Springtime in Desert Solitude

Greetings friends and family,

This edition of the newsletter is all California, all desert. I’ve been reading the foundational desert rat text Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey, who says everything I want to say about the desert but with more beauty and grace, so I recommend everyone abandon this email and check that book out from the library. If the hold list is too long, I suppose you can carry on reading.

I entered California through Yuma, which a billboard proclaims “The Sunniest Town in America.” As usual, I sped on through the populated parts, which consisted entirely of big-box strip malls and RV parks for the 55+ demographic. I can’t imagine the lifestyle these people lead, particularly those who don’t have the physique or fitness to enjoy exploring the land on foot. Your neighbour is about a yard away on either side, and you’re parked in a hot asphalt lot, watching satellite TV and scolding your yappy dog. It’s a kind of funhouse mirror image of the life I’m currently leading, and one that I dread. These people are in paradise, and they don’t even drive past the city limits to appreciate it! I have a fear of stagnation, of forgetting to be grateful for the places I’m visiting – at least this fear keeps me active, and gets me out of the van even when I just want to sink into the couch cushions. Anything to avoid being an RV-bound snowbird, spending their retirement waiting to die in the desert.

Desert sunsets

The sand dunes north-west of Yuma are a true desert – miles and miles of undulating dunes, with no vegetation in sight. The sort of place you want to run rampant all over, leaving footprints in the virgin sand. Unfortunately, it’s also a heavily used ATV/OHV/dirt-bike area, and the roaring drone of their engines is inescapable. To beat the heat, they ride late into the night and wake well before sunrise to rip up and down the dunes. I spent a night camped at an OHV area, arriving midday to hear my neighbour, drinking what was obviously not his first Natty Light of the day, warning his friend: “Careful of the rangers – they’ll be sure to give you a DUI.” Said friend then took the dune buggy out for a spin, and returned an hour later with sand in his ears, having cartwheeled it three times. “Dude, I guess I didn’t have the strap on, so my helmet went flying,” he told his friends, with a kind of morbid pride. “I definitely could have died!” Nearby, an awful woman harangued her pre-teen son, who was complaining about the dust and the bumpiness of the dirt-bike tracks: “What are you, a girl? Are you a girl or a boy? Huh? I thought you were a boy.”

Since I was in the area, I headed on out to Slab City, the squatter/snowbird/anarchist community of weirdos that live in the desert by the shores of the Salton Sea. As one Google review put it: “it reminded me a lot of Mogadishu.” There’s no water or sewage or roads, just a self-made city of decrepit school busses and tireless RVs arrayed into various “neighbourhoods”. I spent a few hours looking at the desert art (Salvation Mountain, a psychedelically Christian and pastel-hued piece, being the most famous). It’s a totally unique place, but I can’t see how it continues to co-exist with the tourists that, perhaps owing to the Slab City scenes in Into the Wild, now cruise by to snap pictures of Salvation Mountain and East Jesus (an open-air desert-art museum) and various sunburnt hoboes. When LA influencers already come in droves to be photographed slumming it in Slab City, how does the “Last Free Place on Earth” resist the subsequent waves of gentrification: the gift shops, the bus tours, the Air BnBs, the for-profit enterprises? The onrush of curious people from “real” society come to gawk at the weirdness of Slab City will destroy Slab City, eventually.

Desert art in East Jesus, Slab City

It’s getting on to spring. The spindly spider-legs of the ocotillo are sprouting green leaves and the tips are blooming with red bell-like flowers. I’ve spotted a few stalks of agave and yucca that are flowering, and pretty soon the Joshua trees should be festooned in white blossoms. A few weeks ago I visited Anza-Borrego State Park, known for its spring wildflower blooms, when zillions of tourists pay pilgrimage to take Instagram photos in flower fields. While I’m too early for the flowers, I did spend a few days enjoying the park. I visited a California fan palm oasis tucked into a deep canyon, squeezed through a narrow slot canyon, and hiked to a mountaintop where a man – let’s generously term him a dreamer – attempted to create a settlement in one of the harshest environments in America. Only the barest remains of his adobe house stand today, a testament to his (some would say foolish) ambition.

I love that the desert is full of these secret, stupid artifacts of man’s attempts to colonize and capitalize on the land. The desert is so indifferent to us, and so resistant to our encroachments. The hills are full of old mining camps and ghost towns and wagon trails, and each one is a powerful reminder that humans are but a blip when we’re looking at the geological timescale of the desert. There are canyons here that were shaped by hundreds of millions of years of running water, and badlands stratified into rock sandwich layers that show a billion years of accumulation and compression, and potholes in the sandstone that were drilled by a drop of water dripping over the course of eternity. I find it quite comforting to think that this will all be here after humans have gone extinct and our dams have broken and our cities have been ground to dust by the ever-blowing wind. The appeal of desert-art out here, the great statues and installations of scrap metal, found objects, and obsolete appliances – the cast-offs of American consumption – is that the art is meant to be battered by the wind and eroded by the sand and faded by the sun. Nothing is permanent in the desert. As a transient person who isn’t quite sure where – or if – she’s going to settle down, I think that’s an awfully nice thought.

Soaking up the sun

I’m now just outside Joshua Tree in the Mojave desert, enjoying the mid-week lull and waking early to hike while the sun is still ascendant. All is well. The sunsets are entire-sky affairs, accompanied by a soundtrack of lowing cattle and hysterical coyotes. The Joshua trees, named as such because some sun-mad Mormons mistook them for the prophet, are everywhere; their drunken, shambling bodies lean one way or another with arms outstretched. It’s nice to be able to sleep with the windows open, to sit outside and watch the stars without freezing to death – small pleasures, which accumulate pleasure upon pleasure to make this a wholly satisfying lifestyle.

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