The air around the volcanic mesa shimmers with reflected heat; if the temperature rises, surely it will return to molten lava. I'm on Black Butte in the southernmost peak of Arizona's Vulture Mountain chain, a place where vultures are the only birds ingenious enough to perch atop the black crags: They piss on their feet.
It's hot; my shadow is burnt
onto the sand like the chalk outlines police draw around
My responsibility as a good employee
means trudging across the desert floor laden with poles, shovels,
axes, saws, hammers, maps and water. I carry little pill bottles
stuffed with documents which claimstake the land we walk across in
the name of whatever geological entity we are hired hands
In the middle of the Mojave, Chiricahua,
Sonoran and Nevadan deserts, in corners so distant even the wind
gets lost, we triangulate and calculate. It is an existence that
leads a man to contemplate buzzard urine.
hottest place I ever worked as a human mule was near the Eagle Tail
Mountains west of Phoenix. The USGS quadrangle maps identified the
particular parcel we were graphing as 4th of July Peak, an
inconsequential heap of black volcanic slag, too puny to cast a
cool shadow. The temperature there hits the high hundred-and-teens,
occasionally breaking 120 degrees.
in perfect rectangles across the strange multicolored soils,
measuring our progress with laser beams and mirrors as we strolled,
noticing that the texture of the grains changed along with the
colors into yellows, tans, browns, clays and sandstones. The land
was covered with gnarled ironwood trees, badger holes, spiky Thorn
of Christ cactus, and the only sign of human habitation was the
Palo Verde Nuclear Power Plant. Blinking, my eyes stinging from the
salt of my sweat, I could almost see Palo Verde exploding
catastrophically, venting giant plumes of steam capable of melting
Some of the two-dimensional Euclidean
shapes we survey make no sense at all for the terrain. One of our
points is about 30 feet up a cliff and needs a tagged post hammered
into it. We flip a coin and Lady Luck chooses me to scale the
cliff. By the time I return, co-worker Brian discovers an eagle
eye, our name for any small cave in a cliff that gives us a view.
We put down our bundles of poles, taking an exploration break only
to discover it is not a cave at all but a freestanding slab that
has been windcarved from the sandstone cliff into a facade fronting
a ledge. As soon as we climb in, two hawks screech, circling and
Once I encountered a small herd
of mustangs in northern Nevada, tiny ponies whose tails and manes
hung to the ground. As I climbed over a ridge, my scent was carried
by the same breezes which the vultures were sailing, riding thermal
updrafts. The stallion responded to me as a rival. He reared,
throwing up clouds of dust in an equine tantrum. I used my shovel
to throw up clouds of my own into the air and he whinnied, racing
between me and his mares, back and forth, back and forth. Suddenly
they vanished across the landscape, their shadows sailing along the
prairie grass like kites.
Kneeling in the eagle
eye reminds me of precipice-prose, like John Muir's at Yosemite
Falls or the Nathaniel Hawthorne tale about climbing to the top of
a church steeple, where he admired the landscape while the
villagers warned of blasphemy.
The American West
has been measured to death by everybody from Lewis and Clark to
John Wesley Powell - digging up gardens, ruins, graves, bones,
fossils and rocks.
While I gaze from the eagle
eye out across the landscape I wonder what minerals my employers
are prospecting for: gold, silver, uranium? The sandy-colored soil
makes me think otherwise; perhaps they seek some clay which can be
refined into an industrial lubricant, keeping the machines of
industry running smoothly.
The ground crunches
and crackles under our feet as we shift around. The ledge is
directly beneath the nest of the mated hawk pair, who have littered
the eagle eye with bones, creating a graveyard that covers the
earth with a thin layer of squirrel skeletons and fragile rabbit
skulls. The hawks screech again.
My next job
that summer was far different: Instead of the flatlands where we
could trace out our rectangles quickly, covering vast amounts of
territory in a single day, it was the stubborn Mule Mountains,
whose steep terrain made progress arduous and whose deeply eroded
gulleys frequently shortened the line of sight.
In Douglas, Ariz., the clientele at the Red Barn saloon consisted
of three out-of-work men in their 50s, each wearing a flannel shirt
and a crewcut. Two of them had been career miners until the
Lavender Pit was shut down, and years of exposure to heavy
machinery had left them hard of hearing. They sat there, swilling
beer and watching reruns like The Judge or People's Court, feeling
free to comment on the proceedings but needing to shout over each
hell, judge," one would declare. His compatriot furthered the
consensus: "Anyone can see she's an uppity little tart." At the end
of every program and through most of the commercial breaks, they
toasted the machinations of justice.
In the box canyon cave in the Vulture
Mountains, a blast of white hurls itself at us as we cross the line
from sunlight into the shadow of the cave. Barely in time, I duck,
the wings and shoulders expanding, almost touching me. Turning
around I see an owl flying away from the mouth of the dark cavern
directly into the face of the summer desert sun. It wobbles just
for an instant, as if it can't see, then one of the hawks drops on
it from above. Snaps the owl's neck in half.
Brian and I turn, not certain if we want to continue. Then we see
the other owl. Same size as the first, same snowy white feathers
with brown speckles, and as it glares at us from the edge of the
nest, three frightened chicks squeak. Inadvertently, we have killed
a mate, a parent. I wonder if the chicks will survive; perhaps we
have killed them, too, only more slowly.
leave the cave before we frighten the other owl into abandoning her
nest and children. The next ridge over we find a beehive, built
right into the mountain itself, honey oozing from the rock. Neither
of us is willing to risk the wrath of the swarming bees. Instead,
we continue the tasks of our employment, sketching rectangles
across the land while the vultures circle.
Gary Every, a Tucson native, has a degree in
nature writing with a minor in Western history. This essay came out
of summers spent working in Arizona, Nevada and Death