Monday, October 24, 2011


by Kathleen Bradean

For some reason, in Los Angeles the Mojave Desert is referred to as the high desert, perhaps because you have to make that long climb up the San Andres fault, where the Pacific plate shoves against the North American plate and forms peaks like the Cajon Summit. If you thought about stuff like that, you'd be awed by the fact that you're really driving from one world to another, from Oceania to North America. I'm a geek girl, so I actually do think about crap like that. But if you've ever been to the high desert, you'd forgive my mind for wandering. It's a long drive with hours of nothing but desolation to look at and staticy country western stations to listen to. (Okay, there are iPods now, but before that? You had to provision for the road with a stack of CDs, or before that cassette tapes, like a pioneer in a prairie schooner filling his water barrels before crossing the great salt pans of the American southwest.)

I know that some people are, but I'm not a desert person. It just looks like desolation to me. That doesn’t mean that there's nothing to see though. With each change in elevation, there's a corresponding change in vegetation - from sparse to downright dismal. As you fly past at ninety miles per hour (honest, officer, I was only doing eighty) the scrub in some sections is laid out in diagonals, rows, and columns as if some OCD god took out a ruler and placed each dried up plant with the military precision of tombstones at Arlington Cemetery. I'm always glad when I see the Joshua trees and yucca, because they're only in Victorville and that last pass before we begin the long descent to the Nevada state line. Not the end of the road on either end, but a sign that there's only about an hour and a half left to endure before we reach Las Vegas or Los Angeles. (There's some great joke in there about the distance between the stars and the angels being miles of void, but I'm not up to it right now.)

Did you know that in the southwestern deserts of the US, you can still find the ruts cut into the soil by wagons following the Oregon Trail? The earth here is that fragile. Scar it, and it will never heal.

Across the desert, there are mysterious dirt roads that stretch off for miles across the land like Nazca Lines. I always wonder where they lead. How can you sit in the middle of nowhere and still think it isn't remote enough so you head off on an even fainter excuse for a road to get over the next mountain?

There's another feature I look for when we make the drive across the Mojave, and that's the cinder cones left behind from extinct volcanoes from the Quaternary Era (which includes the Pleistocene and Holocene eras, something I'm sure you know very well, thank you very much, and thus require no further geology lessons from me!) If you look for the black rocks, you can see the remains of ancient lava flows leading from those cones, across the land, and continuing on the other side of the highway. Since I live on a human scale of time, it's hard to wrap my mind around the fact that I can look at something that's 2.6 million years old. The cinder cones are beyond ancient, and yet, because this is the desert, they're right there, as visible to the eye as wagon ruts made a mere 150 years ago. Nothing goes away. Nothing gets hidden under layers of dirt or vegetation. You aren't allowed to forget what happened here, ever.

There is something hidden out there though. It's the reason for the mysterious roads. It's a gift from those long dormant volcanoes. It's why there are ghost towns strewn across the Mojave and why some wagon ruts don't follow the path of the Oregon Trail. It's the abundance of raw minerals just under the surface. Ever heard of the radio and TV show Death Valley Days (Death Valley is in the Mojave) sponsored by 20 Mule Team Borax? Guess where that 20-mule team trudged to? Calico, California. You can see it off the highway because the ghost town has been preserved as a state park and they've painted rocks white and laid them out on the mountainside so you can see the word Calico across the miles of desolation long before you reach it. You can see the caves miners turned into homes and the old jail, and wonder why anyone would chose to live in such a place, how they endured the summers before air conditioning, why they didn't keep stumbling to the west, find the Cajon Pass, and descend into the land of milk and honey?

To get quite writerly about it, the barren land of the desert is like any human life. No matter how hard we try to avert our eyes, the scars of old relationships are always there, etched into our surfaces, still visible if you know where to look. Seismic changes, choices, events, loom as large as cinder cones, and the trail of their destruction/creation spreads like dark tendrils across our present. No matter how fast you move to get past them, they still cross your path. And underneath every event, there's a writer's treasure to be mined. I suppose if I were to take this line of thought to its extreme, I could say that those roads seemingly leading off to nowhere are the stories that take you across the barren land to that mother load of inspiration, truth, and raw emotion. But staying there too long is like choosing to stay mired in hell rather than battling forward to the promised land.

It's not as if I look for grand metaphors in my life, because usually you have to squint really hard to get the pieces to align just so to make your point. I've made that drive enough times that it's come to me over time though, because it's something to think about when I'm sick of the rotation on my iPod already and everyone in the back seat is in a boredom induced slumber, the people still awake are all talked out, and I haven't seen a Joshua tree for hours.


  1. Fabulous descriptions, Kathleen!

    I've never been a desert person either.

    But - I'm not sure that I agree with the essence of your grand metaphor. I believe that people do heal and change, that the ruts can bet filled and the cinder cones wear away till they're practically gone.

    That's me - eternal optimist...

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  3. Lisabet - I suppose that makes me the eternal pessimist. I think people can overcome the past, but that doesn't erase it.

  4. Great post, Kathleen. The landscape I remember from my childhood in southern Idaho (on the western slope of the Rockies) is only slightly less drastic than this: semi-desert, covered with sagebrush, scrub cedar & cactus, with trilobite images in shale from the bottom of Lake Bonneville, vast prehistoric lake. Your metaphor works perfectly well, IMO, so I think I'll try to
    avoid going over the same ground. :)

  5. Jean - Western slope of the rockies, now that brings back memories. Yeah. It's a lot like the drive to Las Vegas.

  6. Such a lovely piece! Speaking of miles of void:

    "Few people realise the immensity of vacancy in which the dust of the material universe swims." —H.G. Wells

  7. Eccentric (If I may call you that) Space! Oh man. I wish I'd thought of that.


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