I need to write about the desert, my time there, over forty years ago.
Palo Verde, California on the Colorado River where it is slow and slim, banks woven with brambles where the muskrats lived. Twenty miles farther south was the turn off to the old miners’ cabin, perched on the cliff of a deep wash. I lived there for the winter of ‘72.
The desert isn’t the Spartan place it’s said to be. In fact, I found it endlessly fascinating. Looking out over the low desert to the Chocolate Mountains, I could watch the sand storms crawl toward us, erasing the landscape like an artist expunging his work. Cactus bloomed at twilight, colors so vivid they shimmered blood-pink in the flash-orange of the setting sun. In the morning, they were no more than a twist of pale petal; by noon they were gone.
I was there for the lushest spring in 20 years though I didn’t know it at the time. Somewhere I still have a sketch book of flowers, tiny and delicate. The seemed no match for the harsh desert, yet they defied the heat and desiccation long enough to put down seeds of their own. Those seeds would lie in the sharp stone until the next saturation, possibly another 20 years.
I got my water from Midway Well. Once a week, I’d hike the 2 miles down the wash to the truck, a ‘55 Dodge with the tenacity of a bulldog, then drive the rest of the wash to the well. I filled an aluminum garbage can with water, glorying in its the liquid vivacity as I had the rare bright sun in my Pacific Northwest home, then haul it back to the cabin. The truck always made it; not all of the water did.
The cabin was on BLM land which butted up to a navy bombing range. Rarely did I hear the bombs, and then only a boom in the distance. Once, however, the impact was so close it shook the house. I swear I saw the boards fly apart and death look me in the face; then as if by magic, the scene reversed and the damage repaired itself. I looked again and it was all back in order, all but my racing heart.
I had a cat and a dog. Hound Dog was an unfortunate untrained mutt who barked at nothing, then hid when the burros came. Cat-Man-Do was a stray kit I found the parking lot of the Palo Verde general store. I fed her a sandwich and she bit my hand. Loved her forever after.
I turned 21 at a bar in Palo Verde. I’d been going there for months, and the barkeep wasn’t happy when he learned I’d been under age the whole time. For a while, I sang in the tiny café they called a lounge. I played my guitar (poorly) and belted out popular songs (with heart). A friend gave me a set of neon-pink hot pants for a costume. “Oh, honey, this’ll get you the tips,” she said, and she was right: one man paid me a whole 5 bucks to sing Sammi Smith’s hit, “Help Me Make It Through the Night”. I didn’t know the words so I learned them off the jukebox.
I left my mining claim in the spring of 1973 with cat, dog, and a rat-shit trailer. A handful of opals still in the stone, some obsidian slivers, and a tiny bag of silver tailings were my only ores. Only the silver came from my claim: I’d traded a bottle of warm beer for the opals at a flea market in Yuma; the obsidian slivers were a gift. I made them into a wind chime, their pure notes pinging the hot night until I left them hanging from a Palo Verde tree at a roadside pull-off.
I drove back to British Columbia. Behind me, the desert metamorphosed into a mirage.