Sunday, December 5, 2010
Day 145: The Commonweal
Bylas to Peridot. 20.4 miles/2781.2 total
Sunday, December 5, 2010
8:55 a.m. This morning my car is parked in the lot next to the Mt. Turnbull Apache Market in the center of Bylas. I head northwest on U.S. 70 through the San Carlos Apache Reservation to the intersection of 70 and Indian Route 8 near Peridot, a distance of 20.4 miles.
It’s chilly now as it always is in the early mornings, perhaps in the high 40s, but it will get into the low 70s by the middle of the afternoon, just like yesterday. There are wispy high clouds all over the sky.
Bylas stretches out for a couple of miles in either direction from the center of town. It’s a long string of small houses perhaps two blocks deep. Most of them are very dilapidated, and the few that aren't suffer from their proximity to the rest.
I pass trailers jacked up and torn apart, hovels that look uninhabited and uninhabitable but probably aren’t, defunct vehicles, dogs, cats, lots of dust, and endless amounts of my favorite thing—litter. A plethora of broken bottles, empty cans, containers of one kind or another, rolled up rugs, pieces of plastic, tires on rims and rimless.
Many places show evidence of minor home improvement projects begun and abandoned. Sheets of rotting plywood half cover doors and windows. Rickety outbuildings fall apart or stand uncovered. Chickens peck in the grassless dirt. Occasionally horses look balefully at me as if to disavow any part in the squalor.
Everywhere in the weedy back yards are the modest good intentions of the residents in the form of raked and swept together piles of trash and garbage, burned or burning, reduced to the fireproof skeletal basics—brown rusty cans, sooty glass bottles. The pungent smell of burning plastic and rubber pervades the Sunday morning air.
It is an interesting phenomenon of extreme poverty that the immediate evidence of it is not the absence of items of property, as one might expect, but rather the intrusive presence of such objects everywhere. Conversely, a characteristic of an affluent neighborhood is its neatness and lack of litter, together with an attempt to make the surroundings as much like nature and as little like somewhere humans live as possible. Hence broad parklike lawns, many trees, abundant gardens. The house is often hidden from sight, and the vehicles are put away discreetly.
With the poor everything they’ve accumulated is strewn around out in the open for all to see. Their lives are all about these things—the essential trappings of human existence—not about nature or an imitation of what was on earth before we came into it.
Of course we can shake our heads sadly at litter-strewn vacant lots and backyards, filled with trash and dirty weeds, but at some point we must confront the question of why we equate such conspicuous signs of human life with the undesirable aspects of our nature and with dereliction of duty and the lowest element of our species, while counting ourselves happy and decent when we can recreate, however modestly, a tamer and tidier version of nature in our own backyards. The affluent strive to bring order out of the chaos of nature and their own human natures, while the poorest wallow in the evidence of man’s triumphant toolmaking talents.
Why are we afraid of our own garbage? The wealthy hide theirs; the poor dwell in theirs. Which group is more comfortable with human nature?
Be that as it may, the great thing about walking through a place like this is that you don’t feel at all bad about littering (not that I ever do). In fact, when you toss aside another wrapper or Styrofoam cup to mingle with all the other detritus, you feel that you’re contributing to the commonweal of the place. If there’s a law against littering here, it’s as obscure and meaningless to the locals as the Rule Against Perpetuities is to a first-year law student.
I stop a young woman to ask her if she knows what kind of trees these big evergreens are that I’ve been puzzling over, but she doesn’t. She’s no doubt taken them for granted her whole life. I didn’t know or care anything about trees until I was in my forties, so I understand. I'm confident that somebody will tell me eventually.
I follow the trail of garbage until little is left but scrubby sagebrush and dirty mesquites, and finally the houses end for good. And by that I mean for the rest of the day.
At 8.3 miles interrupt my reveries long enough to report to you that nothing has changed since I left Bylas, about two miles into the walk. I’ve said this before any perhaps I will again, but I have to report that beyond the town limits this is the most desolate stretch I've walked. There is evidence of man’s incursions, to be sure—the road itself, a few power lines, litter-strewn pulloffs, barbed wire fences—but beyond about a fifty-foot swath on either side of the highway there is nothing that I can see in all directions but the Gila Mountains and to the south maybe the Santa Teresa Mountains and in front the Pinal Mountains. Perhaps with all this relatively pure nature to go around there’s no incentive for the town dwellers to try to make their places look anything but purely utilitarian. You want nature? Get out of town.
A nice young Apache couple stop and offer me two bottles of water for my walk. I accept one, since I already have some in my vest. But this extra one affords me the chance to drink it down without feeling the need to save it. The man asks me if I’m walking for a cause, like the veterans, and I tell him no, that I’m the rebel without a cause. Only after they leave does it occur to me to tell him that I’m walking so I can write a book about how, among other things, kind and generous people like him have made this walk an unexpected pleasure, in spite of what the media would have us all believe.
I’m beginning to see saguaro cactuses growing wild for the first time as I get up into the hills of San Carlos. They beckon me with their stubby arms like green spiky Michelin men. There are some prickly pears and chollas scattered about, too.
Every now and then, as I crest a hill, the rocks and mountains morph in shape and color to something different from what I have been walking through. Just now the cliffs are white and chalky, and ahead of me a couple of mesas are chocolate brown in the midday sun.
On top of a bluff about seventy feet above the road someone has dressed up a saguaro or large barrel cactus with a hat and a shirt and a belt, and it looks like a rotund cowboy with a ZZ Top beard.
At 17 miles two eerily clean-cut young white men stop to ask me if I need a ride. I explain the deal to them, and the driver, a very religious-looking type, wishes me well. I think it is with supreme self-restraint that he does not witness to me about the wonderful saving power of his lord Jesus Christ. You can just about see it on his face. He does tell me he and his companion are on their way to San Carlos "for a service.”
At 20 miles I reach the junction of U.S. 70 and Indian Route 8, which is the first road of any kind to diverge from the highway all day. Just up at the top of the hill from this intersection the motor home awaits.