A town without a saloon is like a woman without a heart. I made Blanding, Utah, before sundown, checked into the Best Western Motel, and rang up the front desk from my room. “Is the Elk Ridge Restaurant within walking distance from here?” “It’s just half a block away.” “Do they have a liquor license?” “Do sell liquor? I don’t think so. We’re a dry town.” Not as long as I’m a resident. I had in my luggage a half-bottle of dry red wine, from which I drank a glass before crossing the street to the restaurant. It was a characterless place, furnished with tables and chairs fabricated from blonde wood and crowded with large pale families gorging on fried chicken and sweet rolls. And a meal without wine can only be compared to a Mass without transubstantiation. I ordered chili and a bottle of pseudobeer, ate quickly, and returned to the mole) to finish off the wine and immerse myself, through Selina Hastings’s superb new biography of Evelyn Waugh, in the bibulous aristocratic world of a London clubman. I was awake before seven the next morning and on the road by eight o’clock, headed south across the northern boundary of the Navajo reservation to the town of Mexican Water in Arizona.
I drove for some hours across the land of the Navajos, fine upland desert almost entirely removed from the Epoch of Growth that the Dineh alternately despise and demand, though the folkways they cherish are virtually synonymous with the poverty of which they complain. Californians enclosed in Cadillacs, Ohioans boxed inside Winnebagos towing boats and jeeps, and yuppies from Utah with mountain bicycles mounted on the roofs of sporty four-wheel-drives raced across this wholly-surrounded Third World plot, past the stick corrals and trailer towns, in search of a good time elsewhere and, if possible, the good life. America on the move: restless and miserable without knowing why, everyone looking for the right place, the last best place, and never finding it; towing their problems along behind them with their boats and assorted wheeled toys. Maryland, Virginia plates: keep going. New York and Illinois: don’t stop. Oregon and Washington: the Indians don’t need you out here, and neither do we. California: stop and I’ll shoot. The oncoming traffic approached like unwanted neighbors, blank alien faces behind relucent windshields at doubled speed. On the res there are few road signs, little of the roadside culture of the white syphilization that has become an affront to Creation and to the Creator. Here a lovely valley, an expanse of grassy plain, a row of hills covered by desert flowers are not, as they are off reservation, an invitation to rape, pillage, and development: detached from intimations of disaster, natural beauty becomes once again an object of delight, no longer cause for anguish. I wish the Indians owned all of Arizona.
North to south, Arizona stretches 390 miles. Beyond the Painted Desert I stopped for gas at Show Low on the edge of the Fort Apache Indian Reservation, a wilderness of blocky mountains and gorges blackened by low forests of pine and cedar. South from Globe, yellow puffs of blossoming palo verde covered the cragged desert hills, and in the valley of the San Pedro River the cotton woods boiled on a hot wind above the flat green fields overlooked by armies of saguaros. The sprawl of Tucson began at Oro Valley, ill-made but expensive houses crammed into gilded subdivisions isolated behind partial adobe walls from the perfumed vastness of the springtime desert. People move 2,000 miles from Northbrook and Minneapolis to live like this? The great unanswered question is not what women want—it is what Americans want. I drove downtown through the rush-hour traffic and put up at the Congress Hotel on State Street, where the art deco lobby has been recently refurbished, the rooms with their Bonnie & Clyde furniture are comfortably Spartan, and the radio encased in its wooden box in the form of a church window had considerately been left inoperable by the management. The window faced State Street, directly over the marquee. I opened it and lay with my boots on across the iron-frame bed while the hot dry air poured in, smelling the cold wet sagebrush of the Wyoming steppes and the yellow branding smoke, acrid with the odor of scorched hair and burnt veal.
I spent two days drinking coffee with Gregory McNamee and a hotshot literary agent whose analysis of the American literary marketplace tempted me to chuck my typewriter into the Santa Cruz River and escape across the Mexican border in search of a better life. On the third day I was cramped once again behind the wheel of the pickup truck, battling the powerful spring winds east of Benson on Interstate 10. Each year this wandering becomes more like an obsessive patrol of the American Southwest, an assessment of the ruination accomplished by “development” and an inventory of the vast and better yet inhospitable beauty still remaining. The highway climbed through Texas Canyon and descended to Willcox and San Simon, scoured by typhoons of yellow dust rising from the desert floor and sweeping across the apple orchards toward the iron-red mountains that enclose the valley. It crossed the state line into New Mexico, passed Stein’s Ghost Town, and traversed the playas shimmering with heat. From Lordsburg it continued on to Deming and El Paso, while I took the two-lane road north across the wide plain dotted with sotol and yucca through the Burro Mountains to Silver City on the southern end of the Gila National Forest. The country had emerged from the chrysallis of spring in which it had rested pleasantly when I last visited it in February with Jim Catron, legal counsel to the Catron County Commission notorious nationwide for its determination to force the federal government to obey its own statutes. I had phoned Catron from Belen and met him at six in the morning at his house in Contreras at the verge of the bosque along the Rio Grande for the 160-mile drive to the town of Reserve, the county seat. Jim Catron is a descendent of the pioneers of New Mexico, many of whom migrated from the Lower South to Texas after the federal troops and carpetbaggers expropriated them, and later from Texas into New Mexico Territory where they set up in the cattle-ranching business. They were largely of Celtic stock, and some of them, like Jim’s ancestors, had an admixture of Cherokee and Choctaw blood; as ex-Confederates, they compounded Celtic rambunctiousness and dislike of authority with a hatred for the federal government in all its works and manifestations. I’his hatred, passed down from one generation to the next, had not died out in their great-grandchildren when the government in Washington passed a National Environmental Protection Act and sent interlopers to regulate the economy, as well as the environment, of New Mexico. Catron County, larger in area than the state of New Jersey and comprised almost entirely of federal and state lands, has a population of around 2,100 people, most of whom are—or were—cattlemen, timber cutters, and lumbermen, running their animals and cutting their trees mostly on the national forests. As the regulators proceeded with their work, harassing ranchers and forcing the lumber companies into retirement, the citizens of Catron County, growing restless, encouraged their elected officials to the more intensive exercise of their native ingenuity. The strategy these men developed was simple as well as legal, and even patriotic. NFPA plainly states that federal agencies must consult with the governments of affected localities concerning the effects of their activities on local cultures and customs. Because the Forest and the Fish and Wildlife Services were just as plainly not engaging in such consultation, their negligence appeared to present an opening for a legal thrust to the soft underbelly of Leviathan. To date Jim Catron has helped to obtain several judgments from federal courts in the West supporting his argument, while relations between federal personnel and environmentalists on one side of the debate, and almost everyone else on the other, have been ratcheted to so great a level of hostility that the commission passed an ordinance requiring heads of households to own firearms in order to “protect citizens’ rights,” and predicted that “much physical violence” would ensue if the federals persisted with their “arrogant” plan for grazing reform. Long before the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, Catron County had become a symbol of the Revolt of the Redneck, and disapproving media persons were converging on Reserve from more enlightened regions of the country; these included, recently, a dude reporter from the San Francisco office of the Wall Street Journal whose chief preoccupation seemed to be keeping his contact lenses in place. The day I sat in on a commissioners’ meeting with Jim the trees were in bud around the county building and an elderly couple from California stopped in to watch history being made. Nothing more incendiary than the condition of the county landfill was discussed, but they seemed gratified nevertheless.
Near Bayard I stopped at a roadside tavern and received painstakingly detailed instructions on to Caballo from a drunken cowboy in a black hat at the bar. The highway crossed the lovely Mimbres Valley below the Santa Rita Copper Mine that has been in operation since the 1720’s and ascended the west slope of the Black Range by switchbacks to Gallinas Canyon and Emory Pass (elev. 8,228), from where the Caballo Mountains were scarcely visible through the dust blowing across the Rio Grande trench. The steep forest floor was devoid of understorey, even of grass, but greening cottonwoods shaded the canyon above a clear running stream. The long descent began among precipitous cliffs and pine trees, passed through draws where cattle grazed beneath riparian cottonwoods, and ended in the wide creosote plain sweeping down to the big river and Interstate 2 5 beside it. hi spite of fierce winds quartering from the northwest, I reached Belen in time to catch the national news broadcast and a vodka martini with Jim Rauen. The O.J. Simpson trial and the war in Bosnia were still the top stories, and we agreed that it was as if we hadn’t missed a beat since I left at the end of February.
The heat was terrific in Juárez two days later. At Figaro’s across the Avenida de 16 Septiembre from the Plaza Monumental we were greeted by Señor Hurtado, the ring owner, as we ate fajitas and drank white wine. All six bulls, from the Doña Celia Barbabosa Ranch, were magnificent animals, nearly identical in build and in their dark brindled color and weighing between 450 and 484 kilos. Each of the three matadores had one bad fight, and one superb one: Jorge Gutierrez cut one car, Mario del Olmo two, and Federico Pizarro, like del Olmo a young man not vet in his 20’s, received an indulta from the President. “No, no, Pizarro—no, no!” the crowd roared as he prepared to kill, and Pizarro with an expectant, almost pleading expression looked up to the box lettered AUTORIDAD. The President appeared reluctant, seeming to want the bull Visitante dead, but at last he relented and the spectators, who had just finished admonishing a banderillero who had failed to place a single banderilla with shouts of “Pero! Pero! Pero!” went wild with enthusiasm as Pizarro was lifted on the shoulders of his cronies and paraded around the ring. lie neatly folded and slipped into an inner vest pocket a pair of panties flung to him by an admirer, but tossed back the inflated plastic ones thrown by a lout in one of the cheaper seats. When Jim and 1 arrived in Belen the next day drifts of hailstones from a passing thundershower lay among the grama grass, and at dusk we searched with flashlights for the large desert toads that draw to the pond. When rubbed across the belly they excrete a strong stream of urine, and go limp in your hand with pleasure.
I drove over to Contreras the next morning and found Jim Catron and his sons pouring concrete. The cordless phone hanging on the fence was silent until about noon, after which it rang incessantly. One of the callers was Steve Udall—”one of the good Udalls”—who was going to confront the feds at a hearing in Phoenix, but the rest were women reporters from polite Eastern newspapers. One of them, who seemed to think that she was conversing with a Western badman, complained that Jim “intimidated” her. More or less patiently, he walked them through his little speech. “I was talking to the editor of the Albuquerque Trib one time,” he said between calls. “Blonde, stringy hair; thin. She kept using the word ‘redneck.’ Finally I said to her, ‘By “redneck” you mean someone who is rural, ignorant, violent, and white, is that correct?’ ‘That’s correct.’ Well, there is a word for people who are urban, ignorant, violent, and black. Do you use that word?’ ‘Of course not!'”
The phone rang again and Jim spoke into it for some time, pacing as he did so around the smoothed concrete. “It won’t be very long before New Mexico is no longer a Western state,” he said when he got off. “I don’t like it.” “I hate it,” I told him.