Monthly Archives: September 2008

Quick pointers

1) I have a submission up at Postal Poetry. Go check it out.

2) On Saturday, October 4, I will be joining a few other desert writers at the Riverside Public Library, 3581 Mission Inn Ave Riverside, CA, in a reading to celebrate the release of Issue 2 of Phantom Seed Magazine. It starts at 1:00 pm and it’s free and you should show up.

3) Michael Bérubé Online is back in business.

4) So is the Theriomorph.

Letters from the desert: Crotalus scutulatus

Were one to insist on a strictly rational, actuarial accounting of the risks involved, one would of necessity admit that the little meeting The Raven and I had Saturday with the most dangerous snake in North America was not the riskiest thing either of us did that day.

There was our drive to the spot where we hiked, for example. There was our wading through a cloud of possibly Africanized honeybees engorging themselves on a yellow-flowering desert shrub. There was our post-hike driving of The Raven’s Little British Convertible to a Baskin-Robbins south of Las Vegas. There was our eating at Baskin-Robbins. Any one of those things entailed more risk, on a strictly statistical basis, than our enjoying a bit of face time with a Mojave green rattlesnake.

Still, you don’t meet a Mojave green every day, and a novel risk does offer a bit of excitement. We were walking up a wash in the Wee Thump wilderness near Nipton, heading in lazy meandering fashion back toward the Little British Convertible and chatting about nothing in particular, and then I yelped not more than a quarter-second after I heard the rattling. A familiar serpentine silhouette peered at us, backlit by afternoon sun, caught in mid-slither as it tried to cross the wash.

After the usual second of shock I decided the snake was about 20 feet farther away than it could strike, and I exhaled. “That,” I said too didactically by half, “is a Mojave green rattlesnake.”

The Raven got her eyes narrowed back down from dinnerplate size. “Uh-huh,” she said. “So… should we”

“It’s the most dangerous snake in North America,” I added.

“I really didn’t need to know that,” she agreed.

The snake peered at us, rattling furiously. The Mojave green has a reputation for aggressiveness. This reputation probably stems from the tendency exhibited by individuals in this species to stand their ground, metaphorically speaking. Where other rattlers would retreat, the Mojave greens tend to stay put and get angrier and angrier.

But they’re not actually aggressive. This one wasn’t. It didn’t charge us or bluff-strike or rise up cobra-style and hypnotize us. It just made it very clear to us that there was a circle of desert wash about six feet in diameter where The Raven and I were very much not welcome, and that that circle had a loud buzzing snake in its exact center.

We looked at it. It looked at us. The Raven was not making any suggestions, evidently deferring to my desert-expertise-informed judgment as to how we might best proceed. I swallowed.

“It can’t strike at us farther than it is long, so let’s just go around that way.” I pointed at a sandy channel in the wash that ran around and behind the snake, with about eight or ten feet of buffer. “Can we climb up out of the wash?” asked The Raven, sensibly enough. But I wanted a good look at the snake. Crossing my fingers that I’d gauged its length accurately enough, I walked behind it, feeling suddenly vulnerable in the shin-to-groin region.

The snake, until now stretched languorously across the sand, leapt to coiled attention. It rattled even more furiously than it had been, its tail poking rakishly up out of the coils. Tongue flicked and head moved, tracking us as we passed.

And then we were past it, and we retreated another twenty feet and stopped, and after a few seconds the snake stopped rattling. It had been what the diplomats call a frank and honest exchange of views with significant progress made toward a non-aggression agreement.

Which is really all the snake was after. Mojave greens do bite humans on occasion, and there are fatalities. Like other rattlers, Mojave greens possess a potent hemotoxin component to their venom. Many populations of the snake also possess a second, somewhat more insidious toxin in their venom: a slower-acting neurotoxin that can cause respiratory failure, among other things.

But it’s worth noting that the majority of bites by Mojave greens are suffered by males, and that young adults are more likely to be bitten than any other age cohort, and that the majority of deaths from Mojave green bites follow episodes in which, according to one description cut and pasted across the web, “the bitten individual was interacting intentionally with the snake.” Whether most such bites are preceded by the phrase “hold my beer,” as The Raven guessed later, is not known.

I imagine that’s what the snake thought, and perhaps The Raven as well, when I took a few steps back toward those wary coils. The rattling started up again, and did it seem a trifle more exasperated? I may have been projecting. “All I wanted was a photo” does indeed merit inclusion in the collection of Famous Last Words, just before the snakebite or the bear mauling or elk trampling, or the plunge off the scenic overlook into the canyon. But it worked for me this time, just one pace toward the snake with my cameraphone extended, still three times farther away than the snake could possibly strike and a reminder always to bring my long lens when hiking in Mojave green country.

And of course then comes the hike after seeing the snake, a day or two later. If there is a better way to make every single twig and stone seem alive and breathing beneath your feet, I do not know it.


Take my fingers, split nails to the quick,
tear off this sallow skin from nail and bone
and scatter all of it among the rocks
to feed the creosote. This back long-bent
could be reduced to vertebrae and flesh
to jerk and desiccate, this pliant hide
made hard and leathery. Coyote’s teeth
would work to gnaw at me. A decade hence
some poor sun-addled soul will find my bones.
Long femurs splintered. Cranium sand-glazed,
its contents barely changed. Take these pale eyes,
ensky them, blue rimmed with dark violet
and clouded white, as I have cast them up
and skyward on ten thousand days like this.

Phantom Seed reading, October 4

I’ll be reading some of my work, appearing along with other contributors to the second issue of Phantom Seed, the desert literary journal.

Saturday, October 4, 1:00 p.m.
Riverside Public Library
3581 Mission Inn Ave
Riverside, CA 92501

Hope to see some of my SoCal pals there!

Letters from the desert: Tortious Conduct

Thunderstorms rolled in this morning, one or more from each of the four directions, and the smell of wet creosote was thick on the wind.

I decided to go get my mail. This involves about a forty=mile round trip. My mail tends to pile up in the box as a result. Heading down Nipton Road toward the dry lake I got a better view of the storms, one astride Kessler Peak and another stuck atop the New York Mountains near Caruthers Canyon. A particularly dark patch of storm covered the small canyon where Ivanpah Road heads through the New Yorks into the Lanfair Valley. “I need to see a flash flood today,” I thought to myself, and missed my turn onto Morning Star Mine Road in favor of heading into the storm.

At the little railroad-siding ghost town of Ivanpah — not the one for which the valley was named; that would be the other ghost town of Ivanpah, near Yates Well — the road bent leftward to follow the tracks for a few hundred yards, and then curved back toward the mountains again.

It was just after that second, blind curve that I ran over the tortoise.

I was doing about forty, I guess, and didn’t see him in the road until it was too late to stop. It didn’t exactly dart out in front of me. I was probably a bit distracted by watching sky. But I cursed, and I swerved and held my breath.

I felt no thump as Jeep went over turkle.

I pulled off the road and ran back to see what the hell I’d done, awkwardly walking across a wet cattle guard in my Tevas. Tortoise seemed uninjured: shell intact, no sign of blood or fracture of anything but peevishness.

Just after I ran it over

The rain started to come down fairly hard. I crossed the cattle guard again and ran back to put the camera back in the Jeep, and then ran back to the catle guard, crossed it yet again, and started speaking softly to the Tort. He was not happy with me. I hefted him gently anyway, put him on the side of road for which he’d been headed when I ran him over. Crossed the cattle guard again, ran back to the Jeep, got my camera and returned to shoot a photo to reassure myself later that he’d survived my vehicular assault.

He was in no mood to pose.

a few minutes later

I turned back around and headed for the Post Office. My mailbox was full. I have credit card bills to pay. My copy of High Country News arrived. There was a check from UCSF.

The whole valley was filled with storm as I drove home. At about 30 miles per hour. It took a while.

Regarding The Raven

I walked out into the desert today after an afternoon of thunderstorms. The sun set, as it will, and I sat in the darkening on the gravel berm of the unmaintained road I’d walked along for a half hour or so.

The night desert sky, pale northward with Vegas’ diffuse light, shifted overhead with the wind. Stars winked on and off. After some time there came a bright white glow beneath the eastern sky, and clouds illuminated from beneath by a full moon not yet risen.

A message came: she longs to watch the moon with me again.

My vision is clouded these days. I must back up a few hundred miles to see things clearly, and then i long to reach out, to touch the thing remotely beheld. Everything I was has sloughed off, fallen away, and all that has come in its stead is spare sustenance, save her. The writing comes slowly, the desert I sought only lately accessible without risk of heatstroke, the loves that were replaced by their absence. The home I left looms in my mind green and cool, populated with ghosts.

Friends take pains to remind me that no one is responsible for any others’ happiness. Insults like poison harm only if you accept them, they claim, and if those insults do not come labeled with skull and crossbones what then? (I have been bled by daggers emblazoned with hearts and flowers.) No one can make me happy, they claim. That’s my job.

The Raven makes me happy nonetheless. It is an odd happiness, and friends once worried write me with sighs of relief. I am unsure what to do in the absence of drama, unsure how to react to the fact that I can tell her anything, the only eggshells anywhere near piled neatly to one side as I make her breakfast. My life is still asunder, and The Raven does not fix that. The Raven will not fix that.

A message comes: she must sleep. She will see me in a few days.

Life alone and yet not alone and I have no shred of clue where I will be in two months. We speak of hypothetical futures and claim impatience with uncertainty. Even the present is uncertain.

The Raven makes me happy nonetheless.

The sun was low in the west today, a heavy rain descending between us. A trick of the light: the storm a mirror. As I talked to her the whole eastern slope of the Ivanpah Range was bathed in improbable green light, sun rays reflected and refracted around the mountains. We hung up and I watched the light fade through blue to indigo and then to black.


Letters from the desert: The Lucy Grays

In the last few days the weather has shifted, the days’ highs under 100 degrees consistently for the first time since early July. The shift was sudden. On Saturday The Raven and I braved temperatures of 115 degrees along the Colorado; by Sunday evening it was cool enough that a little breeze raised goosebumps. Monday brought rain at the north end of the valley, and I tossed sleeping bag and pillow into the Jeep at half past midnight and headed for Wee Thump, where I shivered in the mid-70s night air.

Tuesday morning I woke, dressed, started Zheep and drove toward the coffee pot in my kitchen here. A hundred yards from my house a desert tortoise stood mid-lane, torpid and slow in the morning cool, traffic bearing down on her. It’s against good practice to move them. They store up to a year’s supply of water in a bladder which they will often void in response to the stress of handling, endangering their lives. But the only other tortoise I’d seen on this road was roadkill. I came up to the tortoise as non-threateningly and non-abruptly as possible, speaking softly, and waving away a speeding car which nearly hit both of us nonetheless.

The tortoise seemed to decide I wasn’t a threat. I slid fingers beneath her plastron on either side, midway between front and back legs, and hefted. She didn’t even pull her head in, and I set her down a little ways off the road under some creosote. I went to get the coffee going and get my camera, and five minutes later when I returned she was nowhere to be seen.

Wednesday’s forecast called for a high in the mid-90s. I walked out the back door with a few crackers and 100 ounces of water on my back. My first real hike since early August, and I was determined to make it to the Lucy Grays, the little range of mountains behind my house. I call it a “little range” with some amusement: though the Lucy Grays aren’t nearly as expansive as their neighboring ranges, they do run nearly 13 miles end to end with about 3,000 feet of relief.

It took me about two hours to reach the southern end of the Lucy Grays, passing red-spined barrel cacti that were more columns than barrels, some of them reaching five feet in height. Coyote sign was everywhere, and the jackrabbits were skittish. The road would have posed some challenge even to my good Jeep, crossing foot-high curbs on either side of deep sandy washes with some regularity. Walking was probably faster.

I hiked down into a little canyon of sorts between the range and a distinct peak to its southwest, part of the range but separated from it by an expanse of gravel. The geologists call such peaks inselbergs, connected beneath the surface, the bedrock connection between it and the parent range buried in erosional debris. The bottom of the canyon opened out onto a broad view of Ivanpah Dry Lake. Dust devils marched across the playa in single file, two of them, then three, then four.

On my way back up the sandy, washed out road I found a footprint square-planted in the center of one I’d made on the way down. Bighorn.

There are times like those that followed, the rest of the long and increasingly thirsty walk home, hair on the back of my neck still standing ill at ease, when I remember why I do all this. Blisters the size of quarters loom on my unhiked heels. The water in my pack is blood-warm. No desert hike a success unless the last mile or so is trudging: otherwise, I could have gone farther. Still. There is no sound in that part of the Ivanpah Valley save the wind, my increasingly tired boots kicking up clinkers, the buzzing of flies and thoughts, the thrum of my blood in my ears, a cactus wren in the far distance.

Red barrel cacti against black-varnished rock and Mojave yucca the size of houses, water shapes unsullied by wind in the bone-dry wash, desert swallowtails wafting from bloom to improbable bloom. The creosote has set seed, feathered seed pods like dandelion fluff, and the ants collect them. They discard the fluff at the edges of their hills. The desert floor is pocked with circles of gray down. Two miles from town there are tire tracks a few weeks old, and coyote prints atop them heading in both directions at once. I live here: I live here.

What the Ivanpah Airport would destroy

Ivanpah sunset 2

This is a view from the Spring Mountains southeast toward the site of the proposed airport.

I’ve put a few more such photos in a Flickr set, to be added to as time passes.

And if you’re in the mood for something less depressing, I’ve also posted some photos I took Monday in the nearby Spring Mountains, which will merely be made intolerably loud but not actually destroyed. Though the bighorn will likely die out.

And now if you’ll excuse me, I must run. It’s only about 80 degrees out at 11:30 pm, and I am celebrating by sleeping out in the J trees.

Letters from the desert: Light and Sound

This valley I live in is quiet.

It’s not silent. Sometimes, in fact, there is a hell of a lot of noise here. Eighteen-wheelers roar down the road in front of my house fairly often, as do RVs ridiculously towing boats through the desert toward the marina at Cottonwood Cove. And there are the freight trains on the tracks 400 feet from my bedroom window, loud enough that one cannot hold a conversation while they pass.

But you can hear any of the above coming from a long way away, and then they are gone, and the noise stops, and you hear nothing even in the center of Downtown Nipton aside from crickets, and the gurgle of the swamp cooler at the Trading Post, and at sunset, if you’re lucky, the coyotes up toward Crescent Peak heralding the beginning of the night’s jackrabbit harvest.

On Friday night The Raven and I watched the moon set behind the Joshua Trees, parked a ways off Morning Star Mine Road, at the extreme southern end of this valley I live in. The coyotes were out, and singing loud enough that it seemed we might reach out and touch their wind-ruffled fur. There were powerlines nearby and we heard a short circuit buzzing on one of the insulators, a faint and insectile sound.

Thirty thousand feet above, or forty thousand, planes bound for LAX blinked past. Their sound was soft enough, but it was constant. We reflected for a while on the changes wrought were there thirty of those planes an hour flying a mile overhead instead of eight, a likely outcome if the Ivanpah Airport is built. When the wind is right in Nipton you can hear the jake brakes on Interstate 15, ten miles away.

On Saturday night, after a day spent in the company of burros and settling for a time into the pitch blackness of the Arizona night, we blinked hard at the lights of Las Vegas and whimpered a little at their relentlessness. It was a relief to pass Sloan on our way southward, to drop down off the low pass into the north end of this valley I live in. Darkness folded itself around us even on the Interstate, and night pressed hard up against our high-beams. Jean, a town consisting of one high-rise casino, was 13 miles off: a ten-minute drive. “A mile past Jean is where the airport would start,” I said, “more or less.” The Raven murmured.

We drove past Jean into deeper black, a velvet black, and I imagined for a few miles that the blackness was gone, driven off by bright white runway edge lights, blue taxiway lights, the forward lights of jet liners landing and taking off,  terminal lights and sodium vapor lights in the parking lots, the headlights of travelers blasting the verges of the new access road they’d build on the east edge of the valley to bring traffic down from Sloan, and then I drove the image from my mind as those imagined lights would drive the night before them. I drove the image from my mind, I drove past white dashed lines emerging from blackness just ahead of us, I let the night drive the memory of Vegas Lit By Drowned Wild Canyons from my heart.

Ten minutes passed, and a sign announcing a mile to the Primm exit. “A mile north of Primm,” quoth The Raven. “That’d be the south end of the airport, right?”

More or less.

On Friday night as the moon set and the Milky Way increased in brightness, as we sat and resolutely faced away from Vegas’ glare to our north, the coyotes sang as deep-voiced as wolves. Doves called one another off in the distance. The breeze brought their song to us, then shifted and we heard them no longer. “You know, it’s interesting,” The Raven offered. “Full moon sky and Milky Way sky are completely different kinds of romantic.”

I have heard of lovers who park near the beach and watch the planes rising ponderous from the runways of Los Angeles International Airport, rolling deafening over their heads. I expect they find the time well-spent, and yet they lack the sight of galaxies reflected in their lover’s eyes, the murmur of soft breath caught in their lover’s throat as the coyotes wind up into song a hundred yards away.

Mark your calendars

If all goes as planned, I will be taking part in an early afternoon reading in Riverside, California on Saturday, October 4. More details here as the event gets firmed up: Southern California friends and readers may want to keep the date and time free.

Letters from the desert: Seeing stars

Another sunset, another sky over the Clark and Ivanpah ranges turned by imperceptible increment from deep blue to blood red, the slow tilting of earth and air erasing shade after subtle shade from sky. Soon all that is left is sanguinary. Soon that bloody sky flows westward and all is black.

All is black and the stars shine. Loss after agonizingly dilated loss and beyond the loss lies crystalline light, scattered joyous drifts of stars like glints on a raven plume. How many times must I learn this? At least the dawning comes more swiftly with each repetition. I stare dully at the bleak landscape, mind wiped clear of all but my metastasizing thirst, unable to move even to bat the flies away from my eyelashes, and then a laugh so loud it shakes the desert: the raven finds me ridiculous. And I grin.

This life is good. I once lay on my back in hills a day’s drive from here, impatient for the autumn sun to set so that I could gaze into Sirius’ bright eye. I look askance at Sirius these days. Orion is rising these days, his dog at heel, and I fear my old envy. In October I will stare boldly at the hunter and his dog and defy them to crimp my happiness.

Tomorrow The Raven lands in the desert. We will head for the Black Mountains, my hair now cut short, September sun playing on my nape. Burros come out of the hills there to beg. We may go to Kingman for coffee.