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Shooting Polaris

A Personal Survey in the American West

John Hales

Publication Year: 2005


Shooting Polaris is John Hales’s fascinating and far-reaching account of working as a government surveyor in the southern Utah desert. In it, he describes his search for a place in the natural world, beginning with an afternoon spent tracking down a lost crew member who cracked up on the job and concluding with his supervising a group of at-risk teenagers on a backpacking trip in the Escalante wilderness. In between, he depicts a range of experiences in and outside nature, including hostile barroom encounters between surveyors and tourists, weekends spent climbing Navajo Mountain and floating what remains of Glen Canyon, and late-night arguments concerning the meaning and purpose of nature with the eccentric polygamist who ran the town in which the surveyors parked their bunk trailers.   
            Although this work is autobiographical, Shooting Polaris is so much more. It is a reflection on man’s relationship to nature and work, American history and the movement into the West, the desire to impose order and the contrary impulse for unmediated experience, the idealistic legacy of the sixties, the influence of the Mormon Church, and the often-antagonistic relationship of American capitalism to sound ecological management. Along the way, Hales introduces engaging characters and reveals the art, science, and history of surveying, an endeavor that turns out to be surprisingly profound.

Published by: University of Missouri Press


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p. C-C

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-xiv

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Prologue - Orientation: The Front Chainman Loses His Bearings

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pp. 1-11

No one could remember a government surveyor actually going crazy, especially while on the job, out in the field running line. I’d heard stories about surveyors who were sadistic, alcoholic, unhygienic, or incompetent (although there were fewer incompetent-surveyor...

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Chapter One - Where I Surveyed, and What I Surveyed For

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pp. 12-22

I worked summers as a government surveyor through most of the 1970s, an employee of the Utah office of the Cadastral Survey, an obscure arm of the federal government responsible for extending and maintaining the rectangular subdivision of America. Our mandate had been spelled out in Thomas Jefferson’s Land Ordinance...

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Chapter Two - Running Line on Nipple Bench

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pp. 23-51

Three survey crews shared quarters at Wahweap City that summer, fourteen men distributed among seven trailers. The permanent, full-time surveyors had their own trailers, streamlined aluminum tubes built for tourists in the forties and fifties, each of which had been converted into something part living space...

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Chapter Three - The Polygamist’s Bar and Cafe

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pp. 52-68

Wahweap City was situated just north of the Arizona border on a 100-mile stretch of Highway 89 that connects the lonely desert outposts of two empires, one nostalgic and religious, the other boosterish and secular. The outpost to the west is Kanab, a small community established in 1864 by Brigham Young to consolidate...

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Chapter Four - Modern Methods

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pp. 69-96

Our workdays that summer on the Kaiparowits Plateau would be instantly familiar to the surveyors who began in the last decade of the eighteenth century to implement the dictates of Jefferson’s ordinance; indeed, you’d have to look back thousands of years to find survey practices that differed substantially from our own. The...

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Chapter Five - Friday Night in the Virgin Narrows

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pp. 97-106

I spent that summer living a couple of lies, supported, as most lies are, by selective forgetting. I forgot as routinely as possible that although I was working for the Bureau of Land Management merely to complete the township survey mandated by public landuse legislation, I was actually serving the purposes of the resource...

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Chapter Six - Visitors

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pp. 107-123

Focus is just about everything to the surveyor. Squinting into the transit’s eyepiece and turning the knobs to center the crosshairs and magnify the details, you apprehend only a tiny framed circle of reality. It’s like peering out of a tunnel, or the barrel of a gun: the rest of the world becomes peripheral and unimportant, fading..

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Chapter Seven - Bearing Objects

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pp. 124-149

I learned about time, and about the way time flows through and beyond a person’s life, from reading names and dates carved nearly a half century before into the soft white skin of a quaking aspen. I was seven years old. My family had pitched our tent in a Forest Service campsite situated where the pines and spruces of a...

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Chapter Eight - Family Men

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pp. 150-177

Larry’s family joined him for a couple of weeks in July. They rented a motel room across the state line in Page, Arizona, and each day after work, instead of settling in his trailer to complete the day’s calculations, Larry would climb into his Blazer and drive to Page to spend the night with his family. Although I’d known, of...

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Chapter Nine - The View from Navajo Mountain

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pp. 178-200

Navajo Mountain loomed over our surveying that summer. Only when we followed line deep into a canyon, or walked shadowed behind the broadened shoulders of a butte, were we deprived of our sight of the only real mountain for miles. Although not directly useful to our surveying—Matt couldn’t use Navajo Mountain as a...

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Chapter Ten - Hiking In, and Hiking Out

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pp. 201-220

One of the assumptions the teachers talked about the most and examined the least held that nature was good for troubled kids, and that’s why we’d brought this assortment of high school students to spend spring break in the canyons of the Escalante wilderness, the drainage just north of the Kaiparowits Plateau I’d...

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Chapter Eleven - The Polygamist Holds Forth

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pp. 221-234

I spent one weekend in Wahweap, neither catching a ride home— wherever home was—nor hitching in the direction of scenery prettier than Wahweap City’s stark postdevelopment blend of desert and deconstruction. It was the conclusion to a horrible week, which included the day we’d hiked out over the Cockscomb and...

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Chapter Twelve - Shooting Polaris

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pp. 235-260

By mid-August we’d finally finished the complete subdivision of our township into the square-mile sections required by Jefferson’s tidy vision of America, and we were spending the last week surveying the odd mile here and there we’d put off because they were easier, or more accessible to our single lonely road, and therefore...

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Epilogue - The Opening to the Womb of the World

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pp. 261-276

All seven teenagers stopped hiking at the same moment, turning to examine more closely the arrangement of sandstone slopes and clefts that marked the place where a dry streambed joined the broad sandy floor of Coyote Wash. “It’s a sipapu,” one of the students, a pale blonde girl, said....

E-ISBN-13: 9780826264954
E-ISBN-10: 0826264956
Print-ISBN-13: 9780826216168
Print-ISBN-10: 0826216161

Page Count: 290
Publication Year: 2005

Edition: 1