That night, Berman was thoughtful.
“It’s more and more obvious,” he said, “that in the wild places — the places with the greatest ecological integrity —dominated by predators other than humans — these places are at their end. Humans want a place they can enter and be oblivious. They want a place without consequence.”
Thirty years ago, when Berman first came to the Gila, he’d ended up at a cottonwood a mile or so above the Middle Fork Visitor Center. The tree had fallen and wrapped large branches around the ground. There was just enough room amid the branches to snuggle in a campsite — a tent and a fire ring. The hot spring nearby was beautiful; it was always clean, rarely used. This place was the reason Berman and his wife, Jennifer, had decided to settle here.
“For the last 10 years I avoided the Middle Fork,” he said. “But last week, when I walked it again. …” He shook his head. Wherever people had camped, invasive cheatgrass had taken over.
“And that beautiful cottonwood? It was a giant skeleton, burned by a campfire, with only one small branch left alive.”
“There’s still a little bit of wild left in the Gila,” he continued. “It only needs to be left alone. But that would be a conscious act on our part, and we’re oblivious. So when I photograph this place, I wonder: Do I do damage or is there something important in the work?
“I guess in the end it’s learning to let the land guide you.”
The next morning, we were loaded and ready to go by first light. “Let’s do it again soon,” Berman said, smiling. “How are you going back?”
“Well, I guess the way I came in. Back to Truth or Consequences, then north up the freeway.”
“There’s another route that you might find more interesting.” He unrolled a map. “At Beaverhead, there’s a stop sign. Turning right takes you to the freeway while turning left takes you north through some incredible terrain.”
“But the roads—”
“Yes, the roads are bad. But only for a while. They get better as you go along.” He clapped my shoulder, climbed into his cab and drove away.
Thirty minutes later, I rolled up to the Beaverhead stop sign, still not sure what to do. Part of me wanted the freeway. But Berman held the key to the mysteries of these places. I didn’t want to ignore him, but everything I wanted was at home.
I turned up the volume of my iPod for a song called “Stolen Horses” by Americana artist Ray Wylie Hubbard. The third verse floored me.
“Now, there’s little demons,” Ray sang. “On the Hindu Temple. Above the door. And all around. What that says is. We get past what scares us. We can stand. On sacred ground.”
I made the turn.
Patrick Toomay writes from Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Michael Berman's website
Article about a Berman monograph, Trinity