August 13, 2008

The singing dunes


By Ken Layne
LA City Beat


On a cool morning, no deadlines, empty house, I throw a sleeping bag and two bottles of wine in the truck and head up the 15. The interstate is relatively sane, what with the crashing economy and $4 gasoline. Plus, it’s early Saturday morning. The Vegas-bound mooks headed out on Friday night.

The AM real-estate show from Las Vegas says everything’s “bad and getting worse.” I switch to the Mojave National Preserve information station once I see the sign in Barstow. There’s something about a scratchy recording of a lady ranger reading aloud from a Park Service brochure. She lists all the terrible ways one can die on a routine desert outing, and how to prevent them: Bring water, wear a hat. Goddammit, where’s my hat? I stop at a Baker gift shop next to the old Bun Boy-turned-Big Boy diner, the giant thermometer letting people know what it’s like outside of the car, and find an ugly camouflage Chinese-sweatshop wide-brimmed hat for $12 that just barely fits my skull.

Minutes later, the simple concrete Mojave National Preserve entrance sign welcomes me to 1.6 million acres of extraordinary desert. There is no entrance fee, no line of RVs, no Park Service booth, no Smokey Bear ranger to hand you a brochure. The frantic hassle of Interstate 15 and the Vegas-L.A. corridor is gone, immediately replaced by silence and creosote and sand, the Marl Mountains rising up to the southeast and Kelso Peak straight ahead. It is one of those Panavision Western Widescreen Views, and it’s just a few minutes away from one of the busiest interstates in the West, and if you stop your car in the middle of the two-lane to investigate a Red Racer snake zooming along the roadside, there’s nobody around to complain.

What I need to see is a desert tortoise, in the wild. I started coming out here in the 1980s and I’ve never come across one of the Living Fossils. I must see tortoises, while we still have some. They used to be so common in springtime that campers would fill their pockets with the babies and imprison the gentle critters as backyard pets.

But it’s too late today, and the sun is already cooking through the morning cloud cover. I try various dirt roads, put on my dumb hat, walk down washes and trails, seeing many burrows but no actual shelled denizens.

Time to hike the Kelso Dunes. I take Kelbaker Road across the Union Pacific tracks – America’s busiest freight corridor runs through the middle of Mojave National Preserve – while it’s still cool enough for a pleasant walk. It’s a gorgeous 79-degree Saturday and there are no cars parked at the trailhead. When you add Las Vegas and Phoenix to the mix, 30 million people live within a few hours’ drive of this magnificent park, and nobody’s here. I don’t know whether to laugh or curse. Ah, right. I laugh.

These are Singing Dunes. They make strange music, punctuated by strange booms. I trudge through clouds of sand-colored grasshoppers, the sand whistling like some melancholy gypsy violin. There are brave and beautiful flowers still bursting from these harsh sand hills. Some are tiny and lie close to the ground, others are bursting from brush and stem and dune weeds housing happy little birds. I see a vague movement under a fuzzy gray bush, and hold my camera over it. A Mojave fringe-toed lizard shakes its tail and dives into the sand.

After I’ve trudged back through the sand, I see exactly two cars – an elitist Subaru and four-wheel-drive BMW – parked at the trail head. The occupants must’ve taken another route up the hill. What to make of this scarcity of people upon these rare lands set aside for people to enjoy? Why isn’t anyone outside?

The trail and the campfire used to be common ground for common middle-class people, just two decades ago. Now we’re bored of silence, scared of bugs, terrified of snakes, and only understand wildlife in lurid teevee terms. “Toddler eaten by hungry coyote five years ago; fat mom was inside stripping for Web-Cam.”

Gasoline prices and the current Economic Collapse play their part, but the abandonment of the unmotorized outdoors has been happening since that other George Bush was president. The U.S. population has added 75 million people since the 1980s, the decade in which human use of national parks, national forests, and state parks peaked.

Up at dawn, I’m headed down Morningstar Mine Road, in the northeast part of the preserve, the Ivanpah Valley, looking for tortoises, looking for a dirt road just beyond the power lines, but end up over the railroad track and nearly to the mine. I backtrack, fail, and finally give up and take the dirt road beneath the massive high-tension double power line towers that cross this valley like giant robot monsters on their way to destroy Los Angeles.

There’s a mild buzz, from the electricity surging through those lines a hundred feet above me. This is absurd. Coke cans and beer bottles and a rubber mudflap from a pickup truck line the sandy utility road, it’s all horrible ... and there’s a tortoise, lumbering along. I shut the engine, grab my camera, get out as slowly and quietly as possible, and approach the desert tortoise.

He (she?) looks up, blinking in the sun.

“Don’t mind me, buddy,” I say, snapping pictures. “Just getting your picture. For the yearbook.”


It’s a full-sized adult tortoise, beautiful burnished brown plates, fine patterns, and shiny varnish. About two feet long, eight inches tall, the elephant feet strong and steady. This one’s been breakfasting on little yellow flowers, one sitting atop the shell.

I head down a jackrabbit trail away from the power lines, to give it space. I count a hundred burrows in a few minutes of walking, noting the fresh tracks outside many of them, and the perfect situation of flowers and desert grasses growing just outside of so many of them, the tortoise’s personal salad bar.

But it’s already too hot, and for the moment the sky is perfectly clear and blue, and there’s no breeze or shade. I should’ve been up an hour before dawn. Driving slowly back to Nipton, I watch the rocky road shoulders. There’s another one, munching baby-blue flowers a foot away from the pavement. Good god, man, get off the road!

I pull over and walk back to see this buddy. It is shy, unlike the first one, and retracts head and legs into a yellow-green shell. We have no business moving them, for their own safety, as the tortoise has a peculiar habit of pissing itself when frightened – and that urine is its water supply during the long dry summer.

There’s one more tortoise on the roadside, crushed by a car.