Leah Sottile | Longreads | May 2018 | 46 minutes (11,600 words)
The best way to get to Bundyville is to drive straight into the desert and prepare to never come back.
The ghost town that used to be home to the Bundy family is reachable only by deeply rutted roads covered with red quicksand so thick that it can suck in even the burliest 4×4 if you hit it wrong.
On the map, Bundyville is actually called Mount Trumbull. But back in the early 1900s, people started referring to it as Bundyville, because, according to one Arizona Republic article from 1951, “every single soul in the tiny village except one person answer to the name Bundy!” There was never electricity, no phones.
Abraham Bundy, Cliven’s great-grandfather established the town with his wife, Ella, in 1916. Their son, Roy, homesteaded there with his own family. And Cliven’s dad, David, was born in Bundyville — a place “perched atop a cold and forbidding plateau at an elevation of 5,200 feet,” according to the Arizona Republic article.
Before World War II, as many as 200 people — mostly Bundys — made their home in Bundyville, despite its remote location. Newspapers took six days to arrive. Four postmasters doled out mail twice a week. There was a school, a general store.
It was a Bundy utopia. A place that was all theirs, a place no one else wanted. And yet, still, it slipped right through their fingers. There wasn’t enough water to sustain them. By the 1950s, the place was mostly abandoned. Little had changed between the time the Bundys arrived and the time they left. “We heard the coyotes howl at night,” one Bundy resident once said, “but did not see a living soul.”
I want to stand in that place — where the family’s curse of loss began and where their anger at the government may have originated. I want to go to the middle of nowhere to see how far this family has been willing to go to live by their own code.
Bundyville still holds meaning for the family. Each year, hundreds of Bundys make a pilgrimage back for a giant Bundy family reunion. It’s like it’s not just a place in the desert, but a state of mind, too.
When Abraham Bundy and his wife arrived there, it must have seemed like it was the only place where they could fathom solace, calm. Far from civilization, far from the reaches of the federal government, the family tried to tame the landscape, farm, and raise livestock for themselves with little forage or water. To live by their own rules. To make an intractable place bend to their will.
I explain all this to a representative at the BLM’s Arizona Strip field office — that I’d like to go to the place the Bundy story started. And she clearly doesn’t think it’s a good idea for me and my producer, Ryan Haas, to go there this time of year. It’s been raining recently, she tells me. I think, so what? I’m from Oregon. But rain is unusual in that part of the Southwest, and it turns the clay-like dirt on the roads into a silty paste known to suck up tires, stranding unprepared people in potentially deadly temperatures until someone can come with help.
I read about an old lady who got lost on the road to Mount Trumbull and almost died before anyone found her. Another article talks about some hikers who’d come across skeletons in the desert there.
The outdoorsy dude-bros at a Jeep rental place in Hurricane, Utah, were skeptical, too: Just before we pull out of the lot in the burliest Jeep they’ve got, one of them throws a shovel into the back for us. “Better than nothing,” he says with a shrug.
The next morning, we wake up at 3 a.m. The way we’re figuring, if we’re going to make it, we’d better go while the ground is frozen.
* * *
Driving through the Arizona desert at this time of night (or morning, as it were) is like driving on the face of Mars. The sky here is untouched by the glow of humans, black and swirling with stars and galaxy clouds. We jump out to take a look. Layering system be damned — I’m still freezing my ass off.
The first pink daylight peeks over Hurricane Cliffs in the distance. Slowly, as we rumble along, it’s as if the curtains have been lifted on those ridges, unveiling layers of red and gold and pale green. The landscape is prickled and scrubby all the way to the horizon: bleached grasses bowing in the near-constant wind, the pleading fingers of Joshua Trees outstretched and grasping toward the sky.
The 59 miles to Bundyville are three hours of pockmarked, rutted, gashed roads dotted with pools of red silt just waiting for some outsider to attempt to test-drive through. Everything else is covered in the smashed skulls and bodies of mice and jackrabbits, which fling themselves senselessly from their muddy coves of safety, as if driven to commit some kind of vehicular seppuku at the vision of two bright lights piercing the dark. We slow down to let a family of deer spring over a jury-rigged fence constructed of wire spun around sharp tree branches that have been shoved into potholes in the red earth.
It takes three hours to finally see the small, white Mount Trumbull schoolhouse come into view. It springs from the flat landscape like a cottage in a pop-up book.
The schoolhouse that stands in Bundyville today is a reconstructed replica of one of the only buildings to ever stand in the town. Arsonists torched the real one down in 2000, but the BLM and community members worked side by side to rebuild it a year later.
Inside, the bookshelves are filled with old textbooks with titles like Using Good English and Building Citizenship, and the walls are covered with black-and-white photos. There’s old Abraham Bundy, sporting a very serious broom-brush mustache. Ella is standing next to him, expression sour. There’s Roy Bundy — Cliven’s granddad. And a picture of David, his father, in his military uniform. Birds wake up in the eaves of the schoolhouse, chirping as the sun streams in through the windows. There’s a grizzly painting of Custer’s Last Stand hanging among the photos — a depiction of a field of white soldiers bloody and taking their dying breaths. It feels like it fits here.
Housed in a glass case is a letter written to Santa, and even that’s grim:
Mt. Trumbull, Arizona, 1966.
How are you? I hope you haven’t worked too hard. I’m afraid you’d better stay home this Christmas because if you don’t you’re bound to get stuck, and then you couldn’t get back.
On either side of the creaky wooden doors hang two white sheets of paper covered with signatures. The people who helped raise this building like an old barn signed their names on them, and the last name Bundy is scribbled in dozens of hands. Interspersed among them are the names of the BLM employees who helped rebuild, too.
On those pages, there’s no Ryan Bundy, no Ammon. No Mel, David, or Carol. No Angie. No Cliven Bundy.
You hear a lot from the Bundys and people in the Patriot movement about all the ways they think the government conspired to put them out of business. To put a boot to their necks, literally and figuratively. These posters are the perfect illustration of the opposite. And, in fact, when I spoke to the local BLM office, they pointed out that there are several other Bundys who actually have current grazing permits on BLM land.
Walking around outside the schoolhouse, bracing against razor-blade wind, I get this feeling like we’re being watched — even though we would see anyone coming from miles away.
On those pages, there’s no Ryan Bundy, no Ammon. No Mel, David, or Carol. No Angie. No Cliven Bundy.
We drive by a couple of ranches — both, not surprisingly, have the last name Bundy on the front gates. A sign hangs on a fence near one of them that simply reads RADIOACTIVE. In an adjacent field, a tawny horse lifts its head from the grass to watch us drive by. Its ribs are showing through its skin, hip bones jutting out atop spindly legs. Eyes pleading.
We idle on an even-worse-looking road than the one we came in on, wondering if it’s worth speeding through silt pools that span its entire width to get to Abraham Bundy’s grave. If we get stuck, we will be dependent on the people who own that horse to get us out.
Maybe the Bundys came here to escape from the government and create their own libertarian utopia. But I have to believe that at least one of them also saw Mount Trumbull as the only place they could get away with whatever they wanted. Out here, you could make your own kingdom where its subjects are only loyal to common law and primal instinct.
When people far from here talk about America’s Wild West, this is what they mean: a shadow town that wasn’t here longer than it was.
One of the few-and-far-between parts of the country where grit and will and faith don’t matter.
The places where wild always wins.
Despite the Bundys being behind bars for the past two years, the Patriot movement kept a near-constant drip of updates coming from the Bundy camp. Facebook livestreams provided painstaking detail of their court hearings. GoFundMe campaigns raised money for their commissary and for their wives and children back home.
Attorneys would often sit for long interviews with the right-wing “news” outlets the Patriots established as mouthpieces for their cause. When sealed documents leaked out of the courtroom in Nevada, these propagandists mysteriously received them first. And sympathetic politicians from across the West flocked to their cause, including Michele Fiore, then a Nevada state assemblywoman; Matt Shea, a Washington state representative; and Jennifer Fielder, a Montana state senator.
Most people have cast off the Bundys — and anyone who comes to their side — as fringe extremists they don’t need to pay much attention to. But there’s an argument that their ideas are now getting more traction than they ever have.
Back in Bunkerville, Fiore — best known for her 2015 Christmas card, which features her whole family posed with guns — came to the side of the Bundys. At Malheur, she, Shea, and legislators spoke about COWS — the Coalition of Western States — and how they, too, would like to see public land transferred to states. In the final hours of the Malheur occupation, Fiore also helped law enforcement negotiate with the last four holdouts there to get them out of the refuge safely.
During the court proceedings in Oregon, she held a press conference on the steps of the federal courthouse. When one reporter asked Fiore if the real rightful owner of the land around the refuge was, in fact, the Burns Paiute tribe, she scoffed. “Oh my, my,” she growled, flipping her hair. “Why don’t we all just go back to England in that case? For real. Is there another question?”
Fiore chose to not seek re-election for Nevada Assembly in 2016 and instead attempted to run for Congress (losing in the primary), but she’s still in on the federal public lands conversation, now as a Las Vegas city councilwoman. Fiore has even taken three trips to Washington, D.C recently; on one of those trips, she met and posed for photos with Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke.
That’s interesting because, as of this publication, there are several top positions at the Department of the Interior that remain unfilled. The Department is still seeking confirmed heads of the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — all agencies that Sagebrush Rebels, and now the Bundys, have come into direct conflict with.
While Fiore’s name hasn’t been rumored for the director of the BLM, one Bundy acolyte’s name has: Karen Budd-Falen. She’s an attorney who, in the past, has represented the Bundy family and has made a career of going after the BLM. This February, when one Washington rancher started skirmishing with the feds over a land dispute, Budd-Falen joined his legal team.
Even Zinke seems to espouse similar views on land ownership. He rode to work on his first day as the Secretary of the Interior on horseback, and he has purported himself to be a conservationist in the spirit of Theodore Roosevelt. But Zinke has proven to be anything but. Aside from wearing his ranger hat backwards, charging taxpayers $139,000 for new office doors, and demanding his staff raise a flag when he’s around, his role in Interior, so far, seems to be defined by rolling back any environmental protections established by the Obama administration.
Last year, Zinke — under the direction of President Trump — orchestrated a review of the recently designated national monuments. Though millions of people submitted comments in support of the monuments, Zinke recommended several to shrink — including one right in the Bundy’s backyard: Gold Butte. And another, Bears Ears, in Southern Utah, was chosen for the chopping block — rolling it back by 85 percent. According to a recent report in the New York Times, the roll-back was orchestrated in part due to concerns over oil and gas reserves.
When Zinke visited Bears Ears, he was met by Cassandra Begay, a liaison to local tribes who has fought for the area to gain federal protection for years. Wearing a T-shirt that read “Protect Bears Ears,” she filmed Zinke as he got out of his vehicle.
“Zinke! Is there a reason you’re not listening to tribal leaders?” she called to him as he exited the black SUV.
He walked past her without a word.
“When are you going to meet with the tribal leaders? It’s kind of unfair you’ve only met with them for one hour,” she pressed.
“Be nice!” he yelled to her, wheeling around, sticking a finger inches from her face. “Don’t be rude.”
He turned and walked away.
Most people have cast off the Bundys — and anyone who comes to their side — as fringe extremists they don’t need to pay much attention to. But there’s an argument that their ideas are now getting more traction than they ever have
D.C. bigwigs like Roger Stone — an advisor to Trump — have even offered support for the family. During the trial in Nevada, Stone pushed for the president to pardon the Bundys. “I appeal to Donald Trump,” he said on camera. “Pardon these men. Now. Pardon them. You have that unilateral authority.”
And when proceedings ended in a mistrial, even more politicians came to the Bundy family’s side. This April, Ammon Bundy — who’d been the face of the refuge takeover in Oregon, speaking to the media without really saying anything concrete — lectured at the Range Rights and Resource Symposium in Modesto, California. But the day before he took the stage, U.S. Congressman Devin Nunes — a prominent Trump supporter — told the crowd that the media at the event was “here to mock you, make fun of you, call you cowpokes.”
But there, Ammon Bundy showed a willingness to step up his rhetoric. At the podium, he directed his anger right at environmentalists: “What makes environmentalism so deceptive and so dangerous is the fact that its becoming the religion of choice for the global environmental crowd, and it’s especially dangerous because it is not being presented as a religion. To the contrary, it is being presented as science.”
He was quoting directly from an article in a magazine owned by the John Birch Society— that radical-right group.
Environmentalists are “becoming less and less ashamed, or at least more open with it. And that’s that there is no God. That he didn’t create this earth … that humans are just another species that through evolution have advanced intellectually and become a superior species,” he said. “They are an enemy to humans.”
Environmentalists are the enemies of humanity. Which means, the Bundys see themselves as saving the rest of us.
It’s one more way they’re wrapping an extremist ideology in a hero myth, then trying to scare the people who don’t agree with them into following along.
The Bundys and their supporters are now framing their enemies as religious extremists, painting environmentalism as the worshipping of a false god. That is the same tactic used by fundamentalist religious groups like the Islamic State.
Like them, they get people to take up arms in their name.
Like them, they paint their enemies as enemies of the one true god.
And like them, they recruit the disenfranchised, giving them a target for their anger.
When Victor and Annette Fuentes purchased 40 acres of green land surrounded on all sides by the Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Amargosa Valley in 2006, they thought they’d found heaven. In the middle of the desert, where there’s an average of roughly four inches of rainfall each year, they saw a pool of water glimmering in the sun. A stream ran behind the cabins. Ducks waded in the water.
The seller was asking for a lot of money for the property, and the Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the refuge, had already made a lowball offer. But when the Fuentes family told one of the elderly congregants from their church in Las Vegas about the place, she offered to buy it for them. This place was special. People who wanted to find God could do that there — far from the lights and the smoke and the temptations of the city. She gave them $500,000.
The couple runs Ministerio Roca Solida, a church back in the city, but they wanted to extend their ministry to people struggling with addiction.
“I just fell in love with it,” Annette says.
“Where in the desert are you going to find a place with water running through? That’s gold,” Victor says.
They named the camp Patch of Heaven.
Just a few miles from the California border, in Nye County, not far from Death Valley, Victor and Annette are walking through the bottom of that stream in what is now a sun-bleached crevasse. A pastor who fled Cuba 26 years ago, he wears a baseball hat that reads, I ❤ Jesus. Annette follows in a baggy sweater and tall boots, gold hoops in her ears. They show us how the waters where Victor used to baptize people turned to dust years ago.
“It was beautiful,” Victor says. “All this was green.”
The earth is a spiderweb of cracks. It’s almost hard to believe any water was ever here. But the Fuenteses say that in 2010, Fish and Wildlife diverted all of Patch of Heaven’s water, redirecting it toward the refuge. Ultimately, they claim the diversion unleashed floods that resulted in $86,000 worth of damage to their property. And without the water, people stopped wanting to come to the camp — so the business tanked, too. (Fish and Wildlife declined my request for comment.) The case has now been tied up in federal court for several years.
Annette tells me that when they bought Patch of Heaven, which came with vested water rights, they made a promise to the seller — one that last owner swore to keep, too. The man the Fuenteses purchased the camp from bought it from former Nye County Commissioner Dick Carver. Remember, that’s the guy who bulldozed those trees back in the 1990s as Cliven cheered him on.
Carver had agreed to sell the camp only as long as the buyer “promised never to sell it to Fish and Wildlife,” Annette says.
When the couple lost their water, they said they did everything they could to get it back. But nothing changed. As they saw their land dry up and change into a place they didn’t recognize, they found sympathy from one Nevada couple: Cliven and Carol Bundy. Annette read about their fight with the government in a local newspaper.
“I called them,” Annette says. “I said, ‘This is what’s going on with me, can you help me? Do you have any advice for me?’” Cliven told her to go to her local sheriff for help. But he also warned her.
“Cliven told me, ‘You know, you can’t win when you’re in their courts. Their judges, their courts, their rules,’” Annette recalls.
Nevertheless, that’s what Victor and Annette have done. They claim the government’s illegal taking of their water violated their Fifth Amendment rights and infringed on their religious freedom.
I heard about Patch of Heaven in early 2018 from both Patriot supporters of the Bundys and also from people who despise them. With the trials over, suddenly, Bundy followers began acting like investigators of any potential government wrongdoing elsewhere. They came to Patch of Heaven, to the middle of the desert, to hear about the Fuentes story. And the Bundys came, too. In one livestream from the camp, Cliven shuffled to front of the camp chapel, took the microphone, and shared a prayer. In mid-April, Ryan Bundy came to the camp to talk about his run for governor.
It seemed like this could be the movement’s next stand.
The Fuenteses, unlike the Bundys, have been obeying the law. And it seems like their grievances with Fish and Wildlife are valid. A 2016 federal court saw validity in their complaint and denied the prosecutors’ motion to dismiss the case altogether. The Nye county commissioner and sheriff have both written to the White House to bring President Trump’s attention to the case.
But they say that’s all they can do. Sit here and wait.
“I never thought I would be going through this here in America, in a country that claimed to be free, where the people are free, where the government respects the law,” Victor says. “I’m to the point right now where I don’t know what to do. I know if I do something stupid, I’m going to look bad. And the government — they’re going to smell like roses.”
I ask him what he means.
“Just like take a gun and do something stupid like everybody else has done,” he says, his voice rising.
“No, no, no,” Annette tries to break in. “Wait a minute. Rephrase that.”
“I don’t want to rephrase nothing! That is the truth!” he shouts. “That is what people do in communist countries to take their government out.
“Did that come to my mind? Yes. I would be a liar if I said otherwise. Is that what I’m going to do? No. That would be stupid,” he says. “When you knock every door, every governmental department, and they steal your water, flooding you out, destroying your property and taking over your right. Do you let them continue doing it?
“The only thing that has stopped me is my faith in Christ Jesus,” Victor continues. “I told everybody that come here, ‘We are going to do it in the right way. Even when we are frustrated.’”
Annette raises her voice now. “We are doing it in the right way!” she says. “Where are we getting?! Tell me that!”
“If I pull one little gun, I will be gone right on the spot. We are not going to let the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to be thrown on the floor,” Victor says. “I’m willing to take the punishment.
“He went to the cross. I’m willing to.”
And there it is again: belief.
It is on this point that the Fuenteses differ from Cliven and Carol Bundy and their sons. Where the Bundys have formulated an anti-government ideology that is grounded in an off-brand replica of Mormonism, Victor Fuentes has a perspective they lack. A perspective that the Bundys’ own privilege has made them blind to.
It seemed like this could be the movement’s next stand.
Victor talks about feeling the grip of corrupt government in Cuba for the first two decades of his life. And he fled from it — literally swam away from it.
The Bundys say their belief in God has forced them to take action against the federal government; Victor says it is his belief in God that has restrained him. But it’s easy to see that’s something that maybe even his own wife can’t comprehend.
“The Bundys stood for their rights. They were locked up for two years! My God!” Annette says, big tears rolling down her cheeks. “This should enrage people! Two years of their life — gone. For what? Because you have a government that wants to control everything?”
It’s hard not to listen to them and wonder what options they would consider if they didn’t already own the land outright. If they depended on it for their income. Or if they didn’t already have a place to live in a nearby town, or place to preach in Las Vegas. If, like many people who live in the rural West, the whim of the federal government would force them to move on. Change. Leave Heaven behind.
And when we ask about if they considered the Bundy way — to take what they say belongs to them by brute force — Victor insists everything must be done legally. Annette is quiet.
“Even with the problems we have,” he says. “This is the best democracy in the world.”
I need to talk to the Bundys face-to-face. I have so many questions I’d still never heard anyone ask. Were other reporters still trying to get answers out of the Bundys, or had they just given up — moved on from the story?
Of course people all around the world know about the Bundys. But I get the sense from folks in Oregon and in Nevada that they think Americans far from here — on the other side of the country, where decisions about life are actually made — didn’t pay close enough attention to what happened at Bundy Ranch and Malheur. That maybe if they had, no one would have been surprised by the 2016 presidential election.
“I actually think that the Bundys were a precursor to Donald Trump,” Annette Magnus tells me one day in her office in Las Vegas. Magnus is the executive director of Battle Born Progress, a progressive political advocacy group — and she says the power behind Trump’s “Make America Great Again” message was on display here far before it played out on the national stage. The Bundys were spouting Trumpisms before even Trump did.
“This notion that the white man has been wronged in this country,” she says. “We have a man sitting in the president’s office and is frankly saying the same things.
“I think if media had paid more attention and taken it more seriously … maybe we wouldn’t be in quite this situation,” she says. “People here in Nevada felt it coming.”
I made multiple requests to talk to Cliven through his attorney while he was in jail, and after he was released, I left messages for him at the ranch, sent emails and Facebook messages. I asked his biographer to make an introduction. One day I called the Bundys, and their voicemail was full.
Ryan Bundy, on the other hand — he said he would talk.
The first time we spoke was back in February about the White Horse Prophecy. But we talked about a lot of other things, too: the genesis of his anger toward the government, Dudley Leavitt and Abraham Bundy and Joseph Smith.
But my big question was: What does America look like if the Bundys get what they want? I mean, we all know at this point that they want federal land returned to the states. But say that battle is over. They win. No more courtroom fights, no more publicity stunts. What’s it like to live in the Bundy’s America? What if we were all living in Bundyville?
“Well, the United States government would be small,” Ryan told me over the phone. “Eighty to ninety percent of government can be eliminated.” In his America, people wouldn’t need the federal government to solve problems. “Men are supposed to be able to govern themselves — that’s what liberty is. That if I am free, then I have every right to do whatever I want. Whatever. I. Want.”
He says that last part like he’s stomping his foot. I notice this a lot when I speak to him — that my questions aren’t the thing that rile him up. He works himself up with his own words about freedom and liberty and his spinning-out-of-control theories. I got this sense from talking to him that he wasn’t hearing my questions, but simply looking for ways to repeat the same lines over and over again. I want to know when he learned from his dad about land rights. But he just wants to talk about the Constitution.
He asks me about Article 3.
“When was the last time you read that?” he asks.
“I’ve gotten so many pocket Constitutions from you guys over the years, so I must have read it in the last couple of months,” I joke, trying to lighten this already-tense conversation.
“If you’ve got that many copies, what does article three, clause one, section one state?” he presses.
Ya got me, Ryan Bundy, is what I want to say. But I tell him I don’t know.
“But, why?” he shouts into the telephone. “That’s our most founding document!”
I mean, sure, he’s got a point. (Article 3, Clause 1, Section 1, by the way, has to do with the Supreme Court.) But there’s a difference between how I think about the Constitution and how he thinks of it. Should every American have it memorized, word for word? Maybe, maybe not.
I’ve noticed all the time reporting this story that people tend to talk about Ryan Bundy like he’s some kind of imbecile, as if they can’t get past his facial deformities — the result of his head being run over by a car as a child. But he’s far from stupid. How many other men have bested federal prosecutors twice while representing themselves?
Ryan Bundy can recite the Constitution word-for-word, but those are simply words he has memorized, like the Lord’s Prayer or the Ten Commandments. He interprets our country’s founding document not in the way the rest of our society does, by reading it through the decisions of the Supreme Court and acts of Congress. Instead he dissects its literal framework: scrutinizing the use of capital letters and punctuation. (Sovereign citizens are obsessive about this kind of thing.)
There are smart people around the Bundys, guiding them, showing them the way in the courts.
But the Bundys are clever, too. They’ll often say they’ll do “whatever it takes” to defend their rights. They tell people to stand for liberty by doing “whatever it takes.” This is the slogan for their personal brand: a statement of defiance to cheat the system, then call it truth. They are masters at marketing in their own way, abiding by that old advertising adage: Say it. Say it again. Say it the same way over and over.
It’s easy to “other” them, but the Bundys in many ways are the same as the Americans who Instagram and Facebook and tweet everything they do or say as a way of projecting an image they aspire to. The Bundys, for guys who say they’re so desperate to be left alone, sure are eager for attention.
They’ll often say they’ll do ‘whatever it takes’ to defend their rights. They tell people to stand for liberty by doing ‘whatever it takes.’ This is the slogan for their personal brand: a statement of defiance to cheat the system, then call it truth.
But the danger of “whatever it takes” comes from who they’re saying it to and the fear that they’ll never draw boundaries around what it actually means. If free men decide to pick up guns and speed across the country to help them, to point those arms at the feds — not because they told them to do it, but because that’s what they felt they should do — the Bundys will not stop them or turn them away.
And these are the people who surround them. Men and women — but mostly men — who now wake up in the morning and tuck a miniature Constitution into their shirt pockets as a part of their routine. And by doing this, by wearing this paper badge, it’s as if they see themselves as an elite group of super Americans, here to save the rest of us from our ignorance.
Toward the end of my call with Ryan, I ask if the mistrial was the end of the Bundy story. What’s next?
“What do you think is next? What do you think?” he spits back. “What are you going to do? Are you just here for entertainment?”
I’m doing my job, I say. You know — that whole First Amendment thing, the free press?
“And I appreciate you using it. That’s a good thing,” he recoils, a little surprised at the challenge.
“Are you able to tell the future?” he asks.
“I don’t know what you’re going to do, so — no,” I say.
“Well I don’t know the future either,” he says. “So there’s your answer.”
Three weeks later, he files to run for governor of the state of Nevada.
I get on another plane to Las Vegas.
* * *
It’s late March 2018. I will end my day at Bundy Ranch, but that morning I wake up in Las Vegas in a nonsmoking room that smells like smoke and where the bathtub never fully drains during showers.
My producer, Ryan, and I spend the day drinking coffee, running through one list of questions for Ryan Bundy about his run for governor, and one for Cliven Bundy about everything I’ve found out about him and have never had the chance to ask.
Everywhere we go, we see the slogan “battle born.” On billboards advertising “battle born” personal injury attorneys, “battle born” gastropubs, “battle born” gun stores.
I asked Annette Magnus, of Battle Born Progress, what the heck it meant. “‘Battle Born’ is actually on our state flag. It’s one of our state mottos, and it’s because we were created as a state during the Civil War,” she tells me.
We tell her Ryan Bundy has started using the slogan “Battle Born Bundy” in his governor run.
“Oh that’s precious,” she says. “It’s funny that he’s using that piece of our heritage … because that’s actually how we became a state was giving over that land to the federal government. So he clearly doesn’t understand our history as a state.”
But it doesn’t seem like that would matter much to Bundy. “Battle Born” makes him sound like a fighter.
Even as we’re driving to interview Ryan to talk to him about running for governor, I’m really hoping we get to talk to Cliven, too. When I asked Ryan over the phone if I could talk to his dad, he gave me sort of a “we’ll see” answer. I didn’t press him because I didn’t want to compromise my only chance to talk in person.
By 4:30 p.m., we’re parking in front of Ryan Bundy’s house, and I’m unsure of what we’re walking into. The Bundys are known to surround themselves with burly militia guys with bad tattoos. If we go to the ranch, who will be waiting for us? Even inside his house, who will be there?
Ryan Bundy lives in a forgettable single-story brown house on a busy road, sandwiched between a porta-potty storage lot and a vet clinic. His wife, Angie, bought this house while he was incarcerated in Nevada — moving their eight children here from Cedar City, Utah, to be closer to her husband. In the yard, they’ve got hay bales for sale, and a white van is parked in the driveway. A bumper sticker on the back reads, Bye Bye BLM.
Inside there is no militia. Angie is cooking in the kitchen. The house smells like butter. One of Ryan’s children is wrapped in a furry pastel blanket, sitting in a chair in the wide-open living room. A full-size Constitution is framed over the couch. There’s not a lot of furniture, but I can imagine that when there are eight blond kids in here there probably isn’t space for much else. A sign in the kitchen says a $5 fee will be charged for whining.
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A doe-eyed woman named Denise Mraz is schlepping in some dry cleaning, and she introduces us to Angie, who scrambles away to get Ryan. We stand there awkwardly talking with Denise who says she’s acting as Ryan’s campaign manager. She’s positively dazzled that we’ve come from Oregon for the interview. Little Bundy eyes stare at us from the kitchen.
A few days ago, Denise emailed a stream-of-consciousness list of “talking points” about Ryan: He’s pro-pot, anti-sanctuary city, and thinks abortion should be left up to the states despite his personal views on the matter. “People need to take care of them selves [sic], but the gov is overburdening us,” it reads.
“I’ve been walking around with the hugest smile on my face since he announced he’ll run for governor,” Denise starts to say as Ryan walks in.
He is decked out in his Nevada best — tan cowboy hat, black leather boots and vest, a silver bolo tie in the angular shape of the state of Nevada. He looks nervous.
“Hello, how are you,” he says, with a handshake. “Tell me again, what is the main object of your interview?”
I remind him that I was that voice on the phone a couple of weeks back and the person he’s been emailing. I say we’re doing a series of articles and a podcast on the aftermath of the mistrial, all of the questions and conversations raised by that, and the events at Bundy Ranch and Malheur. And we want to know about the future and his plans for office.
He says OK and tells us to follow him to the ranch, because he wants to do the interview there.
“He’s so sketched out right now,” my producer, Ryan, says when we jump back in our car and start trailing Denise — who drives like a bat out of hell on the roads that takes us to Bunkerville. I agree. For someone who was so confrontational on the phone, it’s strange to see him look nervous.
And it makes me sure Cliven won’t be there.
I’m starting to feel disappointed as we speed past a string of double-wide trailers, past rolling brown hills I recognize from videos of the Bunkerville standoff, where Patriots claimed snipers were watching their every move. I have so many thing I want to ask Cliven about — not to sympathize with him, but just to understand what the world looks like through his eyes.
We turn just before the We The People flagpoles I saw months ago back when I thought I’d pass through this town once and never again.
After a couple of turns up a hill and down a gravelly road into the valley where everything is green and alive on Bundy Ranch, we reach an American flag whipping in the wind.
And up ahead of Denise and Ryan, there’s a blue passenger car.
It takes a right into Bundy Ranch. I feel a knot in my stomach, wondering who else Ryan has called to join in on the interview.
We park next to the house. An orange sign is affixed to the fence: Bundy Ranch: Cattle, Melons & Kids.
Out of the blue car steps the man we’ve really come to talk to.
Cliven Bundy is wearing white-rubber work boots caked in dried mud and an old barn coat. He looks a little skeptical as I stick my hand out for a shake — a little confused as to who we are and why we’re here.
“Hello!” he says.
Ryan Bundy offers to show us around the ranch so Cliven can clean up. “You want me to put something better on?” he asks his son. I tell him there’s no need to get fancy for us.
He smiles. “Come in the house, we can get down to a serious interview.”
* * *
The ranch is smaller than I imagined.
“It’s somewhat of a misconception, people think, ‘Oh this is the Bundys They’re wealthy ranchers. They got the Ponderosa that’s worth millions of dollars,’” Ryan says. “That ain’t the way it is.”
We follow Ryan past a junky trailer and toward a corral where cows lumber away from the fences as we get closer. A baby lamb comes prancing toward him like a puppy, and he lets out a hearty belly laugh — a sound I’m not sure I’ve ever heard from any Bundy, considering I’ve only seen them in the courtroom.
We go into the house through the back door, entering a rickety-looking unfinished addition held together with nails and duct tape. A triangular dinner bell spins in the wind.
Inside, it’s surreal to think that so much chaos could have started right here. It’s an old house with paint-chipped siding and ramshackle additions, where it smells like barbecue sauce has been simmering all day. A soft leather sectional couch fills the living room, and a blanket with cow print is draped over the back. Family photos of the 14 Bundy kids and a photo of a Mormon temple are framed in heavy rustic wood.
Cliven is now in a clean plaid shirt, and he’s splashed water in his hair, combing it back. He hefts this huge cardboard sign into the room with him. It says, Nevada land, Welcome and Enjoy a Free Land by the People.
We start by asking Ryan about this sudden announcement for office and what inspired him to run.
“When the spirit speaks, it often comes in a still, small voice. Where, you know, it’s more of a feeling, more of a thought. And you just realize what you have to do,” he says. “And it takes a little while to embrace that sometimes.”
“My ways are not political ways. I really don’t want to be there,” he says. I don’t ask about his two previous runs for office because I’m afraid to derail the interview this early on; I have pages of questions to ask.
“I cannot see anyone who I can trust with protecting my rights,” he continues.
What does he want to get done in his first 100 days?
“Oh,” he chuckles, and Denise giggles too. “We’re gettin’ a little in the weeds,” Ryan says. “I’d better abstain from answering that yet.”
Does he want to talk about the issues at the center of the campaign? He seems reluctant — talking instead about all the men he met in jail being denied a right to a speedy trial. But I’m still unclear how that applies to him being governor.
Cliven’s listening patiently to his son from the corner of the room, so I ask if they would mind if we ask him some questions, too. Really, we’re here to talk to Cliven, but his son’s run for governor is our excuse to get into the ranch.
Even Ryan looks relieved that I asked.
* * *
“You probably heard me say, I have a fifteen-second defense. Well, my defense is, I graze my cattle only on Clark County, Nevada, land,” Cliven starts to say.
I ask him about growing up in Bunkerville — being a kid in this house, on this ranch. What he learned about land and cows from his dad, David. About what this big sign standing in the corner of the room means.
“I went to public school. And there we were sort of indoctrinated into the fact that this land belongs to everybody. It’s a federal land. Everybody owns it,” he says. Back then, the Bureau of Land Management was still in its infancy.
He explains that people in Bunkerville called the BLM the “Taylor Grazing people,” referring to the 1934 law that established a permitting system for ranchers on public lands. Before the BLM was around, he said, ranchers paid a fee, and that got them something — new water tanks, fencing. “They was never a landlord or owner or steward,” he says. “That was never part of the concept of the Taylor Grazing Act. Never was.”
Cliven seems to take issue with this idea of getting something for his money, that the Taylor Grazing Act helped ranchers. He says the BLM, in balancing a variety of uses and interests on the land, was acting against ranchers. Ryan butts in.
“You come to realize that they were now trying to manage you out of business rather than provide the service that they were supposed to provide,” he says.
Cliven nods. “And of course this reality never came until about the 1992, ’93. And that’s when the BLM and the environmental community had ‘Cattle Free by ‘’92.’”
The slightly botched slogan he’s referencing actually comes from the radical environmental group Earth First, not the Bureau of Land Management. Ryan cuts him off. “‘No More Moo by ’92.’ You gotta get the rhyme right,” he says.
“‘No More Moo by ‘’92!’” Cliven corrects himself. “‘Cattle free by ’93.’ So anyway, that was sort of their slogan.”
I ask Cliven to talk about what he remembers about nuclear testing when he was a kid — was that what formed some of his distrust of government?
He starts to say yes — that he was in elementary school when they started testing the bombs.
“We’d get off the bus about the time they let the bomb off. And we would witness the flash and then … a few seconds later we’d witness the earthquake,” he says. “And then sometimes we can see the cloud.”
That must have been so painful, so terrifying — to watch so many people in the area get sick. But when he talks about it, his words are tinged with doubt. He keeps saying the word “claim.”
“There have been people here that have died from — claiming, you know. I don’t know. You never know,” he says, stumbling. “They claimed they had downwinder and they died of cancer.”
“There’s several people here in the valley died from cancer,” he says. “I had good friends — two of their sons, they claim they died of cancer.”
I wonder if he’s just pissy that they got money from the feds. But before I can ask him, Ryan presses his father to tell a story about when he worked building roads near the Nevada test site. Cliven settles in to tell the story:
“My job is, when the bomb goes off and then they give me clearance, I’m supposed to grade the road back to where the bomb site is.”
So he’s on the road. The bomb goes off, and he says the earth — in his rearview mirror — starts rippling, reaching his car, undulating up and down like waves in the ocean. And when it stops, he gets the call to go on in.
“And so my orders are to go to ground zero,” he says.
The job takes him all day, going around and around and around. He’s in there until well after midnight, then he goes home. Cliven says that not long after he’s done, a fence crew comes in and puts up signs.
“They put the signs up [that say] you can’t go in there for ten thousand years,” he says, eyes widening.
Ryan Bundy looks at me and my producer to see if we’re getting all this.
“This is the kind of lies the government gives you,” Cliven says. “They didn’t mind sacrificing my life, but then they want to tell the public how terrible, dangerous it is, for a million years.
“I’ve lived through some of those things, witnessed them,” he says.
Later, I ask the Nevada Test Site to confirm this story — the signs and the roadwork done by independent contractors. They write back immediately: “Leah, There are no such signs.” They don’t even sign the email.
Following up, they add that they never hired outside contractors to do work on the site.
But the way Cliven tells that story with such conviction, with his son hanging on every word, it’s hard not to believe that it’s true.
Dropping in on the Bundy family, we saw them do what all families do: tell stories they’ve told a thousand times, bending the details here and there to get new laughs. But it’s just that the Bundy family stories are filled with desperation and the constant threat of violence. These aren’t just the stories that they tell reporters, but also each other.
And you can almost start to see how — sitting here in this house that smells like backyard barbecue, on this couch with this wheezy-voiced old man — if you were already pissed off at the government, you’d only want to hear truth in them. How you might fall for this family, their cowboy clothes, the pictures of smiling little kids. How you might turn a blind eye to the people’s lives who were threatened — even lost — after sitting here listening to this grandpa and his boy talk under a photograph of their gleaming white church.
Because that’s the thing with this story that makes it so confusing. Even though the Bundy story is woven from lies and mistruths, there are plenty of moments where the government really has screwed up — playing directly into the hands of the Bundy clan. Like the way prosecutors failed to disclose evidence in the Nevada trial that would have made the Bundys look better in the eyes of the jury.
Or when defense attorneys during the Oregon trial unearthed the presence of nine government informants at the Malheur occupation — including one guy named Fabio Minoggio. That’s his real name. His alias? John Killman.
In the courtroom, attorneys showed video of Minoggio/Killman overseeing a firearms training exercise at the refuge, where he led a dozen or so men in firing rifles into a lake on the property. Earlier in the trial, prosecutors spent a whole day telling the jury about every single bullet the FBI picked up at the refuge. But, those were bullets shot off at the instruction of their own guy. After the trial, defense attorneys said it was Minoggio who potentially flipped the trial in favor of the Bundys.
And there’s more. When LaVoy Finicum was killed in Oregon, one member of the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team (HRT) is accused of lying about shooting at him. Special Agent Joseph Astarita will stand trial later this summer for felony charges that include obstruction and false statements. During an interview with a supervisor after the shooting, when asked if he shot his gun, Astarita is said to have responded: “You don’t got to ask me that, bro.”
Ryan Bundy claims that one of Astarita’s bullets is lodged in his upper arm — and X-rays have shown that there’s a half-inch hunk of something in there. During his stay in jail, he refused to let doctors remove the it.
“You do realize that they wanted to kill me too?” Ryan asks as we sit there on the couch. “They put several bullets into the truck, triangulated to kill me where I was sitting. The problem was I had moved positions and therefore their bullets missed except for one.”
He massages his shoulder as he says it.
“Someday, I’ll need it as the evidence. So I’ve been holding it,” he says. “The government is currently trying to get it from me, but they don’t have any right to enter my body and to take something that’s within me.”
It starts to look like the government opened the door to every mess with the Bundys. And that they thought the trials would get their truth out there. But instead, it handed the keys to the truth over to the Bundys — and they’ve driven off with it.
The people flocking to the Bundy’s side are sympathetic with this part of their story — the part that has to do with being irrationally angry at the government. The fact that HRT was there when Finicum was shot — that plays right into their conspiracy theories. HRT was who shot Vicki Weaver in the head at Ruby Ridge in 1992, and they were who was on the ground at Waco in 1993, too.
“They wanted us dead either by below the gun or behind steel doors. And that is, more or less, what they did to the people in Waco,” Ryan says.
That should sound seriously insane to rational people — this idea that you are being personally targeted by the government, on some secret list kept inside a drawer at a BLM field office. But to people who see trickery and deception in everything the government does, the Bundys are the protectors of the truth.
‘They wanted us dead either by below the gun or behind steel doors. And that is, more or less, what they did to the people in Waco,’ Ryan says.
As we’re sitting there, one of Cliven’s grandsons who’s been playing outside in the front yard runs into the room and pulls himself up onto his grandfather’s lap. He’s all pink cheeks and blond hair.
“How many grandkids do you have?” I ask.
“Sixty-five,” Cliven says. Carol, his wife, pipes up from the other side of the room. “Sixty-six,” she says. “With three on their way.”
Cliven gathers up the little toddler’s legs and folds him up into his arms, hugging him tight.
“You look at this little guy right here. You have any idea how happy he is to be a rancher’s son?” he asks me. “Be able to be with grandpa and help grandpa on the ranch?”
If this is a ploy for pity, it’s a little tough for me to buy it. Everything I’ve found in two years of reporting points to one narrative: This family broke itself by breaking the law, then acted surprised when they spent time in jail. The oppression that Cliven has woven into his own personal myth is … just fake. This is a family that doesn’t like the way society changed. The Bundys simply refused to follow along.
But I can’t help but look at this little boy and see that he doesn’t yet know that sometimes, in this world, even the bad guys win. That villains write themselves as the heroes in their own stories, and in the West, those stories have been repeated again and again and again until they seem like truth. Butch Cassidy was a train robber. Wild Bill Hickock was a vigilante. D.B. Cooper was a hijacker.
By the time this little boy grows up, Cliven Bundy won’t just be a hero. He’ll be a legend.
* * *
We talk at Bundy Ranch for two and a half hours — about Dick Carver, and about the “stage” that Nye County has become, in Cliven’s words, for the state’s rights movement. About FLPMA, the Sagebrush Rebellion, and the desert tortoise. The way Cliven describes all of those things — it makes sense why he looked so comfortable onstage at Bunkerville and at the sheriff’s office after he was released from jail, bullhorn in hand. He’s an activist.
The sun sets outside, and the light in the living room changes from warm to manufactured. Cliven starts blinking heavy like an old cat, and I figure we’re done here — but then Cliven asks if I’ve ever seen the Nay Book.
“I wanted to ask you about that,” I say to Cliven. “So what was the answer Keith Nay found? What is the duty of a member of the Lord’s church to protect the Constitution?”
Cliven chuckles — a little surprised. And he says that’s a question for Ryan and disappears into the other room to get a copy for me to thumb through.
The Nay Book Cliven hands me has a different cover than the one I got from Melissa Laughter months ago. Instead of an image of Betsy Ross, it’s got a waving flag and the Pledge of Allegiance on the front.
The first few pages are different, too, and Ryan explains that they’ve added those. While Keith Nay — that LDS rancher up the road from the Bundys who assembled a packet of scriptures that the Bundys then used to justify their actions against the feds — concentrated on searching the scripture and speeches of LDS leaders for patriotic messages, the Bundys saw in the Nay Book an invitation to fuse religion and their radical political ideas together. And this updated Bundy edition of the book starts with Nye County resolutions calling for federal land to be transferred to local control and letters from Cliven pressuring county commissioners to “do whatever it takes.”
Ryan explains that Nay searched for the answer to that question — about the duty of Mormons to uphold the Constitution — and collected potential answers in his book.
“And he’s like, ‘I’m not going to point out the answer. You find yourself. Here it is. It’s all here,’” Ryan says. “He didn’t want his words to influence anything.”
“But anyway,” he says. “I took the liberty of answering it.”
Ryan directs me to look at the last page of the book. At the bottom of the page is a footnote I can’t believe I missed before. “This was written by and is the educated opinion of Ryan Bundy,” it says. “Approved by Marilyn Nay February 5, 2015.”
It’s about the 12th Article of Faith.
The Articles of Faith are foundational beliefs of the LDS church — and the 12th one has to do with government.
It reads: “We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.”
He says the answer to Keith Nay’s question — it’s right there in the 12th Article of Faith. Ryan cracked the code. The key to everything relies, he says, on that little word “in,” he says — the two-letter word that falls between magistrates and obeying.
In his view, the 12th Article of Faith actually places the government — those “kings, presidents, rulers and magistrates” — “on notice,” he says, “that we will be subject to them voluntarily only so long as they are protecting our rights as we have laid out in the law that we have given to them.”
“But when such laws are made that begin to violate our rights, our privileges and freedoms,” he continues, “we are under no obligation to be subject to them or to the laws that are in violation. That is the summation of the book.”
Cliven looks on, proud. Here’s his boy, taking the reins of the family business. The business of rebellion. And I’m sort of stunned at his arrogance, at his marriage of sovereign citizenry with fringe interpretation of Mormonism.
Where Nay’s book was something of a meditation on Patriotic themes in Mormon teaching, the Bundy additions — this post-2014 apocrypha — change the entire document.
Ryan Bundy is saying he found permission from God to disregard government altogether.
Eleven months after Ryan shouted “the West has now been won” at the Bunkerville standoff and nine months before his brother Ammon started scouting Burns as a stage for their next stunt, Ryan Bundy was slicing and dicing this teaching and until he bent it into the only answer he needed to justify what they were about to do.
You can almost picture him staring at these pages, waiting for the letters to part and present his truth.
Ryan Bundy is saying he found permission from God to disregard government altogether.
Later I’ll send this portion of the interview to Kathleen Flake, the professor of Mormon studies at the University of Virginia, to see what she thinks of Ryan’s theory. She says this interpretation “makes nonsense” of the 12th Article of Faith.
“This is a very idiosyncratic reading,” she says. “It is at odds with the Church’s use of the principle, especially in its historical context.
“While the Bundys appear to believe their rights to property are inalienable and the courts are so corrupt there is no basis for appeal, their belief is not grounded in fact — and certainly no facts cognizable by their church government,” Flake says. “Even if it were, their church has — both in this country and others, including nondemocratic ones — submitted to much more restrictive and burdensome laws than those the Bundys are revolting against.”
At the end of our interview, I realize I have now talked to Ryan Bundy for five collective hours. And yet, I still have so much I don’t understand about him and his father. Even when they’ve confirmed everything I’ve found, it still doesn’t click into place.
I’m about to stand up when Denise pipes up with a question: Would Ryan and Cliven be willing to sing us a song?
I’m about to laugh when I realize she’s serious. Cliven looks exhausted, and he says he’ll pass. But Ryan seizes the opportunity. He offers to sing one verse for us of the Nevada state song. “I don’t know if I’ve got it one hundred percent right,” he says. “I used to sing it in my younger days. But anyway.”
He sits up straight:
Home means Nevada.
Home means the hills.
Home means the sage and the pine.
Out by the Truckee, silvery rills,
Out where the sun always shines,
Here is the land which I love the best,
Fairer than all I can see.
Deep in the heart of the golden west,
Home means Nevada to me.
He looks right at me as he sings those last lines, and it feels like a challenge. Or like he’s trying to give us something. A parting gift. Something to remember him by. Or a statement, as if to say, Look, this is the land I alone love the best. Better than you.
Whatever it is, I can’t remember ever hearing about a candidate for governor who didn’t want to talk about his platform to journalists but did ask to sing them a song.
As we stand up to go, shake hands, walk out of Bundy Ranch into the cool desert night, I wonder if journalists who interviewed David Koresh knew that they were talking to the leader of a doomsday cult. Did reporters at Waco know when they pointed a camera at Timothy McVeigh — then just a guy there to watch the siege — what he was capable of? Or Jerad and Amanda Miller — the couple who murdered two police officers in Las Vegas. Did the media who interviewed them at Bundy Ranch take them seriously when they said they’d learn the language of violence?
Did they try to get people far beyond the West to see this family, this movement, as something more than just gun-toting hillbillies in the middle of the desert?
And I wonder if any of those reporters bent over backward to find good in their words. To find a kernel of humanity and some truth in order to cling to the belief that within every bad person is a good one, waiting for a hand to show them the way out.
Or if they figured it out much earlier than I did — that truth is a thing that doesn’t exist in the mouths of zealots.
Before we leave Nevada, we drive by Bundy Ranch one more time on our way to Gold Butte National Monument. There are ancient petroglyphs out there. People come from all over to stare at them and try to figure out their meaning.
When we finally get out of the car inside the monument to hike across the desert, I have to remind myself that the Bundys actually claim that this land — an hour or more from the ranch — is theirs, too.
We hike into the shadow of these crazy red rocks that jut suddenly out of the desert toward a blue sky. There are cow pies all along the rock edge, where the animals must have come to cool off and feed on the few green plants that are here. And those cows, more than likely, are Bundy cows — way out here, so far from the ranch.
I talked to Fawn Douglas, a member of the Las Vegas band of the Paiute tribe who also teaches American Indian and Indigenous Studies at UNLV, about the 2014 standoff and about when armed men were blocking the way to Gold Butte, how that might have been perceived by people who have far deeper ties to the land than Cliven Bundy.
“Gold Butte is our piece of the Grand Canyon. So you see this golden, red, illuminating area. When you see it its untouched. There are no buildings, no lights,” she tells me. “When you first enter it your heart stops because it’s just so incredibly gorgeous.
“That landscape is very much tied to our songs, to our culture. … We have songs that are sung during our ceremonies to help our spirits, help our people, get back to the next realm.
“For any part of that scenery to be ruined, to be destroyed, is an atrocity. It’s awful.”
When we’re walking along those rocks, it’s easy to see why local tribes and other Nevadans wanted to see this place protected.
Cow poop isn’t the only Bundy signature here. As my producer, Ryan, and I scour the rock faces for ancient rock art, I can’t believe how hard it is to see those petroglyphs through the haze of names, etched into the its face. Jaden and Jacie and Ed and Gwen. Jay, 2002. Judy + Byron.
Ryan calls me over to another curve of the rock and points to a name: Davy Bundy.
We walk around the backside of the rock, and we find one more — in skinny capital letters, someone has scrawled: BUNDY’S KEEP OUT.
It’s like everywhere there’s a Bundy — in person, in a rock carving — there is a fight waiting to happen. The people who have changed versus the people who refuse to peek out from under the brims of their cowboy hats at the world we’re all trying to make better for everyone — not just ourselves.
You can’t help but wonder about the things that might happen if Native people tried to reclaim the land that is rightfully theirs — up at Malheur, here at Gold Butte. Where the Bundys were able to shake the hands of county sheriffs during the Malheur occupation, just a few months later, the Standing Rock Sioux tribe was blasted with water cannons and rubber bullets as they protested a pipeline running through their land.
Bunkerville and Malheur “were probably one of the most blatant forms of white privilege I’ve ever seen in my life. Because if this was a black or brown person, they probably wouldn’t even been standing there because they would have been dead,” Annette Magnus says. “This notion that somehow the white man has been wronged in this country. They’re playing into that fear mongering, and frankly hate mongering, that’s prevalent among those militia types.”
People have told me again and again for the past two years that I should move on from the Bundy story. Stop pecking around. But being at Gold Butte, seeing the sheer vastness of the area the family claims belongs to them alone or to people who think like they do, you can’t help but see the problem so clearly.
The Bundys’ motivations are complicated: part religion, part trauma, part revenge. But standing out here, I can’t help but think it’s part greed, too.
They see themselves as the saviors of the Constitution, but mostly, they’re just trying to save themselves.
“There was never a large population of ranchers to begin with. Not once, not ever. Especially not in Nevada,” Leisl Carr Childers, the professor who’s written about the Sagebrush Rebellion, told me. “This is so hard to say, but at the national economic level and the global level, if public lands ranching went away tomorrow it would make no impact on the national global economy,” she says. “But locally it would have devastating effects.”
I hear that, and I think the Bundys must feel like there was this life out West they just barely missed out on. A life on the just-settled frontier, where the rules are yet to be made. A place where students are taught in one-room schoolhouses where Bible verses and Constitutional clauses are recited side by side.
The Bundys’ America is a place where laws that help the environment are the work of radicals, where caring for an ancient species or preserving the very earth that contains tribal people’s artifacts, are acts of extremism — is just archaic.
They see themselves as the saviors of the Constitution, but mostly, they’re just trying to save themselves.
They refuse to understand that all of those changes, and all of those laws, were ones created by the people.
We the People.
That song Ryan Bundy sang — I keep thinking about it at the weirdest times lately. When I’m brushing my teeth, when I’m driving on the freeway. It pops in, and I think I’ve finally figured out why.
When he sang it — looking right at me during those final lines — it felt like he was planting a flag in the ground.
All this time I’ve talked to the Bundys I’ve been trying to find one thing — one pearl of great price — that would make me believe them. I still haven’t found it. Because it doesn’t exist.
The Bundys want to convince the world that their patriotic cowboy image is essential to the survival of America. But that’s all a big misdirection.
This isn’t about cows. It isn’t about land. It isn’t about freedom in a way that most people understand.
It’s about the lengths people will go to to create a reality they control.
It’s about recruiting people to a new way of thinking about the world.
Because the Bundys can’t leave America in a covered wagon like their ancestors did before, this is about creating a place where we go backward. Where laws aren’t laws anymore. Where truth loses out to belief. Where fights are solved with guns and the frontier goes on forever.
That’s where the Bundys live.
* * *
Leah Sottile is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Oregon. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Playboy, California Sunday Magazine, Outside, The Atlantic and Vice.