Several thousand feet below a smoke cloud 20,000 feet thick and 1,500 miles in diameter, the American West looks so peaceful, so at ease, so normal, no matter that over a million acres of it are on fire. The fires, most of them started by dry lightning strikes and burning out overmature forests thickened with dead and down timber, aren’t really the problem. The threat, at the present moment, comes from Philadelphia and Los Angeles, where America’s vaunted two-party system is engaged in further deconstructing the country whose welfare is ostensibly its raison d’être, not least by its encouragement of aggressive millions of immigrant aliens whose effect on American culture and institutions, as well as on the land itself, is comparable to the damage a pine beetle infestation wreaks on a Western forest. The powers that be, getting things backward as always, want the fires extinguished, the invasion ignored. Still, the traffic is noticeably lighter than when I came this way through Colorado last year: high gas prices discouraging the native tourists, unfavorable exchange rates keeping the foreign ones at home. Between Climax, the mining town that over the past century has removed and chewed up the topmost part of a 14,000-foot mountain, and Leadville, three young women in shorts and haltertops, their skins deeply tanned, jog in the shoulder of the road between two protecting motor homes decorated with banners reading “BORDER TO BORDER RUN”—Canada to Mexico, presumably. (The purposive purposelessness of modern American life.)
Salida, Colorado, in the Arkansas River valley with a view upstream to the Sphinx-like Collegiate Peaks, only 15 or 20 years ago was a relaxed Western town of the sort where, if your dog dug up a flowerbed next door, the neighbor dropped by to remark over coffee that the local hardware store was holding a clearance sale on nylon rope. Nowadays, since the Californians have arrived, you get a letter from his attorney in your mailbox instead. And much of the coffee drinking appears to get done in latte shops in the gentrified downtown district. I drove through it to the Budget Motel, registered, and phoned the Checks by prearrangement at the Tudor Rose Inn.
Diane and Paul Check, in raising up one son to the Church of Rome and another to The Rockford Institute, have contributed more than any other couple I know to the defense of Western civilization. Taking a well-deserved break from the battle, on vacation in Colorado, they had offered to treat me to dinner in Salida—the last civilized meal I expected to enjoy before plunging into the dark heart of the San Juan Mountains. The Tudor Rose in appearance is as unlikely as its name: a stucco-and-timber structure standing on a desert hill among bristlecone pines. The Checks had the Elizabethan Suite downstairs, with sliding doors opening on a patio where we sat drinking The Dalmore Paul produced and congratulating ourselves on having been born into interesting times. When self-congratulation showed signs of ending in depression and the single-malt was significantly diminished in the bottle, we drove back to Highway 285 and the Cafe Antero, which Paul had discovered on the Web before leaving Dallas-Fort Worth. Barely off the shoulder of the road. Cafe Antero is a roadside diner with world-class cuisine. We started with a trout pastry and went on to the mixed game grille and a bottle of red wine; the conversation had largely to do with Andrea Marcovicci, whom the Checks had heard at Bass Hall in Dallas last winter performing her “Love Songs of World War Two” show. We finished the evening with midnight cigars and cognac at the Tudor Rose—and then I was back at the Budget Motel, viewing my assembled camp gear spread around the tiny room through a pleasant haze of nicotine and alcohol fumes. Time to return to reality in the pursuit of the allegedly (indeed, quite possibly) unreal.
Across Poncha Pass, flat as a rule as far south as Alamosa, the San Luis valley is a green irrigated plain dominated by the towering blue bulk of Sierre Blanca, overshadowed this morning by isolated cumulus clouds and lapped at its base by massive sand dunes. At Alamosa, 285 crosses the Rio Grande swinging down from the northwest and continues on 28 miles to Antonito—the launching pad for the Third Annual Sasquatch Recovery Expedition and Presidential Search, off to a regrettably late start this political season. From here on, the cultural feel is definitely Spanish: adobe churches with statues of the Virgin surrounded by flowerbeds out front; dark-skinned ranchers with flowing black mustaches and white straw hats behind the wheel of passing pickup trucks. At a few minutes past noon, I parked in front of Dos Hermanas on the main drag and went into the restaurant where a dark, pretty girl who didn’t look old enough to be serving drinks was on the floor, waiting for customers to serve lunch to. Happy to be in the Southwest again, I ordered menudo (soup made with posole, small chunks of pork, and beef tripe), and drank a bottle of beer with the chips and salsa while I waited for the order to come up. Antonito doesn’t change much from year to year: The mural across the street showing the antique steam engine pulling tourists through the mountains to Chama, New Mexico, hadn’t been painted over after three or four seasons, and the skinny, bent, whitebearded viejo passing outside the plate-glass window definitely looked familiar. The menudo was excellent; when I mentioned to the waitress it was the best I could remember eating, she looked confused, seeming not to know what to make of the compliment. Rather than lick the bowl I ordered another beer, and was halfway through it when Dick McCuistion appeared in the door, wearing a white polo shirt and camouflage Marine cap. Having moved from Denver to Sheridan, Wyoming, two months before, instead of an easy five hour drive he’d had a 685-mile trek lasting the better part of two days. I asked him what he knew, and he said nothing much, except for a report he’d had of hikers who had started up the Tobacco Lake Trail a mile southeast of our old camp a few days earlier hearing strange howls and roars on their climb up to Conejos Peak. As the remainder of the part}’ was set to meet us at the campsite above Platoro Reservoir, we got on the road as soon as Dick had finished with his meal.
Afternoon clouds riding above the western mountains like a cumulous echo offered no prospect of rain. With a fire ban in place on all national forest land in the Western states, we were looking at a cold camp this week, but for cooking we had the gas stove in Dick’s pop-up camper and a full moon, rising in late afternoon and setting at a little past two in the morning, for light. Twenty miles west of Antonito on the road to La Manga Pass we turned onto the washboard dirt road following the Conejos River north to Platoro. The dust lay thick, and the meadows stretching between the aspen forests and the road were burnt brown. At Lake Fork Campground we crossed Lake Fork Creek where it enters the Conejos and began the thousand-foot climb out up to our campsite, still ten miles away.
At camp, the Powder River gate had been dragged open and bent, a part of the fence pulled down, but the fire ring was in place from the year before, no sign of any human presence more recent than the previous elk season. Remembering the accident—if it was an accident—to the trailer awning on our last visit here, Dick pulled the camper out of the two track onto high ground, at a safe distance from the tree line. We cranked the top up, slid out the bunk beds fore and aft, turned the sink upright, unfolded the stove, and brought in the gear and supplies. We boiled water for tea, carried the cups outside, and sat in folding chairs to drink it while admiring the scenery.
“Do you remember the first time we heard It two years ago—I’d just finished asking you if you’d considered what could have made the sounds you heard at Leadville if it wasn’t what you later decided It had to be?”
“Sure,” Dick said. And right then It came again as if to say that It remembered too, not more than 500 yards out from camp, across the marsh behind a stand of trees screening the hairpin turn in the road: neither a cry nor a howl but an announcement, wordless yet vaguely comprehensible—Now hear this! . . . And then, sounding directly behind it like a mad chorus, the familiar coyote uproar of whoops, barks, and giggles.
“It didn’t take long, did it?” I asked.
“No. It didn’t.”
We opened a couple of cans for supper, heated the contents on the little stove, and drank a glass of red wine together as the moon lifted into view in a pale sky above the pointed pines.
“The Democratic Convention opened today,” I offered finally.
“Aren’t you sorry we’re missing it on TV?
There was no sense of threat apparent, so we both turned in after sundown for a good night’s sleep, not maintaining a watch. I woke several times before morning, once with the impression of having been awakened by some presence close by, but the night was wonderfully still, transfixed in the light of the waning moon. We were up with the sun, made coffee, and paid a visit to the woods carrying a roll of toilet paper and a Marine entrenching tool before strapping on revolvers and driving up to the higher bench midway between camp and the 12,000-foot knob dominating the basin.
Where the road dead-ended beside a pile of slash timber we left the truck and continued on foot to an alpine lake fed by percolation from the peak above. The lake, with grass ends floating on the surface and tadpoles riling the soft bottom, looked shallow; it was surrounded by a margin of mud and green grass imprinted with the tracks of elk. Continuing along the shore we came to the outlet stream, which Dick’s topo map showed to be Lake Fork Creek at its head, draining to our camp below and on to Big and Rock Lakes, and the Conejos River. We followed the game trail beside it and in less than a quarter-mile glimpsed a clearing through the trees dial looked somehow familiar. It turned out to be the open bench above a talus cliff where, from camp, we had often watched elk browse in early morning. Five hundred feet below and about a mile out, the trailer was in plain sight; it had been joined by a Jeep and a pickup truck.
“Looks like Drotar and his friend made it in,” Dick said. “Uh-oh,” he added, as low thunder rumbled in the east and we both looked up to the soggy cumulous forming above the mountains. “I’m going back, now. I had enough getting wet in Vietnam.”
Barry Drotar had brought even more gear than Dick had, but no tent, as he and Al planned to sleep in their vehicles. We got as much of it set up as we could before the rain came, and then Dick and I retreated to the camper, while Barry and Al got under the tarpaulin they stretched between the Jeep Cherokee and Al’s Ford truck.
“I don’t like the feel of this storm,” Dick remarked as we sat over lunch across the foldout table. “It strikes me as being pretty much a repeat of last year.” “How could it be? Last year was a monsoon year. This is a drought one.”
“I have an idea the drought just ended,” he said.
We spent the next tour days in the camper except for four or five hours in the morning, before the rains blew in to turn the granite mountain soggy with water, or leave it under a couple of inches of hail. Without a radio, we had no way of knowing the storms were localized, confined to the Colorado-New Mexico border: The rest of the West, trapped beneath a high-pressure ridge and parched by 30-percent humidity, continued to burn cheerfully. Meanwhile, on the mountain it grew wetter and wetter. Clothes had to be dried over the gas stove, and firearms required careful wiping with an oily cloth to prevent rust spots from developing through the bluing. The Voice never asserted itself again, and even the coyotes quit yodeling: Keith and Andrew Foster didn’t make it to the Conejos at all (owing, we later discovered, to car trouble). On the third day, Barry and Al cried uncle and went back to Mancos, Colorado. In a brief respite between squalls, Dick and I packed in the camper, cased the guns, and bailed out after them.
“That’s scientific research for you,” Dick observed as, streaming water, we struggled to raise the tongue of the camper with a Handi-Man jack. “You can’t ever expect nature to cooperate.”
“I’m not thinking about science,” I told him. “For this, we missed the Democratic National Convention on ^r/?”
Under the camouflage parka, he shrugged his shoulders.
“Oh well. Perhaps by 2004 we’ll have found the perfect candidate to offer them: the kind of guy that just wants to get lost and stay that way. They say a good man’s hard to find, you know.”