Tag Archives: American West

Talent’s Lending Library

We say good morning from Sonoita, Arizona. I was overnight 15 miles west in Patagonia. Dinner hour was shared with an 88 year old poet, a modern day vaudevillian, the showman’s stalwart wife and pair of Golden retrievers.

Creative personalities are not rare. I’ve a broader definition now, the club isn’t so exclusive, a great many belong, many unaware how and where their special talent fits in.

I know painters, potters, jugglers and writers all producing good work and a living wage. They are explicit and their role has been perfected.

Picasso’s work is singular, there is not a second painter of his kind. Martha Graham is a one-off without any other choreographers influencing the world of dance with the same force. Frank Lloyd Wright set down a remarkable body of work through the buildings he imagined then had built.

Martha Graham lived to 97. Picasso and Wright died at 95. I would argue Wright’s work remained vital and only got better. Picasso did not shatter convention in the latter part of his career. Graham too possessed an intensity but had choreographed her most important work in the first half of her life.

The young and untested Burt Bacharach caught his first break playing piano, scoring arrangements for Marlene Dietrich. Then after he began writing music for Hal David’s lyrics. Then, they found Dionne Warwick in 1961. The talented trio produced some of the best popular music of the last century.

Elvis Costello teamed up with Bacharach and released Painted from Memory in 1998. The landmark album advanced Costello’s songwriting craft. What is worth noting is both Costello’s songs and lyrics benefited from Bacharach’s editing and revising. The collaboration passed the test, each made the other better, together the work verges on the best either has ever done.

Creative people are not rare, a great many fit the description. Fred Astaire, Charlie Chaplin, and Frank Sinatra were forceful performing artists of their generation. Sinatra, once he began recording in high fidelity seems to have left the world with the more durable body of work. Chaplin’s films are brilliant but unlike a Sinatra’s music the cinematic style of Chaplin is from another time. The best of Astaire’s work is there to see, but again you have to take the time.

Some of William Shakespeare’s work requires no special training to enjoy. Romeo and Juliet, Midsummer Nights Dream and Othello are quite accessible. The breadth and depth of the plotting, characters and dialogue of all 36 of his plays is the best writing ever composed for theater. The productions Shakespeare mounted at the Globe Theatre on the Thames in London for the Royal Court is an intoxicating display of creative genius.

Creativity happens in the foreground, the present moment, and the creative types that are self aware know that in the background there is the body of work left for posterity by this pantheon of brilliant artists. Sondheim, Steinbeck and Coltrane all scaled the heights leaving the world singularly brilliant work.

The talented Carrie Schnepf with Lacey my Performing Dog

In 2000 I embarked upon a decade of shows, each October I would play the month at Schnepf Farms. Five days a week, five shows a day, performances ran 30-40 minutes. I worked for Carrie Schnepf. Carrie had a background in music and theater, she knew she wanted to produce something like what I had come up with, and together we took much time and effort figuring out how to make what I was doing work for her audiences at her farm.

Carrie’s husband Mark possessed less show business skills, he was after all a farmer, but Mark was supportive of our introducing the particular experience my show provided.

Much of my background was pure street theater. I’d come off a 20 year run in San Francisco. I was rebuilding the act. My target audience remained the same as ever, anyone of any age should be able to watch my show and enjoy. But, to fit into the family festival market in Arizona I needed to dial down the urban edge, bring a more open heart to the work, allow for the audiences to have a less bang-bang inner city show.

By now I had become a father, my daughter was 7 years old. She had retaught me how to see the world through a child’s eyes, something I’d promised myself I would never forget but by dent of time had slipped from my grasp.

Most of my work on the streets was aimed at the adults, not that children didn’t enjoy the show, but they were not my focus until now. Understanding the children and making more of an effort to be attuned to this faction in my audience changed everything. The changes I made were met with fresh bookings, new clients, a great many venues were suddenly eager for what I was doing.

From the start I had the pleasure of becoming a favorite with the Schnepf’s youngest son. Between shows I let the 6 year old play with my juggling equipment. The kid gravitated toward playing with the Chinese yo-yo. He picked up a few moves by accident as he interacted with the juggling equipment less as a student and more as if he was a mere child lost in a flight of fancy, he had no goals or plans, he just wanted to play.

All these years later I know Grayson as a grown man. He remembers the Chinese yo-yo, can still do a few moves, and has watched enough shows to have enough savvy to be sure to sell his moves with clever patter when he fools around with the juggling equipment.

I’m still swinging for the fences, trying to knock the ball out of the park. Whether it is writing a new show or finishing the next novel I remain in the hunt of expressing myself hoping that what I’ve come up with will resonate with my audiences.

Then, I saw a 27 year old Grayson Schnepf last weekend. It was a fine reunion. I had come out to the farm to walk around there in my old digs. In 2000 when I had come out to Queen Creek to perform on the farm it hadn’t been in my mind that I would have the opportunity to influence a young budding child’s imagination. That my creative process, also in some sense a spiritual process, an interpersonal process of call and response, where if I was to succeed I would need to connect to everyone and every opportunity.

What the young Grayson imagined was that my itinerate life of traveling town to town working with people, spreading laughter and intrigue, sharing my particular knack for pulling people in and how this happiness was authentic, infused my life through and through, that the young son to a farmer recognized close up how even a less celebrated, less famous, less acclaimed performer could forge a viable creative life.

I’d imagined I’d created memories for a thousand audiences, that essentially what we call a show was an experience that can be many things, good or bad, easily dismissed, forgotten or remembered, or perhaps even something singularly formative, something that may change the course of another person’s life.

I’ve spent the week thinking about Grayson, how my being simple, uncomplicated and open to the young man while he was still in his earliest chapters of his childhood I had provided an unguarded glimpse into the creative process, that I was content, that my work had made for a fulfilling life, that not anything else on the farm, not the petting zoo, the carousel ride or the fire roasted corn could duplicate the experience I was providing for the farm’s audiences.

Grayson I know as an extraordinary talent. Whatever he does with his life a good portion of his success will come from his creativity, his imagination, his playfulness and in part because I had by accident given him a firsthand glimpse of a performer in pursuit of a life of authentic self expression. Last weekend I struck creative pay dirt, I got to see how I nudged one young man a little further down the road to living his best (creative) life.

down to the last drop

All of Borrego Springs water comes from rain that falls to the west on the San Ysidro Mountains. In an average year 5000-acre feet of water from Coyote and Indian Creek, water you will seldom if ever see sinks into the aquifer beneath the Borrego Valley. That’s it, try as the good people living in this desert try there is no economically feasible way to get more water to the 3500 people living in this community. And don’t think that a few of the frisky rascals in this isolated desert community haven’t spitballed this problem, one plan included piping water north from Mexico’s Sea of Cortez to a mythical desalinization plant built on the Salton Sea. That almost affordable plan priced out at about $690 million dollars. This piping plan promised to produce some of the most spectacularly expensive grapefruit and knuckleheads in the world.

In the 1980’s the United States Geologic Survey estimated Borrego Springs was using 20,000-acre feet of water per year, a full 15,000-acre feet more than they are getting off the San Ysidro watershed. Pumping resulted in water wells having to be drilled deeper, until you, the devil, or the Army Corp of Engineers can’t go any further. Taking the chance of this lone isolated aquifer getting pumped dry means the town, farms, golf courses, it means the whole ecosystem collapses. 

Up in Sacramento agriculture and industry have fought against legislation regulating the use of groundwater. The result of all this resistance is that for decades, the farms north of Borrego Springs pumped as much free unmetered water as they wanted and there wasn’t a thing anyone could do to stop them.

That little red blob at the bottom is the spot

Wading into water politics is known as a thankless career ending task. Better to kick trouble into the courts, look the other way, change the subject, nothing good will come of getting in the middle of a dispute over water.

Then in 2014 under the gutsy aquatic jujitsu of Governor Jerry Brown the California State Legislature passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. The new legislation wouldn’t take effect until 2019, first so that political careers could clear the area prior to the— all hands-on deck— to the barricades moment this new law would foment. Then, so as not to shock the state’s water system the law only gradually goes into effect year by year incrementally until 2040. Any faster and they’ll be issuing a warrant for your water thieving arrest.

The Borrego Springs aquifer depending upon who you talk to has never been better or as others worry is freaking close to collapse. California’s State Water Resources Board is concerned, there are about 150 aquifers across the state and Borrego Springs ranks as the number one worry. We are code red by one assessment and hunky dory by another. Expert hydrologists put Borrego Springs problems at the top of not just the state, but it is at the top of the nation’s list of endangered aquifers. Here is the poster child for a community that has literally been unable to do anything about the farmers north of town pumping the whole kit and caboodle into oblivion.

After decades of fighting in court the various stakeholders have come together and created a Groundwater Sustainability Plan. That was the easiest part, coming up with a plan. Pointing fingers, blaming farmers, cursing golf courses, sharing your tender mercies for black tailed jack rabbits, demanding the miserable varmints from the local water board get there you know what over to the community hall hearing and without equivocation explain what in tarnation they plan to do about this hellacious mess.

What the plan does is spread the burden out among all the various water users. That spreading out and distribution ends up being a stiletto stabbed directly into the economic aspirations of the pumping happy farmers that have long had it going their way here.

Now the agriculture stakeholders are taking acreage out of production and investing in technologically enhanced irrigation equipment. This is the fig and the leaf, the head and fake, to a crisis of Noah’s Ark proportions.

Since the climate is getting warmer and dryer none of this is likely to make the golfers happy, the grass greener or water grabbing easier. Like a husband who has vowed, there is no alternative, at some point you must get by with less or come to the point where you can’t get by at all, because there is no more water and what remains of your love life depends upon a wife that imagines you to be strong as Hercules and as virtuous as Spartacus. If that doesn’t make any sense to you then you just haven’t been married enough.

Anza Borrego Springs State Park is California’s largest. Fully one fifth of San Diego County is comprised of this pristine place. As stakeholders go the park weighs in at 585,930 acres full of roadrunners and rattlesnakes. If the aquifer in Borrego Valley was to fail all bets are off. This is the nettlesome tangle to be found here. Nowhere does it make sense to give up on twenty percent of some of the most magnificent desertscape in the world. There are no pain free solutions for the biggest water users but there is certain agony for everyone if this doesn’t get fixed and fixed right.

At United Nation’s in 2018 the world’s leaders launched a Sustainable Development Plan. The Secretary General pointed to growing demands, poor management and climate change as having increased water stresses and scarcity of water. What our global leaders are saying is that over-pumping of the aquifer in Borrego Springs is a problem found across the world.

One of the peculiarities of the challenge’s modern-day civilization confronts is the sheer size, scale, and scope of our efforts to harmonize our use of the world’s natural resources. Our economic system exerts enormous pressure on people, politics, and nations. We fix one problem then find we’ve caused another one. I’m thinking about the hydropower systems on the Columbia River and the salmon runs that then were unable to make it back to their ancestral spawning grounds. Don’t even get me started on Fukushima.

For at least two centuries we relied upon fossil fuels to power our world only to learn we are now in a race against time to deploy a new energy system for a new century while there is still time, if there is still time at all, there’s a lot at stake, and everything to lose, like the whole planet.

Human beings are not wired up to dwell on what happens when a million-acre wildfire strikes, when a Rhode Island sized iceberg breaks off from Antarctica, or when a pristine piece of California desert is brought to the brink of collapse. What does that even mean? What can anyone do? Change the subject, gripe about the minimum wage, invade a country, fret about the stock market, become a vegan, or eat veal. Looking the other way only works so long, the time comes when action becomes necessary, and inaction would be suicidal. Borrego Springs is the poster child for a place where the time on the clock, the close shave, the near miss meets the last straw.

California is a mix of seashore and desertscape, a canvas where our doers and dreamers carve out their best lives. Our citizens imagine our world’s problems to be over there, someplace else, not here, how can the most prosperous state in the union even have so much difficulty?

We say this often but these two words bounce off, they glance but don’t penetrate, we can’t wrap our minds around what it means to be living through a climate emergency, we can’t imagine ourselves being caught up in a catastrophe that is forcing us to flee for our lives, to run from wildfires to move on from where we live because the wells have run dry. Then, one morning a volcano, Mount St. Helens ejects most of its mountaintop seven miles up into the atmosphere, a spectacular unimaginable event of outrageous scale.

Centuries long megadroughts seem inconceivable, massive climate change caused migrations are for someplace else, not here, they are for over there. This human caused climate crisis can’t be happening until we all get it through are thick skulls that anthropogenic climate change is the result of what human beings have been doing. That’s the hardest part of our journey, understanding that this is our world, this is our nature, this is what is happening, what the world is now going through, what we’re doing to the world, the world we don’t just walk on, but the world we are folded into.

Ultimately this is a head trip, all dreamed up by the turning wheels inside our minds. It is cognitive, born of imagination while failing to fully appreciate the implications, that our ability to accomplish certain things can result in blowback, that what we do isn’t just dangerous, it can be outright deadly. And once we know better, once we understand what we are doing to ourselves, and then being unable to stop because we don’t want to, it is inconvenient, we’ll lose money, go broke, our lives will have to change, even if our behavior triggers a massive extinction event, even then if we can’t stop the harm we are causing, when we’ve reached that fork in the road we have to reckon morally with the likely cognitive design flaws we’ve inherited as a species.

Borrego Springs is a mirror that’s forcing us to look fearlessly heart and soul into the abyss.   

unearthing nowhere

Out there, beyond the road’s end is the beginning of it

Nowhere doesn’t come with a street address. In the American West Nowhere abounds. You can occupy these phantom corners of the globe and never even know you are there. If you have the courage of your convictions, you may take up residence at a Nowhere place of your own choosing.

I have come close to living Nowhere. For a spell I resided in Yuma. I was offered a place on the fairgrounds to park my trailer. Strictly speaking Yuma isn’t Nowhere, but as they say living in Yuma may not be the end of the world, but you can see Nowhere from there. Nowhere near Yuma is less bleak than one might imagine at first glance.

I have had an extended stay in Queen Creek, Arizona. There was a lot of Nowhere near here. Real estate developers noticed and covered much of Nowhere with tens of thousands of homes transforming this emptiness into Somewhere. Not too many of the curmudgeons practicing the fine art of the desert hermitage life felt as if this was the right thing to do with such a glorious piece of Nowhere.

Mood enhancing skylines in the middle of Nowhere

Cherry, Arizona gets as close to Nowhere as you’ll get and still find that this piece of emptiness on earth somehow was named on a map and has been identified with a road sign. You can even look down on this piece of desolation using Google Earth and satisfy your own curiosity regarding what a place in the middle of Nowhere named Cherry might look like.

Getting stuck in the middle of Nowhere can be a misery worse than having a low paying job washing dishes or being on the receiving end of an unannounced visit from a disapproving mother-in-law. I was heading west across Montana in my 1981 Volvo, a good hour from outside Missoula up on top Lolo Pass running along a paved road known as Highway 12. This byway traced the path of the Lochsa (Lock-Saw) River, the very same trail Lewis and Clark picked while making their way into the unexplored west. Clark described this piece of Nowhere as being “steep and stoney our men and horses much fatigued.” Nowhere is obstacle strewn.

This particular Nowhere appeared up on Lolo Pass the moment my alternator failed. I flagged down a car heading west asking if they could send for a tow truck. Two hours later a car passing from the east stopped to tell me that a wrecker was headed from Kooskia. Once I was hooked onto the tow truck then hauled down the mountain to the repair shop, I could officially declare that my being trapped Nowhere had come to an end. Parts for a Volvo alternator aren’t common to anywhere near Nowhere. Parts gratefully would arrive in three days, I was convinced the parts would never arrive, I mean what’s the rush, right? Buddy of mine lived in Lewiston, not too far away. I used all three days recounting how I was convinced that this breakdown had the potential of leaving me lost in Nowhere forever.

In British Columbia I woke up one morning near the middle of Nowhere atop Rogers Pass on the Trans-Canada Highway. Overnight, in the cloak of darkness a grizzly bear had ripped the entire backside of a camper off a pickup truck scaring the hell out of the occupants and but for the mercy of God sparing them their lives. I slept right through the whole darn thing. Flirting with Nowhere in the Canadian Rockies is not to be embarked upon without some consideration to life and limb. The story told in the campground was chilling and by all accounts the grizzly was the biggest damn bear any had ever seen.

Sunrise near Searchlight, Nevada

Nowhere isn’t such a frightful place in every instance. Last week I made a roundtrip between San Francisco to Denver. For three days I traveled with my wife and each night we sampled various flavors of Nowhere. There was one parking lot in front of a closed restaurant located by a forlorn interstate off ramp, another near a piece in the Mojave Nature Preserve to be followed by a snowbound truck stop in a frigid New Mexico. I turned around immediately in Denver. Lot of Nowhere had been in my diet. Drove over two hundred miles on packed snow- and ice-covered roads. Seems like you’ll only find slick highways while you are out in the middle of Nowhere. Almost like nature has a rule about testing a traveler’s courage, testing must be taken while you are out there where there are no named places. The most a misbegotten soul could hope for, to give you some shred of certainty, is the solitude of every now and then a mile marker post.

I had holed up in a field in Ely for the night waiting out a little snow flurry. Morning was clear as a bell. Lot of Nowhere near Ely. White Pine County doesn’t just have Nowhere written all over it, but there are ghost towns, Cherry Creek is one. The haunted abandoned bones of this abandoned mining camp will touch a sensitive Nowhere seeker to the core of their own inner solitude.

Further west I spotted mustang, I counted eight, most were dark bay, then there were a pair hued chestnut and one palomino, a fine long maned horse that wasn’t about to chance my getting any closer.

Burro discovered along highway in middle of Nevada…

Another hour westbound and I slammed on the brakes pulled off the side of the road beneath Woodpecker Peak. Yonder of my truck to the south all alone in Antelope Valley there was a wild burro grazing. This is a glorious animal. Smarter than a seditious Republican and twice as stubborn. I had to raise my voice to be heard, but I spoke with appreciation. Asked questions too. Explained how he was just the second wild burro I’d ever found, and like the first was located smack dab the middle of Nowhere. My burro friend twitched its ears, looked at me several times, gave me a long look too, pretty much concluded I had to be about the stupidest human encounter it had ever had to put up with. I mean this burro understood things, could survive out here on this harsh environment, find food, chase predators off, have fun, go explore, see places, find water, dream of partnering up with a prospector, enjoy exploring, have a relationship with someone completely unsuited to being around other people. I mean the hopes and dreams burros hold deep in their braying heart is a dear and fervent manifestation to roam beyond the barbwire, beyond the cattle grates, to set out each day a free and unburdened beast, no cart to pull, no load to lug, this was a burro enjoying all that is right and good about living free.

For twenty minutes I shared my thoughts with the burro, and the time spent speaking was divine. The encounter altered the quality of my day, I am still under the sway of this burro’s palpable dignity, the inner mortal compass. There I stood, eye to eye, as equals in a way, within me I had a tangible sense of this Nowhere idea being something the two of us could form a bond over, that like me the burro was just as ready to strike out on his own path to go over that next mountain range, to discover what fortunes might await his new next day out there, way out there, beyond the limit, over the horizon in the middle of Nowhere.

horse logging with harry

Harry’s a chestnut colored 26-year-old draft horse, the breed a Suffolk Punch. A veteran logging horse the gentle giant has a reputation for being a “good doer.”

Before work, a logging horse will eat about 40 lbs. of hay and another 8 lbs. of grain. Routine between the logger and his horse is soothing. Work is what the animal has been bred for, temperament is selected by breeders, a big hot draft animal is not suited to this type of team partnership.

Veteran horse loggers know what trees to harvest, what terrain is best, how long a distance they can skid a log out from where it is cut, and when their animal has reached its limit for the day. A fit and ready for work Suffolk Punch can skid a log near twice its own weight, skidding is best done on the flat. Horse loggers pull logs either along or on a slight downslope avoiding terrain that might force their animal to haul a log up a steep hillside.

In the American West harvestable saw logs will be found on private land. Would be a wise project for Bureau of Land Management, United States Forest Service and Department of Agriculture to streamline their regulatory framework and open up our public lands for horse logging.

One business model for horse logging includes bringing a portable saw mill out to where trees are harvested. Then, instead of incurring the cost of having the timber hauled off by logging trucks the horse logger can instead do the value-added piece of the job milling his harvest on site, then selling the product direct to ready buyers.

Harry will be watered several times during the day. While milling is performed the work animal will be set out to graze and given free choice access to salt and water.

A horse logger hired for thinning and culling timber from private land has many benefits. Understory isn’t ripped up same as it would be had the work been done with harvesting equipment. Skidding logs, opening the canopy, providing trees with more room for light and water encourages forest health and speeds growth.

Let’s plan on a sustainable harvest. If you have trees that reach maturity in one hundred years, then a horse logger can plan on taking one mature tree out of one hundred trees off one acre at a rate of one per year. Might be that the horse logger comes in and takes a dozen white fir then doesn’t touch this piece for another twelve years.

Done at horse logging scale, not clear cutting, instead with an eye on helping the working man and his horse to help cull the forest, strengthen its diversity, making room for a true mix of trees and understory shrubs and brushes, reducing the chance of catastrophic wildfire, making the forest more resilient to the forces of drought and downpours, would be a win-win proposition.

At the end of a long day Harry’s harness is removed, breastplate is pulled off its chest over his head and removed. The logger brushes his companion down, slow talks with his partner, whispers to assure, same as he has year in and year out, the end of the day one on one makes for a contented draft horse. The logger checks Harry’s special workhorse shoes, for added traction the animal is shod with caulks on both toe and heel, the logger will be certain his hoofs are clean, there are no stones or pebbles that could irritate.

Harry’s help skid out of the woods perhaps as many as 30 trees. Might be more harvesting tomorrow, maybe the portable mill will get fired up, fence posts, rails, and boards cut, stacked readied for marketing.

You’ll do yourself a service next opportunity you have to attend a county fair, after the pandemic comes under control, and pick a fair that features a horse barn, give yourself some time, visit a fair that features draft horses, spend the afternoon, slow walk, feel your way into the presence of one of man’s most successful animal partnerships, talk to the men and women that care for the animals. Some will be trained to pull wagons, others to plow fields, and then there are the animals that have been trained for logging. You’ll be standing in the presence of an easy keeper and a good doer, that is near all a horse logger wants out of his partner, near all he wants and dreams for.

mustang and Burro musings

Author in Escondido with his horse

Rounding up mustang and burros when their populations exceed the rangeland’s carrying capacity isn’t a muleheaded idea. If you’ve ever staked out a burro to eat down a blackberry thicket, you’ll appreciate what I mean. Burros come out of Africa. Jack’s and Jenny’s are suspicious animals and know people can be as unpredictable as jackals.

The further you travel into the least populated regions of the American West the more likely you are to encounter overgrazed rangeland. Especially because burros tend to roam deeper into the emptiness, you’ll have to travel farther off the highways into the least visited corners to see what harm the animal can do to the seldom visited places. Javelinas, mule deer, big horn and elk never were meant to be in competition with an African burro and can find their forage stripped right out from their home ground.

Remember just twenty thousand years before now across North America roamed a great many predators, megafauna as they are so adorably referred to by paleontological types, large carnivores kept the small herbivores in ‘checkeroo.’ And that was before the eternally stubborn rapier witted burro arrived from Spain via Africa.

Skippering a sailboat south from San Francisco south to Catalina Island requires preparation, patience and time. You embark not on a date and hour but as the weather allows. You do not travel on one compass heading at one speed, you alter your course with the breeze, you may speed up, decide to decrease sail area to slow down or if conditions deteriorate seek refuge in the nearest harbor. Only a fool is in a hurry.

A citizen living in Tucson, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, or Denver while close to the American West no longer depend upon the place, urban people feed off a dynamic economy. The urban westerner goes camping out in the empty trackless outback, arriving late Friday to fish, hunt and hike and home late Sunday in time for work on Monday.

Rural rascal residents have a more complicated circumstance, scuffing up a living tends to be extractive, focusing on exchanging the value of the natural resources for fiat currency, the almighty dollar.

The carrying capacity of the American West, how many people and animals can be supported out here has long been tipped beyond the fulcrum of natures balance. To my eye the rural citizen starved of access to resources is a more desperate animal with fewer choices. Stuck in the middle of nowhere with nothing is a corner in need of a fix.

Like that a galloping herd of mustang can be heard thundering over the horizon. Fortunate for America, the nation has got near as many able-bodied men and women ready to embark upon right livelihood. Herds of mustang need to be culled, burros too. Getting the animals off sensitive habitat would be good for starters. Preparing the animals ready for adoption requires skilled horsemen, not knuckleheaded desperados but horse whisperers, skillful people from rural communities that have grown up around livestock will know what I mean. Forget about cheap, this is going to take mucho dinero, revenue, spending, dollars, hard earned and supplied by taxpayers, culling mustang and burros is not ever going to be a project that fully funds itself.

We’ve got mustang everywhere, from California to Colorado, from Washington to New Mexico, and with all those animals comes a horseman and an honest day’s work for a wage. Hotheaded cattlemen want the animals off the range. Bolo tie wearing western range managers caught between the anti-tax fervency of the muckamucks and big shots back east find their hands tied behind the famous rock and hard place.

I’m going full blasphemy and don’t get your knickers in a knot, just breathe with the revelation, allow your imagination to run with the coyote and neighbors dogs, let’s defuse this toxic sagebrush rebellion, bring some human horse and burro sense to the moment.

Mustang, are icons of an American West that is slowly getting surrounded, filled up and near ready to collapse. American taxpayers already subsidize fossil fuels out here, we already giveaway our trees to timber companies, we already dole out water rights to growers that ship crops to offshore markets for their private profit pumping the peoples ancient aquifer like there is no tomorrow.

I would propose we set a new and more enlightened agenda. Repurpose tax subsidies, aim our tax dollars to the rural men and women that can help preserve and protect our rangeland.

All weekend long I’ve been driving between Denver back to San Francisco. Every chance I had I spent reading over all these postings about the crisis the American West is having over the out of control herds of mustang and burros.

What to do about the overpopulation of mustang and burro stories are being published far and wide. Noteworthy was how delicate the tapdancing around the topic seemed. Editors from Elko to Provo, Cheyenne to Yuma are careful about what this sensitive issue. Depending upon the publications readership the writers and editors shaped the story to fit the preconceptions, all the old tired out of date assumptions perpetuated by all the locked into their positions and not going to budge one inch types. I mean it makes a man want to spit his false teeth across the room and empty a quart of whiskey so as to settle his risk of tantrum, fits and spontaneous impulse to break his faith in humanity.

Everything and everybody is doing their damned best to protect their turf. “Ain’t nobody giving up nothing for nobody.” You got a water subsidy, goddamn it, I’m keep my fair share. Have a lease on a tract of BLM land, got dibs on those grazing rights, keeping them too. Mineral rights, drilling leases, deer tags and pinion pine nut picking privileges are never to be surrendered.

The draft horse is a working stiff. I had the privilege of being introduced to a team that together plowed 700 acres. The man that managed this team had nothing to prove, working with the animals was a reward unto itself. A draft horse isn’t finding meaning until its harnessed up and laboring breaking stubborn ground apart with a plow from light of day to dusk. Humankinds relationship with the horse is long and storied. Like a sailor the man handling the draft horses has set his own course to go his own way cultivating a crop for reasons beyond merely marking a commodity to market.

The American West is in transition, the tumbleweeds and sagebrush steppe needs its poet cowboy and renegade go-it-my-own-way types. We need to reimagine the place and people, expand our stunted imaginations, and remake this classic in the eyes of a people scrambling to fix the underlying centuries old assumptions that have kept us all tangled up and stuck. Billions of repurposed dollars could do the trick. Better days are promised to those willing to be the change, to embrace the unfamiliar, to preserve what is right and good about what we’ve found out here. This is remnant frontier homeland, a place that deserves protecting, a place worth paying a man a fair wage for a good day of work.

Nothing-Nada-Zip

In 1974 I hooked up with a roadshow. The tour took us coast to coast, Seattle to Key West, Boston to San Diego. I was hungry to see the country, I drank in the North American continent playing one day stands city to city, state to state.

Rolling westward from Cheyenne I was home bound. Somewhere west of Rock Springs, Wyoming we settled in at dusk on the easternmost edge of the Great Basin Desert. Among my responsibilities was caring for a 3-year-old miniature horse, a black stallion, Othello.

Together we walked up to a ridge into the sagebrush. From there I released Othello. Charging off at a full gallop, farting, nickering, tossing his head side to side the mighty miniature horse exalted in having this vast sea of space to romp among. Arriving at the highest point on the landscape my stallion scanned the terrain, stallions are always imagining lovers may be found at any time in any place. There were none. From where I stood to Othello was a quarter of a mile, perhaps further. I took a knee. Othello bolted back galloping down the slope. Playful, showing off, freedom was sweet, he swept past then halted.

He nipped at the grass, savoring the wild forage. I patted my stallion on his shoulder, he liked his neck itched. “I’ve never been here either.” Confessing to my friend, “Some kind of high desert. I don’t think I knew there was desert in Wyoming, never occurred to me.”

Launching my own show, I began working across the American West. I’d travel east to Colorado, north and south from the Mexican border to British Columbia. Travel patterns varied, there were years I remained in San Francisco working in Fisherman’s Wharf. Many other years of my life, for many decades, I traveled across the American West.

In my mind trees, rivers and mountains I had prejudged to be the most appealing landscapes. Visiting Palm Springs, a womanizing carpenter friend introduced me to the Palm Canyons. The canyons are on the ancestral lands of the Agua Caliente Band of the Cahuilla Indians. Indigenous to Baja and the southernmost deserts of California and Arizona the palm trees, Washingtonian filifera, captivated my sense of oasis. Because of the stream flowing in the canyon birds abounded. Verdant, shady, rugged, granite boulders, sand… the wheels in my mind began to turn. I finally got the bug, the buzz, figured out how to explore desert, understanding that I would need to be on the lookout for hidden terrains.

Unaware of the spa resorts out in Desert Hot Springs, my friend told me I had to go have a soak. Then I discovered Sam’s Family Spa and added taking to the mineral baths after hiking in my favorite palm canyons.

Jumps between Palm Springs and Phoenix, initially, before I was able to grasp what all this emptiness might mean, how it might move my interior emotional world, all those early jumps, all that vast emptiness went lost on me. I picked up a bird guide, found a book about the American deserts, began to get some sense of when I was in the Mojave, Great Basin, Sonoran or Chihuahuan deserts.

Crystal clear air, pyrotechnic sunsets, forty-mile-wide valleys, rugged mountain ranges so enormous they can make you feel as if you could stick your hand out the window and touch their slopes with your fingertips.

The Coachella Valley, Valley of the Sun, Tucson, Patagonia, Tupac, Sedona, Camp Verde, Albuquerque, Las Vegas, St George, Salt Lake City, Pocatello, Twin Falls and Boise I found convincing, conceivable, plausible, as if given their dimensions, their sprawl, their size, population, the access to water that there was a case to be made for people to live in the desert, make a life, thrive, have a family, vote, and build community.

There is a beauty to be found in emptiness. Lending the world your open mind is a kindness. What remains of the American west’s emptiness decreases with each moment of each day of each passing month and year.

For millions of years across the North American continent the kingdom of wildlife flourished, swelling and shrinking with changes in climate and availability of food and water. Man’s immigration into North America twenty thousand years ago tipped the balance. Any place man arrived resulted in the same sequence of events. The largest mammals were soon driven to extinction. We had no idea that gestation was such a bitch. Imagine what a salmon would say if it could gripe about what the Bonneville Power Administration has done to their chances?

Intelligence isn’t a one-way street. Blowback is interwoven into every nook and cranny of every ecosystem studied. We’re just smart enough to get ourselves over our heads in heaps of blowback and catastrophic species collapse, and we don’t even have to try that hard, it seems to come naturally.

People have been living in the Great Basin Desert hunting and gathering for many thousands and thousands of years. Eating fresh caught trout, Jack Rabbit, and pinion nuts. Gathering mushrooms, wild onions and sage. Foraging for leafy greens, crickets, and snakes.

Vast underground aquifers have been tapped. If a well is productive a place might be settled, even thrive, remote for the few people that can tolerate such solitude. There are big cities in the Great Basin, but in this desert it is emptiness and untouched open space that is lord and ruler of this natural wonder.

Being a native Californian, having spent much of my life in the San Francisco Bay Area I’ve grown more in need of what this desert emptiness whispers to my heart, how it soothes jangling heavy traffic irritated nerves. How I can drive 90 miles and not see another single solitary soul. How I can feel the emptiness healing a hunger in every fiber of my being, running unbound without the hustle and bustle, the temptation to take one more meeting, have one more drink, drop by to see one more friend. Color me selfish, tell me I’m a want it all type, impractical and environmentally off kilter, but I want what I want, and I want the Great Basin Desert to be this healing place, this empty place. I want to know there are prospectors, mustang and dirt roads and ornery burros. Instincts are strong. Whatever healing emptiness allows, however you measure solitude and silence, there is some measure, a measly pinch, there is this elixir of fairy dust found in empty space all of us will want to experience while on our visit here upon Mother Earth.

autumn backroad east

I’m a roadrunner baby

Running the southern route adds two-hundred miles to the trip to Denver. Once I’d made Bakersfield, I parked at a truck stop, slept there for the night. Sunday, I made five hundred miles east to Williams, Arizona. A local tipped me off to a free campground operated by the Bureau of Land Management.

“Get off Interstate 40, take Highway 64 north a handful of miles,” my tipster guaranteeing, “you can’t miss the campground, the dirt road is on the right.”

Wheeling into the dusty forest there was posted a sign warning camping was limited to 14 days. Squatters can become a nuisance. I was only there for one night. I parked warily under ponderosa pine. Wildfire this autumn has kept people on edge. Terrain was brittle, dry, risk of fire high. Among the long needle Rocky Mountain ponderosa pine, you would be advised to keep your ditch bag near at hand.

I set out a folding table, chair, got my electric skillet fired up slow cooking the one man- one pot dish. Tonight, it would be homemade beans, potatoes, asparagus, and spinach. The secret sauce to being cast a sage culinary vagabond was be spartan like and not make a mess.    

Pandemic dining at its best

In 1992 I lived along the Verde River eighty miles southeast of here. I remember taking my baby girl Alana shopping in Flagstaff. I could still hold her in my arms. I was miserable seeing her grow up knowing that all too soon I wasn’t going to be able to pick her up and carry that baby girl in my arms. You think about the people you love when your camped out alone.

Out here in the southwest where the Mojave, Sonoran and Great Basin Desert’s meet up there has been a great increase in population. Most of the places categorized as in the middle of nowhere and to hell and gone, five miles by dirt another mile on foot, all of that part of the American West is under threat. St. George, Utah was never supposed to grow so big.

In more remote regions of Nevada, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico you’ll find solitude as pure as your evil heart. Then, you brush up close to Las Vegas, Flagstaff, Albuquerque, or Phoenix and you will choke on civilization sprawled out over a horizon and cooking at a boil.

Reclamation Project Underway

For my money, the American West is in possession of the crown jewels of our nation’s wilderness. Now each remote outpost is being encroached upon from a new nearby settlement. It is unclear what is to become of solitude, the wildlands have been stolen by a swelling population, hardscrabble loner’s that have struggled to celebrate emptiness are nearing the end of such places. All of us need nowhere even if we never bother to go. The privilege of camping in wild open spaces, counting the mustang off on the horizon, being serenaded by a canyon wren, these are experiences that deserved to be passed onto the misfits and renegade misanthropes.

Fool’s Paradise

I hiked up a gulch fooled by the terrain, read the clues all wrong, ended up in a boxed canyon. Ancient Anasazi people hunted in this terrain, once their prey had been cornered nets were raised, trapped, unable to escape, the ancient hunters armed with spears would press in for the kill.

As the Pleistocene ended, what is now Nevada warmed, ice age animals went extinct, pinion pine migrated north from Mexico. Into the region arrived grizzly bear, elk, deer, antelope and big horn sheep. For the next ten thousand years a tribe of hunters thrived. Early man faced drought, wildfire, and the threat of being eaten alive. Right now a mountain lion can ruin anyone’s day. Important answers to civilizations problems confound people attempting to respond to the mortal risks flourishing in the third decade of this new century. We are acting, you can feel the whole lot of us trying, growing momentum will sweep up more and more, and we will make good trouble refining our path.

I see on my calendar humankind’s next big leap will take place on November 3rd. Let’s get along now, there is a wild blue yonder to chase and a wide wonderful world to save.