Life in Desert Places

“And the desert, the dry and sun-lashed desert, is a good school in which to observe the cleverness and the infinite variety of techniques of survival under pitiless opposition.  Life could not change the sun or water the desert, so it changed itself.”

In all our travels, we’ve discovered that a lot of places don’t quite live up to the expectations created by their reputations. Florence, for example, was a disappointment. Or Madrid–meh. But Joshua Tree is not one of those places. It is everything it’s cracked up to be: gorgeous landscape, great hiking and climbing, and surprisingly abundant wildlife and plant life.

As we drove in the yucca were in bloom, huge flags of white flowers on one long stem, towering up to 12 feet above the ground.  Today we saw the whole desert abloom.  Pink, purple blue; yellow, orange, white.  Alissa grew up in LA but she’d never seen any of these flowers before.  It was a cool day, 70F in mid-afternoon, so the birds and lizards were out enjoying the sun as well. We were amazed by the colors and the smells, and we felt fortunate; this only happens for a few weeks out of every year, and we were there to see it.

We’ve also seen quite a bit of wildlife along the way.  In the Petrified Forest we saw an antelope cross our path; as the sun was setting he leisurely meandered up to the road and then ambled across it, oblivious first to our screeching brakes and then to our panicked bumbling with the camera.

In the Painted Desert we saw coyote tracks, and coming down the pass south of Prescott on Highway 9 we saw the real thing cross the road.  We’ve seen roadrunners and enormous hawks and several kinds of lizards whose names we are too ignorant to know.  There is so much variety here, in a place that we so often envision as barren.

We hiked to Lost Palms and Mastadon Peak, we climbed Skull Rock and saw the Hidden Valley. And even in the places that looked devoid of life at first glance, we found small surprises: a rock quail perched atop Skull Rock, lizards sprawled in the sun or digging tunnels in the shade; wildflowers clinging to the south sides of sheer cliffs, oases of water between palm trees, and even wild lilies in Hidden Valley.

There are stories of Hidden Valley being used by cattle rustlers and thieves of various stripes; tough, sun-browned men who were hard enough to eke out a living in a place where those they stole from were too soft to follow. Just one of the infinite variety of survival techniques Steinbeck mentioned. And it’s not so far from here to the origins of our species, who sprang from watered valleys in the middle of vast deserts, and developed their own ingenious techniques to change their environment in ways the desert-dwelling plants and animals could never have conceived.

Later as we roasted marshmallows around the campfire, Alissa asked how our primal ancestors would feel if they could see us using their primary tool, fire, to roast marshmallows. Matt said if they’d had marshmallows, they’d have done the same. Even with the marshmallows and the fancy tent and the fast car, when we’re out here under the vast sky full of stars, listening to the coyotes sing to the moon, it’s easy to feel that we’re not so distant from them after all.

Scott Joplin & Breakfast Burritos

“There are times that one treasures for all one’s life, and such times are burned clearly and sharply on the material of total recall.  I felt very fortunate that morning.”

Why It’s Called the Painted Desert

When the sun came up over the desert we could feel the heat instantly; it was that more than the light that woke us. The wind and the air were still cool but we could feel the sun burning holes through the night air in preparation for a blazing day. The sky was clear, deep blue. On the hike out we met a father and son from Arkansas on their way to Pilot Rock. He wanted to know whether we’d seen any animals, and whether it was going to rain. He seemed disappointed that we’d only seen birds, and coyote prints, and that as far as we knew there was no rain predicted.

Home Sweet Tent

As we reached the lip of the canyon after a long hot climb from the desert floor and were loading our gear into the trunk of the car, we heard the surreal waft of ragtime music on the wind. We looked up to see an enormous cavalcade of 25 motorcycles snaking their way along the cliff-top highway. The lead motorcycle was playing Scott Joplin at high volume, and the whole train was caboosed by a 16-passenger van towing a trailer with “Bob’s Harley Tours” scrawled on the side in big orange letters. Selling the quintessential American experience, complete with soundtrack and emergency provisions.

Joe and Aggie’s Cafe, an institution on Route 66

After our long hike out of the desert we were starved. We stopped for breakfast at Joe and Aggie’s, a locals’ place with faux wood panelling on the walls, ceiling fans and a swamp cooler, leather booths, reading material on the tables, kitschy souvenirs for sale at the glass-topped front counter, and an old jukebox that’s probably been “Out of Order” for a decade or more. It’s family owned and operated, by which they mean that Grandpa sits silently and stoically behind the glass counter that doubles as the gift shop, Dad waits tables, and teenage daughter mopes about with a plastic tub full of dirty dishes. By their own admission they serve Mexican and American food. At 10am on a Saturday, it was full of families, elderly couples, and one biker in leathers who stopped to chat with a Native woman in the corner about custody battles and how he wanted to “get his kids back.”

A family of ten had the table in the middle of the restaurant. At least two of them were called “Bubba.” One of the Bubbas ordered a breakfast burrito to go after finishing his full plate, which was piled high with at least two recommended portions to start with. The waiter made the mistake of trying to take a plate too early and got an actual slap from one of the women, whereupon he announced, “Well, it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been bit.” One of the older children, who went by the eponymous “Junior,” had a large plastic spike through his left ear and black horn-rimmed glasses that were missing the left ear piece. After a particularly loud burp from Junior, the oldest Bubba offered to let the waiter keep the kids, and the waiter replied, “We’ve got the perfect closet for ‘em.”

This is the type of diner Route 66 is famous for, and the type of place it’s increasingly hard to find these days. In between getting slapped and offering to closet people’s children, the waiter was running around breathlessly preparing the back room for a huge tour group coming in shortly. We questioned him a bit and discovered that it was a group of 34 Norwegians on a guided Harley tour, presumably the same group we’d seen on their bikes early that morning, blasting the still desert morning full of holes with the manic jackhammer cheerfulness of ragtime music. They were due into the café in 40 minutes. We high-tailed it out of there.

Desert Nights

“At night in this waterless air the stars come down just out of reach of your fingers. In such a place lived the hermits of the early church piercing to infinity with unlittered minds. The great concepts of oneness and majestic order seem always to be born in the desert. The quiet counting of the stars, and observation of their movements, came first from desert places.”

In the Petrified Forest

We left New Mexico behind and flew across Arizona to the Painted Desert, on the border of the Navajo Nation. We planned to spend the night in our tent beneath the dome of desert stars.

Brigitte at the Petrified Forest Visitor Center attempted to derail our plans. “You’ll need to hike in,” she told us.

“Yep, no problem.”

“OK. But you’ll need to carry all your gear and your water.” She stared us down. “For the whole trip.”

“Yep, we’ve got it.”

“OK. But you’ll need a lot of water; it gets really hot out there.”

“We’ve got a gallon for each of us per day.”

“Huh. OK. Well, you’ll have to go at least a mile out from the trailhead. And you’re on your own; there’s no trail, no markers.”

“No problem, we’ve got a GPS.”

“OK. But you’ll need to pack all your trash out with you.”

“We always do.”

Desert Wildlife

By this time she’d decided we were OK. We could tell she had to go through that spiel with everyone and that at some point the would-be campers, presented with all these obstacles, must give up. We know this because she told us this was the first time she’d had to fill out all the paperwork. It was a lot of paperwork. We had to sign our lives away for one night of camping in the Painted Desert.

After we passed the first test with Brigitte, we had to stop and see Bill at the Painted Desert Inn. This was where we would leave the RX8 overnight. There was a sticker on the door of the inn for our benefit: “No firearms allowed inside.” We were in there for 15 minutes or so, during which time he told the same story to three different couples three different times in response to the same question:

“How old is this building?”

There would be a pause while Bill sucked his front teeth. “Well,” another pause, “we’re not too sure. The guy that built this,” he said before pausing to chew the inside of his lip, “he homesteaded first. He registered the Inn with the government in 1924, but he homesteaded the year earlier.” This was an exceptionally long speech, and Bill needed a break to roll his tongue around a bit. Then he took a deep breath in through his nose. “So, it could be 87, or maybe 86 years old.”

As he told this story for the second time while we waited for our turn to speak to him, we browsed the shelves of souvenirs. The main room of the inn with its fantastic views over the desert floor below, a room that had once been a place for sitting and conversing and enjoying the subtle fluctuations of the light over the cliffs and wadis below, was now populated with shelves of T-shirts and coffee mugs, racks of postcards, and one particularly gruesome stand packed with plastic rattlesnakes and stuffed jackalopes. Everything strategically designed to provide hard evidence that the buyer had been there, done that.

After he wrapped up his story for the third time, Bill gave us our instructions in his own idiosyncratic way. “Leave the car by seven tonight,” he instructed before a long pause in which he chewed his lip and punched the keys on the cash register for yet another customer, “And don’t come back before eight in the morning.”

Losing the Light

It’s impossible to describe a night in the desert wilderness adequately. The light from the setting sun turns everything red. As the sun goes down in the west it draws the purple night haze up from the eastern horizon behind it; we watched it bleed slowly across the sky as we raced to set up our tent. The stars seemed to hang in the blackness just above our heads, as if we could reach out and touch them if we tried. They pulse like they’re alive, like they’re watching; it’s easy to see why so many people out here think they spot UFOs. If you stare at the same patch of sky long enough, more and more stars appear, and you realize there really isn’t a single bit of darkness up there. Then the moon comes up and steals the light from the stars, blotting them out with a reflection so bright it casts shadows. We spent the night watching the stars through the tent mesh and listening to the wind and the crickets.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

“In my own life I am not willing to trade quality for quantity.”

In one small town, we stopped at a butcher shop to buy some steaks for the campfire. The walls were lined with a range of Italian goods, from tinned tomatoes to panettone, and the refrigerators were stocked with homemade fresh pasta in resealable sandwich bags.

We were greeted by a tiny man behind a huge meat counter.

“Hey, how ya doin?”

We smiled at his expansive personality.

“What can I do for ya?”

We asked for two of his best steaks.

“Great choice. Everybody needs a good steak. What are ya gonna do with ’em?”

“Cook ’em over a campfire.”

He nodded enthusiastically. “Best way to do it. I’ll give you sirloin. It’ll be best for an open flame. Not too thick. Cook more evenly. Inside’ll be done before the outside’s burnt.”

We asked where his meat came from, if it was local.

“Of course,” he squinted at us. “It’s my shop. I buy the meat. Buy it from a friend of mine down the road. Grass-fed cattle.”

We asked how long he’d been running the shop. He had come to small-town America from Italy 48 years ago, and he’d been running the same store in the same location for 40 years. He showed us an old photo. He still has the same haircut, although his hair is white now, and he still makes his own sausage with a hand-crank grinder.

“We passed a huge supermarket just a few blocks from here. Does that kind of place hurt your business?”

“Nah,” he said. “It’s a different thing. They don’t do what I do.”

“They don’t sell meat?” We were confused.

“Nah, nah, I mean it’s not the same thing.”

The looks on our faces prompted him to explain.

“Its about respect,” he told us. “You have to respect the customer. People don’t come back because the shop is pretty, even though it is; they don’t come back for the opera I play all day long, though lots of ’em comment on it; they come back because they like me and I like them. They come back because we have a relationship, and that starts with respect. That’s what’s missing in those giant wholesale discount places. Respect.”

In retrospect, that respect was absent from many of our interactions as well, even in the smaller towns. We reflected on one particularly warm afternoon, when we had passed a string of wineries along the Rio Grande Valley in New Mexico. Since we’d never tried New Mexican wine, we decided to stop. After a quick wander, the very friendly woman behind the counter showed us their tasting menu. Prices were listed by the bottle or by the glass. We decided to taste several wines.

“It’s three dollars for six tastes,” she explained, “but you can share the tastes if you want and just pay for one. And if you buy a bottle you don’t have to pay at all!”

This sounded like a good deal to us. We participated enthusiastically as we talked to her about our travels, about the reasons for the trip, about the curiosity that enticed us to pull off the dirty two-lane road into her gravel parking lot instead of making tracks for Santa Fe.

“Sounds like you’ve had quite a trip already,” she told us.

We chatted for a while, but after our six tastes of six underwhelming wines, we decided we weren’t interested in a bottle.

“Thanks, but I think we’ll pass this time.”

Her smile disappeared as she pursed her lips. “Oh. Okay.” She whisked away our glasses and stabbed at the cash register. “That’ll be six dollars. Plus tax.” So much for respect.

In this consumer’s world of competition and commoditization, difference becomes a disadvantage. Stores focus more on merchandise and less on building relationships with customers. At the winery, the personal connection was nothing more than a sales tactic; the sale, rather than the long-term connection, has become the most important thing. This in turn drives standardization of products because no one can afford to be different. Hotel rooms, coffee shops, banks, are all standardized to the point of absurdity. There is certainly a sense of comfort in the sameness, the familiar sign that entices you to pull off the road, the familiar furniture inside, the familiar uniforms and colors and smells and tastes. But when you stop to think about it, the point of travel is to experience difference, and if everything becomes standardized, then the experience of travel, even the point of travel, is diluted.

Steinbeck noticed this in its early stages, with the standardization of language through mass consumption of TV and radio. Even our food has fallen victim to this tendency. “Just as our bread, mixed and baked, packaged and sold without benefit of accident or human frailty, is uniformly good and uniformly tasteless, so will our speech become one speech.” (82) He lamented this loss of regional accents and the homogenization of language. He also experienced the loss of regional foods and the standardization of cuisine brought about by the highway culture of fast, cheap hamburgers, the same in California as they are in New Jersey, all untouched by human hands. At the same time, he also acknowledged that the days before this standardization left something to be desired, despite the attraction of nostalgia. Mom’s home cooking was not always tasty or healthy, and the bygone days of fresh, unpasteurized milk were also days of illness and early death from unknown diseases. It is in our nature to protest change, even if it’s change for the better, but Steinbeck also argued that trying to hold it back would only result in bitterness, because it is a battle that can’t be won.

Even so, we hope the kind of respect we encountered at the butcher’s shop prevails.

Honeymooning in a Tent

“Every safe generality I gathered in my travels was cancelled by another.”

We came through Eagle’s Nest and Angel Fire and over the brilliant red Sangre de Cristo Mountains into Taos, with its bright blue sky and sun-baked adobe. Here is a place where artists own galleries full of overpriced pottery, paintings, and jewelry, all aimed at tourists, and all done in the bright colors that seem to reflect off every surface of this landscape. The bikers populate dusty bars at odds with the tourist money that lubricates the cogs of the bustling downtown, in silent conflict with the artists over ownership of this beautiful corner of the world. The ghosts of the bohemian artists who originally populated the town would hardly recognize the place. We were surprised by the sprawling suburbs spreading down from the foothills and onto the distant desert floor. There were lines of traffic snaking in and out of town, the blinding sun glinting off German hood ornaments. We turned off the traffic-choked highway and into the mountain passes, looking for a quiet place to spend a desert night.

When we pulled into the campground under a sliver of moon and a dazzling blanket of stars, Matt was muttering under his breath, “Please don’t let us be next to that giant RV, please don’t let us be next to that giant RV… we are. We’re right next to that enormous RV.” But after we met the occupants, we were happy with our temporary neighborhood. We’ve even forgiven them for running the generator several times throughout the day, which is unusual magnanimity for us, reserved for people we genuinely like.

Harold and his wife Alice, and Katie, their little black poodle, are consummate wanderers. We met Harold this morning as he was standing next to our fire pit, practicing his golf swing. We discovered that he is a member of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, an exclusive organization open to membership only by invitation. In the three years we lived in St. Andrews, we never managed to gain entrance. Harold has a world-renowned collection of antique golf clubs, which he started collecting long before it was fashionable. The sale of individual pieces from this collection is what continues to fund their mobile life.

“The first time we came back from Scotland, I had a shipping container full of the things,” Harold remembers. “It came into the Port of Long Beach in California. I had to go down there and pay an import duty, but nobody could decide what a shipping container full of old golf clubs was worth.” Harold grinned and winked one watery blue eye. “I suggested five cents a club. They just shrugged and went for it. I tell you, even in the 1960s that was a steal.”

We were invited in for a tour of their RV, which was warm, comfortable, and convenient. It was the first time during our trip that we got to see the inside of one of these vehicles we had passed so many times on the road. While trying to pass them on two-lane roads and overtake them on mountain passes, we had seen them only as an annoyance, but once inside, they become a place of warmth and friendship, a truly mobile “home” in which you can welcome strangers and turn them into friends. While we preferred our tent for its privacy and mobility, we were tempted by the comfort and camaraderie of their self-contained world.

Harold and Alice told us tales of their travels and their migration from an old, square-sided canvas tent to their current 22-foot RV, which Harold calls “cheating.”

“We honeymooned in Yosemite, 66 years ago, in a tent.”

We did the math and figured out that Harold was 94. He and Alice have been all over. Their first RV trip was in Tasmania, where they rented a rig. He had fond memories of Adelaide and the Great Barrier Reef. He kept up their rig himself, Alice informed us, and while he insisted it was no trouble, she told us it was a lot of work. We believed her. Harold and Alice come from an active generation, where everyone did for themselves, and all that activity keeps them young. They have no children, which seems to have given them a lot of freedom and maybe even promoted longevity. Harold jokingly suggested that having kids takes 18 years off your life expectancy.

Our time with them was short. “We’re keeping you from your hike,” Harold kept saying. “Nobody wants to listen to old people talk.” On the contrary, they gave us hope and courage. It was much needed. Harold said he’d see us in Scotland. We really hope he makes it.

We know we’ve been surrounded by these Leviathans too long when we see their RV in our rearview mirror and Alissa comments, “Actually it’s not that big.” Everything American is huge. The cars, the trucks, the landscape, the farms, even the sky is bigger out here.

Road Warriors

“Permanence is neither achieved nor desired by mobile people. They do not buy for the generations, but only until a new model they can afford comes out.”

As we pulled back onto the highway from our latest rest stop, we passed a long line of semi-trucks parked at the far end of the lot, their drivers nowhere to be seen, most likely holed up in their cabs for a much-needed rest. These titans of transport rumble up and down the Interstates, enthroned like kings in their cabs, their kingdoms moving with them from one roadside diner to the next. “The truckers cruise over the surface of the nation without being a part of it.” (72) Steinbeck had an appreciation for truckers as professionals, keepers of a specialized knowledge and bearers of a secret language. He was lucky enough to be accepted among them, as a fellow wanderer with his own wisdom, his own secrets. In our sports car, which marked us out as amateurs, we were never so lucky. We had to make do with the occasional longing look or appreciative nod.

Rest areas in some states have started offering free coffee, presumably to help keep these legions of truckers awake and alert. Since we were trying to awaken our inner Americans, we decided to stop and try this free coffee, because Americans don’t turn down free anything. After tasting it, we decided that in the future we would pay for our coffee. It just proves the old adage that you don’t get something for nothing. But after spending so many thousands of miles sharing the roads with those giants of transport and more than once wondering what our little Mazda would look like after an altercation with one of them, we submit that we as a nation owe our truckers better coffee.

In addition to these ubiquitous semis, giant RVs seem to be proliferating across the country. They are starting to rival the trucks for numbers and size, though certainly not road dominance. These are 40-foot behemoths towing luxury four-wheel drive vehicles. You’d never know gas was hovering around $4 per gallon. New and shiny, these giants of the road are driven by white-haired retirees in convoys collectively worth millions of dollars.

These glistening wheeled residences parade through the tiny towns where their dusty, road-weary cousins are parked permanently next to rusting water tanks, surrounded by waist-high grass, with boards propped against the peeling sides to cover the wheels and give the whole thing the illusion of permanence. But there is nothing more precarious. For some people mobility is freedom. For others it’s a threat.

Yet the attraction of mobility seems undimmed since Steinbeck’s day. There are thousands of residents of RV Parks along incredibly straight stretches of highway. Collectively, they sponsor a section of the road, paying for its maintenance and cleaning up the trash people jettison from the windows of moving cars, just like the boys in Colorado. This lends a sense of ownership, of control over a symbolic stretch of freedom. Where else but America would so many people live in their RVs and spend time and money beautifying a stretch of highway? You can even adopt a highway through the American Highway Maintenance Corporation, which provides recognition for your efforts by means of huge signs along the side of “your” stretch of highway, advertising your commitment to beautifying your environment. Some of these signs display names of individuals and families, others advertise “Capital Bail Bonds,” or “Conservative Evangelical Christians.” For the young boys we met, it was a sense of social responsibility that compelled them to clean up after their less responsible compatriots. For the older generations it seems to be an unquenchable desire for a sense of place. They’ve rejected the obligations associated with a traditional home and replaced them with others.

At another of the infamous rest areas, we met a former pastor who had supplemented an allegiance to Jesus with an allegiance to the road. He and his wife have been living in their fifth wheel trailer for about a year now. They travel around between RV parks and people’s driveways. They subscribe to newsletters and magazines all about the RV culture (though we were unsure how all that mail gets delivered). The Reverend said that an estimated one million people in the US live exclusively in an RV. It’s a completely nomadic, mobile culture. The most recent US census calls these “people on the move” and counts them as an entirely separate subset of the American population, like students or military personnel. This is the road warrior culture, where a vehicle is a status symbol, an indicator of independence and imagined individuality. It will take more than high gas prices to change that.

We also found RVs inhabiting the various campgrounds where we spent our nights. These existed in various states of permanence, from those just parked overnight to those leveled with wheel blocks for a longer stay, and even some who planned to stay for entire seasons, with potted plants growing outside and above-ground pools set up in the next campsite. Either way, nearly every RV we saw had a satellite dish, some affixed to the top and some set up on tripods outside, so the occupants never had to be out-of-touch with the all-important TV culture. As Steinbeck drove through the country he noted, “It is a rare house or building that is not rigged with spiky combers of the air. Radio and television speech becomes standardized, perhaps better English than we have ever used.” (82) The loss of the regional particularities which he observed continues apace in America’s campgrounds, all thanks to the ubiquity of TV.