Growing up on the Mojave Desert in California was a lot like growing up in the desert anywhere. Lots of space all around, and plenty of opportunities to explore that space, get into trouble, and have a good time for the most part. There were strange animals inhabiting the place, from the horned lizard to the desert tortoise, the tarantula to the scorpion. Snakes slithered about, birds flew overhead, and the seasons changed with a predictability that was comforting. At least you knew that the wind would always blow.
It’s strange, but I’ve always had this inexplicable attraction toward desert plants. Caricatures of shrubs, Mojave plants range from the ghostly creosote waving its branches in the wind on a moonlit desert night, to the outlandish Joshua tree, named by the Mormons for the prophet who led the Israelites on the final leg of their trip to the promised land, waving them along with up-raised arms through the desert.
This attraction toward desert plants has followed me throughout my life. I was always much more interested in the botany of a cholla or beavertail cactus than playing football with the other boys in the neighborhood. I should clarify that I have a fairly loose definition of the term “neighborhood”. The surrounding few miles around where we lived was isolated. My house sat at the end of a long, white stretch of decomposed granite road that became a river of mud during the winter rains, and a caked stretch of solid, ceramic-like adobe during the heat of the summer. Not many traveled our road, only those who needed to see one or the other of the family, or those who came for a friendly visit. The nearest neighbor until I was six-years-old lived about a mile-and-a-half to the east.
California’s Mojave is no longer like this, of course. Throughout the last half of the 20th century, “growth and development” seeped over the mountains from the metropolitan centers of Los Angeles and other points south like pus from a suppurating wound. As the city bled off its excess population, the open space on the desert filled with people, roads and vital services like gas stations and fast food chains, subdivisions, and freeways. This hemorrhaging was at its heaviest while I was growing up, but I didn’t pay attention until it was too late. Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell. The Mojave has cancer.
On the weekends, my only real friend and I would get together at one or the other’s house. His place had a swimming pool and a trampoline and was up in the hills a little above the desert in the cooler air of the piñon-juniper community. The view out over the wide expanse of the desert floor was dramatic, even for a youngster, and so I often cajoled mom or dad to drive me to his house for the weekend.
One summer night at his place, we watched as a thunderstorm rolled across the desert below. The storm knocked out the power to the house, and so we sat by the glow of burning logs in the fireplace. His mom popped corn over the embers in an old basket popper, and the corn smell wafted through the house, mixing with the resin-heavy, desert smell of rain-soaked creosote. As we watched from the picture window, the storm moved across the desert below on giant spider legs of electricity that flashed and lit the distant buttes in a red glow, as the clouds sparked violet above. When we closed our eyes after a flash, the image of the bolt was burned into our retinas and remained there while we sat munching popcorn in the dark.
The next day, the two of us couldn’t wait to get out into the freshness of the morning after. We raced over the hills, creosote incense still heavy in the air, along with the smell of wet earth. Everything seemed new and waiting for us. We found animals crawling about, searching for new bits of edible material leafing out after the storm. Lizards were my friend’s favorite, and he was usually fast enough to catch them. He ran like an antelope. I, on the other hand, did not. I was meant to favor plants. It’s not necessary to run very fast, if at all, to catch a plant. My friend raced up to me and jabbed my shoulder. “You’re it!” he cried and was off at that impossible gate of his.
I can still see his feet kicking up the wet, brownish-red dirt as he powered up the long hillside, leaving small, round prints in his wake. I shook my head and gave chase, aware of the futility of the decision; the tortoise and the hare, but that hare did not ever stop. I began to breathe hard as I neared the top of the hill, but he had slowed tantalizingly, so I pushed whatever speed was left out of my legs into the hillside. I kept my eyes on my friend’s tail. As he reached the crest of the hill, he dove to the left.
I chose to continue straight up the hill. The blue sky grew enormous above me, and the glory of the morning shone round-about me. The tingle of the air felt marvelous in my lungs, and as I crested the top of the hill, I extended my arms and made a giant, little-boy leap into that over-arching, blue firmament.
This glorious leap was followed by immediate, star-studded, generalized pain. I fell sideways, somehow out of control, and as I fell – just before losing all vision – I caught sight of a strange plant in silhouette against that crystal sky; I remember thinking of a combination of antlers and a teddy bear. After a moment, I sat up to examine the cause of the excruciating, un-nameable pain in my legs. Dozens of small, silver globes, bristling with razor points, dangled from my shins. As I watched, small drops of blood began to seep from each embedded spine. At this point, I felt I had nothing else to do but let out a blood-curdling scream, on the heels of which followed wailing sobs. My friend stood over me, staring wide-eyed at my legs, mouth pursed into an “O”, arms to his side, mesmerized.
His mother shot from the house like a comet and knelt on the ground next to me. Somehow it didn’t make me feel any better when she said she would be right back with the pliers. I’d heard the name and was familiar with the plant, but had never come in such direct contact with it before. My friend voiced the evil word under his breath, summoning another bout of sobbing from my parasympathetic nervous system: “Cholla…” I learned later that the particular cholla I’d impaled myself upon is known as the “teddy bear” variety. There is also the “staghorn” variety of the cactus along with a slew of others, hence the images of antlers and teddy bears during my protracted tumble. There was not much comfort in that particular teddy bear.
The needles had embedded themselves in the tibias and calf muscles of each leg. I remember each pull of the pliers that morning under the yawning desert sky, beneath the outstretched arms of the Joshua trees. I remember my friend’s mother swabbing iodine over the tiny holes, the worry on my friend’s face, and the kind, soothing tones his mother used to calm me.
My mother was a nurse, and after a phone call, she sped over the desert roads to examine me. Because bone tissue was injured, I was hauled 40 miles across the desert in another direction to the hospital, examined, x-rayed and given a round of antibiotics and light painkillers. I remember the wincing and involuntary groans of the staff at the hospital when they were told of the accident: “Aggh. Can you imagine that sh*t? J*sus H….”
This, of course, was not my last encounter with the cholla, but at least so far, it’s been the most dramatic.
Because young children rebound with amazing elasticity, it was only a day or two before I was back out in the desert, shins replete with small red welts, running between the bushes but now with an eye out toward the possibility of a cholla cactus waiting silently around that next corner.
It’s strange, but I’ve always had this inexplicable attraction toward desert plants.