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October 14, 2021

A local writer delights in Southern Nevada's surprising bird diversity | How cowboy preacher Bo Lowe found his voice | Public lands agencies need to get up to speed on Spirit Mountain. Indigenous People are ready to help

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FOR HALF MY LIFE, I lived in the Southern Hemisphere, where the birdlife is so colorful, it’s dreamlike. I thought I’d miss the vibrance, settling in Las Vegas in 2012. Not so.

Swallows put on aerobatic performances in the wash near my condo. Anna’s Hummingbirds — often less than three inches high and able to navigate 30-mph winds — join me for coffee on my balcony.

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I’m amused by families of Gambel’s Quail, soothed by the cooing of mourning doves, the cheerful newscasts of Northern mockingbirds, and the percussive bell-tones of Western meadowlarks. I’m outright moved by the eccentric individuality of a female short-eared owl, who makes a regular spring appearance, taking up residence in a large pine nearby.

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I especially admire Northern flickers (a type of woodpecker), Harriers, and Cooper’s Hawks, and the many smaller falcons in the Valley of Fire. I’ve seen the Nevada state bird (the mountain bluebird, by the way) on several occasions on Mt. Charleston, along with golden eagles at Red Rock. On Mt. Potosi, visiting the site where Carole Lombard, movie queen and wife of Clark Gable, fatally crashed in a plane in 1942, I glimpsed a California condor. Thrilling.

The Las Vegas Valley contains a surprisingly rich and diverse bird population. We have sparrows, starlings, warblers, robins, goldfinches, grackles, ravens, crows, swifts, kingfishers, wrens, titmice … the list happily goes on. I’ve seen osprey and turkey vultures over the Colorado and Lake Mead. I enjoy the mallards, coots, grebes, and geese (including a large seasonal congregation of Canada geese) at Cornerstone Park in Henderson. The Clark County Wetlands Park is a tremendous place for birdwatching any time after a rain. I’ve observed great blue heron, egrets, and white-faced ibis there. Some other fine locations for birding include Lake Las Vegas, Sloan Canyon National Conservation Area, White Owl Trail, and Hot Springs Trail.

What do we see when we birdwatch? I step back into the minds of the great 19th century naturalists like Humboldt, Gould, Audubon, Darwin, and Wallace. We’re encouraged today to “follow the science.” Well, it helps to participate in science, if only in humble amateur terms. Theoretical physics is heavy math. But we can, as Wordsworth said, “see into the life of things” in simpler ways just hiking around — and we can understand our human cultural centers in the broader terms of geological, meteorological, and biological regions. More importantly, we can make direct contact with a deep truth. All we have to go on with any creature is behavior. That is a wild idea, which is easily forgotten. I think of that female short-eared owl who visits once a year. She heads out in a long curve toward the blinking antennae of Black Mountain — but upon return, she brings it in hard and steep. I see an individual. Not a specimen. What price do you put on that insight?

Such is the fascination of birdwatching. On my last visit to Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge, just 90 miles north of Las Vegas, I watched marsh harrier eggs hatch on the edge of a giant thunderstorm. I didn't care how wet I got. I just sat outside in the rain.


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IN EARLY 2020, a coalition of environmental, recreational, and tribal advocates launched a formal pursuit of national monument status for some 380,000 acres around what’s known in English as Spirit Mountain. They founded a nonprofit called Honor Avi Kwa Ame, using the Yuman-language name for the mountain. The area has far-reaching value, not just to those who would like to protect desert bighorn habitat, prime OHV trails, and sacred Indigenous sites, but also to solar and wind-power developers. National monument status, the nonprofit believes, would stave off this development.

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To help the effort, the Conservation Lands Foundation recently sponsored the creation of an Indigenous story map of the area. Linda Otero, a cultural ambassador for the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe, gave Desert Companion a taste of what these stories include — and what they’re for.

How involved was the tribe in in the creation of this interactive story map?
Our way of life is, you know, oral tradition, stories told, handed down from generation to generation, being connected to the land, the water, the places of our origins, especially that which is spirit mountain, Avi Kwa Ame. And the people that are part of this place of origin are all the other peoples along the river.

I think it would have been far more in-depth had we been able to do what we routinely do: gather all the other tribes together as well to be a part of it. It's a collective effort when that happens, but because of what we're going through with COVID and being safe for each other and respectful of each other, we (Fort Mojave) carried out what we needed to do from our end.

What does Avi Kwa Ame mean to the tribes along the lower Colorado River?
It's your birthright. It's a part of your existence. You were born into it.

I'm trying to watch what I reveal — because those are ancient teachings — and be respectful of the wisdom of all those from before us and also from the Creator that was put in place for us to learn.

The Mojave language is very descriptive, and you take it within the spirit of who you are. So, it's difficult to say, "This is how it is." Maybe there's not an English word that can convey it truly, but we do our best to let people know what's important to us, and how this is part of our lifeways.

I think what comes close to that is hearing some of the old people, when they were taught the Christian way of life; you know, doing good to others, living the way of the teachings in the Bible. It's almost in that same line of thought, in that same way of teaching. It's a respect.

Do you have a favorite story about Avi Kwa Ame that you can share without disrespecting your elders or the Creator?
The creation tells us, the peoples that were brought to Earth here were put in this place to learn. But they needed to put the plants in place, the animals in place, put the river for life, the mountains, all living things. And so, when we're here on Earth, we go back to those places to enrich our lives, to understand. And when we do, so much is revealed to us to make us whole, to connect us to our Creator. And so, that's a lifelong journey that's passed on from generation to generation, and those imprints are left in the land, on the rock, on carvings, our petroglyphs, or are told in a way that may not be directly physical, but in a spiritual sense in another dimension.

The area proposed for the national monument is quite vast. Is there one part of it that’s more special to you?
I was thinking about this driving to work. I see the mountain every day. Of all the people that were created from this mountain, the Mojave were the youngest, because the other tribes went south, east, and west to protect the greater areas that the creator made for us. And so, the Mojave stayed closest to the mountain, and that's why our role is to protect this mountain for all. And we get to see this mountain every day. From wherever we are within our valley here, you can see the mountain. And it just brings peace to your heart. So, a favorite place is just home.

There are aspects of the proposal that I imagine you would prefer weren’t included; for instance, some of the recreation. How do you balance the desire to conserve these areas with the desire to keep people away from sacred sites?
Ever since contact time in our area, we've seen changes occur, happening without our input. You see the rivers change, the dams put in place, energy development, spanning the whole landscape with transmission lines, pipelines with gas going from one state to the other, crossing the river.

Our role was always to protect this place that we call home as best we could, even before the opportunity to take land ownership. But that didn't happen. In the 1800s, military force came in and dictated who would be living where. And so that changed our valley forever.

But we knew our country, we knew our place here along the river, and that was important. And it still is. As time moves on, more changes happen throughout the region, industry still occurs, to provide for the future generations of those coming into our country, into the land. Those stories have not been told, but they need to be documented, to show what the history books have left out.

But our elders knew this wasn't going to stop, and they understood how it would impact our way of life. They learned enough to know that they needed to put it in writing in in tribal resolutions. So, they did.

What did those writings say?
I have a document in front of me from 1982. It has our marching orders to continue protecting these places, acknowledging that we need to work with the Department of Interior, Park Service, Fish and Wildlife, and the Bureau of Land Management to better manage these areas that they've inherited.

Their land management plans are somewhat antiquated, and they've not acknowledged the value of these places that are important to the Indigenous people along the river. We can help them. We need to help them; we need to bring them up to speed. As the language reads, these are “public lands” that we all learn from, tribal and non-tribal. They need to understand this in the way that the Indigenous people can teach them.

And do we find a balance in how we do that? Yes, we can. Protecting these places that are important to us, the Indigenous people, but also recognizing that there are places that non-Indigenous people want to visit and learn from, and recreate, too. There's places for that. We've dealt with that in the past as well. But we do it by finding balance.

Because otherwise, we see these changes that are that are occurring without that opportunity to bring that discussion to the table. Then we're trying, as people of the land, to bring back that balance. And it's a struggle. But when we do it together, and when we take that opportunity to, you know, face it together, sitting at the table discussing this, then we find our ways to do so. And we have respect for one another in that way.

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WINNEMUCCA — The minister has cowboy hands, palms rubbed raw by the lasso, knuckles bruised from horse kicks and angry bulls. They’re the hands of a man who in 68 years has known solitude, hard work, and his share of heartbreak. 

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At first glance, Bo Lowe seems more Black Bart than solemn Man of the Bible. He wears a buckeroo hat with its wide flattened brim, Western boots, black shirt and suspenders, a maroon wild rag around his neck. His face is ruddy and whiskered, his white mustache waxed on the ends like some barroom dandy.

All in all, he doesn’t say much, this sermon-giving man of the cloth whose words usually come painfully slow, if at all. He arrives early at the indoor rodeo arena here, his pickup truck pulling a trailer loaded with all the accoutrements necessary to perform his Sunday morning cowboy service before a rural flock — the wire-thin ranch hands, horse riders, and young women wearing cowboy hats and embroidered Levi jeans.

He produces his leatherbound book of scriptures and faith brochures, which are laid out on colorful Western blankets. He unpacks the speakers he sets up in one corner of the viewing stands. There are wires to run, sound checks to perform with his supporting cast and their acoustic guitars.

The men, Smokey and Blaine, show him deference, checking first with the boss before performing any set-up chore. They know time is tight: They must perform their service and break down their equipment before the first rodeo event starts at 9 a.m. sharp.

But there’s a problem. As the first of three-dozen service-goers fill the stands, the electrical system fails. The guitars cut in and out, the acoustics sputter. Even though the temperature outdoors is in the mid-30s, Lowe begins to sweat as the men fiddle with wires and knobs.

“Testing, testing,” Lowe says, as his voice finally projects into the stands. “Yep, she’s a workin’ now. We got her goin’ on.”

Then, finally, all is set. Lowe faces his audience and pauses. “That’s just way too much electronics for an old cowboy,” he says, drawing a laugh from the crowd.

For Lowe, the hours before each service are painfully the same. Even when the equipment works, there’s still a sense of stage fright punctuated by a nervousness and self-doubt that has in the past physically sickened him. You see, it’s just not in Lowe’s nature to do this kind of thing — facing the prolonged gaze of curious crowds who look to him for guidance and polish and wit, like some Nashville performer carrying a Bible instead of a bass guitar.

All across Nevada and the American West, cowboy ministers bring the word to rural folks on far-off ranches who might not otherwise get to church, outreaches with such  names as “Church in the Dirt,” “Steelin’ for Jesus” and “Clint Country Gospel.” But none have made a more pronounced transition than Lowe to come to their religious calling. Growing up in rural Idaho, unable to read or write, Lowe never made it past the 10th grade, a moody and mischievous youth who as a teenager set out for the rough and lonely life of a ranch hand buckeroo.

In those early days, he never said much around fellow cowboys, who joked that riding with Bo was liking riding alone. When he finally did talk, he drank and raised hell, womanized and danced on tables — living an unleashed life that today, frankly, causes Bo, a grandfather of 16, to redden in the face a bit.

“Bo is about as real as they get,” says friend and fellow preacher Blaine Lilly. “When he got saved, no one could believe it. He was rough and he was quiet. He could talk to a cow or a dog, but not a person. Bo rode alone, and that’s how he preferred it.”

That’s all changed. For nearly three decades, Lowe and his wife, Cathy, have preached the faith — “Outfitting People for Jesus” — through their  Morning Star Outfitters ministry, operated from a small ranch outside the town of Jackpot on the Nevada-Idaho border. They’ve conducted services in corrals, tents, school classrooms, campgrounds, meeting halls, bars, libraries, and ranch living rooms. They visit out-of-the-way places like Starr Valley or Duck Valley Indian Reservation near Owyhee. The couple reaches out to a chore-laden breed of Western men and women who might not otherwise have time for church, or who wouldn’t feel comfortable inside a town chapel with everyone wearing their Sunday best. Those who have heard Lowe preach know this: There are no $20 words spoken here, just a frank — and politically conservative — view of a life steeped in cowboy culture.

“Bo presents the word in a way that ranch people understand,” says Teola Blossom, a regular attendee who raises bucking horses with her husband, Wally. “His sermons relate to our animals and our lives. He taps into a reality that, unless you’re in this rural Western lifestyle, you’re not going to get.”

‘God said this and God said that’

Lowe was raised by his grandparents on a farm outside tiny Kuna, Idaho, a kid who rode horses and milked cows and acted up in school. It was easier to cause trouble than let his classmates find out he suffered from dyslexia and struggled to read and write. At 16, he left home to join a passing cattle drive and never went back. That impulse started his life on the road, working as a buckaroo at ranches across the West, years punctuated by a brief stint in the Army. He was married by age 17 and, after having five kids, endured a painful divorce. Always independent, Bo went back on the road, on the lookout for the latest job notice, his next cattle drive. All that changed in 1985 when Lowe, then in his early 30s, took a job on a ranch in rural Oregon. That’s where he met Cathy, the woman he would later marry, who was then in charge of the horse program.

An artistic woman who writes and photographs, Cathy needed help tending to a colt with an eye problem. Rather than a veterinarian, the cow boss sent her Lowe. She immediately took to this quiet man with a feel for animals. A year later, the couple married, but Lowe soon left Cathy behind in Idaho for more adventure as a buckeroo. Later, working as a bouncer in a Jackpot casino, Lowe felt his life had hit bottom.

“I was in self-destruct mode and I remember saying, ‘Lord, if you’re real, I’ll serve you. If not, let me go about my way.’” Lowe recalled that he soon got his answer: On a trip home to Idaho, he ran into Cathy after a three-year separation, and they got back together. The couple moved to Jackpot and soon began hosting a Bible study group at their house. But there was something about religion Lowe couldn’t figure out.

“I noticed the way other Christians talked to God. You know, ‘God said this and God said that,’” he says. “As a new believer, I didn’t understand. I took things so literally. When I opened the Bible, God didn’t talk to me.” One day, he sat in a recliner inside his house and vowed not to move until God spoke to him. “I was so wanting answers, I wanted him to speak to me,” Lowe says. “Of course, he didn’t. And it broke my heart.”

Then in the summer of 1992, Lowe was driving on a dirt road, delivering salt blocks for livestock when tears welled. “I was bawling my eyes out,” he says. “I had to pull over.” He resolved to take his Bible from the dashboard and read aloud the first words he saw, which happened to be Psalm 32: “I will lead you and guide you. I'll watch over you. Do not be like the horse or the mule that have no understanding.” The words, he recalls, seemed to lift off the page.

That started it. He soon enrolled in Rhema Bible Training College, just outside Tulsa, Oklahoma. He and Cathy arrived with a wall tent at the decidedly staid 80-acre suburban campus. Lowe even brought his horse to ride to class. “That Bible school didn’t know what hit ‘em,” fellow preacher Lilly says. “Here was a real buckeroo who’d come to the Lord.”

Bo and Cathy eventually moved into a fifth-wheel trailer, and their evening campfires became popular among fellow students. It wasn’t long before Lowe was making progress with his studies. But he was still dealing with his fear of public speaking. Soon after graduation, Lowe was participating in a buckeroo cow camp when the lead pastor had a surprise: He’d scheduled Lowe to give the sermon that day before hundreds of people. “It panicked me something horrible,” he says.

He picked up a few notes and went to the chapel. Removing his hat as he walked in, Cathy’s 14-year-daughter, Shawna, whispered, “Dad, your hair!”

Lowe walked to the pulpit and addressed the crowd. “If I’d have known so many people were coming,” he said, “I would’ve combed my hair!” Folks laughed, but stage fright would stay with Lowe for decades. “I learned early on that I’d be scared spitless when I had to minister,” he says. “I’d get a belly ache and start to sweat and I’d have to go to the bathroom. But once I’m at the pulpit God takes over. I just have to get there.”

Even with a degree in Bible studies, Lowe wondered about the future. He resisted going back to Nevada, “where people knew me.” He also didn’t know if he could actually preach, preferring to just go back to being a cowboy, answering questions from other ranch hands about the word of God. But Oklahoma pastor Ken Stewart convinced Lowe to incorporate a new church and go back to where he came from. “The cowboy community is quite unique in the way they dress and think, who they respect, and that respect is very limited,” Stewart says. “They won’t listen to just anybody, but I knew they’d listen to Bo.”

For 27 years, the Lowes have taken the word across rural Nevada and the West. As cowboys looked on, they ministered to cows in difficult labor and once to a blind sheep named Priscilla. They learned to start their services later in the morning so ranch hands had time to feed the animals and finish their chores.

Lowe made changes in his life and he made them stick. “People see the dramatic changes Bo has made, from the man he used to be,” Stewart says. “Some people correct their lives and it doesn’t last. But after all these years, Bo’s faith just gets stronger and stronger and people see that.”

Still, Lowe knows his limitations. He doesn’t feel qualified to play the role of priest or pastor, relying on psychological training to counsel people through their problems. He sees himself as a simple minister, bringing the good word to those who want to listen.

“I always tell people, ‘I’m not a pastor. I’m all you have till one gets here,” he says. “But it doesn’t look like anybody is coming.”

‘Down to a cowboy level’

Inside the Winnemucca rodeo arena, Lowe is wrapping up his sermon as the first cowboys ride their horses around the dirt circle behind him. Mares whinny and livestock lows, but the minister ignores it all. Lowe didn’t sleep much the night before, fretting about his sermon and his fears. He rarely smiles because he’s missing a few front teeth, and dental work is just too expensive on a ranch budget. But once he begins, the small congregation is rapt.

“He’s as good as any TV preacher I’ve seen,” says local resident Missy Luellen. “He’s been a ranch buckeroo his whole life and he brings things down to a cowboy level.”

Lowe and his backup band play several Waylon Jennings songs, with the lyrics slightly adjusted to suit their needs: “There’s no end to what he’d do, just because you ask him to.”

In his wide-ranging sermon, Lowe tells a tale of a cowboy reluctant to risk ruining his expensive boots in order to jump into a muddy tank and bring water to thirsty livestock. He advises his listeners to “cull the sacred cows” in their lives. “We don’t need to wallow in the mud where we’re at.” He pauses. “Can I get an amen?”

“I know,” Lowe continues, “because God is pointing out things I need to turn loose of.” He’s referring to troubles that have convinced him to change his life. This year,  Cathy was diagnosed with lymphoma. Then Lowe lost his adult son, Chip, to brain cancer.

He knows time is fleeting and is considering doing less ranching on his spread near the Idaho border so the couple can take their ministry on the road full-time. “Right now, I’m tied down to the ranch and the cows,” he says. “I need to lighten my load.”

For now, though, the cowboy minister administers to his flock whenever he can. At 9 a.m. inside the arena, Lowe tries to bring his cowboy service to an end. “Well,” he says, “we’re running out of time.”

But the congregation isn’t ready. They want more. More of Lowe. More of the Word. A man calls out from the bleachers: “No, let’s keep going till they kick us out.”

And with that, the minister smiles.


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Photos and art: Birdwatching: Christopher Smith; Bo Lowe: John Glionna; Linda Otero: Global Eyes Media

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