Sundown Legends

A Journey into the American Southwest

Michael Checchio

Thomas Dunne Books

1
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.
1
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.