Few people move to desert out of any desire for its peculiar landscape. True, there are those who hope its dry air will alleviate some health problem, yet even they typically install green lawns and shrubs requiring frequent irrigation. There is the prospector expecting to strike riches to squander elsewhere, or the cowboy or shepherd accompanying the herd or the flock, or a refugee or smuggler moving across the opening as a place of the least likelihood of detection or the least resistance in the border. Admittedly, some come to a particular job or to retire. Some come for opportunities of outdoors recreation — proximity to forested mountains or snow-fed rivers rather than the tawny dry ground itself. Almost all, however, have taken flight from something back there — whatever their birthplace or last residence — more than any deep conviction that this horizon embraces their Promised Land. They arrive with boxes and garments, with reminders of conflict or distance. Moreover, they cling to the desert fringe — settling in oasis towns or cities where irrigation water rushes along cement ditches — rather than miles beyond their next neighbor, with only buff surroundings.
My wife and I are no exception.
At the office, I’m asked, Where were you born? What brought you here? Where are your parents? I calculate: few children live within a day’s drive of grandparents, aunts, or uncles. Compared to my birthplace, cemeteries are rare. Nobody admits fleeing family, which is a fact of life. The trout fishing, they say, is unsurpassed. There is salmon. If you have water, you can garden nearly anything to perfection. You can hunt elk in the mountains or various quail in the foothills. You can raft on the river. There’s no rain to speak of, and overcast days are infrequent, excepting the winter.
I explain my reasons were professional. I’m establishing a career and am something of a specialist whose last job was eliminated by sharp, painful budget cutbacks. Here, at least, I have opportunities to advance as a manager, working under a progressive-minded mentor. I accept this move as a shortcut before moving on, to bigger things beyond that horizon. Besides, I’ve promised my wife that somehow we’d relocate to this corner of the nation, a place she fondly remembers from four years of childhood. Following me in this move, she’s distraught to find desert where she anticipated rainforest. In short, both of us suffer dislocation.
Here, then, a rewiring begins. Some of it connects the person to the place. Some of it, the two people to each other. Some of it, the individuals to their dreams.
Horses preserve a way of desert life. Consider rodeo. Agriculture is spelled rancher, not farmer: Even fifteen acres becomes a ranch. There’s great distance nearly anywhere you’d want to go. Religion polarizes into New Age, on one hand, and fundamentalist, on the other, with little in between; this condition is as true within denominations as across the diverse range of religions themselves. There’s a different spectrum of ethnicity to contend with, too — Native-American, Hispanic, and Asian. More, too, than the Eurocentric nationalities and African consciousness he had seen Back East — to say nothing of rearranged economic strata. Within and without. The bum on the corner turns out to be a multi-millionaire who owns a thousand acres. Here cattle are not cows; it’s beef rather than dairy. Federal government agencies are omnipresent: the Bureau of Reclamation manages hydroelectric generation and irrigation; beyond, there are military bases, national forests, tribal reservations, high country meadows, famed parks, Corps of Engineers reservoirs, state-owned sporting grounds, horticultural boards, Extension Service projects. People apply to the Feds when they file for grazing rights or mineral mining stakes supposedly there for the taking. You’ll observe unspoken contradictions, beginning with the right-wing rhetoric common within these federally subsidized communities. As for the Bureau of Reclamation: how dare we say we’re reclaiming when we’re merely putting our human stamp on a piece of soil by diverting water and planting? Maybe we’re declaiming or proclaiming instead. The Bureau of Indian Affairs appeared even more unsettling. Chiefly …
I am learning. There’s good reason the rattlesnake-infested, corrugated humps encircling the orchard valley are pale brown: they receive none of the snowmelt impounded from late March into July in the high mountains. Agencies release and distribute that water through blazing summer into October. Green agriculture parallels the river and irrigation canals, defying the tough, roasted inclines above, where sagebrush and bunchgrass stroke tawny eternity. In this compass, wind rarely precedes rain. Beyond lucrative strips of orchards, the principal agriculture involves herds or hay; because of irrigation and unfettered sunlight, five mowings a year are common; bales are trucked to dairy cows and pleasure horses on the rainy side of the tall mountains. Desert has few chickens — and no pigs to speak of. Somewhere out there, Basque shepherds elude the heat. Forests begin at the top of high ridges observed fifty miles distant.
In the Far West, most men hunt and fish. Their goal is big game: deer and elk, especially. Big trout and salmon, too. Everything else remains “Back East” or target practice. Its vastness hammers the imagination.
On our journey westward, we notice that Custer National Forest flanks the barren holdings of the Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations. Somehow that summarizes a Far West polity in what I thought would be a classless society.
For more insights from the American Far West and Kokopelli, click here.