Big Bend

Open Sky
Photo cred: James H. Evans

I keep coming to Big Bend because other people do not seem to go there much. There are spurts of visitors in the spring and the fall and that is about it. In heat, I can own the whole place. This summer night is silent, no insect sound, just the occasional scream of a falling star. The rain has failed for eleven months. Big Bend is drying out. The terrain is a natural barrier and so in this zone, from Presidio down river to about Del Rio, human traffic has long been light. I once met a guy in a village in Mexico who had a bull get loose and head north. He crossed the river on horseback, trailed the bull over a hundred miles to Fort Stockton, lassoed it and somehow got it back home. What struck me about his story is that he didn’t think it much of a story. He was the kind of person Big Bend — on both sides of the river — seemed to breed.

The river is almost gone. Since the 1930s, the demands on the Rio Grande have exceeded the natural flow. Since about 2000, the river has failed to make it to the sea. With global warming and a drier weather pattern, it is certain to decline yet more. In the middle reaches of the Rio Grande in New Mexico, the annual floods ended in the early seventies when Cochiti Dam broke the back of the river. Now the cottonwood bosques are becoming senile and in a century will be gone if this management continues because there is almost no replacement by seedlings dependent on the yearly flood cycle of the natural stream. Which brings me to Big Bend, the only national park on the entire eighteen-hundred-mile river.

It was supposed to be half of an international park joining the Sierra del Carmen with the Chihuahuan Desert on the U.S. side, or at least that was FDR’s notion. This never happened. Now there is talk of walling off the river lest some Mexican come north and terrorize us with decent food. Big walls are the new form of American installation art. The federal government is also building new housing for Border Patrol agents within the park to catch a non-existent flow of migrants. This is becoming a problem on the frontier of the empire. Last fall, I had drinks with some Border Patrol people on the Arizona chunk of the line. Their station had 350 people and bagged only 300 migrants a month. They were a little concerned that the public might some day learn what it cost to catch a poor person seeking work.

I come to Big Bend to be alone. For years, people have told me why they do not come here. It is in Texas. It is a dead end with a long drive in and out. It can be very hot. It is a desert. One guy told me it was the commodification of the natural world. Yes, and be sure to tell others.

I avoid the river with the two major campsites and also avoid the Chisos Mountains with their forests and facilities. I prefer to dry camp at various primitive park sites. So far, I have never run into anyone at such locales, but there is no guarantee my luck will hold. Like all fine places, there is nothing to do. And as a bonus, in Big Bend there is not a lot to see by conventional standards. If one is careful, one can find a patch of creosote and dry ground that does not pester one with vistas. At night the stars make a lot of noise but I have gotten used to that.

I seem to blunder about aimlessly and then get tired and sit down for a spell. I have never had a big idea in Big Bend and of course I am very grateful for this fact. There was a time in my life when I would hole up in Marfa writing books and periodically would become insane because of marauding art galleries, a serious menace in the area. I would drive to Big Bend and sit down very quietly and these seizures would pass. Also, I am here to tell you that one of the best roads in the United States runs from Presidio, Texas, to Big Bend, a two-lane slow path along the river through little canyons. Don’t bother to take photographs in Big Bend. James Evans owns the place and frankly you should simply buy his books and save yourself some time. He not only has what it looks like, he has what it feels like and means. This is a very rare thing.

Big Bend is a place to be. And not much else. To my knowledge, anyone having an epiphany there is summarily executed. I cannot prove this but I am a creature of hope.

Lately, I have realized I have spent my life surrounded by two kinds of professional liars — the normal Chamber of Commerce felons and the pious trolls of academia. They have always said there would be enough water, they have always said you can’t stop people from coming here, they have always said national defense was job number one, and that if we simply had some more meetings, it would all work out. They have always lied. Big Bend, for me, is a haven from this talk. It is pretty much uninhabitable and the Mexican side is equally isolated. I have a friend who ran dope in this area for years — he’d bring it north through Panther Junction. One of my first visits to Big Bend was when he showed me his former haunts and routes, including where in the beginning he’d crawl through the bosque on his belly dragging a burlap bag of grass. He soon advanced to better days and was doing about $750,000 a month when he made a fatal error: he refused to pay a bribe to a U.S. Custom agent because of his prejudice against crooks in law enforcement. This moment of integrity cost him five years in a federal pen.

Three javelina root around in the brush by the river. The sky is overcast and soon comes the first rain in months. The arroyos run here and there from desert showers. The walls of the wash are red and lavender and yellow. The water rolls over the rocks and the ground comes up and slaps my face with scent.

Just across the river is the village where they killed Pablo Acosta.

He’d come back from the United States in 1976 and found disorder. The man in charge of the plaza in Ojinaga just upriver had quit his post and no one knew exactly who to contact for payoffs. Drugs were small time, a sideline in a poor area. Acosta grew with the industry and soon things were big enough that the Mexican federal police set up a headquarters in town to collect their cut. Acosta also shipped money to the Mexican army. By 1983, Acosta was big time and bringing planeloads of cocaine in from Colombia. He once considered executing my friend.

And then he was gone. He was murdered by a Mexican commander with the help of the FBI.

That happens in that business and in this place.

Just to the west is the gouge of Santa Elena Canyon, the river now a latte color from the waters rushing in from the flooded arroyos. The thunder is near now, and lightning slices the sky. Steam rises from the road as fresh raindrops fall.

A couple pulls over by the suddenly rising waters, she carefully wades out a short bit and he takes photographs and this is right across the river from the machine-gunned building where they took down Pablo and my God life is good at this moment and I suck down the breeze and believe, well, if only I knew what I believed.

Chisos at Night
Photo cred: James H. Evans

The Chisos Mountains loom like gods in the mist and across the river the Sierra Carmen walls off Mexico. Los Diablos stand around and chat. They are a firefighting group formed in Boquillas del Carmen, the Mexican village just across the river. The Diablos fight fires in Big Bend and elsewhere — last spring, they were up to save Los Alamos, NM, America’s city of scientific death. On the rocks are small wire creations of scorpions, roadrunners and ocotillo cactus. They go for five or six bucks a piece and a hand-printed sign says the money helps schools in Boquillas. Traditionally, visitors to the park went across the shallow river for breakfast and to buy little bits of Mexico. 9/11 ended that for Boquillas and Santa Elena a ways upstream and both villages fell apart. The small wire figures are contraband and the government warns against such commerce. The Federal authorities also ask visitors not to give water to any illegals they may encounter in the desert but to promptly call 911.

The sign says that God will bless for any donation.

The creosote is brown. Dead prickly pear heaps dot the floor of the Chihuahuan Desert. The diggings of the javelina show desperation. I woke up at gray light on the ground and listened and there was nothing, not the dawn song of the coyote, not a single note of birdsong. Nothing.

A ranger says in time this place will be like the Sahara. He goes off on how the U.S. has the habits of a cancer cell and is killing the earth in general and Big Bend in particular.

The fresh air is suddenly rich in scent after the first slight shower in eleven months.

Down by the river, the government has posted a warning: “Beware of Javelina! Protect Your Property. Javelina in search of food may rip up your tents.”

At the mouth of Dog Canyon, a javelina bolts. The early camel corps came through in 1859 as they tested the Middle Eastern beast for the War Department, an early foray in national security. The experiment was cut short, when the Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, decided to quit his job, and lead a movement to destroy the Union. Before things settled down, 600,000 Americans were dead.

Back at the Boquillas crossing, Los Diablos laugh. Their caps sport the flags of the U.S. and Mexico, plus a big red devil.

There’s talk of reopening the crossing in the spring of 2012. But I am not sure my fellow citizens can bear such a risk to their safety.

There was a moment in my childhood when I realized my family and my school and my friends and my neighborhood all meant death. I took to sleeping on the roof until my parents outlawed this behavior.

But when I roll out my bag in Big Bend and look up I remember this and know, at least for a little moment, why I am here.

The sky has always meant freedom to me.

Big Bend still has sky.

Charles Bowden is the author of many books, including “Down by the River: Drugs, Money, Murder, and Family,” “Some of the Dead Are Still Breathing: Living in the Future” and, most recently, “Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields.” Bowden’s last story for MG was “The New Colossus,” which appeared in #184. He lives in the Chihuahuan Desert. 

Read about one man’s journey through climbing and divorce in Where It Ended

The New New Colossus: Preface to Maurice Sherif’s ‘The American Wall’

The New New Colossus. Photo: Maurice SherifAbout a year ago, I was three or four hundred yards from the wall in a National Forest when a military drone lazed by a few hundred feet above the ground. The aircraft was almost silent and directed by men sitting in a control room many miles away in Fort Huachuca, the U.S. Army intelligence center. They were hunting poor people — men, women, and children. The summer day felt fresh because of recent rain, the hills glowed with green, and a small canyon with water tumbling across its rock bottom sliced south to Mexico. I was standing on American ground and staring into the face of American dread.

The wall is a political stunt whose time has come. In some places, the wall looks ugly, in other places it seems innocent. Sometimes, when it snakes across valleys and deserts and mountains, the wall looks like a work of art. But it never looks like it will do the job of keeping people out of the U.S. and it never does that job. It cuts communities off from each other, illegally takes land here and there for its footprint, and severs connections in biological communities. But mainly the wall billboards American fears and murders American ideals.

Most U.S. citizens support walling off Mexico and most U.S. citizens will never even glimpse this wall. But they will believe that it is essential and no fact is likely to upend their belief.

For the people coming north, the wall is simply one more obstacle in a lifetime of obstacles.

The body was found three and a half miles south of the Duquesne Road at 7:39 a.m. July 18th. Ramon Alejandro Mendoza-Alcaraz was from Magdalena, Sonora, a town noted for agriculture, drug smuggling, and an annual fiesta for San Francisco that has been celebrated for centuries and draws people from both sides of the border. Those who have made vows walk from fifty to a hundred miles to be present at the celebration. Ramon lived twenty-seven years. The other body was found July 25th. Jose Francisco Lira-Cendo lasted twenty-eight years and came from Caborca, Sonora, a town noted for agriculture and drug smuggling. So far thirteen bodies have been found in the county this year. They were all in the U.S. illegally. They had crossed fences, car barriers and, in most cases, the wall.

I stay calm by ignoring what is in front of my face. The dead men were within ten or fifteen miles of my house. I know the towns they came from, and I know what it feels like to enter the U.S. illegally since I have done it many times. Almost thirty years ago, I crossed the line in western Sonora on June 21st and walked forty-five miles across a burning desert in one night. I was in pretty good shape then but this walk almost finished me off. The Mexicans moving around me that night had an added pressure: they were hunted by agents of the U.S. government and would be thrown back into Mexico if they were caught. I was simply trying to dramatize for a daily newspaper the fact that the Mexican border had become a killing field as men and women and children trekked across the hardest ground in hopes of finding a living in these United States. There was no wall then and there were not twenty thousand agents on the line trying to catch Mexicans. But there was desperation and death, and this misery has been a constant over the years.

I feed birds here. I raise flowers. And I try to forget all the dead. And I almost always fail. I have spent my life on the line and nothing about the migration of the Mexican people from death toward life is ever far from my mind and heart. The wall is merely the most recent denial of what is happening and why it is happening. The wall divides human communities, the wall illegally seizes ground, the wall costs billions, and the wall stops no one. In the Altar Valley, a spot I have loved since childhood, the wall was hardly up a week before gates were cut through it. The Mexicans thoughtfully put the hinges on their side of the barrier.

The U.S. border with Mexico has never been secure and never will be secure. It is too vast to police and the U.S. economy is too rapacious to endure a sealed border. The only way to stop illegal immigration is to create a country so repellent that no one will try to sneak into it. The former Soviet Union comes to mind as a possible model, or perhaps modern-day Somalia.

Many Americans like to boast that their ancestors entered the U.S. legally. They forget that it was almost impossible to be rejected. One third of the current population is descended from people who came through a single place in New York Harbor, Ellis Island. They had to answer twenty-nine questions, not be dangerously ill, insane, or known criminals. Only two percent were ever rejected by the U.S. Of course, almost all of them had been rejected by the nations of their birth. That is why they arrived at Ellis Island. They were human garbage cast off by their native lands. I am descended from such people.

The Mexicans coming north are very similar. Badly educated, poor and unwanted by Mexico. And capable of creating a new life in a new language in a new place. They are exactly the kind of people Mexico needs if it is to prosper and they are exactly the kind of people Mexico rejects because it is a corrupt plutocracy that functions by terrorizing and crushing its own citizens.

There are many forces driving the migration north — a free trade agreement that destroyed peasant agriculture and wiped out small industries, a growing violence fed by the U.S. prohibition against certain drugs and by the deliberate policy of the Mexican government, a growing population on a sacked land base — and scholars will be picking over these facts for generations seeking causes. It hardly matters now, the movement has begun and for people to stay in Mexico means doom for them and the explosion of the state, just as there are many forces feeding the backlash against the migration in the U.S. These matters too will be parsed by scholars over time. But like the migration itself, the rise of anti-immigrant feeling in the U.S. now has a life of its own and fits a pattern of American nativism whenever new arrivals suddenly change the faces in towns and cities.

But what will prove more damaging than migrants or drugs is the sudden fear in the American people that makes them build a giant wall. At most, the illegal numbers in the U.S. comprise four percent of the population, but somehow this sliver of flesh terrorizes the remaining ninety-six percent and has created a new iron curtain walling off the brown nation to the south.

I am living through an ugly time and this new age of walls and fear is alien to my nature.

So I watch birds by a creek near the line while the Border Patrol sweeps past my door and the wall slowly strangles the pathways of life on my ground.

That is why this book matters. The wall now being built on the southern border of the U.S. is a statement about the shuttering of American society. It is not a tactic to control immigration since no one in government seriously thinks it will do that. It is an almost two thousand mile-long monument to the American fear of others. The country that located the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor right by Ellis Island has vanished. The new America needs a wall to sleep at night.

Emma Lazarus’ poem sits inside the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. It reads:

The New Colossus

By Emma Lazarus, 1883

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

No one has written any poems celebrating the wall.

Maybe it is time to take good look at it.

California Imperial Desert. Photo: Maurice SherifBlack-headed grosbeaks returned as the summer rains arrived here on the border. I try to think of them and not of the dead men to my south. Three separate groups of illegal migrants have told the federal agents of passing a line of about nine men wearing backpacks just this side of the border. They had all been cut down by automatic rifle fire about a month ago. They were smuggling marijuana into the U.S. and were killed by competitors.

Of course, maybe this never happened, maybe the dead are not dead. Just as no one thinks that all those who die trying to cross are found.

This shooting was a month ago. So far, no federal agents have looked into these reports because they don’t matter in this new America. In this new America, there is an insatiable appetite for drugs and contempt for the people who supply them. In this new America, there is an insatiable appetite for cheap labor and contempt for the people who take such jobs.

In this new America, there is a wall almost two thousand miles long and a growing desire to hunt down illegal Mexicans and ship them home. In this new America, migrants are seen as a threat to national security and national security is never defined. Or questioned.

In this new America, the biggest drug is legal and handed out freely by politicians. This drug is fear, and the American people have become addicted to it.

That is why the wall exists and that is why this book exists. The wall exists in our mind as a solution and exists on the ground as a gesture. The forces it tries to contain — drugs, poor people — cannot be answered by a wall or stopped by a wall or defined by a wall. But the wall speaks for a new America as it mutilates the cherished ideas of an earlier America.

That is why the Statue of Liberty must now be retired, and perhaps banished from public view before it confuses children.

The lamp by the golden door is now a battery of lights blazing against the long wall in the hours of darkness lest the tired and the poor sneak in here to fulfill their dreams.

The American Wall“The American Wall: From the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico” (University of Texas Press, two slip-case-packaged hard covers, 224-plus-160 pages, 100 quadratone photos: $150 — $100.50 if ordered directly from the Univ. of Texas website http://www.utexas.edu/utpress/books/sheame.html. ISBN: 978-0-292-72697-0.)

Regular MG contributor Charles Bowden is the author of many books, including, most recently, “El Sicario: The Autobiography of A Mexican Assassin” and “Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields.” He lives in Las Cruces, NM.

Maurice Sherif studied communication art at the University of San Francisco in California. His first book, “Lumière Métallique,” was published in 2003. Sherif now divides his time between his native Paris and Albuquerque .

Blood Winter

The hunger comes before I know my name or where I am. This appetite may be the story of my life but my life is not much of a story. The hunger is greater than I have been or will be. This hunger is the thing driving me and flogging me. I am born between two points: a stone axe head found in a plowed field and placed on a fence post by my father and the scars of an ancient and huge glacial lake whose collapse helped feed and sculpt the great delta of the Mississippi River. Everything else is detail to be buried in the river muck or ground under by the next sheet of ice.

I was born to be erased.

And accept this fact.

The ground under my feet has always meant more to me than the people around me.

I have dreamed all of my life about a house down by the river where I will live out my days and let the land heal and grow ever more fruitful.

I have dreamed all of my life of burning this place to the ground and then departing into the dark of night while the flames lick the ground.

I am not about closure. I am about reopening wounds and slashing through the scar tissue to the place where the dreams sleep and wait to come back to life.

I whittle the end of a stick, slide on a marshmallow and roast it black over the small wood fire as lightening bugs glow in the dusk. Images float before me like a dream.

The Case jackknife is razor sharp from constant honing on a whetstone, the air rich with the smell of oil as I stroke the blade.

Shucking fresh corn, the rank odor on my hands as the dogs gather round full of hope and curiosity.

The staleness of a city apartment in winter, the fresh blast of aroma rising from straw, cow shit and the Holsteins entering the barn door in a precise order and then waiting to be hobbled and milked.

The rankness of weeds as I hack at them in the garden and embrace scent rising off the black earth into my face.

The breath of long dead dogs floats serenely in my memories and in my heart. The coarse laughter of vanished aunts and uncles warms the coldest night for me. Lately, distant moments of afternoon or morning, long ago smells and sounds and colors keep brushing against my face.

I am three and I think of old man Zeiger sitting on his porch in Chicago whittling dogs that he then stained. He would speak in halting English and this seemed normal for the time, an America where immigrants and foreign tongues were so common as to be unremarkable. For years, I had a small dog he placed in my childish hands, the body dippled by the blade to simulate fur. But it has slipped away, like the old man himself, and yet the chips falling on that gray painted porch, the little dog emerging from the wood, while a real live and very old dog sat at his feet, I still have those things and they are crawling out of my head and spilling onto the floor. Excuse me while I lean down and smell the fresh, sharp tang coming off the wood.

I keep remembering things of no consequence. The rush I felt as the smell comes off chickens roasting on the grill in the late afternoon, the chatter of women fussing in the kitchen amid the pies and vegetables and salads and bawdy talk, the sour smell wafting off the beers in the paws of the men, the laughter of my father at his own absurdity and in the distance, the hens clucking as they scratch and feed in a world I try to imagine and wish to join. Clouds also, always better to my eye when blackened with the promise of storms and thunder and lightening. A green tinge of hail beckons from the heavens and I can see fear sweep the eyes of my farmer kinfolk.

That guinea hen pausing just before it is going to peck out my sister’s eye and the crack of the rifle as my mother on the back porch of the farmhouse cuts it down.

I have despised America’s view of itself most of my life — the belief that we are a city on a hill shining grace and light onto other nations, that we only fight defensive wars, that we have solved the problem of class by pretending everyone is middle class. And that race is a detail in our long illustrious past.

Thirteen thousand years ago, a large meteor apparently struck North America and demolished many life forms. Paleo-Indian artifacts abruptly end in the layers of soil. Most of the mega-fauna suddenly disappear. Just like that. Fires no doubt raged and turned entire ecosystems to ash. We, as people, have been here a few moments in a happy interlude between glacial events.

National identity is a fabrication and comes and goes with the vast migrations of peoples. When Hadrian built his famous wall dividing England and Scotland, the people north of the wall were not Scots and the people south of the wall were not English. And reading of the evidence of the human presence in Europe over the last ten thousand years makes me realize the continent has been a constant movement of people creating goulash of elements within the various national DNAs.

Hunger has pushed me to go into deep time, that place before my life began and before written language began, to plow the very soil of my world. I speak to others but they seem to use a foreign language. Sometimes, I think I am living underwater. I keep flicking through shards from a broken past, beasts going down: Imagine being the last mastodon? The last dire wolf howling into the silent night? The plains tribes riding into doom and alcoholism. The grass sitting there, incapable of flight, as the plow rips apart a world. The lonely paddlefish hiding in a few refuges as violence destroys all the other members of the ancient community in the watershed bleeding the heart of the continent. That slave singing African songs in a language no one in the neighborhood can understand.

The cities killing the bottomland.

The banks killing the countryside.

In the school rooms, they teach that the tale is about the unfolding of freedom.

In the academy, they teach the tale is about imperialism and the crushing of native people.

Or they insist the tale is about racism and slavery and a compact made with some kind of devil even though God is dead . . . still the devil lived on and ruined the tale from the beginning.

In all the tales, the land is there for the taking.

This is where I leave the classroom, leave my nation and turn my back on my own species.

The land was there for the taking.

I have never spent one minute of my life believing this statement.

It is the original sin, one committed by the earliest bands, then the tribes, then the nations, and after that the scribblers of the tale.

In time, this sin will tear to rubble the City on the Hill.

The land was, is and will be.

Never for the taking.

I believe in the woman walking the summer street by the old live oak as a dog wanders in the trail of her scent.

The land was there for the taking and I left the thieves before I could speak a single word.

There are some days when the green wave comes, a surge of protoplasm, pollen, chlorophyll, and it is warm as it laps against my face, memories ride within the swirl, the wish of spring when the thaw comes, the tulips and daffodils erupting from the dead hand of winter, the birds in the tree making morning songs, an up swelling of everything that says yes and drowning everything that says no, and I glide on this wave of energy and believe no matter what happens that only good will come, crack an egg into the sizzle of the skillet and feel a warmth off the orange yolk, the smell of toast, the savor of black coffee, and the days grow longer, the trees burst into leaf, and I know this green wave is the future and the past and the present, and I race downstream following it as it crashes against the tombs where abandoned hopes rot and breathes life into everything, and the killings go under, the blood is washed away, going to find my father, going back to find my mother, going back to find the ground, the dirt paved over, the soil lost to my mind, things abandoned when I left on that interstate and got aboard that plane, some kind of return to a place of broken clocks and iron sunrises, a green wave taking under things called the economy or things called career or things called planning, a surge breaking my will but feeding my appetite, and I stand as it towers over me and I go, God I must go, because nothing will make sense unless I give up sense and join.

But it is a fantasy, these waves of red and green, there are no records, all the archives are full of wars, progress, bank accounts and jubilees, things solid, I am told, like the granite facing of banks, the market reports and the daily schedules of presidents.

Since childhood I have sensed things beneath comment and lived things beneath acceptance. And now I am left with little or nothing but these waves, the erosion the boomers have made on my life, the tang in the air as surge storms toward me.

Two sticks, a line of string, the row marked, bean seeds in the ground, a wind still coming with a breath of cold, all hope lying in the turned over soil, promise of blue sky overhead, the rabbit in the meadow, crack of my single-shot .22, a leap and then flop, the animal left to rot as the sun starts to sink, a spring in my step as I move across the broken ground, the basic strands there at the beginning and now coming back at me again was waves of color.

In the morning, I think the green wave means life, the red wave means death. But in the night, I think they mean the same thing.

The green wave.

Her grave stares from the edge of the valley in the Sand Hills, a place near the ranch where her father raised the family and warred against the world. Mari Sandoz is both the recorder and the victim of the ground, a child of Swiss immigrants born in 1896, the same year as my father, she was the oldest of six raised on a hard ranch. Her father enjoyed drink, bold talk, and when feeling bad about life, beat his wife. He corresponded widely, tried agricultural experiments, held a kind of stern salon in his isolated place, and, given his reputation as a good shot, served as a one-man defense unit for the farmers coming in and butting heads with the ranch culture. He also surveyed plots for the newcomers.

Mari learned English at nine when she finally made it to a public school — as did my mother a few hundred miles to the east in Iowa. She left home by marrying a cowboy and when that swiftly failed, she went to Lincoln, starved her way to an education and worked on a book endlessly. It was about her father and called “Old Jules” and finally was published in 1935.

When as a child I would ask questions about my dead grandfather, I’d be told that all I needed to know was in “Old Jules.”

Sandoz eventually made it to New York City, lived in the Village and wrote histories of the Sioux and the land. The distance seemed to make this work more bearable.

I am in her sister’s house in the Sand Hills, a small place surrounded by a belt of trees that look to be under siege. Outside, the dunes, hidden under a carpet of grass, seem to roll on like an ocean. The house stands as a fort built against the land and the wind and the whiteouts of winter. It is not far to Wounded Knee but it is very far to what the settlers dreamed they would find.

The country feels mean when viewed from inside the house. But outside it feels like a fatal attraction. She pours coffee, talks of her sister, takes me downstairs and shows the books of Mari Sandoz I might buy. But the freshness is gone, the plains have been entombed in nice bound volumes by a woman who knew all the pain and all the scents. It is this way in the official stations of the thing called settlement — the museums, the paintings, most of the memoirs, the historical societies. Clean glass cases with oddments from brutal winters and children dying early and often. The dead buffalo are warm memories but now herds of cattle eat down the grass, and the plains want to be cowboys, country western music and strange hats worn by bankers in the stuffy air of their offices.

The insane women trapped in cabins in the wind with the sour smell of pent-up living are hardly remembered at all. When I was a kid, I could make no connection between the tales of pioneers and the kitchens where they were told as dinner simmered on the electric stove.

Ifind an old cedar box, a small half oval. I open it for the first time in half a century. It is from my childhood, some trove I kept that got stored for no reason when I left home. There are two full jacketed rounds for my .303 Enfield. A dozen .22 Long Rifles. And clusters of wooden matches with the tips sealed and waterproofed by wax.

One cufflink.

And the paper case for two Marlin blades for a safety razor.

I fondle the cartridges and suddenly ballistics tables that I poured over night after night march through my mind and I can see numbers detailing the range of the .264 magnum I once craved as an antelope killer, a caliber now largely out of production, and the gleaming stock of a Weatherby, the dazzling bands of colors from different woods glued together in a loud grandeur.

I find a tarnished penny stamped 1960 and a small piece of copper ore.

They can sense the future and they fight it. The Micmacs are in their eyes an ancient people on ancient ground. It is the winter of 1749-50, the British in their struggle with the French for mastery of North America are building up strength in numbers and guns at Halifax, Nova Scotia. The population is almost entirely of French origin, a people known to us as Acadians. And they have intermarried with the Micmacs and become something neither French nor British, but rather a new breed of people bent on hard work, independence and tilling their ground. In a few short years, they will be uprooted, their homes and churches burned, their land stolen and they will be shipped off to France, the British colonies on the Atlantic seaboard and eventually wend their way to the swamps and prairies of Louisiana and became yet another name, Cajuns.

But now, in this winter, their relatives the Micmacs grow alarmed by the British expansion and a council of elders drafts a declaration:

. . . The place where you are, where you build, where you fortify, where you think to make yourself master — that place belongs to me. I have sprung from this land as surely as the grass. I was born here and my fathers before me. Yes, I swear, it is God who has given it to me, to be my country forever . . . You glory in your great numbers. The Indian, with his small numbers, glories in nothing but God, who knows very well what is happening. Even an earth worm knows when it is attacked. I may be worth little more than an earth worm, but I know to defend myself when I am attacked . . . .

He lives in the woods near the Lost Coast and huge trees are his religion. His trailer in the woods has holes in the floor and he drapes sheets of plywood like throw rugs to keep winter at bay. He has two passions. Reading books far into the night. And shutting down modern life in the forest — no timbering, so salvaging, no harvest of much of anything. He has projects afoot to restore old salmon streams and thinks they will come back if beckoned.

He is Native American and is willing to wait forever.

He is about time.

He takes me to a massacre site, one of those spots of gore that splotch California from the days when the ’49ers hunted Indians like deer or wild hogs.

Sometimes when he moves through the woods he finds a bear. Then he will stand beside him.

The bear will get up on its hind legs and softy go huff, huff, huff.

It is written in the twelfth-century A.D. in the Orkenyinga Saga about Svein Asleifarson. His life is explained this way: “In the spring he had more than enough to occupy him, with a great deal of seed to sow which he saw to carefully himself. Then when the job was done, he would go off plundering in the Hebrides and in Ireland on what he called his ‘spring trip’, then back home just after midsummer where he stayed till the corn fields had been reaped and the grain was safely in. After that he would go off raiding again, and never come back till the first month of winter was ended. This he used to call his ‘autumn trip’.”

The temperature hangs at one above zero in western North Dakota near the Montana line. The wind is down, only slight drifts whisper across the roads. The house sits as a small tomb of silver wood, two floors, small rooms, a few trees slowly dying in a grass land where they never belonged. Joe Njos homesteads the land, builds the house, then goes back to Norway for a wife. She was very attractive, maybe the best-looking woman in the area. That was in ’15, or ’16.

“They had one son, and one daughter,” Melvin Wisdahl remembers. He’s past eighty and still he can see the beauty of her face in the blank of the plains. “She kept it spotless. She always dressed like a queen. One of his nephews always claimed his uncle got her out of a whorehouse in Norway. They died after World War II.

“Then the son lived there and he was a drunkard and he lost the land. I remember the day of the auction sale, he sat there drunk and cried.

“He married some woman who came through — someone who was making the rounds. Then she took off. He died in the fifties from something. The house has been empty a long time.”

Soon the house will not be part of memory. The roof will go and fall into the cellar. The walls will tilt. No one living will remember who once lived there, the woman who dressed like a queen in her tiny castle. The earth waits for the slow rot of this intrusion called settlement.

Nearby is the Bone Trail, the track the settlers used to haul the skeletal remains of buffalo to the railroad for a few stray bucks to get them through the angry winters.

They need meat and so the young man and his wife leave the village with eight dogs pulling loads. The story is Hidatsa or Mandan or Arikara — it is all long ago now and no one is sure which tribe first discovered this truth in the grass. Each day the man goes out and kills the game, mainly deer and antelope. Each day the woman dries the meat and cleans the hides.

She tells him, “I feel like going home now. We have been here a long time, and now there is plenty of dried meat.”

But he wants to kill more.

After a while, a routine descends. The dogs brighten when the man returns each day, the woman cooks fresh meat and at night, when the coyotes howl, the dogs patrol the camp. And then one day when the man is gone on his hunt, the woman looks up and sees a young man watching her. She scents a nice odor on the wind.

She retreats to her lodge and when she comes back out, the young man is gone. But in future days, the young man keeps returning and when he does, the dogs growl.

She tells her husband of these visits and how she fears the young man may be an enemy who will kill her husband and make her a slave. But he searches around the camp, can find no tracks and so dismisses her tale.

He says he needs one more day on the hunt and then they will return to their village.

And so it happens, he goes out the hunt, the young man with the fine scent returns and she elopes with him.

Later, the husband finds her gone, and trails her with the dogs. He sees the couple walking ahead of him, cuts around them and when they approach discovers to his surprise that his woman has run off with an elk. He fires an arrow but it bounces right off the elk.

The woman and her elk lover march past him. He follows, fires all of his arrows to no effect. When he approaches his wife, she ignores him.

They come to a lake. The elk disappears under the waters and she follows her new lover beneath the surface. Her husband sits on the bank and weeps. Night falls, and still he remains with his grief.

Just before morning, his woman breaks the surface and she tells him, “You must go home now. We can’t be together again. It is difficult where I live now. And now you must go!”

But she also tells him that if he ever wants anything — success in war, power — he should come back to this very place and ask. After the winter has passed, she continues, he should return with a dress, a belt and a pair of moccasins and leave them on the bank for her. And he should remarry and this will happen soon and she says the new woman will look very much as she does.

And it all comes to pass as she said. He goes back to his village, finds a new woman who looks like his wife, and settles down. He returns in the spring with gifts, she surfaces briefly and then returns to her elk lover.

He becomes a power among his people.

The preceding is an excerpt from a work in progress, “Café Blood: Songs My Country Taught Me.”

Charles Bowden is the author of, among many others, “Dreamland: The Way Out of Juarez,” “Down by the River: Drugs, Money, Murder and Family” and, most recently, “Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields.”

1.  John Mack Faragher, “A Great and Noble Scheme: The Tragic Story of the Expulsion of the French Acadians from their American Homeland,” W.W. Norton, New York, 2006 [2005], p. 260

2.  Cunliffe, p. 464.

3. “Parks, Myths and Traditions of the Arikara Indians,” pp. 219-223.