Born in 1898 on a Utah farm, my maternal grandfather became a miner and rancher in the Deep Creek Mountains on the Nevada border. He eventually moved to Salt Lake City to secure his kids an education, but, with a mere eight grades under his belt, he knew far more about the land, about finding a vein of ore, and about growing cherries and tomatoes than any of the rest of us ever will.
One of the things he liked to do was go out target practicing. He also liked fishing and camping. And hunting. But he didn’t just hunt for antelope and deer — or gold and tin, for that matter. He looked for all sorts of things, and this column has to do with two of the smaller items he liked to find.
When I was about 7, my grandfather took several of us younger folk to look for blue glass at the ghost town of Mercer, Utah. I remember his ancient lemon-yellow Chev with the tailfins setting out on punishing dirt roads through sagebrush and junipers. (I should point out that my grandfather always drove as he if were in a truck on a dirt road — he might turn corners from the lane of his choice, vigorously steer as if to avoid washboards and potholes, and drive 60 mph in city neighborhoods.)
This particular story ends abruptly at a huge chainlink fence with a NO TRESPASSING sign on the locked gate. A mining conglomerate had bought the old ghost town, and our dreams of blue glass and other artifacts, not to mention a fun picnic, were dashed.
Another “hunt” I remember was instigated by my uncle, but my grandfather was, again, the guide who drove us to the desert. This time we were after pinon nuts, rich kernels of pure energy beloved of desert birds, squirrels, and humans.
Either my grandfather was out of practice or he’d been too long in the city (or perhaps he didn’t want to spoil our fun with facts), but our search was almost futile, yielding, in a drought year, only two cones — one for my sister and one for me. We dutifully roasted them over a fire, watched them break open, and ate the precious fruits that rattled out.
My uncle later discovered that what we’d done was illegal. We should have purchased a pinon nut hunting permit; without one, we could have been fined. As Jeff put it in a letter to the editor of the Salt Lake Tribune: “What is in store next? Taxation on raindrops? Big game control of grasshoppers?”
(I am curious why this penchant for writing in and to newspapers runs in my family: Perhaps it’s because my maternal great-grandfather owned a virulently anti-Mormon newspaper and signed his ranting editorials “Will B. Moore.”)
For me, the stories of these two disappointing hunts serve as exempla of life in the West. On the one hand, freedom is curtailed by corporate greed, private property, chainlink exclusion. My land (and your land, with apologies to Woody Guthrie) taken for the benefit of a few — truly and literally locked up. On the other hand, the freedom-loving citizen encounters seemingly pointless, even intrusive, government rules that might be laughable if they didn’t waste her money.
What concerns me as I think about the state of the West is that while so many people are, perhaps rightly, concerned about the nut-hunting permit end of the spectrum they are not at all worried about the chainlink fence end. Why should TransCanada, Weyerhauser, Monsanto and Conoco (and now Hobby Lobby) be exempt from laws while any attempt on the part of public institutions to salvage the natural landscape and keep people healthy is paramount to Stalinist socialism and/or Nazism? (I’m not quite sure how the conflation of these two vastly different ideologies works.)
I guess it boils down to what it always has in the West: the power of money and the gullibility of the rest of us. An Eastern friend of mine (unwittingly insulting) once opined that stupidity runs in the water out here. Of course, I could have said it’s really alkali that she was tasting. I sure hope so.
Cara Chamberlain is the author of two books of poetry, “Hidden Things” (2009) and “The Divine Botany” (forthcoming).