The Stihl 22-inch barred chainsaw ripped through the post the size of a thirty-year-old, second-growth Douglas Fir; roaring, its voracious appetite craving wood, spitting out chunks until I was slathered with bits of sawdust and oil. It felt like a host of giant mosquitoes had come for my blood. If the cops came, it would be my blood. The howl and whine of the machine reverberated through the valley. Howling, regurgitating maniacally. Question authority. I’d lived by that all my life. Now, I was really doing it, practicing what I’d preached. Not just talking. Doing. The chainsaw was my instrument of revenge. There was a full moon descending, her light pure white, reflecting off the blade, then into the wood.
My hands were shaking. Not out of fear so much. The chainsaw had me in its grip. The stinks of exhaust blowing in my face, hot and gassy. Sweat pouring down my brow. It was Fall, and the Artic had decided to come pay an early visit. I was overheated in the frigid air as the saw poured its guts into the wood. That saw had an insatiable hunger. Only thirty more posts and umpteen struts to cut through before the billboard came crashing down. It would be easier to burn, but all hell would have broken loose. The fire department, cops and bystanders, ravenous for excitement, would have been here before it burned completely down. The authorities would save the monstrosity, of course, fix her back up—give her a new paint job and a new life. Then, we’d be lucky to once again see the giant advertisements blotting out our views. This was, after all, America, the Land of the Brave and the Home of the Hucksters. It was two o’clock in the morning and we had to hurry and finish the job before the sun came up. I owed this exploit of insanity (and many others I would come to take part in) to one man I had come to revere.
I met Ed Abbey in Boulder, Colorado, in the early seventies at the Hotel Boulderado in the downstairs bar called the Catacombs. A bunch of us were attending an informal meeting about the impending Alaskan Pipeline with the famous writer. Abbey was a big man, six feet six inches all, burly, shaggy. He reminded me of an overgrown black bear who’d just lost a cub and was coming after the perpetrator. Crotchety and iconoclastic, he was a misanthrope of epic proportions. My kind of man.
We sat around a long table in the low, dark room, listening to him and asking questions. He was going to give a speech with Mo Udall—the United States Democratic, Liberal Senator from Arizona—the next day in Denver at a rally against the Alaskan Pipeline. We in attendance that night were part of that resistance, and were also slated to speak at the rally, although in far lesser roles. I felt like an acolyte, kneeling at the feet of the master, trying to glean anything I could to make me a better writer and protestor. Of course, I’d been up for weeks trying to write my speech, terrified to think of standing up before thousands of people. A little pot would help me, though, to get through the rough spots.
Abbey was throwing the drinks back. I’d heard he was an alcoholic. But Sweet Jesus, I’d never seen a man drink like that—straight shot after shot, deep into the night, and hardly a change in personality. Autumn then pulled out a joint, lit and handed it to him. He winked at her, took it nonchalantly and sucked a massive hit, nearly killing the joint in one blast. Seemed he had the lungs of a bear, too. What was left of the poor misshapen joint was then passed around the table. When it got to me it was about done, a piece of smoldering ash at the end of my fingertips. I clipped it and finished her off. I was a little apprehensive about smoking inside a popular bar and restaurant, but it was dark, and the waiters seemed not to notice or care. Hell, we were in Boulder, CO. Still, I glanced around me and saw nothing out of the ordinary. Narcs be damned.
The Monkey Wrench Gang
Abbey had written many great books in his time. Desert Solitaire was one of my favorites, and still is today. An iconic series of vignettes written about the desert southwest and its ecosystems, sprinkled with his philosophical ruminations of life. But it was his novel The Monkey Wrench Gang, 1975, I liked best. A wild and unruly story about a group of men and one woman who traveled around the southwest, cutting down billboards, dynamiting dams and trashing other capitalistic symbols that impinged on wilderness. Sabotage to prevent the wild from being gobbled up by the evil developers. Eco-terrorism, before the name was ever coined. I guess he invented it. Not the word, but the desecration.
Sticking the Crass
I asked him about the destruction of billboards. How do you do it? I hated billboards and still do. I wanted to follow in his footsteps. Wanted to be a monkey wrencher, too. At this time, The Monkey Wrench Gang hadn’t yet been written, but he had published articles about his exploits. I had read most of them, and was drooling to get his take on how he got away with the murder of so many advertisements. Where did he get the balls? He told me to get a chainsaw and learn how to use it properly. Be careful. First, a chainsaw is a dangerous animal and, secondly, don’t get caught desecrating government property. Do it at night. If you must burn the billboard, make sure you don’t start a forest fire, and make sure you have a fast getaway. The rainy season is best. I listened with both ears tuned, and when I got home that night I sat under the stars next to the river where I lived and smoked a joint and drank a beer. Smoked another and had another beer. Damn, beer and pot go well together. At any rate, I was planning. Abbey had gotten me riled. I was a rattler ready to strike. My heart was the Roadrunner being chased by Coyote around the inside of my chest. Could I do it? Cut down a billboard and stick it to the crass? And not get caught? I didn’t want to go to jail. I didn’t know if I had the guts or the moxie to pull it off.
Billboards Be Damned
As far as I know, there are now four states in the US that do not allow billboards on their highways: Hawaii, Alaska, Maine and Vermont. Vermont was the first. You may think it doesn’t matter, but it does, truly. Driving through that state is nothing short of magnificent. Nada stands in the way of enjoying the view you’re supposed to be enjoying, instead of some tasteless monstrosity erected to in the name of greed to block the natural wonders in front of you. Vermont is a beautiful state, but so are the other forty nine. If you ask me, all billboards should come crashing down—but, of course, won’t. Maybe it is progress there are at least four states which don’t allow them, but I know Abbey, if he were alive today in the Land of Trump, he’d be fighting for more states to follow suit. As it is, he’s rolling over in his grave at Trump’s regressive environmental policies. It’s an uphill battle.
I finally sawed through my first post. Sven was working on the next one over. Haggis had broken through two, and was already on his third. The billboard was starting to creak as though speaking in tongues old as ancient dead trees. Then it began to sway slightly, back and forth. But we still had a long way to go. It would take a concerted effort to get this baby to lie down. I stepped back and marveled at my work, hands shaking from the vibration of the saw. The post was loose, but resting delicately on top of the cut. If we got through all thirty, we’d have to give the whole thing a push with our hands and hope it went down, if it hadn’t already on its own accord. I took a swig of beer and Sven handed me a joint. I was about to light into the next post when sirens kicked up in the distance…coming nearer. We stopped and turned off our saws. I looked up at the highway. Lights were flashing, coming toward us. We took off down the hillside, behind the billboard, ducked into a copse of Cottonwoods and waited…jail seemed like a split second away.