An elegy for Dave Walter
At dawn on Christmas morning I was making kindling out of an aspen log when a flock of roisterous piñon jays descended into the surrounding Ponderosas. I didn’t need to look up to know what they were but I paused to see what the ruckus was about. Seeing nothing out of the ordinary, I went on splitting wood.
Piñon jays are not uncommon around here but the timing seemed inauspicious. Later that day I would learn the only dad I’d ever known had died.
Dave took on the responsibility of parenting me and my sister Shelby when he married my mom, Sharon. Our biological father had left during a violent episode a few years previous. I think I was 11 and Shelby was 9. We were the witnesses at the wedding in the Justice of Peace office in Reno, Nevada.
The stats would show that in my case he was adopting someone more likely bound for prison than college. In the end the difference was most likely to his credit. Dave’s presence brought immediate structure and stability to a situation where my mom was almost always at work, juggling two or more jobs to pay the bills, while I was a feral kid trying my best to look after my little sister.
Dave met my mom when they both worked for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in Reno. He had arrived there at the BLM state office via the Winnemucca and Carson City district offices. Dave, a native of Yakima, Washington, had his degree in range management from the University of Montana, and by the time he married my mom he was dealing with all manner of resources on vast expanses of public rangeland in Nevada.
A few months after the wedding, we moved to Las Vegas, where we stayed two years until he was appointed to a position with the Department of Interior. Then we moved from Vegas to the suburbs of Northern Virginia, and he commuted to Washington, D.C. daily for four years. When the Carter administration came in he was sent back out to “the field” and we moved to Craig, Colorado, where energy resource extraction was the BLM’s focus. From there he did a stint as district manager in the Rawlings, Wyoming, office before moving to the state office in Cheyenne, where he retired.
Dave was the consummate outdoorsman. He taught me to fish, hunt, camp, backpack, paddle a canoe, build a fire, track animals, and to identify plants and wildlife. In the early days, even before he married my mom, he would take me fishing for big cutthroat trout at Pyramid Lake north of Reno, and hunting for upland game in the sagebrush foothills. He also taught me to play chess and to cook.
He took the family on weeklong camping trips in the Ruby Mountains and Snake Range. We backpacked from a base camp up to Baker Lake near Wheeler Peak long before the area became the Great Basin National Park. We fished for bass and hunted waterfowl in the Ruby Marshes. Dave was also a forager and he and I once stuffed several BLM-issue Johnny Horizon trash bags with morel mushrooms from the aspen flanks of Wheeler Peak.
Back east, we canoed the local lakes, fishing for bass and crappie, and surf-casted on the Outer Banks of North Carolina for flounder and bluefish. We backpacked some of the Blue Ridge Parkway Trail, and paddled the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers. When we moved to Colorado we camped in the White River National Forest, fly-fished trout and hunted the sagebrush plateaus before I went off to college in Boulder.
Sometimes in the early days in Nevada I would get to tag along on his BLM trips to the field, helping to clean up the area around the endangered Devil’s Hole Pupfish habitat in the Armagosa Desert, or counting wildflowers, desert tortoises and toads on the ephemeral rangeland of the Mojave Desert. We once cut up old telegraph poles for firewood in full view of the Air Force’s top-secret Area 51 north of Las Vegas.
In addition to livestock grazing and desert pupfish, Dave also was active in overseeing the BLM’s management of a variety of other resource-related concerns, including Native American artifacts, the Mint 400 Off-Road Race, energy reserves, recreation, herds of wild horses and burros, timber, and even a brothel operating on public lands — the infamous Cottontail Ranch at Lida Junction. He did battle with the notorious Bundy clan before they became headline-grabbing anti-government extremists and were merely welfare-rancher “crooks” grazing and watering their cattle illegally.
Wild horses, in particular, were somewhat of a thorn in Dave’s side throughout his career. He appeared as a government antagonist in the book Mustangs by Hope Ryden, aka “Wild Horse Annie,” and he was opposed to the enactment of the federal Wild Horse and Burro Protection Act. He didn’t think “preservation” was conservation. I of course was getting Ryden’s propaganda coloring book and newsletter at school and had bought in to the idea of saving the wild horses. There were dinnertime arguments. The law was enacted and much to his chagrin the issue of wild horses followed him everywhere he went with the BLM. In the final analysis, neither of us were right. Today there are sadly upwards of 40,000 wild horses being held in captivity in Oklahoma. It’s never ceased to amaze me the irony of this world conspiring in such a way that one of the things I do is train wild burros from the program he so opposed.
Over time things like wild horses and other public lands issues apparently jaded Dave. Despite his colorful career, he became increasingly callous and grumpy after retirement. We grew apart as I’m sure many sons and fathers do. He was not impressed with my career choices, and I’m sure my political beliefs and lifestyle irked him somewhat too. In death we tend to cut people a lot of slack, so let’s just say family dynamics led to a certain level of discomfort and detachment. He remained one of the most compelling figures in my life to the end but I was steering wide, keeping visits short, and calling him on birthdays and holidays, always bracing myself for a heavy dose of right-wing commentary when I really just wanted to talk to the guy he was when I was 12.
He actually seemed quite content keeping to himself, but now that he is gone I find myself with regrets and guilt, but moreover gratitude for the things he shared with me when I was younger, and for being the father that he was. I only knew those were piñon jays on Christmas morning because he taught me my birds.