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What it's like to live in the Mojave Desert

February 22, 2014, 1:28 pm | This story has an Influence Score of 1554

By riazhussain

William Wordsworth, a Romantic English who is known as poet of nature, wrote about the beauty of green mountains and clear rills. He seemed to have an aversion for urban life and likened cities to prisons. But, he preferred to look at only a select few aspects of nature. His greatest work ‘The Prelude’ begins with an expression of joy on having escaped:

          From the vast city, where I long had pined

          A discontented sojourner: now free,

          Free as a bird to settle where I will.

          What dwelling shall receive me? In what vale                

          Shall be my harbor? Underneath what grove

          Shall I take up my home? And what clear stream

          Shall with its murmur lull me into rest?

          The earth is all before me.

The earth was all before him but he went only to beautiful green valleys. In his poetry, he never seems to witness and extol the incredible landscape divergence that constitutes deserts. These, as we shall see in this story, have their own unique allurements which are not found in cities. Clear sky, cool starry nights and red hot sand--the landscape of deserts is painted with rich and variegated colors.  The light seems to emanate from the sand and stones. The ubiquitous silence seems to hold mysterious and inexplicable communion with man amid the vast expanses of sand that seem to stretch to infinity.  They are unfrequented places of suggestive, wild and virgin beauty. In addition, there are oases with lagoons surrounded by trees where tired and thirsty travelers can rest. However, life, on the whole, in sandy wildernesses is hard and harsh. This story features life in the Mojave Desert in southeastern California. Felipe Sanchez shares his story with us. 

Felipe Sanchez is now 53. He was born in El Paso, Texas. Though he is a US citizen by birth, Americans take him to be a Mexican.  He says, ‘They see me as a Mexican, yet I or no one in my family was born there. So, I tell people that yes I am an American, a “Chicano” (a Chicano is an individual of Mexican descent who grew up in the United States)’.

Our American “Chicano” used to work in a print shop creating brochures, pamphlets, and other paper printing – before the spread of the Internet. In addition, he has also been working as a professional photographer, capturing mostly high school portraits and dances. Currently he is training for work in the food industry. In order to relax, our interviewee plays ‘the guitar rocking out to some blues’.

He has been living for ten years in a town called Victorville which is in the Mojave. This long contact with the desert has acquainted him with various aspects of life in the arid land. The desert is populated sporadically.  

In addition to the town of Victorville, there are other urbanized places in the desert such as Lancaster, Lake Havasu City, Kingman, Laughlin, Bullhead City, Pahrump, Apple Valley, St. George,  Barstow, Needles, Mesquite, Rosamond, Needles,Hurricane, Moapa Valley and Boron.

Telling us the distance between his house in Victorville and the uninhabited land of the desert, Sanchez explains, ‘It is basically my backyard. I often drive into the open desert to areas that are untouched by people, yet I have not seen it all’. This ‘untouched’ desert has places which are tourist attractions.  Enumerating tourist destinations in the wild land, he went to the details in this way: ‘Most people would not think that there would be any tourist spots, but we do have them here. One of the well-known attractions is a lone highway that was used in this country to get from Chicago to Los Angeles. It’s “Route 66” -- the famous road in the desert'.

'The desert still has a 100-mile strap of  this road , but due to the more modern highways ( Interstate 40 and 15), most of it is unusable. I still travel along Route 66 when I travel to Barstow, California, a 30-mile ride. Here in the city of Victorville we have the California Route 66 Museum'. The museum showcases old cars, historic photographs  and artifacts.

'Another attraction that was very poplar during the space program is Edwards Air Force Base; many people would drive from Los Angeles and camp out in the desert in hopes of seeing the Space Shuttle land'. Near the air force base, there is a front part of a plane. Different people have different interpretations about  the place.' 

We asked our interviewee about this particular locale. He recounted, 'This place is located near Edwards Air Force Base and is called "Riding on a Wing and a Prayer Bar and Grill". Since the 1950's this has been one of the local hangouts for aviators, farmers, and local residents. I have been told that in the old days of USA test pilots many of them would hang out there for a cold drink, not sure if this is right. Others just tell me that it is a good place to eat and have a beer, but don’t be surprise to see a fight. I love driving people to just see it. I make up stories about how a pilot crashed his plane into the building just so he could order some food. I have yet to go inside'. 

Then we asked him about his most treasured spots in the desert. He said,  'One of my favorite places is Calico Ghost Town, just north of Barstow'. 

'A real place that in its day was a mining town for copper, but now it is used as a tourist place with many little shops and historical re-enactments'.

‘Now, Calico is owned by the County of San Bernardino as a park. Many tourists travel there on the weekend from the Los Angeles area. There you will find shops and old buildings with a small train to ride on'.

'The train gives one a feeling of the old West and there is even a gun fight show on the main street. There is camping as well and many places to hike, but be ready for the heat in the summer. Heat during the day in that part of the desert can reach 110 F degrees’.

'The most well-known tourist spot is Death Valley National Park which has the lowest elevation in North America at 282 feet (86 m) below sea level and the hottest where temperature can reach 120 °F (49 °C)’. The Mojave is a desert of extreme weather conditions. Winter months see temperature going below zero Celsius. The negative temperature causes snow storms. The latter, however,  have their own charm. He says, ‘One of the pleasant events would have to be that of a big snow storm occuring in the area'.

'The Mojave Desert is so beautiful when it is covered in white snow. One particular storm had dropped about two feet of snow, which for this area is a lot. It was just a wonderful site, but it only typically lasts till about ten in the morning. It is a hard desert as it can get very hot or very cold. It snows here in the Mojave, but we haven't  had any this season. The summers are dry and hot, but as they say – it’s a dry heat.

There is a product of this hot dry desert that attracts his eyes and fascinates him: the Joshua tree, or Yucca brevifolia. He says these trees are ‘only found this in part of the world'. The special thing about this specie is that each tree appears to be different  from the others.

He is of the view that each one seems to have its own individual  personality. Moreover, the trees seem to have some relationship with the sun. He interprets this interconnection in this way, 'The sky here is very clear and there is plenty of sunshine; and at the right time of day, the sun will give a glow to the tree'.

 Another thing that attracts him is the expansiveness of the Mojave. He explains, ‘The thing  that invites me to the desert  is it vastness, that it is so open with land. I can drive into areas where there are no people for miles around’.

Besides the allurements and attractions for tourists, this arid landscape has its own problems which desert dwellers have to face. Throwing light upon some of the problems inherent to this geography, our photographer says, ‘Life in the open land of the desert is almost not there. You have to look very close to see life, but it is there in the plants and wildlife. There are many coyotes, rattlesnake, desert tortoise, and birds that live in the desert. You may not always see them but they are there. Life with the people is both joyful and hard. Unemployment is very high in the towns within the desert. We do not find  a lot of jobs in the desert and many people will commute into the Los Angeles/Southern California Metro area for work. That could mean a commute of over 50 mile for some. I did a drive for a job for about four years, driving about 60 mile each way five days a week. What kept me going was looking up to the sky at night and seeing so many stars, something that could not be seen in the big cities’.

Another problem identified by our interviewee  is high rate of crime. He points out, ‘One of the bad things within the towns is high crime rate caused by unemployment.  Many of our towns have a major gang problem and going out at night is not always a safe thing to do. It’s like having big city problems, but with nice weather’. 

In addition, tourists who come to the desert, at times, behave irresponsibly. One instance of their thoughtless behavior is the presence of homeless dogs. He says, ‘An unpleasant thing is one that seems to happen too often, that is finding  stray dogs run in the desert. There are many people that drive into the desert and abandon their dogs. Many feel that by “freeing” the dog to the open, the animal will have a chance to get a home (being found by someone) and not be put to death by the dog pound. The truth is that any dog or human cannot survive in the desert without food or water. Once a dog is hungry it will attack anything to live, or is attacked by coyotes or other dogs.  It is a sad thing to see. It happened in front of  own eyes.  A car pulled in front of my house and pushed a large German shepherd out of the door. The car drove off and the dog tried to go after it.  I was not able to attract the dog; sadly I saw it dead a few days later’.

Knowing about far flung places is always interesting. We come to know how people have to struggle amid the crude realities of life. We've learned that the Mojave desert has it own beauty in the form of snow-clad landscape in winter months, traveling on highway at starry nights and Joshua trees.  However, life is tough for the inhabitants of  the Mojave because of high rates of unemployment and crime. Whatever be the hardships and problems of people in this desolate place, there is one advantage they have--closeness to nature.  H. G. Bohn said, 'Nature, time and patience are three great physicians'.

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