I’m a desolation freak. I enjoy being in an area that appears to be uninhabited. Driving from Texas to California has provided me with a number of opportunities to feel almost alone on the planet. There are so many wonderful places where life seems to be in short supply but I find myself remembering an old Disney documentary about the abundance of living creatures in the desert. I can’t see anything but I suspect that rattlesnakes are searching for rodents somewhere in the rocky landscape. Perhaps a mountain lion is hiding in wait for some small animal. The reality is that even the vast moonscape that I see is teeming with life.
Surviving in such an environment takes a certain toughness. The air is as hot as an oven. In the Mojave Desert it is one hundred seventeen degrees as we drive along the highway. I wonder how many unprepared pioneers died making their way to the promises of California. I can’t even imagine crossing this land. I suspect that over time they found more favorable routes but there must have been some who early on made the mistake of traveling this way.
My mom used to tell of her first time driving to California with my dad. They were going through the desert and their radiator overheated. Fortunately my father had thought to bring water on the journey so they were ultimately okay but my mother said that for a time she was worried that they would die on the highway. It must have been a terrifying experience because she told the story over and over again as though she had seen her life flashing before her in the harrowing moments before my father got the car running again.
I once saw a movie that focused on women of the old frontier days who went crazy from the harsh elements, the scarcity of basic comforts and the isolation. As I look around I feel their pain. It had to take a great deal of daring to leave all that was familiar and move to such barren areas and yet there are little towns all along the way attesting to the fact that people did put their faith in a new life in the desert.
Of course today there are rest stops and gas stations along the route, not to mention cell phones to call for help. Such conveniences eliminate the fear factor and make the drive rather delightful. In some areas it appears as though some giant child has been playing in an enormous sandbox. The colors are almost monochromatic, featuring fifty shades of brown. Here and there cacti dot the landscape that is mostly rock and scrub. There is something incredibly beautiful about the sparseness and the fact that nature has found a way to live in spite of the rugged conditions.
Trains travel along the tracks that course across the barren spaces. This was and still is a very busy trade route. I’ve seen more locomotives in an hour than I might otherwise encounter in months. Barstow which is just ahead is a transportation hub for America’s commerce. I suppose that in the past there were stagecoaches and wagons to accomplish the same thing.
I expect any minute to see a cowboy riding across the purple sage or a group of Native Americans peering down at our car as we pass the many hills. I suspect that there are a treasure trove of untold tales from this part of the world. Who knows what adventures unfolded on this land. My imagination is in overdrive. I suspect that I am romanticizing reality more than I should but some of my best childhood memories came from watching old westerns with my uncles. I expect John Wayne to emerge looking much as he did in The Searchers.
The desert is a glorious place. It’s even the home of Snoopy’s brother Spike. We had the opportunity to say hello to him in Needles, California. I suspect that he is a true free spirit because only someone who appreciates isolation and feels good about himself will make it out here. He’s no doubt much like those who came here to escape something back in the heart of civilization. This seems to be a place where everyone gets a chance to be new again, to put the past in the past.
Amazingly I remember so many places from the time when my family and I traveled here back in 1956. My father had a new job in San Jose but we first went to Los Angeles and visited with some of his relatives whom I had never before met. We also spent a magical day in Disneyland, a treat that seems as real today as it was back then. I have the same sense of anticipation only this time I plan to go see Harry Potter at the Universal Studio park.
Seeing the landscape brings back memories tucked deeply in my mind. I almost feel like a child again riding in the back seat of our Pontiac with my two brothers. Ours was to be a year long adventure that ended back in Texas after my father’s failed attempt to find contentment in his work. When he died in a car accident only weeks after we had returned to Houston our lives took a dramatic turn that brought us a different lifestyle than the one we had enjoyed with him.
It is only now, more than fifty years later that I am retracing my steps to Los Angeles. I feel the spirit of my father who so wanted to build a new life in California and wonder what my world might have been had we settled here. I suppose that it matters little because I am quite content with the way things ultimately turned out. Like the living creatures of the desert my family and I adapted to our new reality and moved on to our own destinies. I’m glad that I am sharing this moment with my Mike and two of my grandchildren. Life is good and has a way of bringing us what we most need.