Unseen Desert

The Meeting

Sixteen summers had come and gone since I was born. I lived on the ranch my parents ran on the Southern California desert. It was an isolated place, and I didn’t have much contact with people my age as I grew. I wasn’t bothered by this, far from it. I had a horse and a dog and together the three of us explored and learned about the desert that surrounded us in all its silence and mystery. One day in the midst of the desert, this time not accompanied by my beloved horse and dog, a single, intense experience opened my eyes to a world far deeper and more mysterious than I could have imagined.

We had been talking with each other for a while on the phone. Phones then were connected to the wall and you couldn't move around much with them. There was a small tiff over some irrelevancy, and so we agreed to “meet each other halfway”. "You start walking now,” she said, “and so will I. Where we meet will be halfway!" We were connected by a grid of rural roads in the desert, laid out on the white gravel that made up the valley floor. We hung up and I started walking. We lived within a couple of miles of each other. I thought nothing of a two-mile walk in the 100-degree summer heat. I was young, it was summer in the desert, and I was in love.
 

96th St. East, view to the south, the San Gabriel Mtn's rising above the San Andreas Fault
96th St. East, view to the south, the San Gabriel Mtn's rising above the San Andreas Fault

When I first spotted her, she was a small, ephemeral point in the distance – the spot materialized from nothing. Heat shimmered from the pavement as the desert's expanse swept up to the cool of the mountains to the south. As we neared each other, I watched her continue to emerge out of the dazzling, almost blinding white sand. Her image refracted like a mirage in the waves of heat.

Slowly, it became clear that the distant object had legs and had begun to take on color: black and green, the colors of the raven’s egg. Eventually, her shape took on the outlines of the human form. The female form. Hips wider and round under a smaller waist and square shoulders, hair flowing down in curls around them. The next concrete materialization was her swaying walk, hands brushing thighs in time with the rise and fall of her body. Her arm reached up and she brushed the curls from her shoulder as her body undulated hypnotically from side to side, shimmering in the dense heat. She wore green pants and a black top, colors that would blend like camouflage with the surrounding desert, but which stood out vividly against the glaring white sand.

Everything about her materialized slowly, languorously, because that is the only word that can describe materialization in the desert. There was no sudden moment of recognition, no apparition from around a corner, no sudden impact of surprise. Instead, there was the steady dawning of her person, an awakening of her presence in mine.

I remember the times my eyes have grown accustomed to the moonlight on a dark summer’s night until I was surprised to see my own shadow stretched out along the ground. It had always been there but had just materialized into my senses. Just like a moonlit shadow, she grew steadily out of the shimmering light until she was there. It was as though we had been traveling together across leagues of time and space, but now we could hear the other’s voice and touch the other’s body. There was a sense of time yielding substance. 

We embraced and kissed deeply, the tiff on the phone, our reason for meeting completely forgotten. I remember opening my eyes to look at her. Eyes closed, her head upturned, the graceful line of her neck, long hair curling down her back, with the sun reflected in each strand. Her chest expanded and contracted within my arms. She wrapped a leg around my knees and brought me still closer to her. The blinding white gravel crunched beneath our feet as the kiss lingered.

My memory of our meeting that day remains vivid, even looking back through the deadening fog and haze of years. It was one of my first conscious experiences of the desert’s mysterious way of revealing things. Like the slow apparition of a lover, the desert reveals its secrets when we open ourselves to it. Sometimes, everything we see hides something else.

The Mojave

The desert where I grew up, the Mojave Desert, is cradled between three large mountain ranges. To the south, the San Gabriel and San Bernardino Mountains geographically separate the desert from the Los Angeles basin. To the north, the Tehachapi Mountains, essentially the southern tip of the Sierra Nevada range, curve westward to meet the outliers of the San Gabriels at a forty-five-degree angle. This angle is the juncture of two major faults, the San Andreas and the Garlock. Tectonic forces have constructed a rugged mountain barrier that separates the Mojave from the Pacific Ocean, barricading the interior from the storms that shed like tears from the Gulf of Alaska each winter.

The Mojave Desert
The Mojave Desert

To the south and west of these ranges, oaks dot the grass-covered, rolling hills. In the higher mountains, pine and fir forests drape rugged peaks. Rains come often enough to the western slopes, and snow to the higher elevations. About 15 inches of precipitation per year can be expected. To the north and east of the mountains, under the rain shadow, things are different. Rainfall is less than one-third that of the western slope, often much less. This lack of precipitation is what creates the Mojave Desert.

The Mojave is usually defined by its plant life and elevation. Most of the Mojave is considered the high desert, between 2500 and 4000 feet in elevation. The landscape is dominated by the creosote bush, interspersed with several different types of cactus, and the ubiquitous tumbleweed. There generally aren’t any trees to be found, unless you’re near a spring or ephemeral creek, where they find enough water to survive, or near a town, where they’ve been planted and tended.

The Joshua

The exception to this scrub landscape, and the most eye-catching of all the Mojave's plants, is the Joshua tree. Not an actual tree, and long thought to be members of the lily family, Joshuas are tall, shaggy members of the agave genus; the same family that provides us with tequila. Using the botanic argot, they are "large, erect, evergreen, arborescent monocots". Their shaggy trunks and up-raised, spike-covered arms are unmistakable and have been accorded lasting fame on rock albums and in the name of a National Park, as well as in narrative and art from the region’s earliest non-native visitors. The name harkens back to Mormon travelers who crossed the Mojave on their way to California to find supplies for their new settlement on the shores of the Great Salt Lake. Joshua was Moses’ military aide. It was he who ushered the Chosen People across the River Jordan and into the Promised Land. Apropos of Joshua, arms raised, ushering the Jews into that land of milk and honey, this group of Mormons named the tree whose upraised arms appear to beckon onward across the now-dry Pleistocene lake beds and searing distances, toward something still unseen, but sensed.

Joshua tree in bloom
Joshua tree in bloom

In the springtime, after the winter rains, the Joshua sprouts an exuberant bloom. Waxy yellow-white flowers, on stalks that are often two feet or more in length and a foot in diameter, sprout from the ends of the shaggy arms. Within the flowers, a unique bundling of pollen takes place; instead of occurring in a mass of powder, the pollen adheres to itself and forms into globes. These globes are collected by pregnant yucca moths, Tegeticula paradoxa. Under the cover of darkness, the female moth collects up to a dozen of these fertile globes from different flowers in prehensile arms that jut from her snout. Laden with one pollen globe after another, she wings her way repeatedly to-and-from a likely candidate bloom, and with care and precision, sidles in and lays her eggs deep inside the female portion of the flower, then packs her load of pollen tightly down on top of the eggs. In this way, she fertilizes the Joshua and provides food for her young when they hatch. The larvae will only eat a small amount of pollen. The rest will be blown across the desert on the wind to produce new Joshua trees.

This is the only means by which the moth can reproduce, and is the only way a new Joshua tree can come into being. Neither the moth nor the Joshua can survive without the other – a mutual relationship that is over 40 million years old. I have never seen a Tegeticula moth, let alone its courtship with the Joshua. Yet the fruits of the moth’s labor blanket the Mojave landscape. This unseen, yet blindingly visual symbiosis between moth and large, erect, evergreen, arborescent monocots is typical of the desert. It is everywhere, at once unseen yet at the same time striking and obvious. The trick is seeing what is hidden by what we see.

The Wind

Another day on the desert and I’m 10 years old, waiting for my mother to pick me up from school. I’d spent too many hours amidst nuns and the sterile, fettering atmosphere of the small Catholic school I’d found myself in. The school consisted of two buildings surrounded by an eight-foot-tall chainlink fence. Eight classrooms and a small library were contained within the enclosure. A spiral of razor wire on top of the fence was all that was needed to complete the imprisoning feel of the place. The church, much larger than the school, stood atop a small rise that once had been the edge of a wash that carried water from storms in the mountains to the lower reaches of the desert.

I was ready to go home. Sitting against the brick wall at the edge of the parking lot that connected the school and the church, I looked eastward out over the desert and wondered how far it extended. I could see miles across the flatlands covered with creosote bush, Joshua trees, and tumbleweeds. The wind blew. It always blows. I stood and turned to look the other way for a change. 

Hills west of Palmdale showing rain shadow effect
Hills west of Palmdale showing rain shadow effect, (photo by Lori Nelson Brown)

Cresting over the mountains to the west, a wave of clouds cascades down into the desert, but the cascade ends abruptly. The clouds just lick the atmosphere east of the mountains, then evaporate at the mere touch of desert air. All that is left of them is a howling, screaming, icy wind that careens across the desert floor, lifting anything that isn’t heavy or nailed down.

I shake my head, rub the blinding sand from my eyes, and sit back down behind the wall, sheltered from the force of the wind, but not its effects. Small grains of sand cascade out of my hair and down the front of my windbreaker. I’m sure that if I sit here long enough, I will become engulfed by the sand. I’ve seen it happen. A soda can I flattened and left at a certain spot, girded by rocks placed strategically to prevent it from being blown away, was covered by sand within two days. Buried. Left to the archaeologists, invisible beneath the windblown detritus.

Sand cascades down my chest and even at 10-years-old, I imagine my own burial. Small dunes create themselves in the folds and crevices of my jacket before my eyes. I clench my jaw against the chill and hear the fine sand squeak between my teeth. Not only am I being buried by the desert, I'm eating it as well.

As I looked across the parking lot for my mom's car which still wasn't there, I became entranced by tiny grains of sand moving, seeming to hop across the pavement. I later learned that this hopping sand is termed “saltation” by geologists. It is through saltation that sand grains blow, or rather bounce, to the top of sand dunes. At the time, I focused on the bouncing sand and thought of nothing else until my mom finally pulled into the parking lot. I asked her if she'd ever seen sand grains hopping. She looked worried and said "No..." and waited for me to explain. It was then I discovered that bouncing sand grains was another thing that you don’t often see, but it happens all the time. 

The Sand

Nine years later, enrolled in a geology course that would set the direction for my life, I was camped alone in the Eastern Mojave Desert near a group of very large sand dunes. After the evening meal was prepared and eaten, and after the usual time spent in a chair looking at the dazzling stars and an approaching cold front, I wrapped in my sleeping bag and closed my eyes. That was when the dogs began barking. I didn’t recall having seen anyone all day. In fact, I was in one of the most remote corners of the California Desert. The dogs wouldn’t stop.

I crawled out of the bag, bent down and tied the laces of my shoes, and went to find the camp of these noisy intruders to give them a piece of my mind. They obviously were in dire need of some mindfulness and I was only too happy to part with a little of mine.

The sound led me to the tallest of the dunes. As I stood there, all alone in the wind and under a thin crescent moon, my shadow being cast on the ground unnoticed, dogs seemed to surround me. No one else was around for miles and miles, but the dogs were barking for all they were worth. It wasn’t until then that I understood what was happening. The wind was blowing tons of sand, (saltation), up to the crests of the dunes. When the weight of the sand hit that critical point, large quantities would break loose from the crest and slip down the dune faces. The friction of the sand slipping in this way, combined with the increased humidity associated with the incoming weather front, caused the barking noises. Another puzzle I didn't know I was working on clicked together before me in an instant.
 

Kelso Sand Dunes, Eastern Mojave National Preserve
Kelso Sand Dunes, Eastern Mojave National Preserve


The Magic

As I matured into my twenties, I became more familiar with the desert’s nuances. I began to look for the things that were unseen, but which were to be found everywhere at the same time. With the passage of time, it was as though the desert wrapped its leg around my knees and drew me deeper and closer into its unseen and magical world. Many times, I simply sat in the middle of a large dry lake, the blinding white expanse of sand issuing out into the distance in all directions from beneath the firm juncture of my rear with the dirt. The silent sky vaulted over me as though I were in the center of a large dome, the size of the Earth. I would imagine I was at “the center”, the locus Dei, the omphalos, the wellspring of all life. But of course, I was just sitting on my ass in the dirt in the middle of nowhere.

El Mirage Dry Lake, Mojave Desert, California
El Mirage Dry Lake, near Victorville, CA


Experiences like those I've told about, and so many more, allowed me to see that the desert holds a strange magic not encountered in other places. Something of this idea must have to do with distances and views and colors and landscapes. However, there is something far more sensual just beneath these vistas; something left unsaid yet screaming at the top of its lungs in the sheer insistence of its presence.

I don’t know what that something is. People have often searched for the "heart of the desert". The closest I’ve heard anyone come to finding it was when the author Edward Abbey wrote that the heart of the desert might lie in the fact that it has no heart. The desert is not a human construction, and so is not imbued with humanity. In fact, to most people, the desert is formidable and unapproachable in its sheer vastness and seeming hostility toward man. How could such a place have a heart?

Personally, I think that the concept of a desert heart lies deep within all of us. There is a long history of people going into the desert in search of themselves, or even in search of God. If God were to exist anywhere, he would surely inhabit the void and solitude of the vast desert reaches. Wouldn’t he? Wouldn't she? Wouldn't it? Every single bit of it is a mystery down to whether God is there or not.

Whatever heart the desert has or doesn't have cannot be found under a Joshua tree, watching sand blow, listening to dunes bark, or by sitting on a dry lake in the desert. Rather, I believe, or hope, that tucked away, far back in some primordial corner of our consciousness, lies a kernel of truth that is the seed of understanding. Not only understanding the desert but understanding the entire universe. If only we could fertilize this seed of consciousness that has lain dormant for so long. Then perhaps we could finally understand, or remember, what it is that calls to us so clearly, yet so silently from across time, from across the blinding desert. I often wonder if that little seed isn’t the key to understanding those ancient designs pecked and painted onto rocks throughout the desert southwest thousands of years ago. I wonder if it isn’t the key to remembering something, everything, that we’ve forgotten. What a miracle that would be. I often wish for the mental equivalent of a Tegeticula moth to bring the pollen globules that would fertilize this seed and bring to bloom all that mysterious knowledge in my mind.

For now, though, peering beneath, looking long, and closely observing are the only tools we have. So, see something slowly materialize from out of nothing. Watch moths create landscapes. Listen to sand dunes bark. Sit on the dirt and wait for a revelation. Feel the desert's embrace as it wraps its leg around your knees and pulls you closer. Look deep, beyond the blinding white sands, and the pieces of a puzzle you didn’t know you were solving may click together for you. You may see something new. Something you were blind to might suddenly materialize before your eyes. As the surrealist artist, René Magritte said, "Everything we see hides something else. We should always try to see what is hidden by what we see."

Racetrack Playa, Death Valley National Monument
Racetrack Playa, Death Valley National Park