There’s beauty to be found in the California desert.
I’ve learned to predict the best sunsets by the number of clouds in the sky. The fewer there are, the less sorbet streaks across the horizon.
So, when dusk settles in amid myriad white puffs, I jump in my car with my camera to race the sun to the West.
Jagged peaks line the distance as I wind around bends and turn down the static that blares from the radio. Boulders stand stoic in spite of their imperfections. Sometimes, I pull over to capture the beams of light illuminating their crooked edges. And still the sun sets.
Here’s the thing about this journey – there is no destination. When the golden moment comes, I pull into a ditch on the side of the road and venture out to find Joshua trees forming black silhouettes against the watercolors seeping upwards into the sky. My shutter flits to preserve the instant before it’s gone, but more often than not, I find myself kneeling down in the dirt to take in the sight without the lens. There’s something wild about reveling in the nip of wayward winds as the sun melts into the horizon.
Poet Arthur Chapman once wrote, “Out where the world is in the making, where fewer hearts in despair are aching, that’s where the West begins.”
Wherever you are in the desert, you can watch dusk fade into dust.
For centuries, locals and visitors alike have searched these peaks and valleys. Those of us who come face to face with the elements emerge with a tale.
Three years ago, I asked our community to share those stories. Since September 2016, DESERT magazine has published responses submitted by artists from Palm Springs to Joshua Tree and beyond.
These are “the ways in which we seek – and find – beauty in the desert.”
Here’s to simply showing up.
It’s 1980 and I’m 9 years old, walking down Palm Canyon at dusk with my grandfather. He’ll only live another five years. A heart attack will kill him – his fourth, or maybe his third, since I’m not sure if the story of him having a heart attack while catching a marlin is actually true – so this is borrowed time, which is probably why he’s smoking a cigar. “Don’t tell your nana,” he says, lighting up.
It’s fall and everything is reddish-gold: gaudy baubles in their jewelry store display cases. Brake lights from cruising Cadillacs refracting out from store windows, painting the sidewalk brilliant. Even Morrie Geyer – proprietor of Morrie Geyer Menswear, standing outside his shop in a scalloped shirt opened halfway to his belly-button, his tan chest exposed – seems to glow. Or maybe that’s the life-sized mannequin of Morrie. It’s hard to remember the difference all these years later. You ever saw a person standing next to a mannequin of themselves, well, it distorts reality.
“Have you heard from your dad?” my grandfather asks. I tell him I haven’t. He takes a puff from his cigar, let’s it go from his mouth. “When was the last time?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “My birthday?”
We linger in front of See’s Candies, across the street from Bullock’s. The sweet smell of chocolate and confection rises around us, but then it’s been like that the entire time we’ve been walking, Palm Canyon seemingly filled with candy stores, men in the front windows spreading out fudge, their aprons smeared. Teenage girls stepping out to give you a sample, and it’s like magic, candy from nowhere, and free.
“Well,” my grandfather says, “I’m right here. If you want to talk about something, just talk about it with me.” He gazes down, forces a smile, which makes him look like my mom. They have the same lips. This morning they got into a screaming fight, she stormed out of the condo, spent the day by the pool, smoking, my grandfather’s last words hanging between them: If I gave you a dime, you’d spend a dollar. “You understand? Man-to-man, Man.” A pause, the street moving fast around us now, lights, snippets of conversations, the roar of a muscle car, a breeze that feels like winter ... or maybe none of these things, just a boy and an old man on the street. “We should get some lollipops,” he says, and we go into the store. “Get whatever you want and whatever your sister would want. Buy the whole store if you want.”
Here’s the thing about beauty: It doesn’t need to be physical. It doesn’t even need to be emotional. It can be a moment of simple kindness that you forget about entirely, until one day you’re stopped on Palm Canyon, a street you hardly drive down anymore, because you live across town.
You know how that goes.
You hardly get west of Bob Hope during season.
You look at the people crowding the sidewalk, something to watch while you wait for the light to change. To get on with your life. Get off this street. All this traffic. All these tourists. But then you see a boy in front of See’s and you remember yourself, standing right there, so long ago that you’re closer in age today to your grandfather than your childhood self. And it’s all you can do not to run out into the street to find your grandfather, too. To tell him you heard him, that you still hear him, on beautiful fall days, at dusk, in the smoke of a stranger’s cigar, always when you least expect it, like driving through the city of your past or waiting for some distant golden future.
Tod Goldberg is the New York Times best-selling author of more than a dozen books, including the novels “The House of Secrets,” which he co-authored with New York Times best-selling author Brad Meltzer and “Gangsterland,” a Hammett Prize finalist. His essays, journalism and criticism have appeared in numerous publications, including the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Review of Books and the Wall Street Journal, among others, and he currently directs the Low Residency MFA Program in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts at the University of California, Riverside.
It can be isolating here, on the north side of Joshua Tree. Not the chosen solitude where it’s 78 degrees at the start of summer, the air is perfect, the sun a soft lemon. It’s the kind of solitude that leaves you stranded. The air is heavy and the rain hasn’t lifted for days. The streets, which in a different light run silver, today are rivers of mud and all is a murk of gray. A lingering rain has soaked the fire logs. They burn smoke. There are four cartons of eggs in the refrigerator, half expired, along with a bag of old apples.
On days like this I would drive. But I’ve been without my pickup truck, a winter heartbreak. The drive would lift the solitude, the unchosen kind. It’s a freedom unmeasured. And one unmeasured freedom I’ll share with you. There’s a lookout on the 15, high in the San Bernardino Forest. In the valley below, a freight train comes through, diverting and romantic. The first time I saw it I pulled over. The train was long and winding and rolled cautiously downward. I watched and thought of its countless journeys, each a tale. The moon shone bright on the valley and I, a speck in those mountains all around me, wanted to throw my hands up and be lifted like a child. The train vanished into cottoned layers of fog. It was time to go home. I took the backroads to Highway 247 and then through Johnson Valley.
Each time I’d drive to the outlook to see the train in the valley, it would somehow be there faithfully, a familiar anticipation, the kind that fulfills a seeking heart. It made my heart remember an anticipation of a different kind. A time I put on a dress and a faux fur stole and went out to a concert hall to hear the strings, at the hopes a companion might be there, and he was, on the other side of the crowd waiting for me.
And what else is beauty but an anticipation, a symphony in our hearts.
On this morning, the morning of expired apples and mud rivers, sometime around three o’clock in a dream, a train appeared at my door hovering in its own steam. I heard the gardenia branches thrashing against my window and saw the train waiting there. It was a lustrous black metal, with passenger benches of shining leather.
I was tired and disoriented. I got out of bed, my feet cold on the winter floor. Putting on my hooded robe draped over the bedpost, I walked through the door and stepped onto the train. We glided past the creosote bushes through the desert down through Morongo Valley and up to Tahquitz Peak where I stepped off, and walked through the pines, kindling under my bare feet. I turned to see if the train was still there. And perhaps I awoke.
Recovering from illness at her mother’s farmhouse in Pennsylvania in 2012, Mercy read the Hemingway letters. Inspired to visit a place Hemingway and other writers called home, she traveled to Old Town, Key West, Fla., for the winter where she rented a cottage and started writing. She writes poetry, essay and is currently working on a memoir of a road trip across country and through the American South about beauty and survival. Last stop on that journey, Joshua Tree, Calif., where she now makes her home.
Her writing goes in smooth
in the lobby of a fancy hotel
It takes me to Palm Springs in February
and strolls in the canyon
Its lines are crisp and clean
from the Sonoran Desert floor
up the San Jacinto mountains
an aerial tram of words
to heights and shifts in seasons
I breathe in the alpine air
then return to the desert winter below
It drives me up the Yucca Trail and grows
like the Joshua tree in the wind
a crooked prayer to the skies
it doesn’t leave completely
I see its watery mirage
in the distance of my mind
I cozy up with its balmy memory
in a lounge chair by the pool at the Ritz.
Heather Cottom received a MFA in Creative Studies from the University of Central Oklahoma, and taught English Composition and Creative Writing at Mid-America Christian University for 10 years. Currently, she is a substitute teacher in the Moore Public School System and has embraced George Elliot’s quote, “It’s never too late to be what you might have been,” by creating time for her own writing again at the age of 50.
Out here… in the wild, wild West… beauty… is in the bizarre.
Where else can you hear the Marines dropping bombs so loud that your windows rattle and then share a joint with a Neo Hippy Hipster outside of a honky tonk karaoke bar all in the same evening?
Well, I suppose it is entirely possible, but not to the backdrop of the ancient and mythical Joshua Tree.
The Joshua tree, like no other, surrounds us like spirits of the past. With its kinks and curves it reaches out with divine secrets. It summons us with whisper and warning.
It makes us feel foolish and weak as it stands solid and reliable. It humbles us with its simplicity and complexity, with its beauty and Draconian texture.
The Joshua tree, it will outlive us all and never have to check its Instagram account…
Serene to some, but others could not take the quiet, the calm, the dead air that the desert delivers. Can your ego survive the silent treatment? Because the desert has questions. Who are you? What is your purpose?
Solitude and silence beckon and insist that you face the man in the mirror and peel back the layers.
If you do find yourself looking for some chatter, there is no shortage of prismatic personalities.
The cast of characters one has the propensity to stumble upon out here could turn Wonderbread into pumpernickel, enriching your soul or scaring you away with peculiar peril.
We’ve got shamans and shaman wanna-be’s, cowboys and cowboy wanna-be’s, hippies, hipsters, yuppies and tricksters.
We’ve got stoners, prophets, tourists and hermits, ex-movie stars, new movie stars, rock stars and rock climbers. Filmmakers, drug takers, Marines, witches, bikers and city slickers looking to invest in the latest desert trend; selling spirituality to the lost, the hungry, and the full.
And then, there’s the hawk. Can we talk about the hawk with its wings majestic and wide, soaring over our petty chaos and inflamed importance? Its only worry but to find its next meal, it flies freely over sacred land, taking in miles of beauty each day. The coyote, the rattler, the scorpion, the rabbit, just to name a few others that inhabit this arid sand-land with us.
As creepy crawly as some of these creatures may be, I’ve learned to honor, respect and enjoy them in their natural environment.
You can’t talk about the desert without commenting on the cosmos… The vast and unexplainable speckled sky. Constellations so clear and the moon like a floating mystic kite. Its power surges and permeates your soul on a starry night. The swirly sunsets of port-wine cheese melt into the western hemisphere as we all grab our phones to capture and behold. The murky and moody shades of blue that don’t even exist in a box of Crayola display themselves in a sorrowful soliloquy. What better place to contemplate the universe and the meaning of life than under the Mojave moon?
There is one question I have consistently been asked by out-of-towners over the years with much bewilderment: “What do you do here?” And it’s funny because I have never been at a loss for something to do. It’s quality not quantity out here in these parts.
Wherever you are, there you are; and where is that exactly? In the middle of nowhere or the middle of somewhere?
Home on the range or outer space? The land of the lost or lost in place?
The streets may have no name but that just leaves more for our imaginations to conjure, and conjure, we will…
Cowboys and aliens travel through time
The wild wild West, magic saucer ride
Round up, lasso, beam or probe
The eye-less leader is wearing a robe
Home on the range, or outer space
Everyone’s breeding for the master race
Lickety banana splits, giddy up
Prehistoric land of the UFO
It’s time for the dirty horse to take a bath
I’m making some wine from the grapes of wrath…
Jesika von Rabbit is the former front-woman of Joshua Tree’s high-desert trailblazers Gram Rabbit and currently performs with her new band Jesika von Rabbit. She is an innovative creator and expressionist as well as one hell of an entertainer. Dubbed “The Queen of the Hi-Desert,” Jesika even has a menu item named after her at the world-renowned Pappy & Harriet’s in Pioneertown, the delicious “Nachos von Rabbit.”
Desert beauty found me. It took 25 years of living in the Coachella Valley for me to be drawn into the mystic, spiritual beauty of the desert landscape.
The awakening was more than what my eyes could see. It was an out of body experience, a feeling that hit an emotional nerve, like a familiar song on the radio that brings back good childhood memories. I felt sensitive and emotional, and I silently cried.
It began in the summer of 2017, assigned to an investigative story in Joshua Tree. Missing hikers. The twists and turns, like a Law & Order episode, were constant. I was in the high desert for secret meetings and interviews, early mornings, and weekends. My seasoned reporter instincts kept me coming back for more. Or, was it the need to see the high desert sunrise? The calm across the desert? The individual Joshua trees backlit by the perfect light of the rising sun? Breathtaking, leaving a gulp in my throat every time. For me, the beauty of the desert includes the people. Their stories, their seemingly self-confidence to be themselves and find a home and life where others only see sand.
The hikers were found dead. A murder/suicide. An emotional ride for me as I got to know the father of the male hiker and the group of people who showed up every week to help him find his son. We now share a bond, brought together by tragedy.
Tragedy with a backdrop of truly amazing beauty, so heavenly, something more than who we are. My eyes have been open all along the way, but I only began to see the true beauty of the desert in the summer of 2017.
Karen Devine is an award-winning television journalist and investigative reporter for KESQ News Channel 3, the ABC affiliate and Fox in the Coachella Valley. She’s spent the past 26 years working in local television bringing viewers the news at 5, 6, 10 & 11 p.m. Monday through Friday. She’s the only female member of the station’s I-team, an investigative reporting unit. Devine lives in La Quinta where she’s raised two boys who are both attending college. Devine loves unraveling a good mystery and taking the time to enjoy the desert’s beauty.
I have a passion for traveling to far-off and exotic destinations.
I received a globe for my eighth birthday.
Where most kids were amused with playing spin the bottle, I did my spinning with a globe. I would spin the globe as fast as I could and stop it with my finger. Wherever my finger would land, I declared that I would travel there one day. My little game was the precursor to the bucket list concept. Since my finger mostly stopped in the middle of an ocean, I had to spin and spin until I hit some land. One time, I spun the globe so hard that it orbited out of its contraption onto the floor. I retrieved the globe like a basketball player readying to take a foul shot — one hand on the North Pole and the other on Antarctica. Antarctica subsequently went onto my bucket list.
After becoming an adult, I no longer left my travel inspirations to chance. I informed myself the old-school way — by reading. I read adventure stories and pondered over travel magazines and maps.
In 1966, Francine, my best friend and I, were standing in front of Whisky A Go Go in Hollywood. Two guys drove up in a convertible. One of the guys asked if we wanted to go to Palm Springs for the weekend. I eagerly responded with a yes! There were no mothers around to tell us otherwise. I had never heard of Palm Springs, but I did wonder if it was some place magical since these guys were leaving the excitement of Hollywood even if just for a weekend. I presumed that this Palm Springs must be the place to be. Well, Francine put a damper on this notion. “We-are-not-going-anywhere-with-these-guys,” she said in a motherly tone. I recovered after a fleeting moment of disappointment when I soon realized that I could just add Palm Springs to my travel list.
I finally made it to Palm Springs — the first time in 1974 just to see if it was really real, and the second time in 1992 when I came to stay. I have made a continent-full of scratch offs on my travel list. The desert surroundings mirror and even surpass some of the exotic destinations that I have traveled. If I want a little bit of the outback, I take to the Lykken Trail. If I want the Aegean Sea, I go to — you guessed it — the Salton Sea.
The desert provides a dramatic backdrop for which artists practicing all art forms can create and curate their craft. As a writer of experimental poetry, I find that the spirit of the desert and its landscape provide inspiration for a variety of literary genres, from science fiction to romance. or me, living in the desert is like being on a perpetual holiday. I live my life by my favorite mantra — live every day as a holiday!
Amie Fisher was an agent for the Internal Revenue Service for more than 21 years. Since retiring, she has been traveling and writing poetry. Amie is a regular reader at the Desert Writers, Artists, Musicians and Creatives here in the desert and has curated her own curriculum for a MFA in creating writing with an emphasis in existentialism and Russian literature by taking online university courses. She has been living in the desert since 1992.
I hung two hammocks between two beautiful trees. Strong enough to hold my weight and the weight of another, their grayish-white trunks and branches lay barren of leaves all winter. Despite the harsh desert climate, they seem to still grow with little water.
It was last summer that it started. Laying in my hammock, I would feel water drop from the clear blue sky onto my warm skin.
Tiny droplets sprinkled my face and arms.
“Do you feel it raining?” I’d ask a reclining hammock friend.
“No. There are no clouds in the sky,” they’d reply.
Every time I felt a water droplet on my skin, I would rush to find it.
But it would cease to be there.
As the mysterious disappearing act continued in this way, I started to feel I was going mad.
Weeks into spring this year, I went out to revisit the trees to discover they were bare. Despite having one of the wettest winters the desert has had in decades, the trees were not part of the super bloom. I hurried to water them immediately. Two days later, they sprouted their first leaves. Ecstatic, I lay in my hammock for the first time in a while.
Soon, I felt a drop of water on my skin again. I gazed up at the sky, embraced by its radiating sunshine. Then, turning to look down at my arm, I saw it – a clear, tiny water droplet!
I digested for just a moment that I had seen it with my own eyes. Admiring these two trees in wonderment, I asked myself how many lives have they lived before?
These magical raining trees – are they crying? If they are crying … is it from joy or sadness?
“Which is it, oh magical trees?” I asked aloud.
“What has happened to your spirits that have resulted you to communicate this way? As the wind rustles your branches and you sprout new leaves, is it growing pains? Is it the happiness of being alive?”
“Will you tell me if I listen?”
In my blue striped hammock, I pray.
“I will listen intently, and watch for your tears,
For you both have been my confidantes these past few years,
You saw me weep as well,
Bared witness to my struggle on a fateful day,
That it takes to heal and grow in the desert.
You saw me laugh ’til I couldn’t anymore,
Whisked away as I read adventures through your branches.
I will hear your story, just as I have told you mine.
I will live inspired by your strength,
Lean into your supportive trunks,
For there are so many stories your branches have to tell,
As they twist and turn throughout your life.
As you continue to thrive in the harshest of deserts.”
Lauren Bright resides in Morongo Valley. She considers her loves to be writing, dancing and painting. Also, she has a cat named Cat.
“Desert time” was a concept I heard often before finally moving to the desert. I understand that it means things just take longer here. The plants and trees grow slower. People’s lives move slower. I heard it is hard to get things happening because, well, “desert time.” I thought, “I have been living in cities and working in fast-paced industries for 15 years. I am going to keep my usual pace.”
Living in the high desert for over one year now, I have lived through all the weather changes, the wildlife cycles. I have observed the subtleties of each season. I have experienced how the light changes throughout the year. I have been shocked at how the position of the sun varies so much from winter versus summer. In the winter, the light shines well into my living room on the south side of the house. In summer, the sun is so far north that it is on the other side of the house and doesn’t even shine into the living room at all.
In the summer, it is easy to naturally wake up at or before sunrise. Get up and try to cram in as much as you can before the midday sun forces you indoors to a slow halt. The animals are out as well, to make the most of the morning. The roadrunners and gamble quails scurry around for snacks. Ground squirrels scramble from bush to bush to avoid becoming one. A nap in an air-conditioned space is the best way to avoid the afternoon heat. The hours from 1 to 6 p.m. are slow. Sluggish. The sun is relentless and I am convinced it will never drop below the mountains to the west. Five hours that last seemingly forever. As the sun is about to dip, but there is still light in the sky, turning on the stove or grill to cook dinner doesn’t seem so insane anymore. While cooking dinner, get some chores done before daylight is totally gone. Eat dinner al fresco. Take a walk around the neighborhood. The light on the plants then is magical. Saturated colors make everything look so rich. The bunnies come out to hop around and eat.
In the winter, days look beautiful from inside the house. The sun is shining, but finally not oppressive. Skies are clear and blue. But, go outside and the winds are maddening. They can last days, weeks. Everything around your house blows away unless it is heavy or bolted down. Our old aluminum windows rattle and shake all night. Will the Joshua tree finally uproot and fall over? Am I safe sleeping under a giant window of glass? Will the windows break and blow in? We pick up roof shingles around the yard after the big winds. Nature is slowly taking our house apart. The view is beautiful, but there are small opportunities of good working time. Then you race against daylight, because once the sun sets, it is pretty much time to be inside. Eat dinner and head to bed. Desert midnight is around 8 to 9 p.m.
We all know the desert is a place of extremes. Hot and cold. Dry weather and flash floods. Time is also an extreme here. There are days that fly by, when the sun time is short and you can never get enough done. Then there are those summer months that it seems will never end. You have cabin fever and wonder why the hell you moved to such an unsustainable environment.
My favorite days are the ones where I need to get to the studio to work, but I am so in awe of the beautiful landscape that I procrastinate by wandering around the land, checking on new blooms and plants. I know that I need to hurry up and get to work, but for some reason my instinct is to slow down and enjoy the scenery because, well, desert time.
Janelle Pietrzak is a full-time weaver. After a lifetime of moving all around the country, she has settled in the high desert town of Yucca Valley where she owns a textile design studio and tiny shop called All Roads.
After a long week of work, the last thing I wanted to do was get up from my couch. As I watched my Miami Dolphins squeeze out a last-second win, I could see the sun starting to cast a faint pink glow on the Little San Bernardino Mountains, and the weight of regret tugged at me.
I’d told myself I would find a way to get outdoors that weekend, but with a bum ankle, a party Saturday night and the remnants of a hangover still lingering, I figured it might have to wait. The mountains and their hiking trails would still be there next Saturday.
Then my gaze caught my Canon DSLR, almost forgotten in the corner of the room. It brought me back to the afternoon I first drove up the 10 freeway, and saw Mt. San Jacinto and its snow-covered tip two Februarys ago. My bookshelf, my TV, my kitchenware, my closet of clothes – once removed from a moving truck and carried into a room that felt so foreign then – now set the stage for a place that felt a little too much like a home I took for granted.
I’d always promised my mom, who screeches for joy whenever she walks out of my apartment to see the mountains in the morning while visiting, that I’d never stop appreciating this indescribable place where I lucked into a job. So instead, I got up, quickly grabbed jeans and a long-sleeve shirt from my bedroom floor, snatched my Canon and my car keys, and hopped in my Ford Fusion to try and beat the sunset.
Despite my heavy foot on the gas – screaming up Highway 62 as fast as other cars and traffic lights would allow – when the young woman at the gate to Joshua Tree National Park said, “Have a great day,” I worried I would leave disappointed.
Still, I wove back and forth through the park and finally reached Keys View, taking the last parking spot as droves of people with their tripods had beaten me. Rather than try to shuffle between them, though, I struggled to find the unmarked rocky path up to Inspiration Point, nearly breaking into a dead sprint in my boots to cover the half-mile as quickly as my legs would move.
At the top, though the wind whipped and the couple sitting next to me snickered in between kisses and puffs of their blunt, it was the deepest quiet my ears had sensed in quite some time. As the big ball of light began to inch its way behind the towering mountains that create Palm Springs’ border, the click of my shutter broke the silence in the most pleasing way.
Time was only defined by the dipping of the sun, the settling of the clouds, the ebbing and flowing of the reds, oranges and pinks of the sky, and the adjusting of the exposure on my camera. No Facebook notifications. No football scores. Just an unparalleled front seat to the greatest light show in Southern California.
I was right. That trail, those mountains, the majestic sunset will be there tomorrow, next weekend, even next year, but I may not. And when I wake up in an urban high-rise apartment with towers of brick, metal and glass obstructing my view, I’ll regret those days and nights I put off adventure and beauty for another day.
Nathan Brown grew up in the freezing winters and humid summers of the Midwest, just north of Indianapolis in Indiana. He attended Indiana University and graduated less than three years ago with a degree in journalism, which brought him to the Coachella Valley for his first full-time job covering high school sports for The Desert Sun. When he’s not on the sidelines of a high school athletics contest, Nathan enjoys playing golf, riding his bike and training to qualify for the Boston Marathon. He hopes to step foot in all 58 national parks, with 19 already crossed off.
What the high desert holds can be anything
Abandoned mines of the recesses of your mind
Your eccentric self – speaking to red rocks in the canyons
A supersonic jet – clear blue sky
The Joshua tree and its bearded limbs
Twisted and puncturing the sound wave that follows
Old guardians of the deep dark night
Where the satellites start to glide across a swath of sky – like
Secret sentinels then suddenly stop and
Disappear into the background of stars
The Milky Way shedding the blood of centuries of
War from beneath itself: a hallowing
Where the mystery of magic is so profound you can
Feel its weight all around you
Like an unknown vortex – a journey to another place in space
Possibly dimension – an alternate universe
The path you didn’t choose that continues on its
When the echo of the sound of your feet
Beneath you is all you hear
Only to find when you stop. the still stark silence of the
Wind whispering through the canyon.
Where you swear you see the ghosts of
Dinosaurs roaming what once were shallow seas
As time falls away and fades into the
Sun which is now lowering in the sky
The witching time in the desert has begun
Where the spirits begin to wander the land
Laid out in front of you break away like myriad
Kerry S. Campbell is a published poet and visual artist. She spent her teenage years growing up in the middle of nowhere in the Mojave Desert. She visits the desert frequently, like an old friend. She combines poetry with her artworks at kerrycampbellartist.com. Kerry is represented by Barba Contemporary Art Gallery in Palm Springs and by Legend Nano Gallery in Oceanside, Cali., and Santa Fe, N.M. This piece originally appeared on her blog.
This winter, in the shimmer of morning, I was invited to stay on the west shore of the Salton Sea in a house hidden in the date palm plantations of the desert valley, a welcomed quelling of the loneliness and wind of desert mountains. The invitation appeared the way all things do in the desert, by secret prayer, answered. The house was small: one room with sand-plastered walls painted magnolia, one wooden bed, one cane-backed plantation chair, and a large arched window.
I accepted the invitation and spent afternoons curled on soft cotton, piled high, white with warmed patina. Protected by the sacred fronds, I’d drift in and out of daydreams and look out onto the desert.
At the end of the rows of date palms and ranches was a sea, neglected and forgotten, with waters of murky lavender that lapped onto powdered fish bones. Spellbound, after sleep, I would visit and stand on the sacred bones as the spun gold of the heavens faded.
One duskfall, I noticed across the sea on another shore, inklings of splendor and echoed lullabies. I wanted to be nearer, so I pushed a paint-chipped boat into the water, climbed in and without oars, trusted the sea’s current.
I drifted across the wakes until I arrived at a row of quiet dwellings. Upon stepping out of my boat, I noticed a girl sound asleep. Hovering above her bed, her black hair fell like a waterfall. She slept in the looming twilight as the ruffled gauze of her faded apricot gown whisked the air.
She had been there all along on the opposite shore and had slept all winter. I kept my distance so as not to wake her. I wondered who loved her. And couldn’t help but imagine love must have sent her into such a peaceful sleep that she floated above her own piled cotton. She glowed in the sea’s reflection of the arriving moon.
I left her sleeping and continued on. The ghostly sands blew onto the streets past the lonesome shacks.
I heard a melody in the distance. A chanteuse sang through an open window. Her porcelain fingers plucked notes from the strings of a well-traveled guitar. She sang of her heartbeat just as I could feel mine. Strangers gathered around to listen to her words of sweet loss and heard her long after the singing. I fell asleep under a grand tamarisk tree in her yard and in the morning as I opened my eyes, its branches swam in the air, still lullabied.
I walked to the sand to find my boat. The sea was now a shade of mint tsavorite. A poem set softly alight by the sun read: “I still love you.”
Mercè Clay wrote this in homage to the Bombay Beach Biennale 2019, and was especially inspired by installations “Loving, Loving” by Vera Sola, “Levitation” by Josèphine Wister Faure featuring gown by Heidi Merrick and “I Still Love You” by Olivia Steel. Thanks to Lauren Brand, hostess, for an invitation to the evening.
Pulled over at a Vista Point to check the oil,
I step out barefoot onto gravel
There’s no cell reception and
No cars in either direction –
Just clouds swept from the bottom by wind.
I’ve been driving home all day into a breeze,
That has the baked earth smell I find so comforting,
As I pass from the Sonoran Desert into the Mojave.
I look down the slope to a wash
Obscured by desert willow and
Plants I don’t know the name of.
So I consider all the roots tapping into
The moisture from old rain,
And beneath them an ancient aquifer,
And beneath that, rocks that may never be exposed,
Heated not from the sun, but from the core of the earth.
I wonder what it’s like from underneath looking out:
The tiniest dimples of my footprints,
The long rugburn of the highway,
Like an angel on the earth’s shoulder.
Kara Sajeske is an illustrator living and working in Joshua Tree. She moved from Chicago, where she was the assistant program manager of the Chicago Artists’ Resource, to the high desert in search of rich community and a quiet space to focus on her art practice. You can find her work at karasajeske.com or email her at email@example.com.
The sound of my alarm clock, announcing the days arrival. Voices. So many people talking at me, the sound of dishes clanking and froth wands whistling at my regular coffee shop. Music playing at work. Class lectures. The sound of the dishwasher running. Somehow, even at the end of the day, when the lights are turned off and my phone’s across the room, I can still hear the electricity of the city humming through my walls and my pillow.
And then it starts all over again.
Alarm. Breakfast sizzling. Traffic honking. 8 hour lectures. People talking. Dishes clanking. Music playing. Washers going. Outlets humming. Alarm. Breakfast sizzling. Traffic honking. 8 hour lectures. People talking. Dishes clanking. Music playing. Washers going. Outlets humming.
And I hold my breath, cause surely this is a dream.
Am I dreaming? I guess it’s not technically silent. But there’s no noise.
I hear the wind whispering and the sand grinding beneath my feet. As if I were pinching salt between my fingers.
I’m back to the infinite golden hills at sunset. No man or skyscraper in sight. The lands so empty, I feel my mind breathing just from the sight of it.
And sadly it’s not a dream. But gladly it’s a memory. One from not too long ago.
I know some people who feel abandoned in the desert. They feel alone and forgotten, forsaken and betrayed. Yet, how come I find rest in a stagnant, barren land.
I once heard God sing a desert song.
It wasn’t what I expected.
It was one note. Held out for a long moment. And there were no instruments behind the one note.
Just silence. And it put me right to sleep.
I imagined him painting the hills. With as much intention as the boulders in Yosemite. That kind of intentionality in art puts my soul at ease and my mind to sleep.
I don’t live in the desert anymore.
I live in a busy city, within a busy life with a lot of noise. But I’ve found that my sobering moments, the ones that take place in my mind, take place in the desert where I use to reside.
Emily Wall is a 23 year old full-time student studying acting, dance and film in Redding California, though her hometown is Palm Desert. She’s also a full-time wife and creative who feel like she constantly sees through a Fuji film lens. Though she currently lives in Northern California, the Coachella Valley is where she calls home.
I drive out past the turbines
As the wind attempts to pull me back in
I am reminded of the vacuum where I live
A vacuum made of absence
A low pressure system made by the excess of space
With not enough air to fill it in
I am a speck of dust in this wind
Getting kicked up and kicked out
of every place I tried to find space
I’ve been dirt in someone else’s home
The lungs work with the same force as the gusts
Expanding outward like an invitation
Pulling in all the air
Here, I am drawn in like a breath
As well as all the other specks of dust caught in this canyon
Some days I wake up feeling like dirt
Some days I wake up feeling like life
By aggregate and average I concede I may be both
Inspired by the beauty of the blank space
Like staring at an empty canvas
Or a plain white sheet of paper
Instruments echoing forth in a silence
This valley is breathing me in
Its mountains like an audience of deities
Waiting for me to display what the dirt can do
So I dance under this stunning cloudless sky
I paint on all the empty possibilities of moonlight
In this margin note valley
A spot of isolated beauty
Between the bold lines of text of the California coast
There is a space for me here
And all an artist needs is a void
to become breath in the lungs
Life can come from the dirt-
A lesson this agriculture state never needed to learn
But only this desert brings the dirt itself to life
I am breathed in again
“To belong is the greatest comfort,
I thank you for your benevolence”
I say to the mountains
As my eyes ask if they approve
And I hear in the silence
A.P. Jackson is a Coachella Valley speaker, poet and educator who recently turned 30 and thinks that’s a bit terrifying. He has a wife and two kids that are responsible for his PR and marketing (they are far more likable). You can find more of his poetry on Instagram @apjacksonpoetry, or maybe in the back of other magazines, never hurts to look.
You should plant a rosebush,” a woman trying to be helpful once told me. “For each loss, you should plant a rosebush.”
We live in the high desert of Southern California and what rosebushes survive the searing summers, snowy winters and desiccating winds are eaten by jackrabbits or our goat. This woman meant well, I’m sure, but I didn’t plant the rosebushes.
I did spend many hours in my rocking chair on my front porch, staring across the arroyo into the chaparral covering the neighboring mountain. I breathed in the air scented with pungent white sage, the spicy vanilla of the blooming redshank, and the patchouli-like stink of our tiny native wildflower whose name no one knows. I drew the desert air deep into my lungs and released it as slowly as I could. Seconds of breathing turned into hours which turned into days. Time passes slower in the desert, it seems. Time passes, but grief does not.
Each loss carries its own means of navigation, but no promise that the next one – because one thing life can promise is that there will forever be a next loss until finally, restfully, we reach the ultimate one ourselves – but there is no promise that the next one will hurt any less. With each loss we learn to bear not only this one, but that one. That next one coming.
When I was a little girl growing up in the Imperial Valley, 15 miles from the Mexican border, after every earthquake my family would drive into the desert and search for signs of damage. It was never hard to find.
There were rifts, fissures and ridges. There were fresh new cracks in the rocky sand whose soft edges crumbled into the tiny abyss when we stepped too near. The earth had changed. The face of the map had been re-drawn. One had to learn a new method of navigation, if, say, the road had shifted a few feet away. But the journey wasn’t over. The journey didn’t end because the road did.
My heart, my life, is a quake-damaged landscape with areas labeled ‘Here there be monsters,’ but I’ve learned not to avoid them. I explore those areas tentatively, offer a gentle stroke of recognition to the monsters I encounter, tell them they are welcomed to take up residence. My monsters are my battle scars, my mythological reminders that I fought and lost but yet live. I welcome them, each one, lovingly, because even the wildest beast may be tamed.
The desert sky is wide enough that I don’t need to plant a garden to reflect my losses. The dry wind bears it, each scent supports it. Ultimately, the space here may hold multitudes. Grief is a monster that never goes away. We carry him forever; but in time we learn to manage the weight of him. Just carrying him makes us stronger.
Sara Marchant received her Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts from the University of California, Riverside/Palm Desert. Her work has been published by The Manifest-Station, Every Writer’s Resource, Full Grown People, Brilliant Flash Fiction, The Coachella Review, East Jasmine Review and ROAR. Her non-fiction work is forthcoming in the anthology «All the Women in my Family Sing. Her fiction is forthcoming in the anthology Running Wild. She is the prose editor for the literary magazine Writers Resist. She lives in the high desert of Southern California with her husband, two dogs, a goat, and five chickens.
My mom opens my bedroom door on a Saturday morning. I get up, change from my pajamas into a simple T-shirt, gym shorts and tiny tennis shoes. I’m 6 years old and I’m happy.
My mom, my sister and I drive to the entrance of the Sabas Nieves trail of the El Ávila Mountains in Caracas, Venezuela. I always get lazy at the start, but once we start going up the trail, the trees, the views of downtown Caracas and the promise of my favorite ice cream once we get back down keeps me going.
Hiking the Sabas Nieves trail was a weekend tradition back then. Years have passed, our family grew and traditions changed, but the memories of our hikes have always stayed in the back of my mind.
It’s been almost eight years since I left Venezuela and almost five years since I left my parents’ house in Texas for college. When I accepted an internship at The Desert Sun and relocated to Palm Springs almost two years ago, I knew nothing about the Coachella Valley. I had lived in the U.S. for six years and, having resided in Houston and Baton Rouge, I forgot that living in an area surrounded by mountains was a possibility.
Now, Caracas and the Coachella Valley could not be more different. One’s a city within a valley in a tropical, humid area merely an hour from the Caribbean Sea, and the other is an arid, desert region with cactuses, intense heat in the summer and a whole lot of sand. But the first time I saw the San Jacinto Mountains along the desert cities, I remember feeling like I was back home.
But being far away from family and old friends, working hard and dealing with life’s ups and downs can be isolating. So, I hold on to old memories and make sure I create new ones by exploring the world I now found myself in.
Every Friday, I set my alarm for an early morning wake-up call, hit the snooze button about 10 times. I get up, change from my pajamas into a simple T-shirt, gym shorts and somewhat bigger tennis shoes. I pick up my friend at her house and we hike South Lykken Trail.
We talk about work, our lives, plans for future vacations and where we are going to have lunch when we’re done. Between admiring the recently revived plants (thank you rainy winter) and each other’s support, we make it to the top.
As I look at the valley from above, I think about my family and how they’re always with me even when we’re apart. I think about my friends and the many adventures we’ve gone on. I think about how lucky I am to have landed in a place like this and in that moment, even after the worst of weeks, I am happy.
Jose Bastidas is the food reporter and producer for The Desert Sun. Originally from Caracas, Venezuela, Jose moved to the U.S. in 2009 and studied Mass Communication at Louisiana State University. He first moved to the Coachella Valley when he accepted an internship at The Desert Sun in 2015.
When I travel, I struggle to find time to sit back, enjoy, contemplate and observe my new surroundings sufficiently. Meticulously calibrated schedules sever my connection to my natural senses and leave me stressed out. It is no easier to find time to think and ponder at home.
As a recent resident of Palm Springs, I still enjoy some anonymity in public spaces where I can meditate uninterrupted (at least until a friend or neighbor greets me). Somehow I get energy from being in the presence of other people, especially those I don’t know. I can gather up their vibes, store them and feel revitalized enough to give them all back to others.
I discovered this power in New York City, where I could walk among thousands of people, collecting energy like a squirrel collects acorns. In Florence, I would sit in the Piazza della Repubblica and absorb the history in every stone, monument and tower. At Leidseplein square in Amsterdam – filled with chairs and tables on a sunny, warm day – I imagined comedy and drama flowing from my fellow diners.
Once while sitting outside the Starbucks at the corner of Tahquitz and Palm Canyon, I realized I had found a similar space in Palm Springs. My local, public square is bounded by the Starbucks, the Welwood Murray Memorial Library, The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf and the empty space under construction where I hope the 22-foot-high statue of Marilyn Monroe will return. While the desert modernist grandeur of the library represents the sole architectural focal point, adding Marilyn across from the library could create the perfect architectural counterweight (as it once used to be).
In my square, like other European plazas, I can sit and enjoy a cup of coffee and a pastry while watching the downtown foot traffic. After finding the optimal seat for viewing, I savor the aroma and flavor of my brew, nosh a bit and enjoy the parade. If I am in a restless mood, my thoughts go to, “Oh, no! What is that he’s wearing?” But more often, I play games like “What country are they from?” or “Are they married or dating?”
If the passersby don’t grab my attention, there is sometimes a person at a nearby table whose life story I can fabricate. What to others may look like an ordinary tourist in my mind has become an international opera star trying to avoid the paparazzi, while the man behind her tries discreetly to take her photo with his phone. I might even play the role of a secret agent or slumming celebrity.
These moments alone are rarely guilt-free because there is always some other more productive use of my time. But for the small rental fee embodied in a purchased cup of coffee, a seat at my public square provides a welcome respite from my daily routine.
David Kelly is a former banker, executive chef and lawyer who currently enjoys writing and performing his works at CONNECTED, Bohemian Café and The Desert Sun’s Coachella Valley Storytellers Project. Contact him at DavidLKelly@aol.com.
poems fly out of mouthes
in lieu of cool ink
the words kick up dust
and blue’s the new pink
the fall makes you think-
how a basin so great
PE (née C. Benitez-Brown) is a Filipino-American artist, who splits his time between Quezon City and LA.
Hot weather is a regular part of life in the Coachella Valley.
This past summer, temperatures soared above 120 degrees; even during fall months, the heat often rises above 100, sometimes late into October. How can anyone live through this – months of triple-digit temperatures – let alone find beauty at this time of year, when, due to the understandable mass exodus of fair weather residents and tourists, it often feels like we’re living in a ghost town?
Like many others, I hide behind dark curtains, holding a seemingly endless vigil of waiting for the sun to go down. When it does finally slide behind Mount San Jacinto and cover the valley with a long curtain of shade that begins in Palm Springs and slides across the desert floor to the Little San Bernardino Mountains, I venture outdoors to mostly empty roads.
Even though temperatures often hover in the 90s or higher at this time of night, I emerge from my South Palm Desert condo to go on my daily walk. I wear my reflective, fluorescent green Nike tank top, the lightest shorts I have and a small backpack that holds my 2-liter CamelBak reservoir filled to the brim with water and a 1-liter water bottle, frozen solid.
During my one-hour, 4-mile roundtrip walk, the water bottle will completely melt. As the sky darkens, I walk uphill along Highway 74, passing Silver Spur trailer park and Cahuilla Way. I steadily sip water and hold the frozen bottle alternately to the back of my neck, the front of my chest and under each arm, to help cool myself down.
As I begin to unwind, my senses tune in to the sound of raucous crickets hiding in the thick desert landscaping in front of Bighorn Golf Club. The rhythm of walking helps to ease the tension in my housebound muscles, and I start to breathe more easily. I get closer to the edge of the wild desert, to the curve in the road where Highway 74 begins to switchback up into the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument, and I look up at the dark sky and am astonished by the beautiful view of warm stars and a toenail of new moon. I feel the sudden rush of a connection to the deep magic of the desert, with its infinite possibilities and ancient history, and I sense the rustling of the palm tree oases I know are tucked into the canyons just beyond where I stand. I imagine a family of thirsty bighorn sheep picking their way down rocky cliffs to drink, and I’m overwhelmed with the understanding that this is a wild desert that few people truly know, evoked only during times of intense weather such as this.
And then, I hear the yips of a pack of coyotes cascade down from Cahuilla Hills. When their cries fade into the darkness, I savor the silence, which now feels like a warm balm rather than loneliness.
Ruth Nolan is professor of English at College of the Desert. She’s editor of “No Place for a Puritan: The Literature of California’s Deserts” and author of the poetry chapbook “Ruby Mountain.” Visit her blog at ruthnolan.blogspot.com or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What is it about the desert
Just in my head, thinking.
There’s a different music out here:
A raven’s call and the sound
Of its powerful wings in flight.
The faint rustle of a lizard in the scrub.
The quiet crunch of your footsteps
In the sand and gravel beneath.
The sound of your breath.
The occasional faint roar of jets,
The visual cue of their location:
Robert J. Webster is a man, yogi, cyclist, photographer, blogger, artist, father, husband, friend, and human. The order changes daily to meet the needs of the situation. He’s product of the Boomer generation but not stuck in it. He spent his working years in State government in Sacramento with a brief stint in the Los Angeles area. Now retired to Palm Desert, he’s found his bliss in the Coachella Valley
Oh, how I held my
Of the sun my cheeks
As I crushed the tightly-wound
the dust at my feet.
Christina Lambiase has a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Columbia University and lives in Los Angeles with her toothless black lab, Cubby. She spends most of her time taking photographs, writing poetry, or wandering around the desert.
Every desert trip began with a quick stop off Highway 10 for date shakes and chili at Hadley’s. We’d sit at the counter beneath black and white signed photos of old Hollywood stars I was too young to recognize. Giant tour busses parked alongside the green and yellow building while tourists took a bathroom break or browsed the aisles of mixed nuts and novelties. This was our desert ritual that meant we were almost there…
Turquoise waters sparkled against the stucco and concrete of a generic condominium complex pool, which overlooked a brilliant green golf course in Palm Springs. This is where my dad taught me how to swim.
Overwatered lawns and manicured sidewalks encircled a royal blue manmade lake in La Quinta, where in the mud between the grass and concrete path, my cousins and I played with army green toy soldiers and mini plastic farm animals while my grandparents made sandwiches or went out for a round of tennis.
A few years later my sister and I took the 10 on our own, to dance across the emerald green polo fields of Indio. We moved to the sounds of Yeah Yeah Yeahs and TV On The Radio in little jean cut offs and big sunglasses under a cloudless sky.
The desert I seek now is not painted in such vivid greens and blues, after all my parents are divorced, my grandparents are long gone, and Coachella now costs half my paycheck to listen to bands I no longer know. So those desert memories are magic to me, as they capture the time when my family came together and actually shared meals. When adults and children spent just as much time playing as the other. The desert was our haven, where life was vivid and worries were none.
Today I know how water is such a precious resource, how 330 acres of manicured lawns is unnatural, almost criminal, and how life’s worries will follow you wherever you go. But I still long for the desert, seeking the magic it carried for me before I knew magic was something to be sought after. I continue to come back here, not just to relive those memories that undoubtedly shaped who I am today, but to chase the desert’s brilliant sunsets, expansive horizons and magnificent super blooms. To look up at the sky and see stars I forgot were always there. To watch the sunrise because I want to – not because I have to on my way to an early work shift. To look out at a sea of dirt, dust and Joshua trees. To marvel at the blanket of yellow gold wildflowers across the desert floor. To sit in quiet, far from any reception or media, so that my mind can finally think for itself. To sip on a date shake while I recall the time I first learned to swim, or when I danced the night away beneath the desert sky, or when life was vivid and worries were none.
Nina Harada is a writer, actor and artist. She received her BA in English from UC Berkeley and her MA in Literature and Film from Claremont Graduate University. She currently resides in Silver Lake with her husband and two cats.
Break off your car’s antennae
at the beginning of the dirt road.
The desert will provide all the music you need if you let it.
There will be a sign for the town pointing south.
You’ve been down that road before.
Pick up the second hitchhiker, not the first.
He will make wild, outlandish accusations against you.
If you listen carefully you will find them all to be true. Thank
him and drop him at the base of the hill.
Try not to look back.
The prospector will be waiting for you at the town’s front gate.
With a weathered, ancient hand, he’ll check your mouth
If you have any, let him take them. You’ll feel no pain.
The first tooth he pulls relieves you of your greed.
The second tooth, vanity. The third, money troubles.
You are now unburdened and can walk through the town.
During the sandstorm, close your eyes and you’ll see the
schoolhouse. Remove your shoes and walk inside.
Your teacher is waiting. He has been waiting for you always.
Talia is a writer who lives in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles. Her unwavering love for the desert stems from childhood road trips with her Mom and Grandma. Her favorite stops include Slide Rock, Calico, Salvation Mountain, and of course, the Grand Canyon. Talia regularly attends meditation retreats in the high desert and paints her experiences. She aspires to be a tanned and wrinkly homeowner in Joshua Tree someday.
E. doesn’t like the heat. Nearly a year together means that we both know this. There is a certain irony then to the sun beating down on our exposed arms as we stand in a group of 20 or so listening to a woman as old as my grandmother explain the difference between alligator and Utah juniper. The average age of our cohort is not far off the age of our guide, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that this two-hour “nature hike” isn’t going to be leaving the parking lot. My Earth Day date idea, so good in theory, is rapidly seeming more like the opposite with each passing minute.
“Want to go find a trail?” I ask under my breath so as not to offend our volunteer naturalist.
Javelina Trail guides us deep into Red Rock State Park, following the path of an irrigation canal dug by the original homesteaders of this land. Along the way I spot a number of bushes and plants from our hour with the guide, making sure to repeat the names I’ve written down so that they don’t get lost like so many other things.
Soaptree yucca. Wolfberry. Desert marigold.
The plants of a childhood spread out across the high deserts of Arizona and California, always present by never quite appreciated. Now I cling to their names like a free climber to a ledge, determined not to take for granted the landscape that dominates my life, waking and sleeping.
I will admit I have an ulterior motive. Our early dates revolved around taking advantage of the natural beauty of Arizona. Somehow, despite living in a place renowned for its expansive landscape and access to nature, we seem to have lost the magic of those first explorations together. Our Sedona trip for me represents a lifeline back to that place where everything is new and each discovery together is a forking in the trail with no clear end in sight.
We pause at a rock wall on top of a ridge to take advantage of the shade provided by a ponderosa pine. It’s our first opportunity for conversation that doesn’t involve one of us having to stare at the back of the other. Our conversation, observed by the red and umber striped peaks of nearby Cathedral Rock, meanders in a way that is both pleasant and familiar. We talk about erosion and the nature of colors. We discuss how we would foster a sense of curiosity in our theoretical children by encouraging them to explore the natural world. We make plans for more hikes, more time away from our community, more intention in how we spend our time together.
On that lookout in the land of tourists and overpriced crystal shops, it becomes clear that this day was not a bad idea; it was exactly what we needed.
The sound bounces off art-laden walls, filling the concert space.
I sing an Indian folk song which wildly enters the sonic forest.
Outside, the desert is quiet.
Joshua Tree takes me as I am this cold night. Barren land makes space for me to croon in the language of my grandparents, “Kesariya Balam, padharo mhare des!” Oh my Beloved, come to my land!
I drove into the desert in May of 2015, freshly divorced and hoping for the kind of redemption that breathing new air always seems to offer. As I passed a familiar, color-changing mountain, the cacophony of heartbreak rang in my ears, and I almost missed its message. The mountain’s message, that is. It came to me as two clear, sequential instructions:
I thought exactly what anyone would think: That’s a dumb, bossy mountain that clearly has no real-life experience. It’s never gone through a complex problem requiring a robust solution.
I unloaded my car of the clothes and books I’d brought from Texas, and rested my head in my mother’s lap before doing the inevitable – Googling “local poetry reading.”
The next morning, I formulated a poem in my head while driving to an open mic. I ordered an organic brew and dribbled the words of the poem onto the back of the receipt.
Coming down from the creative high, I could smell the words. They reeked of having loved too much. They smacked of the sort of pining that remains popular in Bollywood films but is too buttery thick for my American sensibilities. Adding to its deficiencies, the poem had too many driving metaphors. I decided it couldn’t be released into the Universe, so I placed the whimpering piece in my back pocket. Without skipping a beat, the saucy mountain let out an “ahem!” for ignoring instruction No. 2.
A couple of cloistered months later, I went to another open mic and did what I swore I wouldn’t do – I became that kind of poet and apotheosized both my lost relationship and my slowly fading identity. My ex-husband and I got the two-become-one-thing right, but in all the wrong ways. As he disappeared from my life, “I” disappeared from my life. Standing before several desert poets, I festered in the fury of all the avoidable mistakes we had made. They clapped for me. Smiled at me. Deflected from the smell of pity in the air by telling me they liked “this image” and “that simile.” They forgave me.
The barren desert wasn’t barren after all.
More than two years later, I’m under the balcony seats of a secluded concert venue, not far from the Joshua Forest. You know, the forest with funny, punky looking trees that would never judge me. Or you.
My voice emerges from within the audience,
My listeners are either confused or captivated. Outside, the mountains are quiet and still in the chill of an exceptionally starry night.
Samira R. Noorali is a well-rounded writer and with experience in journalism, poetry and playwriting. She also has an extensive musical education which spans Eastern and Western classical. Always seeking to combine her love for both music composition and writing, Noorali’s original pieces often appear on theater stages where both can flourish at the same time! Learn more at samiranoorali.com.
I couldn’t cross the wash that day on Cathedral Canyon Drive. A car was already marooned in the current, with its driver standing on the other side, waiting for some help.
If not for the harrowing possibility of being washed away, the day was as picturesque as they come. Migrating birds with white feathers and long legs wading through shimmering water, set against the backdrop of snow-topped mountains and a cobalt sky.
I heard the water rushing over the hidden asphalt. The current carried rocks and vegetation, making a roar and muting the otherwise audible noise from people and engines. I was astounded by the force and speed of this impromptu river, crashing into civilization as residents were on their way to Target or the Post Office.
I hear stories from people who were raised here, about a time when the whole valley would shut down while the wash crisscrossed every major artery of Palm Springs and the surrounding towns. I am learning the power of the Whitewater River and its distributaries, as well as its primary source, Mount San Gorgonio. Also known as Old Grayback, and part of the Transverse Ranges, its snowmelt feeds the river and its frenzied washes.
It’s not hard to be in awe of the dramatic changes we experience in the Coachella Valley. We live in this desert of opposites. Nature and technology. Cactus and rain cloud. Our senses are surrounded by beauty so raw, we are drawn to touch it. Engage with it. Immerse ourselves utterly and escape the digital rhythms of our lives. The harsh summers provide us with a Mother Nature so unforgiving, we are reminded of our tenuous hold on this planet. We witness the cycle of birth and death annually, as the rain and river give life, and the arid heat takes it away.
I returned to the same spot today on Cathedral Canyon, hoping to see those white birds. The yellow grasses told me what I already suspected. Other than a rill no wider than three feet, the landscape was transformed back into a field.
That day by the wash will remain with me forever. Life was reinvigorated for a momentary season of excess and plenitude. Down here in the valley, the lizards, the saltbush and we humans are but passing through. Our inventions of conditioned air and roaming vehicles help us to survive, but I will always have respect for the power of wind, water and temperature.
They come for the winter, visitors from northern climes, and indeed it is sight to behold the nature that flourishes here. The mountain draws our eye to the sky. A netherworld of snow and cloud peers down on us as if from another time zone. Ancient and silent, the mountain’s silhouette is an elder. San Jacinto speaks to us in a language of memory, and we may listen freely, if we choose.
“Remember this cycle of abundance and growth, of lack and conservation. Imprint it in your DNA. Pass it on to your children. I will erase the dry riverbed’s dust with a yearly offering of water from my stone temple, to sustain you for another day.”
Melissa Jordan Willis is an artist, wife and mother – and a Los Angeles transplant four years ago. She has a B.A. in Fine Arts from UCLA.
reason is a slave to shade
return to the desert hills
leave home in the dust
I looked out our second-floor window and everyone was out riding their bikes, wearing shorts and sundresses – families picnicking around Lake Merritt. I stood there numb to everything.
Now, what? What about that loft we were going to get? Or the two children we imagined running in our backyard?
Snapping out of my daze, I heard his voice shouting from downstairs, “Grab my bike off the mantle, will you?” The studio now looked like it did the day we arrived. Empty. Sunlight hit the wooden floors, and I closed the door before slipping the keys under. The smell of the panadería across the street whiffed into my nose as I took one more glance at the old man who waited to die on our street every day, smoking his last cigarette while notes of jazz filled the city. All of this ultimately became a part of me.
But this isn’t our story; it’s mine, and you’re just a part of it.
I hauled everything I owned into my car, with my ex-lover’s bicycle attached to the roof. The fog eventually disappeared, the roads shifted from pavement to gravel and the heat seeped into my skin. Mountains on every corner replaced buildings, and we were back on 1-10 headed for the desert. The only noise you could hear was the clamoring of the wine glasses we bought together, the rattling of his bike and a loud, vast, open sound only the desert landscape can produce. Two summers ago, after a stint of city living and what seemed to be an enormous amount of young love, I found myself back at my childhood address. Seeing the windmills silhouetted against the mountainside, the comfort of home rushed into my body. The desert held a familiar scent – my grandmother’s Filipino cooking, soy sauce mixed in with vinegar, ginger and garlic simmering ever so slowly in a huge metal pot, along with the subtle smell of coconut bundled in banana leaves – and the feeling that everything was going to be alright. Or at least that was the sensation I craved.
There I was, unpacking everything in my parents’ garage. I’d left behind one of the best teaching jobs in Oakland and a life I thought I knew. On the evening of my return to the desert, the gradient of colors from the sunset melded into a fiery warmth that embraced my existence. Within that moment, I realized I needed to let all of it happen.
Exhausted from the drive, I went to the backyard and dug my feet into the earth. The damp grass felt good against my hot skin, and I wasn’t sure how to move forward or if I even could. As I looked up at the summer moon, my body knew this was the end of a relationship but the beginning of something new. Sometimes people, places and things happen because they help you arrive at your next destination. I never planned to move back here, but the desert chose me.
Michelle Castillo is a writer, educator, community arts organizer and social activist based out of Palm Springs. She is currently an MFA candidate for poetry at the University of California, Riverside-Palm Desert and is at work on her first poetry collection. She has lived in several cities but will always call the desert home. You can find her online at mothereartherdiaries.wordpress.com.
Holding my hands in front of an exhaust pipe. While the car is on. It’s 4:30 a.m. and I’m wondering if the McDonald’s in Baker is open 24 hours. I’m wondering if I’m up for whoever would be at a McDonald’s in Baker in 5 a.m. I’m gauging the drive to Tecopa and imagining, over and over, sinking into the hot mud of the spring. I lift my head into the cold air, hands still rubbing each other in the exhaust, and see the first light hit the white cross and then bleed out on the pink rocks. Mojave Desert Preserve, January.
My 9-year-old daughter scratches the ice on the inside of the SUV window, thrusting her hand out of the mass of her sleeping bag wrestled into a sitting position. Heart, she scratches. Smiley face. And then the dog’s name. We’re up.
In the next hour, she’ll watch the local college field trip cool older kids at White Cross Campground get up from their dozen tents and start packing for their day’s trek. She’ll get growled at by the dude in the remote back of the dispersed camping area who wants us to stay further than 200 yards from his motorhome. She’ll scramble through scree to find petroglyphs peeking through chia flowers. Until we are parked and drinking hot tea made on a burner in the back of the truck while the trains rush by, the conductor blasting the horn at her, at us, the only humans standing within a few miles, waving back at him, as he shoots past and sinks back into the desert.
Later, after the dog barks at being left standing on the lava rocks as we crawl into a cave, after we carry the dog down the ladder into the lava tubes, stand in the cave a bit, and carry the fool dog back up, a guy says to her, watching the entire circus enterprise, “You should know, you have a really cool mom.” But I want to tell him, oh tell her anything at this age, she also thinks I’m a good singer and God knows that’s not true. But she also knows I just tossed her a cup in the back of the car and said pee here then. She knows there comes a moment in every night in every tent where I say enough, please stop talking. She is just now getting old enough to know all moms are not like me. If I get the balance just right, somewhere between tough love and gentle listener, that may in the end be said to be to my credit.
In the meantime, January in the cold desert still sounds good to her, so I haven’t broken her yet.
Living in the far southeastern end of the Coachella Valley was not always something I appreciated. Definitely not when I was a younger person. Growing up on the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indian Reservation in Thermal, the desolateness seemed to stunt my ability to dream. The vast open desert, agricultural fields and treacherous-looking mountains represented infinite emptiness at the time. I remember feeling so far away from anywhere, and believing that everything was happening someplace else.
In high school, my parents facilitated an interdistrict transfer for me to Palm Desert High. They believed I would receive a better education there. It was a different world from the community of Torres Martinez. Some of my fellow students had cars at ages 16 and 17 that were more fancy and expensive than those of our teachers. Life seemed privileged for a lot of my peers. But not for me and not for the young people I knew growing up. Our reservation and the surrounding rural community was, as it still remains, a place where many who live there work the hardest and also earn the least.
Experiencing this proximity of poverty to extreme wealth in the desert was suffocating to me. Thus, as a teen, I could not wait to leave. Fortunately, my university education led me to schools in South Dakota, Humboldt County in Northern California and the Bay Area. All places of tremendous beauty. America’s vast great plains. The regal redwood forest. The state’s largest estuary. These journeys had the same origin and led me back to the same place, Torres Martinez. Each voyage away from home strengthened my appreciation for the reservation landscape. The distance from the rushing nature of city life now fosters my ability to think clearly.
People often come to our area and see nothing but poverty and potential for expansion. But the reality is that Desert Cahuilla history, lifeways and culture have been there far longer than anything else. Those of us who were taught to can see the places relevant to our creation all around us. Everything, down to the natural colors of the earth, has meaning to us.
It’s clear that not everyone sees it this way. To some, our home area is a place where they can leave things they don’t want near them. Unwanted human waste, polluted water, old furniture and useless appliances are dumped in our homelands. Developers don’t see the wide open space as a sanctuary for free desert animals and plants to live, like my family does. Though the tribe has authority on what happens within our boundaries, there’s no regulating everything. Our quiet is encroached on weekends with the sound of bullets ringing out from sport hunters who are after the birds, as well as the incessant hum of cars from the nearby racetrack.
The proximity that once drove me away is coming even closer to my home. But now, it’s what keeps me around appreciating all that remains.
Terria Smith is a tribal member of the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians. She is the editor of News from Native California, a quarterly magazine “devoted to the vibrant cultures, art, languages, histories, social justice movements, and stories of California’s diverse Indian peoples.” She is an undergraduate alum of Humboldt State University and has a master’s degree from the University of California Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.