Tag Archives: American West

A Thousand Miles of Bad Roads with No Maps and No Men

As someone who grew up in the desert Southwest, I feel a kinship with anyone who goes for a long desert ramble for no other reason than to enjoy a nice long ramble. Whether by foot or by car, spending time in nature restores and grounds you, and finding your way around wild places requires parts of our minds and senses that we don’t always use back home in the city. This is especially true now that we’ve been spoiled by digital navigation that helps us find the coffee shop down the street.

At Marie Claire, Whitney Joiner narrates her seven demanding days driving through the desert back-country without GPS or cell service. Part of the U.S.’s first all-female endurance rally, where drivers navigate with only topographical maps, Joiner and her teammate went through some of America’s most challenging arid terrain as they competed against seventy other female drivers. This land of sand dunes and rocky ridgelines presented constant challenges, and drivers added their own. (As Joiner described hers: “I live in Brooklyn! I don’t even have a car!”) But the race was about strategy and endurance, designed by a woman racer with women’s strengths and uniqueness in mind. What Joiner found was the terrifying, exultant beauty of the desert.

Every night, when the scores for the day were posted, we’d land in the bottom four. But wethought we were champions.

All week, the experienced competitors were itching for the final day, when we’d be competing in sand dunes—notoriously difficult to navigate. We woke up that last morning in California’s Imperial Sand Dunes (where Return of the Jedi was partially filmed) to a blazing sun, a high in the 90s, and a range of shimmering white sand mountains towering over base camp.

I didn’t feel particularly ambitious about the dunes, but Jaclyn wanted to attempt some final point-collecting. We caravanned with a few competitors, helping each other find the safest routes, then ate lunch around a green checkpoint, sitting in the shade cast by our vehicles. It was our last green of the rally.

But when I stood up, I saw the top of a blue flag in the recess of a group of dunes to the south. I nudged Jaclyn: “Let’s try it.”

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And How Much of These Hills Is Gold

Illustration by Kjell Reigstad

C Pam Zhang | The Missouri Review | Spring 2017 | 17 minutes (4,793 words)

This short story first appeared in The Missouri Review, the quarterly print journal produced at the University of Missouri since 1978. In a frontier Western mining town, the children of two Chinese miners struggle to survive on their own. It’s the first chapter of an in-progress novel. Our thanks to C Pam Zhang and the TMR staff for allowing us to reprint it at Longreads.

* * *

Ba dies in the night, prompting them to seek two silver dollars.

Sam’s tapping an angry beat come morning but Lucy, before they leave, feels a need to speak. Silence weighs hard on her, pushes till she gives way. Leaking apologies or Ha ha has.

“Sorry,” she says now to Ba in his bed. The sheet that tucks him is the only clean stretch in this dim and crusty room, every surface sticky with tobacco spit. Ba didn’t heed the mess while living and in death his mean squint goes right past it. Past Lucy. Straight to Sam. Sam the favorite, round bundle of impatience tapping at the door in too-big boots. Sam clung to Ba’s every word and now won’t even meet the man’s gaze. That’s when it hits Lucy: Ba really is gone.

She digs a toe into the dirt floor, rooting for better words. Words to make them listen. To spread benediction over years’ worth of hurt. Dust hangs ghostly in the air, no wind to stir it.

Something prods her spine.

“Pow,” Sam says. Ten to Lucy’s twelve, wood to her water as Ma liked to say, Sam is nonetheless shorter by a full foot. Looks young, deceptively soft. “Too slow. You’re dead.” Sam cocks fingers back from pudgy fists and blows on the muzzle of an imaginary gun. The way Ba used to. Proper way to do things, Ba said, and when Lucy said Teacher Lee said these new guns didn’t clog and didn’t need blowing, Ba judged the proper way was to slap her. Stars burst behind her eyes, a flint of pain sharp in her nose.

Lucy’s nose never did grow back straight. She thumbs it, thinking. Proper way, Ba said, was to let it heal itself. When he looked at Lucy’s face after the bloom of bruise faded, he nodded right quick. Like he planned it all along. Proper that you should have something to rememory you for sassing.

There’s dirt on Sam’s face, sure, and gunpowder rubbed on to look (Sam thinks) like Injun warpaint, but beneath it all, Sam’s face is unblemished.

Just this once, because Ba’s big muck-shovel hands are helpless and stiff under the blanket—and maybe she is good, is smart, thinks in some part of her that riling Ba might make him stand and swing at her jaw—Lucy does what she never does. She cocks her hands, points her fingers. Prods Sam in the chin, at the join where Injun paint gives way to baby fat.

“Pow yourself,” Lucy says. She pushes Sam like an outlaw into the street. Read more…

Loving the Difficult Places

The Kalmiopsis will probably never provide the kind of blissful recreational experiences portrayed in outdoor-equipment catalogs. Zach Collier, a river guide who occasionally runs trips on the Illinois and the Chetco, told me that he grills his prospective clients. “When people call me to book it, I actively try to talk them out of it,” he says. “It’s physically demanding and not much fun.”

But Peter Landres, an ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service and an expert in wilderness studies, says the very difficulty of visiting the Kalmiopsis helps it fulfill the more abstract needs that Zahniser described. “It’s exactly what we need in the age of the Anthropocene,” Landres says. “We can feel we’re a small part of this larger universe. That reinforces the feelings of humility and restraint,” feelings, he says, we need now more than ever.

The Kalmiopsis is also a superlative example of wilderness’ role as an ecological safe harbor. “Wilderness is the best place and maybe the only place that evolution can go on its merry way,” Landres says. As the climate changes, disrupting ecosystems along with it, those pockets of intact landscape where non-human life can adapt are increasingly precious. The Kalmiopsis, he says, is a perfect example of such a place. It’s rare to find a swath of low-lying hills as intact and protected as these among the alpine and desert areas that make up most legally designated wilderness areas. And the region’s plant diversity is off the charts.

In High Country News, editor Kate Schimel narrates her grueling trek into Oregon’s Kalmiopsis Wilderness with the people who voluntarily clear its impenetrable trails and swim its clear creeks, showing why America needs road-free, undeveloped areas just like it. Schimel’s piece is a love letter to the demanding places that don’t easily share themselves with us, and that many of us find ourselves inexplicably drawn to anyway.

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Wild Country: Remembering Edward Abbey

The author and environmental activist Edward Abbey, who passed away in 1989, would have been 88 today. Abbey—who Larry McMurtry dubbed “the Thoreau of the American West”—was known for his searing love of wilderness, particularly the deserts of the Southwest, and his progressive views. An excerpt from Desert Solitaire, his most famous non-fiction work, can be found here.

According to the historian Douglas Brinkley, “Abbey’s motto came from Walt Whitman—’resist much, obey little’–and he was delighted that everyone from the FBI to the Sierra Club derided him as a ‘Desert Anarchist.'” Below is an excerpt from a 2004 Outside magazine piece titled “Chasing Abbey,” written by Abbey’s close friend and fellow author and outdoorsman Doug Peacock:

By the time Ed died at age 62, he was renowned, the author of 20 books, including Desert Solitaire and The Monkey Wrench Gang, whose protagonist, George Washington Hayduke, was a former Green Beret medic who greatly resembled myself. Published in 1975, The Monkey Wrench Gang sold half a million copies, and the character of Hayduke became famous in a lowbrow sort of way. This was hardly an endorsement of excellence, nor was it flattery of any kind; Hayduke was a one-dimensional dolt. To the extent that I was seduced by the hype, it placed enormous strain on my friendship with Ed, which from the start carried the imbalance of paternalism.

I met Ed in the winter of 1969 at the home of a mutual friend, the writer William Eastlake; we talked about mountain lions. He was very funny, yet there was a stubborn finality to his judgments, which tended to be misanthropic toward adults and gentle toward children. Like myself, Ed had little use for religion of any variety, but he nevertheless believed there were observable guidelines for living, an accessible wisdom that resided in the land. He called the Taoist philosopher Chuang-tzu — who viewed government as deadly not only to mankind but all of creation — the first anarchist.

It was the love of wild country, and the need to protect it, that brought us together and kept us together through the two bumpy decades of our friendship. Ed, who was 15 years older, became a guide in my life, introducing me to some of America’s greatest desert spots, and I tried to return the favor. After I began to closely study the biology and sociology of grizzly bears in the midseventies, Ed and I made many trips to Glacier National Park in the hope that he would spot a bear. He traveled to Alaska and the Arctic but was fated never to lay eyes on one. To the end, Ed called the silver-tipped bear “the alleged grizzly.”

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