Human wildness on the range

  • Book cover of The Backbone of the World

 

Frank Clifford has no trouble holding two clashing ideas in mind. The first is his love of wild country, the second is his love of the wild people most of us see as the enemy of wild country.

A gold miner's son who is now an environmental reporter for the Los Angeles Times, Clifford comes by his split naturally. But the book will probably offend all sides.

He hangs the narrative on the Continental Divide Trail that runs by fits and starts from Mexico to Canada along the spine of the Rockies. But Backbone isn't a travel story. It is about land-toughened locals butting heads with modem-moderns.

There is no doubt about the winner. The people Clifford portrays are often sickly, usually aged, always on the wrong side of the economy. My favorite is the elderly rancher with a disfigured face; he's used a caustic brew to twice burn away melanomas. (He has no health insurance, of course.)

Leaving this man's ranch, Clifford comes on a young couple, "dressed in form-fitting Day-Glo Lycra, laboring over a broken bicycle." They tell Clifford that everyone has been friendly except for a few ranchers. Clifford tells them they're in Catron County, N.M. They catch the implication - "Is that like saying we're in Dodge City?" - but the name means nothing to them.

The promotional blurb says the book is about the Old West's pioneer spirit. It's not. It's about 20 or so lunatics who make life hard for themselves. It's about people who persist in digging in mines and getting their backs broken. About ranchers who live on the Mexican-U.S. border in the way of thousands of "wets" and drug dealers. About a family that persists in raising sheep near Vail, Colo. It's about a few of our fellow Americans who don't know enough to come in out of the climatic and economic cold.

Clifford admires human wildness. His trouble - if he wants to sell books - is that he does not understand how we can protect wild land while destroying wild people. Clifford is with the early Edward Abbey - the one who wrote Fire on the Mountain, an admiring novel about a rancher who defied the Department of Defense.

Somehow, Clifford is telling us, we have to get these wild people on our side. Or rather, we have to get over to their side. Read the book to figure out what that will take.

The Backbone of the World: A Portrait of the Vanishing West Along the Continental Divide, by Frank Clifford. Broadway Books, NY, 2002. Hardcover $24.95. 272 pages

Ed Marston is executive director of High Country News.

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