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About the Author
Michael Checchio is the author of A Clean, Well-Lighted Stream, a collection of fly-fishing essays, Sundown Legends, a book about the American desert Southwest, and Mist on the River: An Angler's Quest for Steelhead. His sporting essays have appeared in Gray's Sporting Journal, Fly Rod&Reel, Trout, Flyfisher, and California Fly Fisher. He lives in San Francisco.
Read an Excerpt
A Journey into the American Southwest
By Michael Checchio
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2000 Michael Checchio
All rights reserved.
Into the Light
I HAD BEEN studying the maps all winter. Reading the names on the printed page and responding to their power and mystery: Cape Royal, Dirty Devil River, the Maze, Shiprock, Hovenweep, Canyon del Muerto, Moenkopi, Keet Seel, Desolation Canyon, Dead Horse Point. I savored those names in my mind. They had deep meaning and a mythic association.
I had cabin fever, if one can be said to have cabin fever in San Francisco. I needed to get out of town. Needed to sort out my camping gear and get back to nature—whatever that means. Experience some of the freshness and cleanliness of the physical world. Maybe I could swing a trip to the Grand Canyon and Utah. See Navajoland again. Fish for trout in New Mexico, a state I had never visited, despite the fact that two of my sisters were now living there. The weather would probably be at its best in late May and early June. The desert flowers would still be in bloom. I would get to see the Maze and the Land of Standing Rocks again. Fly-fish in the San Juan River. Visit the Waterpocket Fold and the Grand Staircase. Maybe even get up to Mesa Verde in Colorado. Camp out, hike, explore. Maybe buy a day's glimpse back into Eden. Experience the original, lost conditions.
My goal, my general destination, was the Colorado Plateau, the famous redrock region that lies between the Rocky Mountains and the Mojave and Great Basin deserts. That was the heart of the American Southwest, I felt, that fantastic land formed by the Colorado River and its tributaries. I wanted to see those rivers again, flowing like golden taffy down in their desiccated canyons. It had been a while since I was last out there, but I had never forgotten those salmon pink tablelands and azure skies filled with ravens.
I can't say for sure exactly what I meant to find on my road trip. Perhaps travel down that ancient corridor, back into a world that had made us what we are today. Discover levels of myself that were deeper than the ordinary self.
Fashionable male therapy has it that we might begin to cure our psychic ills if only we can find a way to reconnect to the primitive man within. Now, I wasn't about to give up my morning copy of the New York Times or any of the other amenities of civilization. But I think I know what the drum beaters were getting at. Modern man needed to be restored to his original self. I needed restoration, too.
ON THE FIRST OF JUNE, the morning of my departure, I rented a Chevy Blazer, and the rental agent made a very big deal about warning me not to take it off the paved road. Now, there was a rule not likely to be obeyed. What did these fools think four-wheel drive had been invented for? I was heading for the end of the pavement. I needed an off-road escape vehicle to take me where I wanted to go in an up-and-down landscape of mountains, high deserts, and canyons. I didn't much like the Chevy Blazer. You didn't drive it—it drove you. Everything was automated—you couldn't crack open a window without having to switch on the power. What would happen if I rolled the car down an embankment, into a river, and the water shorted out the electrical system and I couldn't open the window to escape? I wanted to ask the rental agent what I should do in such an emergency, but I thought it best not to tip him off to my intentions. Didn't want him getting suspicious and canceling the rental agreement. What he didn't know wouldn't hurt him. Normally, I don't approve of SUVs, which are more like armored personnel carriers than cars, and totally unnecessary on paved roads. But I was going to need the Blazer's low gears and high-suspension clearance. And unless I did something very foolish, like demolish the undercarriage on a Jeep trail blazed by a uranium miner, the rental agency folks would be none the wiser. The truth is, I don't much like cars. Haven't washed one since I was a teenager. All I ask is that a car be reliable. And I knew my eleven-year-old Honda Civic, my faithful city car, wasn't suitable for going off-road in canyon country.
I packed my camping gear into the Blazer, and in the late morning of June 1, 1998, laden with enough provisions to last a month, I headed off alone for the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.
The Mojave, the Big Nowhere, America's driest and most boring desert, at least the part that is seen from the highway, began to show itself east of the Central Valley hub town of Bakersfield. I hate driving in the Central Valley. It is the dullest and least cheerful thing there is about California. Driving the length of the Central Valley is a sentence in purgatory. You feel as if the valley will never run out. Only man could create a landscape this dismal and depressing. Once a beautiful savanna filled with native grasses, it was now all mechanized farms, the world's largest industrial park, a terrain completely altered and wholly given over to the service of agribusiness. Where once tule elk and pronghorn antelope grazed the Central Valley in herds, now there were only crop-dusted fields and roads cutting up the checkerboard flatness. The wind scattered dust and pesticides everywhere. You couldn't see the Sierra Nevada for the smog. I drove on an interstate alongside Teamster-driven double-trailer convoys discharging more smudge into the atmosphere. And the waste! Aqueducts and canals evaporating in the heat. Pump pistons banging along the rivers. Snakelike siphons spraying into endless rows of crops. Factory silos and barns the size of blimp hangars rose like mirages off the hot, shimmering rectangles of cropland. Each ag town was more dreary than the last. The only good thing that ever came out of Bakersfield was Merle Haggard. It was terribly hot when I arrived at that god-awful bleak town, as it always is in Bakersfield in summertime, and the heat only got worse after I crossed the Tehachapis.
A golden radiance of late afternoon fell on the Tehachapi Mountains. But I had no plans to linger in the Mojave. Outside of the desert town of Barstow, I joined the Southern California traffic stream bound for Las Vegas. Although I was doing eighty, other drivers were hurtling past, in a rush to lose their money. Why does everyone in America seem to want to go to Vegas? The sun began to set behind me in a brilliant band of light. Sable shadows stretched across the sands of the Mojave until all the shadows finally combined to darken the desert world and turn it into night. Ahead was emptiness and a lonely pitch-blackness. And then in the distance, unimaginably far away, a tiny glint appeared on the black desert. A tray of jewelry on black velvet. Stateline, Nevada, a small town with a huge electric bill.
I drove past Stateline—its outsized fun-house casinos garishly lit up by neon—and back into the empty sea of darkness. Casino gambling had created Stateline out of the nothingness of the desert—it was for those sorry Californians too impatient to drive all the way to Vegas. Only the most desperate gambler must wind up in such a bunghole. The blackness continued for a long time. And then another glittering jewel appeared far, far away in the night. This light beckoned, and it just kept growing and growing, getting bigger and bigger, and it wouldn't stop growing, becoming a great vast glitter fire in the desert.
I roared into Las Vegas, a city born out of boredom and desperation. Las Vegas was invented as the antidote to the nation's tedium, but in reality, it had done very little to relieve dull minds. The approach to Vegas was lined with neon commercials, most of them offering free buffets. The casino architecture wasn't so much tasteless as it was a parody of bad taste. New York's skyline was lit up as if for a Broadway revue and an Egyptian pyramid arose before me like something off the set of Aida. One attraction was even disguised as a pirate ship, as if to remind us that nothing so hilarious could possibly be all that bad for us. The streets were full of noise and honk and people trying much too hard to have fun. The inside of a casino is a curiously unjoyous place. You get the feeling that the gamblers would be just as happy if someone hit them on the back of the head with a sap. Gambling might be just another form of entertainment, as its boosters insist, but very few people go out into the parking lot and shoot themselves after seeing a movie. Still, any town created by the likes of Bugsy Siegel can't be viewed entirely as a bad thing. Las Vegas is for people who like to totter on the edge of spectacular failures, and more than a few people have been known to ruin their lives with the special compulsions this town breeds. But it could be argued that some people are just prone to screwing things up anyway, and it is easy to imagine them wrecking their lives even without the added inducements of gambling. I, for one, used to live and work in Atlantic City, and I know how to have a good time in a casino. The trick is to not spend any money and just watch the other people.
I left Las Vegas early the next morning, not wanting to linger in a place where Wayne Newton is considered the most popular entertainer. By rights, Las Vegas shouldn't exist at all. Las Vegas is a miracle in the desert. A million people live in a place that doesn't have its own natural water supply. And more are coming to live here all the time. The secret to its success lies on the other side of those drab desert hills called the Muddy Mountains. There sits the cesspit of Lake Mead, the Colorado River plugged up by Hoover Dam. Las Vegas is already using more than its fair allotment of Colorado River water—water it has to share with the rest of the Southwest, which includes Southern California—and yet it has no plans whatsoever to curb its growth. The funniest thing about Las Vegas is that the city invented by Bugsy Siegel and the mob is now trying to promote itself as a family resort. I thought of all those kids abandoned at the hotel arcades while their parents went off to roll dice or pull the arms on slot machines. Las Vegas seems laughable, quite harmless really, until you realize that the clouds of mustard gas hanging over the basin as smog eventually drift their way over to the Grand Canyon, spoiling the views on some days. Then the idea of Las Vegas becomes a little like Bugsy Siegel himself, criminal and stupid.CHAPTER 2
The Great Abyss
THE DESERT WAS covered with creosote bushes and Joshua trees shaped like slingshots. I was still in the dry and charmless Mojave, but on its northern borderland, between high desert and redrock plateau. I followed the highway out of the monotonous Mojave until I left Nevada, entering Arizona through a redrock corridor that cut its way through the Virgin River Gorge. Now things were getting interesting. The walls of the canyon were reddish and streaked with black desert varnish. Following the river canyon for about forty miles, I managed to cross the extreme northwestern corner of Arizona and pass into Utah. Soon I found myself at St. George, a rapidly growing Mormon retirement community in the redrock desert. A few miles beyond and I was driving through Hurricane, a town that never saw one. Here I turned south onto a narrow road that led back across the Arizona state line again and into the back-country known as the Arizona Strip.
The Arizona Strip had pretty much remained a no-man's-land well into the twentieth century. Although related to Utah geographically and culturally, both Utah and Arizona once laid claim to it. Mormon settlers ranched the area, and their herds of sheep, cattle, and horses grazed on remote meadows near the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Deer herds in the pine forests attracted occasional sportsmen. One sport who kept coming back was President Theodore Roosevelt, who established a federal game reserve there. As statehood was under debate, Sharlot Hall, a historian and chronicler of the Arizona Territory, mounted her own expedition across the Strip. Her lectures and published articles convinced many of the value of the region, and it was included within the borders when Arizona finally became a state in 1912.
And yet it remained remote. When Grand Canyon National Park was finally established in 1919, most of the park's acreage lay on the north side of the canyon. And yet the northern rim remained virtually inaccessible to tourists. Any visitor on the South Rim trying to get to the North Rim by automobile had a perilous passage. The road was bad and automobiles often got stuck. The river crossing at Lees Ferry was tricky. It was better to go around to the west through Nevada. The road was slightly better, and it took only a mere week to ten days to get to the North Rim.
Today, some of that original feeling of remoteness remains. The North Rim of the Grand Canyon is still, as folks like to say, "a long way on a dead-end road." Noise and overcrowding has not yet ruined the good side of the Grand Canyon. Of course, that is changing. Word is getting out.
Immediately upon recrossing the state line, I drove into the tiny Arizona community of Colorado City. This extreme northwestern corner of Arizona, cut off from the rest of the state by the Grand Canyon, was sometimes called the "Mormon Dixie." The flyspeck town of Colorado City was founded in the 1930s by renegade Mormons seeking to carry on their grand tradition of polygamy. Even today, Colorado City, like much of the Arizona Strip, remains one of the nation's last bastions for polygamy. In 1890, facing military and legal threats, such as forfeiture of church property by the federal government, the Mormon Church in Salt Lake City officially abandoned its practice of plural marriage and backed up its order with a threat to excommunicate all polygamists. Many polygamists fled Utah for northwestern Arizona. Beyond the reach of Mormon law in Utah, and cut off from the rest of Arizona by the Grand Canyon, the renegade Mormons thought no authority would touch them, much less care about them. How wrong they were. During much of this century, the dissenters found themselves the victims of raids, roundups, and general harassment. Perhaps the most truly oppressive raid took place in Colorado City in 1953, when authorities arrested 26 men and ordered 253 children placed into foster care. A few of the kids weren't even Mormons, but they were collared anyway in all the confusion. It took years to get the mess straightened out.
I have never understood the prejudice against polygamy in our time. Or rather, I understand it all too clearly but can't justify it. I suspect that one day soon the United States Supreme Court will be forced to revisit its landmark ruling on the subject. The idea of what constitutes a family today has changed radically from what it was when the Supreme Court outlawed polygamy in the late nineteenth century. In that ruling, the high court determined that freedom of religion was not an absolute and did not extend to violations of public morality. But public morality wore a much different mask then than it does today. In our time, when it's common for so many children to be raised by only one parent, it's hard to argue that children with three or more parents are somehow disadvantaged. And anyway, a majority of modern Americans already practice plural marriage, at least serially.
The Arizona Strip is still a great place to hide out. It comprises four huge plateaus—8,400 square miles of wilderness—with only four tiny towns. Imagine a chunk of real estate the size of Delaware, Connecticut, and Rhode Island combined, with only two paved roads. Fewer than four thousand people live on the Arizona Strip. It belongs mostly to us, the public, and is managed largely by federal agencies—namely, the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service, and the National Park Service. With poor roads, it is cut off to the east and the south by the great trench of the Grand Canyon, and to the west by Kanab Canyon. Timber and ranching are mainstays, but there is very little private property. Very little water, too, only a few precious springs, like Pipe Spring on the Kaibab-Paiute Indian Reservation. You can hike the canyons and brave the Jeep trails, but you had better not break down in the back-country. Especially in the badlands west of Kanab Canyon, where there isn't a single paved road. You might not see an-other Jeep for days.
The road to the Grand Canyon wends its way through space and silence. In the western distances, across the vastness of the plateau country, I could make out what I took to be the outlines of the Grand Wash Cliffs. On my immediate left, much closer, was a flaring escarpment of red buttes known as the Vermilion Cliffs. The red-and-pink cliffs seemed to be ignited from within by their own inner light. The Vermilion Cliffs mark the southern edge of the Paria Plateau; they end at Lees Ferry, where the Grand Canyon begins.
Excerpted from Sundown Legends by Michael Checchio. Copyright © 2000 Michael Checchio. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents
1. Into the Light,
2. The Great Abyss,
3. Up on the Rim,
4. Canyon Shangri-la,
5. A Grand Staircase,
6. Sundown Legend,
7. Uncharted Terrain,
8. A Wrinkle in the Earth,
9. Rimrock World,
10. Slickrock Capital,
11. A Walk in the Desert,
12. Indian Country,
13. Breath Spirits,
14. Canyon of Death,
16. Trout Fishing in New Mexico,
17. From the Faraway Nearby,
18. Santa Fake,
19. The Way to Taos,
20. Magical Realism,
21. Spirit Country,
What People are Saying About This
Christopher Camuto, Gray's Sporting Journal
This book is both a celebration and a cautionary tale of an easterner gone west to live, work, and fish himself half to death. Checchio brings more verbal energy and wit to the tour than most.