Sunday, March 23, 2008

Wonder Valley's Iron Age

Purim-Paschal Season-Holy Week(end)-Spring Equinox-Triduum-Easter near Joshua Tree, we've returned after three nights in a small cabin nicely outfitted, "Ranch House" as deemed by its owner. He's a Lebanese (I surmise from "internal evidence" if second hand) wrought-iron worker who transformed, as Layne noticed, every item and surface he could into a demonstration of his craft practically and if possible artistically as well. The small domestic cube's one of hundreds that dot this stretch past Twentynine Palms in the Morongo Basin. South, we took a drive for about thirty miles that carried us over the Pinto Mountain whose titular road we stayed on at the "ranch." This descended after a rise passing joshua trees and lupine and desert dandelions into a flatter terrain, all the way to Mexico. We left, by cresting that ridge, the Mojave and had entered the "transition zone" of the Sonoran desert, which I had never seen.

Here, while a few purple lupines still grew, the joshuas abruptly ended. Yuccas with their stubby shape and delicately exploding limbs of yellow aren't that dramatic, but they, like the four or so basic vegetable groups of this vast terrain, prove persistent. Ocotillos, spiny medusan fingers tipped in reddish brushes, crawled into the cloudless sky, about eight or ten feet high. While the desert dandies proved ubiquitous, they now were joined by a patch of jumping cholla cactus we wisely stayed clear of, thanks to their roadside imprecations with snarly spines that we knew (from Bowser, our dog of blessed memory's encounter long before I knew her-- yes, as with Fido today, Layne named a bitch with a generic male hound's moniker) could inflict prickly pain. Other than that, the desert whether Mojave or Sonoran proves remarkably consistent.

That is, nearly devoid of trees. Even in Wonder Valley, or other areas with permanent people, nobody plants but a very rare cottonwood, and hardly any palms. By the way, both the yuccas and joshua trees appear incredibly loyal to only a few locales, and none grew over the whole 29 Palms region at least as far as I could literally see. In the park, the smoketree bushes that sprout about waist-high are grey bland puffs in bloom or otherwise barren balls of twiglets. A grayer tumbleweed, perhaps. The yellow flowers and their white cousins were not complicated, but they were abundant along roadsides, washes, and clearings. An accidental side trip down a jarring Black Eagle Mine Road a few hundred feet (which seemed as if by Conestoga across the wilderness in their rutting noise; I thought our Volvo with Cross-Country 4WD would've handled the unprepossessing track with more aplomb) brought us to a splendid scene that you can glimpse faintly here. It's muted, but those desert dandies speckle the hill, while a palo verde's limply over me. The piles of rocks behind us recalled Mordor's in their implacable lack of hue, but at least this spring the ground was softened by warmth in texture and dappled by bursts of tint.

A black bird, but a hawk or (according to naysaying Leo) only a crow, swept down across the asphalt of the main road as we thundered down it towards this happenstance beauty spot, to swoop up a lizard. Not the symbolic vision that showed the Aztecs where the eagle and snake would appear and where Tenochtitlan would rise, but still rather a sight. Suggesting a third avis not raris, Layne mused, "the raven does not know it's a raven; the lizard doesn't know it's a lizard. They just do what they know they must do." I sat silently but tried to memorize this sage utterance.

As for the palo verde, this "green stick" of a stoic thin plant fails to inspire raptures from spouse or koans from latter-day saints. However, the joshua did for the desperately seeking a sign Mormon pioneers who must have passed nearby, on what's still called the Utah Trail. To think that San Bernardino would prove the acme of their trek's enough to understand why the LDS failed to create a second Deseret in the Inland Empire. (Although my first friend in grad school at UCLA grew up in Upland as a descendent of such a clan, and he now teaches at BYU-- but their considerably lusher Hawaiian campus!)

Even back at the ranchette, the bushes stay apart from one another a few feet. So do the homestead cabins, which as Wonder Valley Arts explains, flourished post WW2 when the government subdivided the otherwise useless (from our inbred habit that cannot view any space without judging it at least as of today still "undeveloped") land (not enough water for farming or grazing, I suppose) into 5-acre tracts. "Jackrabbit" weekenders left the coast, as we had, to flee inland to these hideaways. They probably drove out here without interstates in the same time we did with them, considering fifty mile jams both ways.

While many of the cabins even to my city eyes appeared far closer together than this demarcation, they each managed to keep their prim distance across the flat landscape. I only saw two buildings on such land with even a double story, and these appeared to have been far larger than the cabins that could be constructed from plans for as low as $1500 for 450 feet. My dear wife mistakenly saw the folder for the "art exhibit" sponsored by WVA (more on that in a moment) and thought in a rare display of financial innocence from the ad prominently displayed that the cabins today could be had for such a pittance. However, as we've inherited a lot near the brackish Salton Sea, perhaps future desert experiences may continue to surprise us.

I'd say on a walk to the main road, such as it is as it had twenty mailboxes, and back this morning that in the 1.7 miles each way, about half the places had been abandoned. I judged this from the lack of powerlines, in the absence of the more obvious signs of decay such as broken windows, gutted interiors, and missing doors. You can see one somber example in the picture here. It's the only wooden one, without color, that we found on our morning stroll. Layne pointed out the bush in front of the door as a sign of its long demise. The WVA artists depict more cabins after their own tutored fashion-- these subjects are usually pastel, aesthetically charming in their post-war decline, and forlorn in a suitably romantic sense in albeit blistered coats of paint. Except for the wiseguy who reduces the subject to a few lines abstractly suggesting a dwelling. Yes, my sons could have done, did, that.

As I walked along under the glare of Good Friday and Holy Saturday, I wondered, if in say 1946, 1958, or 1969, who'd've stayed here, and how. Some shacks appeared to have outhouses and I bet others must have before they were blown away. Electricity, so fans. Water, from tanks. But, some of these cubes lacked, it seemed, any amenities in the form of outbuildings. They were simply four walls and a roof, no more than a large tool shed, but on their own determined parcel. (An ex-Marine I taught whom I ran into the day after I wrote this entry, who trained in a "nuclear suit" in 120-degree heat here one summer, dryly commented on how it'd prepared him for his tour of duty in Iraq.) Who'd stay here unless conscripted or under orders, in a place averaging 110 in summer and 65 even in the dead of winter, for long?

A boy like myself would've loved this setting. Of course, our urban(e) boys crawled the walls despite MTV 2 (charming double pit bull logo) and sampling the jacuzzi. The wife and I devoured the stillness. I finished Zachary Lazar's novel (see blog entry yesterday) "Sway," which I had brought to fit the desolation. But, more Marrakesh with the Stones than Spahn Ranch with Bobby Beausoleil, which was probably better for my soul. Kenneth Anger, stuck in So Cal and then the Haight, reminded me of my own countercultural vignettes, if seen more from cars or on TV than in my own reality, stuck in the confines of an Irish Catholic family in dull blue-collar houses without air conditioning let alone any countercultural medium except an half-bewildering episode of "Laugh-In" or "Love American Style." Not that my 1960s experience included rough trade, the occult, lending Mick an Uncle Sam top hat, or even a visit to Santa Monica's Camera Obscura. Yet, I suppose we all wish to be again where we met our youthful muse, drab or dull as she looks to the outsider.

For me, from the age of eight to eleven I had been left to wander in a place that evoked where I trudged in the sand this morning. The chaparral where I grew up failed to reach the high desert, but the dirt and the air reminded me of my long hikes and bikes into the foothills. I shrink from too much sun today, but I must have benefitted then from a thicker ozone layer, for I was out a lot despite my long pale face. While never an outdoorsy kid, I need nature near my door, around my book-lined room. For, when I was a child, I roamed Claremont's then-dulling, now blunted, edge of the urban interface, such as it was then, at the county line separating L.A. from this enormous San Bernardino County that could hold six states in its boundaries, not to mention all of Israel!

From Joshua Tree, you still had to drive about 150 miles (well within S.B. County) to the Arizona border. North, you'd-- as the road name that got us here indicates-- get to Amboy, which I wanted to go to but which was 50 miles each way for what Wikipedia warned Niall and I would be a virtual ghost town with not even Roy's Diner (featured in an Enrique Iglesias video!) open for reliable business. Here's Amboy photos that saved me half a tank of gas on our 100,000-plus mile V70 station wagon. But, I reduced my carbon footprint. So, I'll still remember not the actual place, but remain in my Proustian mentality to unfold the county map I opened at thirteen, lost vicariously among Route 66's forlorn depots: Ludlow, Bagdad, Siberia (nice irony that), Amboy, Cadiz, Danby, Summit, Goffs, that dessicate in their extinction by a dozen miles north, the completion of Interstate 10. No more Utah Trails lure continental drifters along the deserted desert highway.

Up at restless dawn, I tried with Layne's digital camera to catch the Resurrection light. First time awake for my version of a sunrise service. Then, the battery died out, minutes into the day. So, she and I after chores and cleaning (Leo spilled candle wax on the corduroy couch), went for a jittery stroll that finally, half an hour each way, managed to calm her down into a bit of equilibrium. I craved the chance to hear the twittering of the transformers on the little powerlines that reminded me of my Tyco train set. These formed grids along which the cabins speckled the ground, which rarely undulated even a few feet higher or lower across the hardscrabble valley floor. The boxes and the posts steadily marched into the distance, down straight dirt lanes with names like Normglow and Prairie Dog Lane and Mica and Mesa and Indian Trail and the oddly Victorian terrace evoking perhaps a manse of Mick or Keith or Brian on some Surrey's Dinsbury Road.

Photos don't (at least at my level of skill and my limits of camera choice) do justice to the unchanging, stern, and enduring nature of the desert's demands. It's not a coy or a seductive place. Even today, its two greatest local pop culture moments are as a U2 album (Anton Corbijn's photos look more like Death Valley than the National Park) and as the place Gram Parsons, Harvard dropout trustafarian turned (speaking of the Stones and especially Keef) Nudie dope space cowboy troubadour, wound up stolen away to/from to be interred by his faithful manager. Yet, despite what the Scouts that had stayed noted in the Guest Book (after many half-literate Levantines)-- that the "Art Exhibit" had most of its WVA pictures already gone and that it was "disappointing" and the ambiance at the gallery "The Palms" proved only "very seedy"-- I was happy to have stayed in Wonder Valley. Like so much of our Californian landscape, the implacable place may have not lived immediately up to its splendid name. Yet, as those of us hardy natives can attest to, it reveals its own dignity to the patient.

In that way, last night, I taught Niall how to find the North Star, the Big and Little Dippers. That's about all I could recall from my own boyhood love of astronomy. I wasn't sure which of two stars was Polaris, but I narrowed it down nonetheless. In such tender, if uncertain, moments the years compress and under a vast sky, the time and space open into an awesome empty bowl of power and distance. Such times I long keep in my mind as I grow older, and perhaps he will too. In this way, staying and listening and looking take on new intensity, however fleetingly, when wrenched by their unfamiliarity out of the urban haze.

Well, I rose today for the first time in my life up before dawn on Easter. Another violation of the Abrahamic covenant in this arid clime. I failed to get so dutifully drunk the other Purim night as to confuse Haman with Aheushvaros. Yet, in the manner befitting the three Patriarchs and four Matriarchs, at least I resided in a house of iron made by a man from the Fertile Crescent, an inheritor of one of the most ancient of crafts, first forged almost ten thousand years ago near the Dead Sea. Reading on the endless car ride (half of the 150 miles spent in rush-hour traffic) as my steadfast wife drove us away from sunset towards the Mojave, I learned from Karen Armstrong's "Penguin Lives" entry of a man we know nearly nothing about, of the Buddha and his own need to leave the city to hear his own voice and to seek his destination. This necessary quest guided his jaded spirit away from his familiar home. Under a desert stillness, and for a minute here and there outside this past weekend I could imagine a glimpsed life led under such perpetual rigor, in a place with little green or gold, but lots of gray and silver.

Mary Magdalene waited by a stone another mythical morning at dawn. Siddhartha Gautama walked out on his wife and child to force his own inner liberation into the Buddha. The Jews fled Persian pogroms and laughed about it twenty-five hundred seasons since. The Mormons chose to see in a two-pronged succulent the image of Joshua holding up the sun so Moses and Aaron could smite sensuous sun-worshipping, moon-praying pagans. They all made their choice on how to commemorate their spiritual drama, but we thousands of years later must make up as piety or principle what we simply cannot prove, in these remnants of tall tales rooted in the archaic Axial Age. We try to follow their hallowed examples, but how can we? We're like Mick and Keith and Brian as Lazar re-invents them, starving in a dingy flat in Edith Grove in 1962, yearning to imitate the Chuck Berry grooves until they become not learned but natural rhythms, not chords learned by the mind but grooves within the body. All of us must create our own versions. In the same way as Niall and I, we inherit ancient patterns, and then we invent our own variations. We imagine constellations in random patterns above, and we riff stories from our own point of view, happenstance as it must be on the edge of one of countless galaxies.

Once, as a Scout myself earlier the year Gram died, I slept over the range fifty miles or so from Pinto Mountain at the mellifluously named Pushawalla Palms, north of Palm Springs. During my first visit to the (low) desert, with an AM station warbling The Sweet's "Little Willy" into my red transistor radio as I sprawled in my sleeping bag under the whispering grove, I too spent a spring night entranced. Not yet twelve, in the cool of the desert, I looked out on a panorama that seemed to stretch past a nearby city of dusky stone and diffused light into an infinitely layered vista of rock and star and dark.

P.S. Perhaps presaged by my worn S.F. 49ers (but never Giants) cap that I wore on the trip? After I typed this entry, a warm Easter greeting from my birth mother appeared in my e-mail box. A simple reminder of continued stories we tell under Western horizons and Eastern heat and of celebrations we cherish. The trek in our life's desert can be bleak, or it can be nourishing, depending on how we're equipped for the pioneering venture.

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