While the vultures circle

  • Turkey vulture

    Michael H. Francis

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 fatalities.

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 for.

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.

The 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.

We traveled 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 mountains.

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 challenging us.

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 others' deafness.

"Give her 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.

We 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 Valley.