Legends of the American Desert: Sojourns in the Greater Southwest by Alex Shoumatoff. Knopf, 516 pp., $30.
August 24, 1997        

In his novella St.Mawr, D.H. Lawrence rhapsodized about New Mexico: “Ah! It was beauty, beauty absolute, at any hour of the day: whether the perfect clarity of morning, or the mountains beyond the simmering desert at noon, or the purple lumping of northern mounds under a red sun at night. ... It was always beauty, always!” Seventy-five years later, Alex Shoumatoff puts it more prosaically: “Like many others before me, I found the openness and the light, the colors of the sky and the weathered naked land beneath it, to have a wonderfully soothing and therapeutic effect, once I got used to them.” To both these sentiments we aficionados fervently murmur “Amen.”

Alas, there may already be too many of us aficionados. Four million people visit the Grand Canyon each year. Santa Fe is (except for its superlative museums) like Capri or the Riviera. The religion and culture of the Indian pueblos is under siege. Phoenix and Albuquerque are growing like tumors. Every new feature article on the Southwest in the Sunday travel section makes me cringe -- especially the good ones, which leave the region with ever fewer secrets.

Aficionados will therefore be ambivalent about Legends of the American Desert; though on the whole, it’s good enough to be grateful for. Alex Shoumatoff is a veteran practitioner of the NewYorker’s late and (by its own breed of aficionados) lamented “long fact” genre. Legends is part journalism and part history, part memoir and part travel writing, part John McPhee and part William Least Heat Moon. Perhaps there are too many parts: it was no doubt conceived as a subtle tapestry but ended up something of a crazy quilt. Still, Shoumatoffs energetic storytelling and taste for piquant detail keep one bouncing along cheerfully over the occasional narrative bumps.

The unifying theme of Southwestern history appears to be that the bad guys always win. Justice never triumphs in the end. The Spaniards enslaved and brutalized the Indians and got away with it. The Anglos robbed the Spaniards, then massacred and deported the Indians, and got away with it. The railroads muscled the settlers and got away with it. The Defense Department poisoned southern Utah, and the Los Alamos National Laboratory poisoned northwestern New Mexico; they both got away with it. The power companies and the Army Corps of Engineers flooded Glen Canyon, America’s second grandest. The coal companies are cheating the Hopi; the timber companies are cheating the Navajo; the water companies are cheating the farmers and municipalities; and the cattlemen are cheating all of us by grazing and overgrazing vast areas of federal land for a pittance. In Arizona, Shoumatoff writes, “after tourism, land fraud is the number two industry.” Where was John Wayne while all this was happening?

Shoumatoff adds a few footnotes to this almost comically appalling history. He takes us inside the Mexican drug trade, wandering ingenuously around the Sierra Madre with his notebook and getting to know a stoical pro-Indian activist who has survived numerous assassination attempts by traffickers and corrupt officials. This activist, Edwin Bustillos, is impressively brave and resourceful; as a result, he is likely to be murdered within a year or two and his killers will, in all probability, get away with it. In Mexico, the bad guys win almost without a fight.

A long chapter is devoted to the mysterious death of a New Mexico activist, Leroy Jackson, a Navajo environmentalist fighting the timber companies and the tribal government. Jackson may have died accidentally or he may have been murdered -- the details are complicated. Nothing is resolved in Shoumatoff’s account, but the politics and personalities are gripping.

Shoumatoff is admirably serious about the ubiquitous injustice in the Southwest’s past and present; he is even better on the region’s equally ubiquitous colorfulness. He is continually veering off for a few lively pages or paragraphs on, among many other topics:

"the history and phenomenology of the chile pepper; archaeological controversies about when the first humans arrived in the Americas; coyotes, cactus, creosote, and other desert flora and fauna; the stages of dehydration; Mexican slang; pre-Columbian sociology; mad, bad, and saintly figures of the Spanish Conquest; the hidden history of the conversos or converted Jews, persecuted by the Mexican Inquisition; the hair-raising details of an Apache raiding party; the vanishing cowboys of the Texas Panhandle; and a large colony of “walk-ins” -- extraterrestrials inhabiting human bodies -- in Sedona, Arizona."

The book also relays some startling revelations. Modern scholarship has shown that Billy the Kid, five-foot-five and “a real ugly adenoidal adolescent” with “the IQ of a semi retarded fourteen-year-old,” was born in Brooklyn. Wyatt Earp was not Hugh O’Brian but “an itinerant saloonkeeper, cardsharp, gunman, bigamist, church deacon, policeman, bunco artist, and supreme confidence man,” who died in a Los Angeles trailer park in 1929. Most explosive is the shattering of the myth of the Alamo. Davy Crockett “never wore a coonskin cap and, according to recent research, hid under a bed throughout the fighting.” William Travis, the commander of the fort, was “half mad from venereal disease.” Jim Bowie was a land speculator who “stole a hoard of silver and gold from Apaches he had butchered and hid it in a well on the Alamo’s grounds.” General Sam Houston was an opium addict. Sometimes, it seems, there were no good guys.

The writing in Legends of the American Desert is a little ragged -- Shoumatoff is no D.H. Lawrence. In his other books (notably In Southern Light a record of journeys to the Amazon and Zaire), the prose is more controlled, more finished. But here too there are fine passsages, like this one: “This was my first desert, and I didn’t quite know what to make of it. As I cruised around northeastern Arizona, I repeatedly had the sensation that I was traveling along an old seafloor. The landscape seemed to be thirsting for the water that had once been everywhere; the canyons seemed to plunge to murky depths; the mesas and monuments to be remnant shallows. Even the vegetation contributed to the illusion: sinuous wands of ocotillo wavered like seaweed, cacti bristled like sea urchins encrusted on the rock. Ship rocks -- the ancient volcanic necks eroded in Gibraltar slants that crop up here and there on the Colorado Plateau -- seemed to belong to a fleet sailing a ghost sea.”

I’m afraid this book will create even more aficionados of the already beleaguered Southwest. If you go, remember: leave only footprints and take away only memories.