The Pioneer of Ruin

In a place no one seems to want, a young woman builds a home

Eileen banner final copy copy

This article and original artwork appeared in the Sept. 17, 2018 print edition of High Country News

Most everyone speeds on the road that runs alongside Cisco, Utah. It can be hard not to, once you work your way into that feeling of empty space and no one to hold you accountable. The town, after all, doesn’t look like much — a desolate mess of ruined buildings on the scenic route from I-70 to the recreation mecca of Moab, Utah, just a few miles from the boat ramp on the Colorado River where rafters load up after running Westwater Canyon. A cursory internet search will tell you that Cisco has cameoed in car chases in the movies Thelma and Louise and Vanishing Point, and may have inspired the Johnny Cash song “Cisco Clifton’s Fillin’ Station.” Without fail, articles about Cisco will also tell you that it’s a ghost town. This irritates Eileen Muza. Cisco is not abandoned, she often points out: “I live here.

The La Sal Mountains rise up south of Eileen’s home, and Cisco stands in the Cisco Desert, in an exposed, waterless low spot that one book describes without irony as “a hole.” But Eileen has her own names for things, her own landmarks. “My Mountains.” “The One Tire Valley.” “The Green Valley.” And the Cisco Desert itself — a scrubby barren plumbed with pump jacks and shimmering with broken glass? Eileen calls that “The Unknown.”

The Unknown was not why Eileen moved to Cisco. It might be a reason that she stays, though, if she stays. It is also the reason it is so hard to stay. The desert here is not nice the way it is in Moab, with its shapely red-rock expanses and verdant cottonwood bottoms. In Cisco, even the light has blades. One time, a lake of oil leaked from a pump jack inside town limits. Another, Eileen looked up to discover two men shooting in her direction from the window of a white pickup.

And on a hot, still day in June of 2017, a man running a raft shuttle found Eileen’s dog crumpled in the weeds at the road’s shoulder. He loaded the limp body onto his trailer, blood running over his hands and drove it to her house. She was raw that afternoon, when I arrived for a visit, her face shadowed under a broad hat, her eyes hidden behind sunglasses. She hunched over a wheelbarrow as her friend Joe Bell and I helped her look for rocks to seal Cairo — pronounced Kay-ro, after Cairo, Illinois — beneath his little mound of earth. “You don’t have to help,” she said a few times, but we ignored her, pulling stones from the flats and palming them with a clang into the barrow.

She wouldn’t be getting another dog, she finally insisted. “It’s too much of a weak spot for me. I need to be really fucking strong out here.”

If I let myself be soft, she seemed to be saying, I will not last. More…

 

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The ocean mummies

IMG_5999This essay originally appeared at The Last Word on Nothing on May 3, 2018

The Atacama Desert is country that wears quiet like a skin. Stretching through the top 600 miles of Chile, it is so spare of all save earth and rock that it calls to mind bone stripped of flesh by sun, wind, teeth. It is a place that makes you understand why the painter Georgia O’Keeffe saw in pelvises and skulls the curves of desert hills. But the Atacama is more naked still than the Southwestern deserts she loved. When you think of desert, probably you think of Sonora or Chihuahua,” a Chilean biologist recently told me—the vast, brutal deserts of northern Mexico. “They are forests compared to Atacama.”

Pause and listen for a moment: Where does the sound you hear arise? In most places, it comes from life and water. Voices and the growl of cars. The burble of rain and rivers. The rustle of leaves. In the Atacama, what sound there is comes from wind. What life there is goes underground: Spiders lizards birds, finding homes in the cool dark of holes. When Rudulfo Amando Philippi, a German naturalist, made a famous expedition across this desert in the mid-19th century, he improvised by sheltering in the shadow of his mule.

But at night, the Atacama does have a song, and it comes from the sea to the west, on the other side of the mountains. More…

The Screamers of Artist Point

27999702_10155351500531463_356455228_oThis post originally appeared at The Last Word on Nothing on February 18, 2018

It starts quietly enough. At around 9:30 a.m., I strap snowshoes to my feet and part ways with some friends bound for a backcountry ski. While they skin over a nearby saddle, my dog Taiga and I shuff our way into the stream of snowshoers along the boundary of the Mt, Baker Ski Area, headed for Artist Point. It’s not a long hike, nor an extreme one, but the hordes jostle and slip like drunks. One guy slides on his side in slow motion down the steep hill, parallel to the trail, unsure how to get his snowshoes back under him.

“You could dig in your ski pole to self arrest,” I suggest gently. “I am!” he exclaims, continuing to slide past, his poles dragging unused across the slope.

Maybe he’s overwhelmed, I muse, continuing on.

“What happens all winter; the wind driving snow; clouds, wind, and mountains repeating—this is what always happens here,” the poet Gary Snyder wrote of this place one long-gone August, looking towards the edifice of Mount Shuksan from his post at the Crater Mountain Fire Lookout. Today, though, is the first truly sunny day of the year.

The hanging glaciers of Shuksan gleam blindingly above us. Thick snow spackles every surface, like lavishly applied frosting on a carrot cake. A short, huffing climb farther on, the ridge is all smooth, luscious rises and swooping depressions—not baked goods now, but hips and shoulders and bent knees. Cornices hang bluely from the rocky clifftops; dark conifers wink out from sculpted carapaces of white.

I walk around in my sweat-damp clothes, stunned by this vision that is at once food and flesh and neither of those things. More…

In Visibility

Polar Bear

This essay originally appeared at The Last Word on Nothing on Dec. 7, 2017

On Tuesday, I texted my friend Michelle a brief video clip of a polar bear.

The bear is starving, all jutting hips and elbows, its fur sparse except for a thatch along its spine and Clydesdale tufts around its plate-sized paws. As with any bear, there is something disturbingly human about the shape of its body, about its movements and mannerisms. It staggers along on a green mat of tundra, foam dripping from its mouth. Dips its face into a rusty barrel and pulls out what appears to be a hunk of rotten meat. Sprawls on the ground, nose to earth, defeated by the visibly difficult work of breathing.

Watching the bear, I covered my mouth with one hand, suppressing tears. This perfect summary of unchecked climate change was like a knife to the kidney. Without sea ice, polar bears can’t hunt seals. And we are to blame.

“I honestly don’t think I can watch that,” Michelle replied. “I can’t get down with the voyeurism of photography generally.”

Michelle—an artist who’s been thinking a lot about polar bears and the Arctic these days—does not shy from engaging tough topics. What bothered Michelle was the lack of direct agency. The doing nothing in the face of such obvious suffering and then using the suffering to convey a message. Some key step had been skipped. More…

Unintentional treevotee

This post originally appeared at the Last Word on Nothing on November 20, 2017

Larry and treeI never meant for this to happen.

When I moved to the Pacific Northwest from arid Colorado three years ago, I was one of those people who insisted on horizons.

The town where I was born is a place where the foothills of the Rockies stand like a cliffy coastline overlooking a dry sea of plains. From their height, you can watch the change of light roll through the day like surf, can see storms so far away that lightning comes without sound—a flicker on the dark edge of awareness.

Even now, if you asked me what landscape makes me feel so big and free that I might crack right in half, I would say alpine tundra—the naked, velvet crowns of our sky islands, with their pikas and marmots and ptarmigan, with their cushion plants smaller than mixing bowls but older than I’ll ever be.

When I first moved to the Pacific Northwest, I worried that all this lush and green would make me soft. My friend Ben told me that the first thing I’d notice was how nice everyone’s skin is, compared to the weathered hide that passes for such on we Coloradans. Western Oregon, after all, is a place insulated from the UV glare of the sun by a few thousand extra feet of atmosphere, by dozens of extra days of cloudcover, by air so thick with moisture that it’s practically water. Indeed, as soon as I arrived, I spent a lot less money on lotion. My blood pressure mysteriously dropped 20 points and stayed there. More…

The ritual: When science feels like elegy in advance

Red legged kittiwake clean Small

This essay originally appeared at The Last Word on Nothing on Aug. 31, 2017

Each morning, when the fog was thin enough to see, I went to the cliffs.

I’d park the white pickup down a grassy ATV trail. Or off the main dirt road on a pullout. Or in the turnaround at the island’s southwesternmost point, where, when the wind was up at sea, waves coming from the south and west slapped together in explosions of spray and sound that I could feel like thunder in my chest.

At most of the sites, I walked below the cliffs, tracing the strip of cobbles between their toes and the surf, watching carefully for fur seals. When asleep, the giant pinnipeds look just like wet, sea-rounded stones; it would not be hard to step on one. More than once I nearly did. The startled seal would heave its fat-rolled body up on its improbably long flippers, arc its improbably small hedgehog head forward, and roar. Startled me would levitate backwards, moving faster than I thought possible across rocks slick with algae.

At a place called High Bluffs, I walked the cliff tops, staring 600 feet down their faces. Hills rolled inland from the island’s steep margins, like their own slow ocean swell, and my pants soaked as I pushed through the waist-high grass that covered them.

Arctic foxes, dark brown with summer, sometimes watched my progress. Their ears poked above the flowers and seedheads, and they coughed out an eerie metronome of barks if I got too close to pups concealed nearby in a den. I loved them best of all, but I didn’t come for the foxes. I didn’t come for the seals, either. I came to Saint Paul for the birds. More…

Lesson’s from the moon’s shadow

How the eclipse makes you understand space, and why we should pay attention to lesser wonders.

IMG_3477This essay originally appeared at hcn.org on Aug. 23, 2017

Most of us who came always knew there could be fog.

Oregon’s coast is a moody place, carved by surf, stormsurge and the Earth’s seismic shivers into sea-stacks and cliffs. Its tree-covered hills are alternately woven through with cloud, or scoured to sun by gusts that sculpt branches into bonsais and stiffen your fingers with chill. Sometimes, though, it is clear and still, as if the world is tasting light for the first time, made new again while you slept. As maybe it always is.

Those of us who came to see the total solar eclipse from the spot where the moon’s shadow would first touch the continent knew this. But we came anyway. We came from Portland. From Washington and Texas. From British Columbia and California and South Carolina. As if to bless our choice, the weekend was sunnier than any I’ve experienced on the coast. But sometime early in the morning on Monday, the day of the eclipse, a thick fog crept in. It obscured the houses across the Siletz River from where I camped in my truck, turned the toppled snags jutting from Siletz Bay into a blurred jumble of old bones. More…