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Chapter 14:  elephant tree
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California

I've heard of them and I've read about them plenty, but I've never seen one. I wake in the dark with my sleeping bag hauled over my head until there's only just a hole for me to breathe, I'm practiced at this, the desert winter nights are long, quiet, and cold. Too long, too cold. There is despair in my heart; the only thing I can think of that might soften the edge of misery is hot El Pico Cafe brewed to espresso strength in my little pot, but that means climbing out of bag and into starry chill of predawn. It means the beginning of the last day I've allowed myself to hunt for the elephant tree.

The elephant tree belongs to a small, eccentric, tropical family of plants. It grows farther north than any of its relatives -- into "isolated desert mountains in southernmost California and southwestern Arizona," says one field guide -- but "only in places where there is never any frost." In short: it's reclusive, beautiful, and big. I've looked, all right, but I haven't found. The elephant tree has taken on the status of a grail.

To make it harder on myself I've refused the easy way out: a trail by a road with a signpost that says "Elephant Tree Discovery Trail," with a parking lot next to the sign and dune buggies parked in the lot. I wince at my snobberies but I want to find the thing myself. I don't want an elephant in a zoo. So I'm camped by a canyon that, according to fine print in an old Anza-Borrego publication, "is home to a few isolated individual elephant trees, relics of bygone times." Relic meaning a living thing, or an isolated population of living things, pinched off from the main body of its kind by some anarchy of climatic change.

This suits me fine. The coffee pot burbles and sighs and while the grounds settle I hold my tin mug expectantly in gloved hands, and the eastern sky goes rose over the white plain. A last holdout star glitters over mountains.

A desert dawn is beautiful beyond description. And it is brief. And while it is achingly brief and beautiful beyond capture I want desperately to see just see the whole of the rosy, purpled, gilded landscape in a single glance, but this is impossible. Dawn, in short, is orgasmic. Afterward the sun comes up. I pour myself a second mug.

There's something in this, this search, that goes beyond mere naturalist's curiosity. There are more important things in this landscape. There are plenty of living things that have a greater impact. There are issues -- like dune buggies, or threatened and endangered species, or sinking water tables, or arroyo cutting (caused by paving over, or overgrazing, or agriculture, or dune buggies, or other habitat changes, such as climate) -- and these affect water tables; and there's an endless rich trove of Native American lore and history; and wonderful trivia to do with gold rushes and the desert expeditions of Juan Bautista de Anza in 1774 and 1775-76; and dozens of bizarre and wonderful plant and animal adaptations to desert life; but the elephant tree has become an obsession.

I've come to realize that one's inner life cannot be separated from the outer one. Whatever road the spirit travels is reflected in the outward journey. Only by traveling honestly -- not where we think we should go but where we know we should go -- do we get someplace.

Where? Who knows, the trail beckons. Fold the map to its appropriate square and put it in its Ziploc bag and put that in the pack, full canteen, granola bars, jerky, dried fruit, camera, notebook, two pens, extra film, binoculars, leave out the field guides -- too heavy and besides field sketches sharpen the eye -- first-aid and snakebite kits ... check. Check. Hat, shades, zip the tent, we're off, the sun is on the peaks, the white fan of alluvium guides me up into heaps and scarps of broken rock.

White, white land. There are palm oases up this trail, too. Meanwhile only stones, and in the stones the scattered tortured shapes of desert plants. They are separate, like wildly expressive sculptures in a museum. They are not like plants; they are like beings dredged from a dark subconscious. The leafless ocotillo is bunches of thorn rods. The chollas throw many-armed punches in their beige nets of spines. The khaki lace of the creosote bushes filters the light and gives back a scent composed of more than forty-five kinds of volatile oils. The burrobush, the brittlebush, the blackbrush, are variations on textures of gray. The barrel cactus leans like a demon.

Then in the first small palm oasis, something strange is going on.


Two people are there. One is a thin very young blonde wearing a great deal of makeup and a not much of a bikini. She is huddling on a rock in a bright red and silver ski parka and the rest of her is covered in goosebumps. Her makeup apparatus is spread out on a stone: black and gold and aqua and pink and tangerine. The other person is a portly balding photographer who is struggling with a tripod. The rest of his apparatus is spread out on another stone. I pause long enough to find out that these people left L.A. at two A.M. so the light would be right to shoot a scene of paradisiacal near-nudity in order for someone to sell swimsuits to somebody else. As I go on, the girl gives me an embarrassed tangerine smile. The photographer grunts. The palms lean with their green crests scissoring the sun and their great frond skirts trailing in white and and stones, but it is January, and two unhappy people are waiting for the goosebumps to go away.

I like it that the desert is full of strange things. If there is one phrase that sums up life in the desert, it is: the predictability of the bizarre.

So I follow a wash. The wash is narrow between rotting granite hills. A mile on in the wash, saltgrass, telltale growth of alkaline seeps. Beyond, a small amphitheater filled with a semicircle of palms, clumps of rush, the ground whitened with a crust of salts. And on the hills around, nothing but burst pale stone. I walk and look everywhere, moving on slowly and quietly as if what I wanted could run away.

Then high on a crest of broken rock there it suddenly is -- there it is, suddenly for me, though it's been here quietly, sturdily, for centuries maybe -- one wide and golden tree. There she is, she is here, marvel of marvels after all, more huge and magnificent than I ever imagined, perched on the dry and crumbling scarp. Fat limbs clad in brassy satiny bark roll snaking out of a swollen trunk the size of a barrel. Twigs hold up a nimbus of green. The Elephant Tree. Old, huge, in healthy golden prime, swollen with water, hung with berry-sized fruit. On one low branch is a single white-winged dove, singing.

Elephant Tree, The dove has just flown away and is sitting in an ocotillo, with its mate, off to the right.

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