Commercial success hasn’t changed Berman’s drive or method of working. After two days of hiking I was dead tired, but he was still revved up. “I wanna go further down, to see what’s going on there,” he said. I flopped down under a tree.
It was getting toward dusk when he returned. Backtracking, we found a game trail that led us up a rise into a vast expanse of grama grass. “See that white speck out there?” Berman said, pointing. “That’s my truck.”
I squinted. “We’re miles from where we went in.”
“I know,” he said. “If you’re really tired, just head on back. I wanna make a bigger circle.”
This was another of his wilderness predilections, making big circles. As we headed off in our respective directions, I thought of the Tibetans circling Mount Kailash and the walkabouts of the Australian aborigines. Circumambulation has been an act of human reverence for millennia. Something like that was also informing our wanderings here. Just doing it, I was beginning to think, was the most important thing. My exhaustion made me feel permeable to the world.
The next morning, Berman wanted to move again. We headed back to Beaverhead. At the trailhead he wandered over to a Forest Service bulletin board. “Look at this,” he said, pointing to a map. “It shows where the Mexican gray wolves have been congregating.”
I leaned in to study it.
“When the wolves were released, they were tagged with transponders, so their locations could be pinpointed. They still track ’em, but they don’t publish the information anymore, probably because too many people were using it to find ’em and kill ’em. The map shows where they were gathering before they stopped doing that.”
On the map, the transponders were represented by black boxes scattered throughout the areas we’d been traversing. Most were located at Black Mountain in the vicinity of Christie Creek. A chill ran down my spine.
“That beautiful lullaby,” I said.
“We were right in the middle of ’em.”
“If you’re telling me that people used this information to find and kill the wolves, I’m sick.”
“They’re still killing ’em,” Berman said. “That’s what they do.”
He was right. Illegal shootings are the single greatest source of wolf mortality in the reintroduced population. Between the program’s inception in 1998 and June 2009, 31 of 68 deaths were attributed to guns.
“So I guess it’s naïve to expect that all the publicity about wolves being vital to the ecology here would have a dampening effect on them.”
Berman shrugged. “At the deepest level, it’s fear run amuck. Like the shark slaughter that’s been going on since Jaws.” He gestured at the surrounding woods. Fear of that was what he meant –– its wildness, its unpredictable danger. Its mystery. That terror magnified out of all proportion. Leading to a need for obliteration.
As we approached the Gila’s East Fork, our brush with contemporary wilderness reality took another disturbing turn. After leaving the main road, we came to a place where a sign said “No Turnaround Beyond This Point.”
“That sign is new,” Berman said. “And it doesn’t make sense, because there’s a place to park below. Probably, the guy who lives down there complained about visitors so much that the Forest Service finally put it up just to quiet him down.”
He told me how this stretch of river was contested during the Diamond Bar Ranch grazing brouhaha of the 1990s. The main ranch is only 400 acres, but it gets the use of a 145,000-acre federal grazing allotment, the largest in the state. To keep the cattle out on the range, owner Kit Laney wanted to bulldoze stock tanks all across the allotment. Environmentalists sued, and finally stopped the plan in 2004. Laney threatened a rancher revolt. “Essentially, they feel that privileging habitat over resource use is insane,” Berman said.
“Even though it’s public land,” I said.
“It’s a hell realm, for sure,” he said. “Those same ranchers are the ones who are furious about the wolf release program.”
Of course they are, I thought –– because they had to work so hard to exterminate them in the first place.
At the road’s end, we pulled up next to a third vehicle that was already there. A stretch of barbed wire fence marked the end of public land and the beginning of someone’s ranch. “KEEP OUT!!! said a sign with awkward scrawl straight out of Lil’ Abner.
At the fence’s edge, I peered down, expecting to see some sort of hardscrabble ranchette. But the scene was idyllic. At a dramatic bend in the river, an elegant main house sat amid several smaller dwellings beneath towering willows. Manicured lawns covered the grounds between them.
“For a long time, this property belonged to a private school that used it for retreats,” Berman said. “That ‘Keep Out’ sign wasn’t there when the school owned the place. It went up after the property changed hands.”
A pickup truck braked to a halt beside us. The driver, perhaps 65 years old, wore an NRA gimme hat and a “Don’t Tread on Me” T-shirt. A little terrier sat perched on his lap.
“So whattya y’all boys up to this morning?” the driver asked.
“We’re just going down to take a look at the river,” Berman replied.
The driver waited, wanting more information, but we didn’t give it to him. An edge came into his voice.
“Didn’t ya’ll see that sign up top?” he demanded. “You people are tearing up the area down here. That’s why that sign’s up there. Y’all need to park up there.”
I knew that in his truck Berman carried county maps that showed precisely where public roads ended and private roads began. Indisputably, we were on public land.
“Well, I’m sorry you feel that way,” Berman said, and abruptly wheeled around and walked back to his truck.
The driver had expected an argument. At length, he shrugged and pulled away.
“One of those old ranchers you were talking about, I guess,” I said.
“No,” he said. A kind of gloom had settled over him. “He’s just a grumpy old Anglo who bought a fantasy.” Berman sighed. “They’re coming in droves, you know. I so prefer the company of old ranchers like Quentin Hulse. And their compadres, the wolves.”
We spent the rest of the afternoon walking the East Fork watershed. The river meandered south, so at many points we had to wade through it to get where we wanted to go. The number of minnows swirling in the shallows encouraged Berman, but the deep cuts in the banks didn’t. The streambed had been grazed, the new willows nipped as they’d sprouted. And in one section there were too many groves of dead cottonwoods. In stark contrast to the ranch’s lushness, this landscape felt denuded. Bleak.