bread” sandwich from the lavish display of makings on the bar—bread, salad, sausages, hamburgers, spareribs, mutton chops, grilled steaks—procure two cold beers and get into talk with one of the few ringers who is old enough to share them with me legally.
His name is Phil, he’s twenty-one, and like so many young Australians, he has chosen the life of a drifter. He appears well seasoned: red beard, gap in his front teeth, a rough hulking fellow in black leather jacket with the stars of a brigadier general on the shoulder straps. His cowboy hat looks as weathered as the Kid’s: The anchor brand of Anna Creek has been burned into and partly through the front of the brim. Though he resembles a refugee from a motorcycle gang, he turns out to be sociable, if slightly shy. How long’s he been working for Dick Nunn? (My guess is maybe four or five years.)
“Two months,” he says.
Two months! Then he’s done this kind of work before? Phil grins his gap-toothed grin: “Never was on a bloody horse before I came here.” So he’s learning? “I’m trying.” What does the syndicate pay him? “Fifty a week and keep,” he says. Since he sleeps on the sand in his own swag, “keep” means he gets all the stewed beef and hamper bread he can eat and all the boiled tea and burnt coffee he can drink. How much time off? “Oh several days every month.” Does he like the job? “Reckon I do,” he says.
The crowd grows thicker in Connie’s pub; the babble of contending voices becomes a steady roar. There must be at least a hundred people in here now—men, women, adolescents, kids, black-skinned and white and various shades in between, sober, half-sober, non-sober, and rotten with the grog. It reminds me of a Saturday night at Eddie Apodaca’s Cantina Contenta in Frijoles, New Mexico. Only the hooded Indians are missing, but their place is more than filled by Aborigine stockmen with eyeballs turning red under Neanderthal brows.
I meet a few of the black men, Brian Marks for one, a big cowboy with round and jovial face. Once each year, at the annual William Creek Race Meet and Gymkhana, he spends his entire month’s wages at the races, buying at the mock auction for one-day ownership one of Nunn’s prize thoroughbreds. (All proceeds from the affair go to the flying doctor service.) What does Brian Marks get out of it? He gets the thrill of sometimes sponsoring a winner, trophy cups, the prestige that goes to a generous man.
Whites and blacks and mixed breeds drink and jabber together in apparent confraternity. Most of them have been working together all year out on the range. Only one discord appears. An Aborigine named George, one of the best of Nunn’s stockmen, keeps badgering Connie and her brother Bill for whisky. He is so drunk he can barely stand: his watery, bloodshot eyes are red as gidgee coals. They refuse to sell him whisky. He persists. They sell him a carton of beer (twenty-four cans), and Bill guides him to the door. In a few minutes George is back, angry now, demanding whisky. Fed up, Dick Nunn grabs him by the collar and the seat of the pants and half-carries, half-throws him out the door, across the road, and into the brush by the railway. This time George does not return.
At some time late in the evening, well after dark, the word is passed around to muster all hands at the railroad siding. Time to load the cattle. I follow the crowd. Geoffrey and Butch, each with a carton of beer under an arm, appoint themselves as guides to the bewildered American tourist. “For Godsake,” I want to know, “why load the cattle now? We’re having a party. And in the dark? Madness.”
Geoffrey tries to explain. Train’s coming early in the morning; won’t be time to do it then. “But half these men are drunk,” I say, “ripped out of their minds, and the other half are children who should have been in bed hours ago.”
“Now, mate,” says Geoffrey, “don’t worry your silly Yoink head about it; these boys know what they’re doing. These boys are men. Have another beer. Am I right, Butch?”
“That’s the bleedin’ bloody flippin’ truth,” Butch says.
They are right. While Geoff and Butch start a blaze with tumbleweeds and railway ties, adding warmth and firelight to the moonlit scene, the Coke-swilling teenagers in their bandit costumes have already begun to move the cattle. The cattle had been assembled earlier that day in the main siding corral, called a “bronc yard” down here. Now the boys drive them into a series of holding pens, breaking the herd up into manageable bunches. The pens lead to a steel chute and ramp and this to the concrete loading dock.
The boys in the yard are pushing the cattle forward from pen to pen. Butch and Geoffrey throw another wooden sleeper on the fire and open more beers. Their big bellies glow in the ruddy light; no true Aussie would allow himself to be seen, after the age of thirty, without a proper beer gut. Dick Nunn leans against his Toyota truck, sipping beer, conferring with Norm Wood, watching everything. The terrified cattle groan, grunt, bellow, pressed hard against one another inside their bars of planking and iron. The chute is full again. I see one cow with its head caught and twisted between the hind legs of another, unable to extricate itself. Two more cars are loaded. The loading goes on by moonlight, by truck headlights, by the sinister, wavering flare of the burning railway ties. The clamor of cattle, men, boys, tractor engine, the clang of steel gates, the rattle of the cattle cars, goes on and on in a confused, violent uproar. Inevitably I think of the use of cattle cars in Nazi Germany, in Stalinist Russia.
“This is a brutal business,” I mutter in Penny’s ear. “Enough to make a man a bloody vegetarian.” She agrees. But sentimental hypocrites both, we know full well that come tomorrow we’ll be sinking our fangs in beef again. Pouring the gravy on our potatoes. Pulling on our cowhide boots. Everywhere the smell of blood. Everywhere the brutality and the horror. Nor is it all man-made. Hadn’t we seen, only a few days earlier, that cow out on the range, fully alive, with the deformed horn that had curled and grown, somehow, into the cow’s right eye?
The loading goes on for half the night. On the last car, door not properly barred, a frenzied bullock kicks it open; four young steers escape, galloping away into the dark.
On another day, a week before the party, we stopped to visit an Aborigine camp near Anna Creek. It looked like a dump. The huts, or “humpies,” were made of sheets of corrugated iron propped on sticks. Garbage everywhere: paper, beer cans, wine bottles, plastic junk, gnawed bones, disemboweled mattresses, worn-out shoes, broken glass, puddles of grease, ashes, rags, ropes, dung. A few hungry-looking curs snarled at us as we approached. Smoke rose from smoldering wood fires. The camp appeared deserted.
Then three old women scrambled out of their kennels on hands and knees. They looked like the three witches ofMacbeth. One was blind. One had, instead of a nose, a wrinkled cavity in the center of her face. The third, though structurally intact, was deaf as a stone and gnarled with arthritis. All looked a century old. They wore long, ragged dresses never washed, nothing else. Their feet were bare, crusty with calluses. They waved their claws, their sticklike arms at us, and chattered like birds. I decided all three were insane, crazy as cockatoos, but Penny, who had met them before, said they were simply glad to see us, eager to talk.
Penny introduced them to me as she squinted through her viewfinder: “This is Jean, the blind one; this is Sheila, missing a nose; this is Lily Billy.” Sprawled in the dust and ashes, the witch-ladies gaped at me, including the one without eyes, and jabbered away. They were the most physically hideous human creatures I had ever seen—shrunken, mutilated, gray with filth, pot-bellied, spindle-limbed, crawling with flies to which they appeared supremely indifferent—all of them obviously syphilitic and mad as kookaburras. “My God,” I asked Penny, “what keeps them alive?” And Penny, snapping pictures, talking to the three old women as well as to me, said, “Why, the welfare helps. They get about thirty dollars a week. Their old men are off spending itright now, I suppose, down at Connie’s pub. But it’s not only the welfare. These old girls are still alive, still kicking. They’re happy, can’t you see?”
I stared at Penny, then again at Jean and Sheila and Lily Billy. The warm autumn sunlight lay on their bodies and faces. The air was clear and fresh. They had nothing important to do and nothing at all to fret over. When the situation is hopeless there is nothing to worry about. I watched their lively hands, their active searching faces, and saw something like gaiety in those irrepressible gestures. Why quit, they were saying. Why quit?
Many miles east of William Creek and Anna Creek we came upon the range crew. Far in advance was the Dogger Man, an old outbacker named Arthur. He drove a Toyota pickup, the front bumper festooned with the scalps and tails of dingoes. This is Arthur’s life work, killing the wild dogs. He shoots, traps, poisons them—any way he can get them. The state government pays him a bounty of four dollars for each trophy. He complained that because of the heavy rains there were too many rabbits. Too many rabbits meant that the dingoes were ignoring his traps and poisoned baits.
We drove on, came to a dry lake bed, and stopped. Coming toward us was a herd of horses, fifty or sixty of them, each with a pair of leather hobbles dangling from its neck. Driving the horses were young Richard Nunn, Jockey Leinart and Phil the Drifter. I pulled the Suzuki off the dirt road. We watched them pass. Penny took pictures. We waited. Presently a dog appeared, followed by two pairs of dromedaries harnessed to a rubber-tired wagon. The “bung cart.” The camels wore padded collars like horse collars but larger. A small, very dark Abo boy drove the camel team, cracking a whip across the rumps of the near pair from time to time. Huddled under his big hat, within the upturned collars of his coat, his face was nearly invisible. His name was Henry. The bung cart carried the camp’s food and cooking gear, bedrolls, two fifty-gallon drums of drinking water, tools, spare ropes, and saddles. What we would call a chuckwagon. Later, when I asked Henry why it was called a bung cart, he grinned shyly and said, “I dunno. ‘Cause everything in it gets bunged around, I reckon.”
The four camels paced steadily across the flat red lake bed, pulling their wagon. Heads high, they managed to look at the same time both dignified and ridiculous. A fifth camel followed—the spare.
Another gap in the outback caravan, then finally the cattle came in sight. Obscure figures rode back and forth in the dust at the rear of the herd—George the Drunkard, sober now, in charge, and two other Aborigine stockmen.
Penny and I drove south along the railroad and that evening camped with a different crew mustering cattle in a different paddock. On the Anna Creek station, a “paddock” may be twenty by thirty miles wide and long. The “muster” is the roundup, and at Anna Creek these musterings are taking place, somewhere, all year around.
The camp was made near a clump of finish, or finnis, trees, a type of slow-growing desert scrub. Like the mesquite of the American Southwest, the finish makes excellent firewood. On a fire of this fuel the boys were stewing their beef in a pot and heating water for tea. They used the lowered tailgate of their bung cart for a counter, cutting up chunks of salted beef, slicing their camp-baked “hamper” bread. I ate some. Enclosing a slab of stewed beef, it made a substantial sandwich.
A young man named Darrell was the head stockman here. With him were Rodney, and Willie (the son of Norm Wood and his Aborigine wife Jean), and a boy called Froggie (about sixteen), and a little Aborigine boy named Jonesy. Jonesy looked like a child, hardly big enough to climb onto a horse; I would have guessed he was ten years old, but he insisted he was a full-grown fifteen, and the others backed him up. As I would see the next day, Jonesy did a man’s work. They all had been out on the range for five weeks.
Willie, at twenty-one, was the oldest. He was also, among other duties, the camp cook. I asked him what he fed the crew. Hepointed to the pot on the fire. “Stewed beef.” To the wagon gate. “Hamper and jam. Coffee and tea.”
“Right,” I said, “that’s dinner, and what about breakfast?”
Two more Abo boys came into the firelight, carrying their saddles. They had been hobbling the horses. There was much talk of horses around the fire as the crew ate dinner. Some of the boys asked me questions about America, especially about cowboys, Indians, the Wild West. I told them a little of ranch life in the Southwest, explained the differences in technical terminology. They seemed pleased to hear that our West was no longer quite so wild as the Red Centre of Australia. As we talked the battery radio on the wagon played country-western music, most of it manufactured in a city called Nashville. Every hour on the hour came the five-minute news bulletin, exactly as trivial and superficial as the best of NBC, CBS, and ABC.
We were awakened at four-thirty the next morning by that same radio, playing the same music. Fire blazing, water boiling. The Aborigine boys—the best trackers—were out in the dark hunting the horses. When the first faint glow of dawn appeared, the dingoes began to howl, far off in the bush. Arthur the Dogger Man had not got them all. Like coyotes in America, the dingoes seem to thrive under persecution, breeding smarter all the time.