Tag Archives: Mojave National Preserve

Desert Pavement

lava desert pavement

This wind is a tide. Plant your footsoles on the earth: the wind will scour the sand out from underneath, send you toppling backward into the holes it digs beneath your heels. It is relentless. It is patient. Sandgrain after wind-driven sandgrain blasts the surface, wearing down rock, dislodging in turn other grains of sand.

Outside the desert, plants hold the soil in place with a net of roots. Atop this lava flow only the most resolute of plants survive, the red-spined Ferocactus and gray Atriplex hymenelytra, Mojave yuccas a few decades old and wizened. They stay far apart. Between them the surface of the earth is bare, a few wisps of annual grasses the only adornment, and those blown away nearly as readily as the sand.

The tide-wind digs out holes beneath each rock. Each pebble, each fist-sized crag of basalt moves in the wind. A little to the left; the wind carries away sand beneath it to the right. The rock tilts into the new-dug hole, and the wind scours the open sand on the other side. Each rock grinds itself into the soil. The wind works hardest on those that still rise above their neighbors. Sand smooths away the sharp lines, the corners and apices.

Each year or two the rains come and spend themselves against the earth. Where rain hits sand it flings it upward, roughens the soil so that the wind can work it. Where rain hits rock the rock absorbs the blow.

Wind and rain favor the rock. At length the desert paves itself, a tight and fragile skin, small rocks interlocking each one with its neighbors. All else is stripped away. Anything the wind can scour, anything the rain can drown is stripped away.

Last week I stood serene atop an old lava flow in the company of Atriplex and Ferocactus. I envied them their tenure. I envied them their tenacity. I would have stayed there with them permanently, were it possible: stayed to watch the winters pass into springs, to watch the rocks smooth and dwindle under the stream of sand.

It struck me then that for all their armor, for all their bristling spines and thorns and bitter saponin glycosides, the plants were vulnerable. Had my feet grown roots into the lava, had I sunk taps into the desert to sip a quart a month and watch the sun, I would have been as vulnerable. I would have watched helpless as the Sahara mustard filled the spaces between the yuccas, dried and caught fire. I would have watched the brome tinge the earth a deeper red. I would have watched ten thousand sunsets and a storm of new industry scathing the desert wilderness. Though I cannot stay here with them I can at least move to defend them, I thought, and then there in that desiccated place came a sodden realization: because I can, I must.

Bit by bit it gets stripped away, all of it. All that I was stripped slow away by the tide wind, and what is left? This desert and my obligation to it, our only armor the coals of old fires long ago gone cold and black, a paved and broken skin to parry the wind.

US National Park Meme

I call the Mojave National Preserve “The Park” as often as not, but I’m painfully aware that it isn’t one. The difference between “Preserve” and “Park” status? Hunting is allowed in National Preserves. Letting hunters shoot things in the Preserve was a compromise reached in the 1994 California Desert Protection Act that pacified a key constituency opposed to Park status for what had been the East Mojave Scenic Area.

(Did you know that you can shoot all the coyotes you want in the preserve, any time of year, if you have a valid license? That’s not specific to the Preserve: it’s California law. Still. There are pumas in the Preserve, including at least one who skulks around Cima Dome, but given their relative numbers coyotes still function as the top predator in the Preserve. Yet it’s legal to kill them all if you can. This hardly strikes me as sensible management, and I imagine Preserve staff would likely agree were their hands not tied. I can understand shooting one if she’s trying to raid your lamb pen — it’s not a feasible solution long-term, but I can understand the impulse. But what kind of sick person would stalk and shoot coyotes for fun? A sane society would keep tabs on people like that, the way we do now with convicted sex offenders.)

Where was I?

Oh, yeah. There are plenty of full-fledged US National Parks where hunting isn’t allowed: 58 of them, in fact. A list of them, cut-n-pasted from Wikipedia, is below the fold. In the spirit of those “crazy things you’ve done in your life” memes, I’ve bolded those I’ve visited. Feel free to do the same in comments, (though just deleting the ones you haven’t visited might be easier!) or on your own blog, and let us know you’ve done it. Don’t see one in the list you know you’ve visited? It’s probably a National Preserve or a National Monument, or one of the dozen or so other categories of Park Service unit. Perhaps even a National Forest. Non-US residents can participate by telling us about some of the fine parks outside the belly of the beast. And yes, this list reflects a certain amount of assumption of privilege in that travel costs money and time, and if you’ve been unable to do the Parks Tour thing, feel free to tell us about a local place you like, NP, National Monument, State Park, or otherwise.

Bonus question: what’s the next National Park you’d like to visit?

Oh, and it’s not a meme unless you tap people for it, so I’m pointing at Rana, Sherwood, RonArvind,  and Dave.

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The first storm of winter will come a day from now, or two. At noon today the clouds arrived, a cirrus haze thin as a knife’s edge. Over Nevada the sky was still pale turquoise, but gray lowered in the west.

By two the sky was wrapped in gauze.

On Cima Dome at four it was too cold to sit still. The breeze made me tremble through two thin layers of shirt, and I clambered a while in the rocks to warm up. A hundred feet from the place I parked the Jeep, a mature barrel cactus grew flanked by blue yucca. I’ve slept a hundred feet away on occasions too numerous to recall, for a dozen years, and never found it until today.

My hands shook with the cold. The photos I took are blurred, but I will remember the cactus now. I will go back with a tripod, and a sweater.

I clambered in the rocks, which did not warm me.

The gray light provoked detail that summer blaze obscures. The cold drove every living thing to shelter. Every living thing save me, save a lone raven out on the roadside, disconsolate quarks ringing above the earache wind.

A flake of rock came loose beneath my boot. We did not fall. I wiggled it deliberately, tooth in a socket eight feet above the ground, hanging on to the shelf above with numbed hands.

Disconsolate quarks. This place a constant in my life if I indeed possess a constant, and each visit reveals some new wonder previously overlooked. Under my nose. I spent some time berating myself for my incuriousness, my ability to spend a decade and change in desultory visits to this place and miss a globe of bright red spines thirty seconds’ walk from the firepit. Was the fire too seductive? The bag too warm? A more systematic man would have catalogued the Dome by now, would have mapped each mile of old two-rut and run quadrant surveys over a decade’s change, pit-trapped the local rodents and counted the fleas, memorized the chemical composition of the basement rock.

It is a doubt long-smouldering inside me, and now and then the world will kindle a little bright flame from that coal. Now and then, in fact, I seek it out, afraid that I have grown too proud and I seek out something, some memory, some person that will bring me low. It is a sickness, of sorts. It is a well-marked trail that skirts the peaks.

A thought came to me, later than it should have: what if this shelf above my head will not bear my weight?

The Dome is a crenellated landscape, though. No shame in finding an embrasure I had missed. My time here over the years has mainly been spent in distracted observation, each day a set of tangents nested within tangents. Today a whim took me through a field of boulders I had not previously crossed. I saw something I had not previously seen.

A sharp pain in my shin: my attention turned inward and recursive, I’dwalked into a blue yucca. Its spines left punctures that burned for a few moments after I pulled away.

Tomorrow or the next day the rain will start to hit the valley floor. Above 4,000 feet it will fall as snow. This pile of boulders sits at 5,500 feet, and Joshua trees will likely greet Thursday morning draped in white and languid ribbons on their upper surfaces. I woke up here once a thousand years ago, with Matthew, after snow had fallen in the night. We sipped our coffee and waved our arms in glee, and our shouts fell muffled on the snow-mantled Dome.