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William Turner: Study of a Tree in Bloom (c. 1835)

"It seems like entering the goddamned Garden of Eden …"

The barrenness of The Colorado Plateau wears on me, its stubbornly arid presentation, its stoic hard rock face, indifferent to season. It first seemed a vacation from the coast's riotous greens but soon degraded into oppression. I ached to escape. The distances didn't ease our exit. The Great American Desert is not meaningfully measured in miles. It might be gauged in numbnesses. My senses cannot assimilate so many layers. The windshield turns into a Viewmaster® screen, and the horizons shimmer as my brain fails to properly resolve depths and heights. I remain tightly focused on whatever shenanigans the freight truckers might get up to so I can avoid what sometimes seems inevitable collisions. Our exit seemed perilous between the truckers, the dedicated speeders, and the wind.

We arrived across the Tehachapi and down into the Central Valley just as Springtime came.
The green seems a balm to our rock-weary eyes. Everything softens. The horizon fades into an indiscernible distance. Trees seem to be everywhere all of a sudden. Citrus groves surround us, and we pull off the freeway to refill our cornucopia, which had been sucked dry by long desert days and nights. Oranges, dates, walnuts, and grapefruit fill the bag before we retake to the highway, finally taking us somewhere familiar. Bakersfield's not my native turf, but I am a West Coast boy. I recognize the vibe, utterly distinct from the stinking desert's. I smell fertile soil and moisture, blossoming trees, and agriculture. These are the scents of home.

However enchanting the desert first seems, its charms quickly turn. We learn to be patient with it and appreciate the spare display its meager soils can muster. We soften our judgment to allow windy weed patches to pass muster, though I can't deep down imagine ever feeling satisfied with a steady diet of such starkness. Whole towns up and down Arizona seem populated with rotting trailers and derelict fifth-wheels, homes to fleeing snowbirds half each year. I'd rather freeze in place than surround myself with such devastation for more than an odd week or two. I can do The Great Southwest in short visits, knowing that greener pastures await my return to green pastures. Longer stays dismay me.

I ask for a honky-tonk supper to celebrate our arrival into Buck and Merle country. The Muse finds a place with the proper description, though I bet her it will end up being a Californicated wannabe. It was just as I'd expected: theatrical and expensive. The waitress brought us a small cast iron pot of beans with our rolls, and I asked what she expected us to do with that. She said that she liked to hollow out a roll and spoon beans into the bunhole. My best Butthead impression left us both snickering, but neither of us could figure out how to eat that concoction until I finally just spooned the buggers into my mouth. My chicken fried steak had been Californicated, too, enough for two and dreadful. The potatoes with gravy became my "glutinous maximus." I left most of my supper on my plate.

After six hundred miles, I was beside myself, swearing I'd never repeat that performance, though I knew I would if conditions were good. That last hour passed in a trance. Driving had become instinctive by then, and I'd grown accustomed to the local rhythms. While The Muse wrestled with hotel apps, I watched almond orchards in full bloom float by. I felt as though we might one day see home again regardless of weather and wind. We'd gladly left the desert behind. We hail from Many Waters country and will never understand arid allegiances or rocky horizons. I understood the wonder with which the Oakies entered The Central Valley and my ancestors ended their Oregon Trail crossings. It seems like entering the goddamned Garden of Eden after spending purgatory on Route 66.

©2024 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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