We’ve been doing 75 miles an hour for the last two hours across the desert and the view hasn’t changed a bit. The mountain outcrop up ahead is called El Capitan on the map, and the mountain range we left behind looks the same in the rear-view mirror as it did two hours ago.
We are on vacation in the vast Desert Southwest. If we drove this far in Europe, we’d have been through six countries, five topographies, nine microclimates and been pickpocketed twice — once by a group of boisterous children and once by a couple of adults pretending to be lost.
Our southwestern deserts cover much of four states and big parts of at least five others, plus a big chunk of Mexico. Everyone’s heard of Death Valley, but what they never mention is that the valley right next to it — and the one after that, and the one after that — stretch on for hundreds of miles. To get to Death Valley, you had to cross an unending series of Near-Death Valleys. Good times.
Imagine crossing this vastness on a horse and wagon. While the desert looks flat to us from a speeding car doing 75, up close it’s full of wheel-cracking arroyos, steep-sided gullies and rough, stony ridges. Every outcropping of any size is called El Capitan, which is Spanish for “Are we there yet?” Drive for 200 miles in any direction and it will seem as if you’re driving in place.
Your eyes start to play funny tricks on you. You can spot a discarded beer can by the roadside flashing in the sun five miles away. In the desert it will never rust, it will never fade, it will shine until the last cockroach dies.
Even here, it is hard to be totally alone. There is no vegetation to hide the propane tanks, no shade trees to cover the swamp coolers on the rooftops, no ivy, no bougainvilla, no wisteria to climb up the side of the cinder-block buildings. Because there is nothing to disguise the mile or two of power lines marching up to a solitary trailer in the foothills with one faded car baking in the sun next to it, there is rarely a time that you can’t see the hand of man.
A barbed wire fence runs along both sides of the highway for miles, but there are no cattle, no horses. Is the fence there to keep something in or to keep us out? There is always a trailer off in the distance: the house of a herder or a survivalist? The tops of the barren peaks are covered in unidentifiable, oddly shaped buildings sprouting antennae.
Are they secret government complexes? Or are they the headquarters of some villain who has James Bond stored up there until he can find an unusually gruesome and foolproof way to kill him, a trap from which he will never escape but always does? Or they could just be water cisterns, observatories, mine heads or maintenance sheds. It’s hard to tell.
The icon of Western films, the giant saguaro cactus — the one that looks like a man giving hand signals with both arms — is in big sections of the desert. They are notoriously slow-growing cacti. They don’t grow their first “arm” until they are 70 years old.
Since they are old and slow, they’re perfect for target practice. It’s hard to find one that doesn’t have a bullet hole, a machete scar, or someone’s initials carved into it.
You wonder how a cow or a horse could survive in this overheated desolation. What did they eat? Where did they get water?
It slowly dawns on you that many of the historic cowboy towns of movie lore — Tombstone, Virginia City, Deadwood — were really mining towns. Hollywood used the desert because it was close, not because it was real.
We’ve been duped again.
Contact Jim Mullen at JimMullenBooks.com.
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