Darkness in a Sun-Bleached Land


Photo by Leon Werdinger.

Introduction to “In a Dark Land: Murder, Mysticism, and the Militia in the Remote Desert Southwest”

In May and June of 1998, three men who had trained themselves in wilderness survival and military tactics gathered an arsenal of semi-automatic and automatic rifles, handguns, and pipe bombs and enough supplies to hold out through a prolonged siege, and then went on a tear through the heart of canyon country in the desert southwest.  What they had in mind when they stole a water truck, murdered a police officer, and disappeared into the labyrinthine wilderness has generated a variety of theories.  Some of these theories hint at the kinds of actions associated with militia movements and the homegrown terrorism of people like Terry Nichols and Timothy McVeigh.  Others suggest that the trio were generally disgruntled with their station in life and just plain not very bright.  Either way, their actions are alarming and dark-hued.

But part of what makes their story irresistible is the outlaw landscape that the three men disappeared into and the desert wilderness where two of them were found dead.  If these events had occurred in Chicago or Los Angeles they would have generated a passing interest.  But bad men committing acts of violence and disappearing into western wilderness puts a full-Nelson on the American imagination and doesn’t let go.  This is the stuff of a John Ford or Sergio Leone movie.  This is the Saturday western, fugitives in black shooting at the good guys while behind them the landscape—the real protagonist— recedes in orange hills and high buttes where the outlaws will lead the posse into danger.  It is John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart and other dusty, unshaven men on horses pursuing justice on the wild frontier.  Exuding the toughness and independence that we all believe made this country great.

Even if you’ve never visited the Four Corners region where the state lines of Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado intersect, you have seen this land recently: a dark sedan corners hard on a serpentine blacktop road or a gleaming SUV kicks up red dirt as it skitters through a sharp curve.  Impossibly beautiful humps and domes, hoodoos and escarpments, gleaming pinnacles and petrified hills and cliffs of polished red sandstone crowd the view.  Sagebrush and prickly pear cactus yawn toward the blue horizon.

Somehow a car careening through the redrock desert of the southwest has come to define the American ideals of freedom, frontier, and limitless wilderness the way Shane or The Gunslinger once did.  Car commercials have become 30-second mini-westerns that stand for the very things that the historian Frederick Jackson Turner once claimed helped to create the unique American character.  Of course Turner also said— in 1890— that the frontier which formed us had already closed.

But more than a century later we still cling to these ideals: we like to believe that rugged country still defines our spirit, that wide-open possibilities can still be discovered in the wild places on the map.  That the landscape is still untamed enough to harbor outlaws who can’t be found.  The notion that we can own a vehicle of such power and comfort and drive it through such a startling topography makes us feel larger than life— though how motorized vehicles and wilderness can exist simultaneously in the same place is beyond the heart-pumping half-minute of a t.v. commercial to explain.  Nonetheless, we want the car.  And the cartography.

Many folks have been drawn powerfully enough by images of the redrock desert to explore their own southwestern version of an American dream.  Possibly they’ve sat in an idling rig (nobody in the rugged west calls it a “car”) waiting to pay the entrance fee to Arches or Bryce or Zion National Park, munching power bars and sipping sports drinks before walking the 1.5-mile paved loop trail.  Mornings, they might pass through a motel lobby full of Kachina dolls and Kokopellis on their way to the free breakfast of sugared doughnuts and Tang and weak coffee.  After their five-day adventure they may return home with stories about how the brutal noon time temperature grilled their cheese sandwiches in the trunk of the car.  If they’re really lucky, they’ll have seen a rattlesnake.  They will feel wide and free ranging, having gotten in touch with the land.  Western land.  Desert land.  Ahhh.

Hundreds of books available at gift shops and park visitors’ centers natter on about the sacred this and the spiritual that in the desert southwest.  They describe modern white people performing Native American rituals to cleanse themselves because the Indians were so at one with the land.  So pure and good, living off the meager bounty of a hard but beautiful place.  Every pot shard and corncob and scribble of rock art the Indians left behind, these books pontificate, is the basis for a religious epiphany or worthy of ecstatic contemplation.  What are the dead Indians saying to us, such volumes ponder.  As if any of this could even possibly have anything to do with us.  They further romanticize the idea of the southwest and its former inhabitants up the frigging wazoo until there is nothing real or genuine left.  Except the land itself, which has endured eons of erosion, of battering winds and raging waters.  So surely it can endure an age or two of human yammering.

In fact, the Four Corners Region is as stunning and inaccessible as a supermodel.  Also known as the Colorado Plateau because its topography is influenced by the action of this once-mighty river and its tributaries carving through a vertical mile of stacked sandstone spreading like a huge pallet of soft red cake, the terrain has an ability to deliver a refreshing slap.   Like a cold plunge on a blistering day.  It brings on shudders the way a shot of mescal does.  It moves us, whether we’re prone to emotion, or over-dramatize our experience, or prefer not to be so moved.

But car ad landscapes and books and visitors’ center dioramas describe mere ghosts of the real southwest.  These images have no soul despite the fact that we have spiritualized the canyons and mesa tops beyond all reckoning, imbued them with fluffy power sanitized for our protection.  Sure, this still-wild west is beautiful and moving.  But it is also a humongous Indian graveyard encompassing enough bad juju for centuries of whoop-ass haunting.  It is a killing maze where modern men, women, and livestock, and a whole race of ancient Native Americans, among other things, have simply disappeared.  In a word, this land is dark— darkness being something that the most powerful forces always encompass as part of their alluring complexities.

Wilderness is more than an improved campsite with running water and an outhouse; if you wander off the blacktop path, if you touch the wildness in this wilderness, real dangers of every sort may take the opportunity to present themselves.

The car commercials and visitors’ centers and the happy-faced mystics never talk about the desert southwest as a land of death and hardship.  They never mention that humans have a history of vanishing here the way that water holes that appear after a rainstorm are shortly sucked dry by the relentless sun.  Unsolved mysteries rise from this sandy soil as prolifically as sage and yucca— beginning with the Anasazi, a race of ancient Native Americans who spent a millennium and ultimately built fantastical cliff dwellings in the canyons here and then evaporated into history before the European Dark Ages were even revving up.

The stories of this region are as twisted as the trunk of a hundred-year-old juniper tree.  Still, I must confess to having fallen under the spell of this land many years ago and being drawn back countless times to wander in canyons, to stumble dry-throated across mesas, to climb rock faces I had no business climbing just to reach some archaeological site abandoned by people who surely didn’t have me in mind when they left their mark here.  When they pressed handprints of wet red paint above their doorways 700 years ago.  And although I don’t claim to comprehend what three violent men were up to when they went postal here in 1998, I can relate to the way this place urges you to test your limits.  How it provokes you to discover what you can get away with and just how alive you can feel—whether that means climbing a dangerously exposed route across crumbling sandstone or something else entirely.

I must also admit to feeling some sort of bucking in my solar plexus in the canyons that I am not comfortable trying to explain lest I sound like one of the smiley spiritualists I’ve grown so weary of.  Like them, I also believe this land has a power— but not the benign hippie love-fest power that people speak of in hushed tones.  Okay, yes, I’ve even felt some of that.  But I also know how this land’s power has drawn and nurtured murderers, thieves, liars, and exploiters of every ilk and grand design.  It has attracted rebels and outcasts, raging fundamentalists, and a varied portfolio of hard cases.  Backpackers and river guides and other misanthropes flee here to escape the rampant commercialism and fast-food mentality of our nation.  And all of us—all the pilgrims who’ve felt the pull of this territory’s sun-drenched beauty—will admit that the heart of this land lies in shadow.  We carry a bone-deep understanding that canyon country may coax a person to do strange things.

From the earliest human inhabitants here, whose culture peaked seven hundred years ago and then vanished entirely from the earth; to the wandering explorers—Father Escalante, John Wesley Powell, the Weatherill family that was instrumental in discovering the Anasazi’s legacy; from loners and artists such as Everett Reuss who disappeared in the 1930s without a trace after last being seen in Davis Gulch, a tributary of the Escalante River, itself the very last river to be discovered in the continental U.S; to a trio of modern-day malcontents who carved a glyph of murder and hatred across our pure image of this land, men have acted badly or dumbly or both in the rugged southwest.

The story of these three recent fugitives, in particular, is a fine tale for exposing the underlying character of the canyon lands and the effect they can have.  To truly love a place we must recognize and accept its undesirable qualities as well as its many alluring attributes.  To love the desert we must acknowledge the terrible burden of its freedom.  The anarchy of its open spaces.  The geographic madness it sometimes inspires.

If there is a radical discontent fomenting in this nation, a movement that strikes against order and complacency and all the familiar comforts that most of us hold dear, it would likely find succor in the stingy, hardscrabble soil of the Colorado Plateau—in the heat of the sun and the shade of the canyons.  It would rise sharp and tough and unapproachable as a cholla cactus in a terrain so biblical it drew an entire religion—the Mormons—to call it their Promised Land.

What was this triumvirate of violent renegades up to when they cut loose from the reins binding them to society?  Were they would-be terrorists for whom things turned badly before they had a chance to act?  What had the land inspired in three men who already lived on the periphery before disappearing into the backcountry for three days, for seventeen months, and possibly forever?  How is their story relevant to our comfortable, well-watered lives?  What is it about the desert, and this particular desert, that exerts a power to both draw us in and drive us away?

Regardless of the fugitives’ ultimate goal, their own canyon country adventure led to senseless killing, mayhem, a good old-fashioned posse care of 50 U.S. government agencies, and—in the case of at least two out of three of the perpetrators—their own rather mysterious deaths.  The bleaching bones of the third fugitive, who has not been apprehended, may haunt the topography in some remote side canyon.  Or perhaps he escaped detection here, as did the outlaw Butch Cassidy, who often hid in this same wilderness between robberies and somehow became a hero.

The tale of the Four Corners Fugitives, as well as any story, communicates the dark history of this stunning, hexed land that wants neither to be discovered nor explored.  Juxtaposed against other little-known stories from the territory and some new perspectives on familiar stories, the saga of these men—their wrong turns and missed chances and deadly mistakes— fills out part of the incomplete map sketched by car commercials and coffee table books, by old westerns and the air-popped accounts of desert spiritualism and arid grace.  If anything, this place is more beautiful, more enticing, more powerful for being dangerous and dark.

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