Monthly Archives: August 2008

Letters from the desert: Pie

The mountains are a hell’s rainbow, greens and reds and blues in layers dredged up from some unfathomable depth. I watch them, imagine climbing from the pediment up into the folded and crenellated side canyons.

I stir my coffee absently, though I have added neither cream nor sugar.

In the booth behind me a woman berates a man in measured tones. I try not to listen in. The pauses between her sentences are long, freighted, her voice curling upward and inward like cigarette smoke. “So when did you start dating her?” He mumbles a reply.

“Is your coffee okay, hon?” It is, more or less. I smile at the proffered pot, at tired blue eyes. Two more hours’ drive ahead of me, and my eyes heavy-lidded against the desert sun. I consider pie, but the offerings look desiccated.

Cigarette smoke curls behind me. “Not even a week after we broke up.”

He answers more distinctly. “After you broke up with me.”


The pie crust peels, flakes of it wavering in the breeze of the kitchen fan. Layer on layer of apple dried in thin skins in the desert heat, peeled back. What was once sweet now seems inadvisable. I decide against pie.

“You told me I had to move on. I moved on.”

An old man who looks like he could have ridden with Zapata ambles over to the jukebox, puts in a few quarters, pushes a few buttons. “Good, some Norteño to drown out the misery next door,” I think, and am taken aback as Patsy Cline warbles decades’ old heartbreak from the box. Ah, well. Whatever works.

There are layers upon layers in the mountains across the way, old sweetness congealed in suffering. A million years of lakefloor sediment, one mortal heart’s cessation layered upon another a billion at a time and then hardened over, and then an age of infrequent rains began to wipe out all evidence of their lives bit by eroded bit.  I would lose myself in quiet joy to walk inside the clefts the rain has carved. I think sometimes that the only sure happiness is anchored fast in old heartbreak. The sharp happiness I have felt these last weeks grew in soil well-limed with sadness.

I get up check in hand, turn toward the register. In the booth behind me he sits alone and calm, gazing out the window at the mountains, part obscured now in the dust cloud from her car’s fishtailing out of the gravel lot.

Public Obfuscation

Those of you who went to the Southern Nevada Supplemental Airport Site to check out the Draft Alternatives Working Paper for the Environmental Impact Report for the proposed Ivanpah Airport, a few miles from my temporary digs here in Nipton, were likely surprised and discouraged by the nearly eighty associated PDF they expect the public to download.

Perhaps the most important of those many PDFs, the one mapping “terrain conflicts” with the Ivanpah Airport, weighed in at 233 megabytes, which represents approximately five hours and twenty minutes worth of downloading on a typical dialup connection. About 500 megs’ worth of documents in toto hardly amounts to public accessibility, especially when spread over 80 docs.

So I’ve taken most of the PDFs — the ones that contain figures for Chapters two and three of the Working Paper including the behemoth one — compressed them into some semblance of a reasonably downloadable size, and concatenated them into two documents. Chapter two is here, and Chapter three is here.

Nerdery: That behemoth one, when I optimized it in Acrobat by way of experiment, shrunk down to a reasonable 1.5 megs. I opened the original and did a space audit, which tells you how much of a document’s size is due to images, text, fonts, etc., and it turns out that “document overhead” accounted for the remaining 231.5 megs of PDF. Whether the document was deliberately inflated to discourage public participation or just prepared by careless contractors doesn’t really matter. The end result is the same: we are discouraged from making our voices heard.

Letters from the desert: The Jeep

My traveling around in the desert is made possible by a 1992 Jeep Cherokee, itself made possible by Diane and Sherwood Harrington, who gave me the thing for free to facilitate my writing. It’s a trusty beast. It has ghosts that have taken control of the electrical system, which means that sometimes the instrument panel lights will work and sometimes they won’t, and the cigar lighter draws enough juice to light a cigar but not enough to charge my phone. Every once in a while at freeway speeds the speedometer will fall asleep, dropping limply to “0.” I find this amusing. The periodic overheating is less amusing, but fixing that is a small price to pay for a Jeep so well-loved by its previous owners, and I plan to do that Real Soon Now.

One of the first things I did when I finally got out to Nipton with the Jeep was to go investigate the back end of Wee Thump Joshua Tree Wilderness, which is just ten miles up the road. A stone’s throw, really, in local miles. I drive past the wilderness to get to the nearest gas station, in Searchlight. It’s a small wilderness circumscribed by a Jeep road. What better vehicle, I reasoned, to explore a Jeep road, than, well, a bicycle? But my bicycle is in the storage locker in Barstow, so I took the Jeep.

The Wee Thump road is pretty good for a couple miles, with only one washout crooked enough to make me get out and look before attempting it. (Ever since I rolled my Nissan pickup a couple years ago I have gotten antsy when my vehicle gets too far diagonal to the Earth’s local tangent plane, and I have to swallow hard and act brave as I traverse the scary ten degree slope.) Toward the back of the wilderness, up by the beginning of the Highland Range, a couple washes running across the road made me consider whether the sand might be deep enough to merit a bit of consideration, but I was across them already by the time I figured out whether I needed to worry about it. All around, cactus wrens sang in old Joshua trees. Happy sweat poured down my back.

Soon came an intersection with a powerline access road, through which I plowed unhesitating. The obvious course lay straight ahead toward the McCullough Range, decorated in its upper reaches with pretty junipers. After a few feet, though, the road became significantly less obvious, with football-sized cobbles and encroaching foliage and much climbing and descending of low ridges that got increasingly less low as I got farther up into the range.

Pretty soon I realized I may have made some sort of error in navigation, given that the course the road was following was pointing more and more away from the pavement along both the X and Y axes, and I resolved to turn around as soon as the road allowed it.

This did not happen for some time.

Finally, in a spot with a wonderful view, I came to a wide “Y” junction and stopped. I stretched my legs for a bit as I consulted the map. Sure enough, the road I’d remembered from looking at the map some months earlier, the one that delineated the west edge of the Wee Thump wilderness and led back to the asphalt, was clearly labeled “Powerline Road.” I berated myself for a time and then got back behind the wheel.

The powerline road had looked a little rough, and to get there I had to go down a hill that had been mildly worrisome coming up. “It’s time to see whether this thing actually works,” I thought to myself, and pulled the lever to engage four wheel drive.

I was glad I did so. The Jeep seemed almost to drive itself back down Wrong Way Road, negotiating the slippery sand and cobbles with sure if metaphorical feet. I got to the powerline and turned right, and the road almost immediately began plunging into and climbing out of steep gullies. After the first two or three I stopped clenching my teeth. “Thank Coyote for four-wheel drive,” I thought. “This is actually a pleasure.” Despite its following an arrow-straight powerline the powerline road was a twisty affair, routed around outcroppings and hills it would have been inconvenient to blast through, scaling and then descending narrow ridges, and jumping over the divides between washes. More than once I said to myself that I’d have been hopelessly sand-mired a ways back had I tried the road in two-wheel drive.

At length I descended a long sloping ridgetop and got to pavement. I stopped for a moment, patted the Jeep on its dashboard gratefully. “Thank you,” I said. “That was a great ride.” I reached down to pull the lever back into two-wheel drive before setting out down the paved road, and then just stopped.

I hadn’t actually pulled the lever to begin with, it turns out. I’d been in two-wheel the whole time.

It’s a great Jeep.

The Jeep

The den of the Coyote

I’ve been happy with the writing focus of this new joint, but I’ve missed the chat the old site’s comments held. And thus I’ve meant for the last few weeks to get a discussion area up and running here.

I finally did so this afternoon. I’d intended to give it a few days of beta testing and such, and then Larry Hogue up and tells me that the Ivanpah Airport project is on the march again, with public comment due October 3. The airport would utterly destroy the wildness hereabouts, and it’s a massive project with the force of Harry Reid and Nevada Developers and the gaming industry behind it.

And the discussion thingie seemed a good way to share information about the project and ways a person can get involved.

So here’s the Coyote Den, a place where regulars and new readers and former cobloggers and such can spend a little time discussing the writing here, or anything else that seems of interest. Join a thread or start your own, as I did here to discuss the Ivanpah Airport. Which is a really, really bad idea.

Letters from the desert: Full Disclosure

Ed Abbey had a wife and kid in the trailer with him in Arches while he wrote some of Desert Solitaire. Despite the opening of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, the old fighting tomcat did not actually leap in through Annie Dillard’s window and knead her chest with bloody paws in the mornings: it was one of her graduate students.

Annie and Ed came in for some criticism for the discrepancies between implication in their writing and real life. With that in mind, I feel compelled to admit to you that the last month and a half has not been an unbroken stretch of desert dwelling for yours truly, at least depending on your definition of “desert.” I have indeed spent time these days lounging in desert canyons with excellent views of curious bats, sweltering over this overheated keyboard in Nipton, and hauling myself up into the Wee Thump Joshua trees at one in the morning when sleep proves elusive in my non-airconditioned solar box cooker of a house.

But there’s been a little bit of visiting the Getty Museum, eating Westwood pho, and drinking Echo Park coffee mixed in there as well.

I’m going down to Los Angeles again on Thursday, in fact, to socialize, and also to take advantage of The Raven’s highspeed internet connection. I have to find a place to live starting in October and a paid job of some sort shortly thereafter, and this task is significantly easier with access to over-designed Flash-heavy apartment and job-listing sites, and my home here in Nipton does not count reliable net access among its many inarguable charms. Posting this Letter From The Desert — not writing, just posting — will likely take fifteen minutes, for instance, if past experience is anything to go by, and to do that I need to carry the laptop across the road, and given the number of insects lying in wait there the byte per bite ratio can’t be more than about 20.

Also, The Raven’s shower comes with actual hot water, which phenomenon has much to recommend it.

So it hasn’t been all desert all the time here. More like all desert 6/7ths of the time. It occurs to me as I write this that I arbitrarily count Las Vegas and Bullhead City and Laughlin as being “desert” here, despite the fact that when I go to any of those places for groceries or other errands I generally find myself in refrigerated surroundings. Come to think of it, Los Angeles probably deserves the desert designation as well, despite its well-watered aspect subsidized over the last century by the ghost of Owens Lake. Try to define “desert” these days and you have to refer to Jane Jacobs and Lacan as much as John Wesley Powell. But I don’t want to be accused of bioregional rules lawyering, so when I drop down south out of Cajon Pass I will not refer to myself as being in the desert. Please make a note of it.

Where I’ll be after October is yet undetermined, though it will almost certainly be in one desert or another. I have my eye on Tucson, of course: it’s at the top of my short list of Perfect Places For Chris. Bishop is compelling in some respects: the Sierra, and the White Mountains, and the utter joblessness, excepting that last one. I have an old friend in Taos with a business proposition. I could probably find work in Vegas. I have an invitation to hang a few photos in a gallery in Searchlight, and maybe I could parlay that into a staggeringly lucrative career somehow.

Until then, I’ll be mostly here in Nipton with the Joshua trees and the creosote and the bugs. But there is an exhibit on colonial Peruvian art at the Getty, and I’d kinda be a fool to miss that. Also, hot showers. Ah luxury.

Letters from the desert: Raven Moon

Full moon a glint in The Raven’s eye and it drenches us in light. Sable sky bears a feathery sheen upon it. A moon-suffused cool smolder masks the stars.

Joshua trees raise arms toward the pale night sky. The Raven’s shoulder fits beneath my own. Top down on the Mustang we watch the sky, storm clouds 70 miles east above the Hualapais, above the mouth of the Grand Canyon. A whole world of storm out there, many miles too far away for the sound to carry. A whole world of white-flashing thunderheads and muted lightning out there in Arizona, and here in Nevada just the blessed cool, a mere 90 degrees tonight, and Joshua trees silhouetted by full moon, her right shoulder tucked underneath my left.

How many lives must one endure before a pinnacle such as this? How many aching hopeless turns of wheel? This night sufficient recompense for a dozen of my lives, to sit here motionless content beneath the lurid moon, the certain violence of night flash floods diffused by miles into a spectacle of flashing light, The Raven dozing, head on my shoulder.

To the east is Spirit Mountain, its white bulk lit bright by this Raven Moon. We walked there today in a desiccated canyon, found a boulder worn slick by eons of infrequent and disastrous floods. The Raven tried to climb it and failed, the flakes too thin by half to give her stiff bootsoles purchase. We sat instead in the shade at its base, white sand still warm from an oven of a day. Thousands of designs carved into the desert varnish all around us, and we watched the far mountains as the storm clouds built. The air blurred above us and she pointed it out: a western pipistrelle, out a couple hours early hunting the small dragonflies in the desert willow blooms. We lay against the rock, groaning as it worked the knots out of our lower backs, and then the pipistrelle was back and watching us, yellow fur and black wings, hovering a full fifteen seconds three feet above our faces.

This happens when I’m with you, said The Raven, just as I was thinking the same thing. A dozen visits here before, restlessly exploring, and today she’d pointed out two ancient bighorn carvings I had walked past many times and never seen. Three months now in the desert and this night with her the first time coyotes will sing for me, two hours from now and four miles farther off the pavement, and just before sleep finally takes us.

Letters from the desert: The Cronise Cat

To what end this constant panicked flight around the southern shoulder of Cronise Mountain?

The Cronise Cat looks inward. The Cronise Cat gazes at the mountain’s heart.

To what end this relentless flinching, this blinking through dark glass at the dazzling Mojave sand?

“I wait,” the Cronise Cat replies.

The Cat has endless patience. Something in the mountain compels its epochal stare. A flicker of light reflected from the mantle of the earth, perhaps. A slow, tectonic thought. There were gigantic cats here once, swift daggered jaws that stalked the fringes of long-dead lakes. The Cronise Cat was the biggest of them all.

The last one left, the Cronise Cat stalks its chthonic prey.

Once tules grew, and willows, where the full Mojave overflowed into the Cronise Lakes. Once the land was green and held its soil.  The Mojave flows underground now, and soil blows off the dry lake bed. Countless grains of sand and dust crest the range downwind, tumble in the mountain’s lee. Two ears atop the dune, sinuous cat shoulders and rump beneath, the Cronise Cat made up of flowing sand.

“I wait,” says the Cronise Cat.

I wait as well, the Cat for company. To what end the constant panicked flight along the interstate? They speed windblown from the dusty shores of Las Vegas and tumbling toward the ocean, Las Vegas the borrow pit of joy they excavate to supply themselves, so that they might cross this bleak land without confronting it, without it confronting them. Not one in a hundred look at the Cronise Cat. Not one in a hundred of those who look see it.

I have tumbled past myself of late, one grain of sand in a million swept toward the sea. I too have come to rest in the lee at times, buffeted by the Mojave winds. Mine is a bifurcated soul: at times part of the exodus, at times one who regards the exodus from afar, knowing that in a few days I will be one unremarkable glint in that string of lights climbing Mountain Pass ten night miles distant.

What days are these where we create such unintended beauty? What days are these in which we string a moving chain of lights over a hundred desert miles without meaning to, each light in the chain under the impression that its errand is the one that matters?

Each grain of sand thinks the Cronise Cat is in its way.

I could leap upon the Cat’s head, dig my heels into its spine, tumble several hundred feet down to its haunches with as much gravitic drama as I could muster, and my track would be the faintest stripe in its imagined fur, soon licked smooth by the wind’s rough tongue.

I have been raked by the wind myself of late. I am made up of the dust of my own dead times, old particles blown free as the new accrete, the only rough constant in me my shape. I too am shaped by the rock that bears me, ten thousand pairs of eyes passing before one sees, a dessicated container filled by the wrack of disintegrating landscapes. I would turn my gaze into the mountain, would watch rapt as uranium spun itself into thorium, into lead, until wind scraped me clear of earth along with the earth itself.

“I wait,” says the Cronise Cat.

A sea of sand surrounds. Broken tires and discarded plastic float in the sea of sand. Fenders and husks of desert primrose, boards and batting, aluminum cans sandblasted free of paint to near transparency, coils of wire, paper buried then uncovered by the same fluke, passengers’ boredom and drivers’ fear, disdain and envy, hubris and humiliation, yucca pods long since bereft of seeds, plastic bottles blown a hundred miles, my footprints five minutes old and already half-refilled, desert varnish ten thousand years old, shards of glass and shards of souls: the only thing vacant about this place is the glances of the people driving past it. One in ten thousand see the Cronise Cat though it is there and plain, eight hundred feet from ears to tail.

“I wait,” the Cronise Cat replies, its voice the wind.

The Cronise Cat gazes at the mountain’s heart.

cronise cat 2

Letters from the desert: Cholla garden

How swift it is this heart can shift, can shed old sadness as a snake sheds scales, new clarity of vision coming as old skin falls from athwart the eyes.

The Raven’s eyes sparkle in the desert sun.

I am abraded, skinless. I am that part of the desert grown aware of itself. I leak me into the desert, my shattered skin a colander.

The Raven accompanies me into the field of cholla.

She floats among the treacherous cacti, the plants near-bending to grant her passage. The mountains shimmer behind her. Cholla needles cast pale shadows on the ground, clouds of white spines a thousand glorioles backlit by the lowering sun. I wonder how I could ever have been anywhere else than here. I wonder at ever wanting anything else than this.

The Raven laughs at my foolishness.

In the desert no opportunity is ignored: my Jeep, the color of burst cactus fruit, has summoned a cloud of bees. I’d left the driver’s window open for ventilation and they have entered, three hundred of them, perhaps more. Another hundred surround me hungrily.

Breathe deep and drop all guile, open the windows gently one by one, and with luck passage will be granted you. A dozen bees where you would sit: wave them away. Ten where you would place your sandaled foot on the pedal: apologize and rev the engine anyway. Grant me the grace to leave this place in a state no more punctured than that in which I arrived. Let me walk in peace through this den of buzzing lions.

They are tolerant. They withhold their wrath. A mile down the road only a dozen bees remain in the Jeep. The Raven spies one of them on her thigh. She stretches out a loving finger, lifts bee off denim, murmurs softly to it and puts it out the passenger-side window.