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What is the Sound of One Billboard Falling?

This article was originally published in the Berkeley Barb.

Ed and I sat in a fire tower above Aztec Peak, a 7,748-foot-high mountain in Arizona’s Tonto National Forest. Slowly he stood up, grabbed a half-full carton of sour cream, walked outside the lookout tower, and heaved it far into the forest below. The container rested near the top of a tall ponderosa pine. The sour cream glopped down to lower branches and finally to the ground as a couple of Los Angeles television producers slowly pulled out of sight. It was Edward Abbey’s way of wishing them Godspeed down the treacherous dirt road to the paved highway.

In the publishing industry, Abbey was categorized as a “Southwest writer,” a condescending but ultimately benign label that plagues those writing about the area west of Louisiana and east of Los Angeles. More than twenty years after his death in 1989, Abbey still has what is euphemistically called a “cult following,” which simply means that devoted readers enthusiastically spread their admiration by word of mouth, thumping dog-eared paperbacks in front of friends who haven’t fallen prey. His words are sufficiently safe for classroom reading lists, incendiary enough to trigger fury against public works, and adequately anarchistic to dispense with polite conversation. His fictional characters sometimes assumed cartoon qualities and their dialogue could be clunky, but his appeal transcended literary niceties for sturdy truths.

Notwithstanding the fact that one of his books was made into a movie — The Brave Cowboy became the Kirk Douglas classic Lonely Are the Brave — and despite having written on of the great books of the American Southwest, Desert Solitaire, Abbey’s notoriety never broke through the invisible barrier separating “underground following” from popular acceptance.

Lord knows he tried. The subject about which he was most eloquent and prolific — wilderness preservation — became, as he put it, “in vogue,” and for a number of years he was at the height of fashion. Still, “wilderness preservation” sounds too much like the tail end of a preachy bumper sticker. Abbey made defiant celebration of the outdoors without yielding to the “ain’t it beautiful” approach. He stood apart from others by his cantankerous and acerbic style, mocking land exploiters and tepid liberals in the same phrase. He could go for pages describing something as common as a sunset and never lose the reader. Joyful veneration of the natural world coupled with defiance of man-made strictures permeated his writing, an attribute that distinguished Abbey from others. It was this virtue that made him a most reluctant guru to environmentalists, and it was this quality that spurred the men from the television network to visit his mountaintop summer home.

The 16-by-16-foot home at the top of a 50-foot-high metal tower afforded him a hundred-mile view in all directions. In addition to living essentials, the glass-enclosed lookout perch, which resembled nothing so much as a prison guard tower in a World War II movie, contained the tools of his trade: an Osborne fire scanner, detailed terrain maps, an intercom linking him with other lookouts, binoculars, and gauges to measure rain, temperature, and humidity. On occasion he saw elk in the meadow west near the Peterson Ranch; whitetail deer were common sights east toward the Murphy Ranch. More than once he spotted black bear at the bottom of his tower. In the upper reaches of Aztec Peak, he could pick wild blackberries along a two-mile mountaintop trail, which has since been officially christened Abbey’s Way. Like his writing, it has switchbacks and meadowland.

His workday four months of the year went something like this: Up with the sun at about five o’clock, down the 52 stairs to the outhouse and to shower — a bucket of cold water over the head — a run with his black Lab, Ellie, then back upstairs to intermittently play the flute, read, and sit and think. During what he called office hours — 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. — he sat in a high wooden swivel chair in the southeast corner of the room, jotting in his journal. He listened to jazz, classical music, and Willie Nelson with one ear while the shortwave radio sputtered into the other. He was a man at peace. When the peace got too dreary, he walked to the other end of the room to pick up his binoculars and venture out onto the catwalk surrounding his home. He peered intently into the woods in all directions and return inside, muttering, “Dammit, still haven’t seen any raging forest fires. What a bore.” He watched a peregrine falcon fly by at eye level, then started up his journal once again.

On this particular day at Aztec Peak, Abbey could see foul air some 30 miles from the lookout tower. He radioed a co-worker: “Signal Peak, this is Aztec. I’m seeing an incredible amount of smog out your way. Where’s it all coming from?” They agreed it came from Phoenix. Abbey appreciated the work he had carved out for himself. Jobs like this allowed him to buy time and, in leans years, food. In 1978, he sucked on his pipe and looked for puffs of smoke in the distance for $3.50 an hour. “I’ve got a job that requires very little intelligence. The waiting list is very long.”

If backpackers or other strangers ventured near the mountaintop, he would lock the outhouse — “so I won’t have to clean up after them” — and shut the trap door separating the uppermost flight of stairs from the catwalk encircling his room. He was by himself at the top of the mountain and generally preferred not to have uninvited guests climb up to his home to take in the magnificent view. An Esquire photo of Robert Redford camping along Utah’s Outlaw Trail in snow-white cowboy boots provoked him to laughter; a National Geographic article about a woman’s trans-Australia journey brought muttered jealousy. “I have no use for natural photography. I like photographs of places, animals, and people for history and documentation. But rivers and mountains and flowers — there’s no use for it. I can’t stand the stuff.” I mentioned to Abbey that once shortly after I returned from a trip to northern New Mexico, still radiating from the glory of the Sangre de Cristo range, I could finally grasp how some people get religion. “You don’t understand,” he insisted, “those mountains, that land — you don’t get religion from them. They are religion.”

His best writing illuminated that theology. If his works have any unifying theme, it is a simple, familiar one: Nature — the land beyond the land we know — battles capitalism, unrestricted access, industrial tourism, and rank abuse. You win some, you lose some. A “Jeffersonian anarchist” (his own label), Abbey described himself in a magazine piece as “beer-bellied, broken-nosed, overweight, shakily put together, with a bad knee [skiing accident].” He was grizzly and whimsical, well-read and inquisitive, drawing irony from a position he cheerfully conceded somewhat elitist. He bewildered his occasional college lecture audiences by spouting poetic pornography and bawdy environmentalism. It came as no surprise when the network produces reported back that Abbey was too unpredictable to consider for a national news feature. He could be a violent and offensive writer.

At the end of a rigorous day of vainly searching for forest fires, playing his flute, and writing, Abbey radioed in his final weather report. “I like that sunset,” he said as he clicked off the two-way. “It’s sinister-looking. Almost grim.” His life was marked by writing, river-running, contemplation, and mountaineering through the backlands — and even this, he feared, was too ritualistic. “I must do some traveling. I’ve been hiding out in the desert. I’ve got to get out and see the world again. I haven’t planned to do that since I lived in Hoboken.” The night I spent with him was just brisk enough to warrant a light blanket and, as 360-degree lightning provided a silent and constant obbligato, I slept in Abbey’s summertime studio as soundly as I have ever slept in my life.

Seclusion such as this inspired Abbey’s celebrated 1968 work, Desert Solitaire, a powerful and sensitive narration of a year in the Utah and Arizona wilderness. The book presaged the environmental movement, hence it is clear of all the claptrap that has bogged down much of the literature of ecology since then. It expresses a pure and occasionally lusty passion direct at the land, its users and abusers. And it thrust upon him a pack of loyal followers, devotees who created the demand for his lyrical and self-deprecating writing.

“I m slightly uncomfortable in this role,” he admitted when pressed. “I’m not a ‘naturalist leader’ or any other kind. I’m a writer. I was writing about all this before it was popular, and I probably will when it’s no longer topical. I don’t want to write about the environment forever, but I don’t know how long it will be a subject everyone wants to read.” He gestured to a recent issue of Outside magazine. “Besides, when someone is willing to pay me a thousand dollars to write about why a road shouldn’t be paved into a national park, it’s hard to resist. Eventually I’d like to settle down and do novels. I really consider myself more a writer than an environmentalist.” There was a thoughtful pause, then a sheepish grin. “Well, I guess I am an environmentalist. There’s really no way around that.”

Edward Abbey was born in Home, Pennsylvania, when Calvin Coolidge was still president. While slightly older friends were off fighting World War II, 17-year-old Ed Abbey took off by thumb, bus, and rail to see what lay far beyond the Alleghenies, to satisfy “that westering urge.” His introduction to the Southwest was an arrest for vagrancy in Flagstaff, Arizona, a city that remained an occasional foil for his literary conceits. Except for a two-year stint in the army and a couple of years as a welfare worker in New Jersey, Abbey made the West his permanent home, sometimes wondering away, always returning. The National Park Service and the United States Forest Service employed him sporadically for more than 20 years. During his last decade, he taught nonfiction writing and juggled a schedule of traveling, further wilderness exploration, and writing. One novel that he wrote atop Aztec Peak was set in post-industrial Phoenix. The city had been largely abandoned and civil war was raging: “simple anarchists and farmers” on one side, the military and reconstructionists on the other. The book followed the same theme developed in his other works, notably The Monkey Wrench Gang, his most popular, in which a merry band of ecoteurs plot to destroy Glen Canyon Dam. The construction of this dam along the Colorado River of Utah and Arizona created artificial Lake Powell, forever drowning some of the most spectacular and inaccessible canyon land in the country, a wilderness region dear to Abbey’s heart and typewriter. In The Monkey Wrench Gang, published in 1976, environmental absolutists down billboards, sabotage earthmoving equipment, and lay elaborate plans to destroy the dam itself, restoring the Colorado River and Glen Canyon to their natural state. Few could rationally argue with that goal.

Eco-raiding was a skill not foreign to Abbey, and one that he wrote about with the leer of a sensualist. “I like civil disorder and natural disaster,” he said one day, and we toasted public uproar and organic catastrophes over a hamburger lunch. “That’s why I like storms, earthquakes, and mail strikes. It breaks things up; there is temporary disarray. Anything to disrupt the order. The Monkey Wrench Gang got people going. I’d get letters from people endorsing the idea of blowing up Glen Canyon Dam, asking how they could help. The dangerous ones would enclose detailed diagrams of just how to do it, complete with sketches telling me where to place the dynamite. They’d want to meet at clandestine sites to make plans.” About all the brouhaha that book inspired, he remarks, “What’s that Waylon Jennings line — ‘Don’t you think this cowboy bit done got out of hand?’”

In the 1950s and early ’60s, Abbey read the works of William Eastlake, especially his Western trilogy, Go in BeautyThe Bronc People, and Portrait of an Artist with Twenty-Six Horses. Eastlake’s writing — as would Abbey’s in the following decade — had developed a loyal following: Arpad Gonz, later his country’s president, translated Portrait of an Artist with Twenty-Six Horses into Hungarian. Writers from Jim Harrison to the late Kathy Acker praised his work. A fan underwrote the publication of an unfinished manuscript. One small press brought out an annotated bibliography, listing everything ever written by or about Eastlake. Eastlake was convinced that Tom Robbins, Richard Brautigan, and even Ken Kesey had copied his style. He took praise well.

His books were a curiosity at first for their unusual portrait of the West. Pulp novels, shoot-em-ups, and B Westerns thrived at drugstore paperback racks and first-run movie theaters. But Eastlake’s West was clever, literary, and droll. His cowboys stumbled and hankered for electricity and V-8s. They shaved from the same basin as Garrison Keillor’s Lefty and Dusty. His fictional Indians were funny, occasionally duplicitous, always clever, and unfailingly amused by pitiful whites. They had names like President Taft, My Prayer, Walking Across a Small Arroyo, Jesus Saves, and Henry Three Ears of an Elk. They could role a perfect cigarette in one hand without taking their eyes off you. Said one, “Well, at least I didn’t go to Yale.” Eastlake’s Indians were neither noble nor savage.

The novels built Eastlake a steadily growing reputation for their simultaneous ability to entertain critics and debunk the West, and by 1961 other young writers were seeking him out, Edward Abbey among them. At age 34, Abbey and the poet Robert Creeley drove a Volkswagen bus and a bottle of Old Crow from Taos down to Cuba, New Mexico, to the W Lazy E Bar Ranch, where Eastlake lived with his then-wife Martha. Creeley, who had written Eastlake his first fan letter six years earlier, thought him like Hemingway but with a sense of humor. For Creeley and Abbey, both goateed, this was their first meeting with Eastlake. The three spoke little of literature and lots of land. Eastlake saddled up his quarter horse Poco Más, turned the reins to Poco Menos over to Abbey, and gave Elegante to Creeley. The three writers rode through the high Chihuahuan desert until they reached Eastlake’s herd, grazing illegally in a national forest. This impressed Abbey.

Abbey returned to Eastlake’s land often and, as he described it, “one cold gloomy afternoon in November, we rode out to attempt to again find his cows.” The two horseback writers became separated, and when a blizzard dumped layers of snow on New Mexico, their vision was cut to ten yards. Eastlake made it back to the ranch house; Abbey, realizing he was lost, gave his horse free rein, but Poco Menos was mucho perdido. A fire was out of the question; “I figured if things got bad enough,” Abbey said later, “I’d open my knife and eviscerate the horse, keep my hands and feet warm in his smoking gut.” When the storm ended around midnight, Eastlake trudged out, sporadically firing his shotgun in the air, hoping that Abbey would hear. After Eastlake had traveled a mile from his house, Abbey heard his shots and the writers reunited, with Poco Menos intact. The two forged a strong bond, Bill and Ed, one that held up through numerous books, bottles, wives, and zip codes.

Eastlake and I came to know each other quite by chance. I had moved to Arizona in 1969 and used my thumb to get around. One sunny December afternoon Bill pulled his tan pickup over to give me a lift. He touched the brim of his cowboy hat as I got in, leaned over, and shook my hand. “Eastlake,” he said, introducing himself. “Not Westlake; Eastlake. E-a-s-t-l-a-k-e.” As we drove down Speedway Boulevard, E-a-s-t-l-a-k-e was delighted to learn his passenger wrote for the underground press; he himself had just published an anti-Vietnam war novel, The Bamboo Bed. A couple of months earlier a local jury had found an Air Force sergeant named Palacios not guilty of the cold-blooded killing of a couple of hippies, and the Manson gang had just been arrested in California. Eastlake cautioned me against the wave of anti-longhair sentiment sure to follow. As he dropped me off near my house, he invited me out to his place at the base of Mountain Lemmon for horseback riding and dinner the following weekend.

William Eastlake, born in Brooklyn to British parents, came West in the 1930s when he hitchhiked through New Mexico and Arizona to Los Angeles. There he worked at a bookstore on Hollywood Boulevard, meeting author Theodore Dreiser in his final years, and playwright Clifford Odets in his youth, and a host of Hollywood hacks in their prime. In that era, he later recalled, “I couldn’t spell, and typed like a wounded man.” After World War II, in which he won a Bronze Star, Bill and Martha kicked around Europe; in the 1950s, they moved to New Mexico, where they embraced ranching. Bill wanted to write about a part of the country neglected in serious fiction. To him the West meant excitement and remoteness, beauty and strangeness. He had in mind Walt Whitman’s West: “The great American promise.”

With the publication of Castle Keep, which prefigured Robert D. Hooker’s MAS*H and other black looks at combat and its futility, Eastlake’s reputation broadened from “Western writer” — first cousin to the “Southwestern writer” — to that of a worldly author who could blend burlesque, sharp dialogue, and morality. The Ford and Rockefeller foundations gave him money; Portrait of an Artist with Twenty-Six Horses won a prestigious award in France, where it was published in a distinguished series alongside Malcolm Lowry and Jorge Luis Borges; magazines asked him to write for them; universities in California and New Mexico invited him to be their “writer-in-residence.” It was just such an offer from the University of Arizona that had coaxed Eastlake to Tucson, to our fortuitous meeting on Speedway Boulevard and our subsequent afternoon on horseback and evening around the dinner table.

Eastlake kept his horses stabled on a rural road surrounded by as much desert as you would want to ride through. We must have ridden an hour or so without spying a paved road. I do not recall my horse’s name or its color; what I do remember is how proper and natural Bill Eastlake looked in the saddle, a combination of his British heritage and his Westerly countenance. In the faint distance we heard the front-porch cowbell peal, Martha’s proclamation that dinner would soon be ready. By the time we got back to the house, Martha — a fellow writer who had written a cookbook called Rattlesnakes Under Glass — had steaks waiting. Rumors abounded that she did far more to her husband’s manuscripts than simply type and copyedit them; indeed, after their divorce in 1971 his writing lacked its former literary snap.

Eventually Bill moved to Bisbee, a small and comfortable minded-out copper town near the Mexican border. When Ed Abbey made his occasional visit to his longtime friend down in Cochise County, the two would end up sitting near the pol table. They’d speak of crops, rain cattle, and integrity; sipping brooding, wondering.

Only once did a discordant note break through their harmony. At Bisbee’s Copper Queen Hotel bar one winter night in 1983, a small group of us shared a pitcher with them and the talk drifted to immigration and the border. Abbey said he opposed “the Latino invasion of our country.” Eastlake facetiously countered that the U.S. and Mexico should effect a land swap, a comment that provoked Abbey to fume over his friend’s diffidence.

Usually they mused: Will our writing last? Will it stay in print after we’re gone? In their grumbling about how publishing houses didn’t understand or promote them, the Western writer once bet the Southwestern writer ten dollars that his next book, Dancers in the Scalp House, would sell fewer copies than The Monkey Wrench Gang. Eastlake won the bet. What it came down to, the two assured each other, was that in their writing about Western America, they had “fought the good fight.”

Eastlake comes to mind best whenever I’m in Bisbee and walk down Main Street. All I have to do is glance over at Café Roka, an upscale restaurant in a building where the Tavern — a good, working-class bar — used to be. You could look through the front door of The Tavern and see light streaming in through the back. Many mornings, after Eastlake had dropped his companion Marilyn off at work, he would stop by and sit alone at the bar, nursing a schooner of beer. Backlit against the clear mountain sun, cowboy hat in place, his profile soothed passerby. He was “erect and spare,” as he described a character in Castle Keep, “like an old polished sword, but unbending, fragile and hard.”

Eastlake’s West had colors, rutted roads, and sparse dialogue. Abbey’s land was tactile, almost prickly; his fiction was motivational. Their writing had little in common, yet they wrote with an affectionate respect for the land and those who contend with it. Abbey’s contribution to the American lexicon may well be the verb “to monkey wrench.” The phenomenon — clandestine sabotage in the name of environmental preservation — reached an invigorating plateau in the early Reagan years, when the soft-cover edition of The Monkey Wrench Gag was circulating hip pocket to backpack, briefcase to purse. To many, The Monkey Wrench Gang was both old and new testament. One day in 1983, members of Earth First! — a defiantly radical and joyfully anarchic environmental group — straggled into the Lake Powell area from the Lone Rock campgrounds just across the state line in Utah. Interior Secretary James Watts had accepted an invitation to celebrate the 20th anniversary of tourist-oriented Lake Powell, a body of water that fills the sandstone Glen Canyon  and attracts more than two million tourists a year. Earth First!ers, who looked like they had spent the previous six months in the wilderness and enjoyed every minute of it, had come for a glimpse of the evil incarnate that was James Watt. He did not disappoint them.

Yet James Watt’s enemies always underestimated him. When he addressed an overflow luncheon of corporate well-wishers and tourism honchos at a lodge owned by the Del Webb Corporation that day, he spoke with symmetry: When his left arm rose outward to the sky, so did his right, giving the impression of a minister in mid-benediction. He turned 45 degrees to the left, then 45 to the right. His body expanded and contracted. He followed gratuitous insults to his detractors and the press with heaping praise for his own accomplishments. His ten fingers touched lightly, as if holding a softball. Even his incisors were uniform. A mock-up of Rainbow Bridge, the popular 290-foot-high symmetrical sandstone formation at Lake Powell, formed a halo behind his head.

Watt’s philosophy of federal land use? Simple: Any land under his control was wasted unless it produced revenue, whether from mineral rights, grazing fees, or tourism. Land that remains pristine and undeveloped might as well be fallow fields; turn it over to private enterprise, he insisted. And an unalloyed example of Watt’s philosophy? Right there are Lake Powell, where “more people have rafted since the dam was built than rafted it from the day of Adam” — where, he announced, there should be further development of tourist facilities and where “there will never be a ban on motorized rafting on the Colorado River as long as I hold office. If you’re going to be a steward you’ve got to invest in the land.” His audience slurped it up. But while he spoke, a small plane was gassing up  at a nearby airfield. Soon it would fly overhead, trailing an Earth First! banner reading “FREE THE COLORADO!

Earth First! defined environmental approaches as either deep or shallow ecology. The latter involved compromises, trade-offs, and planned development of wilderness areas; its practitioners ranged widely, from Morris and Stewart Udall to James Watt, from the Sierra Club to the Del Webb Corporation. Deep ecology rejected this approach, arguing that every trade-off and compromise, no matter how well-intentioned, forever reduced the Earth. Privately some were “two-hatters,” working on acceptable Sierra Club goals while simultaneously pursuing absolutist objectives. “Never again,” said purist Earth First!ers of projects such as the Glen Canyon Dam. They were the Jewish Defense League of the environmental movement.

To celebrate Lake Powell’s 20th birthday, Watt and the other guests boarded a paddleboat for a short ceremonial ride. At the same time, Earth First! rented a houseboat from a Del Webb fleet and motored within sight of the VIP paddleboat. From my vantage point on the top deck of the latter, I could see the demonstrators on the former, but their anti-Watt chants were unintelligible. A Paradise Valley matron to my side noticed that I was peering out at the friendly rabble. “Earthworms,” she said with a harrumph, “that’s what they are.” She considered that an insult. Others on the VIP float regarded Earth First! more with condescension than with contempt, looking on them as they might view trained seals at the San Diego zoo.

A few minutes later the transmission on our vessel malfunctioned and it refused to budge. We were up Lake Powell without a paddleboat; this wasn’t the Titanic, but it was a potential public-relations disaster. Del Webb publicists, skilled in damage control, immediately sprang into action: they poured glass after glass of champagne for the VIPs until the problem was solved. Arizona Governor Bruce Babbitt took part in the public ceremonies, then the future Interior Secretary privately praised Abbey. I wandered over to a fellow wearing a white cowboy hat and a dark bola tie. It was Interior Secretary James Watt. He told me that a few weeks earlier he had been touring national parks in Alaska, and a ranger asked if he could borrow his glasses. Watt, a bit puzzled, handed them over, he related, and the ranger put them on for a few silent seconds, then handed them back. “Thank you, Mr. Secretary. I just wanted a chance to see how you saw the world.”

I asked: “Mr. Secretary, are you familiar with The Monkey Wrench Gang?”

“Is that the book about eco- eco- eo- …” The cabinet member stammered like a stuck record, his mouth powerless to utter the word in full.

“Ecotage?” I suggested.

“Yes, that’s it. No, I’m not really familiar with it.”

“It’s set in this area.”

“Really? In Navajoland?”

“No. Here at Lake Powell. At the dam.”


A reporter from the Lake Powell Chronicle joined us. “It’s a novel. A very funny book about blowing up the dam. A fantasy.”

“No. Obviously I’ve not read it.”

“I’ll get you a copy,” the local journalist offered.

“I never promise to read anything,” Watt replied.

Around the Earth First! campfire that night, a gaggle of good-natured environmental ruffians laughed at how silly they themselves looked, how the odds were so stacked against them as to be incalculable, how off-key were the ditties they had sung from their “Li’l Green Song Book.” I bought a REDNECKS FOR WILDERNESS T-shirt from them for ten dollars. They spoke of a fall propaganda tour, taking their songs, skits, and message through Midwest and East Coast campuses. They talked of Ludlow, Bisbee, Butte, Silver City, and other Western towns where militant miners had stood up to recalcitrant companies. They warbled rock-and-roll tunes by such environmentalists as Bo Diddley, Ritchie Valens, and the Isley Brothers. They made up songs featuring Watt, Reagan, and Glen Canyon, though they were hard-pressed to find a rhyme for Ruckelshaus. As they tossed the last log on their campfire, the self-anointed Earth First! Tabernacle Choir howled a particularly rousing “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother.” The Colorado River continued to flow into Lake Powell with a mind of its own, only to emerge lobotomized at the far end.

Ed Abbey was a fortunate novelist. While he was writing The Monkey Wrench Gang in the early 1970s, he must have taken encouragement and inspiration from events around the country. A Vermont man calling himself Lobo sawed down billboards on highways throughout New England and as far south as the Key Bridge connecting Virginia to Washington, D. C. “The Fox” of Kane County, Illinois, dumped sludge and dead fish at a U.S. Steel executive’s office, so enraged was he at that company’s befouling of the air and water. A man in Montague, Massachusetts, toppled a 500-foot tower to be used in nuclear power-plant construction. Elsewhere in New England, 30 high school students were caught with axes that would have been perfect for chopping down billboards, but the police lacked evidence and had to let them go.

Along Route 93 in Idaho’s Sun Valley, billboards fell as fast as they could be replaced. Likewise on Highway 50 near Virginia City, Nevada. College students in Prescott, Arizona, acknowledged using saws and axes on billboards lining Highway 89 north of town. These were just some of the episodes that earned one-paragraph wire stories around the country. Never underestimate the power of the Associated Press to spread seditious acts.

I trace my own antipathy toward unsightly billboards to the mid-1950s, when I was in grade school. My father, a Washington, D.C., lawyer, worked for an attorney whose clients included the Outdoor Advertising Council — a gussied-up euphemism for the billboard lobby. Our family often drove south through the Blue Ridge Mountains, where billboards were already an eyesore.

“Dad,” I said in exasperation during one trip, “how can you represent the billboard industry?”

He looked at me with mock seriousness. “Combats highway hypnosis.”

While all the billboarding was going on throughout the country, a gang of four in Tucson, Arizona, enjoyed a two-hear run. Their target was real estate developments, and their aim was to slow down housing construction that leapfrogged through the valley and up the mountainsides. They had neither political theory nor context and saw neither historical precedent nor overarching principles. They sought no greater goal than acting as flame retardant to the firestorm of development burning the desert. The initial group had been friends at Canyon Del Oro High School, and most went on to the University of Arizona. They called themselves the Eco-Raiders, and they did their homework.

The Eco-Raiders denounced developers who chopped down cactus willy-nilly on the periphery of town, who built in floodplains, and, as in that old cliché, raped the land. They fought home builders with sabotage. They targeted suburban growth that debilitated the delicate balance plants needed to flourish and animals required to propagate. Their moonlight forays became the desert’s rape-crisis center. At the time neither Tucson nor Pima County had a comprehensive growth plan. The Eco-Raiders became the anti-growth plan.

To decelerate housing development meant attacking it at the point of sale. The Eco-Raiders initially went after new-home advertising on billboards, then escalated to assaulting model homes and earth-moving equipment. Almost always they left a note explaining their exploits. Their calling card was a big spray-painted STOP URBAN SPRAWL left at their attack sites, followed by their name. They skipped construction sites that abided by their four-point program: cluster housing, natural plant-life preservation, open spaces for playgrounds, and homes built outside floodplains.

The Eco-Raiders usually went out around ten at night in an anonymous pickup. Three of them, wearing bandannas to shield their identities and gloves to keep their fingerprints to themselves, would hop out with a two-man saw and spray paint. They’d saw down a land-promoter’s billboard in the desert, usually one advertising a new development. if there was a convenient flat surface nearby, they’d leave their calling card. The driver would swing by a designated pickup point once every 20 minutes. The raids took place frequently, at least a couple of times a week.

The Eco-Raiders enjoyed warm press relations; whenever they left a note explaining their attitude, the town’s dailies would dutifully report it. They wrote local officials in block printing on lined paper:



Not only did they have a commendable cause, they were polite and familiar with the law — and they knew how to use the apostrophe.

Initially, home builders and sellers were befuddled. No one had ever publicly challenged them; rezoning hearings had always been pro forma. Suddenly they became defensive, unsure how to counteract such bold and multipronged attacks. After the Eco-Raiders escalated to smashing windows on model homes, pouring sand down fuel tanks of earth-moving equipment, and ripping the wires out of homes under construction, the housing industry got really pissed. Their free handout to prospective home buyers addressed the issue head-on: “These ecology-minded bands wear black robes and mumble chants while they do their ‘good deeds’ to save society from itself.” The head of the Home Builders Association reduced their position to an orthographic formula. “They want N-O growth, and we want K-N-O-W growth. That’s the difference.”

The Eco-Raiders became minor folk heroes. People talked about them at cocktail parties and keggers, at water and in barrooms. If the public’s attitude was not  100 percent supportive, at least it brought attention to the subject. Copycat groups sprang up and used the same name. The war against Vietnam was in full throttle, and the growing Watergate scandal further diluted respect for government. Most agreed with the Eco-Raiders’ objectives but wavered on their technique. (One fellow I met told me he approved of their methods but not their goals.) The Eco-Raiders posed the philosophical question, What is the sound of one billboard falling?

Myself, I rather admired their spunk and hoped to ride with them one night. I placed a classified ad in the alternative weekly New Times asking the Eco-Raiders to get in touch. Using techniques gleaned from B movies, I arranged for callers to the newspaper to be given the number of a phone booth where a friend would refer them to me at yet another phone booth — somewhat like a three-corner billiard shot. Most callers thought I was recruiting, not seeking. Among them was a female detective whose ploy was pitifully obvious. In my notes I scribbled, “und-covr—cn’t they d/bettr thn this?”

Deciphering who among the callers was the real McCoy was surprisingly simple, and in short order the Eco-Raiders trusted me enough to invite me along for a raid. If you have confidence in me, I told them, you’ll have to trust my photographer too; they did. On the appointed night they sent us to a gas station, whose pay phone Yellow Pages hid our instructions — a very neatly drawn map directing us to what was then the northeastern edge of the city. At a specific point we were to make a U-turn and park by a 45-mph sign near a power substation. “Be careful,” an arrowed note on the map cautioned, “there is an identical sign here.” We were to turn off our engine and roll down the right front window. We were given an “Out of Gas” sign to put on my car.

We parked at the wrong sign, my photographer and I, and almost missed the rendezvous. After 25 minutes, two members of a band of Eco-Raiders came hiking up to us, somewhat short of breath and not at all pleased with our mistake. We all slithered out of sight into an area where homes were under construction.

We had a lovely saguaro’s-eye view of the city’s twinkling lights, a view that would attract any home buyer. The group’s spokesman, whom I guessed to be five-ten and 165 pounds, wore a knit hat, a stocking over his face, an army-surplus jacket, black gloves, and heavy boots. We sat as he answered my interview questions on tape for 20 minutes. Suddenly the group rose as one and went over to a previously stacked pile of rocks. They each took a softball-size rock and heaved them at the windows of two half-built homes. The windows were thick and the rocks weren’t entirely effective, so the gang pulled a couple of crowbars from their clothing and finished the glass off with a few well-aimed whacks. The spokesman slipped inside the house and sprayed STOP URBAN SPRAWL — ECO-RAIDERS on the walls, then we filed back to the pickup point.

Frankly, I would have preferred your basic billboard chop-chop. Nonetheless, their vandalism was exhilarating, and I found myself hyperventilating. Mr. Spray Paint was as calm as a Tarahumara Indian running under a quarter moon. The Eco-Raiders bid us good night, and the photographer and I headed to a bar to sort out what we had just seen.

This sort of raid went on with continued impunity, and eventually the county sheriff’s department took a hard look at the goings-on. In six weeks’ time they fingered a likely suspect — who, with a promise of immunity, told all. As it happened, he had not accompanied us that night — the Eco-Raiders raided in shifts — but he sure knew enough to get the others arrested.

The main Eco-Raiders were sentenced to six months’ county-jail time and fined less than a thousand dollars, each on misdemeanor vandalism charges. They also had to donate 300 hours’ labor to the Pima County Environmental Health Department. The fellow behind the stocking mask that night — the one who had done most of the group’s research and whose broadsides articulated their intents — was John Walker. A few years, later I bumped into John while shopping. He was making a living drawing nicely rendered line sketches of Southwest characters and selling them on the shopping-mall circuit. We reminisced about the Eco-Raiders, and he gave me a framed sketch of two Indians relaxing.

The other day I took out the map to the raid site for the first time in years and drove up to the construction spot in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains where I’d met up with John and his buddies. It is now a gated community called Casa Sunrise. I tried to imagine what the land would look like if the Eco-Raiders had had their way.

Copyright (c) 1974, 2010.  Reprinted from Revenge of the Saguaro solely by permission of the author and may not be otherwise printed.

Tom Miller may be reached at

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