Ken Smith Drops his Jaw in Sand Valley, by Bo Keeley
Contrarian Ken Smith came to Sand Valley for repose of his sole, so I thought to introduce him to my neighbors. First one rambles from the nearest oasis, Blythe, Ca. for an hour along sand tracks out to the tri-section of California, Arizona and Old Mexico. Ken arrived with a state-of-art Global Positioning System and rented a Jeep, but Hertz substituted a tank-like Blazer claiming it was 4-wheel drive. The first stop was surprising.
He wheeled out of Blythe straight up a hill in the open desert before the wheels spun and the car tipped backwards. "Let's try the sand next", and he slid alongside the Colorado River where we stuck. "The Hertz bastards", roared Smith crouching at the front end. "There is no front axle; this is a 2-wheel drive!" The sun sank over us scraping sand by hand from around the wheel hubs. The tires, again and again, spun deeper in the sand until we feared striking water.
"I 'm short of breath!" he exclaimed, and clawed his pocket for nitroglycerine. In fifteen minutes there was another attack and he popped a second tablet and searched in the dark for branches for traction. Yet, deeper the car sank with until it bottomed out. Phooey, I thought, and asked for the prescription bottle. I tapped a pinhead tab onto a finger and tucked it under my tongue spelling out, It'th an experiment. Instantly a bite at my frenulum lignum made me jump, my face tightened and I felt it was a heart attack.
"My wife made me buy a cell phone to call 911", he comforted. "God" I gasped. "Prepare!" He chuckled, I left it in the Blythe Hampton Inn. I recovered from the nitroglycerin attack soon enough and together we scanned the horizon for a hand under the star-spangled sky. Instead, a skunk loomed at the water's edge. We decided to chuck Gatorade and the priceless GPS into a leather daypack and set off hiking from the buried Blazer along the river road toward the white glow of a truck stop five miles away.
Hours later, as Ken stopped to catch his breath, I noted for the first time under his cuffs heavy blue ankle weights. "Give them to me!" I pleaded. "Screw you who Emailed me to buy them for exercise." And later we plodded into the truck plaza.
Soon we bumped back along the walked road in the high cab of a Blythe Tow pickup. "Tell me about Sand Valley, Mr. Keeley," stipulated the driver. I now recognized a former English student where I sub-teach at the high school. So I continued the stories I used to tell about living in a desert burrow, and how Ken was visiting from Seattle for a taste of the good life. Reaching the Blazer, the tow truck got stuck unable to engage its own 4-wheel drive. "No problem, gentlemen", confided the driver with an air that made me proud, and added, I'll call my associate. A bigger tow truck driven by yet another student materialized. This time the heavy chain yanked our Blazer out the sand trap and onto hard dirt. It cost speculator Smith $150 at midnight and the pupils gave me no cut.
Early the next morning we awoke, he in the Hampton Inn and I in my Ford Contour with all but the driver's seat discarded to create a low-budget RV. I joined him for breakfast at the Inn where he paid $100 a night for the ambience that I drove ten miles north of town to escape. We gassed the Blazer, loaded the tail with water for drinking and weight, and struck out a second time for Sand Valley.
The far-flung Valley is truly a basin of sand, Ocotillo and coyotes cross-cut by dry washes that swell with water in rare cloudbursts. My digs, Rancho Scorpion against the western rim, is hemmed by the Chocolate Mountain Gunnery Range and BLM land. I see more jets and helicopters than people. Ten hardy soles occupy this hotbox giving each of us each elbow room for ten-square miles. The white Blazer plied the one access track through the Valley until we reached the first compound of Alma the Carmelite, as Ken would dub her an hour later.
A squalor of gutted trailers and overturned water containers with dozens of dogs and cats scampering between lay in front of us. I warned Ken, For now, suffice to say she lives with no vehicle, electricity, well, propane for stove nor heat, reads the Bible by candle, and sleeps with the trailer door open 24-hours a day. We parked to hear her barking Spanish at the dogs and cooing French to the cats.
"Hello!" she greeted cradling a sick kitten and dousing its purulent nose with Lourdes Water. Alma introduced each of the ten dogs, named after the saints, to Ken and invited him to step into the cat trailer with 25 felines perched on every shelve and ledge. My partner demurred. He and she then held high for a snapshot a two-foot thermometer that registers 140-degrees in the summer but this March day showed just 110-degrees.
Sensing Ken was special, Alma led him to a Prayer Tree that she never had exposed to me. A green rosary string swayed in a breeze deep within a Mesquite tree. My last prayer was for a better singing voice to drive away the rattlesnakes. I told the Lord, I 'm tired of wearing garlic in my socks. I 'm going to sing to you all day, Lord, until you give me a better voice, and she broke into the Supremes "You Can't Hurry Love.
Alma then solemnly led us to her tin accountant's file now peeling gray paint in the sun. She stooped before the five-feet cabinet, slightly taller than she, and yanked off a discolored, broken toenail. Then she expertly ran her fingers along the tiny drawers to the right category and pulled it open, depositing the flake into a plastic bottle. She noted Ken's dropped jaw. "That's nothing", and she drew open another drawer of bottles- shaking the contents of one onto his palm- of teeth and fillings. Look closely. A lot of people don't recognize the gold of a lifetime when they see it.
Alma was born premature at 4-lb. 4-oz. into a filthy rich Nicaraguan family. The tot at two refused to sit at the table-kept rising- and spoke her first word, "No!" She was educated at the best schools in that country and America but always wanted to become a Num. A convent instead ordered her to oversee the family business that then spanned the globe which she faithfully did for many years. I saw her passport picture of fifty years ago where, at age nineteen, she was a classic Spanish beauty. Alma later moved with her widowed mother to San Francisco and asked another convent for the blessing to become a nun, but she was urged to care for her aging mamacita. She practiced as a CPA for 21 years while doing that. Eight years ago, mamacita died and Alma returned to the Sisters for final admittance. They told her she was too old to be a nun, so she said, The Hell with that, and jumped into her blue Chevy van and drove south into the desert until seeing a 9For Sale sign on forty blank acres in Sand Valley.
"You're a Num!" cried Father Smith this day. "Silly, young man", snorted Alma licking blood from a dog bite near her elbow. Conjuring the air, Ken flicked the business card of the Carmelites with a picture of Edith Stein on the front and obverse bio concluding, "It is not human activity that can save us, but the sufferings of Christ to have part in these. This is my aspiration. The tan card described how what we call Carmel is really a way of life in which one tries to be aware of the presence of God in ordinary things. A peculiar slant prescribes deserts for an isolated life spent in contemplation".
Alma turned white looking up from the card to Ken. I accept this and will later ask the Lord if I'm worthy to be a Carmelite. The duo embraced and danced a jig around festoons of excrement on the floor of the compound.
We left Alma in the Blazer as we'd discovered her barking Spanish and cooing French to the animals, and singing to the Lord in English.
The next visit along the ten-mile thread that connects Sand Valley homesteads was Phil Garlington's Rancho Costa Nada. The entry drive showed no tire tracks, but we pulled in anyway. A small trailer, clashing rowboat, skeet shooting range and one-room hogan occupy the 20-acres of Palo Verde trees and barrel cactus. A sun-beaten sign Rancho Costa Nada- Careful Pard hangs askew on the hogan door. Two years ago, upon being fired without notice as Chief of the Blythe bi-weekly newspaper The Palo Verde Times for writing controversial essays on the politics of tarantulas on the city council, I helped Phil load and haul a U-Haul truckload of unsold newspapers to his budding rancho. He insulated the foot-thick hut walls and ceiling with most the issues, letting the remainder blow on a prevailing westerly toward Blythe. I told Ken, It's too bad you can't meet Garlington for he's your kind of guy, a real contrarian."
Three miles down the road, at the next stop, I don't expect to find anyone at home either but offer a story to my road partner while walking through half-inch ashes between scorched wheels where a trailer once stood. This was the Indian's place. Six years ago, the sheriff and an environmental agent arrived by court order to dispose of some 2000 tires lining the driveway and gardens that he'd been paid a buck each to haul from private concerns. There was also a tire planter around a treeling the owner had planted at the original homestead. When all the rest of the tires were gone, the sheriff insisted the planter tire had to go and the tall tree with it. The Indian went into the trailer and got his .22 rifle and shot a thumb off the sheriff. Everyone hit the ground and by the time backup- sixty cops, Highway Patrol and Border Patrol with sniffing dogs and helicopters- arrived the shooter was assumed to be in the trailer. An incendiary device crashed through the picture window and the pet dog burned to a cookie, the Indian's wife broke her arm fleeing the inferno, but the man was not at home. He had fired the first shot and walked ten miles to a paved road to hitch a ride to town and then bus into the next state. Ken kicked at a broken mirror in the soot and shook his head as we drove out the ghostly tire cordon to the main Valley stem, and pushed on to the next residence.
"Freedom Village!" argues a tilt sign as we wheeled onto a perfect scraped circle drive of my nearest neighbors, the Tylers. "Laura is a holy terror who catches rattlesnakes with sticks, and her veteran husband T.J. has killed hundreds of men including many with his bare hands", I told Ken who nodded appreciatively. A sum hundred dogs, cats, and chickens milled in the focus from which emerged Laura whistling the Marine Corp Hymn. "He's out cleaning the road with the scraper, an I'm taking car of the animals. But you can sit a while."Ken whispered in the front seat that he didn't feel up to walking on chicken shit, so we thanked the lady to backup. "Hold on!" she screamed, and trotted to an outdoor oven made of an old transformer and fired by hot-burning Ironwood. Aluminum bomb fins scavenged from the gunnery range are put inside the kiln each evening to melt into the porous Ironwood cast and produce each morning grotesquely twisted and hauntingly beautiful Bomb Fin Art. The pieces have been placed as paperweights and doorstops from California to France. Ken graciously accepts one, and we head out the circle to my digs a mile away.
Rancho Scorpion began six years ago after I got lost in the Amazon rainforest for three months, rained on daily, and returned to the United States desiring xeric terra. I found it in Sand Valley like Alma, by driving around. A few trailers and outbuildings for storage on twenty-clean acres belie the home and nerve center of the complex, my burrow. I dug 10 X10 X10 and slid a camper into the hole, covered it up, lined the walls with garage-sale rugs, installed a captain's chair, waterbed, and laptop computer connected to a solar panel above, fit a staircase, and called it home.
I got the idea for my burrow from sitting in an Anchorage bar. On looking up from their drinks, patrons gradually became aware of a wall-to-wall glass window in place of the bar mirror. Rhesus monkeys cavorted on spruce branches, every few minutes pausing to examine us drinkers with great amusement. We were each other's floorshow. So, I study my co-habitants through the wire mesh front of the burrow. These include tarantulas, scorpions, sidewinder named Sir, digging wasps, packrats, lizards and a barking Gecko that kept me up one night. I often wonder what they make of me typing on this laptop.
"Remarkable engineering!" praised Ken in the captains square before the mesh. We climbed the stairs into the harsh sunlight that in three months will toast the desert floor to 140-degrees while I sit 60-degrees cooler insulated in the burrow.
"That's the tranquility in life I've been looking for!" declared Smith. "But my wife would never ascent to living in a hole. "Ok", I rejoined. "There is one last place to visit before we lose the light, and it's been called by the former Sand Valley landlord, now deceased, The most comfortable household in the Valley."
Three miles north of my Rancho the Blazer veered off the main stem onto a crooked road indeed where I questioned Ken, What is the most twisted way in the nation? "An alcoholic's road", he quipped. "No, I replied, and neither is it San Francisco's Lombard Street. It's the Tuk family driveway." We drove up, down and around a labyrinth of foothills for twenty minutes before reaching the well-maintained compound centered around three trailers slapped together with the common doors removed."They've come a long ways in 26 years since living under a parachute on the bombing range", I told him as we parked in the front yard.
A huge Chow bounded to the car barking its black tongue off at Ken's window. He wouldn't step out until Ma Tuk whistled Nitro, the dog, to her side. "Don't you feel better?" I jabbed my cohort as he touched the mutt's fluff. After cordialities and the information from Ma that the feral Boy and Pa Tuk were riding home-crafted dune buggies off in the desert, we were invited inside to meet the menagerie.
A dozen birds including Macaws and parrots fluttered saying "Hello" and "Fuck you" to the newcomer. Cats and dogs sniffed Smith's knees, and I asked if there were any pet snakes or scorpions on the floor. "You know we free them regularly", scolded Ma Tuk. "He'll have to settle for Hansel and Gretel". I forewarned him not to be a party pooper by not stuffing one of the house rats into his pants like any other initiate. Each is black-and-white and 21-inches long. "Oh, don't worry about it, Ken," chided Ma Tuk at his shrink. "They'll like you anyhow". She caught Hansel from under a bureau and plopped it on his lap. He tentatively stroked its appreciative nose, and the two quickly acquainted. When we left the house thirty minutes later he had pat and talked to every animal and had birds crawling his shoulders out the door.
Ken digested the whole day on the slow return to Blythe. "It's an honor to meet anything that can live and grow in Sand Valley- plant, animal and human", he declared once we hit the town limit. "It's a harsh place for evolved species and individuals, and I'm glad to get the Hell out before it swallows me. My wife, Ina, won't believe where I've been and who I've met."
It so happens that tomorrow is the premier showing at the Kitchen eatery of "Expedition to Sand Valley", I informed. Two months ago, the Los Angeles Public Education TV talk show host Kerry Mortell trailed me into Sand Valley with a video camera to capture a documentary that will air to hundreds. "Meet us at noon tomorrow at the Kitchen for a zero dollar-a-plate lunch and show. Maybe I can make a copy of the video for Ina."
The Kitchen, a clearing house of solid street info, second-hand food, and daily dramas of low-life, is fairly unoccupied this noon, March 6, 2006. It's the beginning of the month as welfare checks are deposited in local mailboxes. Kerry, Ken and I eat beans and tuna in relish of the upcoming show. Yet, the Kitchen has no video machine so after the meal we adjourn to the local library.
We settle into comfortable chairs in a back room. Ken in a green shirt with Men with less hair hath more wit' peers thoughtfully across at me in a red one with Real doctors treat more than one species. He offers, "Whatever happens from here on, we did all right for an eccentric individualist and a contrarian individualist."
Kerry announces, "This is the raw, uncut version of the 'Expedition to Sand Valley'", and presses play. As if a deja vu, we visit Alba the Carmelite, Garlington's tabloid hogan, the Indian ruins, Freedom Village, my Rancho Scorpion, and the Tuk zoo. Smith sheds a tear at one scene, applauds at another and rivets to the screen for the hour.
Is this a convert?
He rises after the film bit by bit from the chair, stands full frame and bellows, "I've got to get the Hell out!" and leaves.