Or, perhaps: The Mojave Desert spit him out, and the Pacific Ocean swallowed him, half-chewed
I used to hate the desert. Growing up in Southern California, close enough to the beach to bike the few miles there just because, the desert seemed so dead, alien. Granted, suburban Southern California is indeed a desert, though an irrigated one. The desert was always something to be travelled through to get to the rest of North America, on the way to vacation spots that were always east or north from us. (Yes, we take vacations here in SoCal, away from Disneyland, away from the miles of soft sand beaches.)
The desert was always hot, barren, and disconcertingly alien. Incomprehensibly vast. Lifeless. Only really seeing it from the tarmac of roadsides and countless gas stations, seemingly littered with broken glass and trash. It made me nervous and irritated to have to stop anywhere out there and confront this vastness. In retrospect, I know it made me feel naked and exposed not only to the geographic vastness and harshness of the desert, but to the vastness of the open sky, and most importantly, naked to myself.
Between here and there I learned to love the desert. Not merely appreciate it or grasp at its profoundness, but actively love and care for it as though it was an extension of myself, to love it unconditionally as though it were the most intimate of lovers.
That turning point likely came during my first few desert parties, shortly after new laws, and more agressive policing, forced all of us warehouse rats out of the city for making too much noise. Too much noise. In Los Angeles. Next to the train yards in the abandoned warehouse districts. That must be quite a lot of noise.
At first glance, these desert parties were ostensibly little more than an old school ghetto-ass warehouse rave without the ghetto or the warehouse, but I knew better. There was something different going on there, an organically developing peace and feelings of brotherly love more intimate and free-flowing than even in the good-vibe orgies we had back in the day. But more than that, there was just something silly about the whole thing. Keep in mind, this was still several years before the word "rave" - as defined as a conflagration of young, sweaty people on drugs - had reached the mainstream vocabulary. We hated the term rave, anyway. It was all different back then. We honestly thought we could dance ourselves towards change and utopia.
My first such desert gathering was just a few dozen hardy souls out on the crackled alkali flat of a smaller dry lakebed under a moonless, darkened sky dancing in sixty to seventy mile an hour, forty-degree winds. Winds so fierce they had to move the DJ and turntables inside of a van, not only because the tone arms of the turntables would blow across the records, but because the records wouldn't stay on the turntables. More than a few dozen times, the winds rocked the van hard enough to cause the records to skip on the turntables. You could occasionally hear the DJ cursing and laughing at the struggle. The small audience, patient and understanding, laughed along. No rock stars out here, just people.
That morning just before dawn, I fell in love with the desert. As the sky brightened slowly from pitch black, to grey-purple on the eastern horizon, the fantastic landscape around us came to view. People in thick jackets and monkishly wide pants dotted the far edge of our little otherworldy lakebed, carrying trashbags miles away to pick up whatever foreign object they found blown there, whether it was ours or not. You could see them walking slowly, alone or in small groups, always stopping and looking around at the fantastic horizons, watching the ever-changing sky, bending now and then to pick up some stray shard of sand-blasted glass or a cigarette butt.
I'll never forget that sunrise, how its first light gilded the tips of surrounding peaks in star shine, before creeping its way visibily toward us with its warmth. I distinctly recall realizing then for the first time why so many cultures throughout history worshipped the sun in so many ways. There lies life - and out there in the desert, death as well - all in one neatly tied, unobservable, omnipresent package.
At the very next gathering, I fell in love all over again. This one was a month or two later, in the very beginning of spring, not too hot, not too cold. This location was much farther north than the first one in the lakebed by several hundred miles, near a place called Jawbone Canyon, not too far outside of the tiny town of Inyokern. Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks were just a short flight of the crow over the jagged peaks of the Sierra Nevada to the north, with Yosemite not far behind. Mount Whitney was less than one hundred miles to the northeast, with the bulk of Death Valley to the east and northeast.
We were at the northern limits of the Mojave Desert proper, and if there is one singular thing the Mojave is, it is rugged. Rugged, as in it will chew your favorite pair of boots to tatters. Rugged, as in, people die out there. Sometimes. Not so often any more, but people did indeed die for silly, seemingly inconsequential mistakes, like miscalculating how much water to bring, or zigging when they should have zagged. Even with the rapidly growing resident human population, even with the utility of radios and cellular phones, it is incredibly foolhardy to try something like hiking across Death Valley entirely under your own power. You simply cannot carry enough water to survive, not without the aid of a cart or a mule. Or a truck or jeep. The Mojave Desert is the starkest, most forbidding and even lethal place I've ever been - though I haven't been to the Sahara, or the Gobi - but the Mojave is also one of the most beautiful places I've been.
Granted, we were all there as tourists. We were there to take it easy, soak up the sun, and enjoy the luxury of dozens of gallons of water brought in by vehicle, to enjoy the safety of large numbers of people together. The noise of the generator and sound system making it easy to wander about and not get lost, always providing a central focus to any meandering walk through the desert.
That northern part of the Mojave always has and always will give me the impression that it was once blasted into a sea of glass by something like nuclear weapons a few hundred-thousand years ago. Everywhere else the Mojave stands up in jagged displays of plate tectonics, sharp rocks and peaks dividing vast, country-sized barren valleys as far as the eye can see. There in the north, everything - except for the foothills and the Sierras themselves - has a soft, rounded quality to it, like someone draped a velour blanket over everything.
It was there that I first saw with my own eyes the teeming life of the Mojave. Creosote bushes blooming with fresh greenery. Tiny hopping birds and rodents. Snakes warming up to the sun and coming out of their burrows. And everywhere, everywhere a profusion of countless kinds of tiny wildflowers and blades of grass. When viewed at distance, the desert was blanketed in green, obscuring the salty sand beneath. Everything was a bright green velvet, with the bluest sky, the purest white thunderheads looming above.
It was here that I learned to walk flat-footed, to not dig with my heel, or with the ball of the foot, and step gently, so as to not disturb the incredibly fragile layer of topsoil that could be measured in millimeters. To step around the smallest blades of grass, to avoid snagging clothing on the brittle creosote bush. Looking around, I noticed I wasn't alone, as people would stick to established roadways or footpaths wherever possible, gingerly stepping around tiny sprouting jimson weed. These supposedly nihilistic, selfish 'ravers', unconscious to anything except their overwhelming need for drugs and annoying, trance-inducing music. Stepping lightly around tiny little flowers no bigger than your pinky fingernail, eyes glowing in wonder, even with love for the world around them. Who does that anymore?
Though to be fair, every step in the desert alters it. You learn this, and feel guilty about it, but learn to accept it, and make sure you soak up and enjoy every moment of beauty that you can. Because it costs.
These little sojourns to the desert would leave me with ever-increasing afterglows of peace and calm, with the desert becoming less surreal and the sheer insanity of Los Angeles becoming increasingly more surreal with every visit. As we would plunge head-long back into the concrete madness of the city, I could always feel the desert slipping away and find myself growing more and more tense.
One year, I took the opportunity to house sit for a friend while he went to Europe for two weeks over Christmas and New Years. His house wasn't too far from that first lakebed I danced in, a simple three bedroom prefab on a concrete pad surrounded by a small rectangle of about four acres inside an eight foot chain link fence. Everyone has a fence like that out there, unless you were poor, or crazy, or liked having wild dogs and coyotes eating your pets and your trash. You couldn't throw a rock far enough to hit the nearest neighbor. The nearest grocery store was more than thirty miles of washboard-textured sand and gravel road.
The night before his departure, a windstorm kicked up, easily blowing gusts up to eighty miles an hour. It sounded like someone had a jet engine aimed at the house. This can be easily misconstrued as a metaphor or embellishment. It quite literally sounded like being in the jetwash of some gigantic turbofan, a screeching, house rattling basso-profundo.
We woke up to a darkened house. Having no electricity out there is a bad thing, because the pump for the well - our only source of water - was electric.
Somehow as we slept the winds had picked up an eighteen-foot wide trampoline that was anchored into the ground with rebar and concrete and pitched it over a ten foot tall chain link fence. Shortly after it was airborne, the trampoline tore out the main electrical connection and mast to the house, nearly toppling the pole it was attached to out on the road. To make things more interesting, the trampoline had landed on edge and rolled at what must have been terrific speed - propelled by the winds - and flattened a sixty foot long section of our perimeter fence. I eventually followed the giant unicycle track across the desert for over ten miles. Every so often, the track would end at some flattened bush or bump - the trampoline becoming airborne - and I would pick it up again forty or fifty feet later where it would dig a smoking furrow on impact, leaving a handful of foot-long steel springs.
I never found the trampoline. I fervently hope it didn't hit anything. It probably was capable of cutting a wood framed house in half at the velocity it was going. It certainly damaged our house before it gained any real speed.
Regardless of this complication, my friend had to catch his flight. He left me with a couple of signed, blank checks to pay the electrician and fence repairman, and a phone book.
Because of the backlog of repair work, it took two days for an electrician to come out and replace the mast and wiring for the house. The fence I ended up repairing myself, using leverage to bend everything else back to a usable condition. Getting Southern California Edison to come out was another story. Needless to say, they were incredibly busy all over the region, and pushing back non-emergency work as far as they could. By emergency, I'm assuming they meant things on fire or in danger of exploding and killing people. All I knew is that I was stuck out in the middle of nowhere without water or transportation. Luckily, the phone still worked.
On day four, I was out of the bottled water, and began rationing drinking water from the storage tanks of the toilets for myself and the dogs and cats. The toilet water was indeed arguably fresher than the rusty, sediment laden water that came out of the drainage port on the ancient hot water heater. Day six was Christmas day, and it snowed. Just a little. It might be the best Christmas present I have ever received.
As my cat inspected the white stuff with a great deal of curiosity and caution, I went out and collected all the fresh snow I could from every available grit-free surface before it melted. The hoods of the broken down cars, the clean spots of the concrete around the house, the tops of the fences and patio furniture. I brought it all in to the kitchen, three five-gallon pails worth, melted it down, filtered the grit out with a coffee filter, and boiled it soundly, putting some of it out to cool in a sealed bottle. The dogs, luckily, took to eating the snow, so I was able to cut back their ration just a little.
Edison finally made it to our area in the evening the day after Christmas. They installed a new pole, fuses for the pole, and re-connected the house to the grid. (Complaining, of course, about the work of the contract electricians.) After I reprimed the well, and waited for it to build a head, I watered everything, and took a two hour long, scalding hot shower.
A year or two later, I end up moving out there to stay for awhile. There were too many of us in that house at that point, and I ended up moving into one of the disused trailers on the property for space and privacy. I quickly learned that scorpions, sun spiders, and vinegaroons were quite capable of climbing or leaping into the trailer, and that I should always inspect my bedding and surroundings before becoming too comfortable.
It was here that I learned that the nervous, anxious feeling that I had out in the desert wasn't caused by the presence of something, but rather the absence of something. I learned that it took almost a month to burn off, and once it was gone, I felt more normal than I have ever been in my entire life. Calm, peaceful, unhurried. You could count the number of cars that drove past our driveway in a week on one hand. I learned that one-hundred-and-twenty degrees farenheit in almost zero humidity was much nicer than eighty degrees at ninety percent humidity. I learned that parts of the Mojave can exceed one hundred and thirty degrees at ten o'clock at night. I learned to ration and value water, and that no matter how much you drink, the desert always turns you into a dry, scaly lizard that sleeps in the shade by day and dances at night.
To escape the logistical problems and politics of a dozen people living in a three bedroom house, I began to take treks out across the desert. Sometimes in towards town, or sometimes out, towards the alluvial flats and foothills of the Sierras. Sometimes just meandering. Occasionally in my walks through the scrub and creosote I would stumble across debris from military aircraft that had augered in, or strange bones, or mounds of inexplicable trash, miles from anywhere at all.
I formulated a theory, out there, that the reason most people felt extremely uneasy in the deep desert is that there is absolutely nothing on the human scale in the Mojave. Except for, perhaps, for the endless Joshua trees, which look disconcertingly humanoid in the pale moonlight. Everything is either incredibly small, or so vastly huge it defies description.
I learned that late winter and early spring are the best times to camp in the desert. Not only was the summer too hot, but by the end of spring, everything came back to life. Biting flies, scorpions, snakes, you name it. I took advantage of the calm months to sleep under the stars. There's nothing like sleeping completely naked under a stark, moonlit sky with little more than a sleeping bag or blanket between you and the earth, letting warm breezes drift over you in dreamy sleep, without a care in the world.
Except one time.
I must have been drinking, or really tired or something. I think I was drinking. I hiked a whole bunch, and wandered around making with the Hunter S. Thompson impressions, swearing at Yucca plants and otherwise arguing with myself. Eventually, I made my way back to my bedroll and passed out cold. I know this sounds like foolhardy behavior, and it is, but it is not that bad. I was acclimated to the desert, I was out when the truly dangerous fauna was at its least active, and so forth. I was also not more than a half a mile from the house, and could have dragged myself there with one arm, if need be.
Sometime, several hours before dawn, I awoke to dogs licking me. Lots of stinky, stinky dogs. I wasn't sleeping au natural this time, but they were incessently licking my face and feet, and I remember being annoyed by it. I remember thinking that it was the dogs from the house that would frequently follow me out on my journeys to spoil the peace and chase rabbits all over the place. These dogs were part coyote, part lab, part German Shepard, and all mutt. I also remember distinctly thinking there's too many damn dogs as we only had three, and really, only two would ever follow me.
Unless you haven't gathered this already, I can be an incredibly deep sleeper. I sleep through earthquakes, fires, and stuff blowing up. The most I probably did during this licking-stinky-dog encounter was grumble, and try to wave them off. I remember slapping a few dogs in the face and sort of pushing them away. I also remember that they all seemed to sort of settle down after awhile, and that I had a pile of dogs leaning against me in my sleep. Lots, and lots of dogs. Dozens of them.
The next morning I woke up when the sun got high enough to make laying exposed to its death-rays uncomfortable. The very first thing that I noticed was the absolutely fantastic stench of wild dog all over me. My hair stank of dog. My skin stank of dog. I can't even describe the smell of my sleeping bag. The next thing I noticed was that I was surrounded by hundreds of thousands of elongated, narrow paw prints, and that all of the tiny shoots of spring grass and wildflowers were matted down for about ten feet all around me.
Then I noticed the hair. Silver-grey dog hair everywhere. I was coated in it, as was my sleeping bag. There were shedded tufts of silvery winter coat dangling from branches. I stank of dog, I was hung over, approaching dehydration, and had fur all over everything.
When I started to put two and two together, and though I was invariably getting three, five, or sometimes even six out of it, it finally dawned on me that a small pack of coyotes had probably used me for a heat source or something, and decided to camp with me.
To this day, I don't really know. I've even had a dozen or so encounters with coyotes since then, just hiking about. They've never been afraid of me, and I've never been afraid of them. A couple of months ago I saw a incredibly beautiful mated pair as I was biking up in the hills above my house. At first I thought it was a dog being taken on a walk - it was that magic hour of twilight where everything grows fuzzy. I actually whistled to the smaller one I saw first, the girl, and she looked at me and practically did a coyote doubletake, for lack of a better way to describe it. And then she started towards me, like she was actually going to come on up for an ear scritch, and then did another doubletake like she couldn't believe what she almost did. I didn't even think about the fact that she was, indeed, a coyote until that second doubletake. They very warily passed me up the trail into the brush, and they turned around and we regarded each other for some time, until it grew too dark.
It must not have taken much more than that to domesticate dogs. Some food to share, a warm place by the fire, and a healthy mutual respect for one another.
So, here's to you, coyote, canis latrans, trickster god of the deserts, and now practically everywhere else in North America. Here's to not trying to eat me that night out in the desert. May your pups grow up long and strong, and may your mice and rabbits always be plump.
May you gather freely to sing at all the future moons to come.
Iceowl's Adventure Quest