The tall, gaunt man with an austere, unshaven face marred by a nose broken in some dim barroom past stood impatiently beside a hellishly expensive high-definition Sony videocam. It stood ready, mounted on a robust carbon-fiber tripod planted near the edge of a steep-walled arroyo. Next to the man stood a camera operator, looking through the viewfinder toward a dark blue Chevy Blazer parked atop the opposite wall edge of the arroyo a hundred yards away. Its supercharged, 572-cubic-inch crate engine rumbled impatiently at idle, 750 horses waiting to stampede. This was no normal Blazer; its 24 forward gears made highway travel cumbersome. It had been trailered over a rough access road to this once-quiet place and now sat mounted on adjustable shocks with 17 inches of travel. The 46-inch Mickey Thompson Baja Claw tires cost nearly three thousand dollars a set. The tires sat squat, inflated to only five pounds of air pressure. This Blazer could crawl over virtually any obstacle.
Dressed in black despite the growing heat of emerging spring, the thin man pulled a radio from his belt. Sunlight reflected from the large, oval, silver buckle stamped with the letters “XOX.” He nodded to the cameraman, then spoke into the radio. “Now.”
The Blazer roared. The rapacious treads of its tires clawed into the earth, throwing cryptogamic soil into the air. The rutting beast tore into a complex of microscopic vegetation, killing a web of miniature rootlets that bound the loose, sandy soil together, allowing it to resist erosion. The Blazer cleared the edge of the arroyo, briefly airborne before it crunched down onto the dry wash. The left front tire landed on a night snake sunning itself on a small boulder of quartzite, killing it. The tires ripped into sands and gravels. The cameraman panned the Sony expertly as the Blazer roared up the wash. The driver, the owner of a Phoenix real estate and development company, yanked the steering wheel, slewing the Blazer into a spinning slide.
“Damn, this is fun,” he shouted, a small man in a big machine wearing a bright red, visored helmet fitted with radio. The roar of his bored-out engine drowned out his voice.
“Cut,” radioed the thin man. The Blazer halted, its engine slowing from a malicious howl to a disgruntled idle. The cameraman picked up the Sony and hiked a hundred yards down the bank to set up the next shot. The thin man walked to a dark green Jeep Cherokee with an official-looking emblem on the side. He spoke to a squat, sweating, heavyset man leaning against it, smoking a cigarette. Eyes hidden behind mirrored sunglasses, the fat man rested his hand casually on the pistol in his holster. As they spoke, oil from a tiny leak in the oil pan of the Blazer soaked into the gravel, waiting for rain drive it down into the water table. The fumes of the Blazer’s exhaust hung over the wash. A canyon wren, fed up with the odor, abandoned its nest to search for peace and quiet elsewhere to try to have children with its mate. Individuals of a dozen different species of insects, two species of reptiles, and three species of arachnid had been crushed under the knobby tires.
The cameraman set the Sony about 40 yards from the edge of the arroyo and waved. The real-estate developer had backed up the Blazer against the far wall of the wash, pointed toward the steep bank and the Sony beyond.
The thin man spoke into the radio. “Again.”
The Blazer’s tires churned deeply into the wash bottom. The Sony caught the undercarriage as the Blazer roared up the bank. It flew free for a moment, then smashed down, ripping into more cryptogamic soil, and braked a few yards from the camera.
The thin man spoke into the radio again. Three other rock crawlers waited their turns on the far bank. The owner of a Salt Lake City bank holding company, perspiring under the hot sun, sat strapped into his tricked-out, bright orange Jeep with fat tires, light bar, and heavy steel roll cage. In a rebuilt International Scout, given new, evil life by a big-block Chevy V-8, sat a middle-aged lawyer from Price. His pudgy waistline quivered as he goosed the engine impatiently. The CEO of a Denver financial services company hunched over the steering wheel of his powder-blue Bronco, its 427-cubic-inch engine purring throatily.
All wore headset radios. Each had paid $10,000 to star in their private videos, showing them at their heroic best, wrestling their mechanical beasts through one of the most fragile ecosystems on the planet. The videos, they presumed, would impress their wives, girlfriends, and mistresses. Only four copies would be made — one for each client.
The thin man shot these private videos in roadless wilderness areas where ORV use was hotly contested by environmentalists. But his customers demanded the picture-postcard scenery such wilderness areas contained to provide dramatic backdrops for their egos. I whacked the wilderness, they could tell their women and their presumed male inferiors. The thin man would pocket $40,000 — in cash — for a day’s work, selling Conquest of Nature as theater.
At the thin man’s signal, the ORVs roared three abreast up the dry wash, their tracks decimating more diminutive life. The three maneuvered their vehicles, backing up, going forward, then backing up again, until they were lined up side by side, facing the already wounded stream bank.
“Now,” said the voice crackling in their headsets.
The three ORVs, packing nearly 2,200 combined horsepower, attacked the bank. Tires ripped apart sand, gravel, soil, and two burrows containing just-born pocket mice. The Sony caught the three ORVs as they roared up the bank and slewed to a stop. A second Sony, high on the rim of the canyon walls above the wash, caught the powerful vehicles from above.
“Cut.” The thin man nodded in satisfaction to the fat man. They examined a map laid on the hood of the Jeep, planning the next sequence.
None noticed the roiled tire tracks in the bank of the wash. When rain fell, the stream bank would erode severely. None noticed the ancient soils, torn by sixteen tires that cost more than the annual salary of a seasonal Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management ranger. The fractured, broken, and crumpled soils would take a hundred years to recover. None cared. But rangers would not see this. The fat man in the Cherokee had seen to that. He kept track of rangers’ comings and goings and sold that information to the thin man. He earned his silver, too — in cash.
High in the blue Utah sky, a dark speck, circling above the video crew and their eager actors, dove toward the earth beyond the canyon rim. It was the job of one man with a rifle on the rim to watch for it. But the action, the loud roar of the engines, the dust drifting like thin smoke in the air, had distracted him.
Moments later, an engine’s high-pitched wail echoed off the canyon walls. The video makers did not hear it over the snarling of so much horsepower. A yellow, high-winged ultralight aircraft, kept aloft by barely 100 horsepower, dropped in a shallow dive at almost a hundred knots and screamed over the dry wash. A broad, stocky man in a dark jumpsuit sat in the front seat, a gloved hand on the stick, his other hand holding two round objects. The left wingtip of the small aircraft carried a small GoPro videocam, switched on and rolling. The man on the rim with the gun swore and blew a whistle. He fired the rifle but missed. He was hurried and nervous — nervous because the thin man would be pissed. And he was dangerous when irritated.
The yellow plane flew ten feet over the ORVs as the pilot slung two balloons. The first burst on the Blazer. Black acrylic paint splattered over the hood and onto the windshield. The second struck the helmet of the Salt Lake banker, cascading paint over him and his expensive leather bucket seats. The ultralight screamed up canyon, over a ridge, and out of sight. The thin man, anger pulsing in the veins on his temples, turned to the fat man.
“Keep that fucker off my ass, goddamn it.”
“You don’t pay me to take care of him,” said the fat man, the bright speck of metal on his chest shining in the sun.
“I won’t pay you a fucking cent if you don’t,” said the thin man. “This isn’t making my clients happy.”
The fat man nodded. “I’ll have him watched,” he said. “But it’ll cost you another thou. He’s a smart fucker, and I’ll have to be careful.”
“Just do it,” said the thin man. “Just fucking do it.”