395 starts north of San Bernardino, but before becoming one of the premier driving highways in the United States it must pass through a hundred miles of low, brown hills. Even playing Grofe’s Grand Canyon Suite at full blast and driving eighty miles an hour cannot dispel the sense of desolation in this sand-and-weed-covered landscape. For the devotee of the creosote bush this region is paradise. All others wait their moment to pass the huge semis on this cross-country route.
The spring rains had brought some color to the southern California badlands, and I had been making the circuit around Joshua Tree, Newberry Springs, and the Providence Mountains to observe the flowers in bloom. One day in the middle of the week I scrawled stick figures on a used napkin to show my wife that I was heading up 395 to Red Mountain, and I left the map on the dining-room table. It was 2:00 P.M., and a one- or two-hour drive would put me out of the day’s ninety-degree heat and into evening, the second-best time to observe wildlife. (If you have to ask about the best time, you slept through it.) I took with me a quart of water, a thermos of very strong coffee, a Hohner Golden Melody harmonica in the key of A, an Audubon reptile guide, compact binoculars, and a Chinese armory SKS carbine with about a hundred rounds of ammunition. I tucked the rifle behind the front seat, intending to do a little target practice or hunt a rabbit if there was an opportunity.
Traffic was backed up at Adelanto because of the Los Angeles riots. Commuters were trying to avoid the fighting by circling to the high desert, but our radios were still tuned in: every blow, every burned-out building was relayed to us again and again. The disc jockeys were playing inspirational sixties music, and I wondered, for a moment, if this might be the revolution many had been waiting for. But about the only thing most people agreed on was how terrible it all was.
Outside Adelanto I could open the throttle a little, though inevitably I joined a convoy behind a ’58 Dodge truck. Between Kramer Junction and Randsburg I pulled off the highway and stopped. It was still warm and flies came in through the open window. Then I noticed a dirt road that stretched toward the mountains. I liked the look of them in the distance so I took off across a plain of creosote and up a gradual incline.
This was a road best taken at a good speed; otherwise the vibration would tear the truck sideways. I bumped along at forty-five miles an hour and raised a plume of white dust behind me. Whiptail and leopard lizards ran for cover. I thought I saw horned lizards, too. You don’t see them much now that southern California has been subdivided into oblivion. Here, though, I stopped the truck nearly on top of one, and it turned out to be two horned lizards that were mating. They wouldn’t move, so I picked them up carefully and placed them in the brush, still joined together. The male looked up at me. He was biting the female’s horns, holding her to him.
By now the road had narrowed and the mountains were closer. Zebra-tail lizards ran down the road in front of the truck, sometimes for twenty yards, swinging their tails like scorpions, looking back to see if I was following. I slowed the truck. I was being held to a crawl by lizards. I stepped on the gas and gunned down the road, and lizards went flying in every direction. The sudden rumble sent antelope squirrels jumping into the air in a panic. I stopped the truck and here they came, curiosity drawing them until a few feet from me their nerve failed and they dove into the bush.
At the sides of the road, snakehead flowers, spiny daisies, and brittlebush were blooming yellow, and the creosote was turning a ghostly silver. The coffee in the thermos was cool and very good. I was far from Los Angeles and the sun was setting. I started up again, heading down an old mining road that turned off toward the east side of the mountains. I spotted a huge jack rabbit watching me from the roadside and stopped the engine to look him over. Flies were worrying around his eyes and mouth, but he wouldn’t brush them away for fear that I would see him. I stepped out and spoke softly to him. I waved my arms. He ran away a few feet and looked back. I got back in the truck and gave up on rabbit hunting for the day.
Ahead were small gullies, thick with sand shifted by the rains. I had faith in the truck, though. It was a special order for which I had waited months: two-wheel drive; limited slip, 3.9:1 rear axle; five-speed manual transmission; extra cooling; large gas tank; extra-large tires. The engine groaned on through, and I came to the mineshaft, just a hole in the ground with a fence around it. From here the road became a trail that went down into a wash and back up the canyon where some tremendous rock crags stood. I wanted to get there. The truck went into the wash. But going up the hill it started to slip. The sand was deep. The truck stopped.
I got out.
There is a curious feeling when you are first stuck: a dumb disbelief. All your senses are heightened, as in the story of the guru who enjoys the smell of a flower while holding its stem to keep from falling off a cliff. Is this not a cool evening? Feel that refreshing breeze? You verify what you already know to be true: you are stuck. There is a sound like the swelling vibration of a field of locusts in your ears.
The map I left for my wife merely depicted a mountain a hundred miles north of home, and I was twenty miles from the pavement. Soon the sun would be out of sight, and everyone knows what happens on a warm night in the desert when the sun goes down: the snakes come out. And the Mojave green rattler was indigenous to the area. While it was true I had a snakebite kit, it was also true that you can’t walk far once bitten and even bites that are nonlethal can result in permanent crippling.
I checked my flashlight; the batteries were down and would not last twenty miles. The coffee wasn’t helping my nerves any and had a diuretic effect. I headed for a buckthorn shrub, where I noticed a large desert spiny lizard. Normally an elusive creature, this one looked up at me from a chunk of granite. Everything was quiet.
I walked back to the truck and looked it over. Could it be towed out? Trucks left in the desert overnight were sometimes stripped. Left much longer, they became targets in the Dance of Ten Thousand Bullets, ending up like the rusted skeletons I’d occasionally spotted that afternoon.
I believed I could walk back to the highway, but who ever knew? If I stayed put it might take a rescue party going to Red Mountain some time to find me. The carbine was a problem either way. I didn’t want to leave it with the truck. I could imagine the smirk on the face of the tow truck driver after I had given him hundreds of dollars: “Some sort of rifle, you say? There weren’t no rifle in that truck when we got to it.” I thought about leaving the gun in the desert, finding a bush with a rock, a unique configuration. But there were lots of bushes and rocks. Maybe I could hike out of here with the rifle slung over my shoulder like a pioneer. I imagined trying to hitch a ride in the middle of the night on Highway 395 with the SKS stuck out instead of my thumb.
I’d like a ride, please.
I reconsidered my choices. I took everything out of the back of the truck. There were some foam pads and two rubber mats I’d purchased for an emergency. I paved the sand with stones and laid the pads and mats behind my wheels. I walked back and forth to memorize my route because the mirrors gave no view on an angle that steep. I released air from the tires until the gauge read twelve pounds. They ballooned nicely.
A prayer. In the seat, behind the wheel, engine on, clutch released, not too much gas. The truck rolled backward into the wash, then a short way up the other side, coming to rest positioned perfectly. The sound of the locusts in my head diminished. Once again I laid out a track for the vehicle, this time in front, back down into the wash and up the steep hill. There was no margin for error. The hill would have to be climbed quickly, which might pop the tires. The prayer, once more. I hit the wash at twenty-five miles an hour and rolled up the other side. I was clear.
I headed back toward the highway. Good lizards. Nice birds. Cool breezes. I stopped near a hill and unleashed a hundred rounds from my outdated World War II carbine while Los Angeles smoldered. Back on 395, I pulled into Kramer Junction, ate a mediocre burger, and watched the pretty waitress. She was talking to the fry cook about something and he was upset. She was so good-looking I didn’t know how this railroad stop could stand it. Perhaps she wanted to get out of Kramer Junction. They went into a back room, and from behind the door came the sound of a hard, ugly slap. I didn’t hear her speak again, though he kept talking.
It’s going to be a long time before the right revolution comes along, if there is such a thing.