You name it. If it’s beautiful, California probably has it. Too bad the first view lots of people get of the state is bleak and monotonous.
I’m talking about the Mojave Desert, which people driving into Southern California run smack into. Every time I’m there, I think about Tom Joad as well as the waves of economic migrants called “Okies” who passed that way during a traumatic time in American history.
These were the one million or so unfortunate folks in the 1930s and early ’40s who abandoned their homes in places like Oklahoma and Arkansas to escape the unrelenting wind, dust, and drought that had descended upon them.
In battered old trucks and automobiles that we call “jalopies,” they carried everything they owned toward what they imagined would be a California paradise. In the eyes of local sheriffs and other hateful people along the way who ostracized these downhearted and weary migrants, “Okie” was another word for “scum.”
Writer John Steinbeck wrote a book, “The Grapes of Wrath,” about these Dust Bowl travelers. It became a classic. So did the movie based on it, in which Henry Fonda played Tom Joad, a gritty Okie who organized the hungry, hated migrants into unions once they reached California.
I’ll tell you about a precious few remnants still left from those days in a bit. But let’s return to their point of entry: the desert that confronted the Okies as they reached California.
When you’re in the Mojave, often spelled “Mohave,” all your stereotypes of California — the tangled freeways, fancy homes and swimming pools, giddy theme parks, and sandy beaches — disappear. That is, all but the sand part.
As far as the eye can see are scruffy little plants; rumpled, chocolate-colored hills — and did I mention the sand? It’s the perfect place to pull out your “Guide to Western Flora” or some such, and brush up on vegetation such as . . .
. . . the sagebrush, a word you’ve heard if you’ve seen western movies or read “dime novels” about cowboys. This is a scrubby little bush, dusty green in color, that pops up in sandy soil. One of the differences between the windswept, treeless deserts of the Middle East and California’s Mojave is the color that this little plant adds to the horizon. It also holds loose soil in place and helps keep precious — and infinitely rare — rainwater from running off and being wasted.
Palm trees, mesquite bushes and cacti dot the Mojave Desert as well; there’s even a tourist town called “Twentynine Palms,” which has more like 200 Washingtonia palm trees and backs up to Joshua Tree National Park, where many more palm varieties grow.
Cacti come in more than 600 versions. It feels like I’ve bumped into or stumbled over the prickly thorns of all of them.
The mesquite is a tree of life for small desert creatures. It provides shade for animals in places where refuge from the sun would otherwise be impossible. And its seed pods drop nutrients like nitrogen into barren soil. But since burning mesquite wood gives off a fragrant scent that Americans love to smoke into their grilled steaks and chicken, scavengers rip mesquite out of the ground to sell to dealers, severely damaging the ecosystem.
You’ve probably seen photos of the mightiest desert cactus, the giant saguaro, but it grows in one place only: the hot, sandy hills of southern Arizona, one state away. The saguaro cannot tolerate more than a night or two of freezing temperatures. After routinely subjecting plants to temperatures greater than 38° (100° Farenheit), the Mojave Desert can drop below freezing for days on end weeks later.
For a few days each spring, the Mojave explodes in color. Normally drab plants sprout lovely blooms, and vivid wildflowers pop from the rocks and crunchy soil. That’s when a clicking noise disturbs the desert solitude. It’s the sound of thousands of shutters snapping in cameras from Needles to Barstow.
I spent a month in Barstow one day, as a stand-up comedian might say. It’s a dusty piece of shade where 24,000 people and uncounted lizards and scorpions, tarantula spiders, and the most poisonous rattlesnakes in the world — the Mojave green — get along just fine. The locals advise you to ignore these “critters” unless one gets in your shoe.
You see a lot of box cars in Barstow, for it holds the world’s largest rail classification yard. There, sweltering workers shuffle cars among the hundreds and hundreds of freight trains that roll west to Los Angeles, south to San Diego, north to Seattle in Washington, or east to who-knows-where.
Why would anybody want to live in these parts, where it’s so beastly hot that gets only about 8 centimeters of rain — I repeat, rain the depth of your thumb — each year? A pleasant woman in a cowgirl outfit who was venturing out in the withering middle of the day reminded me that it’s clear and refreshing once the sun goes down. “Dress warmly if you’re riding your horse out in the gulches under the stars at night,” she advised me.
Out with the critters after dark? Surely she was jesting.
It takes a rosy eye to appreciate the cruel Mojave. “Devil’s Playground,” they call one bleak stretch of brown earth and sand where you can see heat shimmering off the desert floor. There’s “Fiery Gulch,” too.
And let us not forget America’s most ominous place: the aptly-named “Death Valley.”
The lowest spot in the Western Hemisphere, Death Valley is also the hottest and driest part of the United States. There’s no creek, for instance, in Furnace Creek there, save for the rare times that a cloudburst spawns a flash flood. But there are certainly furnace-like temps. Fifty degrees (122° Farenheit) is a common reading in the heart of the day. So is 38° at MIDNIGHT.
Dervish winds blow sand in your face from great, rippling dunes. Salt, too, from a long-dry lakebed, 86 meters below sea level. It’s this wind that inspired classical composer Ferde Grofé to write the fourth movement of his “Death Valley Suite” about sandstorms.
Even hardy American Indians steered clear of Death Valley. Whites discovered it the hard way in 1849, when prospectors, hurrying to the goldfields in the Sierra Nevada Mountains north of there, almost died en masse crossing the blistering-hot desert. No one but lizards, kangaroo rats, sidewinder rattlesnakes, scorpions, and coyotes would have bothered with the place had not borax been discovered.
This borate material was called “white gold” because it could be used for everything from soaps to pottery glazes. Death Valley’s famous “20-mule teams” — actually 18 with two horses — pulled wagons full of the stuff out of the desert. The bigger horses, posted last in line, had the strength to get the heavy wagons going from a dead start.
To this day, a 115-year-old borate laundry “booster” that sponsored the TV show “Death Valley Days,” starring future president Ronald Reagan as the “Old Ranger” in the 1950s, is called “20 Mule Team Borax.”
But you don’t have to rough it in Death Valley. Visitors swim in the pool at the expensive Furnace Creek Inn, scout wildflowers such as the evening primrose, and play golf — if you can believe it in such fiery air — on a course called “the Devil’s Golf Course,” which is full of fantastic ridges and pinnacles of salt. There’s even a huge, 1920s-vintage Mediterranean-style villa called “Scotty’s Castle” in Death Valley. Its story is remarkable; check out the link!
The closest city of any size is Las Vegas, Nevada, 150 kilometers (93 miles) away. On the same day in the winter or early spring, you can leave four meters of Yosemite National Park snow in the Sierra Nevadas and descend 3,000 meters to 40-degree Celsius heat below sea level in Death Valley.
There, National Park Service rangers keep a sharp eye out for visitors who would take home rock or plant specimens or tear up the fragile desert. A good example is the Eureka Dunes, the largest dunes in California. Sandboarding down them using boards similar to ocean surfboards has become popular, but it’s endangering small plant species that live on the dunes. Dirt-bike riders are a menace, too. In too many spots, they have so compacted the fragile, porous soil that precious raindrops cannot get to plant roots. The water runs away, and the vegetation dies.
There were once fearsome stories about Death Valley — that it was ruled by Satan or that there were monsters or poisonous gas in the desert that would kill those who dared cross it. But gold and borax miners — and now tourists — tamed this hottest of America’s hot spots.
Carol and I were among those tourists who made that amazing descent from snowy cold to boiling hot one day. We arrived at the Furnace Creek Inn well after midnight, but it felt like high noon in hell when we stepped out of the car and inhaled the hot, stifling air.
Then we made two poor decisions. Carol turned on a bedstand light in order to read for awhile. (Having driven for hours, I fell right into deep slumber). Little did we know that a door to our balcony had been left open a crack, and as Carol likes to put it, what seemed like “everything that slinks, crawls, or hops” snuck in from the desert. Soon after she turned out the lights and fell asleep herself, Carol awoke and let out a blood-curdling scream! One of the slinkers had dropped from the ceiling onto the bed covers. I jumped up like a jack-in-the-box, certain that the police would come running. No one did. Folks there in Critterville must have been used to ear-piercing screams.
The other dumb move was mine. In order to gauge the severity of a sandstorm that had whipped up as we were leaving Furnace Creek, I buzzed down the driver’s-side car window. The extent of the storm was immediately recorded by the couple of centimeters of sand on the front seat and bridge of my nose.
Speaking of sand, let’s return to my opening story about the migrating Okies. “Every moving thing lifted the dust into the air,” John Steinbeck wrote about the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s that had shattered so many lives back home. “It settled on the corn, piled up on the wires, settled on roofs. Men stood by their fences and looked at the ruined corn, drying fast now. The men were silent, and they did not move often. After a while, the men’s faces became hard and angry and resistant.”
Having endured so much sand, and so many indignities on the road west, they were then greeted by the inhospitable Mojave Desert when they arrived in California. Right there, their dream must have seemed like a nightmare.
I met a man named Earl Shelton, who was four years old in 1937 when his mother died on the family’s Oklahoma farm. Then the cotton gave out for lack of water or fertilizer, and Earl’s father, Tom, eked out a living catching and skinning skunks and opossums for ten cents a hide. But he gave up and piled Earl, his brother, a nephew, and himself into a rickety 1929 Model A Ford and set out on what the Okies called the “Mother Road” — legendary U.S. Route 66 — to California.
In early 1941, the Sheltons made it through the forbidding Mojave and then crossed the last pass in California’s Tehachapi Mountains. There, at last, they beheld the fertile valley of their imagination. “Hey, you could see ever’ vineyard, ever’ orange grove, ever’ alfalfa field,” Earl told me. “Potatoes. No pollution. It was absolutely a fantasy picture.”
Like the fictional Tom Joad and his family, the Sheltons were fortunate to secure a spot in one of 17 refugee settlement camps set up under President Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal” administration. It was the same camp near the tiny crossroads town of Weedpatch, California, that Steinbeck described thusly:
“Got nice toilets an’ baths, an’ you kin wash clothes in a tub, an’ they’s water right handy, good drinkin’ water, an’ nights the folks plays music an’ Sat’dy night they give a dance. Oh, you never seen anything so nice.”
Tom Shelton and the boys were first assigned a tent amid the sagebrush, then a better tent on a concrete slab. Eventually they got their own tin shack. Earl told me he had fond memories of a childhood spent in the Weedpatch camp, where today the only three remaining wooden buildings from the entire California resettlement effort of 70 years ago still stand. He remembered dances, pie suppers, “sewin’ by the women,” church services, and cakewalks — prancing steps by couples for which the best performance won a cake or other prize.
It was plenty hot in the tin cabin. “My brother and my dad would take a bedsheet out,” Earl recalled. “And there was faucets for ever’ four cabins. Well they would wet that bedsheet, and we’d use that for covers. Well hey, that wet sheet would keep you cool!”
Since there was no woman at their place, the women of the Weedpatch camp helped with laundry and kept an eye on Earl and the other boys after Tom Shelton sank into alcoholism. “For eight years, he never drawed a sober breath,” Earl told me. “And so after I was 12 years old, I raised myself.” The Shelton boys traveled the migrant circuit, picking crops and eating pork and beans and free fruit. Sardines, too, since they were cheap, rich in protein, and high in salt content — a helpful asset when stooping to snatch beans in the hot sun.
It was hard child labor. Earl Shelton harvested potatoes into what were called “stubs,” or sacks that held 25 kilos (56 pounds) of potatoes. For one stub, a kid earned a cent and a half. “I prolly made 30 cents a day or so, you know,” said Earl, who added that he wears the name “Okie” as a badge of pride to this day.
Each October, some of the few hundred Weedpatch campers still alive come together for a “Dust Bowl Festival,” in which everybody revisits Weedpatch’s little buildings and washtubs and cotton scales. There’s dancing, too, though few folks are nimble enough to cakewalk any more.
In the same place where tents and tin shacks once sheltered the displaced Okies, tiny cement cabins stand today. They are home to another wave of migrant workers — Mexicans — who pick beans and onions and melons in the hot California sun.
Gulch. A narrow gorge carved by a river. In the hot, arid Southwest U.S., there’s often no stream remaining.
Ostracize. To banish, exclude, or expel someone from a group. To be ostracized is to be shunned by others.