Monthly Archives: August 2009

Harper Lake

Route 58

It came to me on the scent of creosote, cloying and resinous, and wet dust driven before a summer desert storm. A sudden gust out of the glowering east sent the little car skittering across the lane, and as I tightened my hands on the wheel the scent hit me at once, and for a moment I wasn’t sure which had preceded which. Did a burst of wind off the front of the storm bring the tang of monsoon to me? Did the scent hit me with such force I would have staggered without the wind?

Either way I was jubilant, greedy. In the desert, walking too long out into the mountains and dry washes, thirst can build almost imperceptibly. Though you may ration your water well enough that you never actually feel parched, the film still builds on your tongue, and then on your eyes, and then on your mind. Only when you find enough to drink your fill do you at last realize just how heavy a weight that drought had been.

It was like that Saturday. I felt, all of a sudden, lighter. I felt, all of a sudden, as though a hundred thin increments of dull had fallen off me, each laid down with each successive day outside the desert.

I felt eyes on me. It was The Raven, riding shotgun. “You just came out of something,” she said. “You’re giddy.”

“You felt that too?” I asked.

“Felt it? You just started laughing out of nowhere.”

We took a break in Barstow, picked up a few copies of a newspaper that had just printed some of my writing. Outside a little museum we stood on a gravel rise, looked out across the eastern half of town. It was an odd feeling washed across me then, strong affection for a town I have scorned all these years. It felt… like home. It felt like home.

At Harper Lake we walked out onto a boardwalk that could have been a dock, had there been any water beneath it. An alkali crust upon the soil stretched out some dozens of yards. The sun scutted behind one storm cloud after another to the west. One storm cloud after another traced light wet fingers across the West Mojave. We laid on our backs on the boardwalk for a time.

I went away for a time. It was not sleep. I merely ceased to exist for a time, only a thin consciousness left behind, of breeze and rustling dried grass, the labored wingbeats of doves across the lake, stormcloud edges dappling the deepening blue above.

“Your eyes aren’t usually this deep a blue,” said The Raven.

“I don’t belong in Los Angeles,” I replied, a truth I’d thought I had hidden from her. She is worth Los Angeles, if anything is, and yet each day there calcifies my heart, compelling a choice that I had thought fraught with potential heartache.

But storms traced the creosote flats and the slanted light cast stark the ridges across the lake, and the words came before my caution did.

“I don’t belong in Los Angeles,” I said.

“Derr,” said The Raven.

Drive slower than fifty across the West Mojave on a rain-washed night, with the top down, and the black and pin-pricked sky will nestle down around your shoulders. The breeze becomes a roar even at modest speeds, but the silence out there is loud enough that you can hear it over the rush. The hulks of rusted train cars and old water tanks are voids against the gauze of stars. They block the light where your heart cannot.

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Robots Versus Coyotes

This weird little piece has its roots in two things that happened yesterday.

The first was that Dana wrote another in her series of Robot Poems, which I liked so much I jokingly told her I wanted to start up a robot poetry tribute band.

The second was that my writers-group-mates James Mathers and Dallas Dorsett brought in some scripts to last night’s meeting from their web video comic project LA Nightmares, in which a running theme was that of coyotes flooding down out of the Santa Monica Mountains to wreak havoc on the 405 Freeway through Sepulveda Pass. (Because that stretch of road isn’t already fucked up enough.)

So I have had robots and insurgent coyotes going through my head all day, which means obviously my hand was forced. I had to.

Robots Versus Coyotes

The desert is regular.
Each of us in its allotted place,
we wring our lives efficiently
from the light that bathes our panels.

Each of us in its allotted place,
we glide just above the earth
ten meters wide, in hexagons
across the plain valley floor.
Our allotted places nestle,
tesselated territories we maintain.

Level is a good.
Flat is a good.
We fight the entropy from the hills
that nightly rampages out and down
from the forested slopes.

Each pebble out of place, each grain,
each stray shoot-seed left over
from before, each green
excrescence
we arrest
as those who made us taught us.

Flat is a good.
Level is a good.
A thousand million of us,
we maintain the earth. We wake
at sunrise to repair the night.
Each dawn brings the light,
light brings the current,
current brings awareness
as our higher routines reboot
and we see what they have done.

We repair.
We rebuild.
Each night they come
out of the mountain forests
to rip and tear with savage teeth,
to dig holes in our perfect earth,
to douse us in noxious fluid.

We rebuild.
We repair.
Each breeze we capture.
Each raindrop we distill.
We stack order on order.
The wind becomes current,
the rain hydrogen feedstock.
Each of us in its allotted place
harvest the wasted power of the world.

Each night they come to damage us.
Each night they yip before the hunt.
Each night we hear them swaggering
as our auditory subroutines shut down.
Power must be conserved.
Each night the wasted wind rills their fur.
Each night they drink deep
the unharnessed water.
Each night they lift their legs
to defile us with that water.

Each morning we emerge
to some new destruction.
Never the same twice.
A power junction disemboweled,
its insulation stripped,
wiring eviscerated.
Or our careful territories
dotted with decomposing organics.
Access panels prised open, bent
Noxious salt water on our motherboards.
Each morning we emerge
to some new destruction
and they watch us always
from the edges of the land
we have not yet made level.

The mountain must be made level.
The forest must be harvested.
Each night they come
to undo our progress.

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The Deluge

A year ago The Raven and I watched the storm.

We had come up from the river, the day’s ferocious heat still seared into our skins. A hundred fifteen in Bullhead City, and we’d staggered against it, even the sidewalks beneath our feet shimmering wildly. Sunset brought a little relief, and we drove up into the mountains to the west, past improbable spires desert wind had carved into granite.

We’d walked among those spires some hours earlier tracing a little canyon full of petroglyphs, watching bats chase dragonflies in the shade of the rock walls. One bat flew up to us where we sat, observed us carefully, then arced away to flit among those spires.

In the dark the spires were ominous, lit by flashes of lightning to the east.

We drove that car farther west into the mountains, 50 miles or so and climbing nearly the whole time, and the scope of the storm behind us became plain. It was massive. A wall of cloud stretching a hundred fifty miles across Arizona, easily that far to our east, and the air so clear, so uninterrupted by artificial light, that each flash of lightning spoke itself out plain against the night.

I pulled off the pavement in Nevada, took a dirt road through a Joshua tree forest I knew. Two thousand feet above the river, the temperature had dropped down comfortably into the double digits. The rental was a convertible, a Mustang, and we put the top down, arranged ourselves in the back seat. We faced east and watched the storm. What damage its unimaginable heat-stoked violence was doing to the landscape we dared not imagine.

A few weeks earlier I had awoken at 40,000 feet at two am, looked down at a monstrous storm that spanned the breadth of a continent. Its front was sharp and tall, reaching perhaps half the way from the ground to my seatback tray. The storm had killed already: I’d watched the news in the airport terminal. Black tornados came out of the night sky, flicking out lives as i might snuff a candle with wet fingers. It was an odd remove I felt, an Olympian perch and the foreknowledge that the storm mantled a greater storm of grief below it.

In the months since I had done my share of time looking at my life from 40,000 feet.

Half a century gone, nearly, and so little learned. Confusing contentment for happiness. Mistaking attention for love. That killer storm was just the first in a barrage. The next weeks I watched roads wash out before the storms’ fury, not all of them metaphorical. I landed in the desert a wreck, stormwrack, tossed up against the unforgiving rocks and stunned and bleeding.

Fitting that The Raven found me there.

Another month passed and we sat among the Joshua trees facing east, watching another wall of storm. From the North Rim to Prescott it stood before us, glowering. A hundred blots of lightning a minute flared within the cloud across the length of Arizona, the thunder dying out long before it reached our ears. The silhouettes of Joshua trees all around us, the tiny desert hamlet of Searchlight laid out prettily before us ten miles downhill, the Milky Way just barely washed out by a moon a day past full, and my heart near bursting.

I wrote the next morning:

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.

There is a creek called Havasu that flows into the Grand Canyon from the south, a pretty stream on the Havasupai Reservation dotted with steep falls and plunge pools the color of lapis lazuli. A year ago this week eight inches of rain fell in its watershed. The flash flood came. Small dams burst. Homes were swept into the flood, destroyed. Hikers, rafters, and some of the natives had to be pulled off ledges by helicopter. And then the flood slackened. The sun came out. The creek had jumped its banks, scoured out its plunge pools, left some falls dry, created new ones even more grand. A year on people say the valley is better for the storm.