BY JACK LOEFFLER
The North American Southwest is desert country, a vast mosaic of dry habitats where elevation, longitude, geography, and weather patterns interact to determine the nature of prevailing life-forms. Most life-forms are indigenous, but a few others roll in like tumbleweeds, like I did one night during the summer of 1957 by human reckoning. I camped in my car by the side of the road and woke up to blazing sun in the Mojave Desert, alien country to a native West Virginian. I was a private first class in the United States Army, ultimately bound for Camp Irwin, where for the next fifteen months I would play my trumpet in the 433rd Army Band.
I woke up parched, hot, muscle cramped, and underslept. I climbed out of my car to take a leak and was amazed that my pee didn’t evaporate before it hit the ground. I looked around and determined that I had two options—I would either grow to love this desert country or I’d go insane. I opted for the former, and the desert nurtured my fascination until I realized that I actually belonged to the American Southwest, that I’d been born in West Virginia through circumstances beyond my control, and that I was grateful to the military for re-storying the grand design of my life.
Over the next years I became intimate with the entire Basin and Range Province, which is home to the Great Basin Desert, the Mojave Desert, the Sonoran Desert, and the Chihuahuan Desert; I came to know the Colorado Plateau, the southern Rockies, and the Sea of Cortez. I gulped in the air, followed tracks in the sand, sipped from hidden springs, hiked many thousands of miles, ran thousands more of rivers, and camped thousands of nights beneath a firmament ablaze with stars.
I met and befriended Indians from Navajo, Ute, Hopi, Shoshone, Cherokee, Paiute, Nez Perce, Tewa, Tiwa, Keresan, Towa, Apache, Tohono O’odham, Pima, Yaqui, Seri, Tarahumara, and Huichol cultures. And by the late 1960s I was hauling around a tape recorder recording their music and lore. I met and befriended elderly Hispanos and recorded their music and lore. I met and befriended writers, artists, philosophers, scientists, historians, musicians of myriad persuasions, outlaws, politicians, activists, pacifists—recording their thoughts, their points of view, their music and lore. I met and befriended habitats throughout the American Southwest, recording their sounds, the songs of their wild indigenees, their ambience, the songs of the wind god, the rumblings of the thunder god, the music of the river gods, the sound of stillness, the breath of Paradise.
By the late 1960s I realized that part of my role was to try to put back at least as much as I took out of life, to thus reciprocate with this homeland that had claimed me and provided me with a lifetime of wonder, endless fascination, extraordinary beauty, and a love of life within the flow of Nature that could never have happened had the blistering hot Mojave Desert not welcomed me home so long ago. I have long since learned and digested the fact that this land and this community of life are kindred in their intensity of expression and to know the noumenon requires a reciprocal intensity; otherwise we miss the point of life, which is to become as conscious as possible and to use that consciousness with great enthusiasm and vigor on behalf of the Spirit of Nature that flows through homeland.
In 1964 I lived for several months in a forked-stick hogan at Navajo Mountain in Utah. It was there that I first began to perceive the degree to which environment shapes cultural perspective. The Navajo people who lived in that remotest region on the vast Navajo Reservation moved to the heartbeat of the landscape of red rock country in the folds of the Colorado Plateau. They herded their sheep and performed great ceremonials that lasted as long as nine nights where their collective spiritual intensity was directed to restore balance and beauty in the lives of the Diné, the People. They spoke softly in their beautiful language that encompasses perspectives incomprehensible to those to whom their language is inaccessible. Indeed, their coloration had taken on the hues of the landscape into which they had been born. Their homes were circular hogans constructed of stone, mud, and wood. They measured their wealth in numbers of sheep, horses, cattle, goats, and beautiful pieces of Navajo jewelry in which they bedecked themselves for their ceremonials and other festive occasions. The women wore velveteen blouses, long skirts, and bandanas over their heads. The men wore black wide-brimmed hats, often sporting a silver or horsehair hatband. In those days, many of the Diné still wore handmade moccasins, the better to tread lightly over the land that smelled of sage, juniper, and piñon. They rode on horses or in horse-drawn wagons over the rutted roads that coursed between landforms that evoked a deep sense of the spirit of place. Navajo Mountain, that great presence that dominates the landscape, is an entity that has witnessed the passage of many generations of humans, each of whom has beheld that mountain with greatest respect.
Over the years I have befriended many Indians. Indeed, some are among my closest friends of this lifetime so enriched by their presence. They have provided me with a coherence of perspectives of such magnitude that my very consciousness extends far beyond that system of mores and thought that comes from having been born into Western culture. We are blindsided to that sense of the kindred nature of the community of life that surrounds us, that is cradled within the ever-shifting mosaic of landforms, water forms, and air forms that spawned us as one of millions of species likely descended from a single ancestor nearly four billion earthly years ago. That thought alone is worthy of deep intuitive contemplation on a daily basis.
In 1982 I was commissioned to produce a radio series for public radio addressing the proposed relocation of 10,000 Navajos from their homeland around Big Mountain. This was the result of an earlier move by Congress that fostered the Navajo-Hopi land dispute in order to forward their own hidden agenda of opening lands for mineral extraction. There was great resistance by many traditional Navajos both old and young. I interviewed many Navajos, including one young man regarded as an outlaw by the Feds. He, his wife, their newborn infant, and I were cloistered in a hiding place and had been talking about the long history of federal and corporate intervention in the lives of Native Americans. “Where does all that murderous thought come from?” he asked me. I had no answer.
In early 1970 it was revealed that the Peabody Coal Company of East St. Louis had signed a lease to strip-mine coal from the heart of Black Mesa, a great landform that is sacred to both Hopi and Navajo Indians. Several Hopi elders asked me to help them get their message to the American public that this endeavor was not only intrinsically wrong from their traditional point of view but was evil, an act of immense desecration of a sacred landform. In April of that year a small group of us started the Black Mesa Defense Fund and worked day and night for three years trying to bring this desecration to a halt. It proved a futile enterprise. We had taken on the Central Arizona Project, the greatest single environmental and cultural debacle yet visited on the American Southwest.
Many are the nights my great friend and I crawled around on our bellies between the piñon and juniper trees atop Black Mesa scheming on ways to thwart the debacle while he conducted research for his novel The Monkey Wrench Gang.
In the spring of 2016 the Peabody Coal Company of East St. Louis filed for bankruptcy in order to not have to pay for restoration of the many square miles of habitat they murdered to make money. Corporate outlawry on a grand scale.
Over the last half century I’ve been privileged to wander throughout this mythic landscape bearing a recorder, microphones, notebook, and pen. In the deepest sense, this lifetime has been a pilgrimage in quest of the Spirit of Place as perceived by those with refined sensibilities, honed consciousness. The message is clear. The Earth is a living organism and we are part of its consciousness. We are and could remain a spectacular aspect of Earth’s consciousness—if we don’t go extinct.
Each life has its defining moments, and shortly after waking up in the Mojave Desert in July 1957, I had one of the great pivotal experiences of my lifetime. After getting to Camp Irwin, I checked into the 433rd Army Band headquarters and was issued my summer army uniform, which consisted of Bermuda shorts, a short-sleeved shirt, and a pith helmet. Thus attired like Frank Buck on a holiday in the Caribbean and armed only with my trumpet, I became a member of the so-called Atomic Band. Within days our band boarded an Army bus, and away we went to Desert Rock, a military base located at the Nevada Proving Grounds. We were lodged in a barracks where we had a hot meal and spent a hot night. We were rousted at four o’clock in the morning and donned our uniforms. Shortly thereafter we assembled out of doors in military band formation, and under the direction of Chief Warrant Officer Spud Shpakowski we started performing military marches. No other humans were in attendance. It was moonless and dark. We played Sousa marches from memory. Then, halfway through “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” the sky burst into light brighter than the sun, and an enormous mushroom cloud rocketed skyward, unfurling an array of colors, some of which do not otherwise appear in Nature in my experience. The band faltered, and we all stood spellbound as the atomic bomb took its lethal toll of its immediate habitat. Every bandsman stared at the top of the atomic bomb cloud that rose to a sixty-degree angle from where we stood. We were later assured that because we were seven miles from point of detonation we were out of harm’s way. Other soldiers, some of whom were my mates during basic training, were squatted in trenches or behind earthen barriers just a mile away from point zero.
As dawn silhouetted the climbing cloud of the explosion, I had my defining moment. I realized that I was totally sane, a human being born into a culture that was not totally sane, and that thenceforth I would pursue my own trail through this lifetime and that my trail would involve great resistance to any form of governing body that condoned the detonation of atomic bombs that blatantly destroyed spans of earthly habitat and all life therein, ostensibly in defense of the American Dream.
There were three aboveground detonations of atomic bombs that summer at the Nevada Proving Grounds. There was one nicknamed “Smoky,” so called because something like a hundred tons of coal dust were situated at point zero. The concept was to be able to trace the path of the coal dust that was blown into the atmosphere. We again played music, but this time the bomb was detonated after daybreak, and high-ranking officers from different branches of the armed forces were in attendance. After the detonation I was able to tear my eyes away from the mushroom cloud and look into the faces of my fellow bandsmen. Each face reflected expressions that ranged from horrific awe to extreme sadness. I was able to look at officers assembled a hundred or so yards away. I saw at least three of them faint. No photograph or even moving picture can come close to conveying the raw power of the explosion of an atomic bomb. One must see it with the naked eye to grasp its significance. It remains embedded in my memory as though it just happened.
Many years later I was attending an event celebrating the life of my dear friend, historian Alvin Josephy in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Others of Alvin’s many friends were also in attendance, including writer Terry Tempest Williams. Terry and I were off somewhere talking, and during our conversation, Terry revealed that she and her family were once driving homeward bound when a thick cloud of dust and debris began to fall on their car. The dust and debris were the remains of the great cloud of coal dust landing many miles away from where A-bomb “Smoky” had been detonated a short while before. Terry and I suddenly realized that we had been at either end of that explosion. Terry burst into tears, and for many minutes we stood there holding each other, seeking some sort of spiritual solace after that dreadful recollection of an event that caused many in Terry’s family to develop cancer.
These are life-defining moments. In my case, I sense that I became truly awake when I watched that first atomic bomb light up the dawn of a July morning in the Mojave Desert. I snapped into a far greater spectrum of consciousness than at any previous time, and thus have I remained. In a strange way, it took an atomic bomb to awaken me to the rest of my life, and for that I am immensely grateful.
Excerpted from Headed into the Wind: A Memoir by Jack Loeffler. © 2019 University of New Mexico Press, 2019.