Washing our hands

  • Terry Tempest Williams

 

I met Interior Secretary Gale Norton in the public restroom at Denver International Airport. She was coming out of the handicapped stall with a black roller bag. She is a tall, handsome woman.

We ended up washing our hands at neighboring basins.

Should I, or shouldn’t I?

I did.

"Secretary Norton — "

"Yes?" she said, smiling.

I introduced myself and extended my hand.

Her smile disappeared as she declined to shake it.

A few months earlier, I had written an opinion piece for The New York Times critical of the Bush administration’s energy policy. If that policy is being conducted quietly behind closed doors in Washington, D.C., it is a ground-thumping reality in Utah’s redrock outback.

Withdrawing my wet hand, I said, "I realize this is an awkward situation, but surely there must be some way to find a common point of conversation between us as two women from the American West."

She wrung her hands and walked over to the wall behind us to dry them.

I did the same.

In all honesty, I don’t recall our exact exchange of words. I was nervous. What I can tell you is that our words were few. There was nothing in Secretary Norton’s demeanor that said she was under any obligation or courtesy to engage with a citizen, particularly this one. Granted, it could be strongly argued I was infringing on her privacy, but given the lack of access to anyone in this administration, I took my chances.

What I do remember Secretary Norton saying to me was something along the lines of, "If you knew what we knew, you would think differently."

This was a familiar response to me, growing up in a religious background where authority was respected, not questioned. If your testimony of God was not as strong as that of the true believers, it was because you were on the other side of goodness.

After a rather spirited exchange over why she and former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt withdrew protection from wilderness study areas, we tried to straighten our skirts and establish some semblance of conviviality. Both of us promised to send each other reading materials. In the secretary’s case, she promised to send me a new publication coming out of the Department of the Interior, illuminating her "Four C’s" — communication, consultation and cooperation, all in the service of conservation — which I later received, along with her card.

Now, Secretary Norton has turned in her resignation. Her last day on the job will be March 31, 2006. She told President Bush in her letter that she looks forward to returning to the private sector and eventually coming home to Colorado.

In the end, we did shake hands and look one another in the eyes before going our separate ways.

I remember boarding my plane almost late, sitting down, still trembling from our encounter.

Flying over southwestern Colorado, all I could see out my window was a spider web of roads, crisscrossing the desert, each one leading to Gale Norton’s legacy of black pumps, designed by the oil and gas companies who paved her way into American history.

Terry Tempest Williams lives in Castle Valley, Utah. Her most recent book is The Open Space of Democracy.

High Country News Classifieds
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Methow Valley Citizens Council has a distinguished history of advocating for progressive land use and environmental values in the Methow Valley and Okanogan County...
  • ACTING INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS DESK EDITOR
    High Country News is seeking an Acting Indigenous Affairs Editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk while our editor is on...
  • GRANTS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation seeks an enthusiastic, team-oriented and knowledgeable Grants Program Director to work from their home in Montana. Established in 1983, the Cinnabar Foundation...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Artemis Program Manager will work with National Wildlife Federation sporting and public lands staff to change this dynamic, continue to build upon our successful...
  • ALASKA SEA KAYAK BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Well-known and successful sea kayak, raft, hike, camp guiding & water taxi service. Sale includes everything needed to run the business, including office & gear...
  • MEMBERSHIP AND EVENTS PROGRAM COORDINATOR
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a detail-oriented and enthusiastic Membership and Events Coordinator to join our small, but mighty-fun team to oversee our membership...
  • PROGRAM DEVELOPMENT FACILITATOR
    ABOUT THE HIGH DESERT MUSEUM Since opening in 1982, HIGH DESERT MUSEUM has brought together wildlife, culture, art and natural resources to promote an understanding...
  • LAND STEWARD, ARAVAIPA
    Steward will live on-site in housing provided by TNC and maintains preserve areas frequented by the visiting public and performs land management activities. The Land...
  • DEVELOPMENT WRITER
    Who We Are: The Nature Conservancy's mission is to protect the lands and waters upon which all life depends. As a science-based organization, we create...
  • CONNECTIVITY SCIENCE COORDINATOR
    Position type: Full time, exempt Location: Bozeman preferred; remote negotiable Compensation: $48,000 - $52,000 Benefits: Major medical insurance, up to 5% match on a 401k,...
  • EXECUTIVE ASSISTANT
    ArenaLife is looking for an Executive Assistant who wants to work in a fast-paced, exciting, and growing organization. We are looking for someone to support...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Mountain Lion Foundation is seeking an Executive Director. Please see our website for further information - mountainlion.org/job-openings
  • WASHINGTON DC REPRESENTATIVE
    Position Status: Full-time, exempt Location: Washington, DC Position Reports to: Program Director The Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC) is seeking a Washington, DC Representative...
  • REGIONAL CAMPAIGN ORGANIZER
    Position Title: Regional Campaign Organizers (2 positions) Position Status: Full-time, exempt Location: Preferred Billings, MT; remote location within WORC's region (in or near Grand Junction...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Driggs, ID based non-profit. Full time. Full job description available at tvtap.org. Submit cover letter and resume to [email protected]
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • SPRING MOUNTAINS SOLAR OFF GRID MOUNTAIN HOME
    Located 50 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada in the pine forest of Lee Canyon at 8000 feet elevation. One of a kind property surrounded...
  • MAJOR GIFTS MANAGER - MOUNTAIN WEST, THE CONSERVATION FUND
    Cultivate, solicit and steward a portfolio of 75-125 donors.
  • NATURE'S BEST IN ARAVAIPA CANYON
    10 acre private oasis in one of Arizona's beautiful canyons. Fully furnished, 2123 sq ft architectural custom-built contemporary home with spectacular views and many extras....