Home on the Ranch

This is not some made-up story about my youth. I vividly remember the smell of the air, the time of year, the chirping birds in the trees, the swamp coolers humming on the roof of the house, and the time of day. I recall the colors of the molded plastic dinosaurs, their heft, and the details, like the way their skin folded at the curves of their bodies. I remember the smell of the dirt, the color of it, the powdery texture and moist, cool feel of it. I remember how deep the hole I dug seemed – it was probably a foot deep or so – but it seemed significantly deeper to me, deep enough to contain clues to the mystery of who we all are, and where we came from. I was digging the world navel, a kiva, a passageway to the innermost secrets of the nature of who we are. But in my innocent naiveté, I thought I was only digging a hole to hide a clue for some future scientist to be grateful for.

View of ranch to west from top of mill

My dad was a turkey rancher, so we lived on the ranch that his parents had settled in the early 1900's. It was summer in the high desert, the Mojave Desert of Southern California, so yeah, it was hot. There was an incongruous lawn under the shade of six or eight Chinese elm trees, and it emitted its own localized, low pressure, high humidity weather system, a micro-microclimate. The whole place was shuttered and quieted by the early morning heat, except for the sparrows in the elm trees, and the hum of the swamp coolers on the roof. The smell of hot, humid desert – petrichor – hung in the air. There would be thunderstorms later in the day.

This was during the glory days of prizes inside cereal boxes, the mid-1960’s. While listening to excited anchor men gush about the latest Apollo mission to the moon, (we hadn’t yet planted a flag on that far-distant body), or the latest news of casualties from Viet Nam, (the body count was always much higher on their side than ours, so we were obviously winning), you could open a box of Apple Jacks, All Stars, or Frosted Rice, grab one of mom’s mixing bowls, the big orange ceramic one, rip open the wax paper bag, dump that sucker into the bowl, and pluck out the coveted brontosaurus, triceratops, diplodocus or what have you. (Mom would return the cereal back into the bag at some later, unobserved point in time.) I didn’t have any siblings my age waiting around to usurp my dinosaur privileges, so whatever the cereal box contained was mine. All mine.

View of the San Gabriel range to the south, 1927

I was out in the front yard that summer morning, with a purple brontosaurus and an orange triceratops, cruising the Mojave Desert, looking for a swamp. I was a science nerd even at that young age. I was pretending to be a paleontologist, and I was looking for habitat for my dinosaurs with the idea of burying them where an archaeologist, a brother scientist, many years in the future, would dig them up, and in an "A-ha!" moment of transcendent scientific glory, deduce that we had all been here, in our own civilization, lo these many years ago. Garden trowel in hand, I was digging when my dad drove up into the driveway and stopped. He rolled down the window of the brown, 1968 Chevy pickup with the wood plank bed and the letters “C-H-E-V-R-O-L-E-T” on the tailgate that I can still feel with the tips of my fingers. He looked at me, covered in dirt with a green-handled, six-inch steel garden trowel in hand and a sizable pile of dirt beside, and asked what no parent should ever ask a young boy: “What are you doing?”

“Burying dinosaurs”, came my reply.

I imagine that he was fine with this answer because I don’t recall any further discussion of the topic. I probably supposed that he drove the rest of the way into the garage, quietly satisfied with the knowledge that his son was clearing the way for some future archaeologist’s Nobel-winning fame. I don’t think my dad ever really understood me, but that’s a different story for a different time.

It’s probably not surprising that I would construct a world navel in the front yard of the house where I grew up. The house was beautiful. Originally built in the mid-1920’s, it was constructed of adobe bricks, made from mud mixed with straw that was grown right there on the ranch. It literally rose from the Earth right where it stood. Three large bedrooms, one full bath and two showers, it was finished with maple parquet flooring in the living room, den and bedrooms. A huge fireplace lined a wall of the living room, framed in layers of pink sandstone, probably from Southern Utah. The same sandstone was used to construct a built-in, copper-lined planter in the den around an open structural beam that ran from floor to ceiling, where my mother grew a philodendron for the entire 25 years I called the house my home. A huge picture window was the showpiece of the den, with a view of the rest of the ranch and all points to the north. The living room had a series of paned windows that provided a view to the south of the 10,000-foot crest of the San Gabriel Mountains.

Wintry view to the north from the den.

About 2600 square feet, there were two swamp coolers that efficiently cooled the house in the summer, with a distinct advantage over other, newer homes with air conditioning: the coolers were lined with pads made of shredded pine that we replaced every summer. A pump in each cooler brought water up to the top of the pads, from where it dripped down, drenching the shaved wood. Wet pine smells incredible – think forest in a light rain. We used a particular floor wax on the wooden floors that also smelled of piney woods, and in summer, when the floors were freshly waxed and the coolers had new pads, the woody smell of the cool house in the midst of the Mojave Desert summer heat was enough to floor you. If ever I was centered and felt truly at home, it was at this place, at that particular time. It was primal and natural, perhaps unavoidable, that I would construct a world navel, an axis mundi, there in the front yard of that beautiful place that was my beginning.

I remember laying the dinosaurs down in the bottom of the hole, and wondering when they would next see the light of day, imagining the bespectacled face of that future archaeologist, peering wide-eyed at them, wondering at their simplicity and significance, and at the delicate nature of the wrinkles of their skin. I knew the excitement he would feel. He would feel the summer morning. He would smell the heat and moisture, and perhaps, who knew, even take refuge from the blazing sun inside the wonderfully cool house that smelled so much of forest and pine. I covered them with the exhumed earth, tamped the fill down with my feet, and thought about them from time to time over the next 50 years.

My parents sold the ranch in the late 1980’s. My grandparents, real estate investors in the Southern California of the late 1800’s, originally bought the property in the early 1900's. They built a home on the land that still stood when we moved away. Our house stood a short distance across a field from theirs. They would make the drive from Los Angeles to the house on the desert regularly. They planted fruit trees, peaches and pears, that grow so well in the climate of the high desert. It was more of a hobby ranch for my grandparents, who came to California from wealth and status in turn-of-the-century New York.

Grandparents' house

As my grandparents aged, they retired to the foothills north of Pasadena, and gave the desert property over to my dad in 1934, as a gift for graduating with a degree in economics from USC. He developed a turkey ranch and a feed mill on the land. The ranch and milling business thrived throughout the World War II years, the classic times of the 1950’s, and through the dynamic changes of the 1960’s. In the 1970's, as dad entered his 60’s, he began to plumb the depths of a deep depression that to my knowledge, he never spoke of to anyone, or did anything to treat, other than self-medication with high-octane Mexican tequila. He withdrew socially, and his ranch began to show the effects of his depression before his face did. By 1980 when I graduated high school, the ranch, while still functioning, was more an eyesore than it should have been, and the decades of turkey shit in the 30 acres of pens on the west side of the property began to have a permanent smell that couldn’t be erased no matter how many times they were scraped and the crap hauled over by the railroad tracks on the south side of the place. 

I loved growing up on the ranch in the 70’s. My dad bought me a pony, Misty, and a pellet gun, and paid me a bounty of 25 cents per squirrel and pigeon, and a nickel for each sparrow – pests that spread disease to his turkeys and pillaged the grain in his mill. I grew to know at a young age the commonalities of blood and life we share with all living beings. Speaking of young men and hunting, and growth into adulthood, Henry Thoreau stated that “No humane being, past the thoughtless age of boyhood, will wantonly murder any creature.” I first read that line when I was about 13, and it has stayed with me all these years. I would not feel so deeply the interconnection of life and earth and blood if I hadn’t had the opportunity to hunt ferocious wild animals on horseback when I was young.

The house in 2015. The years had not been kind.

Over the years since we moved away, I’ve taken comfort in knowing that the house was still there. I would occasionally take a virtual trip to the house via Google Earth and see the spot I buried the dinosaurs. A few times I actually drove past the place, physically observing as it faded further and further away from its shining memory. In Spring of 2015, I drove onto the property for the first time since leaving in 1988, and was stunned at the desolation and missing landmarks. I'm haunted by the ghosts of the place.

Today, early September 2016, roughly 50 years since I buried those toys, I was told that the house, along with all the other structures remaining on the ranch, were bulldozed flat last week in preparation for construction of PRECISELY what everyone needs, another subdivision of cheap, shoddily constructed, unaffordable homes in the middle of the desert. What seemed such a permanent place is now completely erased. I’m feeling a little uprooted and unstable, even though it’s been 30 years since I called that place home. The knowledge of its demolition takes away something I didn’t know I had – an ongoing connection with that house, the ranch, and who I am. Now that connection is only a memory. But, now that I think about it, that’s all it’s ever been...a memory that shines brighter with each passing year. But those dinosaurs in that hole are real. I wonder if they’re still there.

I hope that they are.

The house in Google Earth - click to see a reconstruction of sorts

Here's how the place looks now...

Homesite looking west, September 7, 2016

The first 10 seconds of this video are a pan from west to east of the den inside the house that shows the wall of bookcases, the picture window and my mom's philodendron. The scene changes to a view inside the hatchery of workers determining the gender of baby turkeys.