Like much of the mountain west, Flagstaff is a place of dichotomy. It speaks of crusty cowboys, college kids, sun burnt tourists, and hardcore mountain bikers.
And so it was no surprise on opening the ammo can that serves as the peak’s register to find both a Tibetan prayer flag and a .45 caliber shell.
In many ways I found the two artifacts a perfect representation of the modern West, one which were waring a cowboyhat with Tevas is perfectly normal.
Which West are you? Answer below.
The C.M. Russell Museum, located in Billings, Montana, recently announced it raised $1,035,268 during its annual WesternArt Week auction, procedes of which will help fund the museum’s operation and educational program .
Notable among the hundreds of paintings, drawings, and other pieces of western art sold was Charles Russell’s original watercolor High, Wide, and Handsome. Russell painted the image of the bronc-buster wrangler in 1919, and the painting went for an astonishing $550,000. Contemporary artist R. Tom Gilleon’s oil painting Hair Apparent went for $225,000.
The museum’s new executive director Michael Duchemin (congrats on the new digs Mike) told reporters of the auction’s success, “Our goal is to continue growing The Russell, adding new features to attract the finest art from important artists and to create an environment that makes our buyers and consignors feel welcome and appreciated in Great Falls and Montana.”
But taking a step back from the prices such works garnered from the sale, the auction, and the over 3,400 who visited the three-day event, underscores our continued love affair with the iconic cowboy at work.
From Russel to Frederick Remington, from Gene Autry to Kevin Costner, and from Owen Wister to Louis L’amour, the cowboy at work has long been a touchstone of Western American culture.
Western history lost a giant today. Norris Hundley Jr., author of The Great Thirst: Calfiornians and Water, 1770-1990s, long time editor of the Pacific Historical Review, and former president of the Western Historical Association pasted away last Sunday.
Hundley’s work on water in the West set the standard for well researched and thought out analysis of one the region’s most important, and thus contentious, natural resources. First published in 1992, and then republished in 2001, The Great Thirst remains among the most influential histories of California and the American West. Hundley grew up in Houston, Texas, and earned his PhD from UCLA in 1963. He remained at UCLA throughout his career, retiring in 1992.
He is survived by his wife Carol and the legions of historians who have been influenced by his work.
The Western History Association and the Charles Redd Center is pleased to announce the that the Charles Redd Center Teaching Western History Award for K-12 Teachers is open for application. The award will enable four teachers to attend and present at the Western History Association Annual Conference, held this year in Tucson, Arizona, October 9th-12th. The award includes conference registration, award banquet ticket, ticket to the opening reception, and $500 towards conference related costs such asa hotel, travel, conference tours, or Continuing Education Credits. Selected teachers will present their lesson at the panel “Teaching the Vital Signs: K-12 Teachers and the Western Environment.” More information on the award and application materials can be found at the Western History Association Awards website.
Questions can be addressed to Leisl Carr Childers, Visiting Assistant Professor, Northern Arizona University at email@example.com.
There are fewer places I would equate sustainability with than Las Vegas. Images of the Bellagio Fountain shooting streams of water hundreds of feet into the air to the soundtrack of Sinatra’s “Luck be a Lady” does not really evoke thoughts of environmental restraint and consciousness.
They are not supposed to. As Las Vegas, as historian and booster Hal Rothman once noted, “It is a town of fun, of excess, where anything and everything is possible for sale.” It is a city whose industry is selling experience, be it at the blackjack table or in the Fashion Mall full of high-end shops.
But that town is for the tourists.
Drive just a few blocks off The Strip and you will find a city indistinguishable from most other western metropolises. Strip malls and sprawling suburbs are linked together by an ever-expanding network of highways clogged with traffic. It could be Los Angeles, or Phoenix, or Albuquerque.
And like all southwestern cities, Las Vegas has long sought to buck the limits of its environment acting as if it had abundant water to fuel growth, which, truth be told, is Vegas’s real economic motor. Succeeding in becoming the fastest growing metro area in the United States. Today, over 2 million people call the Vegas Valley home, up 140,000 from just fifty years ago.
Las Vegas’s mercurial growth has stressed the area’s ground water and sparse 300,000 acre-feet of Colorado River Water to the very ragged edge. With an average rainfall of 3.5 inches per year, water, or the lack of it, defines Las Vegas more than The Strip.
And this is where Vegas can teach us something about sustainability.
Admittedly, Las Vegas does have its faults—its anemic civic engagement, libertarian sense of government, limited public transportation, economic reliance on growth, and lack of local sources of food are among a few of the challenges the city faces.
Yet, when it comes to water, Las Vegas is one of the first Western cities to realize the very real limitations it faces when it comes to providing enough water to satisfy a growing metropolis.
In 1991, the seven water agencies which serviced Clark County were locked in a war of attrition in which a use-it-or-lose system that forced some communities to literally pour water down the drain in order to ensure future allocations.
Such a system came to its inevitable conclusion when the region faced running out of water.
Water consumption has decreased by 36 billion (yes, that is with a B) gallons, despite the addition of 400,000 residents over the past decade. Developers seeking water for any new construction must first build the needed infrastructure on their own dime before receiving a single drop of water from the agency, saving millions of gallons of water in wasteful development. Perhaps the most successful policy has been the SNWA’s turf removal program, which paid home owners $1.50 for every square foot of grass they tore out of their yards. According to the SNWA’s web site, the turf removal program alone has saved enough water to fill more than 63,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
By thinking regionally, and embracing policies such as paying customers to remove grass (residential use remains the number one water use throughout the West), the agency sought to come to grips with the reality of its scarce water supply and has chosen to move beyond the myth of abundance that drove its unbridled growth for so many decades.
Simply put, the SNWA and Las Vegas metro area looked to consume less. A seemingly radical departure from the gospel of growth model the city had embraced throughout much of the late twentieth-century.
Such ideas are nothing new. The 1972 book The Limits of Growth warned that the then level of global consumption and population growth was unsustainable, and would result in “a sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrialization.” A sentiment shared by Fritz Schumacher a year later in his Small is Beautiful. Schumacher argued that, “The idea of unlimited growth . . . needs to be seriously questioned.”
More recently, thinkers such as William McDonough and Michael Braungart have argued that older models that focus on regulating consumption to be “less bad” don’t necessarily work. Rather, systems need to be created that reward efficiency instead of punish inefficiency.
Precisely the sort of system in which the SNWA has embraced in meeting the challenges of increasing demand for an increasingly scarce water supply.
But even with Las Vegas’s embrace its limits, water remains an enormous challenge for the still growing metropolitan area.
The SNWA’s attempting an Owens Valley type water grab from the Snake Valley to the north has raised some significant ecological concerns, including the projected subsidence of the valley by up to thirty feet in places.
Likewise, the abject failure to promote green building codes by local governments remains a significant hurtle that few seem willing to tackle (or even acknowledge), as well as power (electricity), transportation (besides more six-lane residential streets), and generally livable communities.
Will Vegas face these and other issues in order to become environmentally sustainable? It is difficult to predict. If Vegas fails to take seriously the lessons learned from its sacristy of water and continues to behave as if abundance will last forever, then, like its neighbor Phoenix, it could face a very difficult future.
A lesson the rest of the West should heed.
The Western Writers of America have announced the winners and finalists of its annual Spur Awards, given for distinguished writing about the American West. The awards presentations will be made during the organization’s Annual Convention in Las Vegas, Nevada, June 24-28, 2013.
The categories, along with the winners and finalists are as follow:
Best Western Short Novel
|Winner:||Tucker’s Reckoning||Matthew Mayo||New American Library|
|Finalist:||Lonesome Animals||Bruce Holbert||Counterpoint Press|
|Finalist:||City of Rocks||Michael Zimmer||Five Star Publishing|
Best Western Long Novel
|Winner:||With Blood in Their Eyes||Thomas Cobb||University of Arizona Press|
|Finalist:||The Orchardist||Amandan Coplin||HarperCollins|
|Finalist:||Country of the Bad Wolfes||James Carlos Blake||Cinco Puntos Press|
Best Original Mass Market Paperback
|Winner:||The Coyote Tracker||Larry Sweazy||Berkley|
|Finalist:||Redemption: Hunters||James Reasoner||Berkley|
|Finalist:||The Secret of Lodestar||Tim Champlin||Berkley|
Best First Novel
|Finalist:||Wide Open||Larry Bjornson||Penguin Group/AWOC|
|Finalist:||The Orchardist||Amanda Coplin||HarperCollins|
Best Western Nonfiction Biography
|Winner:||Geronimo||Robert M. Utley||Yale University Press|
|Finalist:||Ho! For the Black Hills: Captain Jack Crawford Reports the Black Hills Gold Rush and Great Sioux War||Paul L. Hedren||South Dakota State Historical Society Press|
|Finalist:||“That Fiend in Hell”: Soapy Smith in Legend||Catherine Holder Spude||University of Oklahoma Press|
Best Western Nonfiction Historical
|Winner:||With Golden Visions Bright Before Them: Trails to the Mining West, 1849-1852||Will Bagley||University of Oklahoma Press|
|Finalist:||Terrible Justice: Sioux Chiefs and U.S. Soldiers on the Upper Missouri, 1954-1868||Doreen Chaky||The Arthur H. Clark Company|
|Finalist:||Deliverance from the Little Big Horn: Doctor Henry Porter and Custer’s Seventh Cavalry||Joan Nabseth Stevenson||University of Oklahoma Press|
Best Western Nonfiction Contemporary
|Winner:||Desert Reckoning: A Town Sheriff, A Mojave Hermit and the Biggest Manhunt in Modern California History||Deanne Stillman||Nation Books|
|Finalist:||Colorado Powder Keg: Ski Resorts and the Environmental Movement||Michael W. Childers||University Press of Kansas|
|Finalist:||Desert America: Boom and Bust in the New Old West||Ruben Martinez||Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company|
Best Western Short Fiction Story
|Winner:||“The Hog Whisperer”||John Mort||Flint Hills Review|
|Finalist||“The Saint of Pox Island”||Susan K. Salzer||Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine|
|Finalist:||“The Day Delgado Rode In”||Lori Van Pelt||Outlaws and Lawmen/La Frontera Publishing|
Best Western Short Nonfiction
|Winner:||“Marathoner Louis Tewanima and the Continuity of Hopi Running, 1908-1912″||Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert||Western Historical Quarterly|
|Finalist:||“Libbie Custer: ‘A Wounded Thing Must Hide’”||Paul Andrew Hutton||Wild West|
|Finalist||“‘Wearing the Hempen Neck-Tie’: Lynching in Nebraska 1858-1919″||James E. Potter||Nebraska History|
Best Western Juvenile Fiction
|Winner:||Wide Open||Larry Bjornson||Penguin Group|
|Finalist:||Blooming Prairie||Candace Simar||North Star Press of St. Cloud|
|Finalist:||And There I’ll Be A Soldier||Johnny D. Boggs||Five Star Publishing/Gale|
Best Western Juvenile Nonfiction
|Winner:||Light on the Prairie: Solomon D. Butcher, Photographer of Nebraska’s Pioneer Days||Nancy Plain||University of Nebraska Press|
|Finalist:||The Great Bicycle Experiment: The Army’s Historic Black Bicycle Corps, 1896-97||Kay Moore||Mountain Press Publishing Company|
|Finalist:||Strike!: Mother Jones & the Colorado Coal Field War||Lois Ruby||Filter Press|
|Winner:||Pecos Bill Invents the Ten-Gallon Hat||Kevin Strauss, illustrated by David Harrington||Pelican Publishing|
|Finalist:||The Adventures of Buffalo Joe and The Blackbird With the Broken Wing||Jamie Anne Blake||Homestead Publishing|
|Finalist:||Big Buckaroo and Moose, The Cow Dog||Rachelle “Rocky” Gibbons, illustrated by Jason Hutton||Tate Publishing|
Best Western Drama Script (Fiction)
|Winner:||Django Unchained||Quentin Tarantino||The Weinstein Company|
|Finalist:||Hatfields & McCoys||Bill Kerby, Ted Mann, Ronald Parker||Thinkfactory Media/History Channel|
|Finalist:||Justified||Graham Yost, Elmore Leonard, Dave Andron, Fred Golan, Benjamin Cavell, Taylor Elmore, Jon Worley, Nichelle D. Tramble, Ryan Farley, Ingrid Escajeda, V.J. Boyd||FX Network|
Best Western Documentary Script (Nonfiction)
|Winner:||The Dust Bowl||Dayton Duncan||Florentine Films|
Best Western Poem
|Winner:||“Johnny Ringo”||Red Shuttleworth||Riverhouse|
|Finalist:||“Night Singer, Chaco Canyon, New Mexico”||Steve Fieffenbacher||Wordcraft of Oregon|
|Finalist:||“Nat Maringo”||Robert Brown||Brave New Genre Inc.|
Best Western Audiobook
|Winner:||Ring of Fire||Cotton Smith||Books In Motion|
|Finalist:||Trouble in Texas||Tom Nichols||Books in Motion|
Best Western Song
|Winner:||“Texas Is Burnin’”||Jim Jones||Jim Jones Music|
|Winner:||“Any Name Will Do”||Mary Kaye||Knaphus Enterprises|
|Finalist:||“The Last Real Cowboy in Old Santa Fe”||Jerry Faires||Silversmith Records|
“The crisis is now in sight. Homeopathic measures will no longer suffice; thirty cents here and a dollar-seventy-five there will no longer keep the national park system in operation.”
Western historian and champion of public lands Bernard Devoto penned those words in his 1953 essay entitled “Let’s Close the National Parks.” After spending a summer visiting the West’s national parks, the firebrand Devoto was incensed over the state of the West’s parks, and the government’s, specifically Congress’s, failure to adequately fund them.
Millions of Americans were deluging their national parks, overwhelming the meager facilities. Campgrounds were too few, roads unpaved, and staffing wholly inadequate. So, in the face of Congress’ failure to adequately fund the National Parks, and public lands more broadly, DeVoto launched his missive demanding that if Congress refused to act that they should close the national parks.
Devoto’s essay tapped in to a groundswell of growing public frustration over government inaction. Visitation continued to grow throughout the park system, forcing Congress to finally act with the passage of
Mission 66, a ten-year program that pumped millions of dollars into the National Parks.
Granted, Mission 66 came with a mixed success, but Devoto’s underlining message in 1953 what that it is the government’s responsibility to proper fund and manage our national parks. Anything less, and we might as well board them up. A lesson, it seems, that has been forgotten as Congress and the President appear to be on the verge of enacting draconian cuts to the federal budget that promise to devastate the already grossly underfunded National Parks.
This past month the group The Coalition of National Park Retirees leaked a memo from National Park Service director Jonathan Jarvis that warned park superintendents of the looming sequestration. In order to meet the 5% cuts that would come from Congress’ inaction on funding the federal government, Jarvis ordered an immediate hiring freeze, eliminate all “less-essential” costs, including “travel, non-mandatory training, overtime, purchases of supplies, materials and equipment and contracts.” Park service employees will also face continued furloughs in order to meet the budgetary cut.
While such cuts, or to use the current parlance, austerity measures, will allow the over four hundred units under the care of the National Park Service to remain open, unlike during the government shutdown in 1995, they will most certainly wreak havoc during the height of summer season. Campgrounds, boat ramps, bathrooms, roads, and trails will all suffer. Countless wildlife studies will simply cease to operate. And local economies reliant on tourist dollars and federal jobs will take hit at the very moment when people rely on them the most.
The National Parks, like all public lands, are chronically underfunded normally. The National Park Conservation Association notes that since 2002 the NPS’s discretionary budget has decreased by $3 billion. The list of backlogged maintenance needs would nearly swallow the entire NPS budget. Additionally, the lack of hiring of permanent employees has left many smaller parks and monuments so understaffed as to be nonfunctioning. For example, cultural resource positions are so rare as to be listed as an endangered species in most parks, while Homeland Security funds have created a glut in the number of law enforcement officers in parks as diverse as Yosemite to the Black Canyon. The point being, that the National Parks do not get enough funding as it is, and what little they do receive is often marked for specific uses which may not be of highest priority.
Unlike like Devoto, I am not calling for the closure of the National Parks. However, the current crisis does call for action by those of us who love our public lands, and have for the past decade watch in horror as the federal government has sat back and let out nation’s park slowly degrade.
With such sentiments in mind, it is worth revisiting the final paragraph of Devoto’s 1953 essay.
“No such sums will be appropriated. Therefore only one course seems possible. The national park system must be temporarily reduced to a size for which Congress is willing to pay. Let us, as a beginning, close Yellowstone, Yosemite, Rocky Mountain, and Grand Canyon National Parks—close and seal them, assign the Army to patrol them, and so hold them secure till they can be reopened. They have the largest staffs in the system but neither those staffs nor the budgets allotted them are large enough to maintain the areas at a proper level of safety, attractiveness, comfort, or efficiency. They are unable to do the job in full and so it had better not be attempted at all. If these staffs—and their respective budgets—were distributed among other areas, perhaps the Service could meet the demands now put on it. If not, additional areas could be temporarily closed and sealed, held in trust for a more enlightened future—say Zion, Big Bend, Great Smoky, Shenandoah, Everglades, and Gettysburg. Meanwhile letters from constituents unable to visit Old Faithful, Half Dome, the Great White Throne, and Bright Angel Trail would bring a nationally disgraceful situation to the really serious attention of the Congress which is responsible for it.”
Last fall I took 20 students on a camping trip in Utah’s west desert in the Cedar Mountain Wilderness Area. We hiked through dry canyons and set up camp on the edge of a burn that had blackened nearly all of the vegetation and turned the desert soil to dust. A colleague described it as “camping on the moon.” But the burritos were warm, the stars were bright, and the campsite opened to unbroken views of the salt flats and the ranges West of Salt Lake City.
There is an old (and contested) truism in Geography that “Everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things.” It’s hard to remember that anything is close in the open, seemingly empty spaces of the American West where gas stations are few and far between, where “the vast loneliness of sky and earth” surround the campfire.
At our campsite in the Cedar Mountains, it would have been easy to feel alone, to get lost in the clear night and the bright Milky Way. But the lights from the Aragonite Hazardous Waste Incinerator just down the slope brought us back to earth. A line drawn on a map told us that we were in wilderness, on a mountain that was, at least legally, “untrammeled by man,” a place where we could escape the rest of the world. Half a mile away, the incinerator burned paint, chemicals and other hazardous wastes brought in from across the country. Places that are close to each other tend to be more related.
One of these places is a testament to our desire to leave parts of the natural landscape, the other a reminder of the danger we pose to ourselves and just one part of a toxic legacy. But these two places share a border and have more in common than it would first appear. Their value depends upon their place, their isolation. The incinerator is set apart, tied to cities, towns and factories by rail-lines and set in the middle of wide expanses of desert.
Before we left for the trip we asked students to read Alex Johnson’s Orion article How to Queer Ecology: One Goose at a Time. Johnson challenges us to “give a round of applause to the delicious complexity. Let us call this complexity the queer, and let us use it as a verb. Let us queer our ecology. Cranes can be ancient, but they can also be modern. Might their posterity extend past ours?” On the surface, Johnson is talking about sexuality; pushing us to see that the living world provides examples not only of monogamy, but examples of homosexual geese, transgendered deer, and, (as one student put it) “squirrel three-ways.” “What then is natural?” Johnson asks? “All of it. None of it.”
To queer ecology is to reassess our assumptions about the order of the natural world, to take our dualisms less seriously. Looking at the incineration plant, it occurred to me that queering our ecology we might also require us to queer our geography. Too often we establish bright lines between the pristine and the ruined, between the untrammelled and the abused. Yet, Aragonite Incineration Plant will border the Cedar Mountain Wilderness Area and we might find the lights in the desert beautiful. What might it mean to queer Tobler’s law. Such a conversation might mean queering the relationship between the incinerator and the Wilderness. It might consider that the two are not so different, that their proximity is not abnormal. A discussion of a queered geography of the American West asks us to understand these two places as necessary components of the same natural and cultural landscape, entwined in the history of the West and our own place in nature. “Nature is mysterious, and our part in the pageant is shrouded in mystery as well.” Johnson reminds us. “This means contradiction and paradox and irony.” It means that there will always be an exception. We might recognize the dangerous paradox of proximity and distance. We might wonder at it.
1. Tobler, W. 1969. A computer movie simulating urban growth in the Detroit region. Paper prepared for the meeting of the International Geographical Union, Commission on Quantitative Methods, Ann Arbor, Michigan, August.
Brent Olson is an assistant professor of environmental studies at Westminster College, in Salt Lake City.
I am searching for a camel. I know that sounds a bit strange, but let me explain.
Camels once roamed the Southwest, having been released into the wild by their previous owners, often the U.S. Army, or simply having escaped from a poorly constructed corral. Small bands of the beasts wandered from northern Mexico and the Baja to Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon. That was, until the early twentieth century, when the last camel disappeared.
I am looking for that camel.
A little background first. Following the Mexican-American War in 1848, the United States found itself in control of a vast new territory, what we today call the American Southwest.
The discovery of gold in the California Sierra along with the on-going sectional conflict over slavery placed the Southwest at the center of the increasingly vicious debate over the nation’s future.
Espousing America’s Manifest Destiny to expand and conquer the continent, numerous men sought to tie the West to the East by developing a reliable transportation route.
Among those people was Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, who would become the president of the Confederacy a decade later. A strong proponent of slavery and Manifest Destiny, as Secretary of War Davis advocated the opening of a southwestern transcontinental route from Texas into the gold fields of California.
To do so, he came to support the idea of bringing camels from Northern Africa.
He sent a military unit to the Mediterranean, where they purchased thirty-tree camels before sailing back to Texas. The camels were then moved to Camp Verde, in the Arizona Territory, where they were boarded until 1861.
In 1861, President Lincoln commissioned Edward Fitzgerald Beale to survey a viable route through the Southwest. Beale’s expedition included many of the camels brought from northern Africa and Turkey, and opened up the route from Texas to Los Angeles, the same one that Route 66 would later follow.
The Civil War and the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869 brought an end to the use of the military’s use camels. Many of the military’s stock were sold off to carnivals, released, or were simply shot as many of those who dealt with the animals despised the beast’s surly disposition and, well, unique odor.
This is where my search comes in. Where did these animals go? And what were their impacts before fading away into history?
Throughout the late nineteenth century, travelers spoke of seeing camels throughout the Sonoran and Mojave Deserts—the most infamous being the Red Ghost.
The tale of the Red Ghost typically begins one morning in 1883 on an isolated ranch near the southeastern edge of the Arizona Territory.
One morning, the two men rode out check on their scattered livestock, leaving behind their wives, two sisters, and few children. The women managed the daily life of the ranch, including collecting water from the nearby spring.
Such was the case that morning with one of the sisters trudging to spring bucket in hand, while the other remained in the house. Suddenly, chaos erupted near the ranch’s corral. Racing to the door of house, one sister witnessed what she would later describe at “El Diablo.”
Sitting astride a red beast, taller than horse, sat a mummified man. The beast, enraged at the barking of the ranch’s dogs tore through the corral, racing towards the spring. In fear for her life, the woman slammed the door to blood curdling screams of her sister outside.
Upon their return, the men found the body of the second sister trampled to death and the first sister still hidden in the house screaming about the beast.
Several days later, two prospectors awoke to a rider astride an enormous red “horse” tearing through their camp.
Sightings of the Red Ghost continued for years. A small band of hunters who attempted to shoot the apparition, but missed, found the head of a long dead man that had bounced off the animal as it fled.
Later, a lone cowboy happened upon the Ghost. And, being a cattleman, he roped the camel. But rather than pulling on the lariat to get away and tightening the rope, the Ghost charged the started roper, who proceeded to fall off his horse and drop the lariat as the camel, still with a saddle astride its back, tore past him off into the brush.
The Red Ghost’s reign of terror came to an end a number of years later, when a rancher awoke to the find the camel grazing in his garden, and shot the beast. The lariat had dug deep into the animal’s flesh, and while no body remained strapped to the camel, the saddle was still there.
But story of the Last Camel did not end with the Red Ghost’s death.
In 1913, the crew of a Santa Fe Railroad train swore they had seen a camel near Wickenburg, Arizona.
David Hulton, of Ajo, Arizona, swore he saw a small herd of camels near a watering hole in Cabeza National Wildlife Refuge in 1924.
Five years later, a traveler reported sight a solitary camel near Banning, California, and tales of camel sightings near the Salton Sea continued through 1941.
Another of the expedition’s camels, its skeleton anyway, ended up in the Smithsonian.
But it turns out that the last camel resided, of all places, the Los Angeles Zoo.
One of the zoo’s camels, known as Topsy, is believed to be the last survivor of a herd of camels that made the trek across the Southwest in 1861. Topsy lived a long life and died in 1934.
Now, I know what you are thinking. The math simply does not add up. But Los Angeles Times reported in an article on Topy’s death in 1934, “While the average life of a camel is said to be 30 or 40 years, if Topsy really was a member of the Arizona herd she would have been in the late seventies. Caretakers say this would be possible as the camel has been given excellent care.”
Was Topsy really the last camel? I am not convinced. However, I do not have proof otherwise. Part of me likes to think that a lone camel still roams the deserts of the Southwest. Perhaps I am just being romantic, yet my search continues.
In October 2012, the world watched in awe as the Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner skydived from 24-miles above terra firma as part of Red Bull Stratos. For all intents and purposes he leapt to earth from space. The vistas of the planet from Baumgartner’s capsule alone made the official video nothing short of spectacular.
Two things, one obvious and another probably little noticed by other viewers, drew me to this Evel Knievel to the nth level stunt. First, he parachuted to earth, an experience that since World War II had gone from purely military endeavor to something also done as leisure. Certainly his leap of faith was laborious and made money for a lot of people (including the energy drink brand Red Bull, which backed the Stratos program). But as I see it, Baumgartner is at the vanguard of a burgeoning, albeit hardly egalitarian, space tourism industry. Space tourism is big talk in the American West. Oklahoma, California, and Colorado all have planned privately or publicly funded spaceports that cater to high-end tourism. New Mexico’s Spaceport America, a stone’s throw west of White Sands Missile Range and about 60 miles north of Las Cruces, is perhaps the most famous. In 2009 Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic planned to house its headquarters there.
Second, Baumgartner plummeted to earth near the alien sighting capital of the world, Roswell, New Mexico, where Stratos had headquarters for the jump. Space tourism reminded me of the deep ties that space exploration has held in the American West. When we think of American space exploration we think of Houston, Texas, Huntsville, Alabama, and Cape Canaveral, Florida. But early on the West was at the heart of it all. For Example, Edwards Air Force Base (formerly Muroc Army Airfield), located on the high desert of California, housed post-World War II test pilots that tested high altitude and high-speed airplane prototypes (Chuck Yeager was a part of this “weird ribald aerial tarpaper mad-monk squadron,” as Tom Wolfe called them). In the 1970s, Edwards also played a central role in Space Shuttle testing.
New Mexico holds a special place in the history of space technologies. Beginning in 1930, physicist and inventor Robert H. Goddard initiated the earliest rocket research in New Mexico after leaving the less than inviting community and climate of New England. As World War II ended German and American scientists led by German engineer Wernher Von Braun came to Fort Bliss and White Sands Proving Ground in south-central New Mexico to initiate the American V-2 rocket program. White Sands would test several rocket prototypes including the Viking, Athena, and Pershing. In 1949, U.S. Secretary of Defense, James Forrestal, paid lip service to an earth satellite vehicle as future military tool based in part on the secret research at White Sands.
As part of high altitude research conducted during the V-2 program, engineers and scientists also hurtled metal slugs into space and took photos of the earth from high altitudes. Both experiments are important ancestral events to Baumgartner’s flight (you really cannot have his capsule without the slugs nor the compelling images of the video from his capsule without early experiments with high altitude rocket photography). In 1963, engineers and scientists at the White Sands Test Facility researched propulsion system prototypes for the already underway Apollo program (WSTF remains active). In March 1982, the Space Shuttle Columbia landed at the White Sands Space Harbor.
That space tourism has come to New Mexico thus is of little surprise. In fact the idea had come much earlier than Branson’s 2009 announcement. In the early 1990s, engineer Burton Lee of Stanford University, with several colleagues, garnered funding through a NASA congressional earmark (via New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici) to plan the Southwest Regional Spaceport. The whole sordid history of funding and legislation can be found in Lee’s 2007 PowerPoint presentation found here. In late 2008 the FAA gave Spaceport America a launch license and in January 2009 New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson heralded the agreement with Branson’s Virgin Galactic saying “this groundbreaking ceremony is an important step toward our goal of being at the forefront of a vibrant, new commercial space industry.”
So Richard Branson had planted his space flag in the deserts of southern New Mexico with the help of New Mexico politicians, Congress, local boosters, and a history of space research to prime the pump. But a story all too familiar to western historians seems to be playing itself out. The benefits of this leisure and industrial program seem only to benefit a small wealthy slice of the public, a public with either ancillary or zero ties to the everyday realities of most New Mexicans. Indeed, in 2010 Virgin Galactic marked the price for a two hour round trip at $200,000.
While his company has started paying rent, Branson has threatened to abandon Spaceport America unless the New Mexico state legislature offers liability exemptions to Virgin Galactic suppliers. Considering the amount of money the state has poured into the program (two-thirds of estimated $209-212 million cost) this may be shocking to most New Mexicans. But lets not act surprised. Branson is looking at Abu Dhabi as an alternative launch site (Oklahomans may recall a similar song and dance).
In some senses, New Mexico offers a wonderful environmental climate for such endeavors including year-round sun, high altitude, and little precipitation (clearly the positive reception from Santa Fe does not hurt either). Baumgartner did not pick New Mexico by mere whimsy and seeing New Mexico from 24-miles up is a thrill. He also shows that for a sliver of the population space tourism is possible. But in a state with one of the highest poverty rates in the country, which has also experienced abominable social and environmental exploitation as the result of extractive natural resource industries and Cold War military agencies (read here, here, and here), Spaceport America seems like nothing more than a big empty terminal with a runway to nowhere.
Ryan Edgington is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Environmental history at Mcalester College and a native New Mexican