It’s been four years since I touched human bone, since I had silt and clay stuck beneath my fingernails and inside the cracked skin of my knuckles — silt and clay that had cradled bones for hundreds of years.
I used to work as a contract archaeologist, scanning the landscape for petroglyphs and fire rings, sandstone ruins and flaked stone scatters. It sounds romantic, but I was really a scout for developers: Under federal law, before anyone can build a road, a dam, a pipeline or an airport, archaeologists must survey for, and then excavate, sites that might be destroyed.
I spent five years brushing sand off black-on-white painted pottery, carefully lifting grinding stones and sampling the soil beneath for pollen. I stood on the ancient plastered floors of pithouses — floors my feet were the first to touch since the homes were abandoned, and their roofs had collapsed. I’d pull off my boots and socks, and stand on the plaster, tracing the cracks with my fingers. Then we’d refill the structures with dirt, and make way for construction crews.
After a few years, I began to realize that I was helping to destroy all the things I loved about the Southwest — the safe old bones hiding in canyons, the stories I couldn’t understand because they weren’t my own, the wide open spaces. I was being paid to pull all those things to pieces.
I began to resent the construction workers who hurried us. I became angry at bosses who urged us to work more quickly and less carefully than we should. I didn’t want to move burial grounds to pave the way for Wal-Mart.
Overwhelmed by the contradictions between my love and my livelihood, I headed to Spain. I thought it might look and feel like the Southwest, but lack the cultural baggage of victory and defeat, Indians and archaeologists, developers and dam builders.
Beyond that, the 2000 presidential election had sapped my faith in democracy. I was shocked that the events of September 11, 2001, had ended discussion of the scandal, and had beaten all but the most die-hard critics of George W. Bush into submissive admiration for his War on Terror. In short, I wanted out.
In Spain, my fiancé and I hung around the southern coast and hiked Las Alpujaras. The people were beautiful, the food rich and smoky, the history romantic, but there was no wide emptiness, no sense of feeling small in the landscape.
We headed east to work on a farm near Serra da Estrela, Portugal’s highest mountain range. Glyn and Anneke, the owners of the farm, had a second property in the mountains, and we’d head up there once a week to clear the land of its thickets of brambles. “Slash and burn,” Glyn would shout each time we hiked toward the slate-stone farmhouse. A former heavy-machinery operator from South London, Glyn was giddy in the mountains, happiest when he was wielding a chain saw and stoking a bonfire. When we had finally cleared enough brush to look across the valley, Glyn took a deep breath. This was wilderness to him, and he loved it.
But when I looked across the valley, I saw abandoned farms, and wondered why everyone had left. I saw endless eucalyptus and eroding hill slopes where the trees had been clear-cut. A lack of environmental regulation had taken its toll on the land, and hunters had taken care of every last deer, squirrel, wild boar — even many of the sparrows in the area.
At that moment, I felt the closest thing I’d ever felt to patriotism. The leaders and citizens of my nation had done something very good and very right — it was evident from the Mission Mountains Wilderness in Montana, where I’m pretty sure I once saw God, to the thousands of acres of Southwestern wilderness I’d trekked across in the previous few years.
Lying in a hotel in a Portuguese city a couple of months later, I pulled Ed Abbey’s Confessions of a Barbarian from the bottom of my pack. My engagement had crumbled, as my faith in my country had before it, and the book, a gift from the now ex-fiancé, had sat neglected at the bottom of my pack.
A few days earlier, I’d read how Americans were supporting restrictions on civil liberties in the name of the War on Terror, and I was dreading going home. Abbey’s journals begin in Europe, and I found some solace in the words of another curmudgeonly ex-pat: “Those pitiful weak egos of those who rejoice in our government’s little triumphs, sink with each well-earned defeat,” he wrote in 1975. “That is, all their pride is invested in the nation-state: they have, it seems, no pride in themselves apart from ‘America.’ ”
Then, Abbey coaxed me home. He marched me through New Mexico’s deserts and mountains, and reminded me of my own pride in America: Pride in our wilderness areas, in environmental laws that make our rivers and communities cleaner than they were 50 years ago, in laws that protect rare species and migratory birds, in a sense of democracy that allows citizens an active voice in their communities.
Now that I’ve come back, I’ve switched careers, and I no longer feel like I’m dismantling the West. But my anger hasn’t disappeared: The Bush administration is “streamlining” all the environmental laws I had bragged about while in Europe. I still think like an archaeologist, and I can’t help but wonder if future generations, excavating our oil fields and subdivisions, will wonder why we destroyed so much of our habitat.
Twice a day, the dog and I hit the mining roads and game trails that wind around my cabin. On this Sunday afternoon, we dash outside between rainstorms. I eye the dark clouds to the west, and promise myself that we’ll stick close and stay low. But I hit my stride and keep going higher, until we’re atop a piñon-and juniper-covered ridge. We turn around just as the lightning begins flashing, and scramble toward home. I’m slipping in the mud, sliding down the ridge, a mess of mud and scratched limbs. The dog is darting ahead, and then back, herding me like the good cattle dog he is.
There’s a metallic roll of thunder, and I step up the pace. We make it home, hearts pounding, safe, out of breath. Just as we reach the porch, it starts to pour and hail, and thunder shakes the cabin, barely waiting for the lightning to flash.
I turn and look down the valley. It’s sunny there, and I wonder, for a brief moment in between crashes of thunder, why I was running.
Laura Paskus is an assistant editor for High Country News.