Terril Shorb, “The Fawn of History”

fawnPetroglyphs at Homolovi--Little Colorado River in background--Terril Shorb

 

The Prairie Pronghorn huffs at the intruder to her grassy domain on the high desert of northern Arizona at a place called Homolovi.  The warning snorts convulse the muscles of her belly–tan and white and swollen with the life of her soon-to-be-born fawn.  A delicate foreleg rises and stomps the pale earth, dislodging a fragment of pottery that has lain undisturbed for centuries.  The sandstone bluff on which the pronghorn stands is strewn with millions of such shards–remnants of a community of humans who once lived in vast pueblos and farmed the rich floodplain of a river that meanders across the prairie a mile away.  The Little Colorado is today a meager, intermittent stream that only occasional makes liquid offering to the Big Colorado River in its grand gorge sixty miles to the northwest.

Before settlers arrived to dam the L.C. as it coursed through vast pine forests and roared off the Mogollon Rim, it was a literal life line for a region defined by rarity of surface water.  It furnished a good living for untold generations of indigenous peoples whose descendents today are known as the Hopi.  This slow-moving river and its rich sediment loads remained accessible for much of its course, unlike others which cut down through the limestone layers like knife through sponge cake.  In this way, the Little Colorado or Colorado Chiquito as it was called by early Europeans, was an American Nile, nourishing the peoples whose stone and adobe pueblos inspired the Spanish to feverish explorations here for their imagined Seven Cities of Gold.

But there was little metallic gold here.  The color was ever present in the form of sun-cured grama grasses in a land one could rightly call, The Big Dry, where spare grasses rustle timidly across stretches of seared red rock and scrub brush and where antelope or human can range across thirty thousand square miles scarcely wetting a hoof or boot.  Survival here has always been a matter of adaptation to aridity and the unpredictable and occasional arrival of rain.  Always, for the larger creatures who roam the surface, it is a quest for water–a natural catchment in the deep, shadowed gullet of an arroyo, or, for Mother Pronghorn, a trek down to the cottonwood and willows etching a sinuous line through sandy desert where, if she is lucky, she will find a shallow puddle in the Little Colorado’s dusty course.  She tosses her head defiantly and the intruder retreats.  Now, immediate danger abated, she resumes her morning’s journey to water.  As if in response, the fawn within kicks and the movement is registered on the doe’s sleek side.

Mother Pronghorn cocks an ear to a persistent roar beyond the river.  It is a river of another kind, a river of asphalt, and along its east-west course travel tens of thousands of humans on Interstate Forty, the current incarnation of the Southwest Passage.  Hard alongside the interstate, intermittent as the L.C., is another highway that is in most of its length a ghost.  And yet it remains perhaps the most famous roadway in the world–old Route 66.  Travelers from all over the earth come here to the high, wide, handsome prairie of Arizona to ride it in some expression of desire for the romance of the open road.

Mother Pronghorn has reached the river and she finds a rivulet of fresh water and drinks deeply, her wide brown eyes scanning the periphery of shrubs and trees for any danger.  Just a thousand yards from her supping mouth is a nexus– a statement wrought in sand and stone and steel and concrete–that poetically or horrifically symbolizes this harsh, beautiful, mysterious country.  It is a place where a stark abutment and a span of concrete keep old Route 66’s chipped pavement safely above the quicksand and the periodic salmon-hued floodwaters of the Little Colorado below.  Alongside the ghost highway is a rusted steel trestle that supports the rails of the BNSF railroad across the mudflats and shallow waters of the L. C.  It was this railroad’s ancestor, the Atlantic-Pacific and later the Atcheson, Topeka, and Santa Fe, whose route across this vast unknown land was surveyed by Colonel Amiel Weeks Whipple and his men and mules here a century and a half before.

By his noting in his diary and subsequent report to Congress that this region did afford passage for a railroad that would link the interior of the nation to the thriving goldfields of the Pacific Coast, Whipple had sealed the fate of this region.  In 1853-54 when his expedition came through The Big Dry on its topographical survey of the western U.S. stretch of the 35th latitude, few Europeans had ventured that way, save for the earlier Spanish gold-seekers in the middle 1500s.  The latitude of terra incognita–the last such region in the lower United States to be fully explored–was about to enter the Book of Progress, on whose pages the spirit of Manifest Destiny declared that the intermountain American West was ripe for the plucking.

Whipple’s report stirred the mercantile instincts of politicians who clung to the grand vision of the likes of Senator Thomas Hart Benton, who had proclaimed in 1848: “Let us…build a great road upon the great national line…which will find on our continent the Bay of San Francisco at one end, St. Louis in the middle, the National Metropolis and great commercial emporium on the other end.”  Benton had also envisioned as a symbol of this westward push, “the colossal statue of the great Columbus, whose design it accomplishes, hewn from the granite mass of a peak in the Rocky Mountains overlooking the road.”

The railroad was built and towns sprang up along the latitude of desire like rocketing stalks of agaves flowering brilliantly under turquoise skies.  Near the L. C. and the pueblos and the ancestral grazing ground of Mother Pronghorn a dusty settlement grew up and came to be known as Winslow.  Here, between Route 66 and the ATSF railroad Mary Colter designed a great hacienda called La Posada, a sumptuous refuge for rail passengers whose furnishing suggested the conquistador mythos of the vanishing American West.  Just up the asphalt river from La Posada stands a statue to which tourists flock, but it is not Benton’s granite tribute to Christopher Columbus.  It is a cast in bronze of a long-haired young man who might be a mountain man or fur trapper.  He holds in his hands not a long rifle but a guitar.  Recorded music blares from a nearby tourist store and those of a certain Flower Power age come to this spot to sing along with the Eagles’ antithesis to the hard-charging frontier mentality, Take it Easy, and its line that pays tribute to this lost region: “Standing on a corner in Winslow Arizona, such a fine sight to see…”

Mother Pronghorn has drunk her fill and raises her head, water dripping from her muzzle.  She sniffs the dry air for danger, climbs the embankment for her return trek into the sheltering hills where she will bed down for the long mid-day amidst gleaming trunks of agatized stone–natural replicas of elegant pines that fell two hundred million years ago, their cells replaced by silica until they were excavated by erosive forces.

When her fawn drops to the sandy, parched soil of Homolovi, it must be prepared to gather its dime-sized hooves beneath it and run for its life, from natural predators such as coyotes, and from others such as the hurtling SUVs and 18-wheelers on I-40–a slash of concrete and asphalt that dissects the historic pronghorn habitat.  There are fences, too, strung around 40-acre ranchettes that have sprung up where vast and venerable cow outfits perished to modern market forces and became fodder for real estate developers.  Fences, roads, ATVs, loose dogs–all are implements of desire of the latest wave of humans who have come to this latitude to express on the land their ideas of personal freedom.

Mother Pronghorn and her kind are at the center of forces of controversy which swirl around them like the frequent dust storms that prowl the Route 66 corridor in the Spring, filling the turquoise air with a juggernaut of swirling gold.  The 35th parallel across Northern Arizona was the last great reach of the American West to be fully explored and settled by moderns.  It is now the epicenter of colliding tectonic plates of human consciousness: the irresistible urge to lay claim to land and to prove up on it in the spirit of individual ruggedness, and a brave new attempt to accommodate to the harsh forces and severe natural limitations of The Big Dry in an experiment in sustainable living.  Which force prevails will have a lot to do with the future of Mother Pronghorn and her unborn fawn.  The opportunity is there for human beings to create a presence in the region that is wisely adapted to a life-style that appreciates and protects the grotesque beauty and savage limitations imposed on all life who inhabit this latitude of desire.

 

 

 

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