The endless search for Charles Bowden

A longtime Bowden reader remembers the complicated author through two new books.

 

Charles Bowden in his truck in Plano, Texas, 1998.
© Eugene Richards / Courtesy of UT Press

Even now, six years after Charles Bowden died, I still roam around bookstores, hoping I missed an old title of his, or wondering if an editor has unearthed a long-lost manuscript. Ever since I first encountered Bowden’s dark and deeply personal reporting about the Southwestern desert and the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands almost 20 years ago, his writing has ensorcelled me.

I’m not the only one aching for more of his insights and experiences. The University of Texas Press, the Charles Clyde Bowden Literary Trust and the Lannan Foundation created the Charles Bowden Publishing Project, whose goal is threefold: re-releasing the author’s out-of-print books, publishing three new manuscripts uncovered after his death, and commissioning new books about him. So when a package arrived last year — delivering America’s Most Alarming Writer: Essays on the Life and Work of Charles Bowden and Bowden’s own Dakotah: The Return of the Future — I spent a sleepless night, plowing through the essays and Bowden’s own words. 

Those pages reminded me how much words and memories matter, how complicated it is to mourn, and why we need to be honest about our heroes. 

My father died the year before Bowden. Our relationship was a complicated one, and his final words to me over the phone, before going into surgery I didn’t expect him to survive, were inscrutable at best, and at worst, cruel. Months after his death, I scoured his white Toyota pickup truck, which my mom had passed along to me, convinced that a message was hidden inside, one that would set his soul to rest within my heart. I flipped up the seats and pulled out every tool and zip tie, draping his raincoat around my shoulders, checking out the double sets of Coleman camping silverware. Finally, I popped open an ancient tobacco tin, hoping it held a clue. 

But it didn’t — just a roll of toilet paper.

I never met Bowden in person. We exchanged emails over the course of a few years — short messages about everything from writing to the bird species in his backyard. But I remember the first time I read his words. Working as a cocktail waitress in Albuquerque, I was transitioning between two careers and renting a room from a fisheries biologist. When the biologist learned I’d never heard of Bowden, he slapped Blood Orchid: An Unnatural History of America into my hands. Within pages, I was mad for Bowden’s style. His ferocity and pace of storytelling inspired me — as it did countless other journalists — to not shy away from infusing reportage with emotion. I frequently re-watch an interview he did with the radio producer Scott Carrier, in which he speaks of the moral obligation of the writer. He calls it a crime, a sin, to use that gift to write “advertising jingles” instead of the truth about the world around us.

“Look, you have a gift, life is precious,” Bowden told Carrier. “Eventually you die, and all you’re going to have to show for it is your work.”

“It’s easy to make a living telling the people in control they’re right,” he told Carrier, adding, “Look, you have a gift, life is precious. Eventually you die, and all you’re going to have to show for it is your work.”

In America’s Most Alarming Writer, the best essays are those that don’t idolize Bowden or indulge our compulsion to honor the dead. Arizona Daily Star reporter Tony Davis, for example, writes about arguing with Bowden when they were fellow reporters in the 1980s, even as he looked up to him. Davis describes him as “one part poet, one part novelist, one part conservationist, one part dirt-digger, one part bottom-feeder, scraping literary insights from the dregs of the earth.” Leslie Marmon Silko deconstructs his coverage of the border and violence, suggesting that he likely embellished some of the dangers he described, while Judy Nolte Temple writes about his frequent objectification of women's bodies. Molly Molloy, Bowden's partner, has a heartbreaking essay that will resonate with anyone who’s walked behind a loved one. And both Molloy and Bowden’s ex-partner Mary Martha Miles also describe editing his work, complicating the idea of his intrepid life by acknowledging their labor. 

Meanwhile, Dakotah’s chapters jump around from Bowden’s reflections on his family to his ruminations on Lewis and Clark, the forced migrations of Sioux tribes across America’s “heartland,” even Daniel Boone. The slim book fails to offer a full picture of any one story, and I finished it feeling low. So I re-read his classics, like Down by the River and Killing the Hidden Waters, seeking the growling, confident voice I wanted to hear. 

Trying to cast the dead as either heroes or demons often leaves one empty-handed, like I was when I popped open my dad’s old tobacco tin. Wending my way through the pile of Bowden’s books reminded me that a person’s final words are rarely definitive. Seeking the truth means looking for messages in the right places. And as Bowden taught his many admirers, seeking the truth also demands we open our hearts, interrogate our own assumptions — and acknowledge that people are always more complicated, terrible and lovely than the characters we craft on paper.

Laura Paskus works for New Mexico PBS and is working on an investigative project in collaboration with FRONTLINE. Her book At the Precipice: New Mexico’s Changing Climate, is forthcoming from UNM Press. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

High Country News Classifieds
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Western Colorado Alliance for Community Action is seeking two full time community organizers to join our team. Positions can be based in Garfield County, Montrose...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Join our team as the Association's Executive Director. Working closely with the Board of Directors, take ANWS to the next level of professionalism by managing...
  • FRIENDS OF CEDAR MESA DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Friends of Cedar Mesa is hiring a Development Director who will have the overall responsibilities of leading our fundraising programs and reports directly to our...
  • WATER RIGHTS/ADJUDICATION BUREAU CHIEF
    Job Overview: Working to support and implement the Department's mission to help ensure that Montana's land and water resources provide benefits for present and future...
  • CLIMATE CHANGE COORDINATOR
    The Greater Yellowstone Coalition is seeking a Climate Change Coordinator to play a lead role in shaping our programs to make the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Executive Director Position Announcement POSITION TITLE: Executive Director ORGANIZATION: Friends of Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument REPORTING TO: Board of Directors EMPLOYMENT TYPE: Part-time - Full-time, based...
  • HEALTHY CITIES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Healthy Cities Program Director leads and manages the Healthy Cities Program for the Arizona Chapter and is responsible for developing and implementing innovative, high...
  • CONSERVATION PROGRAM MANAGER
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Conservation Programs Manager Job Opening Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Associate Director Job Posting Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through science,...
  • UNIQUE, ENERGY-EFFICIENT HOME ON ACREAGE NEAR MOSCOW, IDAHO
    Custom-built energy-efficient 3000 sqft two-story 3BR home, 900 sqft 1 BR accessory cottage above 2-car garage and large shop. Large horse barn. $1,200,000. See online...
  • OUTDOOR ADVENTURE BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Missoula Outdoor Learning Adventures (MOLA) - established and profitable outdoor adventure & education business in Missoula, Montana. Summer camp, raft & climb guide, teen travel,...
  • OJO SARCO FARM/HOME
    A wonderful country setting for a farm/work 1350s.f. frame home plus 1000 studio/workshop. 5 acres w fruit trees, an irrigation well, pasture and a small...
  • STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Join Skagit Land Trust (the Trust), a not-for-profit conservation organization based in Mount Vernon, Washington, and help protect land for people and wildlife. Skagit Land...
  • 2022 SEASONAL SCIENCE EDUCATOR
    The Mount St. Helens Institute Science Educator supports our science education and rental programs including day and overnight programs for youth ages 6-18, their families...
  • POLICY DIRECTOR
    Heart of the Rockies Initiative is seeking a Policy Director to lead and define policy efforts to advance our mission to keep working lands and...
  • CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER
    Self-Help Enterprises seeks an experienced and strategic CFO
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST - LAND PROTECTION FOCUS
    View full job description and how to apply at
  • RIVER EDUCATOR & GUIDE
    River Educator & Guide River Educator & Guide (Trip Leader) Non-exempt, Seasonal Position: Full-time OR part-time (early April through October; may be flexible with start/end...
  • LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    The Land and Water Conservation Director is a full-time salaried position with the Mountain Area Land Trust in Evergreen, CO. The successful candidate will have...
  • FOOD SYSTEMS ENVIRONMENTAL FELLOWSHIP
    If you were to design a sustainable society from the ground up, it would look nothing like the contemporary United States. But what would it...