DESERT WORD WALK A literal and literary journey through California’s desert and some of its finest writers and writings

“Void of life, it never is, however dry the air and villainous the soil.”

—Mary Austin, from The Land of Little Rain, 1903

It’s 4:00 p.m. on a July afternoon. It’s 117 degrees. I back my car out of the garage of my Palm Desert home, turn the air conditioner up as high as it will go. I’m starting out on a 60-mile drive across desolate terrain to read selections of my desert prose and poetry at the Red Arrow Art Gallery, located in the small town of Joshua Tree along Highway 62, a thin ribbon of highway that arches from the low desert near the Palm Springs windmills, climbs several thousand feet into the high desert pass towns that grow smaller and farther apart until there are none, and continues all the way to the Colorado River, some 150 miles in all.

I’m inspired by the words penned by one of the most influential and memorable modern desert writers, Mary Austin. Going against the grain of subject and setting of early twentieth-century American literature, she created literary bounty in a place once widely thought to have none. Even at its hottest and most bleak, the desert is never a lifeless zone, as Austin pointed out. It’s just that…most of the life has gone indoors, or underground.

I swear as my hands touch the torch-hot steering wheel. I wish I’d had my car windows tinted. This is more a day for reading desert classics rather than reenacting my own twenty-first-century version of infamous desert crossings, such as the one made by the William Lewis Manly in part of 1849 through Death Valley. I manage to drive ahead, and soon I’m on I-10 heading west, trying to forget just how hot it really is.

Intense heat breeds necessary isolation. On days like this, it’s hard not to feel that I’m stranded on a “desert” island in the remote South Pacific. Ironically, my house is less than a mile from north shore Ancient Lake Cahuilla, once an extension of the Pacific. In fact, a large part of the California desert was once covered by vast inland lakes, and may one day be again. Austin’s fluid prose again comforts me: “A land of lost rivers,” she called this place, “with little left to love; yet a land that once visited must be come back to inevitably.” Similarly, I have somehow managed to get out of the house, where I live alone, and seek the company of others.

I cross the Whitewater River, a wretched gash of powder-white sand. I’ve already passed several cars with hoods popped open. I’ve broken down on 110+ degree days before. Radiators, tires, and hoses are among the first casualties of driving on melting asphalt highways in temperatures not meant for anyone or thing to endure. It’s time for a drink and a prayer. My car rolls along, and soon I’m entering Morongo Pass.

I tell myself that the journey is well worth it. Soon, I’ll be with friends and others. Each of us will have made the long journey across miles of emptiness, through the dangers and temptations of dust devils and mirages that both repel and lure. The Red Arrow Gallery, nestled in the arms of a Joshua tree forest near the Joshua Tree National Park Visitor Center, will be our mytho-poetic rest stop, our literary inn.

And Mary Austin got there long ahead of any of us, and she guides our literary journeying now. Long before the desert was a tourist destination, she breathed life into a region considered by many—except for the Native Americans who for centuries have courageously called this imposing region home—to be a lifeless zone, a place to lose cattle and people on long desert crossings to the horrors of dehydration and heatstroke.

Surviving the impartial wrath of the midsummer desert demands faith and a strong imagination. Those of us who live here or even visit during these tortured months must lean on memories of luscious wildflowers that graced our landscape just a few short months ago. We have to believe that rain will come, along with cooler nights and days, that flowers and all desert plants will proliferate in soothing bloom once again. As Austin herself said, “the desert flora shame us with their cheerful adaptations to the seasonal limitations.” Precisely. Tonight’s reading and gathering will be a metaphorical blossoming of the poetic imagination, and I’m heartened to take part.

I continue the long, uphill drive. A few clouds lie to the east, but I doubt we’ll get a thunderstorm tonight. I can’t be sure. But it’s certain that the moon will be full. I reach the crest at the beginnings of Yucca Valley and arrive at the intersection with Old Woman Springs Road, Highway 247, another remote desert road that unwinds itself across the vast Mojave Desert, spelling out the face of its own stories along the way. And I see that here, the desert is already coming into its own midsummer sort of bloom.


Ruth M. Nolan…Desert Word Walker

July 8, 2011

Copyright © by Ruth Nolan, 2011

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