MY first reaction when I think about Chuck these days, or am asked to think about him, is how scared I am for him. Why he’s still above ground after all his researching, on-the-spot reporting, investigating, and publishing the drug scene on both sides of our border with Mexico, is nothing short of a miracle. Sometimes after putting down one of his articles or books, I want to run to the phone and call him—make sure he’s still among us.
Vaguely, I recall a discussion we once had about “the razor’s edge” -–of explaining my dear deceased husband’s years of track-racing in custom-built race cars–how it was like a drug he couldn’t altogether stay away from. Hypersensitive-alert, you’re here–one more inch, one more hair or heartbeat–you’re gone. Riding that edge was like no other adrenaline rush, he said. Not the same as being pulled back across the border into the danger zone of drug reporting, or night-beat crime reporting for a newspaper, but similarities whisper to each other. It means that once you’ve experienced such a level, returning is almost a given.
Details of a first meeting with one who later takes a special place in my life are often lost in the ether—what was the occasion?–where the connection? The farther it slips away, the less it matters where-when-how we met, since the connection I do remember has taken its place.
I read, Killing the Hidden Waters in 1977.
Either our friend, Edward Abbey, introduced us; Ed gave me the book and I was impressed enough to go bang on Chuck’s door; he came to some gig I had in Tucson and introduced himself. Whatever. I was hooked—on the style, on the message.
Tucson was my home long before Chuck was born, more than likely–I also once lived on 9th street, but then I lived on every east/west street between Lee Street and Broadway, and several north/south ones during the 30’s depression. So, I experienced an unexpected shame after reading that book—should have been more aware of what had really happened to Pantano Wash, the Santa Cruz and the Rillito Rivers, where, as a teenager, I’d hiked, ridden horses, shot whitewing dove and quail, and occasionally watched their dry beds turn to banker-raging flash floods. His writing, his mind, is an extension from the prehistoric to now, with no interruption; as if he is one of the souls who lived here in the desert a thousand years ago and is now walking out of the rock, up through the ground, into the air, conversing about events as if they happened yesterday; describing them with astonishing intellect, humility and depth of wisdom–thrusting what was there then, and is now, under our noses. Seldom do I quote other writers, but more than once I’ve used Bowden quotes to better state what I would never find the right words for.
When Frog Mt. Blues appeared (1987) and he autographed it, “To Katie Lee who knows the land better than I ever hope to”, I was truly embarrassed. He described boulder-filled canyons; places gaunt, graceful, wild and treacherous I’d never heard of, let alone hiked to, hunted in or dared trespass. Ramblings with buddies were confined to fairly mundane creases in the land compared to some of Chuck’s Catalina Mountains cliff-hanging. And, of course, he tested, probed, and felt the pulse of that stretched-out, almost flat desert valley of creosote, catclaw, cacti, mesquite, palo verde and cottonwood trees at the foot of those mountains; tested it with ever increasing intensity, along with testing himself; thereby deepening his respect for its perfection. Chuck’s art, his talent for placing the reader beneath his treading boots, against the grainy desert granites, stems from a Spartan journalistic style, wherein; a flow, a syncopated rhythm connects the dots, a subtlety the reader may be unaware of until neon flashes the message to the brain long after the book is placed back on the shelf.
Sometime around ’88 or ‘89 he became editor of Tucson’s City Magazine. I hadn’t published anything about Arizona since ’76; he asked me for a piece for the mag and I sent a sentimental tale I was sure he’d reject. Wrong. I was pleased to know about his being editor because I figured it could keep him away from reporting on the drug scene, at least for a while. Wrong again. But during that period I came to know more about his heart-felt intimacy with the desert—an intimacy that ultimately turns to love. Being in rapport with earth’s sensuality is a quality few writers (especially males) are able to convey even when they’re aware of it. Not a problem for Mr. Bowden.
The scene is an outdoor venue sometime in the mid 90’s. I’m sharing a folk music concert with a songwriter/singing friend from Austin, Texas. I’ve invited Chuck, but I don’t think he’ll show because, on the phone, he’d said something about being dragged into another drug investigation. My first set of songs is over and Tim is on stage singing when I see Chuck come down the ramp from the bar with a beer in his hand. I’m so tickled he’s made it that I run half way up the ramp, crotch-hop him and give him a big hug. He doesn’t drop the beer, only spills some when he hands it to the dude next to him, and smoothly, with the grace of a practiced dancer, grabs my buns and holds on! Only when I pull back to say, “Hi”, do I notice the startled look on his face. (This maneuver, unless the recipient sees it coming and knows what to do, can either knock them to the floor, tip their balance for sure, or, in extreme cases, start a fight). Mr. Bowden takes my aggressive behavior in grand style–the startled look turns to a great guffaw and responding hug–when I drop my legs to the floor, he understates for the year: “You must be glad to see me.”
To know an author beyond the words in his, or her, books– like or not the writing or the subject–is to read a great deal more into those words than if you are not acquainted. In Chuck’s case, the added richness is palpable. From Killing The Hidden Waters, when I didn’t know him at all, through each of his books, to Inferno, I taste the greasewood, feel the sting, slap at the bites, know the heat, seek the shade, find the water, lie down and cool off beneath the stars. He writes of this often brutal terrain without a bitching thought about its scarcity; rather, delighting in the way nature has formed this desert and secretly pleased that not a whole lot of bipeds will invade and destroy its austerity in the near future.
To be honest, I’d given up on the lower Sonoran desert until he pulled it back into focus for me. I’d returned home too many times, to see too many uglies tearing my desert to shreds. From our back adobe wall (off Harrison Road and Broadway) in 1955, we had a clear unobstructed view of the Catalina’s thirty miles away, though flaming palo verde thickets, mesquite and saguaro. When I came back In ‘75, I was confronted with a block-long, four-story, condo ten feet from that same wall. I turned away in tears, wanting to and say, “screw the bastards, let’um have it!” But by then, having fought for, and not yet won back, Glen Canyon (drowned beneath Powell Reservoir), I fully understood the passion–to save whatever could be saved of the planet, for the planet–be it desert, mountain, forest, canyon, river or ocean–not particularly for the human race, unless, or until, we wise up and begin undoing our mistakes—but for the beauty, integrity and grace of this unique blue ball.
A couple years ago Chuck was chosen to introduce me at an award ceremony in Tucson where he used the phrase, “…She has stood my watch.” Ah, Charles, those are words I certainly can’t live up to. How I would love to say, “We stand each other’s watch.” You, with your books, your words and our friend, Jack Dykinga’s photographs, are kingpins in saving a gorgeous chunk of our Southwest: The Grand Staircase National Monument. And even if I’ve been unable, as yet, to move a stone for my Glen, I do not give up hope that one day we both can say:
“Mother Nature not only stood our watch, she fired the shot.”