Monthly Archives: October 2008

Letters from the desert: While I’m in New Mexico

Heading to Santa Fe tomorrow to accompany my pal to doctor’s appointments and such. My feeling for this place is surprisingly intense. I will be distilling said feeling into writing over the next couple days. Until I do so, take a look at this document that Pack Member Sven DiMilo shared with us in the Coyote Den, entitled A Report On The Bush Administration Assaults On Our National Parks, Forests and Public Lands (A Partial List). It was compiled by staff of Representative Raúl M. Grijalva (D-AZ), Chairman of the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands. It’s distressing and urgent.

And if you vote for McCain you’re voting for four more years of it.

Letters from the desert: Dark

A few hundred miles of desert two-lane at night, no radio nor moon nor competing traffic to interfere with the cascade of thought, and the dark folds itself in around my pallid headlamps. The high-beams have developed a disconcerting tendency to go out. I drive with the lows these days. I have no working light on the instrument panel save the cheery, comforting red glow of the Check Engine indicator. The dark is near-infinite.

Driving out of the Coachella Valley I felt an odd inversion. I likely know as well as I can the threats to the dark, and yet I imagined the blare of city lights below me a beleaguered thing, hemmed in by a pool of void where the unilluminated desert pressed up against it. It was a relief, this momentary sympathy for the urban carcinoma.

At a party in the desert this weekend I sought The Raven. It was dark. Astronomers from the city had brought a spectacular collection of glass and mirrors. I talked for a while with archaeologists and hydrologists, activists and desert rats, and she had wandered over to peer at distant nebulae. I found her in the crowd but it took some doing, some listening, and she was for some time uncharacteristically silent as she marveled. (It was an utterly appropriate “oh, that’s awesome” that tipped me off.) We went together to a big scope aimed at Jupiter, settling in toward the western horizon behind Wild Horse Mesa, and we gaped at it tennis-ball sized with shimmering stripes of cloud, the Galilean moons arranged prettily on either side.

“All those worlds,” I said as The Raven stepped away from the eyepiece. “Yeah,” she said, awed. “They’re all yours,” I said. “Except Europa. Attempt no landings there.” “What?” she replied.

As we stood at fireside I heard a gasp from another partygoer,and looked up. A brilliant fireball sliced the sky in two, cleaving the heavens across the full width of the valley we were in, little sparks coming off the pink-tinged trail. People looked up from the scopes. “What?”

Letters from the desert: DIY Rapture

The bumper sticker on the Hummer in front of me at the traffic light got me thinking. It read:

“Don’t let the car fool you. My treasure is in heaven.”

I was stuck in traffic in Las Vegas, which heightened the effect a bit. I’d been hiking in the foothills of the Spring Mountains around Red Rock Canyon, drinking in the relatively cool air in the shade of piñon pines and white firs — white firs in the Mojave! — and there was part of me that couldn’t relax on that hike. The current prognosis is what? A five-degree increase in temperature world-wide? And while you never know what a global temperature increase will mean for any specific location, what with changing weather patterns likely bringing more storms to some previously arid locales and thus dropping local temperatures some, I couldn’t help but wonder if the white firs would still thrive in that canyon after a five-degree temperature increase. The nearby mountains, running up to just under 12,000 feet, could provide a refuge for the trees’ descendants if the climate shift isn’t horribly abrupt. Which it might be. But the walls of the canyon along whose bottom I was hiking were only a few hundred feet high, and there isn’t a whole lot of room there for sharply cooler microclimates. Not a whole lot of Merriam Altitudinal Zone difference there.

It sucks, the hiking through a sense of foreboding doom in the woods. I’ve done it way too often, and while some of that is purely due to my own abundant personal reserves of black bile, much of it stems from simply paying attention.

The walk was wonderful nonetheless, but that sense of foreboding stayed with me as I headed through Vegas’ traffic on my way home. And then a traffic light, and it turned red, and I was behind the Hummer and being told, passively, that the Hummer owner’s conspicuous consumption was a mere appetizer to whet his appetite for the banquet of sanctified bling awaiting him in the beyond.

“Holy Hubris, Batman!” I thought to myself, possibly aloud. (I get a little talkative when I’ve been by myself for a few days.)

Then I started the usual leftist, usedtabee Christian unpacking of the worlds of wrongness in that little sticker. There’s an implied “I’m saved” in that sticker, which I’ve long considered a self-negating phrase. As is true of words like “maverick” and “edgy,” if you apply the adjective “saved” to yourself, it’s almost certainly not true. I spent some time vainly trying to remember precisely which verse in Matthew talks about praying on street-corners and how it makes the Baby Jebus cry. I thought about the difference in sizes between an adult Camelus dromedarius and your typical sewing needle’s eye. Would that be three orders of magnitude, or four? I did the math. It’s three.

Then I remembered the similar line in the Song of Songs with an elephant instead of a camel, and that reminded me of Christ’s having famously said that one cannot serve both God and mammoth, and then the light turned green and then the climate-trashing Hummer took way too long to get going and belched black smoke into my vents when it actually did get going and I got even more annoyed.

The depressing thing is, I don’t know for sure the Hummer driver was just a smug, self-satisfied and sanctimonious god-twit. As we’ve seen in the last years — not to be confused with the Last Days — there is a growing crowd of people who call themselves Christians who might actually choose to drive a Hummer because it trashes the climate and belches black smoke. These are the people who voted for the execrable George W. Bush twice, not in spite of his needlessly starting murderous rampages in the Middle East and destabilizing both the political and economic world, but actually because he’d do just that.

These are not just people who actually believe that Jesus is going to rescue them all from this inconveniently material world, where they face indignity and aching joints and traffic lights and people pointing at them and laughing, by taking them and only them to heaven and throwing all of the rest of us into a lake of fire. They are not just those people who further believe that anti-Roman activists from 2,000 years ago meant, in their thinly disguised political screeds, to prophesy this “Jesus II” sequel, and that those same zealots also prophesied that His return would be portended by a bunch of earthly suffering.

No, there are plenty of people who believe both those things, as palpably ridiculous on their face as they may be, and who yet go on to live decent, kind and enjoyable lives as pleasant people who are not any more sociopathic than the next guy.

But as a glimpse at the news will inform you, there are members of the GOP fundamentalist base who actually think, despite reasoning that would get you an F in your grade-school logic class, that since the Rapture will be preceded by turmoil, they can hasten the Rapture by causing that turmoil.

This is approximately the same logic as would be needed to decide that since killer tornadoes in Kansas are statistically linked to appearance of top mainstream media news anchors in the zone of destruction, one need only gather the big names from Fox News in Salina and they’ll be hit by a massive tornado. As good as that idea may sound, it just won’t work.

But they believe it anyway, and so they vote in maniacs and drive planet-destroying vehicles around and encourage the use of nuclear weapons on Muslim people on the theory that they can party hard and destructive but then live in eternal bliss because they’re the elect. Even though the authorities locked up Charles Manson for having roughly the same worldview, these people are allowed to drive around freely, own weapons, and vote.

I’m a tolerant man. But when they start driving Hummers around and shooting wolves from helicopters and otherwise despoiling the planet to hasten the Rapture, that’s when it gets personal for me.

And so, fundamentalist Christians of the US, I’m calling your bluff. I don’t think you really believe that Jesus stuff. If you did, and if you really hated this world that much, you wouldn’t be waiting around all passive-aggressive-like for Jesus to come rapture you all into heaven. The guy already suffered an agonizing death for you. Does he have to do everything? If you loved him you’d return the favor.

In short, I think it’s time you were on your way.

If you really believed what you say you believe, you wouldn’t be wasting your time here. You’d be heading for the Kingdom of Heaven as fast as you possibly could, without even waiting for your landlord to get your security deposit back to you.

Oh, I know what you’ll tell me. Suicide is a sin. I know you hold that it follows inevitably from that Commandment about not murdering — that’d be number six, unless you’re an Opus Dei Catholic, in which case it’s number seven — in much the same way that a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy follows inevitably from Constitutional Amendments One, Four, and Fourteen.

(Again, that’s unless you’re am Opus Dei Catholic, in which case the right to prevent termination of pregnancy follows from the Church’s right to an uninterrupted supply of nine-year-old boys. But I digress.)

Honestly though, given the foreign policy y’all have been supporting, a lot of us have been thinking that Commandment 6 (or 7) has pretty much been ruled obsolete, a quaint historical doctrine, like not wearing mixed fabric garments, or rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s without whining about wanting tax cuts. I think you’ll speed on past that little technicality and right into Heaven.

In fact, I will guarantee to you, on my word of honor, that God will not punish you for killing yourself. It’s a scientific fact.

As for any notion you may have that your sticking around may persuade us to Come to Christ, lemme reassure you: We’re good. You know, us atheists, Jews, Buddhists, Coyote-based pantheists, Episcopalians and Liberation Theologists and whatnot? It’s really time to cut your losses as far as we’re concerned. It’s unlikely we’ll be persuaded. Aside, you know, from a few tenths of a percent of depressed, troubled individuals facing the most uncertain moments of their lives — the unstable, the recently divorced, the insane and the pathologically uncertain. And think about it. Look at your demographics as they stand. Do you really need to add more losers to your ranks?

There are plenty of routes you can take to heaven, I might add. I could show you a bunch of fool-proof high cliffs out here in the Mojave or just drop you off with no water in snake country. I also know that most of you have loaded weapons you could use right now. And there are painless methods too, for you more delicate types. Not all drugs are bad. You could get to the land of milk and honey by putting barbiturates in your coffee!

Mmmmm, honey.

Because really, you know, it’s evil here. It’s ugly and bad and Satanic, with all this blue sky and clean water and ominous birdsong. It’s just a way-station, and you know who hangs out in way-stations, right? Perverts and drunkards and socialists and panhandlers. You don’t want to be one of us now, do you?

So fare thee well, dear fundamentalist friends, and we will miss you as we suffer our torment here with the biodiversity and the evolution and the freethinking and the nasty, nasty sex. Say a prayer for us from your Eternal Reward if you like.

Just please don’t let the Pearly Gates hit you on your asses on your way off-planet.

Unless, that is, you don’t really believe what you’ve been selling. But how likely is that?


Letters from the desert: A quick note or two

I’ll be doing a bit of writing here over the next days, but it’s not ready yet, and I want to push that layout-breaking photo off the front page. (The monitor-breaking photo at top left of the front page stays. Sorry.)

Item: I’m sitting in the Barstow [$CHAIN COFFEE SHOP] at the moment uploading a couple weeks’ worth of photos to the Coyote Crossing Flickr Site, so feel free to take a look.

Item: Among the photos are a couple old ones of Zeke hiking in the Sierra Nevada with my pal Sharon. Sharon’s got some scary health issues these days, and while I don’t believe sending energy does much good, Sharon does, so please do, and now you know what she looks like for purposes of White Light Visualization.

Item: I and several other more talented writers will be reading Monday, October 27 at 6:30 p.m. at the Palm Springs Public Library at a reading to mark the second issue of Phantom Seed. I hope some of you can make it.

Item: I’ll be heading to New Mexico next week for a few days. I may find items of interest along the way to photograph or proseograph. If not, please remember that people other than me can start threads in the Coyote Den.

Item: I was out of touch for a while this summer and I’m wondering, was there a meeting of the progosphere I missed at which it was determined this shit was in any way acceptable? I mean, it’s so easy to get the Lysistrata thing right. You just don’t treat sex as a commodity nubile women ration out to lucky slavering dudes.

Some Democrats deserve to lose.

Vox Clamantis in Deserto

If the next President makes good on his promise to expand the use of nuclear power plants, the desert will pay.

The desert always pays.

Even if it’s the “safe nuclear power” that those of us in the extreme environmentalist community care about. When people talk about “safe nuclear power,” they’re talking about making one very short slice of the nuclear cycle safer: the part where the reactor is functioning. And you know what? I’m prepared to grant it might be possible to design a power-generating nuclear reactor that poses little risk to the environment in the course of normal operation. It certainly wouldn’t be hard to make them safer than the status quo, whether with pebble bed design or some other fourth-generation technology.

But the typical lifespan of a reactor is what, 20, 30 years? Let’s assume a hundred. Let’s grant, for the sake of argument, a hundred years of safe power generation. That’s a thousandth of the nuclear fuel cycle at most. 

The nuclear waste has gotta go somewhere, and that somewhere will almost certainly be the desert. Yes, the amount of waste produced by current designs could be sharply reduced by new nuke plant designs, in theory. Even if they cut it down by a considerable percentage, like 95, it doesn’t matter. Considerably less waste times a justifiably frantic campaign to replace fossil fuels with “carbon-neutral” energy production times the foreseeable future is a very large amount of nuclear waste.

Even if the half-built federal high-level nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain is never finished— and for his part, Obama has committed to killing the project, which I will be glad for when it actually gets killed and not a moment before — even if it is never finished, the desert will pay. Another site in the desert will be found, farther from the increasingly liberal burb of Las Vegas, where opposition to the dump is rock-solid — not because of the danger it poses to the desert, but because it’s only 90 miles away from the MGM Grand. Maybe an impoverished desert tribe will be willing to take on the high-level waste of the nation, the way the Skull Valley Goshute did their toxic waste dump, or the way the Torres Martinez band on the Salton Sea took LA’s sewage sludge on as landscaping material.

Or maybe Yucca Mountain will refuse to die. Harry Reid keeps vowing to kill it, and yet the project seems to stay alive.

The precise location may change, but it seems almost impossible that waste from these new “safe” nukes will end up somewhere other than the desert. Somewhere in the desert, anyway. Conservative Utah, or in Idaho’s Great Basin portion, or someplace in Nevada where the locals won’t kick up as much of a fuss. Probably not in Arizona: McCain supports Yucca Mountain, but squawked about shipping the waste to Yucca Mountain through Arizona. But in the desert.

The other end of the nuclear fuel cycle has affected the desert southwest as well. Uranium mining leaves radioactive mine tailings. The tailings aren’t nearly as radioactive on a pound-for-pound basis as spent fuel, or even as some low-level waste like contaminated moon suits and the like. But people don’t generally inhale moon suits. They do inhale the dust that blows off tailings piles, or for that matter off the equipment they operate in the mine.

Again, that “they” has turned out to be a Native “they” fairly often, whether “they” consist of mine workers, herders in mine country, or for that matter Dineh people affected by the spill of eleven million gallons of radioactive water into the Rio Puerco.

And it’s not just nuclear power for which the desert is asked to pay, as seen in the Sunrise Powerlink issue. I was amused to read a recent Washington Post essay in which science fiction writer Ben Bova advocated a new energy future based on orbiting solar collectors miles in diameter. (Space: the ultimate desert. No one to speak of lives there at the moment, the sun shines non-stop, and, like its equivalent on the surface, it’s littered with discarded junk.) Of course, for the project to have some utility to those of us on the surface, all the energy that gets solarcollected up there would have to get down here somehow, and this would be accomplished by way of a focused beam of microwaves a mile or so across aimed at the Earth’s surface. A miles-wide collector array on the ground would turn the microwaves back into electric power and feed it into the grid.

Three guesses where Bova suggests putting the collectors.

The skies over Laughlin, Nevada, not far from where I sit right now, once turned chocolate-colored on odd days. A power plant was responsible, fueled by coal mined from Black Mesa a couple hundred miles east in Navajo-Hopi country. The coal was shipped by way of slurry line: millions of gallons of the Navajo aquifer was mixed with ground coal into a toxic sludge that was piped across Arizona to Laughlin. The aquifer receded. Desert springs went dry and deep-rooted plants died, and of course there was the little matter of the strip mine on Black Mesa, and the social crisis spurred by relocating people away from the mine.

The Laughlin plant lies dormant now, closed by environmental and native rights lawsuits, waiting for an initiative like “clean coal” to give its single giant pink stack an excuse to smoke again.

The desert would pay for clean coal. Acid from clean coal would emerge from the stack at Laughlin, eat away at the millennia-old petroglyphs uphill at Avikwame.

The grand planners can make the desert pay because on the whole, the desert lacks a voice. The vox clamantis in desierto, the voice crying in the wilderness (and please note that John the Baptist’s “wilderness” referred to in John 1:23 was indeed a desert) is an archetypal synonym for “Cassandra”: a voice heard but unheeded. Despite the existence of a burgeoning group of desert fanciers who’ve gotten to know these delicate lands, people, in the main, simply could not care less about the desert. It’s unpopulated, mostly, and that’s what matters. The desert is not someplace people imagine being for more than the five or seven hours it takes to get to the Luxor. Otherwise, it’s sterile, empty, vacant land, a place where you can do things like put your city’s garbage in a valley next to a National Park (c.f. the proposed Eagle Mountain dump tucked into a pocket in Joshua Tree National Park) or dump your low-level nuclear waste, some of which is highly radioactive despite the innocuous-sounding descriptor, in unlined trenches and then forget where those trenches are (as US Ecology did in Beatty, NV and tried to do in Ward Valley, California).

Even David Brower, the icon of 20th Century environmental activism, traded off a few hundred square miles of desert wilderness as part of a grand plan, agreeing not to oppose a dam in the “place no one knew” in exchange for saving a better-known canyon in Colorado. Dave at least regretted it later, and spent his life trying to find a way to undo the damage. But the Glen Canyon Dam still maintains its tenuous grip on the canyon walls, and the Grand Canyon ecosystem still declines while the Bureau of Reclamation sells electricity to Phoenix. Tourists speed nervously across miles of brilliant Triassic sandstone to plunk their houseboats into the sewage lagoon behind the dam named, in a fit of insulting hubris, for a man who strove to make the desert known to his fellow citizens.

No one knew Glen Canyon and so it was a fitting place to plug up with a cash register dam, to fill it with slackwater so that the BoR could raise money for other projects elsewhere.

Have a useless, dangerous, massive or ugly project you want to put somewhere? The desert is the ultimate vacant lot. Unused land. Empty space. A cipher, and not in the sense of “a thing whose mysteries deserve to be fathomed” but in the sense of “zero.” Even nuking it would be fair use. If you were to look for an image that encapsulates this society’s relationship with the desert, it would be hard to find a more iconic and resonant one than this:

Shot Fizeau

That’s “Shot Fizeau,” an eleven kiloton nuclear “device” set off at the Nevada Test Site on September 14, 1957.

Maybe I’m biased, given my particular botanical-arboreal affections, but when I look at that image the word “uninhabited” does not exactly spring readily into my waking mind. “Deserted,” maybe. I know I’d desert it in a hurry if I saw that cloud, not that the k-rats had that option. Desolate? Useless? Empty? None of those. Aside from the alpha particles and the need for SPF 3E+12 sun block, it looks like home to me.

But that is how the desert is seen by the majority: mostly devoid of people and therefore of little value, and therefore the rightful place for storage of the toxic leavings of industrial society, be those leavings waste from nuclear reactors, or fallout from generations-old atmospheric nuclear weapons tests, or weapons tests and training of the non-nuclear variety, or a metropolis’ trash, or violent ORV-riding lumpenproletarians. It’s a blank slate that seems to compel scrawling.

A few months ago, when the break with my marriage was even more fresh and my future even less certain than it is now, when I was homeless and living out of a suitcase in my Jeep, I walked out into the middle of the Ivanpah Valley at dusk until the red neon of Primm was a blur two miles distant. Powerlines hummed overhead, and the Interstate was a distant roar, but otherwise it was quiet: the wind had calmed and the crickets fallen asleep. I sat down for a while among the creosote, not sure what to do next or whether there even was anything to do next.

At some point I realized the creosote felt familiar and comfortable. An odd sensation: I haven’t spent all that much time in the creosote flats of the Mojave, aside from driving through them to get to the uplands. But it suddenly felt just as much like home as the Joshua trees and blackbrush. That feeling hasn’t gone away, these last months living in Nipton, creosote country at 3,000 feet. Creosote has been home since that night in May. Before, I didn’t worry much about commercial development displacing swaths of cresosote: the stuff is as common as dirt. It’s still common, but I wince now when I see a bulldozer uproot it.

I wonder sometimes whether that unfamiliarity with the desert, that alienation that fuels the lie of the blank slate desert, could be cured with a little sitting. If you could bring them out here, the engineers and the bureaucrats who determine the fate of entire swathes of desert, the offroaders who insulate themselves from the desert they trample with noise and speed and dust and armor, the planners of airports and the reckless drivers desperate to get to the casino bar, if you could bring them out here and park them in the outback with a cushion and a bottle of water and just ask them to sit, would they feel a change growing in them? Would familiarity breed contentment with the desert as it is, and reduce the need to scrawl venom across its face?

And then I shake myself awake. I remember the seemingly endless human capacity for maintenance and repair of that shell of apathy that protects most of us from actual engagement with the world. I remember that each surveyor, each backhoe operator, each off-road vandal and petroglyph defacer will claim to love the desert. I remember the old Gary Larson cartoon with the two loggers eating lunch in a sea of stumps, one saying that he could never work in an office because he loves spending the day in the woods.

Men will follow bighorn rams quietly, sometimes for days, observing them and learning the subtleties of their behavior, claim to reach new heights of respect for their majesty and grace, and then they will shoot them.

The temptation is to give in to despair, to see the mound of shattered beer bottles thrown in the face of the thousand-year-old desert pavement intaglio of Mastamho along the Colorado River near Blythe and decide that there are in fact two species of human, Homo sapiens and Homo phobiens, the latter characterized by its pathological, chronic fear and resentment of anything it does not understand. (The distinguishing feature of a species is reproductive isolation, and be honest: would you fuck ‘em?)

But to give in to that despair is to accept that spurious species division and then choose the wrong side. For every hundred people who find the flimsiest pretext to defend their ossified and cracking world view, there will be one or two who emerge from the shell a little dazed and gaping at the new bright light. I’ve done it myself once or twice, though not as often as I ought.

An hour after The Raven and I met that Mojave green rattlesnake, a woman in nearby Searchlight heard the story and asked if we’d killed it. It hadn’t occurred to either of us that that was an option. The snake was a neighbor and was merely suggesting we stay off its lawn. It had been a privilege to meet that snake. Ed Abbey famously described his “humanism” as consisting of the fact that he’d “sooner kill a man than a snake,” and while I don’t completely agree with the first half I related the quote to the woman anyway. She laughed and promised to use the line.

You do find enough people like her, willing to be flexible in their thinking, enough people willing to notice the Joshua trees in front of the mushroom cloud, to keep hope’s pilot lit. They make up, a little, for those who reflexively dismiss protecting the desert as an extremist pursuit.

They make the despair a little less tempting. But only a little.

If the next President makes good on his promise to expand the use of nuclear power plants, the desert will pay. The desert always pays. The President may nod and look concerned and express regret over this sad but necessary sacrifice of the Amargosa River basin near Yucca Mountain, or he may regretfully spearhead some other dump elsewhere in the desert to open in 25 years, or he may express no regret at all and talk about technological enterprise triumphing over adversity. And then he will leave office and a new President will come into power, and years and generations will pass, and the United States will first cease to exist, then pass out of memory altogether. The world’s climate will shift. Rain will reach the desert again, the way it did when people first lived here, and the Amargosa River will run fresh and sweet year-round.

And the people who live there, or whatever comes after people are gone, will know that the sweetness of the water belies a crippling illness swiftly visited on those who drink it, and they may attribute that illness to some malevolent entity, some sort of evil force that considers their welfare unimportant.

And they won’t be wrong.

Stop the Sunrise Powerlink: Call Now

I want you to pick up your phone today and call California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger at (916) 445-2841. You may be on hold for a few minutes after you choose the voice mail option for “express your opinion on a hot issue.” You’ll talk to a human being after a short wait. Tell that human being that the Sunrise Powerlink transmission line routes now proposed for Imperial and San Diego counties are

1) destructive of desert wilderness in Anza Borrego State Park and nearby wildlands;

2) dangerous, given that the lines are expected to spark catastrophic wildfires in the backcountry every 15 years or so, and;

3) unnecessary, given that rooftop solar is a cheaper and more reliable way of providing southern California with electrical power.

You can also, if you choose, point out that Arnold has a good record on environmental issues (which, I am pained to report, he really does, for a Republican) and that he has a chance to keep that record intact here.

If you don’t want to use the phone, the DesertBlog has email links for you with pre-formatted messages. They also have links to more info.

Here’s the background.

Sunrise Powerlink is a project of Sempra Energy, a San Diego-based natural gas company and an indicted co-conspirator in the Enron-era gaming of California’s electricity markets. Sempra is owner of San Diego Gas and Electric company. One of the less-noticed aspects of the deliberate energy shortage in California in 2000-2001 was Sempra’s development of a power generating infrastructure in Baja California, centered on building gigantic Liquid Natural Gas (LNG)-fueled generating stations. An LNG terminal was finished this year in Costa Azul. The LNG is pumped out of the ground in Indonesia, chilled to cryogenic temperatures, then shipped on tankers to Costa Azul, where it is warmed back into a gas and piped to generating stations in the border town of Mexicali, Baja’s largest city.

A side note: aside from being yet another way of burning fossil fuels, LNG facilities and the ships that supply them are quite dangerous. LNG is highly explosive. An LNG tanker, or a pipeline or storage tank, presents a vulnerable target of opportunity for terrorism. A rocket-propelled grenade hit on an LNG tanker in a harbor could rival the World Trade Center attack in levels of carnage. This is one reason Sempra built the Costa Azul terminal in expendable Mexico rather than, say, Long Beach.

In order to get the electrical power from Baja to San Diego, Sempra/SDG&E says it needs new transmission lines from Mexicali to the coast. This makes a limited amount of sense only if we ignore certain tech developments I’ll get to in a minute, and if we also ignore the burgeoning respiratory ailments among kids in Baja that will be excacerbated by burning LNG under Mexico’s lax emissions standards, and if we further ignore that whole global warming issue, about which Sempra’s CEO Don Felsinger is on record as being in that abject flat-out denial typical of energy company CEOs.

And given California mandates to support new, carbon-neutral power generation, Sempra’s stated plan to hook the east end of the Sunrise Powerlink into geothermal, wind, and solar farms in the Imperial Valley’s desert could lead one to decide, after a superficial review, that new powerlines could make sense. Were you to decide that — wrongly, as we’ll see in a bit — there’s a transmission line corridor already in place that Sempra could use along Interstate 8, the route used by the existing Southwest Powerlink transmission lines, at present San Diego’s sole link to California’s grid, an Achilles heel that was the subject of much discussion during the fake power crisis of 2000-2001.

But instead, Sempra wants to run the Sunrise Powerlink through remote bighorn sheep habitat in Anza Borrego Desert State Park, bringing heavy construction equipment in to build towers and right-of-way roads and bringing latrines and noise and diesel exhaust into wilderness. It would be the first time wildland in California is removed from wilderness designation for a private industrial project. It would be devastating to Anza Borrego’s bighorn, whose habitat in California’s part of the Sonoran Desert is already fragmented to hell and back.

Perhaps worse, though SDG&E employees have lied about it in public testimony, the transmission towers are expected to spark huge wildfires in the chaparral west of the desert at least once every 15 years. Last year’s catastrophic Witch Fire, that burned from the outback nearly to the ocean, was caused by an arcing SDG&E transmission line.

And some people estimate that the fuel needed to build the line through remote desert and chaparral would more than offset any carbon conserved by the “green power” farms in the Imperial Valley, even if wildfires don’t release wild carbon on a regular basis.

The proposed Sunrise Powerlink alignment makes so little economic or ecological sense that its Environmental Impact Statement identifies six or seven preferable alternatives, with “don’t build it at all” leading the list.

So why does Sempra want to push a transmission corridor through Anza Borrego? Because the slightly economically preferable, somewhat more environmentally sound alignment along Interstate 8 is too far south for Sempra to hook in to Southern California Edison’s distribution grid, which would allow Sempra to sell electricity to Los Angeles. Sempra and SDG&E downplay these plans, but staffers have privately admitted that a substation along the proposed route exists to hook into LA’s grid.

Publicly, however, Sempra and SDG&E cast their project as a way of keeping San Diego’s lights on with “green energy” from the Imperial Valley.

This is where that tech development I referred to earlier becomes relevant to the argument. It used to be argued that the only cost-effective solar electric generation came from gigantic industrial facilities in the desert, mirrors focusing the desert sun on fluid which, thus heated, runs turbines. Photovoltaics, the kind of solar panels that convert light directly to electricity with no moving parts, were just too expensive for widespread use, it was said, and were practical only for very remote areas, affluent environmentalist homeowners wanting to make a point, and novelty gadgets.

But if that was ever true, it’s changed. In the last few months the cost of thin-film photovoltaics has dropped by half. Southern California Edison announced this year that it was going to spend $875 million to install rooftop thin-film solar panels on commercial buildings in Los Angeles, and that this would generate enough power to supply 162,000 private homes.

Do the math. That’s a wholesale cost of $5,401.25 per household, well within the amortization range of many property owners even if you don’t expect any government or utility company rebates. (Payments on a $5,500 5-year loan at 6% fixed interest would be $106 a month. How much is your electric bill?)

San Diego is even sunnier than Los Angeles, so the power generated per dollar spent would likely be a bit higher. Local generation means less reliance on fragile distribution lines, less energy lost in transmission, and a generally more robust power generating infrastructure, making not only the northern alignment of the Sunrise Powerlink utterly unnecessary but also obviating any need even for the southern route, for the LNG terminals and polluting turbines in Mexicali’s poor neighborhoods, or for Don Felsinger’s executive compensation. A good outcome all around.

And in fact, there’s something called the “San Diego Smart Energy 2020” plan, based on rooftop solar and local generation and efficiency, that would reduce San Diego’s carbon footprint significantly more than the greenwashed Sunrise Powerlink would at best.

So why call Schwarzenegger today? Because the Final EIR for the Sunrise Powerlink is out, and SDG&E is mobilizing supporters to call the Governor’s office, and because Arnold has some historic campaign funding ties to Sempra that are complex enough to cause Federal Election Commission investigators to scratch their heads, so he may well be leaning in a pro-Sempra direction. The more people like us he hears from, the easier it will be for him to do the right thing. California voters’ input is especially important, but we all know Arnold’s paying attention to the rest of the country as well.

I’ve made my call already. (916) 445-2841. Or see here for email links. Your message is important. Please spread the word by linking to this post or DesertBlog, or both: blog posts, Twitter, email, whatever. The bighorn thank you.

The Memory of Water

This is my whole life: driving alone through the landscapes of the arid West. There is someone waiting for me at home, or there is no one waiting for me at home, or I am already home, watching the far horizon recede through the dust-spattered windshield. It doesn’t matter. My whole life. I have been single, and I have been in love, and I have been somewhere in between, mired in relationship, and driving alone in the land where rivers end their lives in sterile saline sumps.

I have made journeys in the company of others, and that company is fine as often as not. Conversation makes the miles pass more easily, stories to share and delicious arguments over trivia and then road’s end is reached and the prosaic story begins, travel forgotten. Driving alone my mind is untethered. Ideas float to the surface, pass, are forgotten. Resolutions made and dissipated. I have reached profound decisions, come to startling realizations, all of them left at roadside: a desert paved with stony, discarded thoughts. They run in drifts beneath the surface, an alluvium of discarded intellect.

The road slices through a ridge in an alluvial fan. The cut exposes drifts of cobbles, lens-shaped in cross-section, and bands of finer gravel and sand alternate between them. Each pocket of rounded rock commemorates a violent flood. Each layer of gravel a more temperate flow. The sand that covers them all blown in from the beds of lakes dead a million years, beaches that fringed seas with plesiosaurs in them.

I travel the desert landscape like water. I follow the path of least resistance. I meander, each obstacle deflecting me in turn. Mountains drift past incised with deep and narrow canyons. Water carved them in torrents, then dried up. Cones of rubble repose at the canyon’s mouths: water shaped them by flood, then rose as vapor. Salt dust covers the flats, rises in swirling dust devils a quarter-mile high. Water filled the valley floors, seeped in from the subsoil, evanesced to leave mats of haline crystals to crumble beneath my boot soles. The rock itself laid down on the beds of unnamed seas 12 thousand years ago, 12 million years ago,  120 million years ago. The lakebed dried beneath the feet of unimaginable thirsty animals. You can still trace the cracks with your finger.

I am likewise canyon-carved, brought forth into a wetter world and green, toes perpetually wet within their leather, welts of mosquitoes a constellation on my skin. Water was everywhere there. I breathed it in to flow from my brow. I watched the sky for gray encroaching. A lushness surrounded all, an excrescence of green, an immediacy of leaf in bud. The very rock was different, smooth gray shales still wet inside where I broke them, their smell that could slake my thirst. A slap of flat tail behind the reeds, all shimmering beyond. It was like that here once, it was like that in me once, my heart’s flow caught content in glowering schist chasms beneath the hemlock and hobblebrush, Queen Anne’s lace in the meadow. Every growing tip shrieked joyous here and now. Rain that forced us down off the mountain gave way to wet sunlight just as our hike ended.

All memory now, that water dried up in me; a promise turned astringent, sweet springs gone alkaline.

All memory, that water. The memory of water shapes this desert. There is remembered water all around me, sharp cutbanks and sinuous stripes of sand, lost lakebeds’ laminated layers. I could drink it all and still fall parched and gasping to the rock.

Letters from the desert: The kind of place I live

On my way to a hike today (and more on that to come) I stopped at the Cima, CA post office. (My mail arrives there at PO Box 43, 92323: send a letter!)

There was a roadrunner in the parking lot when I got there.

I left and went on my hike (and more on that to come) and when I passed the Post Office on my return some time later, there was a coyote loitering in the parking lot.

Next time I check my mail I’m taking an umbrella. A guy never knows when an anvil might fall out of the sky.

Because someone had to

because someone had to

[updated] Howdy, internets! Feel free to have a look around. I’m still working on making the place a little more navigation-friendly, an onerous task when you’re doing molasses-slow satellite internet from a laundromat in the desert. But here are links to a recent post on Sarah Palin, another political but arguably more prettily written post on development threats to the desert valley I live in, and an assortment of other desert writing on various & sundry desert topics, including what I wryly and privately call the site’s “mission statement.” Have fun!

Letters from the desert: Jarhead

At the wheel on Saturday afternoon, The Raven flinched. “What the…?” A low black sports car came out of nowhere behind us on Kelbaker Road, passed us doing at least 40 miles per hour more than our sedate 60 or so, and straddled the center line as it sped toward the dunes.

“What’s wrong with him?” The Raven takes it personally when people casually endanger her life. She’s funny that way.

“He seems to be having trouble choosing a lane,” I observed.

The Kelso Depot was closed when we arrived, but we decided to walk around a little bit in the oddly chill air. We pulled into the lot and parked next to a low black sports car. A young man with a military-issue haircut emerged from the restroom, walked past us diffidently and got in his car. “Aha,” I said. He fishtailed out of the gravel lot and sped up the road to Cima.

The Raven and I walked around the old Depot, now tricked out as a visitor center and museum. We looked in windows, our breath clouding the glass. A sign warned against feeding the local kit foxes.

“This is the shortest route between the 29 Palms Marine Corps base and Las Vegas,” I told The Raven. “The jarheads speed through here like maniacs when they get a couple days of leave. Sometimes they roll their cars and die.”

Half an hour later, heading down Morning Star Mine road after I picked up my mail at Cima, we saw lights in the sky, circling. A few miles farther on a low black sports car had left the road, plowed a furrow in the desert. It had come to rest on its driver’s-side door. The young man paced at the shoulder.

The Raven waited in her car as I walked up to him. He was shaken and said his head hurt, a little. He declined my offer of water but thanked me, and said that help was on its way. He stood there patiently for a moment as I looked deep into his eyes.

Another quick tech note

Those of you who subscribe to Coyote Crossing by email will likely have noticed the old blog’s name on the email feed. I fixed it just now: thanks for your patience. And if you’re wondering why I took this route to apologize to email subscribers when I owe both of them phone calls anyway, it’s because it’s an excuse to let everyone else know they can subscribe to Coyote Crossing by email. Thanks.