The Southern Mojave
Wind lifts sand off the ground
Filling the air with grit
It is one hundred and fifteen degrees at noon. Leave the car windows open a crack, the air inside; expanding in the heat, will blow them out.
California Highway 62 climbs, and winds its way up, North onto the plateau above Palm Springs, East past the towns of; Yucca Valley, Joshua Tree, and Twenty-nine Palms, stay on the highway and cross the Colorado River to Arizona, Head North at Twenty-nine Palms, on Goodwin Road, drive through Rainbow Valley, come to Old Amboy; smack in the middle of the great salt flats.
Amboy is where the Manson Family was apprehended, halfway between Las Vegas and the City of Angels, in Death Valley.
Robert Plant wrote a love song about this desert place. I have distilled his lyrics to this essence.
Love’s fool, desperate
Velvet kiss, a touch of fire
Crazy, cold smile; you
The radio voice
Takes me down, a road to you
In Twenty-nine Palms
Feel the heat of you
Your desert heart; cold and dust
Desolate, a fool
I have met many people who say that they are enamored of the desert. The desert is beautiful, so beautiful; I have heard it said. I wonder how many of those people have ever lived in one for any length of time, or if they were just passing through.
There are many types of desert landscapes. I have driven through some, but I have only dwelt in one. The California desert, the Southern Mojave Desert, Death Valley’s desert.
It was hot and dirty, which may be desirable in a lover, but is ugly in a home.
The desert does have its places, its moments, its oasis, its times of year. There is spring in the desert, which in California means February, when the sun is not as hot, and the dew is let to linger in the low and shaded places, in the ravines that make up the toes of hills, at the feet of mountains, in the crevices that comb moisture from the east flowing winds.
The Desert may be lovely in the spring, when those desert places green, and the springs beneath the sand, bubble up and stream, making it lush; pushing out from those dry gardens; a moment in March, and then retreating under the summer sun, evaporating in the desert air.
An oasis is a cathedral
Where a choir of living beings
Congregates, and sings
And that is a beautiful
Though a brief, and a fragile thing
There are two times every day when I see the beauty of the whole desert; in the rising and the setting of the sun, when the angle of the sun’s light is just so; that the subtle pastels, hidden in the sand, reveal themselves, when the rock faces of the mountains blush, in the softest pinks, and they are brushed with rusty reds, and muted orange.
I am enamored of the desert then, the desert beautiful, so beautiful; at dusk and dawn.
T. E. Lawrence was a lover of the desert. He travelled through many types of desert terrain, slept in them, fought in them, spilt his blood, and the blood of others in those sands. Of his time there he said: “We lived with one another in the naked desert, under the indifferent heaven. By day the hot sun fermented us; and we were dizzied by the beating wind. At night we were stained by dew and shamed into pettiness by the innumerable silences of stars.”
At Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Station Twenty-nine Palms, in California; I lived at the Northeastern end of the compound. I say compound, not base, because the base itself is vast; encompassing an area that is hundreds of square miles; mile upon mile of deep desert.
The compound is where the headquarters was located, the barracks, the training centers, housing for families, the chapel, the hospital (where I worked), the PX, the commissary, a lake; if you can call it that, we did; we called it Lake Gambini, where waste water was processed and reclaimed, and from which the smell of shit drifted out over, and clung to everything.
The compound was built along the slope of a hill. From the parking lot of my barracks; looking South and West, I could see the whole thing. From there, just a few hundred yards behind me; North and East, at the crest of the hill; there is a rock formation about a hundred feet high, with open crevices, which I could thread through to the other side, to the calm serene quiet, of the dessert. There are no roads in that direction, or buildings, or anything other than shrubs and sand, rocks and heat, jackrabbits thumping out-toward nowhere.
The emptiness of the desert
As substantive as a wall
As ephemeral as the air