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Mt. Lemmon center to be dedicated Saturday to late author Chuck Bowden

A much-heralded reporter and author who spent much of his life chronicling the people and places of the Southwestern Desert will be honored Saturday as the community center on Mt. Lemmon is named for Chuck Bowden, who died last August.

A dogged investigative reporter, stalwart environmentalist and often lyrical storyteller, Bowden shared his love of the desert in such books as "Frog Mountain Blues," his 1987 paen to the Santa Catalinas with photographer Jack Dykinga.

That book, titled after the traditional Tohono O'odham name for the Catalinas, Frog Mountain, demonstrated Bowden's fears of encroaching development on the trails and peaks of the sky island just north of Tucson.

The Pima County Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to name the center for Bowden in April, in recognition of his decades of work celebrating the desert, and exposing its secrets. Saturday's dedication will begin at 10 a.m., featuring members of Bowden's family and writer Bill Broyles.

Supervisor Ray Carroll is also scheduled to speak. The District 4 Republican said he hopes the naming of the center for Bowden will help spark "literary tourism" in Tucson, with the center being used for readings and symposiums.

"Chuck was a journalist's journalist and was highly regarded by many renowned writers for drilling deep into subject matters where few dared to go." said Carroll.

"He was a kind, warm-hearted man. Not only was he my favorite writer, he was a close friend," Carroll said last year.

Carroll pointed to Bowden's enthusiastic backing of the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan and his ability to make others see the desert through his eyes as reasons for his backing the naming of the Mt. Lemmon center.

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"It's a fitting irony that he passed away in his sleep. He took a nap and never woke up," Carroll said last year. "He had a lot of death threats (because of his work). He had a lot of dangerous liaisons with people in dangerous places. But he went peacefully."

Early in Bowden's journalism career, he was a crime reporter for the Tucson Citizen — where he was a finalist for the 1984 Pulitzer Prizefor his "stories on illegal immigrants, sexual abuse of children and the deaths of two men." He was one of the founders of the short-lived City Magazine, a circa-1986-89 monthly journal of politics and civic life in Tucson. He later turned his attention to the decades-long drug war along the U.S.-Mexico border, and the chaos and death on the other side of the line.

Critically acclaimed for his hard-boiled narrative style, Bowden was awarded the Sidney Hillman Prize in 1996 for the article "While You Were Sleeping," published in Harper's Magazine, and received the PEN First Amendment Award in 2011.

About five years ago, Bowden left Tucson and moved to New Mexico, where he focused his work on the dangerous turmoil of cartel-riddled Ciudad Juarez, just over the border from El Paso.

His life was often as gritty as his work. The 6'4" Bowden smoked too many Lucky Strikes, drank red wine even more, and was known for what the Phoenix New Times called two decades ago his "prodigious philandering."

'There are only two kinds of writing, true and false'

Bowden didn't like to be called a journalist.

"I hate the word," he told the Arizona Republic in 2010. "It's a (expletive) gutless lying word for candy asses. I'm a reporter. I go out and report. I don't keep a (expletive) journal ... (I) state the truth and give evidence."

"There are only two kinds of writing, true and false. If writing is true it endures, even if it's badly written," he said.

Bowden spoke of his writing in a 2010 interview with the New Yorker.

"I wrote of murders, tortures, and rapes in a spare manner because a flat tone conveys agony better than a herd of adjectives," he said of his book "Murder City," about the violence in Juarez.

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"The way I was trained up, reporters went toward the story, just as firemen rush toward the fire. It is a duty. As it happens, I am a coward and would rather write about a bird or a tree. But, I don’t know how to be aware of such a slaughter and not report it," he said.

"I believe that all American writing begins with Lincoln’s second inaugural. The brevity of adjectives, the direct sparse language, is what modern writing is. It’s a startling piece of writing," he told I Wanna Know What I Wanna Know. "And, I think he helped invent modern writing, as opposed to British writing which will apparently be paralyzed until the end of time by a love of semi-colons."

Bowden began his career behind the keyboard as an academic with a University of Wisconsin-Madison Ph.D. in history. Although he published several books, and received a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship in 1979, it was his work after a jump to a newsroom in his mid-30s that left a lasting mark.

"I've been struck over the years by how people have attempted to make sense of me," said Bowden in a 1993 profile by the Phoenix New Times. "I never thought it would be very hard to do. I'm pretty plodding and obvious."

Critics had other takes: The New York Times Book Review called him a "thrillingly good writer whose grandness of vision is only heightened by the bleak originality of his voice." "As a writer seeking justice in his words, he is like a man clearing the brush, trying to break through, to get enough light and oxygen to see his trees and sky again before he goes back under," said the Los Angeles Times.

Among Bowden's two-dozen-odd books were "Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy's New Killing Fields" (2010); Dreamland: The Way Out of Juarez" (2010); "Down by the River: Drugs, Money, Murder, and Family" (2004); "Some of the Dead Are Still Breathing: Living in the Future" (2009); and "Juarez: The Laboratory of Our Future" (1998), with an introduction by Noam Chomsky and Eduardo Galean.

'When I'm dead, and when everybody reading this is dead, the only thing that matters is ground.'

"I took a job at a newspaper because I needed money to buy a new racing bicycle. I walked in and lied, I had no credentials. I thought, if I work here for two or three months I can buy a bike and get back on the road," the Tucson High School graduate said in 2012. "I wasn’t there very long until I had to go write about child murders, and it changed me. I didn’t leave. I spent three years there because I was learning so much."

"I got trapped in it because most people won’t cover sex crimes, most people can’t get people to talk. I was hired to be a fluff writer and I discovered that almost anyone would tell me anything," Bowden said.

Bowden, whose early books touched on the S&L scandals and Charles Keating, along with desert sprawl, was friends with the late author Ed Abbey and often expressed his appreciation for the desert and those working to preserve it.

"The Center for Biological Diversity has saved more ground than Jesus. I often don't agree with them, but their record is better than mine. When I'm dead, and when everybody reading this is dead, the only thing that matters is ground," he said in a 2009 interview with the Tucson Weekly.

"You've got the desert and the mountains constantly telling you that you have failed this place—but there's still time to save yourself," he said. "Landmarks are an error. The real landmark is the ground beneath your feet. If you don't take care of it, it will kill you."

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Click image to enlarge

courtesy Parker Haeg

Bowden at the 2010 Texas Book Festival in Austin.

Youtube Video

What, where & when

  • Chuck Bowden Mount Lemmon Community Center dedication ceremony
  • 12949 North Sabino Canyon Parkway, in Summerhaven
  • 10 a.m. Saturday
  • Light refreshments will be served at a reception following the ceremony.