One morning, in early 2011, my friend Ray took a few friends and me up to a place about an hour north of Tucson called Biosphere 2. Ray was working or volunteering there in some capacity and suggested that we follow him around. We drove up Oracle Road, which turns into Route 77, which I mention because you know that when a road turns into a route that you are leaving something. Strip malls and sprawl thinned out into empty desert. We made a few turns and rumbled over some cattle guards and that’s when I saw it, like a young boy’s crayon drawing of a space station rising majestically out of the dust.
“We’re here,” Ray said, as though that wasn’t already clear.
At the time, all I understood about Biosphere 2 was that it was a scientific research facility filled with re-creations of real-world environments: jungle, desert, ocean, et cetera. That, and that a group of scientists voluntarily locked themselves in there for two years during the early 1990s, where they strived, studied, bickered, lost a lot of weight, and eventually became the butt of a cultural joke. I admired them already. Read More
Aldo Leopold on a trip to the Rio Gavilan, ca. 1936. Photo: U.S. Forest Service
On the first day of April 1944, Aldo Leopold sat down at his desk to craft a confession. Leopold’s reputation was already growing across the country—a champion of modern wildlife management and the father of the Gila Wilderness, he was known as a good man and great teacher—but this would be something new and strange from a figure many would come to revere as the patron saint of American conservation. Leopold had recently received a letter, one in a long series of correspondence with his friend, Hans Albert Hochbaum, critiquing the essays Leopold was slowly producing for a book. Hochbaum mentioned the wolf, an animal that remained conspicuously absent from Leopold’s drafts: “I think you’ll have to admit you’ve got at least a drop of its blood on your hands.”
Hochbaum was talking generally, but the comment reminded Leopold of an incident that dated back to 1909, when he was just twenty-two. Read More
If you live on a peak in fire-prone country, as I do every summer in the Black Range of New Mexico’s Gila National Forest, the big one will eventually come for you. This knowledge does not cushion the fact that if you’re a lookout evacuated by helicopter you can’t help but feel a failure. The point of the job is early detection: the sooner a smoke is spotted, the more options you give firefighters to contain it. When you’re airlifted by the whirlybird, the options have dwindled to none but run.
I realize self-quotation is a dishonorable habit, but it sounds a little smug to say I saw it coming and leave it at that. The fact is, a lot of people saw it coming. All you had to do was read the story written plainly on the faces of the mountains. Read More
There’s a moment when thunderclouds smother the sunset and the chile ristras begin to sway, when bits of smoldering earth intertwine with invisible rain, and you’re tangled in tumbleweed magic. Everything is burnt orange and cactus green, clay-tinged and warm. There’s mystery disguised as menace, comfort in spite of storm, and the sky gives off a phantom light that makes the concrete seem cinematic. This is the desert Southwest, my homeland, also known as Breaking Bad country.
If you’ve made the television journey with Walter White—from tightey-whitey chemistry teacher to hairless drug kingpin—you’re already familiar with the show’s desert setting of Albuquerque, New Mexico. It acts as a silent character that, to me, is also its most important.
If someone had asked my granddad where he got the chaps in this photo, he might have replied, “At the gettin’ place.” His speech was rich with colorful phrases. To him, a convincing salesman was someone who “could sell eggs to a chicken,” the relationship between a person’s actions and character best summarized with “Whatever’s in the well comes up in the bucket.” And when dismissing someone unsavory, he preferred the placid “Let ’em peck shit with the crows” to a crass “Fuck them.” So many of his sayings reflected elements of the hardscrabble, rural world that shaped him.
The gettin’ place in this picture is a roadside stand in Apache Junction, Arizona. Largely known nowadays for its scenery and suburbs, back in 1947, Apache Junction was a fringe outpost east of Phoenix with a few cafés and tourist traps along the highway. Signs announced: Postcards! Indian jewelry! Pan for gold! Read More
A time comes when it’s healthful to put aside obscurantism and turn to bedrock, if only briefly. And while I flatter myself in thinking you know me as a man not prone to get overly excited about digital-remastering projects, nevertheless there are instances in which the beauty of the original song lay precisely in a primary attempt to expose its elements, and in these cases the additional stripping away of hiss and other shit can be revelatory, or in this instance (Best Ever: Buddy Holly, Techniche 2009), transformative.
That plane crash was a Hindenburg of pop. It’s taken me into my midthirties to mentally recover the true damage of it from Don McLean’s rhymes. Ever really listen to “La Bamba”? You’ve probably unconsciously sold yourself on the idea that the Los Lobos version is slightly superior. Not so! It’s not the guitar, either, but the voice. When angels sing rock for fun they sound like Ritchie Valens. Did you know it’s Carol Kaye playing rhythm guitar there? Did you know Valens was seventeen when he died, that “La Bamba” hadn’t even been released yet? Snowy field in northern Iowa, flames.
If you listen to the live versions of “La Bamba,” Valens played it basically like a sped-up Mexican folk song. Only in the studio did the ecstatic thing happen–at the point of intersection. I read somewhere that Valens didn’t even like it.
On “Not Fade Away,” Jerry Allison plays a cardboard box (he’d ripped the idea from Buddy Knox’s lyrically creepy “Party Doll”). The beat is cartoonishly African. If you want to hear where it came from, listen to the song I hope to keep if the people in charge of the survival pod say you can keep only one, Charles Barnett’s “Run to My Jesus for Refuge.” Barnett was a Georgia man in his nineties. Alan Lomax met him at the end of a sand lane near the Sea Islands, right around the time Buddy Holly was making his song. Lomak asked, “Know Any Tunes?”. Barnett flipped a washtub over and started beating on it with two sticks, playing some of the most tenth-dimensional counterpoint you’ve ever heard, with galloping runs that suddenly freeze into cosmic pauses. “Mary, she wore a golden chain, / Every link was Jesus’ name. / I’m gonna run to my Jesus for refuge.” Supposedly Barnett could still jump into the air and click his heels together, at ninety-he-didn’t-even-know-what.