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True Stories by Steve Keeley
Baptism by Sun
A journal of forty-five days in Sand Valley with advice for aspiring converts
I often enjoy a challenge until it transpires and this, the first day in Sand Valley after three straight months before a computer under air conditioning, stacks up as another. I was raised in a cold swath across the northern United States and never really knew heat until four years ago on buying these ten acres of clean sand under blue sky at the tri-junction of California, Arizona and old Mexico. I call the digs Scorpions Crotch. General George Patton called the area The land that God forgot on surveying it from a small plane in 1942 as the eventual Desert Training Center for tens of thousands of troops that would be sent to the WWII Sahara.
It was, and is, a vast and empty moonscape under an eternal sun that s in your face in July and August. Numerous hill chains form interlocking basins like a honeycomb of 100-square mile sandboxes reaching all horizons. Locals call these valleys to raise the spirits. Sand Valley is one adjacent to another, the Cocoa Mt. Gunnery Range, where today not 1940 s crafts but jets and copters swoop and drop daily loads in flashes and booms of military storms. Most of the area is open sand crisscrossed by washes that funnel water during twice yearly cloudbursts.
A smart person could settle here, I thought on purchasing the flat acres dirt cheap: By catching rain or trapping it in a wash, sticking up solar panels, digging a burrow, and applying science. I moved here for comfort. The other ten Sand Valleyites are crusty, proud sociopaths who rub elbows at an average ten miles apart. I told them on arrival to accept me not until I had spent a full summer, and today, four years later, is the beginning.
A perimeter drive bedsprings weighted with rocks drag a road encloses two property sections: Living and Working. The Living acres border a forest or half-mile wide wash tumbling from the well-pocked bombing range. A wash is a green strip in winter, but pale lime in summer that nonetheless abounds with creatures for which I m grateful. The Living section is flat sand that offers the kitchen (16 camp trailer), office (28 semi-truck trailer with a loft and waterbed), storage (35 gutted trailer), a tremendous (400-square feet) central shader of corrugated tin, and the outlying burrow where I write. These structures form a U with a windbreak fence to block fierce westerners, but it s open country to all other points and the only neighbor, T.J and wife Laura, live a mile away. The Working acres at the property south end boast a drive-through garage (metal roof on scavenged steel posts), work shed, small materials yard, and outhouse. I enjoy the five-minute stroll from north to south, or back, along the circle drive any time. The Crotch is ongoing work much as a ranch requires constant tinkering and fresh projects.
The daily routine revolves around those activities. I arise with the chipmunk clan of six already sprawled outside the kitchen rodent door waiting for it to swing open to enter and clean. This is the maid service that is paid for with dear water. I slide into work boots under the shader - the early sun burns - and silently greet various lizards that are as pets. The day starts with a few handfuls of shredded wheat and a pint of soymilk, then a hat on the head and I m off. Invariably, I head for the first project but am interrupted en route by a dozen others, and finally reach the original at sunset. Today s priority is a pantry extension, but on the way I erect a shade cloth over the sleeping couch, make wheel covers, shelving, etc.
The pantry is a 10-square feet hut that s airy with open slats. It originated with a hand-dug hole my height into which I dropped a small refrigerator figuring to abet cooling, but quickly learned that a propane frig requires ventilation. So, there was a pre-cooling pit for the fridge on the surface. I spent the first year without a fridge, and now it s a treasure chest. Soon, I ll acquire another in a trade with T.J., for which the pantry requires expansion. Tonight, I finish that having easily knocked out one wood wall, planting two more posts in ready-mix concrete at 5 feet distance, and extending the wall.
The new fridge sits pretty in the pantry, a bargain for some paint and dog food. I plan to order ex-soldier T.J. to salute it as General Electric. I m enthused because the more fluid I drink, the more I work to shape up the property.
Deliberately, there is no thermometer, radio, TV or other outside contact on the theory that it gets truly hot only when you hear about it. A liquid course is one of the scientific methods I ll use to acclimate. I drink on average a quart of liquid every 45 minutes in working 9 hours a day. My dad recently sent an article warning in an elaborate formula based on body weight and calorie expenditure to drink three quarts of water during warm weather, but I easily take three gallons daily. It s nearly iced and
includes: V-8, Kern s juices, Gatorade, Soy milk, an occasional designer electrolyte replacement, and water. I ve claimed that V-8 chilled to slush is the finest electrolyte replacement drink, and recently heard that Michigan wrestlers prefer it to Gatorade. I also take Monster brand diluted one-to-one with water to stay off the walls. In fact, I try to chase every can or bottle with a quart of water.
Drinks are the day s exclamation points! I fill the freezer compartments of both 3 x 3 refrigerators with four quart bottles each; the rest of the fridge is useless in summer and is blocked off with wood. Each morning begins with a stock of two cold gallons, and by mid-afternoon a second course is chilled to slush. In wintertime, the compartments freeze and I transfer the ice jugs to the rest of the space for an icebox effect that uses only $.25 of propane per fridge-day; but in summertime the freezers don t freeze and it costs double.
Typically, after working 45 minutes, I stumble into the pantry to nurse a drink for fifteen minutes. Then I take a quart of cold water wrapped in a little blanket out to the job. Other Valleyites assert that one can toil under the sun for no more than 30 minutes, but it may be lengthened by using cold fluids. They also say to cool a drink in a wet sock, which I ve used, yet the sock supply (132 at four-per-day) is the limiting factor before leaving for town. It would be a life of desert Riley to sit and drink cold, sweet beverages all day, but there s work at hand.
This morning, I squat in the pantry hut with a V8 in hand and glance between my heels. Had anyone said, In one second a large snake will appear , then
I would have adjusted. Instead, it flicks a tongue and I m walled in. The head resembles a western diamondback (most common rattler) with a Long Ranger eye mask. It advances foot-by-foot to a slender, faded tail without rattles that tags it a harmless 5 Glossy snake. (It s also called the Faded snake due to a bleached appearance, and eats lizards and mice.) Abruptly, it coils into a high S with a worried face on sensing that it s trapped with me blocking the thin door. I step aside. After it passes, I examine a row of four-gallon water jugs set out the night before. One is squashed all around without bursting, and the only explanation is the snake, a thirsty constrictor, smelled water.
The single day (besides Christmas) that offers no July Fourth fireworks on the range is this date. It s unearthly quiet, and that cues T.J., the scavenger king, to search the range all day for aluminum bomb fins and brass shells. On all other days he s restricted to the graveyard shift. He calls it recycling, and it s rumored they re stinking rich.
Continuing projects fill each day, not unpleasantly. I celebrate a progressive acclimation to heat, but must take 15-minute breaks per hour. Otherwise, a mild heat stroke (rapid pulse under a hot skin, disorientation, headache, nausea and finger/toe cramps) comes on, and I must lay up in the shade for 30 minutes. This happens once every couple days with mild symptoms only, but my heartening acclimation theory is that with time these symptoms will attack more reluctantly, be lessened, and disappear faster.
A small victory for technology over Mother Nature occurs this evening with the finish of a vented sitting room on the interior loft of the semi-trailer. Earlier, I d carved a ceiling vent and screened window in the side for ventilation. Now a 9 -diameter stovepipe shunts cool air up to the loft from a 4 crawlspace under the semi with 1000-gallons of stored water in 100-gallon containers that create a swamp cooler effect. The air rises five feet up the stovepipe due to the negative pressure of the warmer above and breezes under the chair at 2-5 mph. Wire mesh covers the flue floor opening and a heavy book regulates the breeze, however on overheated days my face does the trick. One could play Chinese checkers on my cheeks after those days, and the vent is a major development.
In the magic hour just shy of sunset as the light departs the air, I move quickly while thinking clearly. I march the property with a pencil, notepad and tape measure to size plans and materials for tomorrow s projects. Tonight, I labor resolutely into the dark with a flashlight in mouth, and after plop on the elevated couch smiling like a desert Cheshire.
There is no nightly dinner since there s no appetite in the heat. Beyond the morning shredded wheat, I force feed myself pasta every third evening. It s shocking that 90 percent of the calories come from a daily three gallons of liquids. I m losing a couple pounds per week that should be gone anyway, and feel healthy. The two best diets I ve ever found are the Hobo Diet where one s trapped in a boxcar for days, and this Desert Diet where the gut feels full of heat calories.
Nearly everyone in Sand Valley sleeps the summer outdoors, and likewise with many beds choices (loft waterbed, semi roof, burrow, or kitchen bunk), my favorite is a couch on a platform raised five feet above the desert floor. Otherwise, night visitors snakes, scorpions, coyotes, badgers and rodents
- are tedious. A ceiling shade cloth (material that blocks 70% of sunlight) extends the sleep well past sunrise.
More projects. The secret is to move at half-speed from job to job while drinking all day like a good machine. Besides the couch shade cloth, I drape the material on guy lines around the semi office and the kitchen. The extra cooling is dramatic. I also erect a soundless 4 wind chime of wood on string that provides shades. Dragonflies arrive in minutes on paint days or when an aerosol foot spray hits the air. One steps onto my finger, and perhaps one day I ll become a totem.
The rodent wars are on! There are three types: The common desert mouse, the slightly larger kangaroo rat that is said not to require drinking water, and the desert pack rat that reaches a foot (including tail) in length. Today s customized rodent doors are inset into the three trailers entrances. Each is 3 high (4 elsewhere for pack rats), painted plywood to prevent climbing, with WD-40 sprayed on the hinges and corner caulking for the same reason. They are as gates inset within the door frames so that the regular doors can remain open 24 hours for air, or close. This is the front line of defense against the ubiquitous brats behind which food must be stored in plastic bins, predator snakes should be encouraged, and water should be transferred from the store-jugs to thicker-walled Gatorade bottles that aren t chewed. The rodents that get through become POWs trapped in Hav-a-Hart cages and are rapidly transported to the wash for release. The world should work so easily.
The three keys to the comfy desert life are propane, solar panels and shade. The propane fires the fridge, the heater in winter, and the stove. The panels atop the semi with a capacity to power a small home use no fancy battery bank or backup generator. Instead, a second 12-volt battery (marine deep- cycle) installed on the car passenger floor connects in parallel to the regular battery. The solar panels charge both batteries in the car parked under the shader, but on a rare cloudy day the motor can be run a short time. A small inverter ($80 at Radio Shack) provides AC power for hand tools such as a drill and jigsaw, and laptop. The auto is moved to a work area if the extension cord doesn t reach. This system is simple, efficient and cheaper than other methods for my purposes.
I sometimes walk backwards with ankle weight from job to job to train for later hiking; 1/2-mile backward per day prevents cramps forward. Today I fail to see a 3 tall Cholla cactus coming. The other name is Jumping Cholla because the joints easily detach; touch one spine and pull the whole joint. A dozen spines including a joint adhere to my calf, plus a few to the boot uppers and soles. I use tweezers with an attached magnifying glass (($4 at Radio Shack) to pluck the skin spines. The sting goes away in a minute and a red splatter shows like a merit badge.
As cold drinks are the hourly rewards, the night dividend is an easy chair over a vent that shunts cooled air from under the trailer. (The desert floor takes a few hours to truly cool after sunset.) DC light is normally difficult to read by, but I tested all the little market lamps and bolt-paired the best for satisfaction. There are books everywhere. The open door admits a fresh moth about every ten minutes; new species are examined with a magnifying glass. The species and individuals, as in any extreme geography, are to be honored for their genes, verve and quirks. I also use the glass between chapters to study my wounds the scrapes, spines, blisters, boils, rash, jammed fingers and to introspect.
Four years ago, I paid cash on a truck tailgate office of the real estate agent for these apart acres that have so changed my life. Actually, the original purchase got a different parcel ten miles away that proved by GPS to be wrongly surveyed, so the agent upgraded to another five miles away that similarly had been mis-surveyed, and he eventually steered me to Scorpion s Crotch. It s not uncommon for someone to buy a piece of unmarked desert, lay an estimated perimeter with rocks, and over time develop ownership by universal assumption. However, my property displays in one corner a permanent 1953 USGS section marker that I quickly lifted a leg over. I am the first in the Valley to pay outright for land, while the other residents gave $100 down and $100 per month. (That s cheaper than a trailer space in a park.) T.J. recently finished paying off his place after 15 years.
I was a greenhorn coming down from the Sierras with little more than a motorcycle and shovel to reach the pristine acres for the first time. I slept that night in the wash listening for thunderheads for flashfloods, and was visited by a kit fox and tarantula. There was no bombing in those days. I acquired the scavenging art by foot at long-abandoned homesteads throughout Sand Valley, and found sources for other used materials to be dragged one way or another to the featureless plot. Steadily, I picked up the packrat trait that ID s desert folks of acquiring more stuff the semi, kitchen, storage, etc. With materials, time and exercise, I built structures that soon festooned the circle drive. These sit on wheels, skids or measure less than 8 x8 with dirt floors to avoid an increase in the $30 property tax. The real estate agent stopped a year ago to remark, You wanted just a single burrow and have built a city!
Bloopers are part of the show. The first here was a lack of respect for the wind despite having viewed other trailers and hovels that had blown about the Valley. I lost one small camp trailer blown asunder. Be assured that the ensuing ones were aligned east-west to avoid the westerly, guy lined and staked out. I started out using nails in wood until someone said that the holes in a year would be bigger than the nail diameters. The beautiful, used Malaysian lumber I bought for a song twisted grotesquely in the first month out of the jungle from poor piling and uneven drying. Then again, the same wood now lasts for years in tidy stacks.
I once built a 7 long, 500-pound sink from three reclaimed ones, only to end up using it as a seat and washing directly from a spigot to conserve water. It was fed by a homemade water heater of 3 black PVC in 50-rrunning feet of sun-heated loops that was a farce since outdoor containers themselves warm water in winter and scald it in summer. Soup or tea water is ever ready. There are blessed few dishes at my place where bowls and plates are made from recycled water jugs with the tops lopped off, and the utensils are paint sticks that perform like hybrid spoon-and-chopsticks. Today, I dismantled the sink and water heater for good.
The grandest slip was a shower rising like a 10 crucifix in the open desert that held a bucket with gravity fed holes from a reservoir 50-yards away atop the semi. The gray water recycled into a garden. In retrospect, it was laughable since there s not enough water in the Valley to support the system, so I sawed it down along with a 4 birdhouse that had replaced the bucket. I now bathe like the third-world millions at a faucet with a pan. I m often proudly introduced as the Valley s most parsimonious water user (1/2-gallon per day for washing, bathing etc.). There s also a hot spring an hour away.
Today, I finally diagnose the cause of a week s worth of skin rash and eye
irritation it s the rainwater runoff. Rain catch is a noble idea, but a
climb with suspicion to the shader top (which gathers most of the 80 gallons from the bi-annual rains) reveals salted bird droppings. Duh. I descend, grab the foot spray and coat myself. Foot spray is a panacea here as one can t pause to wash the hands, it reaches difficult places like the back, and it s a poor man s deodorant, as well as drawing dragonflies for company.
I use it a dozen times daily, and without recommending to others mine is pressurized ethanol and talc ($.99). I start using another barrel for cleaning.
Successes match the mistakes. I own the only underground dwelling in Sand Valley. Vents bring cool air from underneath and into all the trailers and double as escape hatches. The work shed and pantry are architectural victories with one-foot open spaces between the wall side tops and the roof to allow an inside draft in the slightest breeze; and, when there s none outside then the internal temperature gradient from low at ground to warm at top creates an updraft. Moving air in the desert equals coolness.
Another engineering win is the exoskeleton for trailers. Four roof-high 3 -daimeter pipes planted in 2 -deep holes flush with the trailer sides are cabled together over the roof for insect-like support and stability. The trailers can be pulled out from under the exoskeleton by quickly loosening the roof cables, and bending the pipes slightly outward. Another improvement is the shade cloth on the tops and sides of the trailers and huts, draped on cables and attached with bugji cords to a foot above the ground to encourage circulation. These shades have lowered the average daily temperature inside the kitchen, office and storage trailers by about 20 degrees. The rain catch and storage system is another partial success. For the fauna in the countryside, a Monkey Wrench pool two miles to the north brings them in like an African waterhole. In the shape of a wrench and in commemoration of Edward Abbey s novel, this is a natural stone basin the size of a bedroom that I found once while hiking. I lined the bottom with plastic, covered with gravel, and damned the lower end with stones. Rain floods it twice yearly and provides water for a couple months.
Any new idea may prove a feat or flop, and time will tell. A small sandbag dam will trap water in a plastic lined hole in the nearby wash during the biannual cloudbursts. That water is to be raised even as it rains by pedaling a stationary bicycle wheel attached to a paddlewheel of cans to a PVC aqueduct that will gravity flow to a 600-gallon holding tank. That water is to be piped to a great distiller made of a wading pool ($6 Kmart) covered with clear tilted plastic so that the evaporated and condensed water on the plastic underside runs to a collecting hose and on to 100-gallon storage containers. This distilled water will not rust the metal containers, and there s no reason why - with ample pedaling - I can t distil thousands of gallons and turn Scorpion s Crotch green. I got the distiller idea while hiking Baja and finding a tiny stream near a pueblo where rolls of plastic were raised on sticks for hundreds of yards over the water and the condensed water ran along the plastic to collecting buckets.
The lessons from this homestead are: A man can always find a way to solve a problem; it pays to be original but takes more time,; mistakes are stepping stones to successes; take an unfamiliar turn during indecision (you can always backtrack); and, living alone is great if you keep critters and busy.
The daily sky is a blue bowl and the sun rolls across it like a gold marble. It rises in the northeast, casts a strong north noon shadow, and swings back to set in the northwest. I worked long under it in recent days, and am stuck with a temporary partial vision loss that lays me up today. It s a sun blindness with the light brutally reflecting off the light sand. The loss is only 40% in one eye at a time the one I don t squint with. It s normally defined as cornea sunburn, but I believe mine relates to retinal pigment depletion. I ve had it when hiking (also snow blindness), and the condition should reverse with a night s sleep while wearing blinders under the shade cloth.
The peculiarity about sun or snow blindness is the agent of reflected light. A contractor has stated that reflected sunlight off a body of water in front of a building can nearly double the load of an air conditioner, and similarly the 8 x8 plywood deck in front of my semi reflects enormous heat to the interior unless the entrance is cloth shaded. T.J. has at his compound two sliver trailers parked parallel 20 apart where the heat ricochets palpably. He doesn t do anything about it except blink. So, in sun blindness, the sun takes the shot and the desert floor gets the assist via reflection.
I see the morning chipmunks clearly. Their funhouse ramps require navigating boardwalks through chase and ambush spots to gain the water. Most residents keep dogs, cats and chickens to eat scorpions, dissuade snakes and, as rumor has it, to stay sane. My four human neighbors at this end of the Valley own a total of 24 cats, 30 dogs, and who counts chickens? These menageries deter natural desert visitors, except owls and bobcats that take the pets. The critters at my place are nearly tame, and affect me in the same way.
There is a pantry lizard, latrine lizard and yard lizard. The first is 18 long with a blue head, brown body and slender black tail. He waltzes as he walks and is unctuous. He emerges from the pantry to follow me about the yard, which I thought odd until today when I accidentally scuff up a smaller lizard. The big one chases it with a cannibalistic gleam into a hole. The second daily lizard is the yard lizzie who invariably comes to my feet under the shader and sits like a pet to watch me with tiny black eyes that can spot an ant at five feet and gobble in a second. She s called a Zebratail for a black-and-white barber pole-tail that s carried over the back like a scorpion s, and this one I believe is pregnant. Larry, the large, brown latrine lizard, clings to the back of the seat. When I sit, he strides out, puffs territorially like a terrier, and looks for flies when I hop off.
Today, I enter the work shed to find perched on a toolbox a panting Hooded Oriole (orange underside and cap with black back, wings and tail) - the first summer bird. He wings past my hat and out the door. The scenario repeats ten minutes later in the semi, and then the pantry. He desperately seeks shade, and if only I could convey the automatic waterer. It s utilized mainly by chipmunks, offering just 3 -square of surface with bricks that cover the rest to block evaporation. The water level mechanically replenishes from a reservoir bottle when lapped away.
Coyotes cruise the wash each evening with signal yelps, and sometimes there are deer, roadrunners, tortoises, rabbits and badgers. May I become the person the animals think I am.
This evening, I take off the despised sunglasses, quit work early and take a walk. I ve fabricated a weighted hiking vest from a water-ski vest ($20) with the foam replaced by old ankle weights. I carry 30-lbs. (adjustable up
to 50-lbs.) and it s superior to a sand pack for training. Summertime
evening walks last only an hour since it cools only slightly but the snakes come out.
Tonight s read is one of Louis L Amour s finest, The Man from Skibbereen , except the author atypically repeats the phrase mopped the sweat from his brow three times in the early chapters. Yet, I have that many brow mop stations (towels on ropes) around the property. Something rustles under the trailer as I read, but goes ignored.
I dreamed as a youngster of one day owning a junkyard with many rodents, and Scorpions Crotch closes in on it. A packrat sneaked through the trailer floor vent and chewed a beanbag even as I sat on it reading last night. Spilled the beans all over! The intelligent fellow then took six pencils and two small sharpeners to a corner to build a nest. That s too much. This morning, I lay a Hav-a-Hart trap baited with peanut butter and catch him in a wink. It s the handsome, light-furred one that I ve observed, even better now close up twinkling eyes set in a smart skull, for a rat. He stretches at ease within the trap but refuses to look at me, as if to say,
It s only a skirmish. I carry and release him at 100 yards where others live in traditional holes. But this afternoon, another hill of trinkets adorns the trailer floor. I start to think he s the culprit who chewed a Rubbermaid bin and carried about 200 crackers one-by-one to a nearby empty bin. That cannot continue. So, I re-trap and this time transport him 15 minutes away, sit and open the cage door. He hops onto my lap, then to the unfamiliar sand, and back onto my lap. It s like giving away a pet.
Old Pete, T.J. s neighbor and recycling sidekick, died sometime in the past 24 hours, and Laura found him lying in his own blood. It was poignant, and I ll write a separate account Sun Dog .
In the hoopla surrounding the death, T.J. s pickup got left an hour away where he awaited the coroner to provide directions. I give him a lift to it this afternoon, a scorcher, in my Ford Contour with the heater running. It s routine to drive with the windows up and heater on to acclimate, and a relief to step outside the rolling sauna. How come my feet are hot? he pipes. Tell me you ain t got the heat on! I nod, and shut it down. Quiet minutes pass until he begins in a low voice, I moved out here cuz of too much killin For once, there are no puzzles or jokes in a simple autobiography as we roll.
He was raised on a southern dairy farm by a family rich in the military tradition, and at age seventeen joined the Marines. He sued them for combat service in Southeast Asia as the only surviving male in the family. Following three tours In Viet Nam, including seven months as a POW in a bamboo tiger cage , he spent another fifteen years as a drill sergeant or embassy guard in twenty countries around the world. He served the front line (without action) in Israel and Korea, and retired from the Marines with twenty years of service credit, a hard act to follow - which he did. He became a U.S. Marshal for two years, followed by eight with the Justice Department including two fighting the Columbia drug war and six as an agent type whose average career is three, and there was more killing. It finally made him nervous and he left for Sand Valley in 1990.
The present Cocoa Mt. Gunnery Range is a 100-square mile basin within the original Desert Training Center, and history works down the wash over the decades with WWII bullet shells surfacing around my property across which an old tank track angles. I ve found dozens of shells on hikes. These days, helicopters and jets aim for the main targets four miles from my doorstep. This afternoon, two helicopters slide 100 over my semi-trailer, and later three jets divert to fly at maybe 150 yards and waggle their laden wings as I wave. Pilots gravitate toward the semi as the highest point (20 ) in the basin. At night, a fantastic light show may cover the eastern sky with mile-long tracers from copter machine guns, parachute flares that illuminate the land, and 1000-lb. bombs with low, dark afterthoughts. The average daily bombing has been two hours, sometimes in the afternoon but more often around sunset. It ceases by law at 10 pm, and no further news is needed to know there s a war being practiced for here.
The flight pattern: Jets fly over or near Scorpion s Crotch, loop to the range targets, dive and drop. There s thunder, the ground may shake here, and in seconds a dark cloud some ten stories high drifts with the breeze. The largest 1000-lb. detonations leave craters the size of a suburban yard, and I must say that this summer s explosions have more boom per bomb than before. An apparent new design has made the blasts more compact and destructive. Some deploy parachutes and explode just above the ground, some on contact, and others embed in the earth with timers. For the first time, there are multiple explosions spaced seconds apart. There are also concrete dummies and duds that don t detonate, and it s all this guesswork that makes scavenging a dangerous line of work. I m content to view it through binoculars from a couch atop the semi.
Three newcomer jets this summer streak by nearly daily for the range. They are swift, black, and quiet with a striking configuration, and pass as a trio instead of the normal pair. They re not as silent as the Stealth jets that train here, nonetheless fly to the trailer without alerting me until right overhead. T.J. (who later identifies them as British) is the recycle czar who, 40 years ago, trained as a Marine recruit on this very range. Tomorrow I ll visit him on the matter of water.
I m fixin the flats. Go away.
Nearly everything I ve ever heard T.J. say is a logic riddle, teaching puzzle or mystery to be solved, and that s saying a lot as he cannot stop talking. I walk from a stink and figure that last night s bounty weighted the buggy to cause the flat tires. They must be patched before he returns tonight to claim the rest. I ll fetch your water tomorrow, if it comes. That is, he may get blown up while disassembling or running over a live bomb; it happens to novices.
Twice weekly at night, he combs the target area in a road warrior vehicle to recycle aluminum and brass ordinance. I ran the range once with him a year ago. We began at 10 pm when assumedly the last copters flew off. We jiggled in his buggy with lights out for a mile along a wash and into the range, then a couple more miles to the targets (plywood tanks and buildings). He stopped to unbolt mangled bomb fins, while I scooped brass machine gun shells from the dirt. It s as exciting as an Easter egg hunt with a boogie man. Hours later, we pulled from the range with a loaded buggy. After, he would clean the goods of their non-aluminum or brass metals, and drive a secret route to the recycler.
Valley exchange is usually via barter as there s a widespread shortage of green money, plus many denizens are on SSI that disallows receipt of cash. Today, T.J and I trade 500-gallons of water-to-be-delivered for 5 gallons of gear box oil for his 42 six-by truck. The source is a private well ten miles away whose water is too alkaline to drink or wash clothes in, but is okay for dishes and body if you don t mind a white residue. I pass for Casper the ghost. This will be my second water delivery in four years as the Valley s stingiest user. I lost about 20 percent of the initial batch by storing it in metal containers. The salt water oxidizes a thin inner line at water level where there s also air. The resulting pinholes leak and the level drops as the rust line continues concentrically to the ground until the tank s depleted. It s so sad I want to cry. An inch-thick crust coats the outer tank, and I m the guy who couldn t grow salt crystals in science class.
To solve the problem, yesterday I converted the storage from the regular 100-gallon metal containers to 50-gallon plastic drums ($20 used) that hold salt water indefinitely. This necessitates building yet another hut for the 10 drums that must be kept shaded. T.J. arrives with the water this afternoon that will last me about two years. I give him a Gatorade from the fridge, as a gas motor pumps the water. He finishes it with relish. Was that Gatorade too warm? I ask as he leaves. No, it was cold, he replies. I peed in it, I add. He chuckles down the driveway. He and Laura are the only people I ve seen in nearly a month.
Who would have guessed I could survive a month out here and grin like the rings around my water containers? I m fit, pleased, don t mutter, and for the first time can stand the heat. It can only get better.
I conjecture about it all that the body makes intricate yet effective adaptations to climate extremes. Some of these changes may come faster and more extensively if one is made aware to cultivate them. There are many examples from observing the animals and people out here. I believe that sweating should be delayed, and this is accomplished by volitionally shunting blood away from the skin. Sun on skin is the major heating factor, but with less peripheral circulation there s less heat transported to the internal aspect including the skull and bone marrow where it s stored. Another example is respiration, which is slightly less significant than the skin conduction of heat. Air inhaled slowly under a shade hat or big nose cools before reaching the lungs and blood. I remind myself that summer air is warmer than a normal body temperature.
Some people and dogs wonder why they like to chew ice, and the probable answer is that it cools the air (hence increases the oxygen content and partial pressure) before reaching the lungs. The result is a lower body temperature and fresher feeling. Similarly, one holds the last swig of liquid in the mouth for minutes on a hot day to run inhaled air over it. Another trick is moving slowly, just under the threshold of breathing hard and perspiring. Labored breathing raises the blood pressure and there goes the peripheral circulation. Once sweating begins, it should be acknowledged as a chilling (from evaporation) rather than heating experience. Of course, hydrating increases blood volume to cool, but the water volume is more significant than its temperature. Long hair under a hat insulates markedly better than short, and a deep tan disallows sunlight absorption. The counter-argument that dark skin holds more heat, I feel, is secondary. With these and dozens of other conscious and unconscious shifts, one adjusts soon enough to temperatures anywhere in the world.
The burrow is the jewel of Scorpion s Crotch. It s a place to go under the heat, wind and noise, to read or nap, or type reports on the solar powered laptop. It s the hole the sub lives in that the school kids all want to hear about. To revise the song A horse with no name : The desert is an ocean with its life underground and a perfect disguise above. The original intent was for the burrow to be the only property dwelling, but packrat-itis struck and now it s the final project. It began four years ago with a 10 -deep hand-dug hole next to a path of tires leading from a camper shell to the lip. I winched the camper like a sweating, ancient Egyptian along the tires into the hole and covered it with a retaining roof and dirt - except for a submarine-type 23 barrel entrance, 7 air vent, and 3 periscope portal. Alas, in my design study of animal burrows with dual holes for ventilation, I d overlooked the gas law whereby the intake (23 diameter barrel) is limited by the out-draft (7 vent). Under there, it was 25 degrees colder than on the surface but stagnant. I also desired more light. They say, to make a man crazy tell him to dig a hole and fill it in, but now I m excavating the north face to install an airy screen and to terrace the earth to admit light. The new version should be finished in two days where I ll sit like a happy Hobbit.
A funny thing happens as I hit the kitchen bunk tonight. I don swim-goggles-for-blind (having electrician tape over the eyepieces to block light better than normal blinders), and begin to drift off. A buzzing! so incessant that I must seek it out. I raise the goggles to see the flashlight left turned on near the bed, and a fly walks free from an eyepieces. Peeved that the batteries would have gone dead by morning, I light a way to the pantry for a soymilk, set aside the torch (off) and sit outside to drink and watch the great swing of the Milky Way. It travels like a wounded clock hand across the night sky. A BANG breaks my reverie that I trace back into the pantry where a handsome, light-colored pack rat stands over the illuminated torch on the floor. I shut it off, and return to the Milky Way. When the milk is drained, I go for the light that now doesn t. The torch that I deserved to lose in the first place is dead, and the karma of my little universe restored.
I have struck a vein of precious books along my shelves this month! The first is Leonard Clark s Rivers Ran East Former Army intelligence officer Colonel Clark arrives in Lima in 1946 with $1000 and a secret map of El Dorado, the legendary gold strike deep in the jungle. The most gripping exploration begins that disturbs me so often that I must take walks. (I moved to this desert after being lost in the same jungle.) Clark is arguably the greatest 20th century explorer, an accurate naturalist and unique writer. He didn t question, he charged ahead with little more than the shirt on his back hiding a secret belt.
A line from the car batteries that are charged during daylight by the solar panels leads into the reading trailer to the best little 12V reading lamps money can buy bolted in pair over a captain s chair next to a customized floor vent. The trailer door is open and admits few errant winged insects, but I ve compiled a mental species catalogue over the month that includes about ten moths and six assorted winged insects. I examine them on the pages or my body with a magnifying glass. One night, a giant-3 winged black beetle (possibly a Prionus imbricornis or Air Force intelligence) zipped up, the largest I ve seen outside the Amazon.
The second book is Simon Murray s Legionnaire , easily the top military personal account I ve come across. The young Englishman enlists in the Foreign Legion in the early 60 s when Algeria is a hot spot in the French umbrella. Five punishing years in the Legion are relived in an honest, captivating diary from which one concludes that the author is a charmed soul. This book is special because it spans the transformation of the old brutal Legion to the more tepid modern. Henceforth, British enlistees were referred to as SMS s (Simon Murray specials). The reading nook is a corner of the kitchen trailer, and after tonight s read I choose the bunk across from the captain s chair. Strangely, I feel bugs crawl my skin, as on previous nights, as I fall asleep, but can t complain after those books.
The early morning minutes are given to blinking at the sun and chewing shredded wheat. I absentmindedly eat about a dozen tiny bugs that grubbed into the cereal wrapper, no doubt the species crawling my skin. They are 1/4 reddish, comely beetles of blunt personality. I hurry to the trailer bunk but there are none, so check the nearby food bins. An odd scratching emits from one that I pop the plastic lid from to view many bugs alongside thousands of meal worms the first life stage - swimming in 4 of pancake powder. Obviously, I hadn t eaten pancakes this summer. They sound like a poor, crazy man s brain. It s a possible starter for a meal worm farm, but I decide to bury them in a hole.
The third book I m into is L Amour s The Man from Skibbereen . Crispin Mayo, an Irishman who never backed away from a battle, sails to seek his youthful fortune in the American West where he s a newcomer to the law of the gun. He stumbles continually and funnily in derby and suspenders but always lands on his feet. I know that soon the plea of a lady who s good in the saddle will change his tune - for this is a L Amour novel - and at that point I shall stop reading. Every man who crossed paths with the man from Skibbereen was sorry, but I like him. L Amour s personal experiences enliven his novels: Seaman, lumberjack, miller, woodcutter, WWII officer, cowboy, miner, hobo, professional boxer, lecturer, world traveler, high school non-graduate, son of a veterinarian, and collector of rare books. The classic L Amour themes are hard work, thrift, honor, loyalty, problem solving, chasing girls and standing up for what s right. I can think of no one more worthy for a young man to emulate, or to read of in the autobiography Education of a Wandering Man .
I read these books, as the past few hundreds for twenty years, upside down. Admittedly, this decreases top reading speed by about 20% with subsequent 10% gain in comprehension. I was alarmed on finding this out years ago, and the best explanation is the disparity in print vs. anatomy with the book
upside-downed: The alphabet tops differ dramatically from the bottoms, as do the eyes abilities to move at their tops and bottoms. However, I believe a book written in strict mirror image (and think to write one titled The Art, Science and Benefits of Mirror Image Reading and Writing complete with a mirror bookmark) can be read at normal top speed and comprehension. I used to practice reading with a mirror, but gave it up as cumbersome when the book more easily is flipped upside down. A startling event occurred years ago while I lay in a coffin (lined in electric blankets against the northern winter) reading Lewis Carroll s Through the Looking Glass . The passage on Tweedledee and Tweedledum suddenly mirror reverses in the natural text, and I sat upright.
The purpose of either mirror or upside-down reading is to reverse the flow of print. Approximately 80% of the English alphabet (unlike the more balanced Hebrew) has letters as arrows pointed left to right, 10% go the reverse, and 10% are neutral. The questionable original wisdom must have been to point the eye in the direction of the words, and indeed these sweep the eyeballs across the pages and nearly out of the sockets. I began backward reading and writing for athletics: To increase the visual tracking of balls, gloves, birdies, etc. from right to left, or in the same direction as a flipped book print flow. I believe it strongly efficacious. For instance, a left handed batter appreciating a fastball or a righty tennis player an approaching backhand each owns an edge with a past in reading reverse print. We are bombarded daily with signs that go left to right, so reading backwards each night is a balancing act. I teach it in school with acceptance.
I step into the work shed for a tool this morning and step back from large western diamondback rattler tracks on my right. The huge swaths are an unmistakable signature as no other snake here has the girth, and this could be 6 long. He likely smelled a packrat where one has dragged Cholla joints in erecting a 5 -circle wall about its hole. The species normally nests beneath this specific cactus for protection from predators, but this bright guy brought the spines to the hole. The snake trail winds to the sharp wall and returns to exit the hut. I knew upon building this shed that the architectural cooling would draw critters, so a fine dirt parchment was placed for the record. I smooth last night s entry, and shall watch it closely as no one but a bird enters without my knowing.
It s not that I mind snakes; I just don t like surprises. I recall four true first-class snake tales over the years. Once, I entered a mine shaft north of here and was trapped at the tunnel end by a rattler echoing and blocking the entrance a dot of light in the distance - as bats flew by my ears. Another time, I unwittingly stepped over an upright rattler balanced on its tail like a cane, and reached for balance to its head. On another occasion in the Mojave Desert, I kneeled to snap a picture of a stone ruin and heard a click I thought was the shutter, except it continued. I had framed a rattler four feet from my head in the picture, and made it anxious.
On settling at Scorpions Crotch four years ago, I wore ankle weights while building. For two days the iron filings in the weights were heard to fall out, yet there was no leak. It happened again at sunset on the third day, so I stood absolutely still as the noise continued and bent to a knee to solve the mystery. A young (7 ) sidewinder looked up from my toe. Call it a case of imprinting gone wrong, and I prematurely named him Sir. He turned up now and again bigger and longer (finally15 ) over the years. I must assume it a constant serpent because he had tamed not to rattle, even a few months ago when I felt compelled to take him in a coffee can from the work shed to a far wash.
I inherit Sun Dog s old 12 horse trailer, boxy with a thin rail top, which T.J. brings by today. I may convert it to a little museum/library. They re playin my song, T.J. sings as jets soar overhead. Every young person, and surely all Valleyites, at one time or another asks himself how to live a happy, successful life. What am I going to do after school? the kids I sub-teach inquire. Aristotle addressed The Good Life and is their guide. Begin with a goal. What are the reasonable paths to that, and try each. Pursue an objective for the sake of a higher one, such as reading a book or running a mile. Aristotle felt that the final goal of success is if one is happy. That s what s great about America that permits a place like Sand Valley for misanthropes. Friendship, or at least a lack of enemies, is central to Aristotle s Good Life, so I catch a ride with T.J. back to his compound: Past the Skull.com insignia, beyond the Freedom Village sign, rolling by USMC scratched in hardpan 10 letters, under the tattered Confederate flag and into the menagerie of cats, dogs and chickens crowded under one huge shader. I want to witness him install an electric ignition here in one of the Road Warrior distributors for he s a master, maniac mechanic. To watch is to walk with Da Vinci into a morgue. He finishes, and takes a putty knife to splatter grease from the oil pan to where my hat lies in the dirt, but miraculously not a drop touches the cap. After that job, he tosses me a universal (ignition) switch and says to put it in one of the vehicles. It s a replacement that he knows won t work since the first didn t because they re made in China where everybody walks . Don t know how. I grouse. Try it, he demands. So, I fumble with the switch obverse where sundry screw-posts stick out for leads. Let s see, I start. This is for the starter, this the lights, and this one for your peter to turn you on. Nah, I use the kill switch! giggles Laura. She s a VW mechanic second only to her husband, and helps me to install the switch as T.J. goes inside for hot coffee; he drinks little else. He returns with a .357 Magnum. If it don t work, I m gonna surprise somebody. I m pretty sure he s going to shoot the switch, but with that incentive we connect wires and turn the ignition - the engine kicks over. It s a miracle, but it can t happen twice. he challenges. We crank again, and it doesn t. He grins rather than shoots, Next time, I ll buy American! and it goes to show that the Good Life can reach the worst in anyone.
I awaken on the raised couch, take a sweep of the myriad improvements about the property and squint through the shade cloth at another sun. The last major project to finish is the terracing of the burrow s north face. I throw aside the shovel at noon, drink heavily in the pantry, and on a whim strap on a second pair of ankle weights to walk 25 minutes to T.J. s. I pass the dirt drive lined with dogs on tear-away leashes who feel it s too hot to bark. I discover everyone else chickens, cats, T.J. and wife sprawled on outdoor sheets dampened by a spray. I already lost the turkey, a chicken and cat today, squawks Laura. It s 117 degrees in the shade, an I don t want to lose another! and she tramps dripping sweat, water, fur and feathers to the refrigerator to get me a soda. I wish she hadn t revealed the temperature. (I will learn that the broadcast town daily highs for each of the past 45 days has been in excess of 100F, topping at 130F.) The animals simply died of heat exhaustion, while the turkey crawled beneath a trailer to expire undetected for hours and avoid being eaten. Damn the heat, damn the bird! she laments.
I m elated, and maybe Patton s spirit blows cool over the ten who survive in Sand Valley. I hike home, jump in the car and go to town.
Even now I hear T.J. hoot the Turkey s name, Kilroy was here!
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