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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.