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Archaeology on Strawberry Mountain

Archaeology Fieldwork on Top of a Mountain, Open Doors for Cages — “Whoever is the first one to puke gets the nickname Tonto!” I am now ashamed to say that I proclaimed on that less than glorious first night of camping in the Tonto Forest with the archaeology crew. Tonto is the name of the [...]

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Archaeology Fieldwork on Top of a Mountain, Open Doors for Cages —

“Whoever is the first one to puke gets the nickname Tonto!” I am now ashamed to say that I proclaimed on that less than glorious first night of camping in the Tonto Forest with the archaeology crew.

Tonto is the name of the forest that we are working in, but “tonto” is also the Spanish word for stupid.

As we walked up Strawberry mountain the next morning after a night of campfire debauchery, I am sure that the entire crew of hungover archaeologists all felt privy to such a title.

Working on top of Strawberry Mountain — 6,800 feet up — is beautiful. Beautiful until your ankles begin to buckle under you after hours of walking over mountain top scree, boulders, deadfall, and freshly cut logs.

At the mountain’s summit we tuned the radio of a GPS unit onto a local weather report: 57 mph winds were called for at 11AM. It was 8AM and the sky was being hemmed in by fast moving, dark clouds.

We walked on. And on. And on. If K., who was the drunkest among us the night before, looked like a zombie at day’s beginning, he would soon look like a corspe by day’s end. Whenever that would be.

The mountain ridge is sort of a plateau, and the surface rises sharply up 20 meter hills just to fall down into 20 meter ravines. We walk up and down through this gnarly mess of mountain top earth, looking for any sign of past human occupation. Our eyes are peeled for pot sherds, chert flakes, a chunk of hard scrabble debotage, a lithic core of any material — anything. But all we find is bear scat, the destroyed carcasses of deer and elk, and scree, boulders, and the logs that the forest service had lovingly cut off the trees and laid down in our path.

Deer skeleton in Tonto Forest

Deer skeleton in Tonto Forest

This archaeology survey is for a prescribed burn initiated by the Forest Service, and the trees have already been cut, cleared, and their remnants moved into piles that only wait for us to finish our survey before they can be burned or reduced to woodchips. But the surface is still strewn with deadfall and logs that did not make it into the piles, along with the usual mountain scree and boulders. This is what we walk over.

Walking on such a surface for 10 hours a day while hungover is enough to make me want to come up with any reason to slip out the backdoor of this project. One crew member injures his ankle, another hyperextends her knee, the crew chief falls down a handful of times, I fall down once myself. Another crew member delights in running through his transect as fast as he can to show off how fast he can walk through rough terrain, and then the entire crew has to waste time looking for him. But he wears a t-shirt that says “Too tough to die, death before dishonor” so I suppose he cannot help it.

But we keep walking over the scree, boulders, and cut logs. My ankles buckle, twist, and turn at each step like a flag snapping in a strong breeze. It starts to hurt. It hurts for everyone. But we keep walking.

Tonto Forest mountains

Tonto Forest mountains

The crew comes close to running out of water around mid-day. We are four miles from the trucks which house our water supply, so we do not return to fill up. Rather, we conserve and ration our supply. Crew members start complaining of dehydration headaches. But we keep walking.

The day drags on. “Just one more transect” leads to just one more transect. The crew is beat. I am beat, too. In eight seasons of doing archaeology fieldwork I had not been pushed to the bounds of my physical endurance until this day. My bounds were even pushed to such an extent that it became difficult for me to look at the beauty that surrounded me:

We were on the brink of the Mogollon Rim, and mountain ridges extended out to the horizon. This place was amazing, but it was all viewed through an opaque sheet, as my flopping ankles sent pain up my legs and concern over my dwindling water supply filled my head with worry.

Mogollon Rim Tonto Forest

Mogollon Rim Tonto Forest

I soon ran out of water, and the crew chief spared me a liter willingly. I felt like a fool: I ran out of water, I was not prepared, I could have harmed myself through wanton foolishness. I had procrastinated purchasing a third water bottle for two weeks since I had been out in Arizona, and my pride paid the price as I filled up my canteen with the water of another.

The crew pushed through the day and, soon enough, we finish the parcel and then faced the four mile walk back to the trucks sans water. Everyone’s bottles and Camelback’s were bone dry, save for the crew chief, who somehow managed to conserve a few sips at the bottom of her four liter plastic bladder.

“Fun stuff, eh?” I muttered to K., who really did look like a walking corspe — pale face, limp limbs abiding only by gravity, stumbling steps.

“Ultimately, this is a job that I like,” K. admitted, “but if I was not doing this for work, if I did this while out hiking with a friend, I would never go hiking with that friend again.”

I laughed as we finished off the remaining four miles of an 18 mile day.

Back at the camp I am bushed. I leave the crew in the campsite and run off into the forest. I am grumpy. I have gaping sores and blisters at the tops of my thighs. I hurt. I call my wife who is still in Maine. I sit on a tree stump. I wonder what I am doing here, selling my time to a company, being kept from my true passions.

Why am I selling myself like this?

But I know that I am only hurting now. (Tomorrow, Strawberry Mountain will be beautiful once again, I try to remind myself — to no avail considering the circumstances).

I feel the tugging pull of a deeply ingrained reactionary impulse whenever I work a formal job. I want to work for myself. But these words do not sell enough to keep me and my family afloat. I was tired after this day of work — more tired than a laborer should be — I hurt, I was annoyed, I wanted to get into my little Subaru hatchback and drive away — drive back across the country to my wife and baby. I sneak off past the crew who happened to somehow be drinking beers again by the campfire, and I make way to my Hennessy Hammock tent. I crawl inside around nightfall, and doze off to sleep — a touch too early for good camping sense.

Archaeologists in Tonto Forest Arizona

Archaeologists in Tonto Forest Arizona

I am awaken in the night by an assault of extreme cold. The bottom of the hammock is freezing me from the bottom up. I suppose this is the main design flaw of a Hennessy Hammock: you do not have the ground surface as a barrier of insulation against the cold of night. I was just laying there, swinging in my hammock with the cold breeze rushing past from both above and below. I am from the north country of the USA, I am use to the cold. I have slept out in the cold more times than I care to recollect. But this time, on this night, the cold bit a little too hard. I tried sleeping through the cold night, but sleep was impossible. I checked my phone to see what time it was — it surely had to be nearly 4AM — it read 10:30.

Shit. I still had 7 and a half more hours of this.

I tumbled around a little more in the Hennessy Hammock. I rolled around for a few more hours. To no avail. I got out of the hammock and made way for one of the field vehicles. I was in full retreat — tail tucked up between my legs, full on retreat. I hoped that nobody from the crew would wake up and take notice of my gingerlyness. I curled up in the front seat of the truck, closed the door, and became warm enough to sleep. Around 5 AM the cold snuck into my bones and awoke me again, but I could ignore it now — I only had an hour more to go.

Morning broke over the camp and I swore to myself that this would be my last day of working on this project. It was time to run. I busted my ass and froze my toes off in this forest long enough. I was getting out of here. I was still grumpy from the forced march from the day before, the blisters at the tops of my thighs were still open and barking pain with each step, and the thought of walking through the mountains again hurting just did not sound too good.

As I made towards a patch of bushes to brush my teeth over, a little voice hung over me: “You are going to do the right thing.”

“I know I going to do the right think,” I thought, “I am getting the f’ck out of here. I am going to make my way back east, and get back to my wife and baby.”

I had been away from my baby for nearly half of her life. The wear and grind of life’s gears began screeching loudly.

Then the words of a friend hit me:

“You know, I sometimes listen to books on tape when I am driving long distances between projects,” she spoke. “One time I got Keroac’s On the Road and listened to it as I drove across the desert. What kind of shit was that? I was just listening to this guy going on and on about how cool him and his friends are and how much he hates whatever job that he is working. ‘Oh the work is so hard, the work is so hard.’ Well, I have news for that guy, working is not suppose to be fun, that is why it is called work. Get back to the real world — it sucks for everybody.”

Thoughts of zipping down to Tucson for a few weeks of uninterrupted writing before my wife and baby arrives in Arizona began uncovering their faces. I have three or four big articles that I have been sitting on for a long time. I really need to write them. The warm desert sounded good, and the interesting conversations that I could have in a hostel down there sounded good, too.

Why am I selling off four entire days of my week to a company — walking through the mountains in a straight line looking at the ground like some sort of moron — when I could be in a lonely room writing away — reading, researching, talking to people? Why am I putting so much time into working for someone else when I could be ticking the words out for myself alone?

Mountains in the Tonto Forest

Mountains in the Tonto Forest

I thought about bailing, I thought about taking writer’s leave and sneaking away to Tucson. I thought about waving goodbye to the crew at the end of the day, “Hey, man, see you next week . . .”

And then giving them the terminal slip.

But I am not that much of a coward, yet.

Maybe this is why I am still slaving by ticking out these words for under $200 a month. Perhaps if I were to write about breaking a fingernail and whining about how hard working is and how I avoid it by ditching my coworkers and booting it fast across the country to NYC and raucous wine nights I could make a living off of these words.

If I wrote about not working and being a bum I would be famous by now.

See, mom, this guy doesn’t work . . . I don’t have to get a job.

I can remember riding the call of those adolescent arguments about a work free life. “I am never going to work, you’ll see, I’ll show you, I am going to do whatever I want.”

Look at me now.

Kerouac became a hero because he made millions of mid range adolecents feel as if they could do anything, even avoid responsibility at all cost. He did what so many people could only dream of doing. That is what a writer needs to do:

The writer provides a way out, an emergency exit out of situations or the rounds of life that the reader feels trapped in. The writer needs to identify the chains of their culture — the mechanisms which make people not do what they think they truly want to — and then break them — to write about living a life that everyone else is too responsible to live themselves.

See, you are not trapped, you are not enchained, you could do this too if you wanted to. The door is open.

If the door of a cage is left open the animal inside is no longer trapped. It almost becomes irrelevant if the animal really does venture out of the cage or not, it just doesn’t matter anymore because it is no longer trapped — there is a way out, even if you don’t take it. The writer needs to open these doors, and show that there are no obstacles and that you are, in fact, free.

Once this is done it is irrelevant if anyone exits through the open door, because they now know that they can, and knowing that there are alternatives is the hallmark of freedom.

Kerouac opened these doors precisely because he did not abide by the strictures of his society: he was an absentee father many times over who lived in fear that his ex wives would come after him for child support and he would have to stop writing poems and meditating on hill tops, he also could not hold a job, he hung out with kids in their mid twenties way into his thirties, a lesser man than him could be called a loser.

But this is perhaps what made him a hero.

He showed a way, a path, his writings are absolutely invaluable. He was a breathe of fresh air, he threw the doors off a million cages, he showed that you do not have to acknowledge your responsibilities, that you can get drunk and have sex with 18 year olds and party and write poetry when you are 40 years old. That it is a viable life for a grown man to wear flannel shirts and tick out words about the beauty of the world while in a shack getting real drunk. He was a model that showed clearly that you really do not HAVE to do what you think you HAVE to do, and this was enough to make him great. He wrote adventure stories, epics that read like spaghetti rather than grammar lessons, and showed clearly that your life is YOURS to live — so go live it without remorse, without regret.

It feels good to read Kerouac. I still read him sometimes when I find myself with a moral knot to unravel.

It all really doesn’t matter anyway, now does it? Everything is alright for ever and ever and ever.

Who cares if his ex-wives could only shrug their shoulders when his children asked where daddy was?

“Oh, your father is off in the woods getting drunk with twenty year olds writing epic novels and nonsense poems to give men all over the world hope that they could aspire to do the same.”

He pushed the boundaries further, and this is the hallmark of all great writers.

The simple knowledge that he imparted was that, yes, there is another way to live, and you can live it, too.

So I planned on not returning to work in the forest — “f’ck this job, it sucks” — and I thought of returning to the great life of a literary hero, going from place to place, running away from work, and just ticking out these words.

“Oh yes, the good ol days where I would quit jobs solely for the feeling of power it bequeaths.”

Perhaps the quickest way to literary recognition is to be a scoundrel. Look at the writers that we hold dear, they were scoundrels: wife beaters, unsupportive fathers, absentee husbands, whores, drug addicts, alcoholics, itinerants, grumps, gamblers, hustlers, all round not good people — they were writers, and the writer needs to have a look on the other side of the fence to write about the life there. The housed in family man writer is a daydreamer who writes paper boredom.

Opening a door to a life that other people are too responsible, respectable, proud, honorable to live is the raw ingredient for literary success. Nobody wants to read about the man who does good because everybody already does good themselves — you are suppose to do good, dummy — nobody wants to read about their own life, they want to shop for a new one. No, it is my impression that people want to read about lives that they don’t live, about people who unabashfully do not do good, because this puts forth an option.

Tonto National Forest Arizona

Tonto National Forest Arizona

And an option, a way out, an open door is all most people need to sit contently in their cages.

I think about opening the cage to my door and stepping out of it. Running away to the writer’s realm where responsibility wans into an idealized sort of romance.

But I am not that much of a coward, yet.

I will stay working. I know that I have the option to wander off into the desert and do nothing but consider the lilies, and, knowing that the door is open, I have the strength to stay in my cage.

My wife and baby will be here soon, and I will have enough money for us to live and travel happily, together.

There is a difference between moving through life and running away from it. I sorta enjoy bashing through my brick walls.

Related Pages
Kerouac’s last stand

Traveler quotes

What is a Hennessy Hammock?
Hennessy Hammock Tent Gear Review

Vagabond Journey Series on Archaeology Fieldwork in Tonto Forest
[seriesposts orderby=date order=ASC name=”archaeology tonto forest” ]

Filed under: Archaeology, Arizona, Travel Philosophy, USA

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3705 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

8 comments… add one

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  • david October 13, 2009, 3:24 am

    Wade, When’s your first book coming out?

    I’ll buy it.


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  • Bob L October 13, 2009, 12:59 pm

    I never thought about it this way, but I think I felt it, knew it in my heart. Thanks for bringing it out clearly. Reading your writing, and hearing about people who’s lives are so different from my own IS a way of showing me that the door is open. I think that is why I don’t mind some of the things that bother other people. I know, and have always known deep down, that the cage door is open. That the cage is really my own mind. The cage is warm and comfortable too. And there is plenty of food, and beer.

    Bob L

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  • g October 14, 2009, 12:51 pm

    Wade, said it before and I’ll say it again, be careful about feeling sorry for yourself. Life is supposed to be hard. Anybody who told you different was lying through their teeth. Kerouc was a chronic alcoholic and whiner who died of liver failure in his mom’s shack as a forty-something man. As the ancient greeks said, “choose your heroes carefully, for in time you will become your hero.” Is Kerouc really the man you want to be, is he your model as a father?

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  • Scott October 15, 2009, 10:06 am

    Count your blessings! Your suffering is making for some good reading. Keep going and never quit. Your almost there. Walk slow.


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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com October 15, 2009, 11:35 pm

      Thank you Scott,

      I appreciate your good words! Thank you.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com October 15, 2009, 11:36 pm

      Thank you Scott,

      I appreciate it!


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  • fruugal October 16, 2009, 10:47 am

    OK, I’ll say it. How did you guys expect to feel the next day out on the march after “campfire debauchery” and getting blind drunk? An after affect of getting drunk is dehydration. How much accuracy and attention (not to mention professionalism) could you guys possibly exhibit to your job in that condition?

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com October 16, 2009, 1:42 pm

      Hello Fruugal,

      That condition is often the ordinary state of the field archaeologist anywhere in the world. Put a bunch of people together in an unfamiliar setting away from home and family, and they get drunk. It is similar for many other traveling professions that I have encountered.

      There is a t-shirt put out by one of the major archaeology fieldwork job websites that says:

      “Per diem is Latin for beer money.”

      It is just the profession. I am usually one of the least heavy drinkers on any crew that I have ever been on — mostly because I don’t want to spend the money and have other things to do. Drinking is perhaps one of the favorite pastimes of the traveling laborer — read the stories of sailors, fishermen, loggers, construction workers, miners, prospectors and you will find that after they finished working, they very often drank alcohol together. It is an odd phenomenon that seems to make sense: if you are away from your family, friends, and home, and are with a bunch of people that you do not really know, the default actions seems to be the consumption of alcohol and rowdy nights.

      I could tell dozens of rogue archaeology stories — some I have been a part of, others I have not — of wine nights that have gotten out of hand. Like sailor tales, these stories form a part of the collective mythology of the profession. To not occasional participate would mean missing the story . . . and then what would I write about? Finding ancient villages? haha.

      Thanks for raising this point!


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