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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Cops kill at a higher rate in the West than elsewhere

As darkness and a chill fell over northwestern New Mexico on a Friday in late November, two men flagged down a San Juan County Sheriff’s Deputy to report a scuffle, with at least one firearm involved. The altercation was going down in Spencerville, an ad-hoc collection of homes, beat up cars, and dust, that lies just off the highway that links up the towns of Aztec and Farmington. As the deputies responded, they heard gunshots, and called for backup. Three more deputies arrived, along with a New Mexico State trooper. 

As the five deputies approached the area from which the shots came, the trooper flanked off to one side, armed with an AR-15. He saw a “silhouette of a person raising a weapon,” according to a court document, and fired two shots. When a male voice screamed that the trooper had missed, he ran to another location, took aim and fired two more shots. The “silhouette,” a 27-year-old Navajo man named Myles Roughsurface, fell to the ground, dead. 

Roughsurface was the third person killed at the hands of law enforcement officers in San Juan County this year, and the tenth in New Mexico. As of early December, the cop-related death toll for 11 Western states was at least 181, based on a Wikipedia survey of media reports. National attention has, of late, been on the police killings of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and Eric Garner in Missouri, Ohio and New York, respectively. But when it comes to the rate of police-related killings per capita, the West is the worst. Continue reading....

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Your car is a deadly weapon. Treat it that way.

I recently wrote a sort of opinion piece, okay, tirade, regarding motorists and their attitude towards cyclists. Basically, after venting a bit, I just ask all motorists to please remember that their vehicles are deadly weapons, and that therefore the rage they feel towards bicyclists who annoy them is also potentially deadly. Just be careful, I ask.

Well, they say to never read the comments. And I probably shouldn't have. High Country News posted the piece on Facebook, and a few dozen folks have commented thus far. It's not always pretty: Running through many of them is a current of animosity towards cyclists that doesn't exactly make me feel safer out there on the road. Anyway, read the original column here. And check out the comments on the link below. Yikes!

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Fracking O'Keeffe Country

The energy boom's coming back in the San Juan Basin. Only this time, instead of penetrating the earth in search of natural gas, the drill rigs are looking for oil, in the Gallup Sandstone/Mancos Shale formation. And they're apparently finding it. While drilling remains pretty slow in the old natural gas hotspots, it's ramping up further south, near Chaco Canyon, the Navajo communities of Lybrook and Nageezi and near the Black Place, a series of elephantine hills immortalized by Georgia O'Keeffe in some of her most famous paintings.

I wrote about it for High Country News.

These photos are from the badlands surrounding the Black Place.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

On the militarization of small-town cops and rural county sheriffs

La Plata County, Colorado, where I live, is a fairly peaceful place. The population is a little over 50,000, mostly spread out over a lot of territory, and easily fits within the rural category, with the possible exception of quasi-urban Durango, the biggest town by far with 17,000 people... 

And yet, in recent years, local law enforcement agencies have stocked up on battlefield-tested gear, including: at least 100 bayonet knives, three ordnance- and explosive-disposal robots, 18 5.56 mm rifles (M16s), five 7.62 mm rifles (M14s), 15 .45 caliber pistols, 30 bipods for machine guns, four night vision sniper scopes, two exercise bikes and a Cat-1 MaxxPro Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle (MRAP).

What's going on? Read more here.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Some things I've been working on and writing about this summer

A short piece on Denver's transit system, done while reporting on a much bigger picture project about the death of suburbia and the newfound Western urbanism: Last night as we passed through this stretch it didn’t seem terrifying at all — just another piece of suburbia, with its strip malls and car dealerships and parking lots. But we were in a car then. Now, on a warm and humid Monday morning in July, I’m on foot, and this particular streetscape seems downright hostile, designed to scare the unwitting pedestrian into a vehicle or perhaps the nearest Chick-Fil-A. Six lanes of traffic thrum by on the wide thoroughfare, inches and a text-while-driving away from hopping the curb and squashing me. The grocery store turns out to be on the other side of a vast expanse of pavement that would take too much time to traverse. Nothing is on the human scale here.

I’m making this mile-long trek, from my suburban hotel to the nearest light rail station, to test a recent headline from theAtlantic’s City Lab news site calling Denver “the most advanced transit city in the West."
 A backpack into the Weminuche Wilderness area on the Wilderness Act's 50th birthday:  

I’d like to say that my friend Gabe and I took a short backpacking trip in late June to celebrate the Wilderness Act’s 50th birthday, which is coming up in September, but that would be a lie. We just wanted to go somewhere kind of wild, where we could escape the round-the-clock pressure of our jobs and laptops and cell phones for a couple days, maybe scare the hell out of ourselves on some high ridge line and then drink some whiskey around the camp stove. Our last-minute choice of Colorado’s largest wilderness area as a destination was mostly random.
Payday-type lenders prey on Native Americans, and tribes get in on the game via online lending and invoke sovereign immunity to skirt state usury regulations: 

Mariah Tsosie* needed cash. She worked 32 hours per week for $11 an hour, but her ex-husband often failed to send child support, and Tsosie, who has three kids, fell behind on her bills. She lacked credit cards, and her friends and family were as strapped as she was.
But there were other options in Farmington, New Mexico, where she lived on the edge of the Navajo Nation: Dozens of modest storefronts emblazoned with colorful, beckoning signs – "FastBucks," "Quik Cash" or "Check 'N Go." These so-called "payday lenders" offer payday, short-term installment, car title or tax refund anticipation loans to tide folks over until their next paycheck.
Tsosie picked Cash Loans Now, where friendly staffers assured her that a $200 installment loan would cost her just a few dollars per day. A couple weeks later, she made the first of 25 biweekly payments of $90 each. Thanks to an annualized interest rate of 1,147 percent, about 100 times the average credit card rate, eventually she would have forked out $2,360 – nearly one-tenth of her yearly earnings – just for a tank of gas and some groceries.

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.


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.

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...