Get local news delivered straight to your phone
Anne Meadows has been living with Butch and Sundance for far too long. You might say they’ve gotten into her bones, except that the reverse is true. As she explains in Digging Up Butch and Sundance, Meadows and husband Dan Buck capped a progressively more intense interest in South America by undertaking a five-year search that led to remote graves containing the remains of Robert Leroy Parker and Harry A. Longabaugh, better known as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Digging Up is the tale of how Meadows and Buck reached not only a small-town cemetery in remote southwestern Bolivia, but the conclusion that they were exhuming the correct skeletons. Like any trip worth taking, it follows an indirect, sometimes irritatingly oblique, but ultimately satisfying route. There are many side-tours of little-traveled arroyos and ravines, as well as vivid sketches of the difficulty of life in the unsettled regions below the equator.
Meadows, 46, is a classic grafted Washingtonian. A Navy man’s daughter, she was born in Annapolis and raised in Kentucky. Leaving Lexington as soon as she was able, she enrolled in and dropped out of Michigan State University, then married a Michigander with a yellow 1952 Chevrolet panel truck that held up for the duration of a jaunt around the Pacific Northwest—held up better than the marriage did, in fact. A divorced and academically chastened Meadows completed a bachelor’s degree in social work at the University of Kentucky, then a law degree at Antioch Law School in D.C.
Shortly before graduating from Antioch, Meadows secured a Capitol Hill internship where she met Dan Buck, a Schroeder staffer and country music fan who’d spent his Peace Corps tour in Peru—all three attributes that counted with Meadows. They fell to talking, fell in love, fell into cohabitation. In 1979, they fell into wedlock, after renovating a Capitol Hill row house and spending a year in South America courtesy of the resulting refinance.
Meadows, who has cousins in Argentina, had long wanted to see the places Buck had seen while in the Peace Corps, and he wasn’t averse to re-seeing them. With the house cash, they traversed the other America from top to bottom, eventually reaching Tierra del Fuego in a hegira involving trips by bus, train, canoe, tractor, foot, boat, and very occasionally plane.
In June 1979, suffering from a bad case of culture shock, Meadows returned to work at the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, where she oversaw the writing of reports. When a contractor didn’t deliver as ordered, a deadline-harried Meadows did the editing, and enjoyed the process. Her bosses liked the results, and channeled more rewrites her way. “Editing is like doing crossword puzzles or playing Scrabble,” she says. “It is a game.”
Preferring wordsmithing to lawyering, Meadows throttled back at the commission and began free-lancing as an editor and rewriter for such clients as Congressional Quarterly and National Geographic. Between trips to South America, she shook the kinks out of essays and articles, then moved into book doctoring. This curious specialty’s practitioners operate in the shadows of publishing, performing surgery on the work of authors with contracts but without acceptable manuscripts.
Support City Paper!
Meadows’ first patient was In Broad Daylight, Harry McLean’s tale of a Missouri bully offed by irate townspeople. The book won an Edgar, sold big in paperback, and became a made-for-TV movie starring Brian Dennehy in an early sample of what has become a string of roles as a grinning heavy. Literary agents with clients in distress began to page Dr. Meadows.
“Book doctoring can be fun,” Meadows says dryly, acknowledging that the fun can be hard to find in an assignment like her revision of Anastasia: The Lost Princess, a popular work by the late James Blair Lovell. Anastasia came to Meadows 10 rock-around-the-clock days before it was due at the printer.
Like writing, rewriting frequently invokes the pleasure paradox. “The more interesting the work, the less I get paid,” Meadows says, who quit her government job in 1983 and has free-lanced full-time since. “But if the assignment is boring, they pay through the nose. I do whatever comes along, or I feel like doing.”
What Meadows and Buck felt like doing in 1991 was to write a solemn university-press-style history of the South American adventures of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the train-robbing team made famous by the 1969 film starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford.
Beginning in 1985, Meadows and Buck had begun to focus their trips on the last years of the outlaws, who came to South America in 1901, living there for seven years before dying in a shootout with authorities. Meadows and Buck eventually traced the two to San Vicente, Bolivia, joining a team of archaeologists to unearth the bad men’s bones. Though the sleuthing required for that discovery was chronicled in a public television documentary, Meadows and Buck were convinced a written history was in order. But publishers demanded a more personal narrative, punctuated with all the teeth-clenched, skull-busting anecdotes that adventuring writers tell over drinks if they survive their research. So Meadows recast the proposal, salting it with clenched teeth and busted skulls. St. Martin’s Press bought, and the book doctor’s season in hell began.
The problems were not with the writing; a firm believer in outlines, Meadows had spent three months organizing her notes and arranging a structure in which to work before she dove into a year of writing days that began when she awoke and ended when she was too exhausted to hit the keyboard. “I loved writing the book,” she says. “I got to relive the adventures with the benefit of hindsight. I didn’t have to freeze to death to experience the emotions.”
The difficulties that dogged Meadows like a pack of Pinkertons chasing Butch and Sundance were the publishing-industry glitches alien to readers but teeth-gnashingly familiar to authors: Artwork and captions were shuffled into incomprehensibility; the book’s editors left St. Martin’s; the printer was sent an uncorrected set of page proofs from which to make camera-ready copy; the finished book, complete with 200 typographical errors, appeared the week of the Nicole Simpson murder.
Still, there have been satisfactions, albeit unexpected. For someone steeping herself in a transcontinental epic of violence and death, Meadows had been something of a thanatophobe—a condition she has left behind.
“When we first started going into cemeteries, I felt like an intruder,” she says. “As I contemplated actually digging up the outlaws’ bones, it gave me the creeps.”
Raised in a family where cremation has been the traditional means of body disposal, Meadows fantasized that her mate, who terms himself a “retired Catholic,” might revert to his tribal imperative and refuse to put her corpse to the flame. “I feared he would bury me instead,” she says, recalling how she shuddered at the thought of being worm food. “I don’t even like wilted lettuce.”
However, surrounded by the quotidian dying done by the animals on South America’s plains and highways and enmeshed in the job of disinterring the two most famous members of the Wild Bunch (who were identified partly through their gold teeth), Meadows came to terms with the body’s fleeting fight against decay, and embraced the message conveyed by bone powder and dust.
“Now, having seen what is left after the rot finishes, I don’t want to be embalmed,” she says. “I like the idea of thousands of dollars worth of dental work lying in the ground. Your remains say something to someone trying to recognize what they are.”