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February 7, 2018 / annakpf11

Be Where You Are

Heading west from Phoenix on Interstate 10, we backtrack across the Sonora Desert through Basin and Range country, a honeycomb of broad, low-elevation valleys rimmed by parallel mountain ranges. Dave gazes out the windshield and I read aloud from the internet about the cataclysmic combination of geologic events that brought this landscape into being.

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Once an extensive upland devoid of mountains, the terrain we see today began to form about 40 to 20 million years ago when volcanoes exploded with tremendous force, leaving behind extensive lava flows, ejecting ash-flow materials from long, thin fissure vents, and sometimes collapsing into large circular basins called calderas.

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Meanwhile, below the earth’s surface, intense heat radiated upward, hot enough to melt and soften portions of the lower continental crust to the consistency of molasses stored in the fridge. Then—and here’s a unique and amazing bit—the west coast of what is now North America became attached to the edge of the Pacific Ocean tectonic plate and began to move northwest relative to the main continent, applying a stretching force that the viscous Basin and Range crust could not resist and so began to stretch apart in a giant geo-taffy pull! Think of what happens as you bite into a caramel candy coated with hard chocolate—the fluid caramel stretches while the brittle coating shatters—and you will get the idea. (And perhaps a craving for chocolate-coated caramel.)

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Thus over millions of years, the entire substrata from northern Mexico across much of Arizona, California, Utah, and Nevada stretched 30 to 80 percent more than its original width, while the brittle crust above shattered into hundreds of long, thin segments. Narrower alternating segments tended to sink into the taffy, while alternating wider slices maintained more of their old heights. Virtually all mountains of the region were born in this way; this also explains the semi-parallel trend of the region’s mountains and valleys; they run perpendicular to the direction of stretching.

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With all this geologic drama in mind, the scenery around us becomes even more compelling, and compared to the vast sweep of geologic time, the drive to Quartzsite passes in less than the blink of an eye.

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A crossroads settlement in the middle of the desert, Quartzsite is a winter mecca for retirees, rock collectors, migratory sun-seekers and vehicular nomads of all ages. The modest summer population of 3,000 swells to 1,000,000 or more at peak periods of pilgrimage (such as the Snowbird Jamboree, Senior Citizen Pow-Wow, Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, and especially, the annual Gem and Mineral Show), when thousands of motorhomes carpet the surrounding desert floor. Luckily, we have timed our arrival to NOT coincide with any crowd-attracting events, and easily find an overnight parking place at the friendly and spacious Quail Run RV Park.

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While Dave naps, I venture out for a walk around the neighborhood. As usual, we are the smallest house-on-wheels around. Most of the other occupants have arrived in bus-sized dwellings, many towing a passenger car, and they seem to have settled in for the season, embellishing their “patios” with potted cactus, outdoor carpet, lounge chairs, bikes and barbeques. One woman has festooned her awning with colored crystals that twirl and sparkle in the sunlight.

At the far back corner of the fenced-in RV park, I find an unlocked gate and slip out into the desert. A jackrabbit freezes in place. Still as a stone, it blends into the chalky gray of the desert floor.

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Low sun casts the mountains in shadow. I feel thirsty, but didn’t bring any water. A quartet of quail race across a patch of open ground, their feather topknots bobbing in time with their quick-footed gait. I pick my way down into the sandy channel of a wide, dry wash. Standing here, my boots sinking into generations of pebbles and silt deposited by flash flood runoff, it’s easy to understand the two main reasons people die in the desert. Dehydration, of course, and drowning.

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Behind me, I hear the high-pitched drone of an ATV (All Terrain Vehicle) engine, and soon a grizzled man wearing sunglasses and a tattered army flak jacket motors past, his dog sitting upright beside him.

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I return to the trailer just before the sun goes down and the temperature plummets. Dave and I don coats and headlamps and set out on foot along the dark highway to the nearby Grubsteak restaurant. Three waitresses sit smoking cigarettes at a table near the entrance, and as we approach, one of them rushes toward us.  “Sorry,” she says, exhaling a puff of smoke. “We’re sold out. No more food left.” It is barely six pm. Never mind. We have a “Plan B”. We retrace our steps, detach tow vehicle from trailer and drive to Silly Al’s, a pizza joint that was probably Dave’s secret “Plan A” all along. A local’s hangout, Silly Al’s is large and low ceilinged with a long bar, a billiards corner in the back, and dining tables clustered around a DJ booth and central dance floor. The place is packed, mostly with men between the ages of 65 and 95 who adhere to a strictly casual uniform of golf shorts and short-sleeved T-shirts.

Our waitress fits both the demographic and the dress code, wearing shorts and flip-flops and a voluminous flowered blouse. She frowns when we order two pints of IPA. “Nobody likes that beer,” she warns us. “It’s bitter.” Just the way we like it.

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Tonight is Karaoke Night, and first up is a stocky, gray-haired man wearing the requisite shorts and T-shirt, plus a blue baseball cap emblazoned with five red letters: TRUMP.  Background violin music swells, and with practiced, honey-toned-tremolo, he croons the country hit recorded in 1964 by Jim Reeves: Welcome to my world; won’t you come on in; miracles, I guess; still happen now and then… We don’t agree with his politics, but there’s no denying the guy can sing.

Several less memorable performances follow, and Dave and I are about to call it a night when a baby-faced, bearded fellow shuffles up to the microphone. He wears green khaki trousers and a long-sleeved plaid shirt, and looks more like a geologist than a pensioner. He nods at the DJ, and the unmistakable organ riff of “Like a Rolling Stone” fills the room. Applause breaks out, and he launches into a spot-on cover of the Dylan song, getting the cynical timbre of the chorus just right: “How does it feel? To be on your own, with no direction home…like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone…” A more apt hymn to Quartzsite, I cannot imagine.

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The next morning we pull up stakes and head for Joshua Tree. As we traverse the Mohave Desert, I keep reminding myself to drink water, even if I don’t feel thirsty, and even though the liquid in my water bottle (re-filled in Quartzsite) has a flat, alkaline quality that hits the tongue like chalk.

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Joshua Tree RV Park is just as we hoped it would be, a rustic trailer park located far from the main road. Our campsite is secluded from other campers by Oleander bushes and offers a view of rocky hillside (a.k.a ancient lava flow). Best of all, it’s QUIET here. Except for the occasional birdcall.

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We cook dinner in the trailer (bratwurst, red rice and kale salad) and then watch a movie, “The Big Sick”, on Dave’s laptop. The film, a happy-sad true story of love and culture clash, is told with understated humor and full of heart. Two thumbs up.

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The next morning we pack a picnic lunch and drive to Joshua Tree National Park. At our first sight of an actual Joshua Tree, we screech to a stop and jump out of the car to take photos of the spiky specimen. Only to realize a bit further on that the park contains veritable forests of these mildly sinister evergreen trees, the largest member of the Yucca species.

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The park also boasts weirdly dramatic piles of gold-toned granite rock formations. It’s easy to see why climbers flock here to practice their technique on the thousands of routes and countless boulder problems.

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Well-worth a visit, this impressive corner of the planet comprises 1,235 square miles, and we spend the day exploring on foot and by car.

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For dinner, we consult Trip Advisor reviews and dine at the incongruously named Sam’s Indian Food, Pizza, Subs and Burger. On a scale of 1 to 10, we give it a solid 4.5. Perhaps its favorable rating was relative to the other options here in Joshua Tree. Either way, we resolve to cook “in” more often.

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The long days of driving are getting to us, but luckily we are only two hours from the suburbs of Palm Springs, our next destination.

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Our first impression of the area around Palm Springs is abundant palm trees, green lawns and lush landscaping, even along the roadways. A man-made oasis tucked into the foot of steep mountains, it is undeniably scenic, but also seems a bit unnatural, if not irresponsible, given California’s perpetual drought.

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Other impressions include fast food, fast cars, and repeating themes of shopping plazas and single-story homes. Except in Palm Springs proper, where we spend an interesting afternoon following a self-guided tour of mid-century modern and contemporary architecture.

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Our next stop is Borrego Springs, directly east of San Diego. To get there, Dave and I consider driving though some of the settlements around the Salton Sea, a vast lake created by accident in 1905 when the Colorado River broke through an irrigation canal and flooded the area. At first, the newly formed inland sea attracted birdlife and commercial fishery, and then, in the 1950’s and 60’s, boating and sport fishing flourished, resort towns sprang up and land prices skyrocketed. But in the 1970’s, 80’s, and 90’s, agricultural pollutants, algae blooms and increasing salinity (currently 25% saltier than the ocean), began killing the lake. Dead fish washed up in mass quantities on the beaches, and the stench of decaying fish combined with the smell of the lake turned tourists and investors away. Today, most of the settlements are largely abandoned, and the sea itself is drying up. Winds kick up toxic dust from the receding shoreline, and the few people who still live here, mostly poor and Latino, suffer some of the highest asthma rates in all of California. A visit here would feel like rubber-necking at the scene of ruined dreams, and so we choose a different route through the Coachella valley. Instead dead fish and ghost towns, we pass miles of green, irrigated fields, orange groves, and palm tree plantations.

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Rising out of the valley, we climb through desert hills that look like giant dried mounds of the mud that used to cake the soles of my Wellington boots after a walk through wet English fields.

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In the distance, the long blue line of the Salton Sea is still visible, 236 feet below sea level.

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Maybe we’ve been on the dusty trail for too long, but when we land in Borrego Springs, it feels like paradise.

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For one thing, this is an RV RESORT, not to be confused with an RV PARK. (If we didn’t know about the distinction before, it now becomes clear.) Golf course, tennis courts, heated saltwater pool, mineral baths, fitness room, library, laundry room, and about fifteen squeaky-clean bathrooms and showers.

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Unexpected bonus: At check-in we are told not to leave any outdoor lights burning at night, because Borrego Springs is a “dark sky” community, a place where residents and businesses do their utmost to limit light pollution. Stargazing in the desert has been one of my goals for this trip, but so far either ambient light or scattered high clouds have thwarted my plans.

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The next two days, we golf, swim and explore the surrounding area to our heart’s content. At night we marvel at a multitude of stars. We even socialize with our neighbors—a rare occurrence for introverts like us—and meet new companions who feel like old friends. When we pack up to depart we almost wish we were staying a day or two longer.

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Dave puts the Cayenne in gear and cruises away from our parking spot while I walk alongside, double-checking the connection of trailer to hitch. Immediately, a metallic scraping noise erupts from the trailer’s left wheel. We thought we fixed it in Barstow, but it’s back, louder than ever, and now it is accompanied by a rhythmic clanking.

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Four hours and three mechanics later, we are parked in a sun-baked field in the desert, waiting for a diagnosis from Tito, a taciturn mechanic who is missing his left thumb and bears a striking resemblance to Fidel Castro.

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Dave disappears, and I glimpse him standing near a pile of old tires, hands clenched at his sides. Later he tells me what he was doing. “I was telling myself to ENJOY the moment, even though it isn’t what I want. Enjoy what is; not what isn’t.” I smile and agree.

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The verdict is in: the brake adjuster has sheared in two, and has been rolling around in the brake drum since Barstow. (Tito says this is unrelated to the loose shock absorber nuts. Unless the same factory mechanic neglected both items. We can’t help but wonder if anything else was overlooked.) It will take another day to get a replacement part, and the delay will cause us to cancel two days’ worth of plans, but if we had to break down somewhere, Borrego beats Barstow.

IMG_0201We check back into the RV resort and kick back to enjoy more time in the desert. Whether it be misfortune or serendipity, or the underlying force of synchronicity, we do as Buddha says, “be where you are, otherwise you miss your life.”

Or as they say in the RV world, “home is where you park it.”

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