In September 1994, word spread through Catron County New Mexico, that two FBI agents and a dozen National Guardsmen were combing the mountains north of Luna, a small town near the Arizona border. Officially, the men were searching for the body of an alleged drug dealer who had disappeared mysteriously a year earlier. But a buzz went around the county that they were really the advance party of a darker event: a pending firearms raid by U.S. government forces.
“The federal crime bill had just been passed, and the government had already conducted sweeps in several communities,” says Chris Crabill, a 43-year-old cabinetmaker who lives with his family in the nearby town of Reserve, the county seat. “Ruby Ridge and Waco were also on our minds.” On the night of September 7, Crabill gathered several guns and moved into the woods, hunkering down in view of his house so he could watch over his family while they slept.
The next morning someone called a right-wing radio talk show beamed deep into the Southwest from Bakersfield, California, and told the host that “5,000 National Guardsmen have invaded Catron County.” That night, prompted by the new rumor, Catherine Crabill piled her four kids into the family Wagoneer and drove them to her mother’s home in Corrales, in another county, so that “my husband could sleep in the house. We did not flee in terror as some have suggested. But I was scared.” About a dozen other locals also moved to “safer” houses for a day or two. The county’s phone lines hummed with forebodings of invasion.
There was no invasion, but eight months later, on May 3, 1995, the Crabills helped organize a community meeting in Reserve to discuss the creation of a militia. Some 250 residents showed up, roughly 10 percent of the county’s population. One by one, cowboys, loggers, and homemakers, folks who generally wave to strangers and keep their doors unlocked, stepped forward to describe a government assault that they clearly believed was imminent.
In the end, Catron County did not create a formal militia that night, mainly because the county commission, the previous August, had passed a resolution “encouraging” heads of households to own and carry guns at all times and to keep sufficient ammunition on hand. Before the meeting wound down, the point became abundantly clear: Plenty of people in the county already were armed and prepared to do battle with the federal government or other alien invaders. The citizens of Catron County didn’t need to form a militia. They were a militia.
Dripping sandwich in hand, I walk over to Main Street, site of the Independence Day parade, to see how Smokey Bear, official symbol of the hated U.S. Forest Service, will be treated when he appears amid the floats and bands. I’ve been told he might get hissed, booed, possibly pelted with eggs. But when Smokey rounds the corner onto the parade route, he waves, dances, and tosses candy to children. No hisses are heard. Today even Smokey, and everything he represents, gets a holiday.
Later, Catherine Crabill, who missed the parade this year, tells me that if she’d been in town, she might have hissed or booed. “I once revered Smokey as a symbol of all that was good,” she says. “But that was before cowboys were seen as the source of all that is evil–as land rapers.”
Obviously, the Crabills’ perceptions and philosophies have changed radically since they moved to Catron County in 1992. The last place they lived before that was Santa Fe; before that, Aspen, Colorado, [consistent with Catherine Crabill’s biography information on her employer’s website -ed.] where, Catherine says, “We were definitely part of the coffee-and-croissant crowd–committed environmentalists.” But soon after coming to Reserve, she says, “We began to see through the propaganda and lies of traditional environmentalism. We no longer believe, for example, that cattle are hurting the land. And we don’t trust the things we used to trust.” The startling about-face has everything to do with the Crabills’ immersion in the town of Reserve, the hotbed of Catron County conspiracy theorizing. Catherine believes, for example, that the State Department, at the UN’s behest, is pushing through a “three-stage plan” to disarm the world for its own dark purposes.
The dark tides surging in the minds of Chris and Catherine Crabill may sound comical, but they represent an unsettling new western attitude that places like Catron County can’t ignore. The old stereotype of New West settlers like the Crabills is that they’re people who’ve abandoned the swarm of prosperous urban centers to live a ranchette lifestyle. Often they’ve come to the West with very little sympathy for the deep desperation of people whose very worst fear is having to move to the cities that the newcomers have abandoned. Karl Hess calls this tension “the unforgiving reality of the urbanized West,” and he believes the county movement “is simply a momentary aberration, where proud men and women take their final bow” in a world that is changing too fast.
The Crabills are coming from somewhere else entirely: They think the “final bow” should be one not of forbearance, but of rage, and their far-right ideas have managed to shake up even thick-skinned men like Hugh McKeen. The county movement, however, probably shouldn’t be allowed to cry innocent about people like the Crabills. Behind its own battle cries lurks the dark side of populism, whipped to a frenzy by people whom Bruce Babbitt describes as being “out to divest the public of their lands.”
As a lawyer, Jim Catron may be content to peacefully test his interpretation of county sovereignty against the government’s. Still, deep down, he must know that the movement he helped create reflects nostalgia for a time when, as he puts it, “Someone causing pain to a community was simply shot.” Whatever becomes of the strange revolution that Catron County has set in motion, it’s already created a frightening possibility: One angry man or woman acting on that nostalgia could place a bloody stain on the legacy of the modern West.
Now it looks like Catherine Crabill wants to place a bloody stain on the legacy of the Northern Neck and the Republican Party of Virginia.