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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Gray

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. 

Beauty

north ridge of Teutonia Peak

It is raining, a little. The wind off the little storm front brings the temperature down to a positively comfortable level. It’s almost cool. Not even 80°, and the scent of wet juniper and rock hangs in the air.

How long has it been since I’d climbed Teutonia Peak? Probably that day I was here with Matthew in the wake of the Hackberry Fire, which would put it at the last few days of July in 2005. More than three years. It was eleven years ago I first made this little hike, three miles out and back at most unless you bushwhack around the west face of Teutonia the way I did that first day, and I don’t remember even once noticing, hiking back down from the saddle beneath the summit, how just utterly beautiful the north ridge is. Perhaps it’s the slanting, cloud-filtered light, or the temperate air after an oven summer. Maybe it’s that juniper tang in my nostrils or the slow ebb of the heartbreak that’s preoccupied me these last months. Maybe I’ve noticed it before and just forgot.

Whatever it is, the sight is a fixative. I am suddenly embedded in the moment, a fly in desert amber. The clichéd sensation déjà vu has a lesser-known complement, jamais vu, the sudden feeling that one has never before seen the thing beheld. The sundered rock before me seems wholly unfamiliar, a spectacular surround entirely new.

And of course I recall earlier visits, hiking down into the rocks there with Sharon eleven years ago, clambering over fall after dry fall, marveling at the coffee ferns and lush moss in a desolate desert canyon. Alone a few years later, I dropped down into one of those little defiles before me there between the boulders and found a stripe of wet sand. There was a bighorn sheep hoofprint in the middle of the sand. I watched it fill with seeping wet, my hair standing on end: the print could not have been more than a few minutes old. I do remember being here, and yet I am wholly certain I have never been here before. I am split in two, two selves momentarily occupying the same space.

There is Ephedra growing here, and Echinocereus. The ground is covered in bright quartz gravel. I walk along the little trail, picking my way down the slope. My heart is full and I am content and yet I know this feeling will pass, will become one more memory of past happiness. I regret that for a moment. It is one more ache in an uncountable string of aches, this desire to take this spasmodic stroke of beauty and preserve it in some metaphorical solvent, to fold myself somehow into the landscape and never leave.

Pinyon jays raise a tumult in the Joshua trees. I watch a small flock of them work their way south along the base of the hill. I have no idea what they’re looking for. The closest piñon pines I know of are a dozen miles away, in the Mid-Hills. And are they even there anymore? I took a quick look last year, my first visit to the Hackberry burn since the fire went out, and I couldn’t look closely enough to tell whether any of the pines I’d known had survived. There were a few stands of juniper still living, islands in a charcoal sea.

There was a day I had wanted to become that landscape too, to forever grasp the moment and the smell of sagebrush, the tail of the fat coyote trotting across the rutted dirt of Wild Horse Canyon Road, the loud jays in the piñons and the long view north toward Teutonia and Kessler Peaks, and of all those things I longed to become that day the view still remains. A wall of fire took all the rest, turned sagebrush to smoke and coyote to calcinated ash. Though the jays were likely among the few animals that could outrun the front — at its worst, on June 26, 2005, it advanced five miles in an hour and a half — the trees they fed on were somewhat less able to run away. An animal may escape, but an animal is nothing without the habitat that feeds it, houses it, envelops it as a fossil cast contains its mold. There are piñons in the New York Mountains, the Clark Range, in the McCulloughs; settlement camps for Mid-Hills refugee jays.

Had I become that landscape, my heart would be char and smoke today. Instead I watched from 400 miles away, heart breaking by increment with each bit of bad news, a week that is, in the clear light of retrospect, the commencement of that long slide that culminated in the dissolution of my home and family. Distinct from the incinerated landscape, I survived with no visible scars.

That separation saved my skin, but that separation was as inevitable as breathing. By its very nature self-awareness implies a separation between self and not-self.  Beauty, a transaction between the perceiver and the perceived, could not exist without that separation. It is the obverse of longing’s coin.

Mastamho, the Mojave culture hero, after he summoned Coyote to bring fire for his father’s funeral pyre, after he created the Colorado River, after he apportioned the land and sent the various peoples — the Yavapai, Hualapai and Havasupai, the Chemehuevi, the Kumeyaay and Quechan and Ahamakav — each to their own places, after all his labors, he was tired. He became a fish eagle, according to the story, and now flies back and forth above the river he freed from the sand with his staff. In the process he relinquished his memory, his identity. One cannot merge with the landscape without making a similar though certainly far more prosaic sacrifice.

What would be the point? All is as it should be. I am that part of the desert grown aware of itself, these walls as natural as the chollas’ gloriole of spines. We long the way coyotes howl and ravens quark and datura blossoms clasp themselves closed until the night arrives. And this mountain too will burn, and preventably so. One beloved landscape after another will be lost, and we mourn, and we resolve to fight the next looming loss as inevitably, and as inevitably we will long for the staggering chaotic beauty that replaces them.