Charles Bowden – Truthspeaker, Iconoclast, and Outspoken Hero. In Memory.


Charles Bowden at the 2010 Texas Book Festival in Austin. Photo: Parker Haeg.

I’m driving up the 198 from Fresno, headed back into the woods. It’s hot as hell. I have the crippled remnants of the AC blowing, the thermometer on the dash reads 107. All I can think of is the heat. Driving 60 miles per hour, you can roll the windows down, and it just gets hotter.

I’ve got the radio keyed to a podcast called Home of the Brave. My brain coasts through the opening credits on autopilot, half-listening, half-asleep. Then, I hear him.

“I am not of sound mind. I cannot seem to stop moving. As I write this, I’ve clocked 7000 miles by truck in the last 30 days, and I’m hunkered in a motel room high in the Rocky Mountains, and yet no nearer to God. I seek roots, just so long as they can accommodate themselves to around 75 miles an hour and no unseemly whining about rest stops or sit down dinners.
I am, I suspect, a basic American. A perpetual violation that loves the land, and cannot kick the addiction of velocity. A person fated never to settle, yet always seeking a place to settle. Like cocaine-powered athletes, lying presidents, Miss America, and the internal revenue service, I am not a role model. And I’m always hungry.
I can only make a stab at writing the truth if I tell others it is a fiction. That way nobody gets too upset at me. I can only get started writing if I think it is music; that way I beat back my own cowardice. I can only write if I don’t think at all.”

I can feel the hair stand up on my neck, as I listen to his deep gravelly baritone. I turn up the volume. ‘Okay,’ I think, ‘you have my attention.’

Charles “Chuck” Bowden was an investigative journalist who lived in and wrote about the American southwest. At various stages of his life he tackled bats, tortoises, Edward Abbey’s writing (which he edited), the exploitation of Native American tribes to erect resorts and upscale developments on their lands, 100-mile-long walks in the desert, pedophiles and rapists, illegal immigration from Mexico to the United States (he even made an illegal crossing himself, just to write it better), the drug war, and hired killers –Sicarios– in Ciudad Juarez. At the time of his death, he was working on a story showing how the CIA had deep links with Mexican drug cartels, dating back to the 1980s. Some people believe that the CIA had him offed. In the end, he was sick for a few weeks with what he thought was simply a bad case of the flu. One night he went to sleep, and that was it. In the official autopsy report, the cause of death was listed as a heart attack. He was 69 years old, and still fighting hard for the truth.

What would be easy would be to name off a laundry list of Bowden’s accomplishments, including almost 30 books and hundreds of magazine articles for outlets such as GQ, Harper’s, Mother Jones, Esquire, High Country News, and Aperture. He worked as a reporter at the now defunct Tucson Citizen. He won the Lannan prize for nonfiction in 1996, and the PEN Centre First Amendment award in 2011. Google Chuck Bowden – you’ll find what’s easy.

What is not easy is to grasp the unparalleled talent for finding and telling the truth that Bowden possessed, or to reproduce his uncanny ability to gain the trust of people who would not otherwise be likely to even speak to a journalist, much less confide in one. He did not have agendas, was not political, was neither cold nor calculated. His one intention, his sole aim, was to discover the truth, your truth, the truth of your existence whether you were what society might call a hero, or a villain. In the end, Bowden seemed to see them all as the same.

Being honest doesn’t always win you friends. Neither does writing the stark dark realities that many of us would choose to ignore. It is not that he was unrecognized, or uncelebrated in his career. It is that he simply never took off the way some of his peers did. As Scott Carrier says, in his podcast about Bowden, “if you’ve never heard of him, you’re not alone… He never really made the mainstream, because, I think, most people just didn’t want to believe what he was saying.”

Imagine the problem is not physical. Imagine the problem has never been physical, that it is not biodiversity, it is not the ozone layer, it is not the greenhouse effect, the whales, the old-growth forest, the loss of jobs, the crack in the ghetto, the abortions, the tongue in the mouth, the diseases stalking everywhere as love goes on unconcerned. Imagine the problem is not some syndrome of our society that can be solved by commissions or laws or a redistribution of what we call wealth. Imagine that it goes deeper, right to the core of what we call our civilization and that no one outside of ourselves can affect real change, that our civilization, our governments are sick and that we are mentally ill and spiritually dead and that all our issues and crises are symptoms of this deeper sickness. Imagine the problem is not physical and no amount of driving, no amount of road, will help deal with the problem. Imagine that the problem is not that we are powerless, or that we are victims, but that we have lost the fire, the belief, the courage, to act. We hear whispers of the future, but we slap our hands against our ears. We catch glimpses, but we turn our faces swiftly aside. The whistle is always blowing, there is no denying what is before my eyes. We all know the future, we only must say it, and face it. There will be no first 100 days for this future, there will be no five year plans, there will be no program. Imagine the problem is that we cannot imagine a future where we possess less, but are more. Imagine the problem is a future that terrifies us, because we lose our machines, but gain our feet and pounding hearts. Then, what is to be done?”

I keep trying to tell people about Bowden, but I don’t know how far my words reach. It’s a tough time for great writers. Hell, it’s a tough time just for telling people about great writers. You may read this article, and then see a short video about lolcats, and what sticks with you may be the latter. Bowden isn’t easy. The subjects he wrote about aren’t easy. Quantifying what makes him one of the finest journalists in the history of the industry isn’t easy. Just as Bowden did, you have to dig deeper. You have to look beyond the curricula vitae.

According to Clara Jeffery, editor in Chief at Mother Jones, and past senior editor at Harper’s Magazine, “He [could] write in one sentence or a paragraph what is great about America, but also what is so brutal and horrible about it.” Barbara Schoenfield, who was interviewed by Bowden following the loss of her son to a heroin overdose in Plano, Texas, said “he captured my son completely… just by looking at a painting of him.” Max Cleland, a previous Senator from Georgia who was, at the time, the only multiple amputee in the senate (he lost both legs and his right arm in a grenade explosion in Vietnam), said “I’ve been interviewed by literally hundreds of people in the last 31 years, he’s the single finest interviewer, story-teller, writer that I’ve ever come across.”

That Bowden’s work is not better known is something I find fascinating and frustrating in equal parts. I thought about Bowden for a month in the wilderness of Sequoia National Park following my introduction via that podcast. The first opportunity I got, I found a copy of his book, Blue Desert in Portland’s enormous book store, Powell’s. I bought it, devoured it, and then realized that something was written on the inside cover.

“For Andrew, enjoy!” signed, Chuck Bowden.

I cannot imagine who this Andrew was, or why he would have sold Blue Desert to a used book store in Oregon. It’s hard for me to imagine what he would have bought that could be better. Blue Desert – perhaps Bowden’s best-known work – is like Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire; but without the humor. It is a treatise, a manifesto, an expose on the seedy underbelly of the world in which Bowden lived. It is uncompromisingly honest, unabashed, and fearless. It tells stories that nobody else could – or, perhaps, would – tell.

The cops look at me with anger, drag her slumping form away, and toss her into the back of a squad car. I stand still, make no notes. Then I go back to the newsroom and write up the funeral. That is when it begins. The toddler’s death probably didn’t have anything to do with child molestation, but for me this child became the entry point to rape and other categories of abuse. For the next three years I live in a world where the desire of people, almost always men, to touch and have their way with others makes them criminals. Gradually I began to lose the distinction between the desires of criminals and the desires of the rest of us. I am told I can’t get off this kind of beat, because most reporters won’t do it. This may be true, I don’t really know, because those three years are the only ones I ever spent working for a newspaper and practically the only ones I ever spent working for anyone besides myself. I would quit the paper twice, break down more often than I can remember, and have to go away for a week or two and kill, through violent exercise, the things that roamed my mind. It was during this period that I began taking one-hundred- or two-hundred-mile walks in the desert far from trails. I would write up these flights from myself, and people began to talk about me as a nature writer. The rest of my time was spent with another nature, the one we call, by common consent, deviate or marginal or unnatural.”

I’ve been told that to write sadness, death, tragedy, is easy. That to write joy, instead, is a much more difficult task. That may be true. It certainly feels true to my own experience.

But to write the things that Charles Bowden wrote, the way he wrote them, requires an intimacy with evil that I would wish on no man. To write the truth of the Sicario, the rapist, the common murderer; just to gain entrance into their world, to gain their trust, to hear their tales and to play the devil’s advocate, to suppose that they are not merely demons, but a cog in a wheel, or perhaps just the ground the wheel grinds over endlessly and forever – that requires a self-sacrifice that few can begin to entertain, much less live.

Bowden didn’t just write it. He lived it. And though he’s gone now, his words still remain for those who care to listen.

I guess Chuck Bowden doesn’t have anything to do with climbing, but still, I thought some of you might enjoy reading about him. Sometimes I think only writing about climbing is kind of boring, and less than reflective of the beautiful diverse multifaceted selves that most of the climbers I spend time with seem to be. So I decided to step out on a limb, and see what you guys thought about Chuck. 

I owe discovering Chuck Bowden to the Home of the Brave podcast, which I highly recommend to all of you. The producer Scott Carrier’s voice is clear, honest, unapologetic, and often hilarious. You can learn more about Chuck, and Home of the Brave at Be sure to watch the video there, and of course, hear the podcast.

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