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for people who care about the West

Adiós Charles Bowden

The writer passed away in Las Cruces, New Mexico, on Aug. 30.


This summer, HCN decided to profile the Southwest’s edgiest writer, Charles Bowden, because he hadn’t been heard from in a while, and he always had a talent for getting to the heart of who we are as a society and how we treat the landscape. We asked an old friend of his, Utah writer Scott Carrier, to do the profile, and the two men spent several days together in a rustic house on a nature preserve south of Tucson, Arizona. The day after Carrier left, Bowden came down with flu-like symptoms. He returned to his home in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and died there unexpectedly on Aug. 30. The cause of his death has not yet been determined.

Carrier delivered this lively profile before Bowden’s death, and we’d rather not turn it into an obituary, so we’re reporting Bowden’s biography separately.

Charles Clyde Bowden — “Chuck” to his many friends — was born in Joliet, Illinois, on July 20, 1945, and spent most of his childhood in urban neighborhoods on Chicago’s South Side. His father, Jude, was an Internal Revenue Service attorney who hated his job but had a passion for reading, especially Shakespeare and the Bible, even though he was agnostic. The family moved to Tucson in 1957, when Jude took early retirement and pursued his lifelong interest in the West. Bowden’s mother, Berdina, volunteered in Tucson at Casa de Los Niños, a home for abused children. She was fiercely loyal to all three of her children, no matter how far they roamed.

Bowden inherited his father’s thirst for intellectual exploration and his mother’s liking for underdogs. After graduating from Tucson High School, he earned a bachelor’s in history from the University of Arizona and a master’s in “American intellectual history” from the University of Wisconsin. But he rebelled against any straight-and-narrow path, taking time off to explore the country in the turbulent 1960s, becoming involved in the Civil Rights movement in Mississippi and a massive Washington, D.C., protest against the Vietnam War. Getting his master’s degree did nothing to quell his rebellious streak: He walked out of his defense of his Ph.D. thesis and ditched a teaching job at the University of Illinois-Chicago. He resettled in Tucson in 1971 and perfected his distinctive writerly voice. “I thought to myself, I’m going to go out and write the real history of my time on earth,” he told Carrier in 2005, reflecting on his career. He aimed to “create this endless book like Dickens did with his novels.”

Over the years, Bowden’s prolific book-writing ranged from the desert’s environmental issues, and text for collections of beautiful landscape photos, to the ugliest crime and politics, and his magazine writing appeared in the likes of Harper’s, Esquire and Mother Jones. In his search for meaning in life, he pushed himself hard — taking epic desert hikes with little gear, chain-smoking unfiltered cigarettes, drinking red wine in the afternoon and frequently pursuing love — including two failed marriages to women who financially supported him, a girlfriend who gave birth to their son, Jesse Bowden Niwa, in 1987, several other long-term relationships and too many flings to count. Five years ago, he moved from Arizona to Las Cruces, where he lived with Molly Molloy, a research librarian who co-authored some of his last works. He wrote in furious bursts beginning before dawn, wearing out a keyboard a year.

Bowden’s survivors, including his sister, Peg (Margaret), and brother, George, suggest that readers honor him by donating to his favorite charities: a mental asylum for the homeless in Ciudad Juárez, called Visión En Acción, c/o 201 Calle Diaz, Sunland Park, New Mexico, 88063; the International Crane Foundation, www.savingcranes; and the Hummingbird Monitoring Network, www.hummonnet.org. A memorial gathering is planned for Nov. 1 — Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos, “a fitting time to remember Chuck,” in his family’s words — from 2 to 5 p.m., at Rock Corral Ranch, Tumacacori, Arizona. Everyone is invited. Bring a memento for the Dia de Los Muertos altar, and your favorite beverage. Chuck, of course, would probably suggest red wine.