Poem for the recent eclipse

    Notes on a total eclipse of the moon, Aug. 28, 2007

    Pack Creek Ranch, Utah

    The moon didn’t pay its electric bill
    so says Petra on the solemn lights off
    Irreverent from sleep as fast as quips the moon pulling
    its cheshired up-drawn wings of a white lip
    How it fades, curtain drawn, exeunt
    natural as nothing I’ve ever seen
    foregathers night to its why, even the coyotes ask
    They cry longer this night than I’ve heard the summer long packs
    usually one loner cramped and curmudgeon
    Now singers chirp, gargle, gong
    not settling for the moon going away.

    But the moon goes – it goes! And the coyotes can’t quite believe it,
    the hourglass goes, the curtain goes, the eye goes, the meadow up high goes
    and the rock down low goes and the pinyon forest goes
    the land goes, our camp ends
    Drawn down, a wink and a wink, the pearl goes
    and the quicksilver goes
    The poured light goes, and the fire goes, and the tin pan goes
    and the last match goes
    to red milk and umbre and sienna and red fog and Pluto’s ashes
    the one precious pearl seething in the south sky goes
    towns wink out, the last men go
    to their valley and to the river between the cliffs
    on boats of patch and clay they go, never to come back.

    Only fools sing that the summer is gone and lament the season
    of the high light – it’s over
    The rains will come and snuff out the fires we built once high
    on the mountain
    There will be no more waterfalls born in the gold of rainbows
    run over by our cars
    no more ten million stars falling, no more breasts of women
    or girls naked as girls
    no more of the lakes and the rivers so warm
    we slept in the water
    The moon goes, it goes, I want to bang drums
    call on my tin pan burn my tent and eyes
    but none of this, not one fool extravagance
    of the old superstition holds the moon still nor the season from its chance
    because it goes, it goes, it is only aureole only shadow
    and then, in the sentence at last, it is out
    The coyotes have learned the lesson, stopped their song
    gone to sleep
    I imagine they have found a canyon
    in the new darkness to their liking
    the men are gone down the river
    the towns are abandoned
    only the fools wait for the ashes to come back.

    Dependence Day: What the Bald Eagle Told the Desert Rat

    Art by Travis Kelly

    Good party for the 4th here at Pack Creek Ranch: beer, fried turkey, music, starlight and moonrise and many friends. But little talk about independence, or the U.S., or the Constitution, its crafting under duress. No surprises: I am 34 and for my entire life the 4th of July has been meaningless except as an excuse to drink, gather, eat meat, watch explosions in the sky. Which is fine. The dudgeon and pretense of the holiday should therefore be excised and July 4 renamed “Get Wasted and Blow Shit Up Day” or something more in tune with the American mind.

    Better yet, if we wish to commemorate the degeneracy of our historical moment, our peculiar fallen stature as a people and a republic, we might try simply Dependence Day. Here in Moab, Utah, the dependence is utmost: strung out at the far ends of industrial foodism and carbon fuel addiction in the red rock, a desert people piling too many into a place with too few local resources for real sustenance: the trucks on the highways bring us the life of a 2,000-mile supply line, and the long strings of the power plants bring us air conditioning in the 108 degree days (growing hotter every year), the phone line that keeps me jabbering onto the Internet, the fridge that keeps the ice to cool the brain – all of it the function of large-scale, far-flung, giantist systems of dependence whose links, if severed, would render our partying, this writing, intellect, politics, freedom itself moot.

    A few facts we know, ought to know, or know and don’t speak of because unacceptable in the current hologram of wellness and self-regard: it comes home to me in the memory of a crack whore among the warehouses at 9th Street and 2nd Avenue in Brooklyn, a toothless creature no more than 30 years old and looking 70 who was starved and told me, “Mistah, I’ll suck yo dick for five dollars – please.” I bought the woman a sandwich and avoided the blowjob…but here she is in the sage and under the moon haunting my imaginings of the U.S. as “independent”: We suck the dick of foreign oil, imports whose slightest shiver in supply would send us into chaos; we suck the dick of foreign lenders, the Chinese and Japanese buying up our bond reserves, propping up our markets with cheap goods that we hoover like apes at the totem of a banana and without which the sand and spit foundation of U.S. home mortgages would collapse like beach to the sea. The perversity in these overseas relationships is that we bow for blowjobs while pointing a gun at the blow-jobbee, crying out By god we will keep sucking dick or shoot you.

    Which brings me to the issue of the bald eagle as national symbol: I went hiking a few days ago in Salt Creek Canyon in Canyonlands park, finding again and always that the flora and fauna of the redrock country serve as a kind of metaphor and lesson plan for a true conservative conduct that so-called conservatives in the U.S. have abandoned. Here heat, sun, lack of rain, the thinness of soil, the vastness of scarcity makes moderation, modesty, self-reliance the norm and the virtue. And the eagle has no place.

    The bald eagle with its great strength and noble visage and razor talons is a fraud. He survives not by prowess and creativity but by theft and the strong-arm, by dive-bombing smaller birds to make them drop the rats or rabbits or fish these more enterprising avians catch through lone hard work. The behavior of the bald eagle hence falls under the rubric of kleptoparasitism, which makes the bird a fitting symbol of the U.S. government, especially as regards foreign policy.

    But kleptoparasitism is an aberration in the desert, which is why the vicious beady-eyed bald eagle finds a hard row to hoe in zones of self-reliance such as the redrock country. Instead, desert life teaches more admirable lessons, lessons that jibe, for example, with the so-called paleoconservatism – awful usage – of a Barry Goldwater, himself a desert rat who late in life rafted the Green and Colorado Rivers where they confluenced in Utah, toppling down the canyons in whitewater, and who was thus converted from conservatism to conservation in understanding that wild places should be kept wild. Desert flora foremost show that wildness – a sense of distance, keeping an arm’s length, not getting in each other’s way or invading mutual space – is key to a happy co-existence: among the top flora such as the sagebrush and the pinyon pines and the juniper, there is always spacing for each to have enough water and to cull the nutrients from that thin soil.

    Hence no ostentation among these plants, no waste, no profligacy. The flowers such as the evening primrose or the four o’clock show-off bloom white and cream or magenta and crimson only when night falls, but come daybreak they close to no one’s notice (the scream of the sun would take their life in an hour’s time). Modesty is their virtue and also their survival. Meanwhile, some of the most beautiful and most damned of the lifeforms are armed to the teeth, showing that the best defense is a good offense: the claret-cup cactus, spiny to the point of impossibility; the scorpion, who hunts little bugs but rarely deploys his terrible piercing stinger against human beings. Above all, there is self-sufficiency in these lifeforms, suffering terrific extremes and the better for it, more economical, tougher, more muscled, more careful, more free than their counterparts in the easy climes of the temperate East.

    The notion of a desert conservatism is not new and it haunts the thoughtful newcomer to the desert as much as an idea of Eden: it has its precedence in the mountain men loners who came west before the en masse migrations of the pioneers, before the gold bonanzas and the cattlemen welfare queens (the hardest tit-suckers of the West), before the railroad corporations conjured the first of the big real estate scams. And, in modern times, it finds expression in the throwback orneriness of writers such as Ed Abbey, who in Desert Solitaire of 1968 envisioned the deserts of the Southwest as a safe house of political liberty, the “base for guerrilla warfare against tyranny.” (Goldwater, an Arizonan, also spoke about this).

    Abbey wondered aloud in Desert Solitaire as to the necessary steps an American government might take to quash democracy. First, he suggested, encourage overpopulation and “concentrate the populations in megapolitan masses,” where they are easily surveilled and controlled. Second, mechanize agriculture so that food production sits in the hands of the few, eliminating the fundamental source of independence in self-sufficient communities (siege starvation is the ultimate strong-arm, barring the bullet). Then, fight wars against distant, mostly chimerical, threats overseas, “divert[ing] attention from deep conflicts within the society” and rendering “support of these wars a test of loyalty.” Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the wilderness is to be razed, paved over, developed, rigged with roads and cellphone towers and WalMarts and utility corridors, means of access, centralization, control – because it is here that the last of the self-reliant tribes will find their hold-out, a perch unacceptable to forces of dominion. In short: create a system of dependency and thou wilt prevail…not news and surely an algorithm in the books of the sociopaths in the White House. Like his peer of a generation earlier, poet Robinson Jeffers, Abbey saw in the vanishing of desert wilderness the perishing of the republic, the freedom for which it stood.

    And here in my hypocrisy of this screed, sitting up late burning the coal of the power plants, I notice that even Google shows an image of the bald eagle, wings spread, descending in hero’s flight…holding perhaps an olive branch…or a stolen sprig from the mouths of children.

    Roads in Wilderness, Roads to Nowhere: Investigating the Latest Western Land Grab

    “Land grabbing is the oldest con game in the West,” Arizona Governor Bruce Babbitt once said. Cartoonist Travis Kelly — check him out here — nails the madness of the latest con-job, which centers on an archaic 1866 public lands law known as Revised Statute 2477. I write about the issue in the July/August issue of Mother Jones (“Off-Road Rules”) and its threat to tens of millions of acres in national parks and unprotected wilderness controlled by the US Forest Service and the DOI’s Bureau of Land Management. RS 2477 provides local government with wide powers of land seizure, for he who controls the roads also controls access for industry and tourism, for off-road vehicles and oil rigs — for use and abuse of the land.

    The funny thing is that under the outmoded rubric of the 1866 law, a “road” is just about any kind of track — a cow-path, a foot-trail, a wagon rut. Extractive industries and county governments who wish to pre-empt new wilderness protections on public lands — lands otherwise exploitable for the profit of grazing, mining, energy and off-road vehicle interests — need only cite RS 2477 to get their wish. This is because the Wilderness Act of 1964, which serves as the legal foundation for protecting public lands, is clarion in noting that wilderness, among other criteria, must consist of at least 5,000 contiguous roadless acres.

    Which means that any public lands parcel crossed by an officially recognized “road” — be it ever so specious, an overgrown cow-path, an arroyo of boulders and cliffrose — can never be considered for wilderness protection. It is forever lost.

    Meanwhile, the newly formed Rangers for Responsible Recreation, a coalition of retired land managers from the BLM and Forest Service, has declared ORVs the single biggest threat to the health and vitality of public lands (arguably cows are more widespread and more damaging, but we’ll leave that for another debate). As a seminal National Science Foundation study found long ago, in the 1970s, “The deleterious effects of ORVs on native plants and animals is undeniable.” Where off-roading is uncontrolled, the study noted, “virtually all existing life is ultimately destroyed.”

    The Shea Memo: Mapping out the Israelis Next Door to Mohammed Atta

    In the autumn of 2004, on the third anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, a retired international corporate lawyer named Gerald Shea drafted an extensive memo that detailed the operations of alleged Israeli spies suspected of surveilling the 9/11 hijackers in the year prior to the attacks. Written in the cold logic of a courtroom complaint, the 166-page memo gathers up most of the evidence available in the public record regarding possible 9/11-related Israeli espionage. Shea, who was educated at Yale and Columbia and worked for 20 years at one of New York’s top law firms, said his purpose in writing the memo was to spur a Congressional investigation “for the sake of U.S. national interest.” “I’m a lawyer first and foremost,” Shea wrote me in an e-mail. “I wanted to separate these difficult factual problems from the politics in the hope that people who have the power and obligation to do so will conduct a public inquiry to resolve the issue.”

    Al Felzenberg, spokesman for the 9/11 Public Discourse Project, confirmed that the commission received the memo in mid-September 2004. But Felzenberg noted it was three and a half weeks too late: the commission closed shop on August 21, 2004, its security clearances and investigative power limited by act of Congress. According to Shea, copies of the memo were also sent to the private offices of specific members of the 10-member 9/11 commission. These included: Thomas H. Kean, commission head and now chairman of THK Consulting; commission vice chair Lee H. Hamilton, president and director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars; Richard Ben-Veniste, partner in the Washington law firm of Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw; Washington, D.C., lawyers Fred Fielding, Jamie S. Gorelick, and Slade Gorton; and Bob Kerrey, former U.S. Senator, now president of the New School for Social Research. (None of the commissioners returned phone calls for comment on the Shea Memo.) Shea also forwarded his report to the offices of members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, including then-committee chair Jay Rockefeller, and Sens. Trent Lott, Olympia Snowe, Chuck Hagel, Richard Durbin, Carl Levin and Evan Bayh. Also included in the mailings, says Shea, were at least six members of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, including Reps. Peter Hoekstra and Anna Eshoo. For good measure, Shea sent a copy to the office of his Boston senator, Ted Kennedy. He also peppered the news media, submitting copies to the New York Times, the International Herald Tribune, PBS’ Frontline, ABC News’ investigative team at 20/20, and various smaller venues.

    With the sole, and notable, exception of the tiny Philadelphia Times-Herald, which ran a brief overview of the memo, the document was ignored. Not a single member of the major media, not a single Commission member or U.S. lawmaker responded, “not even Richard Ben-Veniste, who was in my class at law school,” says Shea, referring to Columbia Law’s 1967 graduating class.

    Die, TV! Notes from a Super Bowl Sunday with the TV-B-Gone

    By Christopher Ketcham

    The TV-B-Gone, which fits in the palm of the hand, is a universal remote whose sole purpose and power is to shut down televisions. During last year’s Super Bowl Sunday, it resulted in at least one thrown bottle, two near fist-fights, twenty-seven (by my count) disappeared Hail Marys, touchdowns and tackles, one half-time show half-seen (or seen, rather, in a kind of slow motion shutter effect – I with TV-B-Gone closing the screen, the bartender mashing finger into the on-button like a man poking out eyes), and one near-hammering-into-pulp of a writer waving a TV-B-Gone. I deployed across Brooklyn that fateful Super Bowl 2006 with a single unit for a test run, assaulting mostly sports bars and taverns and also one restaurant (where no one in the crowd, not even the staff, noticed the quieting of the television – for me, a key indicator). I have since been terrorizing televisions almost daily. I go nowhere without the TV-B-Gone. I have killed televisions in Charles de Gaulle Airport, in Heathrow, on the streets of Paris, in the restaurants of small Utah towns, in a Virgin Megastore on Manhattan island, and in countless Brooklyn bars.

    Mitch Altman, the 50-year-old inventor of the TV-B-Gone, tells me that when he feels depressed he arms himself and heads into the streets. “It’s almost a compulsion for me. When I see a TV going in a public place, I go out of my way to turn it off,” he says. “Imagine a room where there’s an uptight person wearing really bright clothing and jumping up and down and yelling. It’s hard to be relaxed when that person is present. When a TV goes off, I notice people’s shoulders and arms relax – the body language changes completely. When I’m feeling blue, I turn off a television or two and life just seems a whole lot better.”

    Altman is a California technophile, a computer whiz, a self-described “geek.” He pioneered virtual reality technologies in the 1980s and early versions of voice-recognition software. He built disk drives that were always smaller and faster, and eventually co-founded a company called 3Ware, which perfects disk drive “controllers.” He was also a television addict. “I used to collect TVs off the street,” he says. “I had 50 TVs in my mom’s basement. She was very patient with me. I watched TV every waking moment of my life. But even as a little kid, I remember watching TV and telling myself, ‘I don’t like this, why am I watching this?’ I was five years old when I asked that question. But I kept watching. The one show that I really hated was Gilligan’s Island. But it delivered just enough to keep me coming back for more. That is the process of addiction.”

    Then, in 1980, Altman was watching TV as always, and the question came up that had been dogging him since he was five years old, and suddenly TV was over for him. “I was watching Gilligan’s Island – nothing against Bob Denver, but I just couldn’t handle it anymore. I went cold turkey. And I’ve never had a TV since.”

    It wasn’t just Gilligan’s Island. It was the physical and psychological awfulness of the experience of watching television. It was the fact that Altman one day sat down in a restaurant with old friends he hadn’t seen in years, “but there was a television playing nearby and we found ourselves watching the TV – unable not to watch the television – instead of talking to each other, being with each other.”

    TV is unique in the EEG activity it summons in the human brain, and unique as well in that it drastically reduces the metabolic rate of the human organism. When you sleep, you use more energy than when you watch TV. When you stare at a painting or read a book or knit or fart in bed, you use more energy. EEG activity during television-watching is marked by alpha waves, those dreamy, spacey waves that also exist between sleeping and waking – a passive state in which sustained intense critical thought is pretty much impossible. Alpha waves are also associated with coma.

    The technology that Altman devised to counteract this horror was simple. The TV-B-Gone consists of a computer chip programmed with a database of all the power codes of televisions in existence that Altman could track down from the public domain. The diode eye uses infrared light, which makes it felicitous to zap through clothing or across window panes or from a distance. “The chip speaks 214 power codes that work on thousands of different television sets,” Altman says. “The power code for a Panasonic is the same as for a RCA. The TV industry made it so easy on me! I’d love to have a Cell-Phone-B-Gone, a Bush-B-Gone. But those things aren’t so easy to get rid of.” I suggested a unit that expands and clarifies the purpose, a unit that permanently disables the offending television. “There’s no remote control code for ‘blow up the tv,’” Altman tells me. “You can always buy a brick. Certainly a bomb is a technology that’s been around for a while.” One possible avenue is the use of a concentrated electromagnetic pulse that would burn out the circuits. “But how,” Altman asks, “do you make it directional enough that it wouldn’t harm the button-pusher? That’s the question.” Researchers should get to work.

    Since Oct. 19, 2004, when Altman launched his product, more than 112,000 units have been sold in every state and territory of the US, and worldwide in over 80 countries. In 2005, Altman traveled on a TV-B-Gone tour across Europe, appearing on BBC TV sixteen times in two days – ironic enough. “My main reason for going to Europe,” he says, “was for field-testing on European TVs.” In January, a host on New York’s WBAI talk radio, which was giving away TV-B-Gones for its winter fundraiser, noted that enthusiasts are now suggesting ingenious modifications. For example, one might mount the tv-killing diode eye in a hat, with the clicker device linked by cable in one’s pocket. Or you might build an amplification unit with multiple flood-eyes that literally, as Altman put it, “turn off televisions any direction you look.”

    Super Bowl 2006 was effectively my own field test. Why go after the Super Bowl? The Super Bowl by its attraction of those scores of millions of human eyes brings to bear what is arguably the most expensive and sophisticated marketing and propaganda apparatus in history, and therefore it represents television’s awfulness par excellence. Also, there is the issue of the essential but unspoken pathologic weirdness of men who never exercise gathering to peer at other grown men who run around on a screen in a plastic box chasing a piece of leather and smack each other on the ass when they catch the leather (at which sight the men watching the ants on the screen in the plastic box clap and jump up and down and touch each other as well).

    When employing the TV-B-Gone among lunatics such as this, immense care must be taken. Here are suggested rules for terrorizing the upcoming event on February 4. First off, when the TV goes out, the TV-B-Goner should scream the loudest in protest to deflect suspicion. This makes strategic comrades of strangers who otherwise will want to smash your TV-B-Gone to bits. Second, order your drink before you strike; otherwise, the bartender will be too busy fending off the apes protesting the darkness at noon on the screen. Third, be drunk, even if you’re not; everyone else is. Fourth, frequently throw up your hands in cheers; you can also, to look normal, produce a steady black-pantherish fist to celebrate “your team” (pick one); this allows innumerable angles to grab the eye of the target TV. Fifth, and most importantly, do not stand up in the midst of the horror of the evening to announce, after too many drinks, that you and the TV-B-Gone are the source of the trouble and that the TV-B-Gone is just wonderful and you can buy it anytime at www.tvbgone.com.

    Note: this article was originally published at CounterPunch.org.


    In the wake of my little screed at CounterPunch lauding the pleasures of monkeywrenching the screens of Stupid Bowl fanatics, inventor Mitch Altman reported that orders for the nasty little device poured in at tvbgone.com. Others weren’t so enthused. One concerned reader, Chris R. from Scheissville, Penn., wrote to CounterPunch that the use of the TV-B-Gone was equivalent to book burning. He may have a point. Here’s what Chris R. wrote:

    Only an asshole walks into a place where people have gathered to watch a TV and turns it off because you don’t like the content….I hope that someday a mob catches you in the act and gives you a good hiding.

    Shame on Counterpunch for promoting censorship.

    -Chris R.

    To which I responded as any thinking person would:


    My experience has been that only assholes gather to specifically watch TV…..

    And from there we were off and running. Following below is our brief degenerative exchange:


    That is a completely infantile statement [ie that only assholes gather to watch TV]. TV is the device which allows us to see and hear events in distant places, that’s all. It’s one of the most amazing inventions of the 20th century. If you don’t like watching something it’s your responsibility to remove yourself from the situation, not to censor. Do you at least accept the fact that you are a censor? There’s no defense for that.

    Liberalism doesn’t begin when you allow people to do what you want, it begins when you allow people do enjoy what you wouldn’t. You are a totalitarian and an elitist prick.

    -Chris R.


    Listen…I don’t give a christ about the content. I only care about destroying the medium. TV may have been a fine invention at the outset but it’s been put to awful use as a mass sedative and brainwashing device and for the marketing of all kinds of useless crapola that no one needs….Moreover, 99 percent of the time when I kill TVs in airport lounges, in bars, in restaurants etc etc NO ONE NOTICES! As for being “an elitist prick”…..I am most definitely elitist, and perhaps a prick as well… who knows…..now….enough name-calling. Since we’ve gotten off to such a good start, I was wondering if I could add you to my electronic mailing list….


    Chris Ketcham


    I’m copying Counterpunch on these so that someone there can see what an idiot they’ve published.

    First you’ve directly contradicted yourself by saying that you don’t care about the content of the medium… and then complaining that the problem with TV are its commercial messages. Which is it?

    What, do you think that TV started altruistically and later became corrupted? Just the opposite has occurred, TV started completely commercially and citizen effort has opened some spaces for other messages. In fact in the early days each program had it’s own individual sponsor and there were only commercial stations. In what conceivable way did it start off well at the outset?

    You’d better also turn off other people’s radio as that’s mostly commercial. In fact you’d better shut down Counterpunch; they ran Google-driven ads to stay up. And they have book advertising. You’d better burn down bookstores as well, and newspaper and magazine stands – all ad-driven. Better turn off the internet too. I see you’re using Mindspring; don’t they advertise? Better cancel your email account.

    Only a complete idiot attacks a medium for its own sake. Only an asshole manipulates other people’s property without permission. Only a coward does it all secretly. Only an elitist ass claims to have magical powers to see through a brainwashing method that ensnares the feeble-minded majority. You have no argument in your favor.

    If you claim 99% of the people you turn TVs off in front of don’t notice; then why bother doing it? On the one hand you claim they’re brainwashed by TV, but then they don’t notice its off. It sounds like you’re the one so sensitive to the medium that it disturbs you. Get a story and stick with it.

    I have no interest in getting on your list. I use Yahoo and reading your messages would expose me to more advertising. If I read your content I’ll end up brainwashed, right?

    Get back to me when you develop an entire thought,

    Chris R.


    Dude — why all the name-calling? From what I read here I am a “complete idiot,” “asshole,” “coward”, and “elitist ass.” All of which I admit to except the “complete” part….But seriously, why so passionate about this issue? It seems that, first of all, you’re really into advertising. Which is fine….but I like to live where there is no advertising….say, in a tent in Death Valley…..which I did once for a month….and there was no advertising anywhere….incredible (a nightmare for you, I know)….no TVs, radios, Internet, magazines, newspapers, and, best of all, no homo sapiens yapping constantly….anyway, chill out, will ya? There is reason for hope: the TV-B-Gone is now being expanded into the TV-B-Totally-Gone, which will employ, as suggested in my piece, a carefully calibrated, digitally-directed 9 mm bullet to permanently disable the offending target…..I have myself employed a 12 gauge, a .303, a .357 magnum and a .30-30 version of this TV-B-Totally-Gone….and it works!!

    See ya soon at CounterPunch,

    Chris Ketcham


    “Dude” – there’s all of the name-calling because your elitist attitude is exactly what turns a good many people off to the Left in general. I’m passionate about this because I’m a civil libertarian, and because I recognize that humans are social animals and you have no right to disrupt that. You’re deciding what’s best for others because you think that you’re better than others.

    It bothers me that you think you’re being clever when in fact you’re being passive-aggressive and difficult. It bothers me that Counterpunch would mix your drivel in with serious articles written from a perspective of respect for individual rights and democratic norms. People like you perpetuate the stereotype that every person left of center is a fun-killing Luddite totalitarian.

    And you are very much a coward for using a device to turn off TVs secretly instead of having a conversation with the people who are authorized to turn it on or off. It’s not your property; you have no right at all to manipulate it. None. If you don’t want to be exposed to it, remove yourself from the situation. At a practical level you’re just fucking with people in the service industry, which is what rich pampered bullies engage in.

    For your information I don’t even own a television. That’s my choice. Sometimes I enjoy watching particular programming with other people. That’s my choice. But I don’t shove that choice down others’ throats. That’s extremely illiberal. What’s difficult about that?

    Even the makers of TV B Gone don’t advocate what you do:

    “Q. Won’t I get hurt if I use my TV-B-Gone® remote control in someplace crowded?

    When other people gather for the purpose of watching TV together – say, in a sports bar – we see no reason to interrupt their pleasure.”

    Indeed. No reason unless you’re an elitist cowardly prick. You’re not funny and not clever. You have hatred for working class America, which you find beneath you. If you hate our species that much then do us all a favor, turn your .357 on yourself (“Jerk-B-Gone”) and leave the rest of us who enjoy socializing and the ability to use technology to hear and see other people at a distance alone.

    -Chris R.


    Dood — Sorry I didn’t get back to you sooner. I was working on something else for the print version of CounterPunch. Anyway, I wanted to tell you about some of my recent forays with the TV-B-Gone. For example, I was in a restaurant/bar north of New York City recently and there were some fellows who were watching television and thereby, per your definition, were Working Class. Anyway, these Working Class guys were watching the death of Anna Nicole Smith repeated over and over on the screen….a real death-march, but without any of the relieving elements, such as shots of Smith with her tits out, which would have made the slog of “news coverage” worthwhile….so I shut that shit down big-time and these salt-o’-the-earth types let out a high-pitched squeal and turned it back on. I turned the TV off again and the working class guys cried out and turned it back on…so I shut it down again…now these Working Class Gods, as we should properly refer to them, put on a show worth recalling. They began a weird sort of dance. They stood up from their stools and began circling each other like drugged pitbulls in a betting ring. They tore at each other’s hair and started clawing at each other’s skin and running around like drunk baboons smashing plates of wings ‘n’ blue cheese over their heads and masticating checkered table cloths and generally making the buffet and dinner service unbearable….In the end, the good news is that the restaurant developed a type of Zyclon-B that can only be used against White Anglo-Scots Working Class People but which Elitist Coward Asshole Types like myself are immune to…. and, thus applied as an aerosal, we were able to wipe out these smelly fuckers who are dragging the morals and culture of the Great Nation into the pits and who should, ideally, be dying in Iraq fighting for “freedom” right fucking now….or, hopefully, sooner. All commerce and activity at the restaurant came to a screeching halt….no food was served, the lights went out, nobody spoke, the heat shut down, the cold rushed in….the only entertainment was Me, my voice disembodied, large as worlds, babbling on and on as the Working Class Drudges collapsed one atop the other in heaving fits, vomiting and shitting on each other in their death spasms….thereafter, the only thing to do was to chop up these Fat Fucking Working Class Swine and serve their corpses to a group of sequined mincing ballet dancers known as Leftists, who came barrelling in and immediately ordered the television turned back on and tuned to the Amy Goodman Show, which was showing over and over on Link TV……the Leftists gorged on the Imbecile Working Class Scumbucket livers and hearts and brains…..all in all a good day for the TV-B-Gone!



    Was that supposed to be funny? It wasn’t.

    Clearly Mr. Ketcham has no interest in addressing any issue related to the fact that he is a censor who enjoys screwing with people in the service industry. I expect this from Fox News’ caged pets, not CounterPunch.

    -Chris R.

    The Horseman of Abbey Road

    By Christopher Ketcham Almost all the country within their view was roadless, uninhabited, a wilderness. They meant to keep it that way.  Keep it like it was. — Edward Abbey, “The Monkey Wrench Gang”

    Ken Sleight is 77 years old, lean, dusty-booted, hard of hearing, wears old jeans and long-tailed shirts untucked. It is said that as a younger man he was the model for the lapsed Mormon renegade Seldom Seen Smith in Edward Abbey’s novel “The Monkey Wrench Gang,” which itself became the incendiary model for eco-saboteurs such as Earth First. Sleight owns a horse farm called Pack Creek Ranch, up on Abbey Road, outside Moab, Utah, in the high red desert of the canyon country, where for the last five months I’ve been renting a cabin 33 steps from the door of his lodge. I see him every day in his old blue Ranger pickup, or tending to his Appaloosas and Arabians with his wife, Jane, or laying gravel with his tractor and shoveling manure for shade trees.

    I like Sleight. I like him because the other night he drank me under the table, because a few days later I got stuck in a September snow in the mountains above the ranch and he dropped everything to get in the Ranger and winch out my truck. I like him because when he drives long distances he pisses in a bottle instead of stopping at the side of the road. “No time to waste and why pollute the water,” he says. I like him because on his horse a few years ago he charged two bulldozers in the forest near the ranch, refusing to dismount until the drivers shut their engines. I like him because he reminds me of my father, both of them agitators and nostalgics, angry young men more than twice my age, twice as angry as the young men you meet today.

    Sleight talks about the way things were in southern Utah before the too-many strangers like me showed up, before Arches National Park, so beloved by his old friend Abbey, was snatched away by the seekers of heat and light and solitude once just his own, before the motor-home panzer units full of speedboats and mountain bikes and grandpas and babies in diapers. Just under 800,000 people flocked to Arches last year, almost a fivefold increase from 30 years ago. Everywhere in the red rock national parks of southern Utah — in Arches, Capitol Reef, Zion, Bryce, wherever motorized man can find a way — the people are coming. Sleight calls this “obscene.” Too many “goddamn people,” Sleight says. “In such a conglomeration, it’s like down in Rome when all those masses see the pope. I don’t understand how in the hell they get any meditative spiritual great stuff with so many damn people around.”

    Which would sound blinkered, curmudgeonly, elitist, plain mean if it were spoken by anyone else but Sleight, who says it with a sad, generous smile, sipping whiskey at noon. Sleight at first glance has settled down in his old age. He has been a river runner, cattle driver, canyoneer, sheepherder, wilderness guide and, as once denounced by a land developer, a “dangerous saboteur.”

    In “The Monkey Wrench Gang,” published in 1975, Sleight, aka Smith, topples road-grading Caterpillars off a cliff, derails a coal train with dynamite, and attempts to incinerate the armatures of three bridges north of Lake Powell, which he refers to as “the Blue Death,” the water having drowned the marvels of Glen Canyon. He prays on his knees atop the dam that created the hated lake. “Dear old god,” the jack Mormon river rat cries out, “how about a little ol’ pre-cision-type earthquake right under this dam?”

    Abbey and Sleight met in 1967 at the put-in at Lee’s Ferry on the Colorado River, 15 miles below Glen Canyon Dam, which had been completed four years earlier to charge a hydroelectric turbine that, in turn, would power casinos in Las Vegas and electric toothbrushes in Phoenix. Abbey was posted at Lee’s Ferry as a park ranger with a penchant for cadging beer from river-runners. “Instant recognition,” says Sleight. “We sat there and built a fire and drank and laughed until 3 in the morning. Talked about how to get rid of the goddamned dam! That was probably the start of the Monkey Wrench Gang right there.”

    So was Sleight really the model for the marauding Smith? “I admit to nothing except the Mormon part,” he tells me.

    In reality the character is not as effective as the man has been himself. “Ken has tilted at more windmills than Don Quixote could in 10 lifetimes — he never gives up,” says Jim Stiles, who publishes (and writes and edits) the Canyon Country Zephyr, southeast Utah’s only alternative newspaper.

    Sleight indeed has had a very real hand in stopping more ill-conceived and rapacious projects threatening red rock country than probably any other Utahn. He was the first elected chair and catalyzing force behind the radical Glen Canyon Group of the Sierra Club’s Utah Chapter (his original vision for the group, he would discover, was too radical). In 1999, he was bestowed the David R. Brower Award “for Outstanding Service in the Field of Conservation,” with Brower, the unruly and iconic mountaineer and environmentalist, personally presenting the plaque. For eight years, Sleight honchoed the San Juan County Democratic Club, his chairmanship mostly spent trying to elect Native Americans, more than 55 percent of the jurisdiction, in a county ruled by minority whites. (He himself in 1990 would run for the Utah House of Representatives on an Indian ticket and lose with 35 percent of the vote.)

    From what I can tell living at Pack Creek, Sleight doesn’t sleep. Often I see him at 2 a.m. or 4 a.m. or 6 a.m. — “Ken keeps wolf-hours, watch-hours,” says Jane — heading north in his Ranger on the 260 miles of exhausting road to Salt Lake City (bound for a quixotic morning meeting about draining Lake Powell) or driving more contentedly south to work with the Navajo and Ute nations, where corporate prospectors claim the land for coal, uranium, oil and gas, calling it progress; the Indians, left to suffer the cancers and clean up the mess, call it “energy genocide.” At the age of 75, Sleight himself was diagnosed with prostate cancer: “You know what this guy does? He’s getting radiation therapy five days a week in Salt Lake City,” Jane Sleight tells me, “and he’s sleeping in the back of his pickup, in November, in a parking lot. With no heater.”

    Today, in Moab and Monticello and Blanding, main habitations in southeast Utah, Sleight’s enemies, a good number of them ranchers, sprawl boosters, oilmen or mining scions with interests in industrializing the high desert to no end, will say (off the record — “in respect for Ken”) that Sleight’s got too much Abbey in his head, too much of Abbey’s doomy vision of technology and sprawl and greed run riot. Maybe this is so.

    The drowning of Glen Canyon in 1963 transformed Sleight, but in the end the change had nothing to do with Abbey. If the wilderness needed no defense, only more defenders, as Abbey would write, Sleight was destined for the duty, though his birth would seem to have conspired against it.


    Sleight was born into a family of Idaho conservatives, ranchers, horsemen, farmers, his father, who ran a feed business, insisting he was conceived in a saddle (his mother loudly demurring). As Sleight understood it, conservatism among his Mormon kin meant “you go slow, you don’t change dramatically,” Sleight tells me. “You conserve!” In 1951, he took a river trip, his first, down the Canyon of Lodore in what is today Dinosaur National Monument. The first white man to run Lodore, the one-armed Capt. John Wesley Powell, wrote in 1869 that the cliffs of Lodore, blood-burgundy and sheer, were “a black portal to a region of doom,” the rapids quickly slicing in half the first of his four boats, the water-roaring walls, awful and without egress, driving his men to bad dreams. Sleight and his crew, 15 drunken guys and gals in three boats, fared somewhat better — only two of the boats flipped but washed up worthy — and Sleight, 22 years old, was reborn.

    There was an interregnum of war, college, confusion. He served in Korea, fought with the 48th Field Artillery Battalion at Pork Chop Hill. He soon had a wife and two children, with two more to come. He graduated in marketing and accounting at the university in Salt Lake City, finding a job with Firestone balancing the books for tire sales. He wore a bow tie to work. He went to John Birch meetings, backed Barry Goldwater; the know-nothingism soon wearied him. He remembered Lodore, “the most exhilarating moment of my life to that point.” Within four years, he had quit Firestone and relocated his family to southern Utah and was in the guiding business, buying a fleet of old Army landing rafts, 8 feet wide, 18 feet long, at $50 each, calling the venture Wonderland Expeditions.

    Sleight was a good guide, though the business, by its nature, destined him to a glorified poverty. He was puckish, and a flamboyant cook at camp, and he had the right instincts in the canyons. He could read clouds and white water, could smell out springs in the barrenness of rock. Jane Sleight tells me how once they were leading a group of horses and tourists in a canyon under blue sky, and Sleight turned to her, quietly, his nose twitching, and said, “Maybe we’ll get up outta here.” Minutes later a torrent of floodwater the color of smashed tomatoes filled the arroyo — dumped silently from clouds far up the drainage — and would have carried them and their beasts and clients away.

    In 1955, Sleight took his first trip down Glen Canyon. If Lodore had shouted to him, Glen Canyon whispered, laid him down. In 1955, it was among the most remote places in the United States, and it should have been ranked as a wonder of the world. “It was inculcated in my soul,” Sleight tells me. “It was heaven on earth.” When Sleight talks about Glen Canyon, his voice goes quiet, almost murmurous — he stops tonguing his whiskey, there is no shaking of fists or banging of tables, no wanting to charge you with his horses.

    “The deep canyons, the meanderings, the quiet of the water, the great beaches,” he begins. “I could show you all down those canyons the silhouettes of a woman’s attributes, her body. The sandstone was petrified dune. It was sculpted, had a natural tendency to curve, everything rounded off, sensuous. And the color: oranges, browns, reds, always changing. You’d sit in one place, the sun’d come up and the colors — the feelings of each of the colors! When the sun was straight up in the sky, I’d go off into a little cavish place and watch the little things of the desert, the closeness of the land, the rock, these fleeting images. I wondered how come a certain place is so calm, so beautiful. Why do I feel so good here? I wondered about the glens along the way, how I’d ever get to know them all. Hundreds and hundreds of amphitheaters, alcoves, tucked away in the cliffs, shadowy, full of maidenhair fern, the dripping springs, the green in the yellow rock — the greenery, the fragrance, it hit you all at once. And always there were no rapids. Water smooth and calm. A matter of floating.”

    Sleight pauses. “So the places came to you: Cathedral in the Desert. Music Temple. Temple View. Temples! You’d wait for them in the morning, you’d wait in the evening — spectacular. Eliot Porter” — the photographer whose book “The Place No One Knew” is today’s classic elegiac portraiture of the pre-flood canyon — “told me, ‘Wait for it. Just wait for it.'”

    Later I looked up the names of Glen Canyon on a map of the river where it ran before the flood. Here was the Cathedral, and here was Last Chance Canyon, Hidden Passage Canyon, Rainbow Bridge, Salvation and Forbidden and Twilight Canyons, all gone now. Looking at the graveyard of the map, I thought of Sleight and his reverie and suddenly I felt like bursting into tears, a ridiculous sentiment no doubt, given I’d never seen the place and probably never will — yet the loss seemed infinitely sad, personally tragic.


    When, in the 1950s, Glen Canyon Dam began its inexorable ascent at the town of Page, it was to be one of the great works of humanity, 800,000 tons of concrete rising 58 stories above the river, costing $750 million and the lives of 16 men. To Sleight, it was mania, a nightmare. He tried to stop it, forming a group called Friends of Glen Canyon with six other river-runners. But no one heard the plea, no one listened. Even the dauntless David Brower, then executive director of the Sierra Club, cut a deal favoring Glen Canyon Dam in exchange for the federal government’s abandonment of a dam project in Dinosaur National Monument. (Brower would forever curse his compromise, and to Sleight it would be a bitter irony when he received the Sierra Club’s highest award from Brower himself.)

    Sleight watched the water rise, tortured himself with its rise. “Growing up on a farm, I learned to feel that the land was a part of you, part of your being, your very mind,” he tells me. “I don’t care if it’s public land, you can call it under any jurisdiction or bureaucracy you want — Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service, National Park Service — but it’s your land, it’s my land. Glen Canyon was part of me. And the water starts rising and covering up all those little canyons that I took people into for years. Sometimes a foot a day, sometimes 2. The most agonizing thing. Would you have your temple flooded? How would you feel if your house was bulldozed down? That’s a hard one to think about. I feel it to this day.”

    Stiles of the Canyon Country Zephyr always wondered why Sleight stuck around to watch the disaster unfold. “It was as if he felt the need to die some when Glen Canyon went under, as if it was something he owed the canyon,” Stiles says.

    The loss radicalized Sleight — or, rather, he understood that the “conservatives” pressuring for development in the Utah backcountry were in fact radicals in disguise and probably dangerous, the kind of zealots who refused to “go slow,” who wanted to conserve nothing. As the 1960s unreeled, Sleight organized. In the good Mormon town of Escalante, Utah, where he was living in 1965, he helped fight off a multimillion-dollar highway that was to have paved easy tourist entry into the slot canyons and towering folds of what is today the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The Mormons of Escalante turned on him and his family, threatening Sleight from the fearless anonymity of crank phone calls; Sleight even found his truck sabotaged, pushed into a ditch in the night.

    Stopping useless automotive-tourist-gerbil-wheel roads became a habit. Thanks, in part, to Sleight, the Book Cliffs near Desolation Canyon on the Green River — where a massive road project was planned in the 1990s — today remains the lower 48’s largest roadless area, a place pretty much untouchable except to the toughest traveler. And thanks to Sleight, the canyon that first welcomed me to the Utah — the winding lonely Davis Canyon outside Canyonlands National Park –remains as it was intended and just as it was when I came there in my tent four years ago under the watch of the rims and the buttes.

    In the 1980s, a Mormon cowboy tycoon named Cal Black, representing the interests of progress and profit in conservative San Juan County, was pushing for the nation’s first high-level nuclear waste dump to be sited at Davis Canyon. The plan called for a 640-acre floodlit compound, a truck-haul road, a power line, a rail line, and nuclear waste to squat in salt beds underground for 100,000 years or longer. Sleight was his usual nuisance self, writing letters to his congressmen and governor, protesting at the public meetings, questioning the authority of Black, who didn’t like to be questioned, especially not by a Mormon who every Sunday skipped church.

    It was on the figure of Black that Abbey based the chief antagonist in “The Monkey Wrench Gang,” the unforgettably leather-faced, yellow-toothed, power-obsessed J. Dudley Love, better known across San Juan County as Bishop Love, the veritable Bishop of Blanding. (Like Black, who hailed from Blanding, pop. 3,100, Love the booster was a bishop in the Church of Latter-Day Saints.) Here’s how Abbey has Smith describe Bishop Love: “neck deep in real estate, uranium, cattle, oil, gas, tourism, most anything that smells like money. That man can hear a dollar bill drop on a shag rug.” Per usual, Abbey exaggerated. “I liked Cal,” says Sleight. “He was sure of himself, could speak well, write well, make his case. He used to wear a bolo tie that had a vial of uranium strapped to it, wearing it on his chest, over his heart, to show it wasn’t dangerous.” Black got lung cancer and died in 1990 at the age of 61.

    By 1986, Sleight had settled down with Jane at Pack Creek Ranch. In the last years of the decade, Abbey often stayed in the ranch’s cabins, where he completed at least one of his 14 books and conceived his fifth child. When Abbey wasn’t pecking at his typewriter or sucking liquor and ogling teenage girls, he’d head out hiking or on horseback in the summer afternoons, usually accompanied by Sleight. The two men talked, as they always did, about Glen Canyon and the dam. They considered alternatives to its violent destruction: How about just draining it like a bathtub? They drank to the notion. In 1989, Abbey, at 62, passed away, battered from a life of alcohol abuse.


    Today the National Park Service has made clear that Glen Canyon shall neither exist in memory nor in the history books. “The Place No One Knew” is not sold in the bookstores at national parks. Nor is “The Monkey Wrench Gang.” Nor is the DVD of the recent film in which Sleight appeared, “Glen Canyon Remembered,” a documentary of interviews and archival footage and photography of the pre-flood canyon.

    If the dam was built in service of gigantism and profligacy — at once an electricity mill for out-of-control sprawl cities and a cash cow for the Colorado River Storage Project, which itself financed out-of-control high-waste agriculture and still more dams across the Southwest — then its net effect on the culture of the canyon country was expected. Lake Foul, as Sleight dubbed the reservoir, allowed access to wilderness that once required days of travel through labyrinths of rock. Now you could find the drowned ruin of Cathedral in the Desert in two hours via houseboat. It was Lake Powell that first welcomed, in organized form and en masse, what Abbey called “industrial tourism,” which depends for success on accessible wilderness and wildness as a marketed commodity, complete with hotel and restaurant chains and the kind of air-conditioned comfort stations that pimple the shores of Powell and the well-paved roads of parks like Arches and Bryce and Zion. Too many people on too many concrete paths, wanting to see too much in too little time, with too many signs telling them what they’re missing, and what they should see next.

    Of course, industrial tourism has in part morphed in the past two decades into a cosmetically greener version of itself, but one no less effective at exploiting the land. Now there are the rock climbers and hikers (like me), the canyoneers, the mountain bikers, and the river rafters and their guides. The hypocrisy of attacking adventure tourism is not lost on Sleight, for the adventure tourists are the very class of citizen that he once catered to as income, to whom he revealed the secrets of the canyons. The difference, offers Sleight, is that there are now too many adventurers. “Maybe,” he tells me, “I shouldn’t have guided one damn person into those places I loved so much.”

    The people come, and the developers come, faster than Sleight can counter. They come into his backyard, up into the hills behind Pack Creek Ranch, in jeeps, on mountain bikes. The bulldozers come, enforcing the Bush administration’s Healthy Forests Initiative, chopping down the juniper and the pinyon trees. “I told the Forest Service, ‘I want meetings on this! Bring us in as stakeholders!'” he says. “They said no public meetings.” So last year, still the renegade, Sleight on his horse blockaded the ‘dozers in a standoff that lasted 15 days. The uranium prospectors come, heirs of Cal Black, smelling money in the soaring price-per-pound of the ore. Operations are set to expand at the White Mesa Mill in Blanding, the only working uranium mill in the United States. The nearby Ute Indians don’t want it. The Utes say the mill fouls their water and their soil. At public meetings, Sleight shouts that the plight of the Utes amounts to “environmental racism.” His is a lonely voice among the whites of San Juan County.

    A cynic will say that all of this rings of NIMBYism in its most crotchety form, but what Sleight really hopes for is sustainability, a simple and enduring concept by which he means the limited use of resources for limited ends. “There is a carrying capacity to everything,” Sleight tells me. It’s a phrase he repeats over many conversations.

    One day in the cool of autumn, Sleight and I rode on horseback into the forest. We rode up a rocky gulch to a hillock where a petrified log had once lain whole, prone as a body, colored cobalt and rust and amber. I looked along the length of the log. Blocks of it had been chopped out like cake slices by scavengers who’d somehow gotten access, back here, where there were once no roads, no people. Sleight looked depressed, standing over the remnant of the find. “Not much left the way it was,” he said. “I think this’ll be gone in a couple years.”

    The Devil’s Path: On the Trail of the Human-Smuggling Gangs of Arizona

    (Author’s note: This was a piece originally written for Maxim Magazine for the Feb. 2004 issue, regarding violence on the U.S.-Mexico border. But the piece never ran. I print it here given the timeliness of the issue of border politics.)

    The bullets sprayed through the windows of the two covered pickups, and cut holes in the vinyl, and suddenly blood was on people’s faces and on the floor. One of the victims was hit in the neck and died instantly. Another took a slug in the stomach. A third got a toe blown off. There must have been terrible shouting when the passengers saw what was happening. They were Mexicans – illegal aliens, packed together in the beds of the pickups like animals – and thought they’d made it to the promised land. Now the van that had been chasing them for two miles on Interstate 10, just south of Phoenix, Arizona, had caught up and pulled alongside. The door had slid open, and three men, also Mexicans, leveled their assault rifles in the whistling air.

    In all, four people were killed and five others wounded during the three-mile highway melee in November, 2003. By Christmas, four more bodies of illegal immigrants turned up in the jagged desert hills near sprawling Phoenix – executed in separate incidents, shoeless, face down near a pile of cow bones. None of these dead were carrying drugs. They didn’t need to. They themselves were the cargo. Each was worth $1,500.

    Welcome to the new face of Mexican smuggling. By some estimates, the trafficking of human beings out of Mexico is today an awesome billion-dollar-a-year trade. The draw for Mexicans is jobs north of the border, escape from the poverty at home. The problem is that more and more are ending up dead – markers in a turf war among rival smugglers, known as coyotes, or simply victims of the hard desert passage.

    Still, the migrants keep coming. About a million illegals each year get caught jumping the 2,000-mile Mexican border, and that’s just one-quarter of the estimated total who make it through. And as the Feds crack down in populous border cities across Texas and California – warrens like El Paso and Tijuana that once offered an easy crossing – the flood has bottlenecked in southern Arizona, along remote and waterless paths, sunboiled highways like I-10, and in the ghettos of Phoenix, teeming violent hub of the human-smuggling trade. Centuries ago, Spanish explorers rightly dubbed this part of the American desert “El Camino del Diablo” – the Devil’s Path.


    You start in the desperation of a place like Puebla, 1,200 miles south of the Line, la Linea. This is where Jose Andres Perez, 21, had his home, a three-room hut that he rented with his mother and father and 13 others. They worked a lemon farm, but the money wasn’t enough – 300 pesos, or $30, a week – and his parents had become sick, their backs broken from the labor. So Perez, who had the big eyes of a boy, made the journey north over 20 days’ travel, moving day and night, mostly on foot, but sometimes, if he was lucky, on hitched rides.

    At the border, just before crossing, bandits robbed him at gunpoint of 500 pesos, about $50, along with his backpack and food – everything he had. In the dusty broken-down bordertown of Naco, he found a coyote to guide him over the desert, into the towering Huachuca Mountains nearby, which run like a north-south spine across the Line. Coyotes prey, like their animal namesake, on pollos – chickens – like Jose Perez. When a coyote gang leads pollos north, they march their cargo fast and cruelly. Families are often separated, wives from husbands, mothers from children, to keep them scared. Sometimes the coyote feeds his pollos stimulants, a 500 milligram diet pill mix of ephedrine, caffeine, and aspirin. Stragglers are abandoned.

    Ironically, the diet pill slows people up, because of its diuretic effect – migrants literally pissing their lives away in the desert. Thus the Huachucas in high summer litter with corpses that turn black in the sun. Indeed, for eight months out of the year, when temperatures regularly top 100 degrees F., the entire Mexican border turns deadly, with at least 2,500 migrants dead from exposure since 1994. In one of the worst incidents, in May of 2000, 14 illegals got lost and perished of thirst near the town of Sasabe, where a coyote named El Negro – the Black One – had bungled their passage. El Negro is among federal authorities’ top five most wanted coyotes.

    Jose Perez crossed with a group of 16 others, after midnight, in cold December, so he wore three torn layers – a plaid button-down shirt, an orange vest, a blue windbreaker – to keep warm. His dusky face was covered in dirt, his jeans – he wore two pair, one over the other – soaked in red mud. The group labored up the ridges, through the spiny cactus, to 7,000 feet, and snow fell as they climbed. Then they dropped, exhausted, into a sheer valley called Ash Canyon, where the coyote told them to sleep. As Jose Perez lay in the snow, he thought of Los Angeles, where his two brothers had a job for him, sewing pants at a few dollars an hour.


    The Huachucas are national parkland, and so they’re patrolled largely by U.S. park rangers – a different breed of ranger, in fatigues and carrying assault rifles, walking the peaks trying not to get jumped or shot by coyotes gone haywire. Until recently, the Huachucas’ most dangerous Mexicans were marijuana “mules” with Ak-47s – in 2003, rangers here captured $19 million worth of smuggled dope – but now the drug cartels have branched into the equally lucrative smuggling of people. In December alone, two Border Patrol agents not far from the Huachucas were attacked and beaten with stones by desperate coyotes. Before 2003, this never happened.

    I went out with ranger Joe Larson on a freezing December night. Larson – one among thousands of overworked border cops in Arizona – is short in stature, tall in spirit, with piercing brown eyes and a soldier’s calm under pressure. His great-grandfather fought in World War I, his grandfather in WW II, his father in Vietnam – all survived – and Larson himself fought with the National Guard in Desert Storm, where he nearly died in 1991 running over a land-mine in a truck. He went on to spend five years as a Border Patrolman before joining the Park Service.

    Larson gets a kick doing night patrol alone. “Joe has no fear,” said his fellow ranger Tim Havens. “Just like tag when we were kids,” says Larson, who is 37. “What other job can you have this much fun and be in danger, too?” He stays busy: Of the million illegal border crossers last year, over 1/10th – some 115,000 illegals – are believed to have entered via the tiny 3.5 mile section of border represented by the Huachucas. “Lots of cover, trees, washes,” says Larson. “Primo crossing, dude.” Larson suited up in long-snouted night-vision glasses, looking like a bug or alien or a robot buzzard, and we hiked out through the brush onto Smuggler’s Trail, a web of pounded foot paths that converge and snake north from the crappy barbed-wire fence the U.S. government deludedly calls a “border.” Jose Andres Perez took this same trail system, after slipping under three strands of wire. Litter blighted the path and the brush and washes around: there were diapers, gallon water jugs, candy wrappers, condoms, tuna cans, an infant’s cowboy boot, and lots of women’s filthy underwear (but no men’s underwear, which was telling). Larson says rape along Smuggler’s Trail is common, a perk among coyotes.

    The night was black. Stars popped out. A meteor fell. Larson crouched in a field of brown grass. We waited and whispered. He explained the business of human smuggling. Migrants don’t pay up front, but instead arrange to have the money ready in Phoenix, where a family member or friend wires the fee, usually via Western Union. As in all black markets reacting to pressure, the big crackdowns in Texas and California have merely upped the take for the gangsters and made life harder for the migrants. The price of passage for the average Mexican has skyrocketed, Larson tells me, from $250 just five years ago to some $1,500 today. If you’re a Brazilian, make that $12,000. If you’re a Middle Eastern terrorist, expect to pay $20,000 – the more distant your origin, the higher the bill. The smuggling gangs – there are ten chief cartels among hundreds of smaller operators, and at least one with connections to the Arrellano-Felix cocaine kings – are family-based, with long arms that stretch from Mexico City to Naco to Phoenix and beyond. At each stage, gang members get paid for each migrant smuggled. The desert coyotes who walk the Huachucas, for example, make $100 per warm body delivered to waiting vans on the back roads of a pickup spot like Ash Canyon. The vans then make the 225-mile trek to Phoenix, where migrants are held, at gunpoint, in a “drop-house” until their “ransom” is paid.

    Joe Larson stopped short and listened in the silence of the desert. There was a beep from his equipment: motion sensors planted on Smuggler’s Trail were reading northward movement. One ping. Then another a minute later. Single pings strung out usually signify a scout, tracking ahead to clear the way for a large group.

    “On dark nights, I get right in among the group, I mingle,” Larson says of his tactics. “I don’t say a word, and they don’t know who the hell I am. They’re used to getting yelled at when they get caught. If you do that, they get scared and freak out. I just do it real quiet and easy. ‘I am the police. Don’t move. Have a seat. Take off your shoes. Put the shoes in front of you.’” Then Larson will crack his flashlights and call for backup.

    The coyotes always try to run, so he takes them down fast and cuffs them. The pollos freeze like deer. They usually have no idea where they are, but sometimes, desperate, they stampede, a chaos of bodies in darkness. Larson once saw a mother with a baby charging through a thicket; the thorns had shredded the child’s face. “It broke my heart,” he said.

    This night, though, the sensors went quiet after a few minutes. The scout had turned back. Or perhaps it was an animal, a mountain lion, bear, who knows. Later, towards dawn, long after Larson had finished his shift, sensors picked up the passage of at least 50 people traveling north on Smuggler’s Trail over the ridge into Ash Canyon. Among them was Jose Andres Perez, who would be captured by Border Patrol that morning after his coyote dumped him while he slept. Perez, the naïf, paid $1,000 up front, so his handlers had no reason to carry through with the deal.

    Jose Perez is lucky he never made it to Phoenix.


    Roselin Rodriguez-Bravo made it, all the way from Guatemala. His reward was a seedy little man named Hector Soria, who stood over the 27-year-old knocking out Bravo’s front teeth with a knife and a screwdriver. Soria threw the bloody teeth to the floor and moved on to Bravo’s feet, stabbing twice with the knife and then in between the toes with the screwdriver. A renegade 20-year-old coyote, Soria kidnapped his victim on the night of September 22, 2003, stealing Bravo from a drop house in the town of Three Points, outside Phoenix. The torturer wanted Bravo to get on the phone and coax from family members a $1,500 ransom – which meant a $1,500 loss for the original smuggler who did the hard work slipping Bravo over the border.

    Rival coyotes are constantly raiding each other’s business, stealing cargo for high-pay ransoms. October of 2003 was an especially fruitful month: One group threatened to sever the arm of a 9-year-old girl if not promptly paid. Three other migrants, kidnapped and held for $15,000, were found duct-taped from head to toe. In 2002, nine bodies of illegals – migrants and coyotes, executed for non-payment or in gang warfare – were found scattered across the low desert outside Phoenix, gagged and bound with tape and telephone wire, and then killed with large-bore gun-shots to the back of the head.

    Phoenix is target-rich. Cops estimate that over 1,300 drop-houses – overcrowded feces-strewn one- or two-story homes, usually rental properties – dot the city’s palm-lined streets. The result: a mind-blowing 400 percent increase in home invasions and kidnappings during 2003, and a 45 percent increase in homicides, up to 247, making 2003 the deadliest in city history.

    Among the top cops assigned to put a lid on this mayhem is Carlos Archuleta, a quiet doughy-faced veteran investigator with the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which is tasked with cracking the human smuggling trade. A native Spanish speaker, Archuleta usually works out of Mexico City, but his chief at ICE brought him north for the latest big enforcement sweep, code-named “ICE Storm.” Between September and December 2003, the operation busted at least 60 Phoenix drop houses, netting 104 coyotes, 25 indictments, $1.85 million in cash (one coyote alone was carrying $47,000), and hundreds of weapons, including M-4s, AR-15s and Kalashnikovs. The boys at ICE like to think they’re winning this war, but the violence just keeps getting worse, because there’s no end in sight to the immigrant flood – no end, that is, to the demand for passage that coyotes supply and increasingly lay down their lives to control.

    It won’t be long until a soccer mom or retiree gets caught in a coyote crossfire. Case-in-point: Archuleta was also one of the investigators on-scene looking into the bloody Interstate 10 shoot-out last November 4 [2003], which was merely the culmination of at least a dozen I-10 corridor hijackings and shootings in the month previous. The November 4 incident started, Archuleta told me, the way all migrant kidnappings start. One group of coyotes snatched another’s load, at gunpoint. Near the town of Marana, the kidnappers commandeered two vehicles that held 24 people, $36,000 worth of humanity. But then the original coyotes got away and called their boss in Phoenix, who dispatched four shooters armed with Chinese-made SKS assault rifles and Tec-9 sub-machineguns. The shooters converged on the hijacked trucks in a grey Dodge minivan, shot up the drivers and the people inside, and ran the vehicles off the road. They themselves were apprehended by Border Patrol agents an hour later, and could face the gas chamber if convicted of the quadruple homicide.

    I finally got to meet a coyote up close when Archuleta took me to the ICE detention center in Phoenix, where agents were interrogating a 30-year-old named Juan-Cruz Garcia, who was suspected of murdering his young wife. Garcia claimed the girl had fallen from the 9th story balcony of a hotel in Los Angeles, but a polygraph taken that morning suggested he was lying when asked if he pushed her. Short and fat with thick tousled hair, Garcia swaggered from his cell, which was packed to capacity with snickering dirt-covered men. He had been beaten across the face, the right-eye blackened and swollen shut (not the work of ICE, I was assured), and sat across from Archuleta slouching in his seat, arms crossed, looking petulant, saying very little but quite at ease for a man who just days before had lost – or killed – his wife. He wore a tattoo on his stomach that said “Ma Vida Loca” – a gangbanger. Archuleta softly grilled him in Spanish, demanding the location of his drop-house and the name of the cartel running it. Garcia stuck out a fat lower lip, shrugged, and looked beadily through his swollen eye. “Do we look like pendejos?” said Archuleta, not happy with this act. “We look like fools?” Archuleta repeated.

    Garcia admitted to nothing, denied everything, and finally was sent back to his cell, where he would wait to be processed and deported. There was nothing else to do – ICE couldn’t hold him on the evidence. He’d be back in a week or two, the ICE agents told me. “He makes good money up here,” they said.

    “Coyotes are like water,” said Carlos Archuleta, a note of resignation in his voice.


    By mid-January 2004 – in the days just after Epiphany, January 6, when religious Mexicans visiting family return north in droves – Joe Larson and Tim Havens were getting slammed. One night it was a group of 40 on the crest trail. Night before that a group of 50. A few days later a group of 37 at 6,500 feet, on a bruisingly cold moonless night. “We hit ‘em head on,” said Joe Larson. “I told Tim, ‘I’m just gonna walk straight through ‘em.’” I asked Larson if he ever got discouraged at the seeming futility of his hard work, and I was surprised at the candor of his answer – one of the few border cops to openly decry the rotten mess that is U.S. immigration law.

    The mess has mostly to do with the double-dealing that comes naturally to legislators in Congress, who like to appear to act tough on immigration – public opinion demands it – while also sucking up to the big business that demands cheap illegal labor. That includes agriculture, meat-packing, restaurants, hospitals, construction, developers, landscaping, farming – all seeking a meek and compliant labor pool that depresses wages and buoys profits.

    Yet the U.S. government annually budgets almost a billion and a half dollars fielding border agents like Larson to keep the evil hard-working aliens out. “Stopping the flow at the border is a small part of the issue,” Joe Larson told me. “Because they all make it through! I’m catching the same guys the next day, the same day, a week later.” Meanwhile, “interior enforcement” – raids on farms and construction sites that employ migrants – has declined by 80 percent since 1998. In 1992, INS fined 1,063 employers for illegal labor violations. By 2001, that number had plummeted to just 78. Joe Larson saw this hypocrisy first-hand in his five years with Border Patrol: “We’re not going in and taking ten thousand aliens from the tomato harvest, because of the huge economic impact. We don’t wanna cause a political uprising – people want their cheap lettuce, man!”

    In a sense, the argument could be made that companies employing vast numbers of illegals thrive in collusion – whether they like it or not – with the murderous smuggling gangs supplying their labor. The solution, offers Larson, is a guest worker program: give the migrants visas, let them come in legally – out from the shadows of the Devil’s Path – and let them work for a living wage, with the protections and dignity afforded American citizens.

    In the meantime, caught in the middle are the border cops like Larson and Carlos Archuleta – good people fighting a losing battle – and migrants like Juan Andres Perez. After getting busted in Ash Canyon last December, Perez was fingerprinted and quickly deported. A few days later, Border Patrol caught him again making the crossing into the Huachucas.


    River’s End: First Draft of a Memoir

    By Christopher Ketcham


    The boats Eric carried taught me the first lesson of the desert, which was the key lesson, the only one: Find water, follow it. An ancient wisdom, but to an Easterner accustomed to the milk of maples and the shade of the hemlock and the generous cloud that kept the streams flowing and the reservoirs filled and the thirst of the cities at bay, the question of whether there would be water was new, unbelievable.

    So find the roads that lead to water, because the gas is going to run out, the sun will run you down, the heat will wring out your eyes and suck the marrow from your bones. Find the path on the water, may it cause you trouble. It did Eric: the trouble of the river was the trouble of the man. Eric now is made of all that he was and more that he wasn’t. My family watches the flickering Super 8 film that we shot of our trip down the river, the one trip we would take together – the waves boil up, crash, crown him. I drink afterwards, watch the film again alone. I don’t believe in karma, or God, or the afterlife, but for a long while I thought he was watching me.

    I come back often, like this, to the Green River in daydreams, the river as I knew it in 1988, when I was 15 years old and discovering the West and Eric was still alive and captain of his unlucky crew of three. Sometimes I wonder how I made it out of the canyons not ending up a cripple, one-legged, the limb gone at the tibia from gangrene or whatever happens to limbs when you break them cruelly in the wilderness and for a long while there is no help. I think of how we rowed and rowed in the new moon’s darkness, racing against the leg, Eric waking from the bow, and I not saying a word. I think of the long days of June on the river, always the river, us like the loneliest, most primitive men. Or so my 15-year-old mind recorded it that way, romantically.

    I remember how when we beached at the one or two outposts along the way, in Indian villages, in towns that consisted of a bridge and no Coke machine and no telephone, I looked at myself in a bathroom mirror astonished at the burnt brown wild-haired boy staring back, who had muscles that weren’t there in New York, who had no idea what date or day it was. And then I knew I wanted to live forever naked on a boat in the desert under the canyons, finding the hanging gardens of the cottonwoods where we could sleep in the sand, and in the mornings, fearful and hopeful, finding the path down the broken steps of the whitewater. And I think of Eric, who by the end of the trip was not my step-brother but a brother simply, who took care of me and cursed me for it, who was the wise man and guide and Bly of our ship, who adored the water and was in the end its victim. By tragedy he had soon become, in daydreams, an unreal figure, someone I never knew, who I wish I’d known, to run a river again, if we’d only had the chance.



    What good are forty freedoms without a blank space on the map?

    – Aldo Leopold

    The American desert seen for the first time in an Econoline roaring down I-80, with the radio playing Zappa, the windows open, the van shaking like it will fall apart, the boats we carried wanting to inflate and go, out of the night and into the sun, into the free light of the American West – the desert, so spare and bright and big, should be first seen when you are young enough not to know you’re on an adventure, and old enough to make a mess of things. And by adventure I mean when you get very hurt or very lost, when you apprehend that you could die, here, now. Much later, of course, you might scale Denali or make a silly attempt at heroism, with expensive gear, but none of it compares to that first leap into mortality, when you did it not knowing the map.

    Eric knew the way: I-80 east across the high red desert of southern Wyoming with its hoodoos and dunes and buttes of red and amber, then south to the put-in at Dutch John, Utah, where the Green River waited at Flaming Gorge Dam.

    Eric chose the Green for probably simpler reasons than I’ll venture. Perhaps because it was there. Or because it fell into canyons that only the few had seen. Or perhaps because its captains and fools and big-hearted river-rats pretty much invented the art of modern whitewater rafting, having learned first from the Green how to face a boat into rapids and survive to enjoy it. Or perhaps because the Green River was one of the epic drainages of the American West, a river of the beaver trade, a wintering water for rustlers and gunmen, a compass point for the conquistadors, and it told a story as wild and tragic and bountiful as the West, a story that in its final pages marked the end of the classic era of continental discovery.

    Or let’s say it was because the Green was the last of the great American rivers Eric had yet to run. So there was no choice, really.

    Eric envisioned a whole month in the wild, half of June and half of July, the high heat months, 20 miles a day down 500 miles of the Green across Utah to its confluence with the Colorado River. Only one other mate would join our crew, Eric’s oldest friend, Rob Morris, who was pensive and quiet and whose stillness threw Eric into screaming fits, making them somehow a good match. In retrospect, the whole thing seemed so foolish, dubious at best, so rife with peril – two men and a boy in a fifteen-foot boat, alone, unsupported, floating some of the remotest country in the U.S. – that I wonder if my parents, sick of me being stoned, kicked out of school, failing class, hadn’t finally given up. Perhaps they felt Eric would make a man of me, whatever that means. Brother by the re-marriage of my father and his mother, Eric like me was an Easterner, a New Yorker – he was from Manhattan, I was from Brooklyn – a kid of the city who early on went West and was driven to distraction with lust for wilderness. At 17 he bought a backpack, hitchhiked the U.S., climbed the Rockies, got sick of walking, discovered boats to be easier on the feet and infinitely more dangerous for the body. At 21, he ran his first river, the Colorado through the Grand Canyon, knowing almost nothing about whitewater. Eric promptly flipped the raft, lost the meat not battened down, heroically saved the beer in the aft, clinging as the boat crashed among the boulders. When he called his mother from the canyon bottom, at the crumb of civilization called Phantom Ranch, she asked if the water was cold. “Mom, I’m too scared to be cold.” Scared and drugged by it, having fallen into the abyss of the canyons to come up kicking. And I think already Eric had an inkling that maybe rivers were not meant to be run at all, nor the canyons they carved to be seen by human eyes.

    Eric had always vaguely terrified me, but I also held him in awe, for he had traveled the world and brought home the trophies to show for it. When he was 21 and living in the basement of my father’s house with two Italian girls on a single futon, he showed me a pistol he said he’d smuggled out of Germany. It was a semiautomatic, compact, shapely. One day I went running after him down our Brooklyn street, calling out for some reason, and he turned and opened fire with the pistol, squeezing off four rounds, aiming right at my chest, and then whipped around and kept walking, like nothing had happened. I fell to the concrete, 11 years old and terrified, my whole body keening, wondering how he could have missed at that distance. Later he confessed the pistol was full of blanks.

    So that was Eric: slightly crazy, possibly sinister, consistently haremed and definitely the brother I never had. To my mind, Eric shooting a pistol at me was a sign of affection.

    So, too, was the Eric with his van seismic at a hundred miles an hour screaming something about the Green River being “gone soon,” the “last of the wild rivers,” and “people like us are fucking it up by just existing.” In 1988, the Green was not the last of the wild rivers, nor was it under threat of drying up. As for “people like us,” I thought that we, Eric and Rob and I running the river, carrying only what we needed, were the good guys. Eric, however, was racing against the imminent collapse of the planet. And we were all complicit.

    The trip began with the kind of foolishness you’d expect of a fifteen-year-old pot-head. On June 20th, 1988, Rob Morris and I flew into Salt Lake City expecting to find Eric waiting with the Econoline, but a phone call to New York revealed that his van was stuck somewhere in the Colorado high country, fuel pump fried, and Eric himself was hitchhiking in a pair of sandals and boxer shorts, with only a wallet and keys and hat, rolling from town to town looking for the right part for his van, until he ended up in Denver, 400 miles from his van, half-naked but with the blessed fuel-pump in hand.

    Sitting around the airport for a day or two was not a problem; I had brought lots of drugs. I had several ounces of marijuana, an ounce of psychedelic mushrooms, baggies of hashish, several tabs of acid, and my favorite pipe and rolling papers, all of which I stuffed in the pockets of my Boy Scout shorts when we got off the plane. With the drugs in them, the pants bulged obscenely, like little protruding mounds of flesh. Rob, who was paranoid, kept whispering that I was going to get caught if I didn’t show a little care in my smuggling.

    I looked at the swollen pockets and shrugged.

    “And I can smell the dope coming off you. This is ridiculous.”

    That was true. The sweet-sour tang wreathed me when I walked.

    “Let’s go check out Salt Lake.”

    “Leave the drugs!”



    “I’m not leaving ‘em in some locker to be sniffed out by dogs. All that other crap we can lose.”

    Rob shook his head in disgust and we grabbed a cab, telling the driver to take us to the action, to the city center, to where the Mormons hung out. Salt Lake was my first experience of a big American city outside of New York, and it was an awful thing to behold, because it didn’t look or feel like a city. I remember it being highways and wide empty desolate streets with empty homes that all looked alike. No one walked on the sidewalks and there was no noise in the air, no voices, no radios, no footfalls, and the traffic was only a distant hum, like a pumped-in background music. Maybe the people had fled the ugliness of the place. Or maybe people weren’t meant to walk abroad in such a frightening and strange civilization. Maybe they lived in underground tunnels. Maybe walking was illegal, because a cop in his cruiser soon rolled up and floodlighted us like two bone-headed deer.

    “Well there,” he stood with the light blasting. The cop had a funny way of speaking that swallowed words and spat them from the side of the mouth. All we heard was mush-mouthed gibberish.

    “Uh,” Rob and I looked at each other. “Sorry.”

    “Sorry?! Curfew been haid six fine old buzz chimp-pang the zoo! Even the zoo!”

    A curfew! I figured out that much. This was horrible. A curfew, and all these drugs on me. I was suddenly pouring sweat.

    The old cop shook his head. “Boys Salt Lake no I.D.?”

    “Well,” Rob said, and then foolishly launched into the tale of Eric’s desert breakdown in the Econoline (skeptical look from cop), how we had flown in from New York (losing him), how we were to boat the canyons of the Green River (that was quite enough) –

    “Now them I.D.s?

    But we had no I.D.s. They were back at the airport in our bags. The only thing in my pockets were the goddamn drugs, which started to feel very heavy – like a long prison term.

    “Smother jeezus,” the officer said. “But! Takin’ them pity ‘cause good Salt Lake! Hey nah?”

    “Absolutely,” said Rob and motioned to me to start walking.

    The officer was aghast. “Where going you hell’s bells?” He whipped out two yellow pieces of paper and waved them: youth identity cards to be filed at the police station. “Got ID ya!” He peered with his great bastard lamp first at Rob, scribbling a description of clothes and hair and eyes and ethnicity – half-Jewish, half-Filipino, Rob was a New York original – noting his social security number and address back in NYC and what time it was and where he’d found us and what our reasoning was for being out on the street.

    Then he turned to me. Stopped. Peered. His face twisted up. “What them shorts there?” My blood froze and I went hot all over and glanced down at the bulging Boy Scout shorts and I could smell the two fat weed bags reacting to the hot flashes: a long sweet stenching breath of marijuana filled the air. God, it was all coming to an end –

    “Tan,” the officer said a second later, scribbling, having asked only the color of the shorts.

    Rob and I fled back to the airport. I was soaked in sweat and trembling and felt like throwing up.

    “Throw up then,” Rob muttered. “I told you not to bring the drugs.” He admitted, though, that the event was worth capturing and embellishing to be passed along to Eric, who finally showed up in the hot dawn, hairy-chested in his sandals and boxer shorts, and with barely a hello. Eric was not amused.

    “This trip is starting fucking great! You know, I was doing fine without the drug cartel in my truck. Little stash of weed! Little acid! Under the radar? Know the concept, Chris? Don’t you realize these Mormons are sick and dangerous people? You think you can just walk around here without drawing attention?”

    But after a minute, Eric said, “So roll a joint already.” We sparked the joint and the wind whipped the smoke out the window, and dawn broke over the desert, and my eyes burst at the sight. Soon there were no cities, no houses, no habitations, no highway, a road dwindling to two lanes and then to dirt. Then the only road was water.

    Our raft was a Maravia, 15’ long and 7’ wide, pliable to beat against rock, the same craft that had flipped in the Grand Canyon, with an oar station at its middle, storage front and aft, seating in the soupy bottom or on the tubes with ropes and rings to hold onto. In ammo cans and watertight bags we carried bread, ham, cheese and chocolate that wouldn’t endure in the sun – our last pleasures of civilization – and cans of tuna and beans and rice and nuts and beer that could last forever – except the beer, Eric drank gargantuan amounts of beer – plus life jackets, big-brimmed straw hats, river maps, first aid kit, tent, sleeping bags, grill and pan and gas stove, plus Eric’s red Prijon T-Canyon kayak, all ten feet of it torpedo-like strapped to the stern, the baby on the mother’s back. Eric loved his kayak.

    We carried river books. I brought Huck Finn, and Rob brought Heart of Darkness, and Eric brought a muddy and stained paperback called Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons, by someone named John Wesley Powell, who would come to be the ghost on our boat, the fourth man. When the mazy rapids went still and the June desert days drew out hot and long and cloudless, Powell’s story captivated Eric at the bow. For 119 years earlier, in 1869 and again in 1871, it was John Powell, a one-armed geologist from Ohio, who came west to chart the waters of the high desert and catalogue in almost river-eaten logs the famine and mutiny and camaraderie of the first explorers on the Green and Colorado Rivers. When Powell set out from Expedition Island in the railroad stop-over of Green River, Wyoming, he entered a region of the Southwest that was then one of the last forbidding question marks on U.S. maps, an unknown as big as Texas. John Fremont, who explored portions of Wyoming’s upper Green in 1843, noted that “no trappers have been found bold enough” to run the river southward, “a voyage with so certain a prospect of a fatal termination.”

    A thousand miles later, where the Colorado River dies today in man-made Lake Mead, Powell emerged sun-blackened, half-starved, bruised by whitewater, surviving on spoiled flour and short one of his boats and three of his men, who were killed by Indians. Powell’s journey, remarkably, was not pecuniary, not for conquest, not an extension of government (Washington provided him almost no funding). His purpose was simply to know, to unveil the desert, and like Adam in the nude, he pointed to rock and rapid and bequeathed for posterity the names of the region. From Powell, we have Flaming Gorge and Echo Park and Son-of-a-Bitch Rapid, Desolation and Gray Canyons, Stillwater Canyon and Labyrinth Canyon and Cataract Canyon, Glen Canyon, and the Grand Canyon.

    On May 24, 1869, under the sunshine of a crowd that mostly thought he had lost his mind, Powell put in with nine men and four boats. On June 22nd,1988, Eric and Rob and I found the river 30 miles below Expedition Island, under the shadow of Flaming Gorge Dam, which had flooded the spectacular canyons of Flaming Gorge in the 1960s. No one saw us off. The current gathered us to its fast lane, the sun blazed, the water was crystalline and cold as winter, and you could read the pebbles at its bottom. Quickly came our first rapid, in high-walled Red Canyon, arriving with a distant bubbling whisper, and Eric said, “Told you twice now. Put on your life jacket.” The river went faster, you felt it tugging in the stomach, a tongue of water between boulders took us in, we splashed through a single wave, suddenly soaked, and then rollercoastered a minute. And that was my first rapid. A great ape arrogance came over me. I stopped gripping the ropes on the boat and turned to Eric. “That was easy.”

    “Don’t ever say that.” Then he said nothing more to me for the rest of the day.

    We camped that first night in the wide yellow-grassy bottomlands of Browns Park, surrounded by distant high-tiered ledges of rock. A few houses stood in the park, where people lived year round. This was once rustler country, protected by mountains, mild-weathered in winter, sweet-watered, and strategically situated at the corners where Wyoming, Utah and Colorado met and jurisdictions blurred. Lawmen for many years were afraid to enter Browns Park. Butch Cassidy and his cadres holed up here – that “wild bunch at Browns Park,” a name that stuck – and it wasn’t until 1900 that the last rustlers were either gunned down or chased out.

    On the second day I smoked weed and lazed and watched the blue sky and the water, which now by the action and turbulence had gone so brown with silt that it had no bottom and suddenly looked very deep and dangerous. When the sun went out behind a cloud, the river assumed the aspect of a living thing and it made me sit up. That afternoon, the landscape turned solemn and weird: the rock became the color of blood – oxidated from several thousand years of iron wash – the walls rose up 2,000 feet, as if clicked on, and the river plunged into a vertical crevice in the distance, a “great stone mouth drinking,” as an early trapper wrote. Powell named this the Gates of Lodore; he worried at the unknown beyond. A sound of rushing came from Lodore, and the Gates, Powell wrote, had become to his crew “a black portal to a region of doom…the old mountaineers tell us that it cannot be run.”

    I remember the rushing; I remember the great stone mouth as it drank us. The whitewater comes suddenly, as suddenly as falling down a stairs, though portended in the quiet air by the hooves of a distant stampede, an approaching jet-liner – the gradient falling now at 20 feet per mile. The raft explodes in a wave that nettles the eyes; we leap like a cat getting kicked. We see for a moment from the top of a wave the sky and rock and the calamity of more rapids below: everywhere there is rushing, roaring, the echoing of it, the walls tightening in (a roaring that at night in Lodore never stops – it floods the ears, it could drive you crazy). Then the eyes are again latticed with water, pillars toppling, filling our ship with diamonds, light, whispers, explosions, blindness, Eric crying, “Don’t fucking stand there, stupid – bail!” and I bailing but feeling more like a pinball with a bucket. I looked at him tearing at the waves with his long thin arms and thinner oars, and on his face there was a smile, white and toothy and a little power-maddened, as if he was churning the river to his will, which made me feel better. Behind us, the canyon rims closed over and cut the sky into a shaft. Here for the first time I knew there was no turning back.

    Seventeen years later, I went to find the place where we put in; this seemed extremely important. I flew into Salt Lake City and followed the tracks: I-80 east into Wyoming, with its trucks howling, then to the town of Green River and Expedition Island, where eight desert rabbits ran away in the brush; then a road with no other traffic, south to Dutch John, where I ran out of gas and limped to the pump. It was winter and foully cold but snow patches lit the fur of the pinyon trees and the yellow marching hills of the sage-grass, and I could see the Uinta Mountains in the distance, jagged and snow-packed, feeding their waters to the Green. I came to the spillway under the high white arc-light of Flaming Gorge Dam, where the dam settles like perfect teeth in the mouth of Red Canyon and the narrow river races. And with a thunder-clap I saw us under the shadow of the dam, blowing up the boat, decanting the van, Eric screaming orders, marshalling his troops and gear. But night was coming on at zero degrees and the vision was swept downstream in the cold. Still, I whooped at the discovery, I called out, I marked the spot with a snow angel, I splashed the freezing water on my face.

    Then I stood awhile near the boat-ramp, with frozen hands, waiting for the shades to form again. On a wooden post was a warning about the river and how it drowns people, and I thought of Eric and what it must have been like, how they say it’s painless, and suddenly I saw my father and step-mother and sister and myself, almost my whole family, in tall white surf off Long Island on a summer’s day. I remembered how the surf turned on us that day: it pulled and it hit and knocked us down, I saw my father’s face growing pale as he fought, and I saw my sister growing panicked as she watched my father’s face, and I saw my step-mother getting pulled away, and I called out but no one could hear me above the waves, and then the current changed, like a smile, and spat us all bobbing back to land.

    It got cold again. The swift central current spun a big-hipped eddy that beckoned continually where the boat-ramp touched the water. I watched a single moment of water in the eddy, following it through the motion of its hydraulics until the moment in water-time reached its arm into the central stream and was gone downriver where the canyon bent beyond sight. I remembered that riding the river, you felt entirely still. The land passed away; the river remained.

    -end of chapter 1-

    New York’s Most Loathsome, reprisals reprised

    When New York Press editor Alex Zaitchik asked me to help write the paper’s 2005 list of the “Most Loathsome New Yorkers,” I took to the task gladly and also asked that my byline be attached to each of my votes. But one of our fellow contributors apparently freaked out at the idea of the writers naming their own names — which seemed strange, given, after all, that naming was the whole point of the exercise. Anyway, some of my Loathsome entries ran, some were dumped, but none ran under my byline. I correct that below, with a slant toward Brooklyn’s most loathsome. Enjoy, and sing out if you have any to add (god almighty, there are enough choices in NYC)…

    Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, Tax-Dollar Waste, Non-Entity

    Picture Ron Jeremy without the dick, Buddy Hackett without the laughs, and you have Brooklyn B.P. Marty Markowitz. Why this porcine oaf with the eerie resemblance to your insane grinning uncle continues to occupy Borough Hall is beyond reason. Once upon a time, when the Board of Estimate ruled graft and contracts in New York, the five borough presidents had power. But today it’s a no-show job. The bad news with Markowitz is that he shows up, and so do his 116 employees, his $4.7 million budget, and his four SUVs equipped with police sirens. Not content with doing nothing, Markowitz finds time to advocate for the downtrodden, such as Ikea, Home Depot and developer Bruce Ratner in their noble quest to cannibalize mom-and-pop neighborhoods. Markowitz is also known for racing around the city in HOV lanes with police lights flashing, en route to handing out a plaque. Markowitz was up for re-election last year and, true to form, voters put him back at the grindstone. Instead, he should have saved the citizens the trouble and us taxpayers millions of dollars and fired himself, fired his employees and turned Borough Hall into a methadone clinic. At least then we’d have reputable people hanging around the place.


    Barbara Corcoran, Megarealtor, Suburbanizer

    The Corcoran Group, whose agents get Botox injections and put steamy photos on their business cards, has done more than any other realtor in town to fetishize and thus gentrify once affordable and polyglot neighborhoods. According to the company’s website, Barbara Corcoran’s mega-realty had “over $5 billion in closed sales volume in 2003,” and according to CNN, Corcoran herself is “the most sought after broker” in the city. Of course, Corcoran’s success has opened the doors of the city to a thousand locust-like imitators, as they swarm into the next “hot, hip hood” to drive out blacks, Puerto Ricans, pensioners, old people, struggling families, squatters and anyone else who can’t step up to the Darwinian contest of market rates. “The Corcoran Group is the Wal-Mart of real estate,” says a local Brooklyn broker who didn’t want her name used. “Corcoran goes into a cheap neighborhood and brings in a developer to rip apart the organic fabric.” The Corcoran website states that Barbara founded the company at a “key moment in New York City real estate history” – the 1970s – “just as the city went from being a market predominantly composed of rentals to one of individual ownership.” Sound familiar? Yep, it’s the ethic of the “ownership society,” which pits the propertied against everyone else – the very same sociopathic drive with which the Republican Party of George W. Bush hopes to herd the poor to the fringes of American society.


    District Attorney Charles “Joe” Hynes, Brooklyn’s Top Elected Criminal

    Is this guy a jerk-off or what? The most powerful man in Brooklyn prosecutes political enemies on bullshit charges, talentless cronies balloon his staff, and almost every year he bursts his budget. His office is the top-heaviest in the city with six-figure “executive assistants” who apparently do nothing but kick money upstairs to Hynes’ campaign coffers. In fact, Hynes is the only of the city’s five DAs who extorts campaign contributions from staff. He also runs his campaign headquarters out of his offices, which is illegal. He took a bag of $12,000 in cash – also illegal – in his failed run for governor in 1998, but his staff prosecutors – those vaunted executive assistants – claimed not to know that taking sacs of cash is a crime. Three of Hynes’ children have been on the payrolls of various local politicos, though Hynes promised to bring a “wrecking ball” to the cronyism and patronage in Brooklyn that rots civic life. According to the Daily News, homicide is down 10 percent city-wide, but in Brownsville, it’s up 156 percent; in Bensonhurst, it’s up 400 percent. While Brooklyn burns, Joe Hynes plays with his pud and we foot the bill.


    Max Boot, War Pundit, Laptop Bombardier

    Though a resident of leafy suburban Larchmont, in Westchester, where manly intellectuals like him go to become child molesters, the grim and terrible Max Boot, author of “Savage Wars of Peace” and neocon par excellence, arrives to his offices at the Wall Street Journal decked in leather bomber, riding crop, and knee-high shit-kickers. We know this from his WSJ commentaries, including his now-infamous channeling of Dr. Strangelove via George Patton that complained of not enough American lives being lost in the invasion of Afghanistan. “President Bush promised that this would not be another bloodless, push-button war, but that is precisely what it has been,” Boot intoned (this from a pale-faced wonk). “Our bombing campaign reveals great technical and logistical prowess, but it does not show that we have the determination to stick a bayonet in the guts of our enemy….” Whatever. Writing more recently in the New York Times, the lunatic Boot enthused on the American occupation of the Philippines that teed off the last “American century” and ended in the deaths of 200,000 civilians. “It was a long, hard, bloody slog,” he writes, also describing, sources say, sex with his Larchmont wife. We hope Boot is contented with the line of Iraq War corpses that can be traced to him and his fellow neocons’ door.


    Lawrence A. Kudlow, War Economist, Madman

    Like Boot a blood-thirsty psychopath who believes himself sane, the one-time top Bear Stearns/ING economist and co-propagandist on CNBC’s Kudlow & Cramer wrote cheerily of the economic benefits of the impending disaster in Iraq. “The shock therapy of decisive war will elevate the stock market by a couple-thousand points,” promised the vampire, who by day doubles as CEO of his eponymous midtown consulting firm while also writing a column for National Review. “We will know that our businesses will stay open, that our families will be safe, and that our future will be unlimited.” So…our businesses stayed open…because we…invaded Iraq….Um. Okay – fucking sicko. The real record since the war – pace Kudlow the Impaler – has been millions of jobs lost and a slumping economy. Oh, not to mention the moral nightmare of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and what will likely be a decades-long occupation blowing billions upon billions of dollars better spent on a space program for sending people like Kudlow to another planet on which to play his homicidal version of Monopoly. There’s also that rather future-limiting thing that’s been happening to American soldiers, known as death, as in 2,500 of them (as of June 2006 — but why stop at 2,500?!). Kudlow’s grade-A asshole status is further confirmed by his being an avid golfer.


    Bill O’Reilly, Cable Television Freak, Ostensible Talk Show Host

    O’Reilly is the classic lace-curtain Irish boor – mottled, thin-skinned, wistful, bloated and delusional — and a whining Miss Nancy to boot. As loathsome as he is, his personality would be a desperately pitiable object if he wasn’t the kind of behind-the-scenes suck-up demagogue who will one day be Commissariat of Information and Media Punishment in George Bush’s Emergency Third Term (watch, it’ll happen). Here’s a guy whose only answer to challenge is to throw girly tantrums, who screams down Al Franken when Franken busts him for lying about winning the super-prestigious Peabody Award, who cuts his guests’ mics when they disagree with him, who calls his fellow Americans “traitors,” “unpatriotic” and “dangerous” when they refuse to support a semi-imbecilic and totally criminal administration – all this, mind you, in the righteous confines of O’Reilly’s “no spin zone,” one of the boldest bogosities in the history of tv news marketing. When O’Reilly suggests to us for Valentine’s Day to go out and buy each other copies of his lousily written, poorly researched, mendacious tracts, we sadly know he’s looking for the love his drunken abusive daddy never provided to the one and only male daughter in the family.


    William B. Harrison, Jr., CEO of JP Morgan Chase & Co.

    If you trust your money in Chase’s vaults, you already should hate this guy for doing nothing since his appointment in 2001 to fix his company’s usurious rape of low income depositors: the ATM fees ($1.50 on a $20 withdrawal?); the near-nil savings account rates; the minimum balance fees on checking accounts; and every other fiduciary duty-turned-scam in which poor people with nothing much to save are the most common prey – their meager monies meant rather for the enrichment of the privileged few who invest in or run America’s No. 2 bank. Lately, Bill Harrison’s loathsomeness as CEO of a loathsome enterprise has hit a new high, as I noted in NY Press in 2005: JP Morgan continues to extend huge credit sums to predatory lenders that then use JP’s line to furnish cash “payday” loans to the working poor – generosity tempered, of course, by annual interest rates that can approach 1,000 percent. So-called “payday” lenders find an especially fruitful clientele in youthful soldiers, according to a report in Bloomberg News. Thus have payday lenders over the past decade taken root like poison mushrooms in the fecund soil of the “private sector” around military bases nationwide. None of this could have ever come to pass without the largesse of assholes like William Harrison and his ilk, which includes, to be fair, the heads of Wachovia Corp., Bank of America Corp. and Wells Fargo & Co., all of whom have snatched a piece of the $6 billion-dollar-a-year payday lending industry – but none so effectively or extensively as JP Morgan.


    Steven Roth, CEO of Vornado Realty Trust

    Under the captaincy of Mr. Roth, multi-billion dollar real estate developer Vornado Realty Trust has been the first in the city to propose a Wal-Mart superstore for one of its Queens sites. To Mr. Roth I’d like to answer with the simple facts of the obscenity that is Wal-Mart and what the coming of Wal-Mart likely means for the communities that Mr. Roth hopes to “develop.” After a decade of predations in Iowa, Wal-Mart’s presence has led to the closure or bankruptcy of 555 grocery stores, 298 hardware stores, 293 building supply stores, 161 variety stores, 158 women’s apparel stores, 153 shoe stores, 116 drugstores, and 111 men’s and boys’ apparel stores. Wal-Mart sales clerks nationwide averaged $8.23 an hour in 2001. That’s $13,861 a year – $800 below the federal poverty line for a family of three. Wal-Mart employees in Georgia were six times more likely to rely on state-provided health care for their children than were employees of any other large company. In California, Wal-Mart workers are so heavily dependent on public assistance programs that their employment at Wal-Mart cost state tax-payers $86 million annually. An investigation by the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce found that “Wal-Mart’s rock bottom wages and benefits cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars a year in basic housing, medical, childcare, and energy needs that the retailer fails to properly cover for its employees.” All else being equal, U.S. counties where new Wal-Mart stores were built between 1987 and 1998 experienced higher poverty rates than other U.S. counties. So thanks, Mr. Roth. Thanks a fucking lot.


    PIC00023.JPG …and if anyone should see these two loathsome fuckers, call the ASPCA…posthaste!

    Footnote to the Rhyme of the Mariner: What the Merchant Marines Saw

    By Christopher Ketcham

    (Note: Merchant mariners who fought in World War II were never honestly recognized or remunerated for the terrors they endured from the wolf-pack u-boats of the German navy. In Brooklyn I’ve spent a little time, several years, in bars where old Liberty ship mariners used to drink. Below is a true story, pieced together and much embellished or perhaps too little embellished, of a father who discovers his son’s death and of the son in the Atlantic after his ship has gone down.)

    Captain Joe threw himself against the walls, he dervished into night-stand and liquor rack and writing table and he smacked a great oil lantern to the ground and for some reason it went out when the oil spilled, now the place stinking of oil and blackness and he spinning and screaming and spinning and falling down exhausted, he lay against the wall in a corner of the little room for a long while, and outside the braver of the crew, who perhaps had no respect, stood in a line in the corridor to the door listening, saying nothing, worried now for the man who would lead them home through the wolf-pack. Lt. Appleman, who knew, who had seen it through his own glasses, quietly and furiously told them to move away.

    There was a shadow on the ship then.

    The oil fire lay over the water hurling its yellow limbs down into the water, then dousing out, reengaging. Fists of white and yellow fell, meteors that blew out. All Sigmund could see was the yellow bubbling above him and below the darkness that fed from the light, sucking it in, at once illuminated and dashing all light in its mushy feeding shapes. A shark sped past him, gaining on blood somewhere, and Sig felt the air going out of him. He breast-stroked, felt himself rising, the water boiling above him, frozen beneath him…breath out….more air gone, swim faster. Die now, don’t die. The history of the planet, he thought, the sun and the sea, water and fire. Three sharks rammed him: blind for the bodies of the crew of the Tarkington…God, they are crass, they are devils, they should wait. Suddenly, mud-darkness, cool and without shape, without light, the burbling, babbling thousand suns gone. And he thought of all the people who had drowned, though to think of every death took less than one-twentieth of a second, because he selfishly hated them for dying, that he would be like them, but they for a hung twentieth of a second all drowned, lining up, drowning, and seeing himself line up, drowning, the dead, drowning, and he waking up not catching his breath, feeling sick, wanting to throw up, feeling the sun much too hot, after a sunburn on Coney Island, his mother putting yogurt on his cheeks.

    A current had caught him fast away from the fire, or the fire had swum away, or he dolphining had swum under it faster than it could burn, for now he was free of it and vomiting water, seizing air with his tongue and he could feel the sea was thick and heavy and viscous and felt like gauze, like blood feels in the mouth. He looked at his hands: black as tar. He began to hyperventilate: burnt, I’ve been burnt, my hands, my body, die, I will die.

    – Joseph! Joseph!

    And no one answered, and there was no echo, he was in a warehouse by the sea, it was Brooklyn, the mice scattered, it was summer, winter, the ice scanned the rock of the pier for weaknesses. A project for school: erosion. The waves moved into the stone and made the stone, man-carved and ugly, silly, practical – the waves made by their destruction a beauty of the staunch built thing, which was finally eroded and was no more and then no one could say it was beautiful.

    – Joe!

    The waves hooked and beveled, and the sea steamed from the heat of the fire, fog blew in white pennants. Sig came to rest on the wreck, also burnt and black, of a rowboat that had held men upon whom the fire on the water came without warning, swallowing the flesh but leaving the wood alive. Sig thought he saw blast prints in the boat, which was not sinking yet but seemed to fill with an oily jet like a desert spring, subtle and kind, something to drink from, which he did, then vomited. Sig hung here with right arm snug around the wood, like a leaf.

    – Joe?

    And no one answering and in the darkness the oil tide carried him but the fire burned in the other direction and the great ship in its yellow light sunk at last with all hands. Sig watched this but thought he was seeing the circus at five years old. And he remembered he was seeing the ship go down, and he started screaming:

    – Marty! Marty! Marty! Marty! Marty! Marty! Marty!

    And screaming he took a drink, he pulled the oil murk with a breast stroke, remembering to keep moving, the frozen water worked its tongue smoothly up his calve, shivers pulled in like ten birds waiting. He saw Brooklyn, where the first dead man in history washed up when he was six years old and he and the ten grasses that lay down in Rockaway when he lay on the beach in Breezy Point. And the ten birds poisonous as mildew and the fluid from the new shock absorbers in the 1940 Fords.

    – Daddy! he cried out. Joe!

    A ship appeared after a while, wearing rays of light on its bow. The SS Hunt hid north of the battle and now it was running cemetery duty, pulling men from the frozen sea.

    A Web Archive for the work and writings of Christopher Ketcham (copyright © Christopher Ketcham, all rights reserved)