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This whole adventure started back in early April, when I finally succumbed to Stecyk, an intrepid artist, photographer and cultural historian who looks at the universe and sees patterns and connections that weave themselves into an inevitable design while the rest of us, caught up in the fabric, see only randomness and coincidence. These patterns and designs he sees sometimes take on a sinister, X-Files–like shape and tone colored in a military-industrial palette.
Not surprisingly, Stecyk spends a lot of time in the desert. Often, when he reports back after such trips, eager to describe the tangled web, I’ll put the phone down and pick it up at what I believe are the appropriate intervals to insert an “umm hmmm . . . ” or “ . . . really?”
During one of these phone calls, when he was going on about a huge tortoise relocation being done by the military and what this action said about where we are at this time in our history — or something like that — I suggested we go out to take a look. It wasn’t that I was so interested in desert tortoises — I wasn’t even aware that they were endangered or that they were our official state reptile, or that they could somehow be part of the Rorschach test some people, like Stecyk, see when they visit the desert just beyond the tentacles of our metropolis. I just didn’t have anything better to do.
The day of my first descent into this parallel universe begins very early after a near-sleepless night. I pick up Stecyk in West Los Angeles by 6:30 a.m. There’s a military designation for that time, but I don’t think I’m ever going to learn this math. As Stecyk packs his gear into my Cherokee, I notice he looks a bit like a tortoise himself — long neck, hairless head, thick skin. I try not to make too much of it as we head east on I-10. In the weeks that follow, I try not to make much of the fact that nearly everyone I meet in the tortoise-saving business begins to look like one.
Our plan is ...well, we don’t have much of a plan except to try to crash whatever party might be going on out in the desert. But we do have a destination: Barstow. As anyone who has traveled from there to Las Vegas knows, Barstow is a portal into all kinds of weirdness. Out there are military bases, ghost towns, mines, meth labs, bikers and escape artists of all sorts. And somewhere in the desert surrounding that town, Stecyk has heard, tortoises are being bagged and tagged for relocation off a huge military base I know nothing about.
On the way, Stecyk tells a story about taking his kid out to the desert near Edwards Air Force Base (mascot, Eddie the Desert Tortoise) in 1997 to see Chuck Yeager break the sound barrier on the 50th anniversary of the first time he made history. (The general did the same thing in 2007 to commemorate the 60th anniversary.)
As we drive farther, Stecyk, whose son is now a lieutenant stationed in Iraq, fills my head with ideas about how we’re surrounded by military bases bent on expansion. But he didn’t always think this. When the Cold War was first over and won, he thought, like a lot of us did, that we were at the beginning of a remarkable and unprecedented event in which an empire, ours, would voluntarily draw down its military at the height of its power and invest in peace instead of war. We called it the peace dividend, and the potential implications for our country and the world were as vast as they were benign. In 2000, our budget surplus was a record $230 million. It was expected to go up by another trillion over the next 10 years. We had just made the largest payment of our national debt in history.
Our priorities, it seemed, were shifting. A new era of investment in education, infrastructure, civil society — the world — was at hand. Then came September 11 and everything after. Our deficit is now approaching $500 billion and our national long-term debt has nearly doubled to more than $9 trillion (adding more than a billion a day) since Bill Clinton left office. We’re fighting incredibly expensive wars in ways that seem to ensure no end. And, we’re completely out of money.