Out of the Desert

17 Sep

In the gathering dusk, bats flit through  the garden, and the great cumulo-nimbus clouds  of the tropics turn pink in the fading light of another perfect Bali day.  Half a world, and more than half a century away from my earliest memories, on an equatorial evening,  I wonder if life is a truly a  path as I remember the Mojave.

1953 Rail Excursion to Indian Wells

Mid Century.  It’s unlikely I’ll see the next, which would be one year after I got my congratulatory centenarian phone call from the President.

I  think I may remember this day.  The excursion was to a place called Indian Wells  where there was a swimming  pool.  Living in the desert – without air conditioning – this was a great treat.

This picture is quintessentially 1950s,  the lads in front with their high school jackets and brylcream haircuts.

Mid century – the time of optimism with America  towering above the world as its people went about building prosperity after the war.  I was one statistic making up this picture, born as my father finished Stanford, present at his graduation.  Then he took a job at Trona, in the company town American Potash had built in Searle’s Valley, out in the Mohave.

And my mother.  Her mid calf dress, hair up with bobby pins.  I don’t know where my father was, but I guess  he was at the plant. The only camera he had at the time was the Kodak his father had taken to France in 1917, and which I later used.  It couldn’t have produced an image of this quality.  I have no idea who the older girl in braids was, but their were plenty of them like that in my primary school classes, some of whom I teased, and others I pined for.  The carriage must date from the30s at least, which makes for me this an evocation of an even more distant past.

My brother, on the left, went on to a very troubled life, now mercifully over.  My mother lived long and traveled widely.  Here she seems distracted,  looking perhaps across the sere dessert toward whatever future she imagined, or perhaps wondering how she had come to this place from the tree lined streets and tidy row houses of her Brooklyn neighborhood.   Did she see the open vistas, the empty desert expanses surrounded by low mountains open to an enormous expanse of sky,  as exile?.  Just before her wedding in ’47, she had gone to Europe, visiting relatives in Ireland and England, and seeing a bit of France where she also had friends.  She saw Elizabeth crowned.  Now, she was in a town of cinder block one story houses topped with nearly useless swamp

We lived in a house like this when we first arrived in Trona.

coolers, washing my father‘s khakis stained with chemical spills that would today cause an EPA shutdown.  Her washer was from the twenties, agitator tub and hand cranked rinsing rollers.  Back in Brooklyn, her mother had always sent the laundry out to the Chinese place.

It’s hard  now to comprehend the isolation of such a town.  The nearest dentist was in San Bernardino, hours away on a baking two lane highway.  Motorists carried canvas water bags for overheated engines.  There was no TV.  We listened to the radio.

The Plant. Trona was established as a company town. The population has fallen, as workers now commute from Ridgecrest and China Lake.

In time my father was promoted and we moved to a larger frame house with high ceilings and  a shaded porch.  I don’t remember being hot, but in the summer we had to come in at nine in the morning, and were not allowed out again until four.  That was when my brother and I would run to the plant gates at the end of the street to meet my father, taking turns standing on his shoe tops, and holding on as he galumphed towards home, making giant noises, grumbling, and huffing.

The desert heat may have confined us at times, but the land was also a gateway to freedom, exploration that began in the back yard when we were very little and around town later.  In the yard were salt cedars that were home to noisy and personable jays, and the sand and scrub bushes sheltered lizards and horned toads.  You could have a stare down with a toad as he craftily, bit by bit, wiggled back into the sand to get away from you, or just catch and release.  The lizards were too fast.

Out on the golf course( sand fairways, oiled sand for greens, no water hazards, but plenty of sand traps) we found gila monsters, watching them with a delicious frisson of fearful excitement;  here was poison, danger, and even death, still only an interesting abstract concept.

Not only was the animal life fascinating, but the desert had its own unique human denizens.  The Mohave never had a lot of precious metals, but there had been some short-lived strikes, and not far were there were the gold mining towns of Red Mountain and Randsburg, where rock rats to this day look for that big vein that everyone else has missed.   There had also been a major boom in borax mining in nearby Death Valley, in the late 19th century( the source of the radio, and later TV show Death Valley Days, hosted by, among others, Ronald Reagan), and other mineral extraction operations in the neighboring Panamint and Searle’s valleys followed.

My parents liked to mess around out in the desert, collecting  detritus left by the miners:  tools, bits of harness, water jugs and canteens, and sun struck glass.  And they collected old timers and odd characters as well, striking up conversations with them when they came into town, and having them over for a beer.  One was Indian Joe, a Shoshone who said little, mostly nodding and smiling to himself as rolled his own with one hand.  I remember his leathery copper skin, and grey pony tail.  In town he was always neatly dressed, with a string tie and western shirt.

Not so neat, actually quite filthy,  was Seldom Seen Slim, a semi-recluse who lived in the town of Ballarat, already abandoned when he moved there around 1917.  I remember seeing him  a number of times in the general store where my Dad would take us for a popsicle or soda.  I call him a semi- recluse because in town, he was a non stop talker.  He was a one time experiment as a guest; way too dirty for my mother, but we saw him a number of times when we went to Ballarat.

My father had a friend who also greatly enjoyed these forays, a rock hound and small plane pilot.  He had  a daughter,  with braids, of course, and I remember liking her a lot.  We would skip along trails and scramble over rocks together.

Evening.  We have driven somewhere in the hills up a gravel road, and stopped in a grassy bowl surrounded by tumbled heaps of rock, rounded boulders stacked into monstrous  shapes  that seemed to live in the growing shadows.   My father and his friend punched a couple of Schlitz and leaned against the car.  The sun vanished, leaving an amber glow crowning the rocks, and the sky changed from deep cobalt to purple.   I remember a feeling of immense well being, one that I have since occasionally felt again, one that stems from a perfect unity of place and moment,  and as we grow older, the more poignant for the knowledge that it cannot last.  But not then.

Another time, also up in the hills.  I don’t know who the people we were  visiting were.  Theirs was a fairly well watered place.  They ran some stock, and lived in a  house set in a grassy meadow, with smaller but still intriguing piles of boulders all about,  and rusted hulks of ancient automobiles, as  well as even older horse drawn farm equipment providing ample opportunities to nose about.

They had some kids, quite a few, and after an initial stare off we ran off together with some of them as the adults sat on the porch.  The one story ranch house was plank built,  long and weathered.  In the kitchen,  the lady of the house and some older daughters laughed as they worked.

In the after glow of sunset,  one of the older boys took out a guitar.  The others joined in song and the music drew us back, kids sitting on the steps as the grownups talked between songs, drew on their beers, and some smoked companionably, the flare of a passed march traveling in the darkening gloom.

Then we were called in for dinner, a thick stew, fragrant with celery and carrots.  There was white bread and butter, green beans, sweet pickles, ice tea for the kids, beer out of the can for the grownups.

Some time after that, my Dad’s friend invited us for a spin around the valley.  The plane was a two- seater, unpainted metal, its silvery skin riveted together.   I had to crawl over the wing to get into the cockpit.  I was wearing shorts, and either the hot metal, or the sharp edge of a rivet – something hurt  me, and I began crying uncontrollably.  So I was left on the ground and my Dad went up.

On the way home I cried again, from regret, and promised to be braver next time.  My father said there would be another chance and I would wear dungarees so it would be easier climbing aboard.

Two weeks later his friend flew into the side of a mountain.  The girl and her mother moved to Riverside.  We saw them there some years later, but she and I were no longer little kids.  And there were no rocks or meadows, just low houses on long streets where the utility poles converged at a featureless horizon.

I still dream of the desert.  The shadows in a hidden draw, with a clear pool at the end .  Sometimes a gently rising road between distant low mountains, the white line rising to  meet the sky,  or antelope leaping across the  plains copper in the long twilight.


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