Confessions from beside
A Sagebrush Fire

20 miles east of Kanab, UtahApril 5, 1988
UTAH:  Kane County
In desert about five miles north of US Hwy 89, about twenty miles east of Kanab

Like a bug in the bottom of a big bathtub, we're parked in the middle of this gray-green sagebrush desert. All around rise rather majestic, horizontally stratified, red-rock mesas and ridges. We're about sixty miles north of the Grand Canyon and I want to explain why we'll not be visiting there.

Many times in my life I've fantasized about descending through the various life-zones and geological outcroppings of the Grand Canyon. But during recent weeks gradually this pleasing anticipation has been usurped by a feeling not unlike dread. In short, I don't want to be around the hoards of tourists, overwintering Northerners and college kids on spring break I know to be there.

During this trip maybe my greatest surprise has been seeing the large number of this kind of American ranging all through the desert region. I'd expected them in the Rio Grande Valley at Amistad and the trailer parks clustered around Tucson and El Paso, and all through southern California. But one day at noon on Arizona Highway 86 passing through the Papago Indian Reservation's Quijotoa Mountains, in a place that earlier I'd visualized as being "all my own," two out of three vehicles on the very busy road were big RV's. Sometimes crawling up a hill there'd be five or more in a line, all with northern license plates. Ajo, Arizona, which I'd expected to be a gloriously red-necked mining town was full of gray-haired folks wearing shorts and pointing home-video cameras at one another. In Beatty, Nevada, at 9:00 AM one weekday morning, I pulled into town to have a tire-hole plugged and got caught in a traffic jam of lumbering RV's all growling at one another at the town's main crossroad. And remember Death Valley...

Of course, I'm glad that these folks have enough chutzpah to go out and see the world. And almost every time I meet them individually they turn out to be pleasant, intelligent and interesting people. But the main impact of their presence in all the most interesting places is that they inflate prices, cause traffic jams, and spread across the region a certain glossiness and a deadening sameness.

Moreover, maybe the desert has molded me into a creature whom the tourists and snowbirds find a little too dusty-looking, sun-burned and windy-haired. On Easter Morning I visited the laundrymat in Kanab. It was the first time I'd sat inside a building since Christmas. I didn't sit long before realizing that those odors which so appeal to me at dusk in the desert, in the context of swept floors, shiny, plastic laundrymat chairs, and detergent-smelling air... aren't too fashionable.

It was very early and I had the laundry to myself, so I washed my hair in the clothes-rinsing basin. My shirt was one of those that shows wet spots. Then in walked a lady as I was pulling off my socks, which I'd forgotten to add to the laundry. Realizing what I must look like, I stood and greeted her, hoping that politeness would neutralize my wet-haired, splotchy look and the appearance of my bare, rusty feet. When I smiled my chapped lower lip cracked, instantly releasing a dribble of blood onto my chin. Automatically with the back of my hand I wiped the blood away, only to notice that my sunburned arm and hand were so dry that in places they'd turned white with flaking-off skin, giving me a piebald appearance. In my embarrassment I managed to smear blood over my glasses and to pull on a sock somehow mixed in with the laundry that was so holey that for the last year I've been wiping Henry's dipstick with it. The woman was not pleased to see me.

Somewhat wounded from my Easter Morning in Kanab, I have driven, as I said, into the middle of this gray-green sagebrush desert. In national parks I'm unable to build open fires so I haven't enjoyed my cornbread, scrambled eggs and tea for many days. The first thing upon arriving, then, was to build a fire. The smoke from sagebrush wood is wonderfully sweet, smelling like fine incense. Fresh from the laundrymat, I hung my wet bluejeans across sagebrush and my socks and underwear among juniper branches. An hour later, the sun and wind have dried them completely and the bluejeans smell of sagebrush and everything else smells cedary and pure.

The monotony here comes from wind and sun mingling quietly above the sagebrush, not look-alike RV's plodding down national park highways. Instead of being embarrassed by the land-stroked appearance of Henry and me, here this sunlight and wind empowers me with a general magnanimity toward all things.

I shall not visit the glorious Grand Canyon.

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