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PREFACE: Surprisingly much occurs in two months here in Sand Valley. These journal entries are for Feb.-March í01.
Nothingís the matter with Sand Valley that a rise in the Pacific wonít cure, but that hasnít happened and most precious in the desert is water. This is especially true since the two wells that ordinarily supply the 30-odd residents recently closed. One disgruntled owner dismantled his, and then this month the second owner similarly unhooked Midnight Well leaving us dry. Now folks drive three miles weekly for water holleriní all the way. Iím the parsimonious user at 1.5 gallons per day (for drinking, bathing and washing) with a yearís store in 100-gallon containers. The first step in potential retribution to the belly-up wells began with, "I hear Midnightís going to burn this summer", and it spread like wildfire. One of two things will happen: The owner reconnects the pump; or gossip lays the way for an untraceable deed. Normally the statement instigator lights the match but no one knows who it is, the sheriffís handcuffed, and the desert code lives on. More likely though, weíll be drawing water from Midnight Well. Just in case, one neighbor has gained a key to a secret well and Iíve paid him 10-cents a gallon to haul me another 500 gallons to conceal under my semi-truck trailer. This waterís so salty one perspires white, but itís dandy for dishes, bathing or a cool-aid stand.
Desert code resembles cowboy law in the early West. Initially there was no law and the cowboy made his own rules that men of the same saddle observed. When these were broken, scenarios like those in this report erupted and were romanced in dime paperbacks that gripped eastern readers. My stories are true and free. Differences back then were settled when cowpokes took matters into their own hands or recruited avengers. Popular disputes ranged from property to water to machismo, just like today.
You may have heard about the "Jesus chipmunk" in a hole by my trailer. Some months ago I discovered a small round rock blocking His burrow entrance and as I have no visitors there was no figuring it. A week passed and still no resurrectionÖ .then suddenly the bolder was gone. Almost sadly, I learn today from a book that some desert rodents obstruct their entrances to keep out the wind and predators or to preserve humidity.
NEW EGG DIET
My neighbor at two miles has a leaky chicken roof and Old Martha, full of wrinkles where the smiles have gone, is penniless. I take a half-day to spread tin and tar, finish and the lady starts giving me ten eggs every other day, in addition to a similar collection down the road. All lifeís an experiment, so why not eggs? I eat a mean of eight daily for a month (topping at 16 in a sitting) and the results are in: I crave eggs but am perturbed by the dirt scratching.
A neighbor at four miles was raised in this valley and resembles John-boy Walton. I say heís half-coyote and part jackrabbit, once jeered and now an uncanny athlete. When I was 8í deep in a hole having to pole vault exit with a shovel, he ran up the side handless as Spiderman. You may recall he feigned death to lure vultures, and he captures mice, scorpions, chipmunks, lizards and snakes by hand. However, he detests rattlers. There was a kitchen clatter once during dishes and he gazed down at a 4-foot coontail rattler that entered the back door without knocking. Quick grabbed a kitchen knife and severed the head, then the rattles. Donít ask me why. Yesterday, him and me was on a sunset scavenge when he brakes the truck, hyperventilates, jumps out and chases a sidewinder in the headlights. There ainít a serpent that can outrun a greased desert kid and Quick catches him: stomping, stooping, he pulls a boot knife and lops the head. "Now my reward!" and off with the rattles.
The grand news is the completion of the "hole" that Iíve picked and shoveled for a year until last weekís storms made tossing out the final 4í of dirt easy. Now itís 10íx12í and 8í deep, a human burrow and uncommon in these parts. Iíve prepared a 8íx10í shed and slid it along a slick road of old tires and into the hole. The entrance is a 55-gallon drum with ends removed and a ladder inserted and, boy, itís cool down there. Itís multi-purpose but mainly an underground computer facility and animal observatory Ė a periscope rises to a surface feeder and waterer that attract creatures for miles, and an infrared trigger signals arrivals that become my dream seeds. The desert animalís best protection is his burrow and mine becomes part of an underground metropolis. Earth insulates against heat, cold and dryness. At summer midday a tunnel just 4" underground is 30 degrees cooler than the surface where, last July, Alice the Dog Ladyís ground thermometer registered135 F. I have three feet of dirt overhead and expect extended comfort in coming months.
My ten acres, "Scorpionís Crotch", lies on the western foothills of Sand Valley on the bank of the largest dry wash. Itís a slice of heaven in fall, winter and spring when the sun is reasonable, I see many animals, and the wind whistles over the hills, down this wash and liquidly between my anchored trailers. The windís just another reason to live underground. Today a funnel 10-yards wide and 20-yards high of spinning dust starts 100 yards from where I work, yet all roundís still. Oddly, I donít have to chase it like previous ones but shoulder inside and am bucked by wind and sand. Thereís no center calm here and Iím glad for ankle weights to steady me.
These months are a march of projects from sunrise to sunset that feature skills from pioneer homesteading and ranch maintenance. Beside the burrow, thereís these fresh accomplishments: A sunken roman-type bath with a cooling mist system, remodeled trailer, a gigantic tin shader, picnic table, rainwater catches, fence, utility trailer, and open-air kitchen with propane stove. As an Idaho sprout, I dreamed of owning a set of tools and now feel compelled to use them. The property shapes up after three years of intermittent sweat labor by a creator whoís short of expert but beyond handy.
The valleyís largest outdoor kitchen sink at 12í long obligates me one full afternoon for the first time in six months to wash dishes. I use throwaway paint sticks for silverware and the putty knife to flip hotcakes, so thereís mostly pots and pans, and the rinse water for the feet. I install a propane Mr. Heater in the bathhouse thatíll turn the mist to steam on future winter days. Iím the first here to catch rainwater from roofs and fill in a week a 100-gallon container with runoff from the semi-van and camp trailer (Surface areas 10í X 30í and 8í X 16í). Others may follow suit since the well closings. The newly acquired 30í Corter trailer takes a couple workdays to patch and shelve, and I recall a bank heist in which the thief painted a picture of the wall safe, stood it up, cracked the real safe behind the painting, and escaped undetected. Similarly, I install a false wall in the end of the trailer - visually making the inside 25 ft. long - and use the secreted area for! valuables and to hide from the bad guys. Why all the hard work, what fun? For me itís learning, health, discipline, inspiration, and future investment. Proper thoughts are dividends because what we think and feel are the products of our viscera, glands, and muscle. Loony bins would close if each built his own home.
Then thereís rest. My dayís end reward is an evening walk through the wash. Itís sandy dry but covered with green bushes and tracks since the rains. The valley receives a few inches per year in February and July cloudbursts when the big wash runs and everything living celebrate. The dirt road along my property cuts into this wash and the creatures emerging for the night cool. The only thing to fear is Mr. Rattler but after 50 encounters over the years Iíve never been chased and, in fact, usually canít convince him to stay for inquiry. Notwithstanding, the walks are forward in these two months just because of him. In other seasons of less snake activity I walk backwards to develop the leg backs for backpack trips, and once strolled backward with eyes closed for a mile before guessing by crickets where to enter my driveway. After the walks I eat slowly, then dig into a stack of books. Many here donít read good and I would lose advantage by leaving the library closed. Tops thi! s month is the "Ends of the Earth "autobiography by Andrews. (Out of print but found in used bookstores, Goodwills or on the Net.) Thereís also a satellite dish that pulled in educational TV but I disconnected as distraction from books. Sometimes the sky lights up at night as if thereís a war next door on the range, but usually itís silent and I fall asleep outside on a deck under stars.
TO SIR WITH LOVE
Sir, a juvenile sidewinder, lived on the property for a year but hasnít surfaced this month and I fear the worst, perhaps an owl. You may recall our initial meeting while I was knocking together something and there was a SISIS at my feet. I wear ankle weights and this sound has always been the iron shot in them settling. It happened twice more that day so, holding dead still to discount the weights, I kneeled to discover Sir at my boot tips. We had a short nose-to-nose study before backing off. The little sidewinder (2í compared to the more prevalent and docile western "coontail" diamondback at 4-5í) evolved the unique S-crawl across loose sand that moves them sideways relative to their head and tail position and leaves a queer series of parallel grooves pointing diagonally to the direction of travel. Perhaps the snake was dogging me as the kit fox had done. The latter resembles a cat-in-a-dogís body, but itís truly a miniature fox with hair between the toes to pad softly over sand. I was hoofing to the Long Drop one day when the fox dashed onto the path for the first time, stopped five yards ahead and stood waiting. I continued and he fell into stride just ahead. I stopped and it stopped and looked back. I started, as did it. Finally I sat down, and it sat down until I rose. There was ample distance because the privy is _- mile from the trailer for many reasons. (Ever read "100 Yards to the Outhouse" by Willie Makit?) It defecates in the toilet but often misses the hole.
Iím considered a tycoon as a sub-teacher in this sandbox where others survive by odd jobs among themselves, social security and SSI (disability). Here, as in other remote necks, money rarely changes hands because it isnít in hand. Moreover, itís illegal for a SSI recipient to accept the "green", so money is left in cupboard teacups to be discovered laterÖ. Or barter is made.
A hint of the latter came when I first moved here. "One day maybe youíll join the circle," I was told. It took a year to figure this means becoming part of a circular barter among trusted folks. It goes this way: X pulls a motor for Y who has nothing X needs in return, and later in the week Y sinks fence posts for Z who knowing the previous debt writes letters for X, and the circle is complete. It works, Iím part of it, and try to visualize how extensive in terms of people and time the circle becomes. The system flows well enough among folks within a confidence (hence my own wait before "joining the circle") where each link stays honest for fear of being discarded. The vicissitudes for a newcomer are the initial waiting period for acceptance, joining and watching that his neighbor doesnít cheat him, then a day comes when he worries about not cheating his neighbor because what goes around comes around. My preference is the immediate and exacting cash transaction, however in ! these parts circle is stableÖ normally. Why does the circle hold? Legitimacy describes, as I understand it, why a given system deserves the allegiance of participants. Three usual reasons are: 1) Custom - certainly that holds since people began migrating here in the 70ís; 2) Legal Ė not applicable; and; 3) Member charisma Ė this is stellar as enumerated under "New Candidate". I add the reason of necessity for I discovered early that Sand Valleyites utter the vilest reciprocal slur yet cooperate financially out of pressing need. The circle is forced to form and hold.
Sadly, the circle was broken once this month and it just goes to show ya. A year ago, I bought some trailer steps for $20 from a schoolteacher in town and asked the Quicks to haul them to Sand Valley on their next trip. They dropped them instead at a kinís with crooked toes who needed them, so I said, ok, either pay me at your convenience or deliver the steps sometime and I wrote down this transaction. This month - a year later - I was repairing Old Marthaís chicken coop where I found the steps wasting in the sand. She said the crooked toed person didnít need them and neither did she, so I took them for my ice cream truck. Well, Ma Quick caught wind and came wailing down the hill to take the steps and keep the money. "How dare you take steps from a cripple lady," she raved. The reasoning made my head spin, plus likely she was armed so I let her have it all. She also had Old Martha ban me from her property for theft, so here I am scratching my head outside the circle. As if ! in apology, Pa Quick arrived in silence the next morning to help roll the shed into Boís burrow. It was generous and I gave him a new bed gained in the ice cream truck deal with Piaute, so now he doesnít have to worry about things crawling into his dreams, plus I reckon Ma and the rest of the valley sleep better too.
One of my most colorful experiences ever was while bicycling on a recumbent through Baja years ago when I hit the Monarch butterfly migration. I saw a butterfly in each cubic yard from ground to twenty feet high for a day-and-half. A Sand Valley version of the orange cloud occurs annually this month with the invasion of Painted Ladies, the worldís most populous butterfly. Thereís a seasonal (May to October) computer web-site that provides Painted Ladies for weddings, memorial services and anniversaries. Or, come to Sand Valley in March when pattern begins early. All directions to Scorpions Crotch say leave the asphalt and either follow a GPS or wander with the butterflies, illegal aliens and bees. After Midnight Well you start to see solitary trailers with water tanks like smokestacks, compounds with women in camouflage, dogs galore that show coyote lines, no children, Star War vehicles with fat tires, rows of junk cars of a single vintage year, and feral men with toenail grease and baseball caps. Follow the jets and the desert opens up, the ground rises and darkens, and you reach the biggest wash. Look there among the greenery for a metal spiral staircase and ignore the "Keep Out" sign.
Quality of life is robust with wide spaces, clean air, little disease beyond lead poisoning, a moderate crime rate, maid service and opportunities for higher education. On the flip side, thereís no water, no electricity other than solar, no phones other than cell, roads usually require 4-wheel drive, and unemployment is 99 percent. Subjective factors include an hourís drive to supplies, one nearby bombing range, and rattlesnakes. One could weight each for a summary index of Sand Valley life, but suffice to say the citizenry wouldnít move even if they could while an outsider whoís visited once either never leaves or never returns. This place doesnít have everything for everyone, only for a few.
"Corter did", says TJ my nearest neighbor at one mile.
"Did what?" I reply.
"I canít get through your drawl."
Corter was the oldest Sand Valley denizen, into his eighties and nobodyís favorite - none would pay his cremation fee - but we got on well. The population shrinks 5%, and I pay homage with this story. He used to sit alone with his conscience for days in an easy chair and once there came a whoosh, BOOM and he was thrown to the trailer floor. He rose, peered outside (even now you can see the dent) and the jet that dumped a "1000-pounder" just cleared the horizon. Military officials wearing long faces visited. "The release door jammed, then unstuck over you. What can we do?" Corter replied, "Ainít a problem, they got a good average." A day spent digging free the bomb from 20-feet deep revealed a dud that they dragged to the corner and named "Marthaís Bomb" after a nearby lady who was shaken. Now Corter is gone along with the Painted Ladies.
PA QUICK GOES TO JAIL
The valleyís abuzz about the ostensible trailer heist and subsequent incarceration of Pa Quick. Heíd gained permission to remove a trailer from another property but Big Jake spotted him and radioed the sheriff who came with big city backup. "Show us your license," the police demanded, and Pa Quick responded politely, "For driving on my own property?" "Donít get smart!" and they cuffed him, searched home and property without a warrant, and hauled him to the Crossbar Hotel without reading the rights. For five days he counseled young men two generations his junior on the evils of crime, then caught pneumonia and was released without charge. Of course, mental will needs exercise like muscles and País all the stronger. I learned law is more mechanism than justice a while back after spending three days in the LA county jail for refusing to sign a ticket for jaywalking from my bank as it was being robbed. No, I didnít do it.
A side note: The very cops showed a three weeks earlier at Corterís trailer and enlisted Boy Quick to drag the stiffening Corter from trailer to hearse. Letís back up: Corter recently took lifeís last journey and neighbor Old Martha found his body. She was short of gas, so limped on crooked legs a mile to TJís to beg a ride to the Quicks. "What for?" they snorted. "Because Corter needs oxygen." They refused and she started uphill cursing until they relented. Boy Quick came down and discovered Corter needed more than oxygen; he was dead. The authorities came but couldnít lift the corpse, so Boy Quick did but dropped poor Corter twice and the old guy had the last laughs, Yet these cops turned a deaf ear three weeks later as they wrongly nabbed Pa Quick for the trailer heist. Two of lifeís highest stations are a nurse and policeman, only if theyíre good ones.
T.J. ORDERED TO AGRESSION CONTROL CLASS
TJ went to town for gas, he reports, and was attacked by a "wide-eyed, drugí-crazed idiot" who pulled a knife on the smallish 50-year-old and quickly found his face in the dirt with three broken ribs. The sheriff watched the fray and showed as a character witness where a judge listened compassionately to the self-defense plea but said it was excessive and ordered TJ to weekly aggression control classes in town for a year. TJ says itís not anger but motivation, and this illuminates a fine line that emotions are your best and worst enemies in sports, stocks and survival.
CHIPMUNK MAID SERVICE
My three nearest neighbors own a total of 70 dogs and 30 cats for protection, companionship and repulsion of rattlers or scorpions. I have none for the opposite reasons, but buy dog food for chipmunks and rodents. I snack myself, no big deal, and Good Day brand is preferred for rich flavor w/out aftertaste. Other residents wonít feed it to their animal, which shows certainly tastes differ. Once a female newcomer halted at Scorpionís Crotch and I popped a nugget like popcorn. "I ainít gonna kiss you!" she exclaimed, and later proved her word and further worth. In a few days she fled howling something like "You got a head and a penis and enough blood to work one at a time," supporting my realtorís assertion that "Women donít last long out here." The feeder and waterer bring chipmunks, kit fox and a few coyotes. Thereís a daily chipmunk maid service within the trailer that cleans the rugs and trailer of pancake crumbs and so on.
The Cocoa Mt. Gunnery was part of General Pattonís 40ís Desert Training Center where hundreds of thousands conditioned for harsh fighting, and old shells still wash after storms down to my property. Guys like TJ are "range runners" who scavenge for rocket fins and helicopter shells big as goblets which they recycle. There are rare bombing misses, as in the case of Corter, and TJ once witnessed a 30-pounder bounce along his driveway without exploding. The military arrived with apologies and hauled it away, but in a later separate incidence his wife demanded the piece for the cactus garden. "Leave the bomb aní there ainít no complaint," so it sits next to the bird feeder.
Last year, I stepped off my trailer at Scorpionís Crotch and walked west up the wash to the top of the foothills where the range beginsÖ. and hiked across it. It was strategic to choose the military slow Sunday though I ducked under mistletoe as jets streaked over. The targetsĖ squads of plywood tanks or flotillas of wooden ships Ė are sometimes missed for weeks and become by default the scavenging homesteaderís lumberyard. More likely though, the targets are blown to bits across pocked earth that resembles the dusted moon. Of late the range runners curse the sky because the craters caught rain and are festooned by greens that obscure recyclables. My interest is neither the lumber nor metal but the terrain and life. Each plant and animal must develop strategyĖ evolutionarily and personally Ė for the boom and bust of dry and storm, and I look at examples. The ubiquitous 4í creosote bush ties together soil from erosion and shades animals. My maids make their homes among the roots, and, despite the name, this is not the source for the wood preservative creosote. Viewed from jets the creosotes display somewhat uniform spacing due to, Iíve read, water competition and roots that excrete a chemical toxic to their own seedlings. The seeds of wispy smoke trees donít grow near a parent tree but rather a few hundred yards down a wash since the seed coats need a flashflood abrasion to admit water before sprouting. Paloverde trees dot the range with minimized leaves that prevent moisture loss, and have bright green stems, twigs and branches from chlorophyll that allow photosynthesis. The mesquite bushís go-for-the-throat strategy of boring roots to 100 feet for water sus! tains it on the range.
You ainít seen nothing until meeting the animals. Understand water to predict their species, adaptations and habits. The annual rain quota comes in a few cloudbursts in spring and summer, like the one that caught Boy Quick in the wash. The water drains into the sand in scant hours while a few rock catch basins hold it for a week, yet everywhere animals are out in the week following rain. Lizards dash about, are somewhat tame and crawl over the toes during airing. Some lizards race quickly and rise onto their hind legs. Boy Quick catches lizards not by their tail which breaks off but by letting them bite and release his finger, an almost Chinese art of capture. I find empty 1-foot tortoise shells on the range whose owners have died and dried or been killed and eaten. A live one shades on occasion beneath a utility trailer on my property. I spot a roadrunner Ė supposedly a harbinger of luck Ė and itís gone in a streak. Vultures follow pedestrians, ! at least me, for the company or a chance at a flushed animal, and Iíve taken a cue from Boy and laid still for 20 minutes until they circled close enough to see their design. Boy had a pet that ate so much hamburger he decided to give it back to the desert: One day, six vultures flew above and he threw it high but it returned like a fetching dog. On the third toss the pet apparently sighted the flock and soared on 4-foot wings to join them and disappear. Evening falls on the range and coyotes howl, hares dash, and bats flit for insects riding my body heat.
Landforms are assaulted by wind, heat, cold, rain, and on the Gunnery markedly by running water and bombs. I weave 27 miles of broad washes and room-size craters before reaching the Salton Sea at midnight. Most take a traveled road, some the less traveled, but few trailblaze. It was a magnificent walk that I cannot recommend nor repeat because it borders stupidity.
Bombing is an indicator of war somewhere or about to take place in the world, and one day someone will cipher a way to anticipate wars and commodity rolls by gunnery booms. When Clinton was president air traffic was minimal but now in the Bush administration the ground shakes daily and range runners revel. Living adjacent to this huge range is a far cry from a normal airport. Some evenings are like the fourth of July and I concede one atmospheric event sent me scrambling for the wash before my burrow was complete. The Blue Angles practice rolls, bat-like Stealths glance between clouds, and jets from the world fly yards over my van deck for a gander. It quiets one night at 10 PM and TJ mouths "Stand by", scans the hills for Ďcopters, shuts down the buggy headlights, and we strike the range to collect scrap metal. TJ calls it his "turf" and indeed he trained here as a young marine. Thereís been a news video and magazine article of his dangerous pastime. Boy Quick used to run the range until one night when jets locked on with infrared and buzzed him on his motorcycle.
An afternoon storm heaps sand and cuts streamlets in our roads, scouring them into non-recognition. Iíve become lost twice driving to my own property. Drivers marooned by a downpour wait until the rain stops, the sand sucks the water rapidly, and they peel out over where flowers grow a week later. Hardly a car per day bumps along the dry dirt road past my spread, so on a wet day itís an occasion. Boy Quick rolls in his off-road "rail" (homemade superstructure of steel tubing, VW engine and oversized tires) and exclaims, "The washes are runnin!" Heís just come from one where there was a roar followed by a tide of water up to the hubs. Risking being swept away, he leaped from the driverís seat, hooked a line to an Ironwood tree and winched the rail to the bank.
Two elderly ladies five miles down the lane lived off their fat for two weeks after the recent rains destroyed their entryway. TJ happened to check on them and was welcomed. Heís called the Ace of Spades because he scrapes the tracks with a í42 grader dragged by a Ď44 military "six-by" truck. You canít roller-skate on the result but many suspensions are saved. Heís a scrappy, two-tour ĎNam vet who spent 26 months in a POW 4íX4íX4í bamboo "tiger cage". "I can cut your throat while I eat a sandwich," he said early on and I replied, "What kind?" Weíve broken bread often since. The summer sun plus the engine heat melted an inch-deep impression of the accelerator pedal into his sole.
The road openers and water curators are local royalty and to balance power yesterday the Quicks started dragging the routes with an iron pipe sliced longitudinally, plus weighted bed springs trailed by a set t of tractor tires ingeniously arranged in a triangle like tenpins. I seen their dust, heard their motor and ran to offer gas money. Residents are power conscious without being power hungry and strive to avoid obligation within the big financial circle.
Sand Valleyís laced by roads, all dirt and private. No driverís license, plate nor registration is required and the fleet appears out of "Road Warriors"Ö and draws attention. A sheriff badgered Paiute for a license and hot words ensued. "You know who I am, fat boy?" yelled Paiute. "Iím a fat boy fuckah. Get off my property, fat boy." A second officer gasped and pointed a shotgun at Paiute who began to stalk him, "Pull the trigger, bean head and see what becomes of you." "Put the gun down!" interjected the sheriff "Iíve checked him out and he was an army ranger!" The same obese sheriff drove over my property plants one time and gruffly demanded an ID. I was bullied into silence and produced it, but am discovering backbone from others.
I keep to myself and donít keep politics. Liberty means responsibility and men generally dread it, but a small group here once elected a mayor, sheriff and other officials. Thereís not been a peep for some time so probably theyíve disbanded. On another front, a while back a local pamphleteer returned home after distributing anti-military leaflets to find his roof riddled by helicopter bullets. He sued the government and won a settlement. Horseman etiquette in the early west had that approaching mounted cowboys keep course and pass a friendly word. To veer silently hinted furtiveness and theyíd look over their shoulders. Similarly, today motorists slow, wave and may stop to chat. I traveled for months meeting no one on the roads and computed that traffic heads to the city in the morning and returns in the evening Ė I reversed the schedule and met the people in the valley.
The Sand Valley "Phantom" rose out of the dust on the main road one morning and leveled a shotgun at a military convoy passing to the Gunnery range. "Your crummy driviní is wreckiní this private road. About face." The amazed contingent withdrew and a follow-up investigation revealed nothing about the phantom who vanished back into the dust. Iíve heard enough reports including one from the sheriff about this unsolved episode to believe it and that guts and gun make hard barter.
A smooth road didnít help Old Martha when the sun got in her eyes the other afternoon and her í75 pickup went over the berm and into the sand. It required two trucks to tow her out and now the turnís dubbed ĎMarthaís Curve".
Illegal alien traffic has diminished to nothing along this established "wetback" thoroughfare, or theyíre getting caught less. "Coyotes" (drivers) transport the illegals across the Mexican border (an hour to the south) with the illusion of a big city (like Los Angeles) but abandon them in Sand Valley. Last summer I came home to a dozen sprawled in the shade chewing barrel cactus for moisture and fainting. I did what was necessary; be aware that abetting border hoppers - even giving water - is illegal.
Nobodyís been shot in three years. The last was Big Jake who took a .45 in the thigh after his shotgun blast fell short of Dizzy following an argument over choice of radio stations. He limped leaking red to a neighborís porch, recovered and a month later canoed the Sierras. "Gettiní shot donít spoil a vacation," he asserted. A few months prior, the Indian shot off the sheriffís finger because he meddled with the Indianís 2000+ tire collection. Recently, Old Martha CB radioed Boy Quick to execute a sidewinder next to her truck but she packs herself and some suspect she was feeling feisty so put it there. In another event, Alice the Dog Lady pulled a rifle that looked like a broomstick in the moonlight before recognizing me broken down near her driveway, as later did TJ adding, "Good way to get plugged." Nightís a poor haunt of the desert. Iím likely the single person in the valley without a gun, but last week someone let me fire a 30-round clip in a Russian AK-47. Itís a sem! i-automatic with good accuracy, range and stopping power, but little kick. I learned to crease the dirt in front of the target with the initial shot to true the remaining spurt. Gun control proponents argue to license guns for target shooting and call the police for defense of home. There wasnít a phone in the valley until Old Man Swanson got one after a heart attack, so I can drive 45 minutes to use it. I donít own a gun because before every emergency there are many mental rehearsals that elicit physical reactions - I want to have drilled appropriately before the next jam on a hiking trail or in a foreign country where arms arenít allowed. Iíve learned some tricks about guns though: Drop live rounds around your property or parked car to dissuade intruders.
The panoramic scope of world migration takes humans away from deserts for needs and comforts. This valley remains one of the most inhospitable regions and the extreme thought of whoís toughest seeded naturally after rubbing elbows with a few of them. In a forthcoming special "Toughest in the Valley" I struggle to choose one among: TJ the range runner, Quick the animal boy, Corter the deceased ("Success is how high you bounce when you hit bottom" Ė General George Patton.), Alice the Dog Lady, Laura the snake catcher, Big Jake the shot, the 71-year old Indian who evaded by foot 80 authorities with dogs and helicopters after dropping the sheriffís finger, or others. Yesterday I met a surprise new candidate, Paiute. Heís "100% honest engine" and a POW of the Korean and WWI (substantiated by body scars). At 82, heís oldest around but, unlike Corter who sat in a chair meditating until a bomb hit, Paiute junks daily. Heís either off collecting, shuffling on his 40-acre junk ranch, or awaiting business. He lives with a male calico cat (a genetic rarity and the only one Iíve met) that eats scorpions, brings home rattlers, and jumped on a coyoteís back. The ranch holds such treasures that I spent two days this month sifting and loading items into a motorless ice cream truck. I paid $850 in wrapped coins and Paiute hauled it 16 miles to my place behind a pickup that couldnít hit first gear. The purchases could keep me in projects for months. Paiute had a property mate once for who owned a black Lab that kept the cat company. That isnít all it kept company for, "One evening," says Paiute, "I walk into his trailer and heís drunk aní screwing the Lab!" He banished the fornicators and lives alone with the cat as a definite candidate. The hardy populace suggest their hard society is the equal or better than others because here one rises or falls in the sand on talent. This is a meritocracy of reward by performance where impotence drops one from the "circle" to rougher times. They consider themselves a merit aristocracy and that may take a paradigm shift to grasp on both sides of the circle. I confess I could have made it alone only with great difficulty.
WHY AM I HERE?
My favorite cartoon has two thought balloons: One floats above a man with chin in hand - "Whatís it all about?" The second is above an amphibian struggling from water to land - "Think, reproduce, survive." I grew up in a sweep of states contiguous with the Canadian border and my main memory is snow. Four years ago I walked the lengths of Death Valley and Baja California and started to fall in love with the desert. The final straw was three years ago when I was abandoned by a guide in the Peruvian Amazon and nearly died paddling lost on rivers under rainstorms in a hand-hewn canoe back to civilization. I was wet and ready for something dry and warm when I met a 300 lb. canoeist in the California Sierras who claimed Sand Valley as his base and handed me a realtorís card. "Say Big Jake sent you so I Collect a commission." Dyslexic Big Jake, freshly shot, drove a custom, street-legal dune buggy and summer canoed the mountain lakes. I read him a newspaper article about himself, he gave me a map to my future home, and the rest is sand down the hourglass. Still, it only partially addresses "Why here?" I was raised in the thought balloon above the manís head and wanted to explore the one above the amphibian. I wanted to learn heat as I knew cold. I knew from the walks that the every living desert entity is revered for itís evolutionary past and adaptive present, and craved their first-hand knowledge. There was a lifelong compulsion to homestead or at least build a paradise from the ground up. The desert has a quiet, clean solitude that would require self-sufficiency and if by chance there were neighbors theyíd accept me for it. I shrugged off present society and, ultimately, there was little gamble in the Sand Valley move. The rewards have been astronomical. Iím not qualified for "Toughest in the Valley" because the rules state one must live here one full summer but I havenít, and will not run.
Visited the Quick family unique compound today. Three trailers stand side-to-side with doors banged out for passage. One is given to birds, many which Boy snatched by hand, while the middle trailer is a family room with an extended clan of dogs, cats, lizards, snakes and guinea pigs. A colorful macaw tugs with its beak a string running over pulleys to a fan under which Ma Quick coolly reclines, and the bird even pecks earwax if he takes a cotton to you. Last Christmas the Quicks proudly announced the birth of many bouncing baby scorpions, so they and the mother were turned outside and replaced by a new pet scorpion - the Giant Hairy Green species at 7" long Ė that lives under an aquarium rock. "Heís tame," says Boy, setting it on my arm where I stroke it. "Just donít let him fall down your pants," chortles Ma, and she should know cuz she got tagged that way. A week following my introduction, Boy exclaims, "The scorpion got loose! A couple days later I was watchiní TV aníí f! elt a tickle on my shoulder but paid it no mind. It kept up aní it was him tapping for attention. He was plumb scared of the big world, so I put him in the aquarium aní he scurried home under the rock." Then he grinned from ear to ear like he was the scorpion.
Search the computer net for "killer bees" and discover the most attacked USA county is mine. Look closely, the epicenter is Sand Valley. My theory is that hysterical reaction in surrounding townships biases the statistics. Take the removed burg where I sub-teach. One morning a sweet-tooth counselor sprinted into my agriculture class and whispered in my ear, "Weíre in radio silenceÖItís killer bees!" Walkie-talkie signals supposedly seed a swarm, but the secrecy put the kids on edge. The animal control, police and fire department locked and yellow taped our room. "I gotta pee!" and other students were assigned to water their school farm animalsÖ no one left. Under lockdown we watched out a window as a fireman in beekeeper nets climbed a tree and clipped the stalk of a 3í nest that plopped into a garbage bag. By that time the students had broken out of the room and swarmed the campus.
"Donít enter the Zelson place," warns TJ. Itís a distant abandoned ranch.
"Why?" I ask.
"Killer bees in the northeast corner.""How do you know?"
"They came after Boy quick aní me. Ask him."
"Donít know. Maybe cuz we put the insides of a shotgun shell in the nest."
"No wonder they swarmed"
"Explain!" Iím twitching.
"We shot again."
"ÖThey flew at us."
"You ran for the buggy?"
"Only time I ever beat Boy in a footrace."
A week later, this month, a friend arrives in a sedan and we head to the Zelsonís. I recount the conversation on tiptoes all the way to the corner. Sure enough, hereís bees but you canít differentiate a killer except by the attract. Dozens buzz evenly about us until he whispers, "Maybe they have a memory for two," and they begin butting us with their heads. (I learn later that head butts precede a swarm.) We fly out the house to the car and slam the doors without issue. The county consequently cleared the Zelson corner but two weeks later TJ repeats theyíre back and Iím thinking heís already shot and reported a swarm.
Laura, TJís wife, isnít afraid of much. She shags rattlesnakes with a stick, eats dog food, and knows more of Mother Nature than anyone around but Boy Quick. This week she and TJ sped to the city hospital to get her "engine tuned" (hysterectomy) and I was drafted to property-sit their 40-acre Independence Square. However, I was as an ornament because two-dozen dogs on breakaway strings ring the place. One bit me and I wanted to pat itís head cuz thatís its job. For two days I sat center to a number of cats, chickens, turkeys, a blind horse and a Volkswagen graveyard. They returned to say theyíd "Rather take a whuppiní than go to town again". TJ had dryly suggested the doctors "Put in some extra blowers", and Laura while under anesthesia had punched the doctorís jaw which the nurse addressed as, "A good right cross".
Residents hereabouts have taken society lickinís and, while appreciating certain benefits such as the hospital, view it as a general tormenter and carver of repetitious statues. Theyíve retreated from the zoo like characters in Ayn Randís "Atlas Shrugged" to this remote lowland and donít peek outside. My appraisal rings of Nietzscheís Master-Slave ethic. Master morality prizes independence, excellence and creativity, while slave morality touts servility, resentment and mediocrity. Three years ago, I didnít supposed this move to a focus of distinction surrounded by a doughnut of captive standards.
Indigenous phrases reveal underlying sentiment such as with "Goiní to town." One of the toms at Independence Square is bobcat-big and one afternoon it pounced on a smaller favorite of Lauraís. It was over in one-second with the favorite on its back gasping from tooth holes in the trachea and lung. The tom skidded round a corner as TJ leaped for a revolver and Laura wailed, "Sheís goiní to town!" and hugged the dying feline. "Donít let her go to town!" It went, dead as that tom after TJ caught up with it.
The Mouse Wars continue these months after the summer í99 inception when, one sultry evening after an extended absence, I returned and drank a pint from an open water jug in which a mouse had died and dissolved. It held an aftertaste like tea along with a tail and paws. It knocked me down for a half-day. Well, three Hav-a-Heart traps evened the score, but during a second absence they ignored these and gnawed into a peanut butter bait jar, gorging for weeks, reproducing, and greeting my return with a stronger contingent. Since, I caught two-a-night and enlisted Boy Quick to chase them like a terrier. Interesting from a survival standpoint, a mouse sheds the tail outer covering to escape a predator, unlike a lizardís tail that breaks cleanly between vertebras and can regenerate. Boy asserted we were re-catching the same mice but I disagreed, and began marking releasees with whiteout typing correction fluid and was proved correct. The ravages included a teapot and bedroom slip! pers brimmed with stolen elbow macaroni, a dozen 1-gallon water jugs gnawed and drained, plus a shorted electric drill with chewed wires. Ultimately, I block all entrances, de-mouse the trailers and come out beaming.
HARD TO LEAVE
I crave the austere lands for what survives and for the insights of unreasonable people, but time comes to cover the dirt roads to town and earn a stash sub-teaching for summer travel. Itís been a charming two months. Before departure I overlook a Flycatcher (robust bird that catches tossed crickets on the wing) nested with four warm cream eggs on a trailer shelf. The doorís ajar but the bird canít grasp it must be shut, so I prop it open and exit Scorpionís Crotch in a cloud of dust. Iím full of eggs myself and the feet are itchy, so begins a new journey.
Thatís the news hot off the press, Everyday here and more there, Hope thereís fewer shootinís for it.