Monday, May 18, 2009

Wherein Woody Discusses the Desert

In the Oz series of books by L. Frank Baum, the land of Oz is surrounded by an impassable desert. Although I never read every installment, the books I did read led me to believe that there were very few ways to cross this desert. One was by air. The Wizard himself crossed over via a hot-air balloon, while Dorothy crossed over while kept aloft by the tornado that ripped her house from its foundations. Another way over involved a special carpet owned by the princess Ozma which unrolled itself in front and rolled itself back up again behind as she and her "army" crossed the wasteland.

Baum was obviously acquainted with the Mojave desert, specifically that portion which lies between Las Vegas and San Bernardino.

We have just crossed this bleak landscape on our way home after a tremendous vacation through some truly awe-inspiring patches of terra firma in the vicinity of the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains. Our carpet is our trusty Odyssey minivan. We have plenty of liquid on board. We hesitate to set foot on the surface of the desert lest we find ourselves turned into sand. Even the underpaid staff of the Agricultural Checkpoint can't wait to wave us through without stopping.

Coming back into California is always a let-down.

Not that California is without its charms. The vicinity immediately surrounding our home in Orange County is actually very nice most of the time. Except for those two or three truly brown months of the year, this eastern end of Anaheim with Yorba Linda to the north and Anaheim Hills to the south is quite green most of the time. But head, oh, twenty miles or so to the north and the desert begins to manifest itself in deadly earnest. Where Minnesota and other northerly climes lay claim to seven month winters, we in Southern California can boast (if, indeed, boasting is appropriate) of nearly endless summers. Here in one of the more expensive portions of an already overpriced state it's not so bad. Temperate climate and well-kept greenery keep this place moderately liveable through even the hottest days.

But this is, as has been pointed out to me, a Mediterranean habitat. I actually argued this point with a local docent. My thinking was that a desert, even one with Mediterranean vegetation, was still a desert. I probably lost the debate on points, but I still hold my views firmly.

Believe me, I appreciate the differences. I lived for nearly ten years in California's so-called "Antelope Valley," a desolate collection of dust and Joshua trees north and east of Los Angeles that constitutes the "upper" or "miserably hot and windy" portion of the Mojave desert. I hated it. Still do, as a matter of fact, but I tend to keep this information to myself. I do so only because a part of me — an admittedly microscopic part — feels that the height of disrespect and ingratitude towards one's Creator is to criticize any part of His creation. The rest of me believes that this desert accurately portrays what happens to people who were tasked with tending a garden, and ended up listening to a snake, if you get my drift. "Bit the apple, eh? You know what that means!" "No! Not the Mojave!"

There are ways to avoid the desert in California if you really want to. Or way, I should say. That way is the coastal drive between south and north that skirts the ocean and prevents one from seeing even so much as a jackalope (or a cleverly Photoshopped post-card alleging the same). Ironically, I rarely drive the coast when travelling between south and north these days. A man under the influence of a vacation tends towards mental instability and will actually appreciate driving through desert and endless dust-laden miles of the San Joaquin and Owen valleys in order to shave a few hours off the drive time to get to more bearable destinations north of Sacramento. Aside from the coast, between Sacramento and Los Angeles you will find little of any real value except for truck stops with relatively clean restrooms.

(I realize that there are people who actually live in the desert who claim to appreciate its "beauty" and "lower housing costs." To them I say: you live your delusion, and I'll hold onto mine, thank you very much.)

I have also noticed over the years that, whenever popular causes are taken up by activists with placards and way too much time on their hands, they don't focus a lot of their energy on the desert. There was once, several years ago, an attempt made to limit access to certain desert areas to bikers and ATV enthusiasts, but it ran out of steam after a few rounds in the press. Heck, even the bikers and ATV nuts no longer frequent the desert as much as they used to. I think they burned out, so to speak. When was the last time you heard of some nut at Berkeley climbing up a Joshua tree to mount a protest? Ever wonder why Marine recruiting centers in those cities are never molested? No one wants to block access to any building with working air conditioning up there, that's why.

And so the desert rarely changes. The drive last Saturday between Las Vegas and Barstow was just as dreary and depressing as it always has been. The one rest stop at which we paused was so oppressively hot that I couldn't quite catch my breath. I don't think there was any oxygen in that air. There was one site that has been, at various times, a speedway and a water park. Now it's mostly a decaying collection of misplaced landscaping (palm trees... honestly) and rotting infrastructure. A few more years and it will probably resemble a deserted gold mine from 1849. The billboards will proclaim it as some important historic site, now suitable for tourists with nothing better to do than watch their radiators boil over in the parking lot.

Still, the desert has its use. Personally speaking, I mean. I have no idea what benefits to the ecosystem the desert provides, other than occasionally sand-blasting innocent passers-by from time to time. No, the desert serves to remind me that, all in all, I'm living in relatively good circumstances nowadays. Although my elected representatives have largely abandoned me, my basic rights are still intact. My governor is more interested in saddling taxpayers with his inability to balance a budget, but my own checkbook is under control. For now. At the golden age of fifty I have several more productive years of work ahead, and good prospects for retirement.

In some other state, though. I have my principles, after all. And none of them are guaranteed protection by any politician currently serving this state today. May they all rot live in the desert.

No comments: