The Backwoods of Everywhere
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The Backwoods of Everywhere

Words From a Wandering Local

R. E. Burrillo

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eBook - ePub

The Backwoods of Everywhere

Words From a Wandering Local

R. E. Burrillo

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About This Book

Throughout personal essays spiked with humor and natural science, archaeologist R. E. Burrillo widens his range beyond his popular Behind the Bears Ears. After an upstate New York childhood and a bartending stint in New Orleans' French Quarter, seasonal resort work led R. E. Burrillo to the desert Southwest, whose redrock landscapes were a source of stability through mental and physical illness. In The Backwoods of Everywhere, archaeologist Burrillo excavates his past, examining Indigenous and tourist cultures, the complexities of American archaeology, and what it means to be a local. From the ancient canal systems of Phoenix, Arizona, to the modern Mayan communities of the Yucatan Peninsula, to the depths of the Grand Canyon, Burrillo brings readers on an entertaining romp chock-full of history, ecology, cultural preservation, and personal stories. In the vein of Bill Bryson, Tim Cahill, and Ellen Meloy, Burrillo's is a fresh voice in humor-spiked nature writing and cultural commentary. Running throughout the wide-ranging topics of The Backwoods of Everywhere are themes of place and locality, and how these vary between cultures and individuals. Marrying the intensely personal with the complex and technical, Burrillo's candid voice brings humor, wonder, irony, and wit to each thought-provoking essay.

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YUCATAN

Pinning the formative developments or phases of my life on transformative wilderness or travel experiences is a useful device for resolving it into some kind of sense. Call it narrative bias—I’m fine with that. The die casting of miasmic, meandering Life into the structure and soundness of Story. It involves a bit of shoehorning, shearing of jagged edges, and a dash or ten of plain-old hyperbole, but the result is often a genuinely useful narrative rather than simply a stream of stuff that happened. This is probably how a lot of myths were first invented.
The two journeys that marked the hard, transitional inflection point between being an old kid who always felt lost and a young adult who’d more or less found his place both occurred within the same fateful year. The first was a week-long hiking and backpacking trip in southeastern Utah, where I “discovered” the Bears Ears area—a focal point of travel, research, mental and physical healing, and conservation advocacy for the next fifteen years and counting.
The second was a week-long trip to the Yucatan Peninsula with a group of fellow archaeology students from Coconino Community College.
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We disembarked from our professor’s parents’ place in Phoenix at three in the morning, following what was—for me, at least—a night of marginal sleep. I never get a full night’s sleep before something exciting.
This was my first time ever visiting the city of Phoenix, and the whole place smelled strongly of orange blossoms, which caught me a bit off-guard. The place smelled wholesome. That’s as discordant as Lake Powell smelling natural, or Las Vegas smelling healthy. This was my first inkling that I may have been misled about the city, although I still regarded it with wariness.
The flight to Cancun was uneventful, in that specific way that uneventful means, in terms of air traffic, superb. Comfortable flights are not defined as smooth, joyous, or memorable, in my mind; they are defined as having incurred no major problems. I am, despite years of effort, still a cynic at heart.
But not without reason: I made it onto the airplane just fine with a first aid kit in my carry-on bag (complete with razor-equipped snakebite kit and small pair of scissors), and a companion named Michelle discovered afterward that she’d been allowed on board with a box cutter. So, apparently, they’re so terrified of “sneaky” terrorists—ones who hide bombs in their shoes—that they are no longer concerned with the more forthright ones that carry, say, finely honed blades. There’s a lesson attached to this, I’m sure, but by the time we’d finished laughing about it we were in Cancun and had a whole new can of worms to manage.
The tour company had decided to upgrade our means of transport from a van to a full-size bus, complete with gaudy, loudly colorful, everyone-look-at-the-tourists-style designs painted all over the sides. Why the upgrade? Because, also unbeknownst to us, they had also paired us with another group.
We boarded the dreadful bus to find ourselves commingling with a nine-person representative group from some high school in Ohio, along with two adult chaperones that might politely be described as fussy. The kids themselves were obviously The Popular Clique, as they often are on school outings that cost a lot of money and don’t include instruments or chess sets. The lot was daunting.
It didn’t take long. “Look, look—they have shopping malls in Mexico! I bet you can get Louis Vuitton bags here for way cheaper!”
I wracked my brain trying to think of what sins karma might be revisiting upon me, but came up wanting. Maybe when I hit-and-ran someone’s car in a supermarket parking lot when I was a teenager? No, not likely—I’d been punished good and plenty for that little mishap. Perhaps it had something to do with the riot that I helped cause in New Orleans, or the harsh destruction I helped to wreak on my high school after all the votes naming my friend John the homecoming queen were tossed in the trash right in front of us, or maybe the situation was concocted to teach me a lesson about parenthood?
Or, maybe it was just because those were the very same kids, good-looking and well-dressed preppy swine with parents who could afford to send them traveling, that I had so admired and of whom I’d been so jealous when I was their age.
That made sense. I used to emulate kids like these before my last years of high school, with their privileges and looks and elevated class status. I would see them coming back from trips to faraway lands, skin tanned a golden brown, bragging about how they’d gone all the way to Wherever and they still found time to stay abreast of their peers on all things trendy and gauche. I would, of course, see them only from afar, staring viciously from within the ubiquitous baggy black sweater I wore to disguise my youthful pudginess. I passionately wished to be one of them, to be their friend or to date one of them—or, failing all that, to be able to beat them up.
Now, here I was again, getting to see those same kids from the perspective of a young adult who’s made to share their space in a foreign land. It was ingratiating, in principle. But that trip to the Yucatan to play archaeological tourist for school credit had a theme that would not be shaken: reversal of expectations. It first announced itself when I found Phoenix to be a surprisingly pleasant place that smelled of oranges rather than heat and smog, and it reared its head again on the bus. The kids side-eyed or ignored our cabal of grown-ups with whom they were forced to ride—all of them but me.
I was still an outsider to their clique, given that I was ten years older than their collective median age. Only now I wasn’t the awkward Goth kid who outwardly despised their culture while inwardly wishing they’d invite him in. Now I was the cool older guy with all the tattoos and my own ruddy tan from a fullblown addiction to wilderness activities, which inspired them to be friendly and, in a few cases, even flirty toward me in a way my teenage self could scarcely have imagined. It was flattering and, frankly, a bit unnerving.
Once the bus started rolling, we became acquainted with our tour guide, a guy from Merida named Irving (pronounced “ear-wing” or “ear-ving” or “ear-wean” depending upon place and speaker), who turned out to be a solid character with a background of teaching history in and around the area. This came as a bit of a relief. Following the course of events so far, beginning with the three-in-the-morning flight and continuing into a busload of holdovers from my very own junior prom, I half-expected our tour guide to be a telephone operator from Boston.
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That night, after we’d checked into our hotel, we—the collective group of seventeen—separated into two distinct parties in the restaurant where we all met. Irving dined with us, the Flagstaff crew. He gave us a rundown of the upcoming events. I listened distractedly.
The food wasn’t so great, nor was the hotel, and, from clear across the restaurant, I could hear Ohio’s best and brightest yammering about how much fun they were going to have shopping tomorrow. My mood, already teetering on disappointment, was now sinking like a torpedoed battleship.
Exploring Cancun earlier in the day had done little to assuage this. I’d walked up and down the beach with a couple companions, scanning my surroundings like a lost and uncomfortable wolf, for most of the afternoon. Damage from 2005’s Hurricane Wilma was still strewn all over the place, rising high like nothing so much as carefully balanced trash, and the human trash packed into the Girls Gone Wild bars on the strip hardly seemed more appealing. It was easy to imagine getting lost in Cancun, and even easier to imagine just how unpleasant that might be.
I mulled over all of this at dinner, facing the looming possibility that I’d gone into debt for almost two grand on a trip that was turning out to be nothing short of horrendous, and I was left with only one clear solution. Several beers and a few shots later, I was lying on the beach, propped up on a plastic lounge chair with a bottle of rum in my hand, watching a pair of pirate-themed party ships circling each other in the bay. They were big, and bright, and colorful, sailing gracefully around with lights and trance music braying off their decks.
Nightclub theme aside, this was arguably my first encounter with “history” on the trip—and, again, it came in a totally unexpected manner. The history of piracy in the Caribbean is a lot more complicated than most people realize. During their war against the Spanish following their invasion of the so-called New World, the English deputized privateers with letters of mark stating that they were allowed to engage with Spanish trading vessels and rob them silly. Since the Spanish were paying for their own participation in the war through the looting and pillaging of Indigenous American communities like the Mayan city-states, plundering their vessels helped England pay for their own war efforts while simultaneously frustrating Spain’s efforts to do the same. However, when the war officially ended, the Crown did to these now out-of-work seafaring mercenaries what state governments often do to veterans who’ve served their country well: gave them a hearty “thank you for your service” and then kicked them to the curb.
So, there they were—a bunch of angry, increasingly penniless sailors and sea captains, far from home aboard their ships, and highly skilled at the art of maritime thieving. Their brilliant solution was to keep right on doing so.
To that end, under the enterprising captain Benjamin Hornigold, the soon-to-be pirates built a settlement at the all-but-abandoned colonial port town of Nassau. The plan was to keep plundering Spanish ships, and eventually maybe some English ones as well, but only insofar as it didn’t attract too much attention. Being handy with a musket and saber can get a lot of jobs done, after all, but isn’t much help when an armada of Spanish gunships decides to park safely offshore and shell your settlement back to the Stone Age.
What’s more, they built what could properly be called a pseudo-republic, which included such revolutionary principles as:
1. Women should have a few basic rights, including the right to vote.
2. Except in special circumstances, no human being should be owned by anybody else, no matter how dark their skin is.
3. Don’t kill anybody unless you absolutely have to.
4. Anyone voted out of their position of authority should step down with dignity and grace.
5. No, really—try not to kill anybody. That shit attracts law enforcement.
This would have been a neat but ultimately unremarkable blip in the history books, were it not for something practically unbelievable that happened soon afterward. In 1715, the official Spanish treasure fleet—laden with gold and other goods from Mexico that would, at today’s value, be enough to fly Jeff Bezos straight into the sun—got blown way off course by a monstrous squall and slammed aground on the Florida coast.
Thus, the first major act of piracy by these Caribbean buccaneers was actually a salvage mission.
Flush with this booty from heaven, the pirate republic of Nassau positively erupted, becoming a capital of all things piracy in the New World for the next several years. When it fell back into British hands in 1718 with some help from its very own founder, the Golden Age of Piracy was already off and running. They simply established a newer and much more lawless unofficial capital on the Haitian island of Tortuga, where much of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean world-building takes place.
Talk about a party town!
I smiled when I thought of the many spring break revelers going bananas out on those ships. It all reminded me of Mardi Gras, in my second hometown—where, truth be told, I’d also been a grouchy critic at first, decrying the drunken lunacy of Carnival as embarrassing and disgustingly annoying. With the help of good friends and lubricating libations, however, I’d come to appreciate Mardi Gras for what it was: a time and place to be an unrestrained savage without any (or much) fear of repercussion. A time and place to flash your privates, vomit on your pants, and then pass out on the sidewalk, all without fear of judgment. A time and place to pretend civilization never occurred.
As for Cancun: I was, after all, there to visit a past civilization’s “ruins,” and some of the most ruinous elements I knew were all around me, including hurricanes and raw bourgeois excess—the two official pastimes of Cancun. Those fake pirate ships reminded me of New Orleans, as did Cancun itself, and the plentitude of hurricane damage everywhere only hammered the point more poignantly. My eyes felt heavy with the thought, and I drank deep.
Then, with strobe lights flashing, the ships began to pantomime a battle, the throbbing sounds of trance augmented by an artificial cannonade. Boom-clap, boom-clap, *BANG* clap, boom-clap, *BANG* clap *BANG**BANG* boom-clap … And I, appropriately, sat on the beach, lazing and observing underneath the tropical starlight, raising a bottle of rum in my own pirate-like salutation.
“Aye, amigos—kill!”
The rum tasted spicy, dark and Caribbean. I finished the bottle. The rest of the night passed serenely.
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Hangovers are tricky devils when mainstream wisdom holds that you aren’t supposed to trust the local water, but it only took a moment to convince myself that the possibility of unintentional poisoning from tap water is still preferable to some of the worst consequences of intentional poisoning by dark Caribbean rum.
Three Tylenols closely preceded a breakfast of tar-black coffee and tasty strawberry yogurt-granola parfait, and I felt fantastic—or anyway, I felt closer to fantastic than someone with a rum hangover should feel. So that’s how they do it, I mused afterward, meanwhile stuffing bananas and assorted pastries from the breakfast buffet into my backpack. By the time we gathered to depart, I felt fully alive again.
Learning Yucatec Mayan from Irving—and nursing a mild hangover—on the bus was not a bad way to start a morning in Cancun. There are worse ways to start one’s morning. Especially in Cancun.
The teenagers in th...

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