Issue Forty - Summer 2022

Desert Highways, Desert Byways

By Neil Mathison

Chapter excerpted from Bambi Diaries.

“Water, water, water….There is no shortage of water in the desert but exactly the right amount , a perfect ratio of water to rock, water to sand, insuring that wide free open, generous spacing among plants and animals, homes and towns and cities, which makes the arid West so different from any other part of the nation. There is no lack of water here unless you try to establish a city where no city should be.”
― Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness

‘The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for them; and the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose.”
Isaiah 35.1

It’s four AM in the Mojave Desert and somebody is banging on our Bambi’s trailer door. I tap Susan on the shoulder to make certain she’s awake, then roll out of the trailer bunk, grab a flashlight, and swing the door open. A young woman stands in the moonlight. She’s slender, dark haired, wears a black sweater, a short black skirt, and holds a pair of high-heeled shoes in one hand and a purse in the other. “God bless you, sir,” she says. “My car is stuck. Can you help get me free?”

Indian Cove Campground in Joshua Tree National Park is surreal even in daylight: hills formed by house-size heaps of granite boulders; spikey desert bushes; campsites tucked into sandy nooks. At night, it’s even more so. Tonight, a gibbous moon illuminates everything bone white. The campground is deserted. And the woman asking for help is definitely not in desert camping attire. Is she alone?

A number of scenarios flash through my mind involving Charlie-Manson-style cult murders, armed robbery, prostitution, and car/trailer hijackings. Indian Cove Campground is not quite in the middle of nowhere – the town of Twenty-Nine Palms is only a few miles north, there’s a large U.S. Marine Corps desert training base nearby, and the iconic highway formerly known as US-66, aka “Route 66,” runs the length of the park’s northern border.

But it’s almost nowhere.

Four major deserts dominate the American Southwest: the Great Basin, the Sonoran, the Chihuahuan, and the Mojave. Of these, the Mojave is the hottest, the driest, the lowest (250 feet below sea level in Death Valley), but also, next to the Great Basin, the second highest, the greater part lying between two-thousand and five-thousand feet. Most of the Mojave is in California and Nevada although small portions extend into Utah. The range of Joshua trees corresponds to the range of the desert, thus the Joshua is a Mojave “indicator species.” The tree looks like a cross between a yucca plant and a palm tree. Mormon settlers named it for what they saw as its resemblance to the prophet Joshua raising his arms in praise to God. Its trunk consists of a fibrous material like yucca, to which the Joshua is related. The oldest may live a thousand years. They are pollinated by yucca moths whose larvae feed on the tree seeds – the tree can kill the larvae if the larvae population consumes too many seeds. Joshuas require a winter freeze to propagate, and, like many desert plants, will bloom or not depending on the amount of water they receive.

This is my first visit to Joshua Tree National Park, although as a boy, my family drove by several times when we crossed the Mojave on Route 66, always at night because it was summer and our cars weren’t air conditioned. I remember stopping at Twenty-Nine Palms for fuel and how pleasant the desert night felt, the air dry, the tang of gasoline in the air.

At Indian Cove Campground, four am, this October night, the temperature is in the mid-sixties, comfortable, but that’s the only thing that’s comfortable. I’ve reluctantly agreed to help the young woman. (“God bless you, sir” she says again.) I tell Susan to dial 911 if I’m not back in thirty minutes. I tell the young woman I’ll follow by car as she walks to where hers is stuck, this a precaution (I tell myself) to keep her from pulling a pistol from her purse (but, of course, she could do the same when we arrive at her car – or a boyfriend could be lying in wait).

She walks down the campground road, illuminated by my headlights, barefooted, wobbling because of the gravel – or is her wobble due to something else? What is it about deserts that engenders idiosyncratic behavior – hermits, prophets, saints, kooks? When we get to the car it’s not just stuck, it’s really stuck, driven over the top of a rock at the end of the campsite parking space. The car is a 1970s-era Mustang convertible, paint peeling.

Are those suitcases and cardboard boxes cramming the back seat? “My fiancé and I had a little ruckus,” she explains as I dutifully put my shoulder to the car hood. “Last time he came to get me. This time he didn’t.” I feel like I’m in a David Lynch movie: my car’s headlights flood the scene, the desert night closes around us. The woman guns her engine, sand spews from the Mustang’s rear wheels, the Mustang doesn’t budge. I decide it’s time to bring this cinematic event to a close. If the fiancé came once, he might come again.

“There’s an emergency phone,” I suggest, “at the Entrance Ranger Station. I’ll drive you there.” The entrance is six miles from the campground. It’s also a near a set of suburban-style houses just outside the park gate. The woman (somewhat reluctantly, it seems to me) agrees. While she collects her purse and locks her car, I call Susan with the plan.

The moon has set. Stars spangle the sky. The woman and I drive toward the gate. I can see the lights of Twenty-Nine Palms in the distance. She asks where I’m from, where we’re going, thanks me several more times. I almost offer to drive her into town, think better of it, and stop at the emergency telephone. She swings the car door open, looks at the phone, then asks. “How do I use it?” The air seems to have gone out of her.

“Pick it up. The operator will answer.”

She steps out. “God bless you, sir.”

“Good luck.”

She closes the door, turns toward the phone, stops, faces the park gate. I get the feeling she knows the neighborhood. I put the car in gear, press the accelerator, steer out of the parking lot. I don’t see where she goes next.

We began our desert loop yesterday on the Pacific coast near Ventura. We navigated the frenetic freeways of Los Angeles County until we escaped into the stark mountains and barren valleys of the desert. A few miles west of Palm Springs we turned north through Morongo Valley, Palm Wells, Yucca Valley, and Joshua Tree, (small towns that are economy-class versions of Palm Springs and Palm Desert). As the highway gained altitude, we passed from the Colorado Desert (technically part of the Sonoran) and entered the Mojave, a landscape populated by Joshua trees.

Today, the day of our early morning encounter with the young woman, we’re continuing on to Arizona, a drive of over four-hundred miles. Our route will cross Joshua Tree National Park, descend to Interstate-10, bypass Palm Springs, span the Colorado River, cross Phoenix (a mistake, as it turns out, because we’ll hit rush hour traffic), and then turn south toward Tucson. We’ll climb from only four-hundred feet elevation at Palm Springs to over twenty-three-hundred feet in Tucson. For nearly the full distance we’ll be in the Sonoran Desert, but not until Tucson will it be lush desert.

Lush and desert may seem contradictory until you wander through a cactus forest in Saguaro National Park. The park, east and west of Tucson, is the main reason we’re visiting. Susan has never seen the park. I haven’t seen it for fifty years. Saguaro are the signature cacti of the movie Wild West. Tall. Green. Tubular. Limbs branching like arms. I love their individuality: no two ever the same.

As it turns out, plenty of other cacti inhabit the Sonora: organ pipe, senita, hedgehog, claret-cup, barrel, fishhook, buckhorn cholla, teddybear cholla, beavertail, porcupine, and pancake prickly-pear. Sonoran cacti are astonishingly profuse: rain is the reason. Summer monsoons drench the Sonora as rising thermals draw moist Gulf of Mexico air into Arizona. The remnants of Pacific fall hurricanes deliver more rain. Both seasons engender flash floods, lightning, and wind-blown dust. We’ve driven I-10 between Phoenix and Tucson when rain fell so hard we had to pull off the highway because we couldn’t see.

Life may be profuse in the Sonora, but it’s still desert life. As Edward Abbey puts it: “You will find the flora here as venomous, hooked, barbed, thorny, prickly, needle-toothed, hairy, stickered, mean, bitter, sharp, wiry, and fierce as the animals.” (The Journey Home)

We arrive at Tucson’s Rincon East RV Park after dark. We have a reservation but, to our surprise, despite the late hour, a park employee has been awaiting our arrival. He guides us by electric cart to our site, directs us onto a concrete pad, and bids us goodnight. The night is pleasantly warm. Because it’s dark, we have no sense of the place, although we know more or less what to expect. Commercial RV parks tend to be utilitarian, designed to accommodate basic needs in a minimum amount of space – power, water, sewer, cable TV, a picnic table. What we’ll discover tomorrow is that Rincon East is large, very large. Many of the sites have “manufactured homes,” rolled in here once and destined to never roll anywhere else again. Most appear to be vacant, awaiting snowbird owners, presumably still in the north. Tenants we do see occupy the elderly end of the retiree spectrum.

In the early morning before it gets hot, and in the late afternoon after it begins to cool, they come out and hobble behind their walkers or buzz about in their golf carts. Susan and I eventually nickname the place “Purgatory.” Beyond Rincon’s fences are a few suburban homes and then desert. As it turns out, when I go for a swim in the afternoon, I find that the desert has invaded Rincon as well. After I lean against the swimming-pool edge, a passing RV-er calls out. “Watch out for the fire ants. The live in the tiles at the edge of the pool.”

Paleo-people may have wandered into the Tucson area as early as twelve-thousand years ago. From 600-1450, the Hohokam lived here, developing centralized villages, extensive irrigation networks, and raising crops of maize and cotton. Cotton is still farmed: the Pima Valley variety is considered among the world’s finest. Jesuit missionaries arrived in the early 1700s. With Mexican independence, the town, by this time known as Tucson, became part of the Mexican state of Sonora. Americans occupied the town in the Mexican War but Tucson did not become American until 1854 with the Gadsen Purchase, a transaction to secure a railroad route around the Arizona mountains, but also to ameliorate some of the unjustness of the Mexican War. During the Civil War, it briefly served as the capital of the Confederate Territory of Arizona, until Union troops arrived and drove out the Confederates. The town’s late 19th Century history was Wild-West melodramatic, featuring bank robberies, stage-coach bandits, and a shootout led by Wyatt Earp outside the Tucson railroad station.

Today the city is the heart of a million-person metropolitan area, site of the University of Arizona, and home to a diversified mix of government institutions and private businesses. It’s also a major destination for tourism. In the last fifteen years, led by business and political leaders, Tucson has undergone a major downtown renaissance.

Susan and I do a morning hike through the Rincon Mountain District of Saguaro National Park. (The park has eastern and western districts separated by the city.) When we get back to the car, it’s stifling hot. We lunch on moles in an outdoor Mexican restaurant in the Congress Street Arts and Entertainment District. In the afternoon, we visit the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.

My first visit to this museum was in the sixties. What set it apart then was its focus on a specific region – the Sonora Desert – and its synthesis of museum and zoo – live animals in natural habitats instead of stuffed animals in dioramas. Since then, the museum has moved to a larger, much more dramatic setting west of Tucson Mountain Desert Park. There’s a large parking area, several mission-style buildings, and a network of paths to various desert habitats: Cat Canyon (mountain lions and ocelots); the Desert Loop Trail (coyotes, javelins, lizards); the Riparian Corridor (river otters, beavers, coatimundis, native fish); the Hummingbird Aviary – our favorite – where dozens of hummers whiz back and forth like airborne emeralds, rubies, and sapphires.

The afternoon begins to cool. From the museum veranda, below us and behind us in the afternoon sun, saguaro glow like golden candlesticks. To the west, the Pescadero and Recortado Mountains rise. The geology here is basin and range, like in the Sierra Nevada – wide valleys, steep mountains. But the desert climate shapes its own geology. Geologists have developed a unique vocabulary to describe it: aprons of valley outwash gravel called bajadas; arroyos that can sweep away cattle and even automobiles during torrential rains, only to vanish into the dry soil as soon as the rain stops; dust devils that spiral skyward on all but the coolest days; fierce haboob dust storms that turn day into night; desert varnish, a shiny, black coating, that forms when iron, manganese, and rainwater combine; granite, subject to extremes of daytime heat, nighttime cooling, that converts flat-faced blocks to rounded boulders in a process called spheroid weathering; caliche, a hardpan that forms as calcium carbonate and other soluble minerals collect and then inhibits water permeability and root growth.

A hard geology for a hard land.

After Tucson, we head north. We leave the Sonoran Desert, cross Arizona’s Central Highlands, pause at the rim of the Colorado Plateau. Once again, we must drive through Phoenix. I like the Sonoran Desert and I like Tucson but I have less affection for Phoenix. Four-million people live in Greater Phoenix, an improbable desert metropolis whose continued survival depends on air-conditioning and water. How long the electricity and the water will last, nobody knows. This time, unlike a few days ago, traffic is light. By lunch time, we’re north of the city and having a picnic at the Sunset Point Rest Stop in – such a lovely name! – Bumblebee, Arizona.

You can simplify Arizona’s geology into three provinces: basin and range in the south; a Central Highlands across the middle; the Colorado Plateau to the north. The Highlands meet the Plateau at an escarpment called The Mogollon Rim (pronounced MUG-ee-yun). Here red-rock formations front the desert and the land abruptly rises. The Rim is where we’re bound. My San Diego brother has agreed to meet us in Oak Creek Canyon in the Coconino National Forest, just north of the spa, golfing, and New Age community of Sedona, exactly at the foot of the rim.

Where Sedona, at four-thousand feet, lies at the bottom of the Rim, the town of Flagstaff, at over seven-thousand feet, perches at the top. If you follow I-17 bypassing Sedona, you may only be generally aware of how much elevation you’re gaining, but you’ll certainly notice how the desert flora gives way to pine forest. But if you follow Arizona-Alt 89, through Sedona, and up into Oak Creek Canyon, the ascent is perfectly apparent. The road follows Oak Creek, then climbs the Rim wall in a series of heart-stopping switchbacks. Our campground, Cave Spring, is just south of where the switchbacks begin.

Cave Spring this October afternoon blazes with arboreal color – reds, browns, yellows, golds. A concessionaire runs the campground for the National Forest Service. We check in. Oak Creek Canyon is a popular Arizona destination, some say second only to the Grand Canyon. Today the campground is only three-quarter full. My brother and sister-in-law have already arrived. We tour their new Lance trailer, far more commodious than our Bambi. A stand-up refrigerator, an oven, electric jacks. We trade RV stories, build a campfire, dine outside. The last time we trailer-camped together, we were kids.

The next day we hike the Devil’s Bridge Trail and ascend a natural arch in red sandstone. We lunch in Sedona, have dinner again at our campsite. What we see in the white limestone of the Oak Creek Canyon and in the red sandstone formations around Sedona foreshadows what we’ll see farther north. My brother and his wife will head south to Tucson tomorrow. Susan and I will ascend the Mogollon Rim and enter a new geological domain – the Colorado Plateau. A region so different, so beautiful, so unique, it deserves its own chapter.

Copyright Mathison 2022