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Friday, June 13, 2014

San Juan County, Calvin Black and the new Sagebrush Rebels


Reluctant Rebellion in the Utah Desert



I have a deep and long-nurtured fondness for the landscape of San Juan County, Utah, in the far southeastern corner of the state. My parents often took me camping there when I was very young, and we hiked and slept under a river of stars in many a Cedar Mesa canyon -- Arch, Owl, Fish, Mule. Later, when I was a teenager and then even more when I was in my twenties, my friends and I backpacked as many canyons as we could. The vision of Comb Ridge, glowing in late afternoon sun, is burnt upon my brain. As is the memory of the Christmas-time backpack to a tributary of Owl, when a huge snowstorm arrived in the night, making the hike and drive out an epic adventure. After the car ended up in a ditch, far from any highway, and we hiked for hours through thigh-deep snowdrifts, a BLM ranger spotted us and gave us a ride to Blanding, where the fine folks at the Elk Ridge motel and cafe put us up for the night until my dad could come get us.

And because of this fondness, it really pisses me off when people like San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman make it their crusade to open up every inch of public land in the county to the ravages of motorized vehicles. Not only does driving the vehicles themselves wreck the fragile desert ecosystem and archaeological sites, but so does the increased access and crowds that comes with opening up so-called roads to motorized travel. That these so-called Sagebrush Rebels have made motorized travel their main ideology is simply absurd.

Yet I also have a certain sympathy for these folks: I know how frustrating it can be to have a piece of land that you considered to be your backyard shut off to access of one sort or another. It's especially maddening when the land is shut down by someone far away, whether it's an absentee landowner or a land manager in Salt Lake or Washington, D.C.

When I traveled to Blanding to observe an illegal ATV ride and protest into archaeologically rich Recapture Canyon that truly is in Blanding's backyard, I tried to keep both of those notions in mind. And then I wrote about it for High Country News. It was the type of story I really like to cover, one where I can get on the ground and be there for a particular event, but also bring a context to the story that others, from faraway locales, may miss.
A sampling of firearms seen at the protest.

This couple came from the Bundy Ranch to Blanding. They're from Provo, Utah.


The Silver Bullet: Top-notch, Sagebrush Rebellion-beat reporting vehicle.


Monday, April 28, 2014

Gallup, bikes and a reservation border town revolution

A few days after we moved back to Durango after many years away, my wife and I drove down south to Farmington to look for a new car. On the way, we passed a big New Mexico tourism department billboard. On it was a person mountain biking in the desert, near Gallup, "The Adventure Capital of New Mexico." I may have let out a guffaw.

Most of those of us who grew up in the Four Corners Country had a certain image of Gallup seared into our brains, and mountain biking and "adventure" had nothing to do with it, unless adventure means dodging empties of Tokay wine while stopping to get gas or a quick bite on the way to or from somewhere. Of all the reservation border towns, Gallup was always considered the worst: The most racist, the most exploitative, the most drunk.

And it was all true.
Abandoned hotel on the west side of Gallup.

Route 66 west of Gallup, with morning fog.

But that's not all there was to this western New Mexico town of 20,000. My father, who knew this region so well, always had a fondness for Gallup. It was a lot more diverse than, say, Durango (which back then had a much larger and stronger Hispanic community than it does now) -- it's oddly cosmopolitan, my dad would say. It was even called Little Chicago for a long time, due to the mix of immigrants who had come to work in the mines. Cross-country rail travelers and Route 66 motorists stopped here, and as the El Rancho motel will remind you, movie stars stayed there during the golden era of Hollywood Westerns. And if you stop and look around, and see beyond the kitsch and the Interstate junk, you'll see that Gallup is in a remarkable setting, with both dramatic and subtle beauty all around.

And unlike Farmington -- another border town with a history of racism and violence towards Navajos -- Gallup spawned a strong resistance movement. Back in the late 1960s and early 70s, a group of Native American activists, many of them students, rose up in response to racism and exploitation. They continued to be active for years, helping to lead the march on Santa Fe meant to hold the state legislature, and the liquor industry that controlled them, accountable for the alcohol problems in the town.

Gallup, mostly its dark side, has also featured in literature. Leslie Marmon Silko bases a lot of her novel, Ceremony, in it. Simon Ortiz, a renowned poet from Acoma Pueblo, east of Gallup, often mentions it. "Being in Gallup is always pretty much the same feeling," he wrote. "It is a feeling of something not balanced well in the belly." In "Grants to Gallup, New Mexico" Ortiz writes:
Gallup, Indian Capital of the World,
shit geesus, the heat is impossible,
the cops wear riot helmets,
357 magnums and smirks, you better
not get into trouble and you better
not be Indian.
 And in "For Those Sisters and Brothers in Gallup,"
O my god, I know what is my name:
she stumbled like a stuffed dummy 
against me, looked into my mouth
with her opaque remorseful eyes
and asked me for a drink.

I HAVE DRUNK AND TRIED TO KILL
MY ANGER IN YOUR GODDAMNED TOWN
AND I'M AFRAID FOR YOU AND ME
WHEN I WILL COME BACK AGAIN.

Be kind, sister, be kind;
it shall come cleansing again.
It shall rain and your eyes
will shine and look so deeply
into me into me into me into me. 
How this place could become a mountain bike mecca was beyond me, but I had to find out. I pitched a broader concept to my colleagues at High Country News: Can economic and community development really be as simple and cheap as cutting a few trails across land that had long been ignored? It worked for Fruita, Colo., and, to a lesser extent, Cortez. Would it work in Gallup, too?

They went for it, as a shorter, straight up trails-as-economic-development story. In the midst of last September's crazy monsoons, I drove the three hours across the reservation to Gallup, thinking I'd stay a couple of days, then crank out a straightforward story. It would not be. What I found was so much richer than that. The trails are fabulous, but the effort was more complicated than I had imagined, and the town, well, the town was far more interesting still. While it had shed many of the problems from its earlier days, it's still a deeply troubled place. Liquor is still a serious problem, as is poverty, racism, exploitation.

Bob Rosebrough is a former Gallup mayor, an attorney and occasional writer of guidebooks (who was featured, by name, as a character in a Tony Hillerman novel who fetches the climber's register from the top of Shiprock). He summed it up nicely: “It’s a real remarkable community,” he says. “It’s disproportionately wonderful and disproportionately terrible at the same time.”

Now, go read my story about Gallup, bikes, trails and more. Then, go ride the trails. They are really great. http://www.hcn.org/issues/46.7/two-wheel-revolution-in-gallup

Monday, March 17, 2014

Las Vegas: The Great Satan of Water Wasters (or not).

Several months ago, I traveled to Las Vegas to report on a story about Southern Nevada's efforts to save water. When I told people around here what I was doing, they often laughed, as though it were some kind of joke. It wasn't. I went into the story with a wide open mind, and came back impressed by their efforts at efficiency, especially when it comes to water: Not only has per capita water use dropped considerably in the last decade, so has overall water use, even as the population has ballooned. To be clear, Vegas started out as a massive waster of water, so cutting back was less painful than it might have been elsewhere. And, perhaps more than any other city, Vegas faces very hard, not very distant limits to its water consumption. Until it can realize its dreams of pumping water from rural parts of the state -- which could be decades away -- it only has its share of the Colorado River to draw from.

Just because the city was forced to conserve, however, doesn't make that conservation any less impressive. Yet many readers seemed downright baffled that anyone would write a Las Vegas water story that does anything aside from condemning the city and even questioning its right to exist. One reader -- who apparently only read one of every three sentences -- called it a "fluff piece." Another complained that it wasn't the "brutal exposé of our pathetic definition of what it means to be 'green' in this country that I would have preferred."

Please read the article yourself, and especially the last section, and develop your own opinion. And here's a supplementary piece, addressing some other water issues in Vegas.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

An oldie but kinda good

While working on an essay about Red Mountain Pass being closed for weeks because of rock fall, thereby cutting Silverton's northern artery, I dug up this old article I wrote when I owned the Silverton Standard newspaper back in the day. It's got some fun photos in it, and an account of what it's like to accompany avalanche forecaster Jerry Roberts and Colorado Department of Transportation folks on a control run after a massive storm. And what it's like to stare down a massive avalanche's throat as it runs right toward you. Enjoy the story, which is now a whopping nine years old. And sorry about the funky fonts. One day I'll retype the story and post it in a more presentable fashion, along with others from that era...


Monday, November 18, 2013

Glen Canyon Dam and God


Earlier this month, I took a trip to Las Vegas to report on a story based out of there. I suppose I could have flown, but flights out of Durango are absurd: It would have taken nearly 9 hours by plane, assuming my flights were on time and I made my connections. Driving takes about the same amount of time, and takes one through some of the most spectacular country in the world, so drive I did. And, by pure chance, I drove through Page, Arizona during the peak of the Bureau of Reclamation's High Flow Experiment, during which unusually large amounts of water are released from Lake Powell in order to simulate natural floods in the Grand Canyon.

It was pretty cool to see. I went out on the crazy bridge (the highest/longest of its kind when it was built back in the early 1960s), and simply gazed out at the dam, letting the roar of the water blasting out serenade me into a tranquil state of awe. It inspired some thoughts about my sort of obsession with gargantuan infrastructure, about drought and climate change and, yes, about God. I wrote about it for High Country News. Read it. 



Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Mr. Landman, Bring Me A Dream





Don't ask me what this one's all about, because I really don't know. I make these things to spark some alternative creative fires. Or at least hoping they will.


Thursday, October 3, 2013

Poetry is for disasters, tears are for the drycleaners


Okay, so I don't really know where the name for this photograph/painting came from, but now that I'm an artist-type, I have to develop the temperament: broody, dark, intense, mysterious. This is the mysterious part, I suppose. In other work, I wrote about the Tea Party fringe holding the GOP and our nation hostage in hopes of killing the health care law. And I recounted my experience running in the Louis Tewanima footrace in Hopi. Enjoy.