National Geographic : 1994 Feb
FEDERAL LANDS LOSING GROUND IN IN A FRESHLY MOWED FIELD just outside Salmon, Idaho, the old machinery was lined up for auction: a 1951 John Deere B, a battered Massey-Ferguson mower with no rear wheels, tractors with their backs broken and their guts spread out in heaps of rusting junk-which the auction crowd roundly disparaged and yet also cov eted, at the right price (or somewhat less). Beyond the hayfields the federal rangelands and national forests began, and the Bitterroot Range reared up in a jagged gray line. "To the tourist it'p quite a scenic area," an old rancher named Clements said, and then dismissed the idea with a wave. "To me these are all just damned mountains." But those machines were like living things: "What's the matter with that hind leg? Is it just the brake?" said a bidder in a greasy cow boy hat, eyeing a frozen axle. "There ain't no arms on this one," said another. Their interest extended only so far as ingenuity could make this equipment work again in the traditional western industries of ranching, logging, and mining. They were not collecting Americana. "All right, boys, here we go," the auction eer sang, "we got four of these. Will you give $35, will you give $35, can you give? 35-35 35?" He was trafficking in the worldly goods of a local mechanic, lately deceased. Clements recalled the time when the shaft cracked on his 50-year-old Massey and the mechanic poked around in these weeds, came up with a replacement part, and got him back to work. The dead man would be missed in a working town like Salmon. Not that sentiment added a dime to the day's bidding. "Just stop and think fellas," the auctioneer was pleading, RICHARD CONNIFF has written about Chicago, Easter Island, and California's water crisis for NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC. JOEL SARTORE, formerly of the WichitaEagle in Kansas, contributed photo graphs to the recent story on Hurricane Andrew and the coverage of Connecticut in this issue.