The Final Rhapsody of Charles Bowden

A visit with the famed journalist just before his death.


Charles Bowden

Charles Bowden at the 2010 Texas Book Festival Photo: Parker Haeg

Editor’s note: Scott Carrier visited with Chuck Bowden shortly before his death. This profile, based on that visit and decades of friendship, originally appeared in High Country News. Read Clara Jeffery’s remembrance of Bowden here.

He first saw the whale nearly 20 years ago, in Mexico. He was standing watch, so to speak, and the dark ocean exploded in foam and spray and there in front of him was the monster he’d been pursuing, the source of all the violence and corruption he’d seen. It scared the hell out of him and he turned away. He didn’t go after it.

Then, a few years later, the whale came back and killed a friend of his, and Bowden blames himself for this. If he would have fought the whale in the beginning, he believes, his friend would still be alive.

“I was a coward,” he says.

It didn’t happen quite like that. The whale is an allegory, because I promised I wouldn’t write the real names and places. But his friend did die and the thing that killed him is the thing Bowden saw, and it was like a horrible monster. The allegory fits. Bowden is Ahab and he’s going after Moby Dick.

He’s 69 years old, in fair shape from lifting weights and going on long walks, but he’s losing some teeth and is pretty much penniless. His possessions consist of a sleeping bag, a cot, a stove for coffee, a Honda Fit and a pair of Swarovski binoculars — high-quality glass. This is the way he wants it, having nothing to lose. He knows his only real asset is more than 40 years’ experience as an investigative reporter, and also he knows that the whale is not Evil, that Ahab was wrong. The whale, for Bowden, is part of nature, our nature.

He’s speaking in the tone of a scientist but describing violence and violent acts, signs and sightings left in the wake of the whale. There was the man who was tortured and killed and his body was found without a head. A few days later the head was delivered to his family in a cooler. There was the baby’s blood splattered on the wall above the bathtub. There was the girl who was raped for a week by 10 policemen. There was the arm with a tricep as thick as a truck tire that strangled hundreds of men. The list is endless, stretching back decades. Even before he first saw the whale, Bowden was finding evidence of something he couldn’t explain, something dark beyond his imagination.

“I didn’t choose this course,” he says. “It chose me.”

Bowden’s last report, for instance, was a confession by a member of the Chihuahua State Police who tortured and killed hundreds of people for a Juárez drug cartel. El Sicario, the assassin, describes in detail how there was no separation between the police and the cartel, how he was just following orders, and how he found himself in Hell. For instance, he became an expert at boiling people alive in a big kettle of water, keeping them alive for a day, long enough to get them to talk — you have a hook and you keep pulling them out and slicing off the dead flesh because they can’t feel that, and you have a doctor there pumping them with adrenaline so they won’t die. Bowden talked to the sicario for months before he would open up, and then the more Bowden listened, the more he came to see the man as a normal human being, not evil. And then Bowden began to like him. They became friends.

That was two years ago and since then Bowden has been silent. Reclusive. Back at headquarters there grew some concern — was he perhaps traumatized, drinking too much, unable to work? And so I was sent to find him and measure his sanity, his health and well-being.

He knows why I’ve come. This morning, before I arrived, in order to prove he’s been working, he emailed a new book to an editor in New York. It’s called Rhapsody and he says it’s a love story about wild things and wild places. I wonder what this has to do with the whale, but I don’t ask the question. Instead I ask him if it’s true he’s been hiding out.

“I just got tired of talking to stupid people on the phone,” he says. “I wanted to strip everything down and start over.”

He knows I understand the feeling and lets it sit for a moment with the crickets.

“I got trapped on a path,” he says.

Bats are dive-bombing bugs above our heads.

“I wanted to write about nature, about animals, what it’s like to be an animal, but I went into murder reporting and now I’m recovering.”

I can’t see him but I know he’s lying on his back with his hand on a cup of red wine, looking up at the stars.

“Everything you see out there is constantly re-inventing itself,” he says. “We call it evolution. It’s all one big yes.”

The crickets agree.

“I want to write something that matters. In order to do it you have to get rid of yourself. The lion on the hunt ceases to be the lion and becomes the deer.”

I know what he’s saying, but I’m wondering how to describe it to the folks back at headquarters.

“In the end all writing is about adding to life, not diminishing it. That’s what life is all about. There isn’t a plant out here that’s not trying to take all that chlorophyll and light and trying to add to life. The book I sent today I did 15 drafts, or I stopped counting at 15. I don’t know if it’s any good, I just know it about killed me and it’s the best I can do.”

He hands me his computer so I can read the book off the screen. He’ll let the work speak for itself. After one chapter I realize it’s a long poem, a song about being in a war. I tell him this and he takes back the computer and reads out loud from the second chapter:

… There is a door that opens to a room and in that room is a table, a round table, and at that table sits power. The head of the table belongs to the fist or paw or talon that grabs power. I want to go through that door and get in that room and sit at that table with that power and the wolf should be there, the elk also, the birds in the sky, the fish in the sea, the serpents and monsters of the deep, and this time when the waters come there will be no Noah and no rainbow, God help us, no rainbow.

He’s building a rhythm, rhapsodic. It is a song.

… wolves I say, more wolves, elk in the dusk, wolves in the night, and in the morning meadowlarks singing the grass into the light and suddenly one green teal drake attacks another and rams it with its bill and I don’t know why and that is the reason I must get through the door and into the room and sit at that table with the slime and slobber and tooth and fang and fin and feather and ask

why does life mean death

and who said my people were better than wolves

and why can’t I howl at the moon

and who do you love …

Who writes like this? It’s beautiful, but I wonder if he’s lost his mind.

No, he hasn’t lost his mind. This is his “big yes.” He’s written a love song to the whale. Ahab, alone on deck, throws his sextant into the sea, opens his heart, and begins to sing.

… I stare up, and stars are everywhere, there is no city on the horizon, the cold seeks my bones and no moon rises … the voices in my head are my father and his brothers and down the sweep of hill, past the two barns, the hog house, the limestone shed with a spring to cool the cans of milk, past the meadows and the creek and the woodlot the valley flows studded with quarries, refineries and coking mills and in the day the sky goes dark with plumes of smoke and in the night the gas venting off the refineries and the blazes off the coking mills fill the sky with flames and always there is the stench of fuels spent and lives incinerated and no one can tell me why and no one asks why because the money is good and life is hard and the women scrub and the game has fled and hardly a bone or hair remains to haunt us, and they say nothing, they play poker, drink, sit under the apple trees. There is no mention of another way.

“Yes,” I say, “That’s really good.”

And I mean it. I think he’s the best writer, or one of the best writers, we have, and I’ve felt this way since I read his early reports 30 years ago. But back at headquarters — behind the desks — there are going to be some questions. Bowden’s written more than 25 books and most of them were, let’s say, not financial successes — too grim, people don’t want to think about that stuff. He’s written hundreds of magazine articles, but no magazine editor in New York will talk to him anymore because he tells them straight up they publish garbage — lies and fluff to sell advertisements. I’m afraid they are not going to understand his new book, and if I describe it as a love song to a whale … they’ll call him a fool, write him off as a drunk. Maybe both of us.

So, before I go to sleep, I start laying out how I will present his defense, starting with an explanation of where he comes from and how he arrived at this place.

 

He was born four days after the first atomic bomb went off — a July 1945 test blast in New Mexico. This timing put him in lockstep to come of age with the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam War protests and the Monterey Pop Festival. He got arrested and beaten up by the cops in Madison, Wisconsin, for building a barricade on the street to protect some people who were burning down a grocery store, but he thought this was nothing compared to what he’d seen black protesters go through in the South in the fight for equal rights. They were Bowden’s early model, people who were willing to risk everything in order to be treated as equal human beings.

Bowden was a part of a cultural movement that seemed to be winning a revolution by speaking truth to power, and it was exhilarating. He rode the crest of the high and beautiful 1960s wave that gonzo writer Hunter Thompson described as “a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. … Our energy would simply prevail.”

But then the wave crashed into the shore and it was over.

At that time, in the early ’70s, Bowden had a tenure-track position teaching history at the University of Illinois in Chicago. He was a young rising star in the field, but he couldn’t take the competitive, small-minded bullshit that comes with academia. So he dropped out of the system and disappeared from the screen, living on a bicycle, sleeping on the side of the road around Tucson, Arizona, where he’d gone to high school.

He got good on the bike and started racing. When he won a 300-miler across the desert he thought he should buy a better bike, a Colnago, for $1,500. To earn some money, he took a job writing for a local daily, The Tucson Citizen, and then he fell in love with newspapers — writing for newspapers, the whole idea of being a fierce watchdog against power and corruption. The reigning desert scribe, Edward Abbey, lived in Tucson at that time, Abbey and Bowden were friends, and this is how Abbey explained it in a piece called A Writer’s Credo:

It is my belief that the writer, the free-lance author, should be and must be a critic of the society in which he lives. … That is all I ask of the author. To be a hero, appoint himself a moral leader, wanted or not. I believe that words count, that writing matters, that poems, essays, and novels — in the long run — make a difference. If they do not, then in the words of my exemplar Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the writer’s work is of no more importance than the barking of village dogs at night.

Bowden followed Abbey’s credo and won awards. Politicians lived in fear of his pen. Then, when nobody else at the paper wanted the job, Bowden took the crime beat. And that’s when things changed.

For three years in the early ’80s, he covered crime and learned about violence and the results of violence — dead babies, raped women, the men who did it, men who killed. Gradually, as will happen with cops and crime reporters and public defenders, he began “to lose the distinction between the desires of criminals and the desires of the rest of us.”

… I’d quit the paper twice, break down more often than I can remember, and I’d have to go away for a week or two and kill through violent exercise the things that roamed my mind. It was during this period that I began taking 100 or 200 mile walks in the desert, far from any trails. I would write these flights from myself up and people began to talk about me as a “nature writer.” (Bowden reading aloud from his 1998 Harper’s piece, “Torch Song: At the Peripheries of Violence and Desire.”)

Nature writer sounded better to Bowden than crime reporter, as a career move. He liked writing about nature. He was tired of violence and wanted to find out what it’s like to be a lizard or a bat. So, like Abbey and Thoreau, Bowden went into the wilderness, trying to leave civilization behind.

But when Bowden got to the desert, he found a war zone. Instead of writing about animals and what it’s like to be an animal, he ended up covering the drug trade and the other smugglers who assisted one of the largest human migrations in history — lots of dead bodies, some murdered and dismembered with body parts rearranged as conceptual art, some lying in the hot desert getting eaten by birds and javelina.

Bowden wrote the hard truths behind these facts, these dead bodies. It was our demand for illegal drugs that fueled the violence in Mexico. It was our free trade policy that broke Mexican farmers and started the mass migration north where they became like slaves, our slaves, if they made it alive. There was no getting away from this part of our civilization, it spilled over into the wilderness, it was part of the wilderness.

Nobody wanted to hear these truths. Often his editors didn’t believe what he wrote because they’d never heard it before. If it hadn’t been in The New York Times, it didn’t exist. Eventually, after a lot of arguing, his reports would get published and then be ignored, met with silence. Readers, common unsuspecting folk, also had never heard such horrors before and didn’t know whether it was fact or fiction or what, and they especially didn’t like how Bowden would bring these faraway horrors into their homes, even into their minds and bodies, and leave them there. People usually don’t want that to happen to them. Something like that we try to forget as soon as possible.

Not Charles Bowden.

“Not on my watch,” he would always say, back then.

And he seemed fearless. In the mid-’90s, for instance, he published the name of the leader of the Juárez cartel, with a photo, presenting evidence that tons of illegal drugs were being flown into Juárez on commercial aircraft where they were unloaded by the Mexican military. A month later the leader of the cartel, Amado Carrillo, died on the operating table while having his face redesigned by plastic surgeons. The surgeons were tortured and killed. Somehow, for reasons that remain a mystery, Bowden stayed alive.

He kept investigating the drug trade. Everybody in Mexico knows the Mexican government and the Mexican military are involved in the drug trade, but proving it is difficult. Reporters in Mexico are often threatened and sometimes killed. There is no rule of law — policemen become killers, judges are paid to let people out of jail, reporters are paid to be silent. Those in power remain invisible. Bowden wanted to see them, clearly, and know their nature, what it’s like to be them, the people who run the killing machine.

He made friends with people who wanted to tell the truth about what they’d seen and what they’d lost, people on both sides, all sides, of the drug war. He told their stories and he got it right and he built a wide network of reliable informants, people who trusted him. He was putting the pieces together slowly and carefully.

Then one day the whole thing unfolded in front of him, emerged like Moby Dick surfacing from the depths of the ocean, and what he saw frightened him. It was too big, too powerful for him to fight.

A few years later, in the mid-’90s, another reporter named Gary Webb saw the same whale, and he didn’t turn away. Webb wrote about it, but then Webb was ruined for what he wrote. His report — charging that profits from the ’80s crack epidemic in Los Angeles were funneled to a Latin American guerrilla army run by the US Central Intelligence Agency — was quickly denounced by The New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. Webb became a pariah. But Bowden met Webb and investigated Webb’s sighting of the whale. He retraced all Webb’s steps and found no flaw in his methods or findings. In fact he found more evidence to support Webb’s claim, and wrote an 11,000-word magazine article about it. But it wasn’t enough. Webb lost his job, his marriage, his home, his money … and then he shot himself in December 2004. That was the experience that left Bowden feeling alone, a coward.

In 2008, Juárez exploded in a wave of violence that lasted four years and left somewhere around 15,000 dead bodies. There were periods when it was more dangerous to be in Juárez than anywhere in Afghanistan or Iraq. The wave of violence was said to be a war between the Juárez and Sinaloa cartels, but the people doing the killing often wore uniforms of police and the military, and the dead people were often innocent bystanders. Also, there was so much killing that the killers started to “sign” their work by arranging the body or body parts in a particular fashion, such as hanging the body from an overpass in morning rush hour traffic with a threat written on a poster board, or cutting off the head and placing it between the legs facing the crotch wearing a Santa Claus hat, or hanging the body, face covered with a pig mask, like Christ crucified on an iron fence. Things like that, and worse.

Bowden filed his reports, and always the reaction was the same — nobody cared, nothing happened, the killing continued. One of his reports during this period described how killing is fun. There were something like 500 separate street gangs in Juárez and the initiation was always the same — kill someone. Young boys joined the gangs knowing their lives would be short and violent, but also knowing that for a brief period they would have money and girls and cars and drugs — better than working like a slave in a maquiladora assembling televisions and vacuum cleaners to be sold in America — and they’d get to kill people, which made them feel real and alive like nothing they’d ever experienced. And then they would, in turn, get killed and it would be over, no more fear. Bowden wrote this up and handed it in and the response was silence. The paychecks from headquarters kept coming, but they stopped publishing what he wrote.

In 2010, Bowden was sitting in a restaurant with a man who happened to mention that he knew an assassin, a sicario, who had been a state policeman in charge of investigating kidnappings in Juárez, but instead he kidnapped, tortured and killed people for the cartel. Recently he’d gone into hiding and found Jesus Christ as his lord and savior. He wanted to confess everything.

Bowden pounded his fists on the table and said, “I want him!”

He thought if the sicario would talk then he’d be able to say who was ordering the killings. This would be hard evidence implicating those who were in charge, a way to make them visible.

So he met the sicario and got to know him for several months, never asking a question about his former life. He knew that when the time was right he wouldn’t have to ask a question, and until then it would be pointless. People don’t tell you anything worth knowing until they trust you.

Eventually the man opened up and the truth poured out of him like a rare flood in a desert wash — how he did it, tortured and killed, how he became good at it and took pride in his work. Unfortunately, the sicario never knew who he was working for. His phone would ring and a voice would give him an order, and he would follow the order. He was a good soldier, doing his job as best he could, never asking questions that could get him killed.

As Bowden got to know the sicario, he began to see him as a highly intelligent person who’d been trapped in the killing machine. He’d done evil things, but he was not evil. They became friends … and oh, the horror.

Bowden came to this house in the trees next to the stream to strip everything down and start over. Writing the new book, finding a new way to write, has been his therapy. It makes perfect sense to me.

Bowden gets up at dawn and pours birdseed into two feeders and fills four hummingbird tubes with sugar water. He’s been doing this wherever he lives, for decades. The birds are waiting for him, and within a minute there are 40, 60, 80 … too many to count. I ask him what kind of birds we’re looking at.

“Broad-billed hummingbirds, white-winged doves, cardinals, brown-headed cowbirds, thick-billed kingbirds, lesser goldfinch, black-headed grosbeaks, Inca doves, mourning doves, violet-crowned hummingbirds, black-chinned hummingbirds. … I go through 100 pounds of birdseed a month.”

He makes some coffee and we sit down in the same places as last night and he continues where he left off. I don’t have to ask a question. He knows why I’ve come.

“I’ve always felt alone,” he says. “I have a consciousness that separates me from other people. I’m an animal, full of lust and desire. If people knew who I really am they wouldn’t like it.”

I’m thinking that’s how we all feel, sometimes, but never say it out loud.

All in all, Bowden appears to be doing fine. He’s going after the whale, and I hope he catches it.

Postscript from Bowden’s Blood Orchid, 1995: Imagine the problem is not physical. Imagine the problem has never been physical, that it is not biodiversity, it is not the ozone layer, it is not the greenhouse effect, the whales, the old-growth forest, the loss of jobs, the crack in the ghetto, the abortions, the tongue in the mouth, the diseases stalking everywhere as love goes on unconcerned. Imagine the problem is not some syndrome of our society that can be solved by commissions or laws or a redistribution of what we call wealth. Imagine that it goes deeper, right to the core of what we call our civilization and that no one outside of ourselves can affect real change, that our civilization, our governments are sick and that we are mentally ill and spiritually dead and that all our issues and crises are symptoms of this deeper sickness … then what are we to do?