Friday, August 29, 2008
A voice said, Look me in the stars
And tell me truly, men of earth
If all the soul-and-body scars
Were not too much to pay for birth.
Another drive, 1 a.m., from downtown Riverside (I taught a writing workshop at the library there tonight) through the Badlands past the Morongo Casino flashing "Stone Temple Pilots" on its marquee and the flow downward past windmills unto desert. I've left my friend and former boyfriend Jeff's house. We spend a lot of time together and work on myriad books and anthologies and poetry projects, I know it looks weird to outsiders, who wonder what the hell, but as a longtime single mother, with just one child, I'm now, in response to the inevitable empty nest syndrome, and an overworking writer and college professor who's gone through a wrenching mother-daughter separation during the past few years, my whole world turned upside down and still in the aftershocks though the earth is settling and slightly less trembling. I need all the escape hatches I can get, and poetry and books seem to be a good answer and a wellspring of creative comfort that smooths me easily into their fluidity.
Jeff, coming off a divorce, I think, feels the same. We met formally at a book event almost 2 years ago. We're about the same age, come from very similar small, dismal towns - Fontana and Rialto, next door to one another, and share "religion infused" childhoods of the rather "new age" stripe, 70's Maranatha and "love your brother" long-hair and Jesus sandals style. We are also both parents to daughters, and to daughters the same age. And so, we've fallen into a casual routine, the past year, of working together on books and going to poetry readings all over southern Cal. Another dorky poetry reading - well, that's one less moment for regrets, lame and goofy as it seems. I've learned to not judge myself for doing things that 10 years ago I would've scorned. That is, rendering anguish into aesthetically-beautiful words, and not, instead, hiding on some faraway mountain-top, a big and ridiculous middle finger pointed skyward until, after miles of hiking, I'd relax, and drop.
And so, tonight, after another literary adventure with some amazing writers that's perked my spirits up, although it has involved such a long and tiring 2 hour round trip drive tonight, I see a quick jut of falling star, a very bright one, above the Badlands, before I enter their craggy up and round and windiness. Upon release, 2,000 feet higher than when I started and in the opening at the mouth canyon of San Timoteo, where, along I-60, a lush of early California beauty still resides - to the left, thick green riparian trees subsisting on creek water; to the right, lush grove oases, ancient and wise - and I see lightning, thin slits of it, and very high in the sky, southward, way, way out on the open desert, towards the Anza Borrego, or Salton Sea, or maybe even almost to Mexico.
In Palm Desert, Cook Street Exit, near the new, elegant-built, upper-end Cal State and UCRiverside satellite campuses, I stop at an AM/PM, it's almost 2 am and the only other people in the store are a carload of shirtless tough guys, rushing in for the last few 12 packs of the night and browsing through the chips and snacks. I buy cheezits and pretzels, for no other reason than that I'm wide awake, and a humid hot breeze is pushing up from the south, the antitheses of west-tradewinds cooled evening coastal valley I left behind, on the other side of the mountains. Every re-entry to this desert is another birth, and I wonder if the lightning and sweet bless of rain will enter our zone tonight, or if the giant storm will stay closer to its mouth, the womb entry of California's Gulf. I've seen more advertisements for other local casinos' upcoming concerts - Creedence Clearwater Revival at the Spotlight 29. I don't need 70's re-hash shows, or muzak from the 80's. All I want is the relief of cool, sweet rain, falling from the sky and soothing me.
At home, it's the usual. My roommate is up, reading Allan Watts. He's taken to staying up all night during the summer, sleeping in late, and I can't say I blame him. I was hoping he'd be asleep, because then, the loneliness of our friendship, which involves some degree of anger and the sad presence of invisibility, the outcome of a series of misunderstandings and hurt feelings resulting from the jags and disrepairs of binary star systems when they live too close and fall out of orbit and into whack; because then, I could pretend I was the only star in this orbit and not stagger in the off-glare of my beloved, and estranged, friend. He is someone I've hiked the deserts with and visited waterfalls with for more than a year, someone I love desperately and even pathetically, and who I've pissed off and hurt and disappointed more than acres of thunderheads and rage about. Trying to secret myself off to special desert spots with him and imagine that love can conquer all has become inverted, and now, I am conquered by love and the pain that love can cause. We are at a truce, which accentuates my stomach-ache, and the feelings that can no longer freely be expressed, and pass between us like the flow of Deep Creek at the bottom of an ancient-carved canyon, separating mountains and desert, the perfect place to run around naked and soak in hot springs and dip into river. A safety zone, a love planet, cosmic.
But tonight is a long way from my beloved. I'm a stopped-up, stagnant pool abandoned by the water's barely flow. Creek at low, late summer, always a blistering and unloving world. I haven't even been to Deep Creek for over a year, and it used to be a constantly visited exodus of pilgrimage after pilgrimage. I close my door, my isolation sharpened more than if I were really alone, in this odd being ignored. My daughter, 20, is long asleep; she works at a doctor's office and routinely amazes me in her ability to get herself up, early, off to work, and pay her own bills. I'm her mom, and when she's home, I always feel in my own accord, but she's her own life, and spends her down time with her boyfriend, or on the phone with her boyfriend.
I lie awake for another few hours, contemplating falling stars, the sound of wet but wetless wind in my small palms, the dogs a little restless too, Shasta has anxiety attacks at the sound of distant thunder even I can't hear, and she's panting a little too hard. The body scar of sunrise, on my heels, the desert is a lonely hell, but also whispering a love song, if without the cool reprieve of rain, the relief of birth, the exit of rainclouds so angrily hedging at my side. This is the desert, and it's going to be hot for another month. Labor Day Weekend is upon us, and it is time to visit the coast. Waves are predictable, and they never fail us, and this time of summer, the water will be lovingly warm, and my back will be positioned firmly against the shadow mountains that, for once, envelope me in their happy-face, rain-sucking sides, ocean-ward, and protect me from the desert's glare. And like Robert Frost, I will not only try to avoid fire, but especially ice.
Thursday, August 28, 2008
Alluvial Fan Base, edge of Sonoran/Western Colorado - Mojave Desert Transition Zone Pushwalla Canyon opening, mouth of Little San Benardino Mountains, elevation 1,200 feet.
Greetings: This is the first report and outing of the "official" visit to the peripheries of JTNP, and officially marks the season of my affiliate writers residency. Its been a long and irritating day, stuffed into my "too small" Palm Desert home for yet another "cabin fever" afternoon - cabin fever being the reverse, in the Coachella Valley Desert, of arctic winter in Fairbanks Alaska or an extended blizzard of months in North Dakota. We experience the reverse of "ice." Everything melts, and then melts more, until the earth itself is one parched nutshell. The garden I've planted has gone entirely brown. So long, beautiful mint, happy sunflower faces, the sprawl of early summer poppies and tomatoes and canteloupe and zucchini. The lovely orange marigolds are dried memories. There is nothing quite like the end of a three month stretch of dead flat heat, day and night, that's sizzled all civility out of me, out of my roommate and my daughter, even the dogs, who spread eagle themselves on the floor, too apathetic to even bark at the new neighbors moving in next door. Even the pool water is dis-inviting, overheated and over-chlorinated.
And next week, I start another semester of teaching at College of the Desert. A summer spent working on a literary anthology, not escaping the heat for more than a day or two at a time to the slightly-cooler Riverside, CA area, to stay at my friend Jeff's apartment, 10 or 15 degrees cooler, and he doesn't believe in air conditioning. We don't cool interiors there; we work on making books happen. A lot of books. I'm even sick of poetry and chapbooks by now. I'm sick and tired of being a desert anthology editor, a labor of love and hate and every emotional gamut in between. Been working on that for more than two years, the publisher is keeping me tracking across the landscape meeting deadline after deadline, and especially this summer, I feel like I've crossed the Mojave Desert on the Bradshaw Trail or the old Mojave Road at least a dozen times, back and forth, subsisting on small sips of tepid water at infrequent water holes with names like Soda Springs and Dos Cabezas Preserve.
And I have only the summer memories, this year, of a few stolen hours to Idyllwild, to sit on a vacationing friend's pine-surrounded porch; an afternoon on the back spine of the Santa Rosa Mountains, past where old Desert Steve etched his "end of the world" prophecies onto burnt out trees, and next to the song trickle of Dripping Spring (felt bad when the big dog, Brindle, peed repeatedly on the water jug sitting there to cool off, that belonged to a ham radio operator who was camping up there in order to get a good worldwide signal; thank God he wasn't looking and I DID rinse the jug off, several times.) And, yesterday, a twilight drive to the open vista at the base of Pushwalla Canyon, which squirms out of the Little San Bernardino Mountains, west side of Joshua Tree National Park boundaries, humps itself over, with a laugh, the Colorado River Aqueduct road (think: flash flood revenge,) and spills onto one big alluvial fan that profers a few dirt roads, myriad broken bottles and empty shotgun shells, and tonight, on my mad, dust-arousing escape from the designer desert where I live - you know, the 3 BR, 2 BA, swimming pool, 2 car garage, with 2 cars in it - place I call home.
Hard to believe I'm only 20 minutes out Washington Street, over the I-10 Freeway Bridge, past the long draft of Sun City, and then, through the winding and mystical Coachella Valley Preserve with its shocking palm oasis hugging several hillsides - those odd tree groups left over from wetlands era, when dinosaurs relaxed on these plains; the palms without heads, often the result of fires, or just plain fatigue, look like telephone poles and are very disorienting on the open horizon - ahhh.....finally.....cross over Dillon Road, that stretches from Desert Hot Springs over to Indio Hills.....dirt road....past an odd camp that's been here all summer without shade two dilapidated pickup trucks, a few mangy dogs that bark a storm for about 2 seconds when I drive by, and no people in sight.
I've found my way, barely, once again, to the fringe of open desert, as I've always done in every desert I've lived in, where the roads turn to dirt and the lone woman turns to a slightly less teeth and jaw gritting, poorly adapted member of the human whirlpool just miles behind my back. In short, I feel like a real bitch right about now, and my mood isn't improved a whole lot when I realize how dark it's getting so quickly - fall equinox, in spite of these "armaggedon is just one block away" weather days, is close at hand, and yes, the days are shortening. I'm going to have to put on the hiking boots with orange socks, because I couldn't find anything else, and hope my tiny flashlight works. I'm in no mood to talk to a rattlesnake right now. I might end up saying something mean. The desert excursion has just begun. I have a whole season to go. And I find, stepping out of the car and grumbling a little, that a fresh breeze is clearing the energy, on the higher reaches of the east side of the valley, and it's dry and warm, not at all laden with the pungent humidity of the soup I left behind, my house, situated just above sea level and a few feet and maybe a mile from the old beach of Ancient Lake Cahuilla. I am beginning to breathe. The first few stars are not mocking me; they are calm.
Aug 28, 2008
Part 2 to follow soon
Tuesday, August 26, 2008
it's a river, running through a shopping center
whispering its imported music
near the shores of a real river, the Whitewater,
that flows only when the mountains pound their drumsongs
down its wide white heart, and washing garbage and dead dogs
and all things forgotten, giant rocks, sometimes cars,
baby strollers and bits of laundry, old 2 x 4's
and remnants of golf course turf, some people
planted alien grass too close to its edge: thirsty mouth
with invisible teeth, gnawing in the moon's dawn,
mid-summer or winter snow-thaw, thirsty
for the swallow, they say you can't drink enough here.
You'd think that the spa would know this, that
a place for Brazilian wax and tanning, in this desert
where the sun shines 365 days per year and more,
where lying on the asphalt this time of year
is guaranteed to melt away all unwanted body hair,
that acupuncture could be experienced
in the plucking of sharp needles from the buyer's choice
of cactus needle: ocotillo, cholla, palo verde,
all indigenous plants just a short reach away,
how about massage on lizard-warm rocks,
cragging overhead just to the south, ahh,
Magnesia Falls Canyon, when I first moved here
I thought it was an exotic mercury-canyon with wings,
flowing with rare minerals and spilling down to earth
from the high reaches where only the Bighorn Sheep live.
I was wrong. The mirage reveals plastic sheep art,
colored by local artists and demonstrating what we wanted
to be real, what reminded us of something we no longer have,
but cherish, at the River, on a humid, choking late August afternoon
and the Betty Ford Center is nearby, too, maybe for the inevitable
reality check and substance abuse correction efforts, after all,
shopping for expensive spa products at Lohar Lohar near
P.F. Changs Chinese Bistro, alongside Borders Books with its
fairy tales, and Starbucks, offering cups of coffee and venti ice tea,
its logo of a fat, crowned Mermaid, smiling and spreading her legs
reminding us all that the ocean visits us every now and then,
and that our expensive mirage was once a cattle ranch,
that Betty Ford herself couldn't afford to go to rehab,
that our desert was once under water, too, inhabited by the sea
the mirage is beneath the water, after all, the river is tongue
and the cows are lowing for salt, the sheep are undone
copyright 2008 Ruth Nolan
Sunday, August 24, 2008
Dumont Dunes, near Death Valley, California
My ten-year-old daughter is feeling brave.
We go rock hunting today, exploring far
beyond the last dirt road, just she and I.
We see the sand dunes from miles away,
some hallucinogenic scene from the
camel humps rising from the flat desert floor.
My daughter wants to climb them, but
there's no way to guess how far away
they are, no sure measure to tell how tall.
I tell her it's not safe to hike mountains
that unstable, hills that shift in the wind.
Our boots would fill with sand, and we'd
sink like thirsty prospectors, come to find
buried treasure, lured by promises of silver,
a gold vein, the rattlesnake's hypnotic charms.
c. Ruth Nolan 2008
And Now, She's 20 Years Old....
Life sometimes feels this way.....one step higher on the dune,
another step sliding back - it's a surprise we ever make
"progress" in one direction or another. I want to knock
out good stories, left and right, populate the earth,
better than an appleseed-spreader, maybe more like
the do-good, or do-poetic walk of a shaman, transporting
the body through the material density, across flat land
like a sand dune, building its multi-story strengths
across eons and geography, shifting and singing, even,
but always seeming so stable, until one approaches their
density, and begins the slow climb, deep steps in white sugar,
desert sand dunes are so clean it breaks your heart, and
the morning tea seems a little purer when the granules cling
to then melt from your boot, and from their temporary
peaked view - tomorrow morning, be assured they'll have
moved - an inch? half a foot? -you feel some small victory,
that you've made it again, to some slighty "higher than"
plateau, to survey what made you feel small prior to the
exalting climb, and feel a little more in command of your
language, of the sfhiting nature of things that make us
so mundane, crawling on the desert floor that underlies
all of this earth anyhow, it's just that the arid zones make
us realize just how bare things really are, how mountains
after all spend their pretty short lives rising and blowing
down, then rising again like a puffed up football, ready
for the perfect toss, across a sort of rainbow arc, into the
quarterback's arms, touchdown.
Part Two: Mother Dawns on Daughter: Ruth to Tarah
I wrote the poem 10 years ago, an oddball mom who spent
weekends, from the time my daughter was born, driving
long and far into vast regions of the Mojave, just the two
of us (among other past-times like whitwater rafting and
canoeing, biking, backpacking, camping, reading, studying
with a Hindu swami.) the hike's been long, my boots are
definitely swamped with sand, and my daughter's shoe
size is bigger than mine (though she returns today from
spending most of summer at boyfriend's house, he just
returned to UCBerkely, and the first thing spilling out of
her suitcase were three pairs of my "missing" shoes, nice
to know that I have what a young woman her age considers
Yes, we really did climb a few sand dunes back in
the day - I carried her on my back on the first hike, I
believe it was Kelso Dunes when she was two. I bought my
house in Palm Desert in 2002, for the main reason that the
small property backed up to 4 square miles of ancient,
deep-mysteried sand dunes, some quite tall. Some of the best
I've seen, in shape and sculpt, following the eastern concourse
of the mighty Whitewater Wash from San Gorgonio Peak
down to Salton Sea - in fact, my house is built on another
remnant of the ancient dunes. I LIVE on a sand dune,
for godsake. No wonder my life feels submerged, and for
all of my desert protection, admiration, and aesthetically-grateful
ranting and raving, a little more than a roadrunner tail-tipped
ironic: I'm sleeping on very porous soil. And it's easy to drown.
I live in a classic graben-trough zone. A true "no-man's land."
Meaning, my house is situated on a narrow faux-valley floor.
It's more of a big sinkhole, 15-20 miles from one upthrust fault zone
to the other, meaning: mountain ranges on both sides, to the east
and west, paralleling and rising atop of the San Andreas fault.
We don't really get good "mirages" here in the "Conchilla-
Little Shell" valley - the whole damned place is a mirage.
Look down a street, look across the horizon, from June to
October it is all on melt-mode, and the eyes strive for shade
and comfort. And that is good news for the very few remaining
sand dunes in the California Deserts. Kelso is protected, thank
God. Dumont is a disaster - every time I've come and gone
from or two Tecopa Hot Springs, the low valley that they
fill - actually a sink of the unique Amargosa River - is filled
with haze and sand in the air for miles and miles.
The Algodones Dunes, south of here....cringe and heartbreak,
being in the direct line of fire of the thousands of ORV's
and RV's heading down Hwy 111, and 86S, past the Salton
Sea, to wreak their weekly havoc and damage on miles of
sacred scape - not to mention in the weird "legal ORV"
pockets of people of all ages creeping around on hills
on their weekend warrior wagons....having known a
seven-year-old boy who lost his life on three-wheeler
some years ago, while dad cracked another can of bud
and waved at his son, who promptly ran into a barbed
wire fence and died when the thing flipped and landed
on his heart.....not to mention the band of bandit
"f-you" dirtbikers of a few years back (probably still
out there trashing the land) who deliberately, in spite
of others' protective efforts to safeguard old Serrano
Indian village and shelter sites in the chapparal
foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains, in the
beautiful wedge of big, rolling, once-juniper-filled
mountains around Juniper Flats, situated between
Deep Creek and the start of the Mojave Desert near
Hesperia and Apple Valley, have gone repeatedly
out of their way to ride bikes brazenly through cut
barbed wire and through many of the sites, ripping
up ground, artifact soil, and burial locations. I am
so sorry......but for all of this.... I despise the fuckers
Deliberate cruelty, in the name of rebellion against the
system, any system, directed at any living entity - meaning,
all of us, all of our land, all of the desert - that there are
many among us who should spend more time at home
playing "X" box. Maybe there is some good to the computer
gaming revolution after all. That, or the angry, ORV hellions
can maybe conspire to invent "virtual off roading," the video
game - level 4. We have guitar hero, why not "ORV Hero" - at home!
my area has had, for centuries, until the last one, some of
the best dunes - 95% of them plowed. We ARE lucky to have
nearby Coachella Valley Preserve, where there are some
nominal dunes left, though not really outstanding - although
it's a constant struggle for them to survive, given the assault
on their very existence by angry homeowners in adjacent
Sun City (shudder,) a massive, megalomaniac "retirement
community that actually, believe it or not, sits atop a major
archaological village site of the Cahuilla Indians, at the
opening flood plain/valley floor of Pushwalla Canyon,
which eases out of the Little San Bernardino Mountains.
Many residents there had the nerve, recently, to try to take
out a city license to make killing of a certain species of migratory
bird legal - because those birds, attracted to the fake lakes of
the country club, had the nerve to visit and leave droppings.
Residents also have petitioned to plow the dunes near them -
well, blame the developer, Del Webb, who's undoubtedly made
their millions and millions and split for New Zealand or somewhere
"dirt" isn't a blow-problem. Luckily, McCallum Grove, a small
stand of whiteness, survives, protected near a natural oasis,
which actually profers ancient pupfish and native Washingtonian
Fan Palms on its modest shores - although I recently saw a class
of school-kids visiting, whose teacher did not stop the kids from
running amok past the near-buried "keep out" sign to play on
the dunes - until I spoke some strong words. But, sadly - what
kind of world is this when kids can't even be allowed to "play
on a dune" - when I, myself, have climbed so many of them?
Fringe-tailed lizards of the world - unite! Sand beneath your
toenails, tails whipping pretty lines in the whiteness, your
heads and tiny bodies buried beneath creosote and mesquite.
World is in order. You are protected. For now.
And my daughter, realizing....as we talk.....over Indian food at
a new place in Cathedral City....that maybe she had it pretty
good as a kid, with a mom who took her way out into the wild
places and showed her a good time, had enough sense to know
when to call it a day, what legends to take for real, and which
ones to throw away. I feel, after a few years of the "my mom is
kind of weird" shrug and eye-roll she's shared with her friends,
redeemed. And now she's ready to go camping again, and
actually wants to hear about my recent work for desert conservation
and protection! Thank God. Raising her in Palm Desert - private pools,
trips to Disneyland in friends' limos, extravagant bat mitzvah parties
of friends, high school parking lot full of brand new SUV's, Hummers,
Mercs, emphasis on brand new (kids, not the teachers) - didn't
ruin her after all. I gave her......the desert. I'm a real Sand Mom,
shifting and moving around and re-shaping a bit....but....I endure.
Thursday, August 21, 2008
You've come so we can have sex tonight. But first,
I show you my Saguaro cactus walking stick, hidden
in the corner near my bed, I ensure the dog won’t chew
the thumbhold I’ve worn into its tip during solo hikes
in deserts, there are stories about this pole to tell you,
impatient, wanting to kiss me, tongue the lay of my
body's geography, sand my skin with your wiry beard.
And first, the story of the Saguaro cactus, pointing its
prayer-barbed arms to the sky uniformly, solid but not,
they are thick with center, crowned occasionally in canopies
of white-flowered heads soaked in the June downpour, owls
nestled in their hollowed out core while the rain is absorbed.
Some years ago, on a morning walk near Lake Pleasant,
Arizona, I pulled a vein of inner core from one felled giant,
half as thick as my wrist, and amazingly spongelike.
I lovingly sanded it down to its finest grain, soaked it
repeatedly on advice of a male friend wise in such things,
with oil of linseed, let it dry completely out. He told me
I’d have a walking stick, a perfect, balancing companion.
With the thick of your carpenter’s palm pressing into my hand,
rough and eager, you reach into me as sudden as a quick rain,
with your electrified saguaro arm heavy and thick, not yet
exposing me to the tangles and barbs and odd birds of your skin,
expansive, but not quite full at the core, preparing for drought.c. Ruth Nolan 2008
Tuesday, August 19, 2008
Thanks to the DPC and Larry Hogue for getting the word out!
Remember, you can obtain your copy of this wonderful resource and educational/visitors guide to ten amazing birding & nature trail destinations throughout the southern California "southern deserts" by contacting one of the co-authors of the map, Ruth Nolan, email@example.com or Kurt Leuschner, firstname.lastname@example.org
The map has been published (Feb, 2008) courtesy of a grant from Friends of the Mountains/Santa Rosa-San Jacinto Mountains National Park.
Not the piano or operatic fortissimo,
the keys on my mom's old black piano
still in the family, its back to the morning desert sun
in my house, cluttered with books and sandy dust
falling from my fingers and music
and turning inward, the way seasonal rivers do,
blame it on the local geography, I suppose,
everyone knows there is simply no water
in those vast washes,
only the occasional tempo of flood.
It was just a few days into my lessons
that my father banished me from playing.
no more more of that goddamned noise!
And the music stopped. It was deep summer,
after all, what could I expect. Music,
almost as unattainable as the sea,
never mind that our town was named
for a great tradition of song and character,
an ocean and a continent away.
I retreated to my room,
the grapefruit tree sagging with fruit that none of us
knows how to identify or eat,
the Santa Ana winds scrape the smog from our
scary-big instant mountains away,
my 55 year old grandma has just died,
bottles of her vodka
still turning up in our cupboards, she was too poor
for insurance or morphine to ease the cancer pain.
Meanwhile, my brothers played loud guitars
confirming their destination for rock star fame,
a little twist to come, in a few short years
after we moved to the desert,
the piano to be relegated to a lava rock rec room
unable to be played, its black facade more
decorative than of any particular use,
and feeling even more unloved
in the blank Mojave, its hopes for opera star productions
all but vanquished to the wind and sand.
But the summer my piano lessons were stopped
we're still living on
and the neighborhood kids are thugs
who throw eggs at our house
because my dad yells at them
to shut the fuck up, go home, quit hanging out
in the streets. This was supposed to be better
than McKinley Street, a little farther south,
where the eucalyptus trees on Riverside Avenue
pretend to render downtown pretty,
as if great Italian operas were to be unfurled
from behind red velvet curtains, centuries
of motif and pianissimo bursting forth
the way the water crashes down Lytle Creek
and floods the so called in-land,
and it's 30 years now
since I got that obscene phone call
from someone I always thought
was my junior high biology teacher,
made it a little hard to dissect frogs
with him smiling from behind his desk
and my father now has retired
from his electrical engineering job
and has developed a late life love
for the study of the Italian language,
and for the country of Italy itself,
though he has yet to see an opera
Definitely a Rialto moment, lemons from
the trees I watered smashed in the street,
I still remember their sting and stare
wondering why I'd watered and betrayed,
not knowing I had three brothers
who had fat tire bikes and guitars
The place has stayed the same,
just with new names and aching for a paint job:
on a summer drive, pointing things out
to my ho-hum daughter
who goes to a private school in Rancho Mirage
here's the old hardware store,
now it says "Rialto Meat Market."
here's the same old McDonald's on Route 66
where my mom would send us on our bikes
for hamburgers, 5 for $1 and a big bag of fries
here's the Rialto Women's Club, "since 1910,"
here's the old Protestant Church, its shingles
dripping on a guy sitting on its steps
here's the old liquor store, where we bought
penny candy and snow cones, where my dad
bought Ballantine Beer in cans,
and my old elementary school,
and the house where the hippie kids
OD'd and had an ambulance called,
here's the old house, the trees I watered faithfully
cut down, the grass long dried up and gone
here's our family church, a touch of Italian
Catholicism in a font of used tire stores,
tired gas stations, a mishmash of unwindowed bars,
empty buildings on weed-stricken asphalt parking lots
It's as if St. Catherine of Sienna remains center
of my memories, its faux-architecture template
of dry fountains and stucco angel statues
praying for an end to the drought,
visions of holy water hallucinated, becoming real
the way the river materialized overnight to become
the floods of '69 and made its rock grinding sounds
unnamed river, just a temporary sand blaster
cutting up all the roads, and using a dry wash
to master its ancient song, maybe not from
behind curtains, or with the white and black keys
of my mother's piano, it was incredibly strong
and made a lasting impression,
the way the Virgin Mary statue
at St. Catherine's church has remained
blue in face and robe
the way the stumps of what used to be
lovely city planted sycamore and elm trees
line the old parts of town, where we lived,
everything has been cut down,
and lawns remain unwatered
although I left them as pure as could be
in my memory, a little less than thundering songs
c. 2008 Ruth Nolan
Monday, August 18, 2008
Medical warning from the source! SSRI medication can cause serious dehydration issues. I found out just last month, after a few years of wondering (ironically) if I was going insane, because every time I'd go out to do things I've done all my life - climb Mt. San Jacinto, for example, or take a long bike ride past country club walls and imagine what's going on behind them, or go camping with friends on sailing and river trips on the Colorado and it's funky lakes - well, I got really sick a few time and ended up in the hospital with sodium + potassium levels that made doctors cringe! Drink more water and gatorade, they'd say (no shit. I used to work as a firefighter for the CA Desert District, and am a desert native, and I know ALL the tricks.)
Anyway, my mystery problem seems to be clearing up, and I'm grateful, in part because I just happen to live in one of THE hottest deserts and places on the planet. Not good to be cut short from even functioning by a horrible drug, let alone the environment.
And so, I'm astonished by and taking advantage of this "cool" (relative term, mind you) lull in mid-August here in the low desert. I live at sea level, have traced the "sea level" line by checking out nearby sand dunes, over in "Bermuda Dunes' towards Indio, and having taken geology classes, spent several years researching vast amounts of desert and Native literature (and stories) and tracing that elusive sea line on Triple A maps - and, of course, wandering by road and bike beneath sea level, starting at Point Happy near my house and the magnificent Whitewater Wash, along the eerie submarine markings of Ancient Lake Cahuilla. Nothing like being deep into the bathtub of the geology and poetry of this place, with the water drained!
Yes, this is one hot topic. I grew up in Apple Valley, the high desert, 3,000 feet, and a world apart in the Mojave. Most people don't know how vastly different what we call the "high" and "low" deserts of California are. Palm Desert, Indio, Palm Springs, Coachella, Mecca, Salton City, North Shore: we're all in the super duper hot zone, and in geologic zones that aren't valleys, but trough/graben uplift and drop, which occurs on such drastic fault zones as we're in. We ride a low vibration, slung like an inverted hammock between the Pacific and Continental plates, and aren't even really on solid ground here. We are an ancient seabed, and the Cahuilla people have stories dating back countless centuries that record the cycle of flow and ebb - the sea would come, and it would go - sometimes, it would rise quickly. Was this when a big earthquake occurred? Are we going to see this happen again in our lifetimes? The more I've learned, the more the old "wife's tale" of "California is going to split off into the ocean" tales become extremely credible, and in fact, have been true already.
We zigzag across sand dunes - our mid-valley landfill. To the west, the imposing blocks of Mt. San Jacinto and San Gorgonio (old Greyback,) both over 10,000 feet high- with the usual narrow slice of orange smog filtering in from the San Gorgonio Pass and points towards L.A. These are the mountains that cause our "rain shadow" effect. Meaning - the Pacific storm system/coastal winter and spring rains all falls on their side, not on ours. What we get generally, and rarely, is a spillover from the huge monsoon effect that oozes up from the Gulf of California, and flooding Arizona every summer.
But us. Very far west and north from all of that, an odd finger of Sonoran Desert, without the saguaros, being west of the Colorado River, where they end - if I forgot to mention it, we're also a traditional overflow zone for the magnificent River, depending on its annual whims - not so much anymore, due to the several dams "taming" its forces, but our below-ground, overflow, old seabed multi-personality-status endures. We wander over and up from the Arizona lands, down from the Colorado's landhold, and buttress once and for all up against the big coastal fault-lifted mountains, where we end and rise incredibly sharp and steep up to the lands of shamans hunting the deer and mountain lions, where pines and different life zones exist. Right there, we can see it all, but it's a different world to us.
Bingo. Desert. To the southwest, the arch of the Santa Rosa Mountains, which begin from our floor as barren, dry, gospels of desert hills and grace their way up into pine forests that ascend to over 9,000 feet. To our north, the Little San Bernardino Mountains, the transition zone to Joshua Tree National Park, and the Mojave Desert - where our Western Colorado/Sonoran meet, kiss briefly, and go their separate north-south directions. South - empty land, rimmed by more desert hills, and the knowledge that water, however algae-blooming and salt-filled, isn't far at all. A weird relief. But the migratory birds know it's all good.
And so, on our bikes. Through the Palm Desert Country Club, where I live. To Hovely Lane, and past the sad wall of what was 4 square miles of ancient and incredibly intense and powerful sand dunes - the reason I bought my house, which used to shore right up against their waves. Not long ago, 2002, 03, I'd find big white scorpions in my house, take walks and see countless sidewinder rattlesnake marks, find myself magically on my back, soaking in the healing of ancient ocean and sand. The dogs loved 'em, too. Not anymore. The city of Indian Wells put in another aberration of golf, grass, fake lakes, multimillion $$ homes, and a general eerie sense of "no one is home." I got literally sick for a few years when that construction was going on and in, with a terrible cough and malaise that I swear I am still getting over - who knows what ancient dirt and dust they stirred up - it was fog-thick for weeks on end, with that wind blowing, talk about an environmental disaster and air-quality regulations being violated, big time, and you'd better believe I was on the phone 24/7 calling the posted "violation" phone #, and get this folks - the number I reached was the fucking construction company themselves! Whining about how yes, they were trying to water the site down, but the water was costing them a fortune......what about the price to the ancient sites there, and nearby peoples' health? I learned from inside source that the project, Tuscana Country Club, with 2 golf courses, ran the investor, Mr. Bone, around $800 million in investment capital. Think of how many starving and homeless people that outlay could've helped.
Anyway, I do my best. I bought a house, for the now-gone sand dunes (really, honestly, I mean it!) and I can't entirely claim to be sad that my prop value virtually doubled almost overnight and is holding pretty solid even in this greed-evoked real estate recession we're in. We turn and take a connecting road on impeccably landscaped, curving and rising sidewalks, El Dorado to Country Club (aptly named = yep, there's gold here, and yep, there are country clubs, one after the other with their surprising fountains, gates, and hiddenness.) How many thousands of plants - bouganvellia, smoketrees, desert willows - can one place sport? Imagine the water it takes to keep this stuff looking pretty and perfect year round. The number of gardners. And we're just talking the outside of the grounds.
We cross Cook Street and ride slowly past the granddaddy of 'em all, the Marriott: with its ridiculous lakes in front, five restaurants, pink flamingos, giant palm trees with their lacy jewelry lights - and it's August, and the snowbirds aren't even here yet! Right on Portola, past the public golf course for our humble town, Desert Willow, then right on Frank Sinatra, towards the new, unbelievably posh UCRiverside and Cal State San Bernardino extension campuses (expensive art on the grounds, state of the art buildings, they look like high end mausoleums, not schools, and the weird thing is, they look like ghost towns! Hey, I can make fun of them, because I teach extension courses for both campuses!)
We ease slowly back towards home. A long bike ride, and Phil, being cocky 23, has not brought water. I offer some of mine to him; I've already gone through a few liters. It's getting darker and darker, and the temperature cools even more - into the 80's, a god-relief and high-desert, high altitude miracle at this time of year. We're not Joshua Tree, which gets cutting cold winds through April and May, and sometimes even snow then. They are cushioned from extreme temps most of the time, at nearly 4,000 feet. We don't have a running river, like the Mojave, by whose shores I once lived - at an historic guest ranch - and in whose vast cottonwood forests I'd walk coolly on summer nights, savoring the high desert sweet, cool summer evening climate. In fact, summer on the high desert of the Mojave, backsiding the mountains as do Joshua Tree and Apple Valley, is beautiful. It can be hot in the afternoons, but evenings are deluxe, mornings are a joy, and generally they only suffer through maybe 2 weeks of air conditioner weather a year.
Not us. We've had days over 100 degrees in March, for godsake, and well into October, since I moved here in 1999. Every year, every year, I say, "it's time to move." And again, this year I find myself here. Day trips to the beach, crashing in Riverside at a friend's house, I'm a teacher, and I have the summer off - wonderful, eh? - and also have time off from my regular paycheck, so I can't exactly rent a house in the mountains. My first year at COD, I remember being appalled and overwhelmed by the first two weeks of school, when temps were routinely 115+ degrees. I thought I'd landed in hell, and felt sorry for the sagging date palms on the trees on our campus, wondering what was up with the cloaked jackets their fruit wore (to guard against monsoon rains, I later learned - and we've had our share of them this year, another "run out of the house and rejoice and drop everything till it stops" rain) -
But summer has become my down time. I read, I sleep, and I do a lot of stuff indoors I normally wouldn't. It sucks, to be stuck inside, like we're in some kind of reverse North Dakota for the summer when the rest of the country is rejoicing in summer sports and fun. This year, I've found the time to actually get a major dent in completing an anthology project that, in its fun and excitement for me, couldn't compete with the balmy beach weather we get here from November through April - an the craziness and crowding from the sudden 10 million people who show up (damnit!) the minute the weather gets "good."
I have to realize - as I cruise my way home on the very dark streets, back in my country club - ungated and no fees for me, to my relief - that there must be something to what I generally think of as a godforsaken land, a part of the California and southwest deserts I know so well, and for the most part love- in my mind, with so much to compare, this isn't the golden land. This is a certain form of premature hell - but not tonight. It's tolerable, and the pool water will profer its summer-warm, perfect for late night dipping (which I'm about to do now) and the best thing is in a crazy way I feel special blessed. The low desert gods, sporting their invisible water spouts from beneath our imaginary sea, have taken pity and given us refuge, a breath of almost-beach, of almost-reprieve, and it feels like sleeping in the sand while the sea lions call to their mothers, and I know it will be good sleep tonight under the softened stars. Below 90 degrees in August - in the narrow hours of short night - thank God, thank God, thank you God!
At the end of the
100 miles downhill from mountain woods,
You arrive at this sere topography of white salts,
crusted devil horns, angelic duplexes
of sand dune prayers floating
across the oceanic expanse like tract-home miracles
at the end of
named to create the word
that would be the last
in the English language dictionary
by a health food preaching, 8th grade dropout
who had three different P.O. Boxes in Baker,
one for his food-supplement business,
one for his Dr. Curtis Springer commentaries
and the other for his skid-row-exile desert resort
where the floodwaters rest their pressures
of cottonwood, pine limbs, suburban garbage
and tangled weeds delivered insanely northward,
to the bottom of a dead inland sea.
Sometimes, after spring floods from the San Bernardino Mountains
the dam at the union of Deep Creek and the old river channel,
coursing like a vintage roller coaster car
on creaking tracks, Manifest Destiny came through here,
carrying old bits of wagon boards from Mormon settlers
who followed a page of Catholic Bible torn from Father Garces,
who lead the minions out of this forsaken zone,
rough men of the wild west, who slaughtered the stray Pai-Ute
and fished for the Mojave Chub in infrequent pools,
under the bridges on
outracing heavy, long-winded trains,
beneath I-15 past
to travelers racing from Las Vegas
and then on quiet, last lap
of Shoshone, woolly mammoth elbows and teeth
sometimes protrude, silent wiles after you carve away
more of your work
and then your waters pause,
in one low mass,
You made the pilgrimage yet again
your life span refracting in a progression
of water to light, and making a pretty show
for the travelers heading west, backtracking
along Interstate 15
towards your snowmelt,
exhausted, below sea level now,
your devotion sinks
into miles of sand
it’s the old, going-nowhere,
the miners and fortune-seekers who
rode the Tonopah Tidewater Railroad
make their splintered benediction to you
leave bits of gold and silver dreams,
the ruins of miner’s shacks and homesteader cabins
scattered along your shores.
c. 2008 Ruth Nolan
accepted for publication in Epicenter Magazine, issue 12, to be published winter 2008-09
Tuesday, August 12, 2008
Their website, complete with a blog and newsletter, is:
Keep up the good write!
Monday, August 11, 2008
Today, I was awarded a Joshua Tree National Park Affiliate artist-writers residency for 2008-09! The residency begins next month, in September.
I'd like to author a collection of stories - poetry - essays that reflect and ruminate on park history, culture, place and people - we'll see.
The research and learning I've been generating from the desert literary anthology I'm putting together for Heyday Books will also figure somewhat prominently in this project - things I've learned about - uncovered - that will be food for further research and writing!
At the top of my list of things to write about:
Willie Boy - 29 Palms Oasis
Key's Ranch & mining history in the park
Jackrabbit Homesteaders in and around the park
Gram Parsons and the musical legacy in and around JT, to this day
Conservation and the endangerment of the park - major
Plein Air Artists - starting in early 20th century (maybe)
And - who knows else -
Details of the residency can be found at:
Phantom Seed - reading + discussion + promotion at the Sierra Club - Desert Committee Meeting in the White Mountains, Grandview Campground August 9-10, 2008.
A great meeting - amazing people dedicating their lives and hearts to desert protection and conservation, from Anza Borrego to Mojave Desert to Inyo County and the Bay Area.
I also visited the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest - tree energy and medieval, fairytale forest vibes. Shamans and mushrooms - dripping needles - purple and brown cones - the bristlecone pines produce, individually, male and female cones - in short, they can self-pollinate and gestate, and reproduce on their own -
I'll be posting some of my own pictures soon - but in the meantime
Pictures from the Internet -
It was completely grounding and uplifting - healing - cosmic -
Friday, August 8, 2008
Check out the following link for some amazing work. I'm not only thrilled to see works published by many of my poetry friends and acquaintances - but that some of the desert poetry generated in desert poetry workshops I've facilitated in the past year - at Deep Canyon, Whitewater, and in a UCR-Extension Poetry Workshop - is included.
Hurrah for the desert poetry muse!
Tuesday, August 5, 2008
The small waterfall at the base of Lily Rock, which is the most amazing shiva lingam on the planet and a heaven for rock climbers and hikers like me - was barely trickling today. I crawled under the fence, like a criminal, so eager to ascend the slick rock waterfall - the type and time of year where the water barely crawls down the surface into a tiny pool - that small waterfall, or water drip, with a one-foot wide flow of water singing past my feet - cleared my soul like nothing else. Not to mention the dehydrated body, the heat-frozen mind - this is my 9th summer in Palm Desert, and no matter how you divide it, try to get away, cope with lowdown days and being more active at night, enjoying the warm swimming pool under stars - the heat just fucking sucks, setting in like a county jail sentence time around late June and agonizing well into September.
The road to Idyllwild from the desert floor is always inspirational. Up Highway 74, past the new Santa Rosa/San Jacinto Monument Visitor Center - up seven-level hill, where in a daring series of no-shouldered switchbacks, you crescendo into quickly changing types of flora and fauna: now dirt hills, now giant boulders, now ocotillo, now yucca, and then, up top in less than 10 minutes to 4,000 feet from sea level, in stands of juniper and even pinyon pine, and a high country plateau that continues to rise skyward, into vast swaths of ribbonwood and several large and powerful oak groves, and then a little higher, over the Pacific Crest Trail, which crosses the highway just near the Anza turnout, and voila - the giant pine trees of Garner Valley.
Onward, bewitched now in the daze of....."trees," and 20 or 30 degrees lower temperature - windows are down now, AC is off..my God, there are actually purple wildflowers stretching across the meadows!! It's not real green - southern California's mountains are, after all, well within the arid zone and they drought in August, as well, to some extent, but there's relief in looking across the man-made Lake Hemet,up the turnout to the Zen Center, across a wide valley where Wellman's Ranch still runs its cattle, and a mountainside where I fought a forest fire more than 20 years ago during the Live Aid Concert, circa 1986.
Up a little higher, more curves, and Idyllwild, the town in the nest of the old glacier carved mountains' arms - Lily Rock, again, and the high touch of Mt. San Jacinto, over 11,000 feet, and the lower but very imposing Tahquitz Peak, where there's an old fire lookout - I've been up to both, but not today.
Today, we're just sitting, dazed, by the water, grateful to get out of a mucky but common "monsoon" heat that oozes northward from the Gulf of California into the Coachella Valley, far below us now and behind the monster ridge - creating its own version of steambath and thunderhead and oddly not bringing much rain, just sizzler temps and unbreathable nights that are often passable for long bike rides on summer-deserted sidewalks that nonetheless profer well-lit palm trees, neatly trimmed, and miles of country club walls - ahh, my surprising life in the wedge of home I own on California Drive, on side in Palm Desert and over my shoulder, swank Indian Wells. That' I'd ever live here, own a house with a pool, and be surrounded by multimillion dollar country clubs - life can be so weird.
At heart I'm in the mountain, meditating with the stream, and slowly allowing the water and stone to do their work of melting me into their faschia, the wear of unbearable, thirsty desert with its punitive temperatures and unforgiving unbreathability - the magnificent and sacred sand dunes once lurching behind my house, gone for golf - the good news, though, is that I can savor the tingle of this tiny, if forbidden creek, with its fat mosquitos and scolding I get from a rightfully-indignant local who reminds me that the water above the fence belongs to the water district and that I-Wild is in Level 1 water rationing - as always, if not worse - but I swear, I am bettering it with a prayer and an imaginary tear, if you will, of gratitude for its presence.
And rushing down the dark road I've tumbled down so many times before, at night, the milky way and stars that we can't see down here - lightning far across the desert, to the east, the little San Bernardino Mountains and Joshua Tree - I pull off at an oddly upscaled and paved and walled Vista Point to watch - irritated again by my re-entry to desert things, and the newly-paved and marked off parking, the people here predictably drinking beer and blasting loud and bad-tasting music - and a strong wind pushes my back, rushing down from the mountains - no wind in Idyllwild, just the cool "other side of the mountains, where the ocean influences take charge," weird here, in this weather no man's land with strangers in the dark, and seeing clouds across the valley floor blow up and light and fall empty again - and then, when I return home, only the stillness, punctuated by crickets; in the mountains, it was frogs.
As always, when I go up and down the mountain on the same day, I feel that light-headed tired sensation; I just want to lie down and read tabloid magazines. After all, it's quite the journey, dashing 7,000 feet up and back down, and embracing everything from mountains to deserts and all the transition zones and chapparal in between. After all, I've just rip-roared down the road filmed in the mountain driving scene in the movie, "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World."
Back to The Grind…..Or……Under the Grind
The Ghost of Peg Leg Smith and Goldie, his Trusty Burro
by Ruth Nolan
Back in the gold rush days of the 1860’s, California was flush with rugged men looking for gold. One of the most famous and infamous one of these miners was the notorious Peg Leg Smith, the famous one-legged desert miner who lost his left leg in a mining accident and walked on a wooden peg, which is how he got his name. Legend has it that he struck the mother lode, got super rich, sold his gold in L.A., and disappeared. No one knows just where he found his gold, and some people think it was somewhere way out in the Anza Borrego Desert, 100 miles from Riverside. But, the story that almost no one knows about is that he actually found a huge bag of gold nuggets right here in
Peg Leg Smith spent a couple of years in the desert, but he got tired of the heat and loneliness, so he decided to head into the Riverside area one day with his trusty burro, Goldie. It was a long trip, across the old Bradshaw Trail, a dirt road that followed an ancient Indian trail from the Salton Sea all the way into town.
Back in those days, all you’d see would be stagecoaches, and maybe a few
Government surveyors looking for the best place to lay down the tracks for the soon-to-be railroad that would link the east to the west. Peg Leg loved coffee too, you see, and his favorite thing to do, besides dig for gold, was to pull off, find twigs, and build a little fire. He’d get out his hand coffee grinder, some beans, and sing songs of gold mining and miners while he ground his coffee, put it onto boil, and relaxed with a hot cup of the stuff. He even swore that when it was hot, a good cup of coffee would cool him down, because it made him sweat! He always gave Goldie the lukewarm leftovers. It took him awhile to get across the desert, because Peg Leg preferred to take turns riding Goldie and walking, because he never knew when he’d see a vein of gold along the way, and he might want to go mine some – and he didn’t want anyone else to know!
Peg Leg came down from the Banning Pass along San Timoteo Canyon, and followed the Santa Ana River down to where Mt. Rubidoux is. Back in those days, the Santa Ana River flowed more than it does now, and there were a number of Cahuilla and Serrano Indian settlements and campsites there. Peg Leg decided to hunker down at one at the base of Mt. Rubidoux for awhile, to cool his body down and enjoy the scenery. That was even before the Mission Inn was built, so there was nowhere else to stay, and Goldie had plenty of cool water, along with Peg Leg’s leftover coffee!
But Peg Leg got restless very soon. Over cups of fresh-brewed coffee, he got to talking to the Indians, and found out that there was huge vein of gold not far from Mt. Rubidoux, right in the downtown area, and right beneath the spot where Back to the Grind coffee shop is today! The Indians weren’t interested in mining it, because they believed that mining into the earth for anything, digging up the ground, made the land out of balance, which affected people in a bad way. They also had seen many men go crazy, looking for gold and finding gold, and they called gold “the yellow metal that makes white men crazy.” They warned Peg Leg to slow down, just enjoy the river and the coffee, but Peg Leg wouldn’t listen. He sharpened his pickaxe, bundled up some dynamite, and made his way over, day after day, to the site, to dig a long tunnel that went down into the dark earth.
Morning after morning he'd pack up his little miner's cart, towed by his Goldie. He loved his coffee so much, remember, that he'd take a big bag of beans, imported from Mexico, with him, and a little stove, and he'd stop and hand grind his coffee for a morning break, at lunchtime, and in the afternoon. He didn't eat much, just made fresh coffee with wood from river-bottom and his little stove and coffee beans, and kept on digging, convinced that he was soon going to find the gold, sell it to the bank in Los Angeles, and strike it rich! When he got tired, he’d pop off his wooden leg and set it off to one side, and when he was ready to start work, why, he’d tap that wooden leg hard on his miner’s cart and little Goldie would come running along, ready to get back to work with the boss.
He dug deeper and deeper. And once in awhile someone traveling by on the railroad survey, or western men, would drop in for a cup of coffee and tell him to be careful. That deep cave was now as big as the inside of a small house, but he didn't listen - he was almost there - he could see the vein of gold just starting to come out. No one else would go down there, they were scared, but he insisted, even when water drip dripped from the ceiling. Peg Leg was really excited, because he could see the rocks looked like gold. He dug deeper and deeper, down what is now the stairway, and made a big hole in the ground, barely supported with logs he cut and carried from the river, and beams from the railroad that was being put through the center of the small town, near where some people were planting orange and lemon trees.
One day, the railroad needed to dynamite a big chunk of hard soil, in order the get the rail lines laid down. The railroad people came and told him to clear out by 10 a.m, that it wouldn’t be safe to be deep in his miner’s cavern. He was having a very busy time that day, working hard, and he got careless, a little too wired on coffee one day, and he forgot to get out before the routine 10 a.m. blast.
And this is where the story gets tricky. The Indians swore that Peg Leg was down in that deep hole, that Peg Leg was in there, when the 10 a.m. blast of dynamite from the railroad-building went off, that he hadn’t come out for hours. And right at 10 a.m., by a weird coincidence – maybe because it was Halloween Day of 1861, October 31 - an earthquake also went off! He may have been grinding some more morning coffee, because he didn’t seem to hear the warning shouts from the people above ground.
Peg Leg didn't have a chance. The dynamite shook, the earth rumbled for a good minute or so, and then everything was quiet. His tunnel was caved in, and the people who ran over to try to rescue him couldn’t hear a thing – they could only smell the aroma of fresh coffee, coming from somewhere underground. Goldie got so cared that he ran off towards the Box Canyon Hills and was never seen again, although children today still swear they can hear him braying on Halloween Night, crying for his master and whining softly because he is so thirsty for some of Peg Leg’s famous coffee!
The scary thing about this story is that when the railroad workers went to dig Peg Leg out, they found everything Peg Leg had taken down there - his miner's axe, his bag of rocks, each hinting at gold dust, his coffee grinder, mug, wooden leg, and pick axe, but they didn’t find any of the giant gold nuggets Peg Leg swore he’d found. Oddly, the hole in the ground was still big, once they cleared out the rubble – all they had to do was dig the tunnel out. But Peg Leg was nowhere to be found, not one body part, just his wooden leg, leaning up against his mining cart. Someone pulled all of his things out, and the tunnel was boarded up, with a big “no trespassing” sign on it, although some kids who moved to Riverside as the town got bigger would hide out down there, eating oranges and playing, but every one of them swore, as the years went on, that they got scared and saw a ghost, a man with one leg, grinning like a crazy pumpkin without teeth, his eyes all lit up, repeating the words, “gold, gold, gold…we’re all rich!” Sometimes there would be a smell of coffee, and sometimes there would be a tapping sound against rocks, until the kids would run out of there, screaming.
Sooner or later, the railroad brought more people to Riverside. Oranges were planted. Citrus became King. No one cared about the legend of gold because people were getting rich in fruit. Trains rumbled through, and actually made the hole beneath the ground bigger. Then, one day, a man decided to build a coffee shop right on top of that spot – he couldn’t really pin down why, and his wife wasn’t sure it was a good idea, what with that big hole in the ground, but he just put a nice, thick wooden floor across the hole, erected a brick building, and called it, “Back to the Grind.” The coffee shop became very popular, and it still is today. there was just something that smelled so good there, even though some of the patrons would swear they heard someone tapping a wooden stick under their feet, from beneath the floor.
Time passed by, as it does, and the Indians were forced to leave their beautiful river settlement, and so the story of Peg Leg and his foolish search for gold stopped being told. More people moved to Riverside, and they started having concerts, music, and poetry readings, many of the events held down in that basement hole – in fact, you can even still see some of the rocks that Peg Leg was digging through down there, behind a panel of glass. It’s all lit up sometimes and it just looks like it has gold in there!
And on Halloween Night - maybe if you're really quiet, and stop to smell the coffee, and look at the rocks that are behind the glass on the side of the wall down there, you will see a man's face, and he's got a cup of coffee in his hand and he's smiling, and he likes to scare kids who are trick or treating by banging his wooden leg on the side of the glass when they're not looking. He's even been known to trip a few kids when they are going up and down the stairs, just to remind them that he is still there. He will never escape, because he got too greedy looking for gold when he was already rich, and when Halloween arrives, he tries to get out but because of the glass, he can't.
And that is the story of Peg Leg Smith, the famous gold miner who kept going back into that tunnel, back to beneath Back to the Grind, trying to strike it rich. His ghost still lives right here in the basement of Back to the Grind, and when it's really quiet, you can hear his wooden leg banging on the floor underneath you. He's trying to get out and go to the next mother lode, but he can't. Always watch where you step – because the story has it that he’s grabbed more than one kid’s leg, pulled him down into the hole, and that kid has never been seen again. A few kids have lost arms and fingers, too, when they’ve gotten to close to the rocks behind the glass! And if you hear a knocking or a tapping when you’re sitting in the store, it is probably the ghost of Peg Leg, trying to tell you his story, and trying to get you to come down, have a cup of coffee with him, and disappear with him down there forever, digging into eternity.
Monday, August 4, 2008
where the Washingtonian Palm Trees
suckled on water from the spring,
where the continental and Pacific shelves
harmonized in one shallow push of things
Not many earthquakes in the stories
of Chemehuevi but when they came
with disharmony, it was the lizard with
a black tail, like the comet in night skies.
This was Carlota, whose father was Mike,
whose father was the tribal leader and
medicine man, who walked his family
to their summer work at Gillman Ranch,
a walk along the cridges of springs and
other related palm tree oases, nurturing
their young, providing shelter and shade,
a 45 mile stroll through desert and hills.
Carlota, who was mis-named later, who
was said to have scrawled childish signals
in the sand when she ran away from Mike,
ran somewhat towards the ancestral home
at 29 Palms but knew she was not going there.
And the waters at the Oasis of Mara quaked
a little, knowing a ripple had been frogged
into the pond, the late summer evening,
uneasy, with President Taft campaigning
in his fat chair at the Mission Inn, Riverside
and the Mission Indians weren't real at all.
And this was Mike Boniface, who was related
to everyone at the spring, and to many Cahuilla
throughout the southland, the Cahuilla who held
their tribelets at more than a dozen homes
throughout the valley and hills, culminating
at Morongo, where Mike and his family picked
fruit, where the parents and grandparents told
Carlota she could not marry Willie Boy because
they were too closely related, Willie Boy, who
the white newspaper reports, along for the
sensation of ride, would write was a drunk,
a crazy, and a wild Indian on a rampage of kill.
This was Willie Boy, who might be penciled in
for Romeo, and this was Carlota, who was Juliet
for all plot-structuring purposes, even Robert
Redford cast a real life killer in a movie for him.
Romeo and Juliet, we all feel sorry for them,
white and Shakespearean, safe in their 16th
century habitats, European-clean. They, too,
were teens, like Willie Boy recently was and
Carlota is, and couldn't be together. And this
was the Oasis of Mara, where Willie Boy's
grandmother buried his gun, although her
grandson hadn't yet come, after he killed Old
Mike, after Carlota was mis-named Lolita and
Isoleta - how convenient to minimize when
we have such ludicrous outtakes on names,
crazy Indian, wild Indian, girl who writes in
ancient symbolic scribbles although she was
educated and planning to attend college soon-
even Clara True, who is this, the Indian agent
who rescued the pinned-down-by-Willie-Boy
posse near Ruby Mountain, who scoffed at the
fact that Willie Boy was dead, killed by self-
inflicted gunshot wound, that he killed his
beloved because she was dragging him down.
This was the Oasis of Mara, where Willie Boy's
mourning songs, the songs for the dead of the
Chemeheuevi which he undoubtedly sang
after he ran north from Pipes Canyon, knowing
he could not follow the not so uncommon plot
structure of murder for love in the conventional
manner of rising action-climax-denoument,
that for him, the gun he'd never claim rusted
at the bottom of the Oasis of Mara, which the
people who pretended they had a picture of
Willie Boy dead after Willie Boy had run to the
north to another homeland, renamed 29 Palms,
and claimed as their own, much as Willie Boy
had claimed Carlota as his beloved, and had
killed and exiled for a much higher cause than
to blame the Indians, the firewater-drinking
savages from the 29 Palms Band of Chemehuevi
Indians, so-called, as if they all were responsible
for the love-sickness of one young man, as if they
made the earth move and upset the complicated
balance of lateral slip thrust faultline, the edgy
relationship between the Indians and the whites
and set the earth afire, made the ground shake
its furious fist and rattle its teeth and complicated
the faraway and simplistic plot structure of the
story of Romeo and Juliet, for whom we feel sorry
and for Willie Boy, the savage Indian, who brought
disaster and exile upon his own head, and that of
Mike's family, and all of their relations. This is the
Oasis of Mara, reclaimed now by Joshua Tree
National Park, in the name of public service,
and this is the Salt Song Singer, brushing sage
and remembering the old ones, the young lovers,
and how the impossible tried to live side by side
once upon a time, at the Oasis of Mara, 29 Palms
and the lizard had no legs, it had no black song.
c. Ruth Nolan 2008
The map, completed and released in February 2008, designates 10 areas, and is available for viewing at the Friends of the Desert Mountains website:
Copies of the map are available by contacting the Friends at their website and at the Santa Rosa/San Jacinto Mountains National Park Visitor Center located in Palm Desert, CA.
The 10 birding/nature trail designations are as follows:
1. Santa Rosa/San Jacinto Monument National Monument
2. Living Desert Reserve - Palm Desert/Indian Wells
3. Indian Canyons - Tahquitz Canyon
4. Mt. San Jacinto State Park
5. Morongo Canyon (references to Whitewater & Pipes Canyon)
6. Joshua Tree National Park
7. Salton Sea
8. Anza Borrego State Park
9. Indio Wild Bird Center
10. Coachella Valley Preserve/Thousand Palms Oasis
For talks and lectures on the map, contact Ruth Nolan
email@example.com or (760) 964-9767
Raves - Summer & Fall, 2008
Ruth Nolan, M.A. is Associate Professor of English
at College of the Desert in Palm Desert, CA. There,
and elsewhere, she teaches and lectures in:
creative writing, poetry, desert literature and
Native American literature, all with a focus on
the California desert regions. She has recently
founded a new desert literary magazine,
Phantom Seed, and is also editing an anthology of
California desert literature to be published by
Heyday Books in 2009 (www.heydaybooks.com)
(in addition to the below listings, stay tuned for updates
and for "desert poetry writing workshops" to be led by
Ruth Nolan this fall, winter and spring at exotic and
unique locations throughout the California desert, including:
The Living Desert Preserve; Bubbling Wells Ranch;
Desert Studies Center at ZZYZX Springs; China Ranch;
Whitewater Preserve; Deep Canyon; and more!)
Saturday, August 23, 2008, 1:00 p.m.
Chaffey Art Museum - Poetry & the WWII Art of Milford Zornes
Sunday, August 24, 2008, 2:00 p.m.
Performance Reading and Book Signing
Above the Tree Line:
The 2008 Anthology of Southern California Haiku Study Group,
featuring haiku and haibun from 30 southern California haiku poets.
Pacific Asia Museum, 46 N. Los Robles Ave, Pasadena, CA
2:00 p.m. - for more information:
Tuesday, August 26
Blankety Blank Poetry Workshop
Riverside Art Museum
6-8 pm, free and open to all poets
Workshop leader: Ruth Nolan
this month's focus: poetry cartooning - visual poetry
(we meet on the 4th Tuesday of each month)
Thursday August 28th
Riverside Library - Inlandia Writers Workshop!
6:30-8:30 p.m, free and open to all writers.
Workshops will culminate in regional writing project.
Come and join us! Only three weeks left!
Workshop leader: Ruth Nolan
September 2 - December 9, 2008
Creative Writing class - open to the public
Tuesday evenings, 6:50-9:55 p.m.
College of the Desert, Palm Desert, CA
writers from the community as well as traditional students
are welcome to take the class for credit (3.0 units) or audit.
Writers will be encouraged to develop original works in the
areas of poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction with a focus
on the local desert region; class will culminate in a reading
at Barnes and Noble, Palm Desert, December 5th, 2008.
for more information contact Ruth Nolan, instructor,
at firstname.lastname@example.org (760) 964-9767
visit College of the Desert/admissions at
September 10, 2008 7-9 p.m.
Reading and chapbook release of the collection
Slouching Towards Mt. Rubidoux Manor
featuring Inland Empire Writers' poetry, fiction, and essays
from the Summer, 2008 Inlandia Center-Riverside Library
Riverside Library, 6:30-8:30
free and open to the public
September 27-28, 2008
Sun Runner Magazine Desert Writers Weekend!
Reading and workshop -
For more information: see flyer posted at
Tuesday, August 26
Blankety Blank Poetry Workshop
Riverside Art Museum
6-8 pm, free and open to all poets
Workshop leader: Ruth Nolan
this month's focus: poetry cartooning - visual poetry
(we meet on the 4th Tuesday of each month)
September 28, 2008
Claremont Public Library, 2 pm
Featured Poets: Ruth Nolan + Lisa Ann LoBasso
Trap Door Monthly
Poetry Reading Series: 2008-09 Season
Palm Springs Art and Wine
begins September 14, 2008,
6:00 pm open mike; featured reading 6:30 pm
your hosts - Ruth Nolan and Steve Petersen
see website for directions to Palm Springs Art & Wine
+ information on featured readers!
deli selection of readers from 2007-08 season!
Maureen Alsop, Lee Balan, Louisa Castrodale, Patricia D'Alessandro,
Jeff Green, Randolph Maxted, Ruth Nolan, Dessa Reed
Joshua Tree Poets/Rangers: Caryn Davidson, Mike Cipra
October 2-4, 2008
California Indian Conference
UCR-Palm Desert Campus
Ruth Nolan, M.A., presents a talk/discussion on
Indian women's autobiographies -the works of
Katherine Siva Sauvel and Dorothy Ramon
for more information - directions - registration
October 4, 2008
"Desert Noir- An Inland Empire Literary Event"
release reading, panel discussion featuring local contributors
from Phantom Seed #2, "Slash X, a Novella," and more....
Riverside Public Library, downtown branch
times & directions: www.
October 27, 2008
Phantom Seed Release - Issue #2
Palm Springs Library 6:30 p.m.
November 1 & 2, 2008
California Desert Indian Literature:
Indigenous People of the Mojave Desert
Desert Institute at Joshua Tree National Park
lecture-workshop taught by Ruth Nolan
includes hike and lecture
more information coming soon!
December 5, 2008
Barnes and Noble, Palm Desert
College of the Desert creative writers - reading
of original works, 6:00 p.m., free and open to public
December 13, 2008
Desert Literature - Lecture and Slide Show
The Living Desert University, Palm Desert, CA
Ruth Nolan, lecturer/photographer
January 6, 2009, 6:30 p.m.
Palms to Pines Birding & Nature Trail
lecture with Ruth Nolan & Kurt Leuschner
Palm Springs Library
February 16, 2009, 1-4 p.m.
Desert Poetry Writing Workshop
The Living Desert University, Palm Desert, CA
Ruth Nolan, workshop leader