I meet a young couple in the canyon. A dog in their company tells me more about them than they guess. I see a piÃ±on pine tree alight with fall sunshine. As I exit the canyon, I discover a prying eye. This is another long and the last installment in this series but it isn’t the end of the story.
For late November, Crossfire Creek was running high. Usually, a few flash floods in October knock things around a bit, then bone-dry air siphons the water off into the sky, leaving the creek bed bare except where beavers have gardened two springs to create a year-round water park half a mile long. As I stood on the bank above a pond contained behind one of the lower dams, I turned to see a young couple I didn’t know walking toward me down the trail, my neighbor’s Welsh corgi, “Goliath,” loping ahead. November weather in the Four Corners region sometimes runs to the mild side. The couple wore short-sleeved shirts and were holding hands as they strolled. Seeing the dog, I supposed the pair to be relatives of my neighbors whose house lay east of mine across a city block’s worth of pasture. I greeted them and Goliath.
Upon reflection, I’m tickled at how the couple’s relationship to my neighbors was glaringly obvious to me, not because of any physical resemblance they bore to my neighbors but all because of that small detail of Goliath’s presence. Had he not been there, I’d have supposed nothing about the couple–certainly not their relationship to my neighbors. Stocky but diminutive Goliath is not a wanderer; I’d never seen him in the canyon before that moment. His accompanying the couple was probably a considered choice on his part. After all, the surrounding desert is predator-dense. Plucky as he is, on his own he’d be no match for the coyotes, eagles, bobcats, and the occasional cougar that patrol the desert looking for their next feed. He knows that. He stays pretty close to home performing his duty of keeping my neighbors’ twenty acres in order in company with a mixed breed named Buddy my neighbors acquired two years ago. Buddy came with a sister, Precious, but Precious developed a bad habit of chasing another neighbor’s horses. One day, she took a lethal kick to the head, and that was that.
Seeing Goliath triggered pangs of sadness and envy, not just about Sky’s death. The apparent normalcy and leisure of the scene contrasted with my own life: a young couple, at their ease, loose in the canyon, holding hands as they strolled along, escorted enthusiastically by a dutiful dog. Because of Sky’s chase-and-kill instinct, I couldn’t bring her into the canyon. I missed the companionship of a dog in my wanderings. A dog reveals the landscape in ways you wouldn’t see it were the dog not highlighting with its lively athleticism the surrounding contours. And I hadn’t felt the level of comfort in my married life that I imagined this young couple enjoyed since just before my special needs daughter was born nearly two decades ago.
The couple introduced themselves by way of announcing their relationship to my neighbor–of which fact I was already aware. I told them I knew Goliath and where he lived. “What did you say his name is?” the man asked. “Goliath,” I said. “I would have never guessed,” he said, looking at the squat, compact dog.
The topic being dogs, I told them my own had died just the night before. The woman murmured in sympathy. “How long had you had her?”
“Almost fourteen years,” I said.
“Oh, that’s almost as long as a child,” the woman said, her voice soft.
“It is. In fact, I have a fourteen-year-old daughter,” I said, holding back on expressing my anxieties about her. Too complicated a story. But I appreciated these strangers’ interest in my grief.
We spoke a few more words between us then I went on my way, heading north on the trail and homeward. Goliath started following me but the couple called him back. Just as well. My mind being in the state it was, for simplicity’s sake, I wanted aloneness for the remainder of my walk. I headed up the steep part of the trail that I take to the rim, stopping to sit on a lichen-encrusted stone where I sometimes rest and look back on immature cottonwoods growing along a spring, where also grows, in the summer, wild mint, wild roses, watercress and water grasses, including that ancient, single-stalked plant with telescoping joints, horsetail. Those young cottonwoods had lost all their leaves, but as I looked at them, a piÃ±on pine standing a few feet away caught my eye. The November light silver-plated most of the tree’s needles, almost like an ice storm would do. The low-angled sunshine got into the depths, thinning shade and shadows that usually hang about a tree’s inner branches. So the piÃ±on stood, well-lit in places, clear to its trunk. My light-tuned eye savored the shine. I remembered noticing the tree in this state last year during approximately the same pitch in the sun’s angle and wondered if this is the only time of year this particular tree–along with many others, no doubt–is so transfigured. Interesting to mentally map this tree yet again in its same place but at a different spot in the year.
Then I went on my way, satisfied and somewhat soothed by events as they’d happened, climbing the steep wind of the former ATV trail. I crossed the spring again higher up, just a few feet away from where it plunges off a stone lip and transforms into a thin waterfall whose voice dominates this part of the trail. Then up an even steeper section where last year I found the Pure Life water bottle . As I breasted the last rise before the ground relaxed into a gentle slope, a hard gleam of light from a juniper tree next to the trail caught my eye. Unlike canyon light on the cottonwood leaves, glazing pine needles, glinting on water and hanging about stones, this reflection had a distinctly artificial sheen to it. My mind snagged on it and curiosity sparked. Did I want to know?
Probably, someone had left a pop or beer can jammed into a fork in the tree, or maybe something else. After a moment, I stopped thinking and simply followed my curiosity, approaching the tree cautiously then circling to the side turned away from the trail. It took a moment for my mind to register what my eye saw. A camouflage-printed, latched, plastic case hung on the side of the tree opposite the trail, tipped at such an angle that the afternoon light hit it and cast the plastic glare that my eye detected. Oh, I thought, someone hid their camera here while they went into the canyon. Best not to touch. I don’t know why my mind didn’t accept that explanation and leave well enough alone. My hand seemed to reach of its own accord and lifted the case. A thin twist of wire tethered it to the juniper. When I raised the case, I discovered a cable running from its bottom and up into the tree.
Awareness dawned: This is some kind of monitoring device. I backed out from beneath the branches the way I ducked in and circled back to the trunk’s trail side. Now that I knew what to look for, finding the lens peeking from beneath a stringy, mad wig of juniper bark was easy. I stared at it grimly, looking it straight in its artificial eye. I felt extreme distaste for its presence in a place that for me has become a sanctuary. When I was a child, cameras were a relative rarity. Four decades later, they’ve become prevalent, for good and for ill. The line between “security” and “intrusion” has grown increasingly hazy and is more freely crossed. I have a unique image which I feel more inclined to protect than I do my written words, for various reasons. I had no idea how long this equipment had been planted in the tree or how often I’d passed it, unaware.
The camera contained no “Property of” statements nor any other way to identify the device’s owners, although its location on the trail twenty feet down from the carsonite sign forbidding the use of off-highway vehicles suggests it might be the BLM’s doing. Probably, there was no sound device included, just a lens and video recording equipment. So there was no use lecturing the wired tree. But if the camera had been able to read my mind, its lens would have cracked.
I’ve hiked Crossfire since the notorious September 2007 closure of a seven-mile stretch of the canyon to motorized vehicles. Some months, I’ve gone down as often as three or four times a week. I can say with certainty that at this trailhead violations of the 2007 prohibition have been few and far between. If the BLM had indeed planted the camera (or cameras, since what’s to stop those with a mind to monitor public spaces from installing more devices in rocks and trees) to track offenses, the low and mostly nonexistent number of ATVers who drive vehicles past that point hardly justifies the camera’s constant intrusive presence. There simply haven’t been that many scofflaws interested in making a statement in that way. In the meantime, plenty of foot travelers, like myself, have passed the camera without knowing we were photographed or noticing the tree’s unnatural eye. I may be old-fashioned, but in non-posted environments like this one, I think it impolite verging on violative to collect someone’s picture without his or her knowledge or permission. If the canyon were posted as being under camera surveillance, I’d at least have the freedom to choose whether or not to enter it and have my image collected. In most other public places where cameras collect images for security reasons, their presence is advertised and obvious. Every time I pull up to an ATM, for instance, I’m aware of the prominently visible camera and I consent to having my presence recorded. But here in the canyon, I find the use of a hidden and undeclared camera an obnoxious trespass.
Yet on another level, the sentry tree interested me. It’s another artifact revealing how people have used the canyon for a broad range of reasons stretching back into prehistory. About a mile and a half up canyon along the north branch of the bottom trail is a (to me) fascinating bridge built over an arroyo to help make the crossing safer for ATVers. It’s part of the “improvements” my neighbors made to the canyon that got them into legal hot water with the BLM. Interested parties, some members of the Great Old Broads for Wilderness included, find the bridge another example of heavy-handed human intrusiveness. I wouldn’t have built such a structure myself but now that it’s there I find it something of a delight to come across out in the middle of nowhere. In fact, all over the canyon, scattered across the ground, is a trove of wonder-sparking and telltale artifacts: lithic flakes, pottery sherds, arrowheads, and prehistoric pueblos, fallen down or half-buried. In some places, they’re just sagebrush-feathered lines of rocks running across the ground or depressions marking the remains of subterranean structures. There are more prominent, tumble-down towers and other sorts of rubble mounds all over the place. Flat-rock-lined, subterranean cysts dot the trail here and there. Petroglyphs adorn the rock faces. In a few places, you find modern graffitti carved into the sandstone. Like swallows’ nests, cliff dwellings and masonry fill cracks and wrinkles in cliff faces. Many of these use juniper and pine support beams.
Cattlemen’s barbed wire fences and gates mark off canyon sections. In fact, one of the men who runs a herd of cattle in the canyon recently repaired–I would even say “remodeled”–a barbed-wire gate on his fence line that has been prone to collapsing. He reinforced one of the two gate pillars with a green, metal fence post and strengthened both posts with taller and sturdier juniper logs, cut, I suspect, from dead junipers another man left strewn about the trail after illegally “topping” them for fence posts. The rancher strung taut wires between the two, tall pillars to provide tension and support for the pillar logs and wove a juniper branch into the lintel wires so that horseback riders will know to duck when they pass beneath the wires. It’s kind of grand. Then, of course, there are the cattle themselves, present in Crossfire off and on from about October through May every year. Let’s not forget the beavers, who have completely modified Crossfire Creek’s character, changing it from an ephemeral stream to a series of year-round, dam-reinforced ponds, in the process completely altering the creek’s liquid voice.
I’ve heard rumor of an old trail that Ute Indians stamped into the canyon making visits to my neighbor’s grandfather way back when. Crossfire has old mines in it. There are dozens of other signs of human presence, here-and-now and from long, long ago. In the overall scheme of canyon use–especially since its closure, in the political and ideological struggle for rhetorical control of its ground–the camera was just another artifact of human utility. I might even go so far as to say that, like the contested bridge, the camera is an attempt to “improve” the canyon. But to my taste, it maintains a far more intrusive presence on the trail than does the bridge.
I stood in front of the camera a moment or two, knowing that my discovery of it had become a recorded fact. I waved to the lens to punctuate that record then left, considering the new dilemma finding the contraption had placed me in. Some months back, one of the neighbors who’d been convicted of constructing the trail asked if I thought the canyon had cameras in it. I’d dismissed the idea, believing it over the top. Who would go to such trouble, and for so little gain? Now I had hard evidence that the canyon was indeed wired. What were my obligations to my neighbor and to “the truth”?
Complicating the question were a pair of misunderstandings between myself and my neighbors since the canyon had been closed to OHV travel. Although the Great Old Broads for Wilderness published a victory article announcing their part in documenting the “damage” two of my neighbors had done widening the trail for ATV use, and other groups like SUWA have described their own roles, some neighbors believed I–a recently arrived “outsider”–was responsible for the canyon’s closure. The narrative for what actions gave rise to what results, including the closure, is still emerging, but I had nothing at all to do with the ATV prohibition. It was as big of a surprise to me as it was to my neighbors.
The second misunderstanding was more serious. In the spring of 2011, I discovered that when the BLM began investigating who’d build the ATV trail into the canyon, some community members thought I provided information that led authorities to two of my neighbors, Dustin and Ken. They were arrested in the fall of 2010 for their work on the trail, fined $35,000 in total for destruction of government property, and placed on probation. The Blanding community still feels the burn from Operation Cerberus, the 2009 federal raid that rounded up several locals for violations of antiquities laws and that led, at least indirectly, to the suicide of another of my neighbors, a beloved community member. To this day, the town’s anger still waxes hot. My neighbors’ arrests for their work on the ATV trail made matters worse. I lived blissfully ignorant of the arrests until I asked one of the neighbors involved what was up with the presence in the neighborhood of all the official-looking vehicles. He told me, in somber, cautious, but truthful tones that he and his father-in-law were being prosecuted for building the trail. At the time, I wasn’t conscious of having knowledge that they had built the trail. Later, I remembered conversations with one of them prior to the 2010 investigation that could well have caused them to think that I did. At the next opportunity to speak with one of the men, I asked if he had an idea who’d turned them in. He said he didn’t, and really, he wasn’t interested anymore in knowing. He just wanted the ordeal to be over. I said, “Well, it wasn’t me.” He said something like, “I’ve figured that from the conversations we’ve had about all this.” I told Mark about this interchange, and the next time he saw that neighbor he likewise told him that I had had nothing to do his and his father-in-law’s arrests and convictions. Mark reported that the neighbor said that he knew that now and had told other community members to “lay off”.
Damned camera. As if I didn’t have enough on my mind.
I broke off looking into the prying eye and walked home in mixed mood. I’d been away from the house longer than expected and had to return to tasks waiting there. It was Thanksgiving, and I had a grave to dig in hard ground for a dog who’d lived perhaps too long. While I was at it, I might as well lay to rest in that same plot the remains of fond hopes that life would ever turn smooth and serene. Current developments had burst the seams of those old, constricting desiderata. If I kept trying to force them to fit, they’d only slow me down and eventually choke me into unconsciousness. They’d almost certainly become delusional, and we didn’t need any more delusions in the house. By whatever power, we’d been sent into deep layers of life where there are no guarantees of peace and safety, only the incessant call for prodigious effort.
Hang peace and security anyway. I’ve tasted the lotus blossom of peace. My mind savors it a moment then spits it out in impatience and boredom. As much of a strain as these events have so far proven to be, clearly, they’re only the opening steps of the journey. That’s both unsettling to know and exciting. Getting anywhere from here will require loose-fitting clothing and non-restrictive language that allows for free movement and is roomy enough to suit big changes in the ways we see the world. Rapid-paced technological advances have given the impression that progress just happens as the result of free enterprise, occasional outbursts of genius or perhaps heaven-bestowed inspiration. More compelling advances occur where trenchant events exert enough strain to compel us to abandon ontological settlements that no longer hold up. Old narrative stances for new–that’s where Mark and I are now, trading up to a world that we hadn’t known existed and whose vicissitudes we’ll perhaps survive if we can get across the wreckage of ideals that we thought we had the right to have and hold. And making a go of that, my friends, requires better wording–flexible, recombinant, adaptive language by which power we can make something more of ourselves.