Letters – #179

Envelope: Diane

We’re in the market for decorative envelopes to help beautify our Letters pages. If you’ve got an artistic envelope bent, pull out your weapons-of-choice, decorate an envelope with our snail mail address on it, mail the resultant envelope to us, and, if we print it, we’ll give you a year’s subscription to the Mountain Gazette.

Less dog dookie in Paris
Dear Editor: I enjoyed your Feb./March issue while in Frisco and wanted to comment on the story by Michael Brady (Dateline: Europe, “The Merde in France: Dog Dung Decline,” MG #176). Please pass along my applause to him.

On my first visit to Paris ten years ago, I was stunned and appalled at the amount of dog dung all over the city, no matter the elegant address. How could a community applaud its history and yet show so little pride in its appearance? Arrogance?

I was pleased to see the city was cleaning up upon my last visit two years ago. Thank goodness I could walk with my eyes up, not constantly peering down to the sidewalk placing my steps carefully as in the past.

Thank you. The cover on this issue was a delight for our family as we had just traveled through the snowy woods via dog sleds!

Carol Freas,
Long Beach Island, NJ

Heads up!
Hi John: Reading the item on U.S. 550 in the April Cartographic (“Getting a Move On,” MG #177), I thought of another hazard unique to that road: the occasional 60-foot ponderosa sliding down the mountain and plopping on the highway in front of cars, forcing choices where the alternatives might be pretty grim.

We were coming back to Durango from Ouray last Mother’s Day and climbing Coal Bank Pass when a tree just dropped in front of us about 100 yards ahead. If we would have been closer when it fell, we might have swerved to avoid it, dropping into Lime Creek hundreds of feet below on the opposite side from where it fell.

Mick Souder,
Durango, CO

Almost Full Circle
John: Re: Your call for stories about how we came to be living in the West (“Stories of Us,” Smoke Signals, MG #169): It was 2003, the year after I’d graduated from a state college in northern Utah.  From the halls of education, I went to building tract houses with my brother, a contractor, to save enough money to buy a cheap car, then attempt to break free from my native Utah to Bellingham, Washington, where a friend lived. I purchased the car, fled to the Northwest, but a sort-of fate — or just bad luck, or just some unresolved psychological tick — flung me back home.

Back home literally. I was at my parents’ house, avoiding calling my brother to ask for my job back, working a temporary gig where I manufactured synthetic diamonds for oil drilling. In this period of desperation, I managed to send out a couple of “job” applications. Employment wasn’t really the goal: the goal was to find some means to plant myself in the deep soil of the world-out-there after four years squandered in books and libraries and classrooms.

And a proper de-education required the margins, forgotten places, the little and pathetic towns, the expanses of mountains and deserts that radiated outward in every direction from my center place near Salt Lake City. So applications for jobs and internships went out to state parks, national parks, the Student Conservation Corp., High Country News, anything that would lead me into the land where the civilized elements would be eclipsed by nature — big land, desert canyons, mountain forests, spring flowers, summer heat, winter snowfall, birdsong.

Bush and his administration of fools and the press idiots bellowed their bullhorns for war with Iraq. My home near Provo, Utah, was paved over, housed over, strip-malled to death; from behind this madness, I could hardly enjoy the Wasatch Mountains jutting abruptly and high from the earth. To be sure, there was nature, big nature, written in the mountain skyline that I had absorbed into my psyche since I was born. But, for me, the elements of civilization overcrowded the natural like a billboard blocking a vital road exit. And somehow I couldn’t disentangle the buzz of traffic, the edifices of religion punctuating the temples of consumerism (this is Utah, remember) and the ubiquitous post-9/11 flags all around me from the mounting stench of war. War against Afghanistan. War against Iraq. War against Terror. War for Greed. The Oil Wars.

A call came from Blanding, Utah, a place I’d never been before. The manager of the state park museum there said that no one else had applied for an opening, making me the perfect candidate. And as soon as I found out that I didn’t make the cut as an intern with High Country News, I packed my bag and headed to the canyonlands of southeastern Utah. Little did I know that it would turn out to be the perfect proving ground for de-education, for a period of deep immersion within place. A place to seek out elemental and empirical truth in red sandstone, white clouds and blue sky (and green mountains), rather than the lying flag-wavers who were boosting the Iraq war.

I spent weekends in the canyons that fissured through Cedar Mesa, the larger chasms cutting through the Elk Ridge uplands and Comb Ridge’s absurd bedrock spine snaking through the San Juan desert. During the weeks, I catalogued artifacts — pottery, rock flakes and tools, bone needles, wooden digging sticks and staffs, basketry, bird-feathered blankets and the like — in the museum’s database. Then back into the canyons, where I aimlessly wandered through the landscape.

I came more and more to see that desert wilderness as a Puebloan landscape of homes and agricultural fields that dated back to over a thousand years. I had gone to the desert to escape civilization but had found civilization somehow embedded in the desert. But it was an older civilization. And a civilization that I cannot resist feeling — despite the army of red flags that signal the fetishizing and exoticizing of native cultures — is a much wiser one than our own. If for no other reason than that these people seemed to live close to the land and derive the elements of their homes, their tools and their food from the land around them. Even if their corn and beans came from somewhere deep in Mexico, they held a knowledge of how to grow those crops in what most people today see as an austere and threatening landscape. They learned to blend the hydrology of the desert — canyons and washes and rills — with their non-irrigated agricultural landscape. They lived without gas stations and Wal-Marts and other portals of commerce through which the global economy funnels our tangible goods of consumption — while at the same time masterfully concealing the social and environmental costs of those products. I came to admire this indigenous civilization that, sure, was connected to the extra-regional, but was ultimately grounded in the local.

After all, isn’t this global flow of goods (particularly energy resources) at the root of the absurd wars that we find ourselves in this modern and enlightened day?

As with the only other time that I landed the perfect job in the perfect place, it came to the abrupt end that any seasonally hired employee knows. And so I took my newfound tool bag of archaeological knowledge to a cultural resource management (CRM) company in Moab, Utah. I feared that my nine-month-long desert gestation period, facilitated by temporary employment in Blanding, was to be disrupted by the marathoners, mountain bikers, trad climbers, Jeep ralliers and other assorted eco-extremists who congregate in Moab. More, though, I was afraid of taking a job with a company that did most of its work for oil and gas corporations building a sprawling network of roads and wells throughout northeastern Utah’s Uinta Basin. As Bush and his cadre of idiots were executing war abroad, they were waging a domestic war on our public lands written in the form of rapid oil and gas leasing.

The dilemma of CRM work, which protected a few archaeological sites at the expense of an entire landscape, ate away at my ideals like the flash floods that rip away at the root system of a cottonwood tree teetering on the edge of an arroyo. I helped to survey and “clear” land for oil and gas development. So I quit.

For one week, I worked for a hoods-in-the-woods outfit. The kids were from New York, New Jersey, somewhere in California — wherever. Their skin was dark from the sun even though it was February and their hair was matted and sandy. They ate mushy ashcakes, having, as the name denotes, the texture and taste of wood charcoal. Some of the kids’ sooty faces were streaked with tears. Whether forced or by choice, they sat huddled in the big desert like a little clan, each of them to either confront or hide from their problems.What makes these people any different from other people out there (the money addicts, the war mongers, the political criminals), I wondered at the same moment that I knew I would not come back to this job once going home at the end of the week.

And so it was back to archaeology. Which tells me that maybe it was more the asshole boss that I worked for rather than my eviscerated ideals that led me to quit my earlier job. After all, I found myself in a different place with a different company doing the same work. At this point, my now six-year girlfriend and mother of our son (shall I say partner?) and I had been together for a couple of months, and we both took jobs with a small CRM company in Montrose, Colorado.

We backpacked and snowshoed in the San Juan Mountains, watched movies during the winter in Ouray and worked on archaeological surveys and excavations. They continually revealed the wisdom of living fully from one’s locale and the absurdity of our own lifestyles. Energy extraction drove archaeology. Our work took us to northeastern Colorado, near Craig, where a natural gas pipeline was tapping into the Piceance Basin, then being routed north into Wyoming, before funneling natural gas into eastern markets as far as Greeley, Colorado. Rumors circulated that the pipeline would eventually stretch across Kansas and link with Midwestern and Eastern markets. For over a month, we excavated a “basin house,” dating back several thousand years, and which was buried within a trench where a four-foot diameter natural gas pipeline was to be interred.

Sometimes we return to places like blood cells circulating through a body; other times, places become closed pathways barring us from returning no matter how hard we try to get back. I have never returned to Sequoia National Park and the Sierra Nevada, where I worked for six months when I was 21, even though pangs of nostalgia torment me year after year as plan after plan dies without a reunion with that place. But I was fortunate to get a chance to return to southeastern Utah — and damned lucky to work on an archaeological survey of Comb Ridge. It was another temporary job, another brief window into Nirvana. I spent day after day walking the desert, finding and recording archaeological sites, and no threat of development following my wake. It was, largely, archaeology for the sake of archaeology, and the project was lead by a local archaeologist who is incredibly wise.

Out of school for several years at this point, and having walked my share of deserts and mountains, I was nonetheless foolish enough to believe that I was properly de-educated and now ready to return to graduate school. I couldn’t decide on a handful of schools and disparate programs, and so I followed my girlfriend to Albuquerque, where she would seek to win a Master’s degree while I would dip my toes into the academic waters.

I vacillated between graduate coursework in archaeology and environmental history.  I strolled through the Sandia Mountains, the Pecos Wilderness, the Jemez Mountains, but mostly it was books and research papers. Except during the summers, when I worked on archaeology projects — projects associated with cattle grazing impacts on Forest Service land, projects at national monuments, where the mountains meet the plains, projects to recover archaeological information before roads and suburbs and strip malls expanded west of Albuquerque in Bernalillo. It was the same pattern: Each archaeological project revealed a people who lived close to the land and locale, and each project was tied to our own society’s attempt to squeeze from the land quick profits, whether through overgrazing, development or tourism. Not land as place, but land as resource and means to profit.

I now live outside of a very small town on Arizona’s Mogollon Rim. I am burdened by an unfinished Master’s thesis focusing on energy extraction, environmental change and local resistance within New Mexico’s San Juan Basin. My girlfriend (partner?) and I have a son who just turned one.  Juniper trees spread out as far as I can see, with ponderosa crowns jutting into the skyline on knolls or within well-watered drainages. I feel very far from what I sought when leaving my hometown more than seven years ago. I long to awaken in sight of the Wasatch Mountains’ ridgeline cutting though the sky, a pattern that I’ve committed to deep memory once again, despite the ugly development that fills the broad valleys below. I am looking for escape from the suffocatingly conservative rural politics of Arizona. I long to circle my way back home, and, yet, I also feel as though I have found exactly what I set out for some seven years ago — being swallowed whole by big nature — which still seems like the only worthwhile pursuit out there.

Andy Wakefield

Here we are
Hey man! We chose the mountains by default, though people find that hard to believe.

My partner and I got used to having all kinds of open space around us after years of living in a rented four-plex in south Boulder County. We called the place Frank’s Windy Acres and it was in the ranch country, just east of Bear and South Boulder peaks. Sure, it had a junk Cadillac, but the views were great!

Eventually, we wanted a place of our own, and gave Wheatridge and Golden a chance, but concluded neighborhoods, in the suburban sense of the word, felt constrictive. Our counseling business was in Lakewood and we searched in the hills within a halfway-reasonable driving distance. Nine months of searching (and looking at a lot of funky places in our price range), coupled with a measure of fate and a motivated seller, found us right next door to the new and yet-to-be-opened, Staunton State Park. We call our place the Treehouse. I’d rather be here, pulling thistle and toadflax, raising the skirts on our pine trees and stacking firewood than pushing a lawnmower in the ’burbs any day.

Kevin Bedard,
Pine, CO

Mountain Gazette welcomes letters. Please email your incendiary verbiage to: mjfayhee@mountaingazette.com.