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DESERT TIME -- A JOURNEY THROUGH THE AMERICAN SOUTHWEST

Chapter 33:  on the edge
Caliente, Nevada

Coming south now into the funnel of Nevada, we're looking for creosote bush, five dollars on the table (the glovebox will do), creosote being the symptom of having crossed from cold high desert down into hot, from the Great Basin we've been in now for weeks, into the Mojave. So, this being Nevada, we've bet good money on who will see it first.

The sign says Caliente, Nevada; the Spanish word for hot and that's true. Bright dusty wide hot and no town in sight, pale hills pocked with bumps of shrubs, mostly saltbush, greasewood, sage still on northerly slopes, sage looking gap-toothed, blasted, crushed, pale shoots poking into bloom. Sage is of the Great Basin. With the creosote, the sage will cease. We'll pass from one desert to the other like changing partners at a dance. By what margins do they dance in this topography?

Creosote is evenly speckled over most of the Mojave and Chihuahuan and Sonoran deserts, too, through all the hot deserts, that is, taking the place of the sage that speckles over cooler Great Basin and Colorado Plateau. Some would say that sage -- hovering as it does on the ten-inch-a-year rainfall mark -- isn't really desert anymore. If it's not then it's the lace edge of it. I'll argue anyone into the ground on sage. Heat gives my temper an edge, my opinions durability, my thirst a passionate expanse, so the Mojave must be close. As dunes are of sea. The fringe of broiling inundation. We are close.

We've stopped three times when Coult called Hey, there! but it was cliff rose every time (very creosote-like in color and shape, though; he's getting too good) with leaves shrunk and in-curled and oily as the needles of pines; not creosote, but close. The entry to Mojave is also in the burnt colors of the hills.

Downtown Caliente, suddenly, and we stop at the cafe for lunch, mostly out of thirst, putting the moment of passage off.

The Brandin' Iron Restaurant, meanwhile. The red-checked curtains, with frills. The basket of saltines and the tabasco sauce, salt and pepper, slant-topped pot of sugar (with the metal flange that waggles as you pour), canning jars for drink glasses. Decor: olde West, not so old really. A mirrored bar. High shelves around the room filled with branding irons and gold pans, enamel coffee pots, enamel spoons, a washboard, brass spittoon. Lunch comes with french fries whether you want 'em or not. Outside is a tangle of electric and phone wires and a train track: technology in raw snarl across pale sky and dust. There is a casino (shabby) and a mercantile store; hardware and car parts, mostly. Houses are all of a pattern, sided with horizontal boards, four posts holding each porch roof.

Creosote

The men in here wear jeans, belts with big buckles that grab for attention like a codpiece, suspenders, work or riding boots. Vehicles parked outside are trucks. On the bar is a giant jar of humongous peanut-butter cookies. There are, for once, no "wanted" posters circa 1880 anywhere. The impedimenta on that shelf, with the possible exception of the spittoon, are not anachronisms here. Mining, ranching. Gold, silver, cattle. Casino, and somewhere out there whorehouse, too, this being Nevada.

Afterward, just beyond Oak Springs Summit, right outside of town, Coult sees not cliff rose this time but creosote, and in bloom, still. Fair enough. The five bucks is his. Just east and north of the junction of 375 with 318 at the turn of 93, I write that down. We both get out of the car to double-check and, standing in the tarry smell of it and the blaze of light in the pale stones, the Mojave hills too scantily clad in just this lacy bush, we do know we're back.

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