Cruising north out of Flagstaff, I suddenly realized where I was. I popped the library CD out of the deck and surfed FM channels.
Lately I have experimented with the cultural norm of listening to CDs. I’m sure everybody else, years ago, got their CD player, figured out what kind of music they liked, and built up their collection. They have their folder of tunes slipped in little plastic sleeves, and they run them every moment they are in the car.
Me, finally after months, I realized every rental car has a CD player. You can’t very well read while you’re driving, you can’t check email. It’s a workaholic’s nightmare anyway, so, to pass the time, why not?
I owned a total of one CD. I played it till I knew every song. Then I noticed, the library had CDs. Well, all you have to say is “library CDs”, and people nod knowingly. Maybe a good artist, but not his or her best. Why else would it have ended up in the library? But I was in for some long drives, so I stocked up.
To the Denver airport, it had been 60’s pop medley. Technically well done; but that psychedelic stuff loses something without the funk. Singing it, had to be either a Christian choir, or a gay chorus. I could not tell which. The world over, and probably all through history, groups of people who have the hardest time with each other, (Arabs vs. Jews, Protestant vs. Catholic Irish, Iowa vs. Nebraska) nobody else can even tell them apart!
Never thought of that before with gays vs. Christians. Both are painfully nice. Both are sadly misunderstood by the general population, who continually worry those people are going to try to convert them. And they both do great vocals.
Phoenix from the air looks like a toy city, but somebody stuck big chunks of rock in the model. Gaunt desert mountains jut abruptly out of checkerboard neighborhoods. The hours north, driving through hillsides of paloverde trees and blooming saguaro cactus, the tunes had been Boy George, Kenny Loggins, and Dan Fogleberg; none of them very memorable. I was pretty close to the bottom of the CD barrel by the time I arrived in the Ponderosa parks around Flagstaff. Now something better was out there.
The pines thinned mile by mile as I dropped in elevation towards the desert. The channel seek kept finding only NPR. Finally I caught it. Station KGHR, 91.5 FM, broadcasting from Tuba City. Oh, this was a prize! Navaho radio, “native voices”. I loved it.
There was an old woman chanting. Minutes of repetitive tones. Totally unintelligible to me. But, I expect, one of their traditional chants they have been singing at least a century of two. Not a bit “produced”. Raw sound, as though you’re in the room with her. I felt so honored. I felt like such a pahana tourist.
|“Pahana”: Hopi word for “white person”.|
The purple, green, and chocolate hills of the Painted Desert rolled by. Next on the airwaves was a male singer, evidently off an album, more a radio kind of thing. It was a love song, but with that unmistakable Indian flavor. “…Her hair was black as chokecherries, her lips tasted like buffaloberries…”.
I couldn’t help wondering if the artist were messing with us. Buffaloberries (Shepherdia) are intensely tart, piquant. Too concentrated a flavor to take much of at once. Maybe Native men like their women that way. Maybe I like my men that way too. Maybe I am that kind of man.
But after the sensory overload of a buffaloberry, the aftertaste calls you back for more. Working in Western river bottoms where those berries grow, I seek them out. Maybe this singer meant what he said after all. Makes as much sense as the Anglo “kisses sweeter then wine”. They both make you pucker up.
All too soon, KGHR faded out, as I cruised through The Gap, took the turn to Marble Canyon, and crossed the bridge over the green Colorado River far below.
I pulled off at Cliff Dweller, as we had prearranged. There were four rigs of us altogether. The young men and women piled out and went inside the restaurant for a pee stop. Edgar and I hung out.
“You ever been through here before?” he asked.
“This general area,” I replied, “Just a year ago, coming back from Havasu. North from Flag, but I turned back there,” I gestured south and east, “And went through Kayenta, four corners. And we had a project in Escalante National Monument just north of here, three, four years in a row. So I was in Kanab and Page. The first year I worked it, we camped up on this mesa a couple weeks, so remote we were helicoptered in. A lonely place. At night you could just barely see car lights way, way off in the distance to the south. Could’ve been this highway here.”
I thought about it, “But I haven’t been on this very road since, let’s see, 1977! A couple of us in the Northwest got this wild idea, to escape the rain and go to Tucson for the winter. We came through Jacob Lake, and I remember Marble Canyon. It was early October when we got there. Tucson had cooled down to a hundred and three at night.”
Towering to the north, behind the buildings, were the Vermilion Cliffs, tall stacks of red sandstone, roughly matching a set we had passed on the other side of the river on the way here. Here, the road followed a roughly level platform below the breaks, and the river canyon was a wide crack in the ground.
Edgar indicated the cliffs. “They say they’re slowly receding.” I knew what he meant. A hard layer of rock above, and a softer one below. Erosion takes the soft stuff away, undercuts the hard, till it spalls off in chunks. Over geologic time, the cliffs remain cliffs, but become farther from the river.
“Yeah,” I squinted up at the rock masses, deadpan, “I think they’re a little farther back since 1977.” Dry, geologic chuckles.
Several miles west, we turned south off the highway onto a dirt road. I took it slow, for the little car’s low clearance, and to hang back from the other rigs’ dust.
It must have been a wet winter. Desert flowers were blooming all along the track. There were great bushes of white Prickly Poppy, tall spires of yellow Prince’s Plume, and, in places, almost a lawn of Desert Dandelion. In the distance, there were splashes of color across the valley floor that could only have been Globe Mallow. It was an absolutely saturated orange, so bright it didn’t look real. It was easily as solid a color as the red of the sandstone.
Grasses waved in the breeze and poked up tall between slats of cattle guards. I mentally inventoried the species, and thought of ways to teach lookalikes. These two both splay, but notice that one dangles down while this one sticks up. These two kinds look like an artist’s paintbrush; but, see, this one is random, while that one has two tidy ranks, like a stalk of wheat. Those hairs? The hairs are called “awns”.
I had arrived on the doorstep of Sky Island Preserve (SIP) the evening before. They are a conservation nonprofit, mission to protect and restore the local lands. Edgar’s project was to inventory the holdings and grazing allotments of two ranches they’d recently bought. The ranches were a huge, remote, and magnificent spread.
Sometimes, my job feels like a trapeze act, or being some kind of secret agent. I had been in email touch with Edgar a few weeks. He was interested in using our methods for his survey.
We too were interested in them using our methods. In scientific research, fame is important as money. It leads to money. If we can say such-and-such organizations (a long, impressive list) are all doing research based on our work, well then we must obviously be the leaders, tops in our field. So, you, Congress, or whoever, obviously should continue to fund us, bigtime.
One of our thrusts lately is getting all our stuff posted on the web, so even more people can use it, and further increase our fame. Well, the stuff itself works well, but it’s a matter of getting it across, how to use it.
I, of course, built most of the stuff, so it seems logical I should write it up. Well, the guy who built it is the worst to explain it, because he knows how it works. But there’s nobody else, so I am writing and writing and writing. Trying to imagine I don’t know what I know, can’t understand what I understand, and basically have never seen it before.
It’s pure gold when I meet a naïve user. Find out whether I am getting it across. With Edgar and his project, somewhere in Arizona, we had struck gold. Day by day, I would get polite, excited, but very baffled emails. Does it do this? Of course it does that, I would write back, all you have to do is this. Can it do that? Oh it was built to do that! All you need to do is go in and do such and so.
And I’m thinking, but I wrote that up. It’s right there in paragraph 142z, diagram 96a. Howcome people aren’t getting it? Well, I was getting feedback. This had to be front and center, while that could be back a few pages. Also, I was learning, people setting up a project are frazzled, not in the leisure mode to wade through tomes of documentation.
Than, at the last minute, the download logger broke. The download logger tallies who downloads what. The download logger records the raw material for our long, impressive lists of users. Without it, we have no idea who has our stuff, if they’re happy with it, or are badmouthing us over some glitch we could easily fix. So in a frenzy, I pulled the plug on downloads, and posted: “If you need stuff, ask me. Send me email.”
It was obvious SIP, somewhere in Arizona, was not going to get it from our website in time. They’d helped us, so I wanted to help them. “Why don’t you send me down there a few days?” I asked the boss. He gave the nod. The secret agent part began. The dark car pulling up in the middle of the night in the rain. I bundled inside, and was soon winging through the air in a private jet. Ok, ok, a commercial airliner.
I wonder if real secret agents have to deal with this. The slip of paper with the rendezvous point. Nowadays, of course, it’s would be an electronic text message, mysteriously appearing in your mobile shoe-phone. Meet Saturday afternoon, 16:00 hours, 1913 E Mesa Park Ave. Somewhere in Arizona.
They forgot to tell me what city. Oh well, all in a day’s work. If I can write some of the leading field data acquisition software in the world, I can certainly work around a little detail like that.
I pulled up to SIP headquarters at the appointed hour. A few of the newly hired field people were there, and the rest soon arrived. Eight young men and two young women. This was a plum job, and Edgar had selected them from a broad field of applicants. Obviously highly qualified, they asked good questions, and dove right in to getting things ready.
I met Edgar. He looked at me in surprise. Finally he got the words out, “I didn’t expect such a big beard,” he laughed.
“What? Balding and pocket protectors?” I joshed.
“Yeah, more like that,” he admitted, “From computer programming.”
I nodded towards the new team. “That’s where I came from,” I said, “I’m a field guy from way back. After working enough projects with lame data collection, I finally lucked into a place where I could do it right. Make it work the way we need it to.”
Late into the night, we worked prepping, arranging and setting up. Still later in the night, I sat with Edgar loading, marking, labeling, and testing. Good for me to see what all I’d need to put upfront in my documentation, what questions would come up first. In the morning, I took the crews through the initial paces of the equipment, and we set out for our field site.
Three hours later we got to our destination, in the middle of utter, spectacular desolation. We pulled up to the old ranch house “It was completely unlivable when we bought the place,” Edgar had said.
A wiry little man, gray moustache, shirt off, was working in front of a side building. This was Clem, who had restored the old stone and adobe structure to habitability.
Us new arrivals hauled in supplies and rustled up lunch, taco salad, cuisine from the NOLS cookbook. We set up office mostly on porches, or even out in the grass. Space was too limited inside the few buildings, and much of that was still construction zone. Electrical power was from deep-cycle batteries, through an inverter.
After lunch, under the bright afternoon sun we held a session on plant ID. The teams were sure learning their weeds — that’s about all there were around the ranch buildings. Then we laid out a practice plot.
I think there is a gene that gets activated in a certain strain of young people, about the second or third decade of life. In me, it was set off by the threat of nuclear Armageddon, during the chilliest years of the Cold War. Ok, what if we bomb ourselves back to the Stone Age? How would I survive? What do you eat? Well, plants seemed likely. So I soaked up botanical knowledge like a sponge.
Maybe something psychologically like the Cold War is still going on, because I continue to meet young men in the throes of fascination with Edible and Useful Wild Plants. Different names: “Ethnobotany”, “Natural products”, “Alternative crops”, “Wildcrafting”. This team definitely held a good proportion of these folks. I felt very at home.
They were eager, but intimidated by the seeming scope of the subject. I tried to reassure them. “Hey, I can only remember a few new species per day. Only thing is, I’ve been at it longer. And I forget ’em about as fast as I learn ’em!” Chuckles from the crowd. “That’s what these are for,” I tapped a PDA. “Let the computers remember stuff for you. You just look, and tell things apart.”
I demonstrated why all the equipment was festooned with brightly colored plastic flagging ribbon. I flicked a PDA stylus off in the weeds and, rhetorically, “Could you find it now, without the flag?” Then, sidelong, “Mental note: Next time in Arizona, something besides orange.” All my flagging was the exact color of Globe Mallow.
Finished with a species, someone would ask about a new kind, “What’s this one?” We, the experts, turned it this way and that. The crew folks stood with pencils poised over Rite-in-the-Rain notebooks. We pointed out features, key points, mnemonics, lore, secrets. They dutifully jotted notes and sketched pictures. The name. How do you spell it? Is that “F” or “PH”?
It took awhile to get across to them how easy it could be. I’m not sure they entirely believed me, even by the end of my stay there. You don’t really need to know what a plant is. You just need to be able to tell it apart. Then, make up your own name for it, describe it in the PDA, and you can use that like any other identifier. It’s a placeholder name, an “Unknown Code”. But make it so someone else, later, can figure out what the Unknown Code refers to — take pictures or specimens.
In the slanting rays of evening, back at the house, Clem remarked, “Pretty nice front yard.” Understatement. The view stretched easily ten miles, long and broad through the expansive valley. The red slab of the Vermilion Cliffs stood as the north horizon. The lighter limestone slopes of the Kaibab Plateau shouldered in from the west. We, at the ranch HQ, were snuggled up into a southern tuck of that massif. In the eastern distance, a broad crack in the earth snaked across the plain; the rim of Marble Canyon, the walls dropping straight down. Far, far away, blue in the distance and at the limit of vision, lay the low-slung contour of Fiftymile Mountain in Utah, where we had camped in our study in 1999, my first season out here.
I could almost hear the background music, harmonicas and strings. This was the Old West, about as real as it gets anymore. Somehow laptop computers and Tungsten PDAs did not much spoil the effect.
I have friends who are experts on cowboy history. One surprise, leafing through their books, I learned real cowboys did not much look like the Hollywood version. The hats, for example. What we think of as a “cowboy hat” is such an archetype it instantly evokes the mystique, whether spotted in the Phoenix airport, the pancake house in Moab, or clopping on rake-heeled point-toed boots towards the Denver (gay bar) Wrangler. Yet, actual historic cowboy hats were nothing like that. The headgear was of great variety, but generally narrower-brimmed and smaller. A hat you’d see on Frank Sinatra would have been at home on a cowboy of similar epoch.
We look down through so many layers of cowboy romance, it’s hard to see what life was really like. Hints survive that it was boring, grueling, and made you really appreciate simple pleasures.
Who were the first cowboys? And what was life like in that new-minted realm, before there even was a word for “cowboy”.
Ok, here’s your chance to get in on the ground floor. The IPO of a new genre of romance. We don’t even have a name yet. But here we are, out in the prairies and mountains and riparian corridors. For an Unknown Code, let’s use “nowboys”, with the understanding we are of course of all genders, and gender preferences. That’s part of the romance, and trouble.
In the late evening, just before sunset, I hiked up behind the ranch house to have a look around. The land sloped up towards the top of the Kaibab Plateau. Tilted sedimentary layers generally followed the trend of the land, though they were scalloped and carved by small side canyons. I walked up onto one ramp, and the whitish limestone was studded with fossils. I had never seen so many fossils. Even I could recognize sea shells, things like clams and snails. Also chunks of coral, sticking right out of the rock. Nothing was preserved perfectly. Everything always looks a little careworn in the desert, but these ocean relics fit; as natural as the silvered trunks of Apache Plume.
It was mind boggling. There had been a sea here, and now there was no sea. Dried up, drained away — it didn’t matter. For all these water creatures, it would simply have been The End Of The World, so far as they, or any of their friends, knew.
On around the hillslope, the land was sculpted into steplike layers a few feet thick. I walked on older and older strata as I worked around into one of the side canyons. It seemed like the top of each layer, as it lay exposed, was thick with shells, and shattered branches of coral. Finger-size to wrist-thick, they matched the look of dead desert shrubs. The wood of those curving sticks lie broken but recognizable for years as they, ever so slowly, molder into the ground.
Was each one of these layers, too, an End Of The World? A huge storm, an ancient hurricane that smashed a reef, or poured a layer of mud on top, smothering and entombing all the shelled mollusks and coral?
This idea is not new with me, that most geologic features mark cataclysms. Yes, off the coast of Florida, limy precipitates settle from the water, particle by particle, like snow. Yes, sand dunes drift, their grains ticking in the wind. Yes, sometimes the stuff that will eons later be rock is laid down gradually. But many, many of the things we see mark The End Of The World.
About halfway up the Vermilion Cliffs are layers of purple and green. As far as I can tell, the same volcanic deposits that, by a quirk of tectonics, are laid out broad as the Painted Desert. The day those ash clouds fell from the sky, it was surely the End Of The World for any living thing there.
Farther south on the climb to Flagstaff, there is a point where the smooth, tawny sedimentary layers are suddenly overlain by chunky black basalt. The day that red-hot lava rolled forth, another End Of The World.
Back on the limestone, it seems the coral and shells are more abundant in the upper layers. Was the sea becoming shallower, the habitat getting better and better, in general, for our marine friends? And then finally, the ultimate End of their World, dry land.
When city life gets to be too much, I comfort myself with the thought about our civilization. When eroded and covered by the millions of years of geologic processes, it will likely compress to a layer a few inches thick at most. The traces of our building may be recognizable as a stratum slightly enriched in, perhaps, iron from all the re-bar, or copper from all the wires.
I slept that night out under the stars, nowboy style. It was a perfect spring evening on the range. Of course I got far enough from the ranch house to avoid most of the little prickly things that could pop a hole in your Therm-a-Rest. Weeds have their soft side. Filaree blooms pretty little purple flowers, early. A stand of wild barley shimmers in the breeze, pink, silver and sea-green, like silky waves of grain. But when they ripen and shatter, watch out. One thing that makes a good weed is a way to get it planted. Many of them have seeds like needles, velcro, or anti-tank weaponry.
Part of the nowboy way is passing along this culture of the Western outdoors. I couldn’t escape the sense that I was cast as the grizzled, venerable, and somewhat peculiar old nowboy. And my role was to teach, and guide, and set impossible tasks for the new young ones coming along, some of them their first time off pavement.
Mark my word, this nowboy stuff will be the heart-touching romance of the next century. There will be songs, movies, and even a rack of the 22nd century equivalent of paperbacks in the 22nd century equivalent of supermarkets. It’s got to be. We’ll be the heroes who saved the world from environmental destruction. Or else, even more romantic, who tried against all odds but couldn’t. Either way, we’ll be set.
All the more culturally iconic, we’ll be obsolete. Why bother with the mud and dust when Starfleet technology will allow you to map a planet from low orbit, right down to the microorganisms? There will be tourist re-enactments of ecology surveys. Little kids will go out dressed like us for Halloween (of course, with all the clothing wrong). And gay guys will fantasize about what it would have been like to do it with us in our dome tents, in those ancient, primitive, but heart-wrenchingly romantic days of yesteryear.
At first Clem, the wiry little handyman, rubbed me the wrong way. Then I realized why. We were in competition for the role of grizzled, vanerable, and somewhat peculiar old nowboy. The situation just set it up. After I got it conscious, it didn’t bother me any more. Plenty of elbow room out on the range. And why not a team of peculiar old nowboys?
We had some good laughs. One of the concepts it took the trainees a bit to master was how, on the PDAs, you didn’t quit a program. You just exit to the Home screen, and that puts it away for you.
Clem, overhearing, warbled, “There’s no place like Home!”
Picking up on that, “Just click here, three times,” I instructed, “On the icon of the Ruby Slippers, and say…”
Next day we went out to our first plot. After the long process of muddling around and getting the locations set up, we started on the vegetation. Away from my home ecosystem, I did not recognize many of the species.
Crouching over the plot, I examined a tiny plant. “Looks like a Steptonia,” I muttered.
“A what?” they cried. They had pencils poised over Rite-in-the-Rain notebooks, ready to jot and sketch.
“Oh, uh, like a Deadula,” I backpedaled, “You know, a dead plant. Stepped-on-ia. It’s been stepped on. You can’t tell what it is.
Sure enough, I lost my hand lens for awhile, even with the orange flagging, out among all the Globe Mallow.
After a couple of days, as their beards sprouted, some of the young guys started looking good to me. Of course I would never hit on a man who wasn’t into it, but I enjoyed being around them. It was the masculine ones caught my eye. The ones with the chiseled features, thick arms, or a certain aggressiveness — always out there asking the most questions, wanting to learn or help. I laughed at myself. So much for gaydar. Probably more likely to be gay were the skinny ones, the plain ones, the ones invisible in their quiet competence. The ones I never noticed. The ones most like I was at that age.
The night before I left, the wind howled, and a spatter of rain fell. Tents tumbled and loose gear went AWOL. We had figured out to knock the camp chairs over on their backs when nobody was sitting in them, or they would soon be in that position anyway, if not airborne. Still, it gave an alarming impression at first glance that somebody had gunned down the Senate.
All the electronics and printer paper went under cover when we were away. One of the first things I learned about the desert was, it may not rain as often, but when it does it’s just as wet as anywhere else.
No sleeping under the stars that last night. I’d stayed up late, one thing after another, showing them how to print, press, catalog, and through it all keep things from blowing away. It was late — by out-on-the-range standards, anyway — nearly 9:30 at night. I flipped the seats down and curled up in the rental car.
Next morning I said my goodbyes and headed out across the brilliant rain-washed landscape. Ok, rain-dampened. Across the Painted Desert there was a radio spot about Navaho and Hopi veterans, and how the different tribes handle their healing ceremonies; Navaho through the community, while among the Hopi it’s a family thing. Then more raw sound, kids in a classroom, singing something in native tongue.
Flying out of Phoenix, a cold front had come through, same system that brought last night’s wind up north. It was frigid for that time of year, below 90°F.