Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Every cowboy hat should try to read this

The ruckus in eastern Oregon arises from ignorance and greed, not history. Ranchers and others have enjoyed the privilege of using everyone's land since the Louisiana Purchase. Here's the introduction to my book about public lands in the West, written soon after I fled the Washington Post:  

Vamos . . .
I first heard about the West — the West as experience — from my grandmother. In 1900, when she was thirteen, she traveled from Arkansas to California in a covered wagon. Her mother had tuberculosis, and the doctor had prescribed a slow transition from humidity to drier climes. At night the girl slept under the wagon, and during the day she shot jack rabbits from the hard plank seat. Her father had taught her to use a rifle and once convinced her to shoot a cigar out of his mouth in an audacious display of marksmanship, or so she claimed.
My parents took the same route, to Tucson, in the early thirties, from Memphis, their Chevy convertible packed with everything they owned. They had just married and were avoiding hometown rules and expectations. The West was dry and distant, and imbued with exotic promise. They rented a stone house in the Sonoran Desert, and for a season my father chased cows for a rancher while my mother filled up canvas with paintings of ocotillo and red rock. They returned home two years later, to the prospect of children, a world war, and endless responsibility. But the photographs of them in the West show an unencumbered man and woman, touched with radiance, standing amidst the spectacular geologic rubble of high, arid ranges.
My father's spurs became the legacy of a man interested in escape, not horses. They hung on our wall in Memphis as life went on, the big Mexican rowels rusting, the hand-tooled leather going to dust. Memphis in the fifties claimed to have more churches than gas stations, and I grew up yearning for a glimpse of all that land beyond the Mississippi, and the freedom it implied. Memphis had served as a jumping-off point for westward migration a hundred years before, as important in its way as St. Louis. Travelers who were not "GTT" — Gone to Texas — angled up through Fort Smith, Arkansas, and then headed southwestward to their real or imagined destinies. Walter Prescott Webb compared the South and the West in The Great Plains. Both, he said, were exploited by the more powerful Northeast, both "tributary to the masters of the Industrial Revolution. Both kingdoms produced what promised to be a distinctive civilization, a thing apart in American life."
I finally got that glimpse of the West while in college. I worked one summer as a hotel desk clerk in Central City, Colorado, and another summer harvesting peas in Washington State. I rode the Greyhound across miles of apparent emptiness between home and what amounted to another country. I often told myself that someday I would really get to know the West.
In the early 1980s I lived in Washington, D.C., about as far from those open spaces as I could get and still be in the republic. I worked for the Washington Post, writing profiles of various characters who washed up on the shores of Ronald Reagan's Potomac. They were an intriguing lot — the White House chief of staff, the director of Central Intelligence, the secretary of defense, the ambassador to the United Nations — all housed in buildings much like the Post's , with security guards and windows that didn't open. I also performed, for the Style section, what were referred to as "day hits" — shorter pieces about prominent visitors as various as the Dalai Lama and a rising actress who had tied up Jerry Lewis in a film about urban obsessions.
One day, at the office of the secretary of the interior, in a gray edifice seemingly built to confirm every prejudice about federal architecture, I met James Watt, the secretary of the interior. Watt viewed the American West as an economic opportunity and an ideological battleground. His contentiousness and political zeal made him popular among developers and unpopular with conservationists. He had become the most controversial of all the interior secretaries, including Harold Ickes, who had used his friendship with Franklin Roosevelt to transform the department into a real power base. Ickes had a bedroom at Interior because he spent so much time there. He reportedly used it for his liaisons as well as for sleeping. He suffered a heart attack in 1937 and insisted upon recuperating there. Watt had the bedroom transformed into his executive suite, and used the expansive westward-facing office — the most impressive in town — only for ceremony.
I eventually found myself sitting with Watt in his limousine, in the basement of lnterior, while the secretary denounced environmentalists and the Eastern press as tacit conspirators in an attempt to overthrow the democracy. He seemed oddly vulnerable, with his Coke-bottle glasses, high domed forehead, and ideological fervor. "The battle's not over the environment," he said. "They want to change our form of government."
It was a preposterous view, but unequivocally held and unequivocally stated — a rarity in Washington. Watt was dismantling Interior's influence, and some of its prime country as well, in the name of God and progress. But the controversy wasn't what interested me. I couldn't forget the epiphany I had experienced when I first walked into Secretary Watt's outer office, or the sense of possibility it entailed. In the deep russet carpet, the wood paneling, and the portraits of former secretaries lay the intimation of distant peaks, desert rock, and riverine lands. Congress and the Supreme Court had the law, the Pentagon had the power of destruction, but Interior had real estate — millions of prime acres in the West.
Later, I spread a map of America's public lands on my living room floor. Great gold-colored swaths represented Interior's land, most of it the responsibility of the Bureau of Land Management; green represented land administered by the U.S. Forest Service, the sister agency within the Department of Agriculture. Green and gold overlay much of the states between the Rockies and the Pacific — a federal domain of staggering immensity.
The two agencies — the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service — can be seen as a monolith. Both grew out of the old General Land Office, which was set up to deal with the remnants of western expansion. The BLM and the Forest Service control close to half of the intermountain West, a domain almost as large as western Europe, but relatively unpopulated. Surveying my map, it occurred to me that a person could travel this federal kingdom from the Mexican border to Canada and seldom leave it, and never lose sight of it. 
Over the months I returned on my own behalf to the gray buildings of lnterior and Agriculture to talk to BLM and Forest Service career officers and resource specialists. Many of them seemed out of place in Washington with their wide ties and sideburns, talking in accents from the far side of the Mississippi, and trying to manage more than 300 million acres in the Lower Forty-eight. Their kingdom, spread with some of the most beautiful and terrifying terrain on Earth, seems endless; but for many people it has little meaning. To most Easterners, for instance, public lands are parks — which actually represent just a tiny fraction of the whole — or worthless pieces of desolation left over from an age of scalps flapping on lodge poles.
Meanwhile, like a lot of other males in their forties, I was developing physical abilities beyond those required for a merely urban existence. Weightlifting was an unacknowledged preparation for a fantasy beginning to take shape. I ran daily in Rock Creek Park, a fugitive in shoes designed for the briefly unencumbered, and reflective garb more appropriate on an astronaut. The park cuts through the city like a verdant wedge and offers in its approximation of wildness one of the boons of Washington life. On otherwise deserted trails, far from quarrelsome traffic, I could envision bigger country where less rain fell; in miniature chasms I saw the origins of a grander, broader landscape.
I began to collect maps as a lifer collects law manuals. They provided detail about the national forests in the West and about remote areas run by the BLM, forlorn and therefore alluring, where roads and towns are pathetically overwhelmed by the country.
I decided to head west, without a salary or the need for day hits, and took a year's leave of absence from Style, knowing I wouldn't return. I told myself that I was obeying the same impulse that had drawn people out of fields and factories a century before; I had to admit that an adolescent urge had become a middle-aged preoccupation. Giving way to it was chancy and painful but irresistible. I said goodbye to my wife and children, knowing I wouldn't see them for months, and left in a van packed to the windowsills with camping gear, books, a typewriter, and oil company credit cards.
Every day travelers in station wagons and five-axle semis look out their windows at the West and think that all that alternately inspiring and godawful stuff belongs to the descendant of some titled lord or to some son of a bitch too tough or too dumb to up and leave. Most of us travel it for days without knowing that it belongs to us. People living there lease parts of the West and turn their animals or their clients loose on it. They dig holes in it, dynamite it, mine it, cut timber from it, steal parts of it to build their patios, grow dope on it, hunt on it, drive machines of fantastic aspect across it, get drunk on it, make love and sleep on it.

I left Washington to look at federal real estate. What I discovered was people — repositories of a national myth. Cowboys, Indians, gold miners, mountain men, and hustlers you might expect; but I also found some I couldn't have foreseen: a gunfighter holding sway over a remote part of Wyoming at the end of the twentieth century, for instance, and men still taking multiple wives in the shadow of flaming sandstone cliffs. I found defenders of a mythic place, abusers of the same, some ordinary and many extraordinary men and women. Where they fit in the larger scheme did not become clear to me until much later, after the bits of experience had been scattered. In the pages that follow, these people appear, not according to my itinerary, but in deference to their purposes in the land that supposedly belongs to no one.
      For a succinct summary of the unforeseen consequences of Manifest Destiny, read today's piece in the New York Times
     To read more excerpts from Kingdom go to the drop-down menu, right, and start with April, 2014:

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