“In the desert I get quiet and I hear things,” I wrote in the introduction to my book Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West. “The beating of wings. The scratching of lizard. The whisper of stories that want to be told.”
These stories have all been of a piece, tales of war and peace on the modern and historical frontier, and they have become books that were years in the making. In each of them, two rivers have converged: my long-time affinity for the desert and an identification with those whose voices are not heard. This latter stream includes not just people, but places, and animals as well.
I like to think that my passion for wide open stretches started with “Eldorado,” the haunting poem about the knight who wandered the wastes, questioning the ever-present shadow in his quest for treasure. My father often read the poem to me as a child, and it was one of my escape routes out of the mostly frozen shores of northeastern Ohio and into a land where the by-ways were lined with cactus and stretched as far as the Milky Way and beyond.
A few years ago, after attending an exhibit of the Dead Sea Scrolls in San Diego, my thoughts about the source of my writing shifted. I had queued up for hours in line with hundreds of pilgrims, including small children, nuns, and Bikers for Christ. When I finally got to see the scrolls – a small, barely legible artifact of parchment bearing a nearly invisible cipher – I was disappointed at the less than grandiose climax. But in the hours and days that followed, I couldn’t shake the experience and I kept thinking about whatever it was that I saw. I realized that although I have had a lifelong awareness of being a member of the Hebrew tribe, I now understood that I belonged to the People of the Book, and all along, in my assembly of letters and words in arrangements that tell a story, this has been the fire that is behind my work.
I began writing when I was a little girl. Many of my stories were funny – the result of being taught to write by my father. Yes, he loved Edgar Allan Poe and other literary masters but he was also a wiseacre and we would concoct kooky tales (some of them I submitted to Mad magazine). When my parents got divorced, I continued writing, and I recently came across a cache of some things I wrote at that time. I see that my concerns had to do with a wish for people to stop fighting, written as only a girl of 10 or 11 can do. I discovered pieces such as “They Got Divorced at the End of a Decade” and something called “Security Council,” a story about how the UN kept the world together. Reading them now, it occurs to me that these were tales of reconciliation – or at least a longing to connect once again.
Later, as I began my journey into our shadowlands, I found myself exploring the source of the disconnect, and this has led right into the dark heart of the American dream. For me, it comes into full focus across the wide open canvas of the modern West. See, over there? Some teenage girls are having a party. Their parents are drunk or in jail and then a Marine walks in, he’s just back from the Gulf War, and he rapes and kills two of them. Oh no, something else is happening over yonder…some men in a jeep, more drinking, horses running…the men open fire and a week later, 34 mustangs lie dead outside Reno…and what now? A sheriff walks up to a trailer, all Andy of Mayberry…a hermit, paranoid, hates cops, picks up the assault rifle and blows him away…
These images have become my books of narrative nonfiction - Twentynine Palms: A True Story of Murder, Marines, and the Mojave; Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West, and the latest, Desert Reckoning: A Town Sheriff, a Mojave Hermit, and the Biggest Manhunt in Modern California History.
Recently, someone asked me to pick my favorite. That wouldn’t be fair. They have all gotten great reviews and won awards. Mustang has led directly to the rescue of hundreds of wild horses headed for the slaughterhouse and been given to President Obama as the go-to book on the subject of wild horses. And it is now under option for a film starring Wendie Malick as Wild Horse Annie, whose story I tell in my book.
But most pleasing of all is the cast of characters I’ve met in bearing witness to rough stories: a biker chick who went to jail in place of her errant pit bull, kids who read to each other while their parents are shooting meth, cops that everyone hates until you have to call them in an emergency and they never get mad, they just show up.
And finally there was Bugz, the lone survivor of the wild horse massacre outside Reno. She was found and rescued when she was a filly, near death, and over time I got to know her at the sanctuary where she resided. She was skittish, not comfortable with most people, but after a while, she let me in. During the 10 years that I worked on Mustang, I would stand with her in the barn or outdoors, get quiet, and listen. In the silence, I found the strength to continue my journey, for I knew that she was at the very center of this war in our homeland, this thing we do to each other and ourselves, and somehow she had endured.
I came to believe that she survived the massacre so I could write the story of her kind. But that created a word prison; if I finished my book, would she then perish, having completed her task? That fear was one more reason it took so long to write my book.
A year after it came out, Bugz died, succumbing to a condition that began as she fought for her life after the massacre. Her spirit is with me as I continue my journey along the frontlines of what tears us apart. But therein lies healing as well, and I’ll be exploring that road in my next book, as I return to the frontier and our wide open spaces.
Deanne Stillman’s book, Desert Reckoning, is a Rolling Stone “must-read," a Southwest Book of the Year, and recently won the Spur Award best nonfiction about the American West. Mustang was an LA Times “best book 08” and won the California Book Award silver medal for nonfiction. Twentynine Palms is an LA Times “best book 01” and cult classic that Hunter Thompson called “a strange and brilliant story by an important American writer.” It has been published in a new edition with a foreword by T. Jefferson Parker and preface by Charles Bowden.