Creek Running North
September 04, 2004
[Here's another carefully aged story from the big ol' word closet. When I submitted this piece to a writer's group six years ago, another group member noted "you talk about alcohol a lot here. Should we talk about this?"]
In the central Mojave Desert, a bit south and east of the long trough whose northernmost extremity is Death Valley, a nearly geometrically perfect dome of granitic rock rises from the ground. Stand on its flanks and the shape of the dome is hard to make out. It is immense; easily ten miles across. Your eye will be lost in detail. Erosion-resistant rock peppers the dome's surface in whalebacks, fins and house-sized rounded boulders. There are declivities and washes and scours where wind scrapes soil from bedrock; roads and trails and fences and cow- churned paths. There are mounds where the roots of blackbrush have held the soil fast against the wind off Soda Lake. It's a rugged desert landscape, with little geometric perfection about it.
But back up a few miles, to the base of the dome, to the far side of Interstate 15 east of the World's Tallest Thermometer in Baker, and the Platonic profile of Cima Dome becomes startlingly clear. This hill looks as if the face of a 150-mile-wide sphere of rock were bursting from the earth, the crown of a new moon being born.
That isn't the case, of course. The apparent perfection of Cima Dome stems from the way quartz monzonite weathers, exfoliating layer after layer in thin sheets, angular rock inexorably sculpting itself into rounded domes, essentially the same process responsible for the better- known domes in Yosemite. Monzonite and Yosemite's granodiorite are close cousins, differing only in the relative percentages of their constituent minerals. The elements water, heat and cold peel them the same way.
You can see the forces that smoothed Cima Dome working in microcosm on the broad, low whalebacks that dot its surface: sheets of gray rock, thin enough to transmit light, peel off the outcrops. A small child could break them with a gentle step. There are spots on Cima Dome where it sounds, when you walk, like you're hiking through a bowl of cornflakes.
A bowl of cornflakes sounds good right now. And I'm thirsty. Perhaps it's time to pry myself out of the sleeping bag, take a swig from the water bottle, put on some shoes and start breakfast. I look at my watch. Six-fifteen. My friend Matthew snores heavily next to me. It's light out, though the sun has yet to come up and the light through the tent bears an odd, muted color, the color I imagine a thin sheet of monzonite would transmit. The water bottle is nowhere in evidence. There is nothing to do but get up. At least the February rain stopped sometime during the night. I manage to find the zipper pull through half-opened eyes, and open the tent door.
And howl in delight without intending to, provoking a resentful moan from my tentmate.
The rain that drove us into the tent from our fire last night must have turned to snow at some point while we slept. Now, two inches of white covers the ground, the tent, the truck, and everything else around us. The sky is looming and deep, spilling fat flakes onto the higher ground of Kessler Peak adjacent the Dome. The snow has thrown the detail of the landscape into stark relief. It outlines the grass stems, cholla spines, the hard quartz lines sticking out of boulders like a network of cables. I squeeze my feet into boots and emerge from the tent into the largest Joshua tree forest in the Mojave, hence in the world.
It's the Joshua trees, known botanically as Yucca brevifolia, that brought us here. Ask a desert expert about these odd trees, and as often as not the name "Cima Dome" will be mentioned in his or her first breath. The dome grows a spectacular stand of these tree yuccas. The relative openness of the terrain, with only a few obstructions for miles around, accentuates the immensity of the forest, as does the wide spacing of the trees. Stand in a redwood forest, and though the woods may run from you to the Oregon line, your field of view will be hemmed in by the thickness of vegetation, the ferns and poison oak and huckleberry and massive red trunks blocking your view within a quarter-mile. In Joshua tree country there are no vines to obscure the middle range, the shrubs tend toward knee height, and the structure of the trees themselves does little to impede the long view. You can stare into the thickest part of a Joshua tree and see most of the details of the landscape beyond. The tree allows you to see the forest.
I notice I've made a dog circle of snowy footprints near our campsite, their course determined by attention deficit and characterized by straight-line tangents as one frosted plant after another begs my gaze. Matthew pokes his head out of the tent, looks up at the landscape, and grins. We arrived after dark last night, feeling our way by fixed truck headlight along Cima Road toward the two-rut pull-off for the campsite I had in mind, the ghostly forms of Joshua trees edging into the cone of light and slipping away, shades of the Mojave night. He's seeing the Cima Dome Joshua Tree Forest for the first time, and it's covered with snow. I feel a pang of envy at his first impression. Grinning ruefully to myself, I turn, scanning the horizon to refresh my acquaintance with our surroundings. It has been over three months since my last visit. The jealousy vanishes.
Our campsite is at the crest of a 5000-foot saddle. Two miles to our west, Teutonia Peak, the largest of the Dome's monzonite outcrops, obscures the Dome's actual summit. Dark clouds surf up Teutonia's far side, seeming to stick. A mile east, the 6000-plus-foot summit of Kessler Peak winks in and out of its wispy gray shroud, the snow increasingly masking its red desert varnish. To the south past the "town" of Cima, the New York and Providence mountains are totally obscured by wet gray. A haze of falling snow to the north mutes the colors of the Ivanpah Range, of which Kessler Peak is the southern pediment. Beyond, the Clark Mountains, the tallest in the Mojave, are barely visible through the storm, but they are lit by an incongrous patch of sun. To east and west, the ground curves smoothly up. North and south, just as smoothly down. There are those who theorize the universe itself is bent the same way, curved contrarily through four dimensions rather than three, a shape that allows convergence, yet also infinite size.
A flurry of zipper noise, and Matthew emerges from the tent, resplendent in tattered blue Goodwill nylon. He points at Teutonia.
"Is that where the trail is?"
Beyond Teutonia, a tantalizing pale blue hole in the clouds stays motionless, warming the base of the World's Tallest Thermometer.
"How high is the summit?" Matthew is one of those who likes to stand on top of things.
"A hair under six thousand feet" I say, accurate if one grants the possibility of a hair two hundred fifty feet thick. "But you can't get to the summit without a bit of bouldering."
"Oh." Neither of us think bouldering on two inches of snow sounds like much fun.
"But," I continue, "you can get most of the way to the top at a walk, and then there's chollas and big red barrel cacti on the other side of the rock. And I found some big clumps of moss and fern in a canyon on the north face over there. We could head that way too."
"What kind of barrel cacti?"
The botanical latin refuses retrieval from my non-caffeinated brain. I make something up. "Ferocactus - um - trans...petrensis." Matthew lifts his eyebrows, cocks his head, walks away. We have discovered the trip's official inside joke. For the rest of the weekend, anything that happens to be on the other side of a rock will be described as "transpetric." The label will be applied to tent stakes, tarp guylines, Joshua trees, the beer furthest out of reach.
The trees are irregularly spaced, the average distance between them maybe thirty feet. Some seem of ancient vintage. Perhaps two centuries have passed since first they sent spiky leaves through the Dome's gray gravel. Some are low, their point of first branching at knee height, culminating in three or four dozen growing tips ringed with the species' eponymous short, sharp leaves. Other trees seem to have grown for decades before branching, their first forks as much as twenty feet up. The majority of the trees resemble slim candelabras. From first fork to treetop, they flare at about a thirty-degree angle. But many trees here depart from that norm. Some, which wind or cow or fault of root have toppled partway, have sprouted stems from their tilted trunks, and now look like the tails of giant scorpions. Others, gouged by rot or insect or buckshot, grow witches' brooms of shoots from their points of injury. Still others extend drooping, impossibly thin branches out from underneath their canopies, as if for lack of sunlight in this baking desert.
I footcrunch across the rutted road to a large tree, its crossing, drooping branches laden with white blankets. Every nearly-horizontal surface on the tree is frosted: the short, dagger-like serrated leaves; the upper edges of the plates of bark; the curving, pockmarked upper sides of lateral branches. I flush a gilded flicker from a sharp tangle of leaves as I approach; the bird alights on a nearby tree and starts to sing. "Clear! Clear!" The notes fall away, muffled by the snow.
I'd forgotten how snow eats echoes. In previous visits, each sound warbling iambic verse from a Scott's oriole, clank of rock on metal pot, truck tire susurrus on Cima Road a half-mile away, jets on the LA to Vegas run reverberated between Teutonia and Kessler peaks until I thought, at times, that I'd need to go down to the freeway for some peace and quiet. Now, as Matthew rummages through the cooking gear, each metallic clang hits a sixth of a foot of snow and stays there; an unearthly quiet in an unearthly forest. Besides, the Scott's orioles have gone to Sonora for the winter, the low clouds bounce the noise of passing jets toward the ozone layer, and the Dome's resident ravens usually present to the point of offensiveness have evidently decided to get up late, as befits their character.
A bit further from our snowy campsite now thoroughly besmirched by overlapping footprints - lies a wind-felled Joshua tree. I walk to it. Termites and mold have crumbled the trunk into six or seven sections. Dark, pencil-thin roots fringe the margin of its basal swelling. I call Matthew over, ask his expert opinion: which drinking glass metaphor best describes the tree's base? It's wide, flaring more or less straight from the trunk at a forty-degree angle. We settle on "martini glass." I wonder how tall the tree was when it fell. I stay curious. Farther up the trunk, someone has sawn a thick section clean off, probably for firewood. A waste. Except for the hard callus the trees form around injuries, woodpecker cavities and lightning strikes and fender gouges, Joshua trees don't burn all that well. You can actually douse a fire by putting a Joshua tree log on it.
On my first Cima Dome night, I took a wind-blown section of martini glass and put it on my campfire, forgetting briefly that National Park regulations forbid wood gathering. Just as well. A corner lit, then went out. I stuck it farther into the fire. Flames, then nothing. My curiosity was piqued. I grabbed the tongs, moved my steak to one side on the grill, and pulled the yucca wood out of the fire. Away from the incandescence of the burning juniper and pinyon, held against the raven sky, the burnt edge glowed an eerie orange. Its smoke was sweet, cloying, like copal. I placed the wood on a flat rock where I could see the glow, watched as the orange crescent grew over half an hour, tips joining, the ring contracting to a dot and winking out. The next morning, the ash had blown away, leaving a patch of shiny brown resin on the rock.
Next to the fallen behemoth, a clump of coleogyne blackbrush harbors a seedling Joshua tree. The Dome is carpeted with coleogyne, a low, tiny-leaved shrub in the rose family whose common name derives from its dark stems. The Kawaiisu used its bark to treat venereal disease. Its abundance here is probably due to decades of grazing. Cattle don't like to eat coleogyne. They prefer the grasses and annual plants and a few herbaceous perennials. Except for the renowned spring floral burst after a wet winter, plants grow slowly in Joshua tree country. The cows give coleogyne's competitors a handicap; blackbrush prospers. Across the wide expanse of heavily-grazed Cima Dome, most of the land capable of growing plants bears blackbrush's somber shadow. This is by no means an entirely bad thing: Coleogyne's seeds feed packrat and antelope ground squirrel, both of which feed hawk, eagle and rattlesnake. And Coleogyne provides a nursery for young Joshua trees as well. When the trees' seeds fall from the dried, rattling husks of the yucca fruit to land on bare soil, they may well sprout quite readily, but most all of them will soon fall prey to the Dome's black-tailed rabbits, or to the mouths of questing longhorns. In the shelter of a scratchy blackbrush clump, a Joshua tree seedling might be afforded as much as five or six years' safe harbor, enough to harden its leaves in defense against marauding mammals' teeth. The Joshua tree forest here may thus owe its exuberance to the cows.
This has been a week of record-setting California weather. Despite a night's sound sleep, I am still antsy from yesterday's ten-hour drive. We chased storms all day, caught up with them, and left them in our wake, speeding onto the next storm, We stopped in Barstow to buy too much food and beer and rye and about fifty pounds of firewood, which proved, on inspection at last night's firepit, moldy wet. We choked on fungal-scented smoke. Perhaps as a result, my dreams were fitful, full of odd yearning and obscure imagery. I feel the stress of yesterday, and the week that preceded it, in my lower back. I will spend the next few days cursing the pain far more vigorously than is really warranted. Matthew hands me a cup of coffee, and I walk precariously up an ice-covered forty-five degree slope to sit atop the pile of boulders in our camp, next to a sensuous clump of ice-glazed bunchgrass, protected in its aerie from the marauding cows of the Kessler Springs Ranch. I singe my tongue on the coffee.
If Cima Dome isn't exactly the heart of Joshua tree country, it's certainly close enough. There might be some place in the Mojave closer to the precise mathematical midpoint of the range of Yucca brevifolia. Odds are, though, that there are no Joshua trees growing at that point. The Joshua tree is certainly the most conspicuous denizen of the Mojave, and of those portions of the Great Basin and Sonoran deserts and the Colorado Plateau where it grows. Despite its visual prominence, however, Yucca brevifolia is anything but the dominant species in its range. Much of Joshua tree country is tens of miles from the nearest Joshua tree. Joshua tree country is filled to bursting with not much besides wind, dust, alkali and extremes of temperature. Joshua trees have quite a limited distribution in their range, narrow topographic bands of certain elevation and hospitable climate, looking from the cartographer's perspective like an inchoate set of wispy fingers. Too far toward the valley floors, and the trees give way to creosote or shadscale or big basin sagebrush, plants that can withstand intense heat and drought. Too close to the desert's high peaks, and one enters the land of the juniper and pinyon, the domain of the Clark's nutcracker, where only plants capable of surviving below-zero temperatures can grow. Even in some places with the proper elevation, the trees just never bothered to show up.
Joshua trees seem to want to grow at the limits of their elevational range. You'll be in a perfect place for them, nice loose soil and above 4000 feet and plenty of sun and a nearby mountain for runoff and still no Joshua trees. And then a thick stand pops up just before they fade into juniper at 5000 feet. Most Joshua tree forests you can't hike into for more than a few minutes; after that, if you keep going, you're hiking out of them. But at Cima Dome, not-quite-but-not-far-from the center of Joshua Tree country, balanced between Sonoran heat and Great Basin cold, between Pacific winter rain and Gulf monsoon, on a rock that slopes painfully slowly up to a summit that just grazes the upper altitudinal limit of the tree, the forest stretches for miles and miles. You could get lost in this forest.
I'm lost in it and I haven't finished my coffee yet.
The ravens have risen, their feathers a deep blue-black against the snow and threatening overcast. One flies over our camp, passes by, and then in one of the most obvious animal double-takes I've ever seen, falters in mid-flight, turns, and flies swift, tight circles over my truck. Probably scouting for French fries. Six, seven circuits, and then the far slopes beckon.
Matthew and I climb back to the upper floor of our camp atop the boulders, skittering dangerously on slanted ice. I tell the Joshua incense story, and wonder aloud at the contents of the leftover resin. Matthew considers. "You think maybe terpenes?" A good guess, but I don't know. Other solvents are on my mind. The martini glass image has me eyeing the junipers upslope. I opt for another cup of coffee instead, and choke on the grounds in the bottom of the pot. Matthew, grinning at me as I make a big brown sputtered coffee grounds stain in the snow, is stomping around the top of the boulder pile, and has discovered a whole world of untrammeled snow and rock on the other side. "This transpetric land, she is appealing!" he says. The caffeine seems to have reached his central nervous system. "The surface appears to be very, very fine grained, as you get close to it. It's almost like a powder."
Matthew pauses for a long moment. "I'm going to step off the LeM now."
Posted at September 4, 2004 12:36 PM
Great story. Did it take place close enough to the moon landings that Matthew's last quote would be part of the common conciousness, or is he just as much of a geek as me?
I'm totally baffled by the "alcohol a lot" bit, though. I count one mention of "the furthest beer", one mention of buying beer and rye, and some description of a piece of wood as being martini glass shaped. Is that a lot of alcohol imagery or did I miss something? Maybe the person thought you were talking about Zima instead of Cima?
Posted by: Paul Tomblin at September 5, 2004 06:26 AM
It took place in 1997. Matthew's a big ol' geek.
Funny thing about the alcohol. Though the piece doesn't reflect it, later in that trip it started to rain. There wasn't much we could do other than sit under the tarp and drink the rest of the rye.
Posted by: Chris Clarke at September 5, 2004 07:48 AM
...so what's wrong with a little beer...and rye...and the like? another great tale with so many lovely images from my favorite transpetric storyteller. how'd you get to know so much anyway?
Posted by: Anne at September 5, 2004 08:39 AM
I'm a big ol' geek.
Posted by: Chris Clarke at September 5, 2004 08:58 AM
Alcohol? Pshaw. I'd be far more concerned about your strange obsession with a certain arborescent yucca.
This is a beautiful piece, though. I found myself - to my shock and horror - thinking wistfully of that first crisp snowfall, which I'm not sure I'll be getting here in SJ. And as Anne noted, there are too many striking images and turns of phrase to count. Thanks for the resurrection.
Posted by: Siona at September 5, 2004 02:19 PM
I could keep reading happily about the rest of your weekend for as long as you wanted to go on about it -- which is probably a good sign for the success of your Joshua tree book!