« Return to this article

Know the West

A bittersweet victory in the New West


FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - It is over. And, we have won. The Dry Lake ephemeral wetland and volcano crater outside Flagstaff, is safe from a golf course and million-dollar home development.

The county supervisors close their thick notebooks. For a long instant, the big auditorium is silent. Then it is as though 200 people let out their breath at once. Time leaps forward. We are yelling and screaming and hugging each other. Two full years of work and passion, genius and mistakes are over. For both sides.

The developer and his people are quiet. I am clasped in my friends' arms, four of us, spinning in a giddy circle. When we stop, I see the developer's face. Flushed. His neck muscles drawn tight as jerky. His wife smiles brightly. She is patting his arm, and I want to go to her and say, "It won't do any good."

I know exactly what he is feeling. He has been watching the steady descent of the credits on a million-dollar slot machine. And, now it is over.

There is no comfort. There is only somehow managing a graceful exit from a moment without grace. I imagine him driving home, saying to himself what gamblers say, "It's only money. I'll borrow some, call friends, there are checks coming in." The blood moving in his veins will feel like acid. He will want only to sleep and, later, lying next to his loving wife, sleep will elude him as thoroughly as permission to build on steep basalt slopes and around a wetland.

I remember a long weekend in Wendover, Nev. Going back to the ATM again and again. Chasing Lion Fish and Silver Moons and Rompin' Rhinos, nine nickels at a time, lugging buckets of nickels to the pay-out, then two, then one, hunkering till 4:30 a.m. over Winning Touch, playing out my last 10 bucks, the last 10 bucks of $600, every nickel of it from my overdraft loan, not knowing if I had students signed up for my writing classes, whether checks for my writing had come in, having run out of pals who would help me make it through the month. There was a long night without sleep and an even longer drive home in the company of no one to blame.

I know the developer entered this loss willingly. Every speculator, every day-trader, every nickel-slot hog does. We are not victims. We are volunteers. But still, I don't want to be near his pain.

Alexis de Tocqueville wrote 170 years ago, "The whole life of an American is passed like a game of chance, a revolutionary crisis or a battle." That's why Nevada, with its huge space and small-town casinos, draws me like the promises of a beautiful, crazy lover. Nevada feels like a last frontier, with its hidden canyons and hot springs, its soul-tearing winds, the glittering slots in which every nine nickels is a new beginning.

I'll drive home soon too wired to sleep and I'll go to my research. I am reading about the early silver speculators, how they worked the Comstock Lode, Nevada's frontier politicians and their investors the way a stripper works a crowd. It was a frenzied war in which the hard-rock miners and the mountains lost.

Tonight, the developer and I have been at war. The Dry Lake caldera wetland has won. And, in the long run, so has our community. People who numbly watched their town and its remarkable forest outskirts chewed up for profit have spoken out, joined together and slogged through nearly three years of forgiving each others' imperfections and never forgetting Dry Lake's perfect beauty.

Elected officials have gone beyond the call of duty. Some faith in the political system has been renewed.

And yet, I have left my loving friends and walked to the other side of the auditorium. The lights begin to dim, voices fade away. Later, I will write about tossing a wrench in the money machine and how being in community is the hardest work I know. The developer will tell the TV news he has not given up and that we have maligned him. But, for now, I am quiet.

The developer's wife has tucked her arm under his. She is gently, almost imperceptibly leading him toward the door. I watch them walk away. When they are out of sight, I raise my hand in a silent goodbye.

Mary Sojourner is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News, based in Paonia, Colo. (www.hcn.org). She writes from Flagstaff, Ariz.