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DESERT TIME -- A JOURNEY THROUGH THE AMERICAN SOUTHWEST

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PART TWO:  WINTER

Chapter 10:  local color
The Mojave Desert, California

Color can do this: shake you into the world, make you be born over. At sundown the whole sky is one enormous trampling of color. It's all done with mirrors, you say: this time you're right. Every mote of dust in the air reflects light like a mini-moon. Clouds are fabulous reflective canvases.

The whole atmosphere acts like a filter, removing some wavelengths gradually so that others stand revealed.

The desert is a simple space, like the sea, and can so easily be filled with light.

This is an explanation: but nothing is an explanation.

***

You will have to get away from people or at least away from anyone you feel you have to talk to.

You will have to get where there is nothing between you and the air. Away from buildings with their chatter and lights. Away from cars. This desert has no trees.

The horizons are clean-cut as if razor-carved.

Plural horizons. And the sun has just vanished over the last of them. Perhaps those last mountains are made of glass, of clean plateglass slag. They are the color of a large breaking wave, the color of jade. The nearer mountain range is lapis blue. The nearest range is copper.

The round little hills close and underfoot are cinnamon brown, like toast, warm with the reflected heat of the sky.

The clumps of calico cactus look carefully set out by a gardener possessed of exquisite judgment. The yucca is an explosion of swords. Overhead is a rampage of crimson and smoke. The sky is clear turquoise at the horizon, veined with red-gold, a soft thick red-gold with the texture of clean wool.

So the heart catches fire and answers with colors of its own.

***

Afterward, the colors deepen. Night is made in the mountain roots and flows up out of the canyons and springs, but never quite overtakes the sky, which, as you know, is always luminous.

While the colors deepen you will walk back to your camp on Bureau of Land Management land out on a wide plain with as much sky over it as possible.

You are not alone here, because like any desert this one has its nomads. You have joined them. You are one of them.

Three days ago there was a man standing beside a desert track. He had white hair, a white beard, a white T-shirt, chinos so ancient they were more crooked than the legs they covered. He was leaning on a palm-wood staff. He beckoned. I stopped.

"Looking for a campsite, are ya? Come and jine up with us now. We've got the best now. Jine up with us. Won't cost a nickel."

He tipped me a wink and gestured with his staff and wagged his beard like the prophet Isaiah, and told me how to find a certain nomadic encampment known to its inhabitants as Rollins' Ranch.

"Name's Gordie!" he said. "See ya!" he said, and popped out of sight behind a bush and emerged astride a bright red three-wheeler going full tilt, walking stick tucked under his arm like a lance.

Rollins' Ranch is a cluster of maybe a dozen RVs parked among mesquites along a dry wash. If you approach in daylight you will notice that larger pebbles have been gathered and placed to mark the edges of driveways. Lines of pebbles do the work of picket fences, too, as well as curbs, marking off private yard space around each RV. Tarpaulins shade trios of folding chairs, the odd toy-colored motorized three-wheeler, a cooler or two; a bucket of plastic flowers on a square of bright green indoor-outdoor carpet does duty as a garden. Empty cans of Bud have been sliced and splayed cleverly to make garden whirligigs; a creosote bush has been decorated with Christmas tinsel and red glass balls. Empty milk cartons have been fashioned into birdfeeders. Flocks of house finches and white-crowned sparrows flip in and out and scratch underneath, as they do in any suburb. It doesn't matter that the feeders are disposable and the suburb temporary. By mid-April the nomads will be gone and all that will remain as a sign of twentieth-century humanity will be the lines of pebbles and a thread or two of tinsel.

This is Rollins' Ranch. The inhabitants are all retired. They all own homes somewhere; as far away as Minnesota or as close as Arizona. They spend the winters camped out here, together. They are part of the growing migratory legion of white-haired ex-northerners who call themselves, aptly, snowbirds. The group at Rollins' Ranch has evolved over time, gathering itself around Chet and Allie Rollins from Boise, Idaho. When necessary, they help each other out. At night they have a campfire. They bring their folding chairs and sit around the fire, in the brazier smell of mesquite smoke, and talk about the corniest things imaginable.

They see the colors, too. They told me where to go to see them best, and left me to see them on my own. Sunrise and sunset -- even as cold as it gets, now, with deep night frosts -- there they are, rugs tucked around them, in their folding chairs outside their RVs, eyes on the sky. When the heart catches fire the dross is burned away. I believe this.

Gordie Gold, at eighty-seven, is the oldest member of the group. After his wife, Annie, died he kept on coming, and why not?

And why not, indeed? Why not?

Out here in the desert night the smell of creosote is clean and strong, tarry and medicinal, and the stars are sprayed across a grand unlimiting sky.

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