Life off the grid

Judith Lewis is a staff writer for LA Weekly.

ON Jan. 1, 2000, a day many people spent blinking into the new millennium, relieved that no computer bug had wiped out their bank accounts, Amy Irvine's heavy-drinking father took out his gun and shot himself in the heart. Four months after his death, Irvine packed a rented U-Haul and moved from Salt Lake City, with its "hustling masses of population bearing down on me," to a cow town in the high red-rock desert of Utah atop the Colorado Plateau -- still within the territory the Mormons labeled the Kingdom of Deseret. She fled, she writes in "Trespass: Living at the Edge of the Promised Land," both to be closer to the man she loved and to "get to the bones of things": to live off the land, sort through her memories and confront the Mormon tribalism that had for so long haunted her as the child of a Jack Mormon mother and a Gentile, as Mormons call everyone else.

Monticello, the town Irvine chose for her escape, is a place dominated by Mormon ranchers and itinerant poor, where trailers grow foundations and yards sprout rusted car bodies and machinery. It is a place where conservationists like Irvine -- who worked at the time for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, a group the locals liken to the Taliban -- wake up in the morning to find their dogs shot and their tires slashed. It's an odd refuge for a wilderness advocate.

But Irvine, once a world-class competitive rock climber, was no soft-spined tree hugger. She longed to return to the land as a nomad -- to hunt for her meat and gather her food and live by no other light than the sun's. Just as her father "was not cut out for the world prescribed for him," neither was his daughter. "All I could think about," she writes of her flight, "was how my father came to life when he was out seeking food for our table. . . . I knew how he felt."

In this unflinching account of her life so far, a story as raw and stinging as a fresh burn, Irvine admits to a grinding unease. She describes her father as a "gentleman" who adapted with grace to the civilized society of Utah's Latter-day Saints but "in the right company . . . loved to crack open bird bones and suck out the insides." (Irvine writes a poem about it, "Marrow," which she reads at her father's funeral.) Like his daughter, he exhibited a certain characteristic misanthropy, a condition that Edward Abbey celebrated in "Desert Solitaire," his chronicle of life as a park ranger in nearby Arches National Park: "We shall not see another of the tool-making breed for a long time," Abbey mused as he headed down Glen Canyon, "and we could not care less."

"Trespass" might well be "Desert Solitaire's" literary heir: It takes place on nearly the same ground, and it documents a similar human invasion. In tone, however, the two books couldn't be more different. Abbey had a rebellious humor, and he was always more entertained than victimized by the tourists and the locals he despised. Irvine, though, takes everything personally, and hard. "Trespass" contains no scenes of pure joy, only fleeting moments of quiet, relieved exhilaration, as when Irvine manages to trick a few strangers into believing that she still belongs to the Mormon faithful -- or when she finally realizes that the effort to blend in costs too much.

Nonetheless, it's hard to imagine a personal history more transporting than this one, with its rigorously original prose (not a single cliche in 300-plus pages), emotional detail and bibliophilic departures into the musty caverns of American history. And then there are the lessons and metaphors Irvine weaves into her stricken, conflicted narrative. One can learn a great deal from "Trespass" about desert botany and geology, the politics of land management and the arcane lore of Mormonism.


IRVINE can claim some of Mormon history as her own: Her great-great-great grandfather, Maj. Howard Egan, served as bodyguard to founder Joseph Smith and later to Brigham Young as the Mormons migrated west, across the plains and into the mountains, killing other emigrants and impregnating their daughters, but also surviving. If Irvine is horrified at these ancestral depredations, she also admires her predecessors' ability to sustain their tribe in the same land that defeated the Anasazi. She wonders how long their legacy can last. Watching modern-day Utahns, with their "high-powered personal watercraft" and off-road vehicles, she "can't help thinking that they embody what may be the Last Days in Deseret -- not in a Christ-returns kind of way, but in terms of what the landscape can withstand."

To live in what remains of the wild West is to live with burdensome contradictions: How does one occupy the land and preserve it at the same time? Irvine sees in many of the well-meaning inhabitants of the desert -- including Herb, the public-lands attorney and "lion man" she loves -- the desire to claim, cordon off and husband a plot of land that will forever resist such ministrations. She fears that she too is implicated ("Have I further intruded upon this desert by claiming it as my home?"). And she wonders, as she raises her first child, how long they will be able to find refuge off the grid.

Irvine concludes her book leaving these and many other questions open -- including the source of the pain and shame that precipitated her father's suicide. One of the wonders of the wilderness, she comes to understand, is that some things within it remain mysteries forever.

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