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Civilization and Its Discontents : CITIES OF GOLD: A Journey Across the American Southwest in Pursuit of Coronado By Douglas Preston , (Simon & Schuster: $25; 467 pp.)

Kittredge's most recent book is "Hole in the Sky: A Memoir" (Alfred A. Knopf).

It must have been easy to believe, when Europeans first arrived, that the expanses of the Americas were an open slate, mostly unwritten upon and innocent of human enterprise. It’s a fantasy that’s still possible to cook up on highways across the swales and red-rock deserts of the American Southwest from one isolated habitation to the next, checking off the attractions--Second Mesa where the Hopi live, Sedona, the White House under that vast water-stained cliff in Canyon De Chelly, Santa Fe, Los Alamos, White Sands, Chaco Canyon, the horse track at Ruidoso--it’s a list we run like any tourist, adding items to the sum of our lifetime karma account.

Or, to be less flippant, seeking enlightenment and renewal like any traveler. It’s the classical function of the traveler to go out and discover, and return with useful news, as a gift, to his society. Marco Polo is a paradigm.

Which is what Douglas Preston is up to. He tells of wondering what North America was like when the Europeans arrived, more than 400 years ago, and of seeking a way to “peel back those layers of history, to rediscover the land. . . .” What he comes to is the idea of traveling horseback along the route of Spanish explorer Francisco Coronado’s 1540-1541 expedition from Mexico into the American Southwest, seeking rumored cities of gold. Preston finds it remarkable, as I do, that before Shakespeare was born “a European army had wandered, angry and lost, as far inland as the plains of central Kansas.”

Preston teams up with a photographer friend; they get the money together and buy horses, many maps and gear off a list as long as your arm. Great, we say, those of us addicted to armchair adventuring, let’s go.

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But at the start our heroes and story thrash around aimlessly. There’s too much slapstick business with horses, and the weave of travel with local history and natural life does not come at us in a particularly energized way. (Richard Shelton does a stronger job with much the same territory in “Going Back to Bisbee”.)

It’s not until Preston gets to Apache country that his story takes off. He quotes Geronimo, pleading for his people: “We are vanishing from the earth, and yet I cannot think we are useless. . . .” Readers take heart. Issues of some moment are at stake.

In the little mining town of Winkelman, Ariz., which “trembled with desolation and loneliness,” Preston’s travel companion says, “It’s civilization that screws us up.”

It’s a sentiment that drives much of this narrative, and it results in at least one moment in which romance overwhelms the facts. In defense of small ranchers who run cattle for cheap on public land (environmentalists want them gone), Preston says: “There is no ranching equivalent . . . to the multimillionaire farmers crowding the government slop-pail for subsidies.” Which is nonsense. A considerable percentage of the cows running on public range are owned by major corporations.

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At Horseshoe Bend in the Salt River Canyon Wilderness, Preston is confronted by a man (whose name may or may not be Rod) with hair to his waist and an enormous black beard, a Vietnam veteran who is hiding from the world. “In town I’d be drunk all the time. If I didn’t find this river, man, I’d be (expletive) dead.”

In the deep wilderness country below the Mogollon Rim, Preston encounters rancher/hunters who live in an ethos close to that of the 19th Century, in which nature is a prime adversary. Watching an eagle feeding on a dead fawn, one says, “They say that’s an endangered species, but I say he’s a cruel son-of-a-bitch.”

So were some of the locals, at least in settlement days after the Civil War. Preston tells of a backlands cattle-rustling feud called the Tonto War, in which a pregnant woman, intent on burying her husband, was forced to observe while his body was eaten by hogs. His brother responded, “No damned man can kill a brother of mine and stand guard over him while the hogs eat him, and live within a mile and a half of me.” The troubles were settled by vigilantes, the Committee of Fifty, who did some hanging. An old-timer said, “You would find them hanging . . . the maggots still dropping out of them.” The blood, as Preston says, went into the ground.

Preston catches up with Coronado at Zuni Pueblo, near the Arizona/New Mexico border. On July 7, 1540, the Spaniards found themselves gazing on what was supposed to be “the city of Cibola, the first of the Seven Cities of Gold.” Instead, “It was a small rocky pueblo, all crumpled up.” And the killing began. On that day “for the first time Europeans had spilled a significant amount of Indian blood on what would be American soil. It was the beginning of a terrible conquest that would not end until the battle of Wounded Knee exactly three and a half centuries later.” And really, of course, not even then.

Nearby, “Hammered into a rock face was an extraordinary petroglyph, a large butterfly with a smiling human face. . . . I had an indescribable feeling of the sad, irresistible weight of time and the sequence of losses that created the American West.”

Preston has full wind in his storytelling sail, and it is a fearful, fascinating tale he tells. By January, 1599, when Spaniards conquered the mesa-top stronghold that is Acoma Pueblo (all males over 25 were sentenced to have one foot cut off and serve 20 years in slavery), the future was cast.

The pueblo of Cicuye (Pecos), center for trade between the Southwest and Plains Indians, was likely the most powerful city within the present-day boundaries of the United States (Acoma is probably the oldest), and by the 1830s it was uninhabited. Today it is an archeological site, frequented by tourists.

Preston tells of riding toward contemporary Albuquerque from the West. “One moment we were singing and laughing our way through a wind-swept emptiness; and the next we found ourselves on the edge of a low bluff, suddenly silent, staring down on a vast city . . . . We started down the bluff, and threaded our way through piles of garbage: used diapers, burned-out mattresses . . . two dead dogs, the rib-cage of a horse, and everywhere the rotting carcasses of gold-toned, crushed-velvet sofas.”

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Preston has been telling us that we move through inhabited territory, witness to the remnants of cultures that came before us, and intimations of our own downfall. He seems to be telling us to take care.

But at the end he says something else. “The mountains had to be mined and the forests cut . . . the range had to be fenced. The prairies had to be busted . . . and the rivers diverted . . . it was as deterministic a process as the earth orbiting the sun. The West had to be lost.”

If that’s the news Preston brings me from his 950-mile horseback ride, an apology for violence and environmental idiocy, he can keep it. I’m sorry about that, because I enjoyed his book, once he got it going, right up to the last few pages.


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