Going North To South In An East-West Land
In the new year before our inauguration of a new president I computed a route home from Alberta to southern Colorado that would skirt the cities and track the Rockies. I dragged the blue Googley lines along old roads to old places, cross-cutting the Can-Am grain. When it was done and printed out I had 2491 miles to go in 12 days, with stops to ski and see friends.
The global political economy was going to hell, so I resolved to keep the radio off and drive in silence, transcending conceptual thinking about collateralized debt obligations or morally bankrupt bankers. Within minutes of kissing my sweetheart Pat goodbye, however, I was thinking about real estate. It was everywhere along the new west Edmonton freeway. Tall new houses standing eve to eve in blocked-out farm fields practically eclipsed the sun (It’s low in the winter there). I recalled a granite craftsman telling me at a party, “These houses will be falling apart in ten years. We’ll be going back in to do things right.”
On the sterile freeway I cleared my mind of thoughts about unsettled foundations, fuming particle board, green studs, nail guns and spray guns, or tried to. I was setting out on something higher: a pilgrimage down along the Rocky Mountains, the wild continental crest. It was sacred. I would think about hope and whether it meant anything – not so much Barack Obama’s generality but the more concrete meaning of Wallace Stegner’s epithet for the West: “the native home of hope.”
Stegner, born 100 years ago, was a novelist and essayist with a deep interest in history. He was one of the few native Western writers who could communicate with the East without having to play cowboy or Indian. His “Wilderness Letter” written a half century ago to a federal panel called the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission was being quoted by environmentalists and academics on the occasion of his centennial. It’s a tight little essay with useful quotes like: “Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed.” It became the passionate heart of the argument for the Wilderness Act of 1964 shepherded into law by then-Interior Secretary Stewart Udall (whom Stegner was visiting in Santa Fe when a car crash took the writer’s life 1993).
I met him once at Stanford, an old bull with a drift of white hair. I asked him how he would define American history, expecting a discourse in the spirit of the Frontier Thesis. He leaned forward, and said, surprisingly, simply: “One big real estate deal.” That was the practical side of the writer who could find the poetic in an engineering term like “angle of repose,” which became the title of his most acclaimed (Pulitzer Prize) novel . . . But the tall new fast houses intruded, flickering by.
What is the worth of a house? I lived 35 years in Santa Fe, where building and selling houses was probably the most lucrative industry. I knew that fake adobes (flat-roofed stuccoed frame houses) brought more than historic adobe houses. I knew (and many buyers didn’t) that outlying subdivisions with romantic $600,000 homes had no sewer systems. A retired real estate agent once suggested to me that an enterprising journalist would find a lot to write about by investigating why Santa Fe real estate appraisals for mortgages never came in under the contract prices. The implication was that agents and drive-by appraisers conspired to inflate prices to whatever the dreamy buyers would pay.
A hot market generated more, and larger, commissions and fees, but the stronger implicit motive was profit because agents and appraisers were buying and selling houses on the side. What’s wrong with that? When supposedly objective evaluators are corrupt or incompetent – think, bond-rating agencies willfully blind to the risk of CDO’s – the market can, and probably will, crash.
As a newspaper columnist I did not have the resources to investigate, but I did report the case of an Arizona woman who as executor of her father’s estate was thoroughly pissed at the Santa Fe system. Her father’s small house in a trendy Santa Fe neighborhood had been on the market nearly three years (versus an average then of just a few months). It had been listed by a series of agents who discouraged her from lowering the price. After commissioning an independent appraisal, which came in 12.5 per cent below the listing, she fired the agent and advertised she would sell the house to the best bidder at the end of the next weekend. About 100 prospective bidders, including low-balling agents, swarmed the little house. She sold it to a young couple who offered cash, closing in a week without any of the usual fees. She went home happy with about 75 per cent of the final listing price, able at last to close her father’s estate.
FERNIE, BRITISH COLUMBIA
Where was I? Oh, approaching British Columbia via Crowsnest Pass with its defunct coal mining towns only partly revived by hundreds of quixotic power windmills on the hills. I was going to Fernie, an hour from the Montana border. The redeveloped Fernie Alpine resort is sometimes compared with Taos Ski Valley in terms of chutes and powder, and with its sharp-peaked crest above a long valley it looks like Jackson Hole for ski bums (The New York Times travel section once promoted Jackson Hole as a place where you are spared the sight of skiers with duct tape on their parkas.) From the lift in the highest Fernie basin you can see the grid of the old mining town and clusters of new condo developments up the valley where a golf course is promised.
The internet real estate listings showed condos from US $140,000 for a one-bedroom at the ski area to $2 million for a penthouse atop the remodeled brick shell of the 100-year-old Fernie school downtown. In the classic old railroad resorts further north in the Canadian Rockies – the mountainous UN world heritage site that includes Jasper, Lake Louise, and Banff – real estate speculation has long been prevented by law (absentee ownership, among other things, is prohibited), as is exploitation of natural resources. Fernie, however, is newer and more Americalike. It reminded me of Telluride in the early seventies when miners still went to work at the Idarado and their sons and daughters dreamed of becoming ski instructors.
As I approached Sparwood, just before Fernie, my thoughts turned to a deeper reality underlying the romance of ski-in residences or a condominium project where half the population went to school. The Christmas decorations were still up in Sparwood, but they were unlighted and dark. The town was mourning the deaths of eight men, most in their 20’s or 30’s. Family men, best friends, co-workers at the coal mine. Mining towns are inured to such tragedies, but this was not a mine accident. It was a recreation accident. The Sunday after Christmas 11 buddies, experienced “sled heads,” as they called themselves, drove up a backcountry valley on snowmobiles to a favorite high basin.
The first one in got stuck and the next two drove into the basin to help. The three were caught in an avalanche. The eight others drove in to dig them out. A second avalanche buried the entire group and their machines. Two dug themselves out and rescued a third. When another avalanche came down, they realized further rescue was hopeless (all their equipment was buried) and they went for help. The bodies of the eight young men were subsequently recovered.
On that fatal Sunday morning the avalanche danger was so high the management closed Fernie. These are steep mountains that receive huge dumps of snow. I slept fitfully after a fast Thai special and awoke in the morning and rode up to Currie Bowl where I found skiers and boarders standing by a barrier and listening to sharp explosions. The patrol was bombing. A sign warned that what might look like tufts of soft snow often could be pieces of solid ice blown down in the avalanche control. Later I examined one of these clunkers in the middle of a catwalk. Skiing into it would be like a head-on crash with a boulder.
I was distracted by the name of a new log lodge at the top of a quad lift: “Lost Boys Café.” I wondered if the boys were lost like the eight lost lives at Sparwood. No, the lost boys must have been found, or a café would never have been named for them. You don’t want a sad café. “I once was lost and now I’m found,” goes one of the most sung of Christian hymns. It’s a Western thing to be lost, a wilderness experience. . .
There, I was doing it again: skiing lost in thought. See, I have a problem. I talk to myself, and this can be dangerous unless you are one of those young automatics with head phones who operate on pure reflex. I resolved to still my mind, which meant trying to crank down the internal chatterbox. I needed to pay attention to the snow, the bumps, the shadows, the tree wells, the avalanche-control clunkers, the lions in the trees. Call it yoga skiing or maybe Zen. Call it mindfulness.
The next lift, the highest, unloaded at 6,316 feet elevation, the trail map said. That’s only about a thousand feet higher than a fourth-floor office in downtown Denver, yet the lift is above timberline. I was seeing an example of a geological anomaly that is so familiar it has no name. As latitude increases, the average height of the Rockies decreases, compensating for the harsher climate. The highest lift at Jackson Hole, Wyo., unloads at 10,450 feet, at Telluride, Colo., at 12,570 feet. The Rockies are an autonomous north-south life zone – same geography, same culture, same economy, same environmental threats – bisecting the parallels that were an obsession of those who laid out the two countries, east to west.
As I considered this unity and the impossibility of telling American boarders from Canadian boarders (same smartass kids), I was reminded that Canada at large has one crucial difference from the U.S. The couple next to me on a chairlift seemed to be staring at me. I smiled.
The woman said, “Pardon. Are you an Anglophone?”
“Do you speak English?”
“Oh, yes. And you would be Francophones? From Quebec?”
“May we ask about the use of whom?” she said.
“It’s a grammatical. . .” — I did not wish to say pretension — “perfection. You use it after prepositions.”
“With whom shall I ski,” the man rehearsed.
“Yes,” I said. “But most people just say, Who am I gonna ski with.”
“Ah,” he said, nodding to his wife.
The unloading ramp ended our conversation.
In a restaurant that night I read an interview with a local teacher in a monthly paper. He recently returned to Chile, where he lived as a kid until his family immigrated to Canada to escape Pinochet. In the months after the general bombed the presidential palace and assassinated Allende, the boy would see bodies floating down the river near his house. One day at school the teachers were gone, replaced by soldiers. They inspected the children for “cleanliness,” they said, ordering the boys to drop their pants and the girls to lift their skirts to show their underwear. Intimidation was the essence of the junta.
The thin newspaper was written by members of the community and supported by local ads. These small papers seem to be the only ones that are surviving, probably because they never had high expectations of profit to begin with, but I wondered what will happen when the real estate ads dry up. The monthly had no news of the snowmobile tragedy. I asked a waitress what she knew. She said talking about it was hard because everybody in the valley knew someone involved and nobody wanted to fix blame.
I checked out of the Super 8 next morning and headed for the border. Stegner wrote about its invisibility in “Wolf Willow,” how as a ranch kid in Saskatchewan and Montana he crossed and recrossed it almost daily. Driving across now is a little harder. I was detained for a while in the Border Patrol office, waiting for a searcher to look at my stuff. It occurred to me as I waited that although Stegner is often characterized as America’s foremost Western writer, Canada can claim some patrimony.
His letter to the American recreation panel said:
“What I want to speak for is not so much the wilderness uses, valuable as those are, but the wilderness idea, which is a resource in itself. Being an intangible and spiritual resource, it will seem mystical to the practical minded – but then anything that cannot be moved by a bulldozer is likely to seem mystical to them. I want to speak for the wilderness idea as something that has helped form our character and that has certainly shaped our history as a people. It has no more to do with recreation than churches have to do with recreation, or than the strenuousness and optimism and expansiveness of what the historians call the ‘American Dream’ have to do with recreation.”
The letter is dated Dec. 3, 1960, a month after the election of John F. Kennedy. It is instructive that in the subsequent era of anti-liberalism, practical-minded politicians would reinterpret the American dream. Under George W. Bush the dream became a dream house (affordable for all in a dream economy). The dream merchants in 2003 even enacted a low-income home buyer assistance bill with the slick title: “The American Dream Downpayment Initiative.” It was part of the campaign for what Bush called “the ownership society,” which also was the Big House society, which became the Big House payment default society.
My friends Sara and Rob, next on my schedule, moved to Montana in the Sixties, declaring independence from their upper middle class families, and bought a homestead in a remote mountain valley near the Idaho border. One essential amenity was the creek that runs through their 40 acres on its way to the Clark Fork River. Rob was a total fisherman then. He had a degree in fishery management. He tied his own flies, creating them if necessary on the spot to match the hatch. In those days there were natives, big fresh water salmon and more. Now they are gone, having gradually died out because of the unnatural effects of the hydro-electric dam on the Clark Fork. So Rob doesn’t fish much anymore, but their son became a fisherman. He fishes for salmon in Alaska, the wild sockeyes that bring top dollar. Rob and Sara had several hundred pounds of these fine fish, headed, gutted and frozen solid, that might have come from their son’s boat. A few days before I arrived, the torrents from an unseasonal rain on the two-foot snowpack flooded a storage shed where freezers keep the fish and garden vegetables. They had to move the fish quickly to a vacant hunting lodge that had lots of freezers. The rural neighbor code at work. When the owners come back in spring, I suppose, they’ll receive a gift of salmon.
For fish and friendship, Rob last winter parked his 1973 Volkswagen bus (on its third engine) in a friend’s auto-body shop. He stripped the bus to the sheet metal body – removing bumpers, lights, chrome trim, everything – and then patiently sanded and repainted the body (beige, as I recall) and baked the enamel and put everything back together. It looks like new. It will make his heirs rich, I suggested. “It’s my coffin,” he said with a hearty laugh.
Rob is skilled and patient, a fisherman in life. With a lot of help from friends and Sara, he built their two-story solar-oriented house, too – on the foundation of the one that burned. The old farm house burned to the ground, destroying all their possessions, one mid-winter night a few months after they moved in. With two small children huddled in a shed, all their money spent buying the place, and no insurance (for what that’s worth these days) they were in despair. Immediately the far-flung community started coming down the road with tools and materials and skills. A kid with an engineering degree sketched the roof structure. There were carpenters and plumbers and electricians. After a summer of hard dawn to dusk work, they had a weatherproof shell. It was a homemade house, with windows from an abandoned saw mill and beams and siding from old barns.
They spent the next 35 years – as money for materials and fixtures became available from seasonal employment with the U.S. Forest Service and in later years from small inheritances – finishing their one-of-a-kind handmade house. It is a work of live-in art, an aged-wood living space with a central stairway guarded by rails from a corral rubbed smooth by livestock. They have protected the property against any future subdividing. From their antique oak dinner table by the south-facing windows they watch nature go by – birds, deer, raccoons, bear, and even big cats.
Out the big window is a 30-foot grand fir in the rising meadow they call their ski hill. It’s the “Christmas Tree,” or used to be. Thirty-five years ago while cutting saplings out of the meadow they decided to save just one. It was knee high and pretty. They hung Christmas lights on it year after year as their children grew, as did the tree. By 1995 they decided it had outgrown Christmas lighting.
“Oh look, it’s a siskin,” Sara said at breakfast (a casserole of eggs and veggies). It was a different bird, feeding on their home-grown sunflower seeds, among the chickadees. “It’s the first one this year.” She reached for a worn log book and made an entry. The pine siskins were several weeks early. Sara seems to know every species of animal and plant on their 40 acres. She identified the birds nesting under a bridge as barn swallows.
“They are becoming rare around here,” she said.
I asked why.
“No barns. They were an eastern bird. They followed the barns west. Now the barns are caving in. Nobody builds barns.”
Sara loves to read and write about these things. She published a guide to the Cabinet Mountains National Wilderness near their place. She edits a newsletter for opponents of the Revett Minerals Co. proposal to mine a silver and copper ore body underneath the Cabinets. Revett claims the subterranean activity and the tailings ponds would do no harm to nature, the grizzly bear habitat in particular. Her essays in a regional monthly called “The River Journal” have a strong following (obviously not including the jolly absentee executives of Revett Minerals).
We clamped on cross-country skis and went walking along the creek. We watched a dipper bird diving. It could stay under water for 20 feet in a fast current, then fly back and try again. Rob saw a bald eagle, very high, circling. Sara talked about the white tail deer, how they seem to have a memory of historical escape routes. The creek bends around the open meadow, the “ski hill,” that rises into timber. Winter after winter during their tenancy, the deer have broken trails in the same two places, along the same lines, from the stream bank to the trees. The trails in the deep snow are a matter of survival, she said, because the deer with their sharp hooves cannot run on top of the crusted snow to the protection of the trees, but their predators – coyotes, cougars – can. The lines don’t follow any feature of the meadow – seemingly arbitrary but always the same. The deer must, therefore, pass the knowledge of the trails from generation to generation. Or, it is genetic.
After I was home, Sara sent me an email. On the night before the full moon a yearling white-tail deer was walking with others up their mystical trail which passes within 30 feet of the Christmas tree. “On the uphill side of the fir, lower branches are caught in the snow. On the downhill, drooping branches conceal a deep tree well. Out of these inky depths – an ink well from hell – leapt a cougar and in two bounds, had the young whitetail down in the snow.”
She learned this as a crime scene investigator, so to speak, the next morning. Ravens already were on the scene, pecking the ripped carcass. During the second night the mountain lion returned and dragged the carcass closer to the trees. Sara pieced all this together from the blood streaks and the round cat tracks in the snow. Bald eagles arrived that morning, chasing away the ravens, and on the third day the local pack of coyotes arrived. Sara, who knows the species of every plant on which the whitetails feed, wrote, “I ponder how apples, roses, willow buds, and cedar tips are now becoming eagles, ravens, coyotes and cougars.”
My Montana friends live a free but disciplined life, informed by the cycle of the seasons. In the spring they work compost into the soil for their garden (fenced against the deer) and plant it with natural seeds. They tend it all summer, eating, preserving, or freezing the vegetables and herbs. In late summer Rob drives the VW bus to Seattle to pick up boxes of frozen salmon. He brings about 1,000 pounds home (insulated with blankets) non-stop. Some is distributed, some put in their freezers, and some smoked.
In the fall Rob gathers, splits and stacks in a shed several cords of wood. He used to trade salmon for scraps at a local saw mill, but this resource is now shipped to a particle board plant. Every morning in winter, if they are not traveling, Rob builds a fire before sunrise in the Ashley heater that is the main source of heat other than the sun. It is an air-tight stove with a sheet metal drum and an ingenious thermostat that regulates the air intake. Ashleys, made in Alabama for perhaps a hundred years and discovered in the Sixties by the Whole Earth Catalog because they were cheap and efficient, are no longer manufactured. Rob keeps theirs rust free and blackened.
Sara and Rob’s Homestead in Montana
I asked Rob how they will get through the financial crisis. He laughed.
“We have 35 years of depression training!”
Maybe it goes back further than that, a generational transmission like the deer with their escape routes. Sara wrote in The River Journal about visiting her grandmother, who had lived through two world wars and the Great Depression in rural Kansas. The matriarch never knew her own mother, who died when she was still an infant. Her father gave her to a half-sister, who raised her along with other girls orphaned by other deaths in the large family. It was a time of scarce medical care and high mortality. Her grandmother told in a memoir how the girls walked two and a half miles to a school house and, “We lived quite a long way from town, so we never got to go anywhere.” But, the old lady remembered, “Us girls would go to the timber to gather hazelnuts, pick wild flowers and wade in the little creek. We were happy.” Sara drove her to where the forest had been. It was now pasture for a big dairy operation. And the little creek was gone. Lost.
Her grandmother finished eighth grade in 1910 and went to work as “a hired girl” with a family. She was married at 16. She and her husband worked as tenant farmers and had four children. The family saved enough to buy 80 acres of farm land in 1928, paying off the 20-year mortgage in 20 years (people then actually paid off mortgages). She lived to see the farm succeed and their children prosper. She died at 93. Sara wished her grandmother, child of abolitionist Kansas, could have seen Obama’s Grant Park acceptance speech.
The article prompted my recollection, as I continued my journey, of standing with an amiable stranger with my last name under a black walnut tree a couple of years ago in a hollow in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina, talking of family. His grandfather, perhaps a cousin of my own grandfather, whom I never knew, had 400 acres with everything on it – pasture, farm land, timber, wildlife. They planted and harvested and gathered and sustained (also distilled) without much money. They built their own houses and barns, free of appraisers and closing costs and adjustable-rate loans. And they expressed a fierce independence that had kept them free of political domination by the secessionists, by prohibitionists, by racists, for generations. All this, portrayed by Jim Webb among others, stirs my Scotch-Irish pride.
My possible cousin went away to the Marines and fought in Vietnam and worked as a construction superintendent. But he came back to the mountains, where he said he will stay. The only problem was the rape of the traditional lands. The lush hillsides here in the country of the Appalachian Trail were being subdivided and bulldozed. Overlooking the valley of his grandfather now was a Big House.
I was driving in dark Wyoming now from Idaho toward Jackson, Wyoming, a gateway to Grand Teton National Park, a national treasure with a capitalist legacy. Originally the park comprised only the high mountains. The valley floor along the Snake River was saved from commercial clutter by John D. Rockefeller Jr., who bought and donated thousands of acres in the 1950’s and built Jackson Lake Lodge, a luxury hotel facing the Tetons in the image of Chateau Lac Louise in Canada. Jackson Hole winter resort joins the national park to the south.
Next day as I rode the trademark Jackson Hole aerial tram, which rises 4,000 vertical feet in 10 minutes, suddenly above the clouds in perfect light appeared The Grand Teton, solitary and powerful at 13,770 feet. It stood alone in the clouds, a thousand feet above its neighboring peaks. This was the most breathtaking sight of my trip along the Rockies, and it caused me to entertain the idea that this view would not have been accessible without the intense development of the resort.
Another vindication: the hotels and condos that inevitably accompany the development of a ski resort are for the most part in the town of Jackson, 12 miles away in another valley. Jackson is an old cowboy town without the dreamy pretentions of developments attempting to create the look of Swiss villages. I stayed at a cheap motel near the town square and had a fat burger for dinner at a counter served by kids who wondered what I was reading.
Stegner. He was not against recreation – hunting, fishing, hiking, mountain climbing, camping, photography, skiing. But spoke for recognition that wilderness areas are not simply parks for the practice of extreme sports. He said that “the mere example that we can as a nation apply some other criteria than commercial and exploitative considerations would be heartening to many Americans.” He said, “The American experience has been the confrontation by old peoples and cultures of a world as new as if it had just risen from the sea.”
Frederick Jackson Turner in 1892 announced his thesis that American history was defined by the existence over three centuries of an ever advancing frontier and its corollary that the frontier served as a social “safety valve.” The notion that in times of urban hardship Americans could always escape to the frontier with its abundance of free land was rebutted by later historians with data showing that the urban poor could not afford to go West and didn’t know how to farm anyway, that the land was appropriated by corporations, and that most migrants went to the cities not the countryside. Stegner was able to revive the Frontier Thesis by a subtle conversion of Turner’s agrarian frontier into a wilderness frontier, the idea of which has helped form American character and shaped our history.
Stegner said, “We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.” His kind of writing has declined as the tribe of extreme sports has increased. The poetry of current wilderness writing is mostly about death defying conquests.
I had plotted my drive the next day to bypass Salt Lake City, jammed between a huge saline sea and mountains, where traffic can creep for hours in bad weather. (Even Terry Tempest Williams, who could find beauty in a marsh beside I-15, has moved away.) I stopped at Park City for breakfast. The Sundance Film Festival was in its second day, and serious people were phoning and check-listing over coffee and yogurt-granola. Robert Redford, with his miraculous red-blond hair, was pictured in the daily bulletin and quoted praising his festival’s “diversity.” Yawn.
By late afternoon I was in Baker, Nevada, on the Utah line. It’s a post office and a bar, where the economy depends upon Great Basin National Park, a mountainous anomaly in the range-basin desert. The high park is an island that belongs to the Rocky Mountains, with the same flora including Bristlecone Pine and same fauna including skunks, coyotes and mountain lions (but no bears). My friend Peter is a poet who used to work for an Indian tribe in Elko, and Tonia is a retired park concessionaire who is an environmental activist. The environmental issue in Baker, as in most places, is a matter of powerful outside claims on local resources. The basin has ground water, and the golf-plagued city of Las Vegas wants to mine it and suck it away in mains as high as a person.
My friends are the senior members of a huge double family. Their refrigerator is papered with photos of children, nieces, nephews, and grand children. Like so many who broke from social expectations in the sixties, they raised children who enjoy life and do what they want, whether in the arts or in business. Peter showed me a screenplay written by one of his daughters in law, a joyful young mother who was raised in a hippie commune. The script was about a lesbian who falls in love with a man. She submitted the story to Sundance, which gives grants so young writers can complete their projects, and it made it to the final cut, but was rejected. Too diverse, I suspected.
Peter and Tonia moved to Baker, a town smaller even than Crestone, where I live, as followers of a charismatic teacher. He passed on years ago but his legacy continues at a communal farm. (The large commune of Eksdale east of Baker dates from the same era.) My friends split away and built a one-bedroom house of their own efficient solar-oriented design below the national park. They are close to nature – too close when it comes to skunks in the crawl space and the well known mountain lion that hunts up and down the little stream by their house. Tonia does not like to walk alone.
We went to dinner at the communal farm, where people sat at long tables and ate veggie lasagna and salad. They included an 82-year-old woman who puts on sweats and runs every morning, a middle aged writer doing a book on the tradition of drunken warriors, and a recent Stanford PhD graduate nurturing her baby. I wondered if communes would be the medicine for the undiagnosed economic disease that, in view of the reluctance to label it as Great Depression II, might at least be called a clinical depression. In times of global chaos, people come home, or try to, which is to say home, if they have one, gives them shelter from the global storm. Living with people who share your ways, beliefs and values is probably necessary for what is regarded as happiness in the world, but global forces can be at war with these cultural attractions.
I said goodbye to my friends at lunch at a truck stop-casino-motel called the Border Inn (the state line runs through it) on a two-lane blacktop where signs say “Next services 70 miles.” Denise, the gregarious owner, had just sponsored a gathering of old-timers from the sheep and cattle ranches in the basin, many of them from Basque families, and at one table three brothers in hats who had stayed over were having lunch. The eldest was known to be in his mid nineties. He looked awake and happy. As I drove down the long straight road east I thought again about the Tao Te Ching. It was written during the Warring States period, about 500-400 BCE, when the Chinese empire was consolidating with irresistible military force and technological progress. The new nationalism involved enforcing uniform standards, creating networks of communication, building armies and generally intimidating ethnic enclaves that didn’t go along.
Of the political verses, I think the most subversive (to empire) is the next to last. It proposes a “small country, few people” where there are labor-saving implements but nobody uses them, boats and carriages but nobody rides them, weapons and armor but nobody bears them. As to standards of accounting and measurement, people have returned to “tying knots in cords.” The result of this renunciation is mindfulness of “sweet food, beautiful clothes, joyful customs and contented lives.” There may be countries so close by that the people can hear the distant roosters crow and dogs bark, but they reach old age without even wanting to visit (much less to compete with) them, the others.
The literary conceit was extreme, then as now, but there are extreme possibilities for the global future, including Pinochet economics, gangster capitalism, or politically cleansed city states. The Taoist Chuang Tzu said that in extreme drought fish gather in pools and keep each other moist by splashing and spitting water. It is an uncomfortable means of survival. Of course it would be better, he said, if they could just forget each other, “safe in their lakes and rivers.” Deep flowing water was always a figure for the Tao.
Eventually I was in Ridgway, Colorado, having a late enchilada at an excellent cantina where the manager confessed this was not his top choice in occupations. He had done well as a real estate agent in that picturesque mountain community for 15 years, but the decline in sales forced him to ask for his old job back. I checked into a moderately priced motel and did not turn on the TV. Next morning the 45-minute drive to Telluride began with a 10-mile stretch of rail fence marking the Ralph Loren Ranch, with its heavenly backdrop of the Sneffles Range uncluttered by valley development. I thought about the power of private wealth to preserve nature, here as in the Tetons. . . .
And, as in Telluride, where for years the residents of the spectacular high box canyon fought the owner of the valley floor at the edge of town. He proposed a huge development where lovely (and probably enlightened) milk cows grazed. After winning a protracted series of legal fights, the people of Telluride came up with a simple solution: they bought the some 600 acres!
The tactic, however, is not widely available, since the real estate deal cost the community $50 million, excluding legal fees. For the fund drive some Telluride residents, it is said, mortgaged their homes and others (the Hollywood constituency) wrote checks in six figures. It had happened before, when a horse fancier erected steel barns and fences beside a highway approaching Telluride. Members of the community put up the money to buy him out and clear away the new buildings.
I took the Telluride lifts to the 12,570-foot top of Revelation Bowl. This was the highest I would go on my north-south way in our east-west land. I could see higher mountains all around, including Gladstone, Wilson Peak and El Diente, which I climbed in younger days. From a distance, a mountain you have been to is not an object. It is a living reality. Every shadow is meaningful. Nothing is lost.
Revelation No. 12,570: Western dualism, promoted by our subject-object grammar, is nowhere more dramatic than in the difference between “to lose” and “to be lost.” They are represented by the same character in classical Chinese. And so. . . and so: you don’t have to lose the past; just don’t be lost in it. That’s the Zen thing. I looked straight up and the sky was dark at noon. I expected, or hoped, to see stars, it was so black, but there were none.
This was Monday, Jan. 19, the national holiday in honor of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. Synchronistically, I shared lift chairs twice with skiers from Montgomery, Alabama. I suggested to one that he was missing a lot of commemorative events back home. He said, “We have fought our demons.”
An angel appeared next morning just before noon. I drove to high, historic Silverton in time to watch the inauguration with Eileen, in her Victorian house full of wonderful landscape art – her own water colors and oil paintings by our mutual friend Paul of Durango. The angel was Arethra Franklin in her big bowed hat. The closest I came to tears was when she sang, in prayer and gratitude, just as gospel singers have always sung. They were there in slavery, in the ravages of Reconstruction, in the storms of the civil rights movement, in the cities of the north, in the country churches of the south . . . . The closest I came to anger was when the Chief Justice of the United States blew his lines, misreading the fucking constitution of the United States.
In Durango I had lunch with my friend Charlie, a journalist and poet, at the Olde Tymers on Main. Lately we have talked about two writers we both had known – Charlie’s friend Tony Hillerman of Albuquerque, the beloved Western mystery writer, and my friend Jetta Carlton of Santa Fe, who wrote a best seller in the early sixties about a farm family in rural Missouri. Both, now gone, had lived through the Great Depression and World War II, events that completed the transformation of American society from agrarian and rural to industrial and urban. Like Stegner, they were not enthused by the transformation.
In a final conversation with Hillerman, Charlie noted that in the beginning of his new novel, “The Shape Shifter,” Sgt. Leaphorn drives up the Detective Chee’s trailer, mindful that Chee has just married, and hesitates to go in. “Is this a goodbye?” Charlie asked. “That occurred to me,” Hillerman said. He died late last year without publishing another novel. Jetta Carlton’s “The Moonflower Vine” was republished in February. We have read the manuscript of her second finished novel, also set in Missouri, and wonder if now might be the time for someone to publish it. Just talk at a café called Olde Tymers.
We talk about our children sometimes. Charlie’s son Matt, who persisted in Los Angeles after college until he got work in the film business, made a DVD documentary about Paul. Matt was able to unify the artist, his paintings, and his studio, editing by chapters and showing a fine eye for stills, presented Ken Burns style. The new adult generation, the Obama generation, has found new mediums. Like Dulcie, my wonderful daughters yearn for expression – one who loves movies, one who loves art – and have tried to find it in graduate degrees. It is a generation seeking something more artful than bulldozers and practical politicians. Their hope is not the free-floating optimism of children. I think they know what they want.
Paul was watching inauguration coverage on TV in the main room of the solar home he and Cheryl built in a small orchard with a high warehouse where he paints. We adjourned to the studio, and I took in his latest work in the oil-paint-scented air. I told him the sky was black at noon in Revelation Bowl. He said he’d been there by snow cat in the old days, and the sky is purple. I could not argue about color with an artist. He has become, after many hard years, the foremost painter of San Juan Mountains, I think, without consigning to galleries. The idea of wilderness, apart from being lost in it, is perhaps best transmitted through art. These powerful San Juan painters – Paul and Eileen – are, therefore, preserving wilderness.
Some of their clients, no doubt, are wealthy second-home (or better) owners who visit when they can, but they are not out to prove anything with the size of their houses, so far as I’ve seen. In other words, they are not McMillionaires. Before I drove home next morning Paul and I took a walk on the road that turns up the river canyon toward wilderness. Beside the highway, placed to view and be viewed, were two new Big Houses. They looked like nobody was home, vacant from their high windows down to their triple garages. And they looked unsold.
“How much do you think they’re worth?” I asked.
Paul just gave a kind of open-handed shrug, and we walked on. Like nature, he does not make long speeches.