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.

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