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August 05, 2005

A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun

I only knew Rob for a couple days. He was a carpenter from the Pacific Northwest, a slender, athletic fellow, who wandered into an informal campsite near mine in the middle of the desert almost a decade ago. We started talking. He was pleasant company.

He suggested we hike a bit together, and I had nothing else to do, so off we went on a three-mile scramble around a low desert peak. By the time we threaded our way through rounded granite boulders and barrel cacti and back to our campsites, I'd invited him to move into my site and eat dinner with me. (He'd complained about a large, fetid pile of trash in his site.)

Over the fire that night he mentioned a hike he'd heard about, an eight-mile wilderness path through some of the remotest desert landscapes in the area. He'd quailed a bit at the thought of hiking it by himself, what with the need for a subsequent eight-mile return hike to his car, and he wondered if I was interested in doing a two-car shuttle hike with him.

We set out early the next morning, driving to one trailhead, leaving my truck there, and pooling to the other end of the trail. I'd never done as long a hike in the Mojave, and was a bit nervous about what conditions we'd be encountering. I needn't have worried. The land was remote, but there are much more rigorous hikes in the Bay Area hills. This was eight miles of rolling countryside, autumn flowers glowing against the gray-brown desert shrubs.

We set out at the higher end of the trail, which followed a sandy wash for a mile or so past glowing golden cholla cacti, red paintbrush flowers, and the incongruous-looking purple trumpets of desert four-o-clocks. We stopped to admire what is still, a decade later, the largest clump of Mojave mound cactus I have ever seen, at least 30 inches wide. The trail was a little indistinct, and a couple times we checked for sign, backtracked to find where we'd gone wrong, and followed the actual trail only to find that it took us back to within ten feet or so of where we'd turned back. It was all the excitement of difficult route-finding without any actual risk of getting lost. Eventually, the trail left the wash and started a slow climb up and over a long, low ridge.

At what seemed certain to be the high point of the trail, atop a broad saddle between two peaks about halfway along, we sat at a rancher's fenceline and ate lunch. The picturesque chollas and wildflowers had given way to undistinguished blackbrush and invasive red brome grass, a landscape altered by decades of ranching. The lack of foreground was inducement to take the long view. We could see probably five hundred square miles of desert: craggy peaks we knew to hold limestone caverns, flat-topped mesas, granite pinnacles off on the Nevada line. We listened to the rally calls of quail, and strained to identify a raptor. I no longer remember whether it was a red-tail or a prairie falcon.

Walking again, we wound south from the saddle along old desert two-rut roads. As we lost a little altitude, chollas started reappearing on the south-facing slopes. We angled down one small hill into a sudden wonderland of the cacti, heavily armed stems leaning treacherously out into the trail, translucent spines glowing in the increasingly warm afternoon sun. We picked our way carefully through the cactus forest.

Not long after came the stretch of trail I remember most clearly: a sparse forest of ancient junipers. From the soil beneath each one, it was clear the forest had been used as a sporadic but favored campsite for a century, and perhaps much longer.

A prairie falcon flushed from its hiding place in the largest juniper, flew off with a scolding kek-kek-kek.

A warm wind came up a canyon from the south, smelling of gin and creosote. I longed to lay out a pad and sleeping bag beneath those remote Mojave trees, to return and stay as long as my water lasted. "I am definitely coming back to camp here," I told Rob. "This feels like the center of the world."

Rob nodded.

But the afternoon was warm and we were low on water, so we left the juniper grove. Another couple miles past striking low white cliffs, down a sun-baked slope black with desert varnish and dotted with huge, red-spined barrel cacti, and impossibly large Mojave yucca, and we were at my truck. I drove Rob back to his car, shook hands, and drove off to meet Becky somewhere else in the desert. Though we exchanged addresses, I haven't heard from Rob since.

I spent the next eight years thinking of that spot in the junipers, longing to go back, remembering the falcon's hurried alarm call and picturing long, lazy days hiding in the shade of the ancient trees. But without an extra car to make a shuttle hike, hiking the whole trail seemed excessive, and for some reason – too much else to see in the Mojave, I suppose – I never managed to make it that two miles back up to the center of the world.

At five in the morning on June 23, 2005, lightning started a fire about a five-minute walk from where we'd parked my truck that day. Within twelve hours – only a bit longer than it took us to walk the trail – the fire had reached the place where we stepped out of Rob's car and began our hike. It kept going.

I suppose I could walk away from the events of the past month with the consolation that nothing is permanent. Or with the sop that, fire being the fickle goddess that she is, I truly don't know whether the junipers were hurt. I could remind myself of all the other places I loved far more deeply that I'll never see again: the old-growth woods on Blue Hill in Springville, New York, the corner of 96A and Orchard Street in Ovid, the inside of the Villa Hermosa restaurant on Telegraph, the smooth space between my long-dead lover's collarbones. And what of the places I'll never see at all?

Cold comfort. I cannot hear the falcon, nor hold the center in my anarchic heart.

Posted by Chris Clarke at August 5, 2005 11:38 AM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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(And yet, out of the destruction, there is beauty - not least in your post.)

Posted by: Rana at August 5, 2005 12:54 PM
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You've made me think of all the places I can never return to; the things that are irreparably shattered; the connections dissolved by death and time and actions that can't be undone, words that can't be unsaid.

That was as beautiful and as desolate as your desert.

Posted by: Stephanie at August 5, 2005 01:43 PM
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I hope you don't mind, Chris, but I'm going to skip the usual "buts" and just say well done.

Posted by: tost at August 5, 2005 05:09 PM
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Well done of you, too, tost.


Posted by: Stephanie at August 5, 2005 08:26 PM
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Chris - I've done this hike - and I remember it as vividly (almost) as your description. I now also find it shattering to realize that it's not the same, and that the renewal of ancient forms and communities that we have experienced and taken to heart will not take place while we are here. I work in post-fire watershed emergency response from time to time, and I have seen familiar landscapes changed by fire (the Cone Peak area of the Santa Lucia Range following the 1999 Kirk Fire comes to mind) - and yet had not absorbed and digested the if not finality, at least the nature of the time scale of renewal following stand-replacing fire. Your essay has helped me internalize and grasp some aspect of impermananence and change, and how we usually pass through living communities, cherishing them as we can at the time, but with no way of knowing whether they will remain as our memories have embraced them when (or if) we next pass their way. Thank you.

I distributed your earlier entry (Burn, July - that discussed the influx of invasive exotic grasses affecting desert fire ecology and the persistence of existing plant communities and soil characteristics) among the folks on the Forest Service ranger district that I work on, with a number of favorable comments coming back, including from our District Ranger, who worked on the burned area response team for the “Hackberry Complex” fire. Resource professionals need this kind of insight to help us come to grips with the enormity and rapidity of change that we’re seeing on the landscape. So keep telling it like it is.

I hadn’t thought about Villa Hermosa for a while either. Thanks for that too.

Posted by: Fred Levitan at August 9, 2005 11:15 AM
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