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for people who care about the West

Bowden the half-mad hiker

The iconic Southwest writer brought minimal gear but loads of reading material on the trail.

 

When I got to know Chuck Bowden in the 1980s in Tucson, he was beginning to hone his edgy writing into powerful books and news stories — totally pushing the limits of “news.” But what impressed me the most was his edgy hiking. That’s how I view the man on the cover of this issue of High Country News: As a half-mad hiker who happened to be a writer.

In the wake of Bowden’s death on Aug. 30, I’m remembering how, in the heat of the desert summer in 1983, he set out from Mexico at dusk, walking north across the border to understand the experience of undocumented immigrants. Hiking all night, he mingled with migrants and risked confrontation with the Border Patrol. After 16 hours and 45 miles, he reached an Arizona outpost where migrants would catch rides, and lay down on a saloon’s pool table to cool off.

Charles Bowden, during a 1986 winter trek re-enacting Mormon pioneer John Lee’s expedition through the Paria River Canyon, with freezing water and little sunlight.
Jack Dykinga

With his physique — a lean 6-foot-4 — Bowden could rack up the miles. “He would never complain” while enduring blisters, sunburn, cactus thorns that drew blood, sprains and bruises, and dehydration that caused painful kidney stones, recalls Bill Broyles, a schoolteacher who made that moonlight hike and others with Bowden. Once, they began on the shore of Mexico’s Sea of Cortez and trudged through the bleak volcanic Pinacate Range to Ajo, Arizona, roughly 100 miles in a week, retracing the route that the Tohono O’odham Tribe had used for harvesting salt from the sea. On another cross-border hike, they covered more than 200 miles of desert in two weeks. Often they gambled on finding natural springs and potholes for drinking water.

Bowden hiked in gym shoes and carried minimal gear, but lugged around pounds of campsite reading — serious hardback tomes like the 1,000-page Righteous Pilgrim, a biography of pioneering Interior Secretary Harold L. Ickes, and Insurgent Mexico, written in 1914 by the leftist journalist John Reed.

“The guy had absolute grit,” recalls Jack Dykinga, a photographer who accompanied Bowden on treks through the Utah-Arizona canyon country — including a six-day 50-miler one February slogging through icy slot-canyon pools. They climbed Mexico’s highest peak — 18,491-foot Pico de Orizaba — using crampons on ice fields, and tramped across shadeless desert from Yuma, Arizona, to Palm Springs, California, where daily highs hit the 120s.

Bowden’s writings about his hikes conveyed an intimacy with the natural landscape and denounced our failures to protect it. Thus, he influenced decision-makers to designate conservation areas in both countries — perhaps his greatest legacy. A copy of Stone Canyons of the Colorado Plateau, a 1996 book by Bowden and Dykinga, for instance, was given to then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, who shared it with then-President Clinton. The book encouraged Clinton to protect more than 2 million acres in three new national monuments.

Our Bowden package includes a profile written just before he died and excerpts from his last writings. I recommend celebrating the man’s life by taking a hike.