Water, water everywhere

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Joshua trees, also blooming

Word had gotten out about the Super Bloom. It had rained an unexpected amount in Death Valley, and the flowers were out, all the flowers, and the valley floor was spectacular. Oh boy, we said, and made plans.

All of the motels in Death Valley were booked (word about the Bloom had spread quickly), so we had to go further afield. We saw some stuff and did some stuff, but it was all just a warm-up for the Bloom. We’d seen a total eclipse of the sun; now we were doubling down. The desert comes alive! Nature fecund and profligate! I’ll do that.


As you drive down  I-5 (or up 99), the signs proliferate.  “Food goes where water flows,” “Is growing food wasting water?” “Over 1.2 million California jobs depend on agriculture,” “No water no jobs” and, even more succinctly, “Pray for rain”.

(Let me mention the least appealing advertising slogan I have ever encountered, on a billboard for a furniture store north of Fresno: “Come see our stool samples”).

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Covert signs of political unrest

There was a lot of rain on our way down, but all Californians knew that El Nino is a chimera. It seems like a lot of rain, but Lake Isabella, east of Bakersfield, still looked like a large puddle surrounded by barren mudflats. There was a lot of rain in the desert too, hence the Bloom, and there’d been flash floods in places, but the land was still dry and unforgiving

Death Valley was not the site of a famous scene of starvation or disease; there was no mass die-off on the valley floor. It is said that the name came from a careless remark by a young boy attached to the first party of settlers who came through those parts — they were lost, of course.

They came to the lip of the Valley after months of traveling through unknown territory. The first words spoken on that promontory are not known, but I assume they were something like, “Holy Christ, are we ever screwed.”


I went into a convenience store search for Chapstick. The girl at the counter waved her hand. I saw an imposing rack of tubes, way more lip ointment than I would have ever thought possible. Aloha Coconut, Mango Sunrise, Cake Batter. The clerk said, “it’s the owner. She’s the queen of Chapstick.”


The weather was changeable. We drove through rain in the Kern River Valley, through falling snow on our way to Benton, through a pretty good sandstorm on our way to Olancha. The extremes are part of the point; there’s nothing like watching a desert lightning storm sweeping down from the horizon. Big skies create a grander scale; even a contrail can look apocalyptic.

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Our modest sandstorm: The wind was howling


We had a good soundtrack in the car, everything from Washboard Sam to you-know-who. Nice to roll along the two-lane with old friends.


We found Benton Hot Springs, which is absolutely in the middle of nowhere. It’s a geothermal oasis, no doubt a great comfort to travelers finding themselves in, well , the middle of nowhere. The hot springs are fresh, and they don’t smell of sulfur; the breakfasts are large and tasty; the innkeepers are young and friendly; and a cat named Sylvester may spend the night with you if you play your cards right.

There are hot springs all over the Great Basin; it’s just that this one has soft beds and heated floors. Bonus: Never any water shortage.


It’s impossible not to think about water when you’re in the California desert. Take a little apolitical trip to Mono Lake, admire the tufa, and get caught up in one of the great battles of the 20th Century: Los Angeles (very big town) versus the Owens Valley (small and not politically connected). Result: Los Angeles stole water for decades against fierce local opposition. Owens Valley finally won the war, but Mono Lake had dropped 45 vertical feet, lost half its volume, and doubled in salinity.

The famous tufa at Mono Lake (otherworldly towers of calcium carbonate) have been around for a while, but they’ve been much more exposed  recently; their appearance is a symptom of the lake’s destruction. Mono Lake owes its salvation to sundry environmental groups, so maybe cynicism is not appropriate in all situations.

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Tufa hoping to be underwater again


We got to Death Valley and heard the bad news: The Super Bloom was over. The rain and wind of the previous weekend had beaten down the blooms. We mustn’t expect anything spectacular. Flowers, sure, but we should have been there last week.

We are adaptable travelers; we can make do. We search the hillside for flowers and found a bounty of species. Let me just type their names because I love to hear them: desert star, desert gold, desert trumpet, desert sage, desert five-spot, turtleback, panamint daisy, gravel ghost, fremont phacelia, shredding evening primrose, tufted evening primrose, brown-eyed evening primrose.

I love the idea of the little seeds sitting underground, whistling thinly through their lips and trying to get some sleep. Year after year, nothing happens. All of a sudden, water! Time to push through the soil. Time to make others of your kind. Time to spread your array for an awe-struck world.

I’ve been coming to the desert all my life. My father lived in Pear Blossom for a while, and I visited in the summer. The nearest house was half a mile away; I used to run with the two dogs among the mesquite and the creosote bushes. Later on, Tracy and I would visit Joshua Tree in the spring, and the desert turned romantic. The mountains silhouetted against a red sky; coyotes beginning to howl; the botanical perfume in the morning almost strong enough to wake you up.

I always forget how spacious the desert is, how accommodating. If you live there, you can be anyone you want.  Beyond civilization, back in the harsh wilderness, undefined and undefinable; people live for that.

Now I only visit in the spring or fall. If it got to be 134 degrees, as it did in  Death Valley once, I imagine I’d be clinging to the air conditioner and begging for mercy.

Of course, it’s a dry heat.


We stayed in a town called Shoshone. To check into the $60 motel, we had to fill out a three-page form, initialing promises not to smoke, not to bring a pet into the room, not to run in the pool area. I said, making a joke, “this is like applying for a passport.”

“Yes it is,” said the woman behind the counter, giving me a level stare. “yes it is.”


The last day we were there, we drove down south of Badwater, because someone said there might be flowers down there. For many miles, only a smattering of flowers. Then we turned a corner and saw it, a field of gold. It was everywhere, climbing up the hillsides, swaying slightly in the wind. Desert golds, mostly, but also a lot of other stuff.

I have no idea whether this was the Super Bloom or not. Let’s just call it the Very Good Bloom. It was, you know, magical.

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Nature fecund and profligate


Photography by Tracy “These are just snaphots” Johnston

Invaluable help by Michelle “Let’s SEO this thing” Mizera

Take my hand

So then Sotomayor says to Alito…

So I’m thinking of a chorus. I’m thinking Palestinian kids and Israeli kids together, led by a prosperous pianist and an unemployed community organizer — of different faiths. They sit beside each other at meals; they take long bus rides to gigs all over the country — heck, all over the world. They sing “The Wind Beneath My Wings” and “Bad Romance” and of course “Imagine”. The place goes nuts. The boys and girls hold hands and take a bow together — except those who for religious reasons can’t touch a woman.

It’s a cry for peace in a strife-torn country. It’s a beacon of unity in a divided nation. It’s probably hopeless, but hope is always an obligation, even when it goes against conventional wisdom. Maybe someday one chorus member will be the Israeli Prime Minister and the other the Palestinian president, and they will meet in a quiet restaurant in Jerusalem, and sing two choruses of “We Are the Champions” and hammer out a two-state solution before the knaffe even reaches the table.

Beautiful, isn’t it? But we know it will never happen because the sides are too far apart, because of the brains distorted after generations of roiling propaganda, because of murders suffered on both sides. It’s sad. These Middle Eastern countries are so clannish.

Actually, I’m talking about the United States. We have a division in our nation that’s as crippling as the Israeli/Palestinian divide. People are dying over there, but it’s not exactly bloodless over here. I give you the Murrah office building in Oklahoma City.  Or Ruby Ridge.

And the divide is not just geographical. Most police departments are representative of Red State thinking, even in deep blue states; a public defender’s office in a deep red state would still most likely be filled with Blue State citizens.

We work together, have family gatherings together, but we don’t talk about politics. We just avoid it, because it will only lead the name-calling, rancor and resentment.

In other countries people with different ideas come together in cafes and argue fiercely. We don’t do that. Who needs the aggravation? We just go back to our polling places and start exchanging gunfire — that is, if people even go to polling places. That’s another consequence of the red/blue divide; it’s so simultaneously enraging and ludicrous that people just check out. They feel that it’s been a long time since democracy was about them.

A lot of us on both sides agree that the elites have conspired to distort and corrupt the government. But we can’t agree on which elites. Is it the New York Times and Planned Parenthood? Or is it the Supreme Court and the defense industries?  Corporations or gay lawyers?  Fundamentalist preachers or pornographers? Or greedy banks — no, wait, everyone hates greedy banks.

So, obviously, the only useful thing to do would be an attempt to make the United States, well, united. The only useful thing to do would be to attempt to start a dialogue.  My big brain tells me that, but my small brain is saying: Do I really want to talk to a person who believes that abortion is murder and that gay people are all secular devils? Can I stand five minutes with someone who believes that Muslims should be barred from entering the country?

No, let’s talk about the Third Amendment instead…

I can see agreeing with someone about, say, Hillary Clinton’s frightening devotion to the security state and its attempts to destroy privacy, but then I’d have to hear about Hillary’s terrible awful treasonous secret emails. And the other person would have to hear that Edward Snowden is, on balance, a patriot.

So that’s my dilemma. I understand about populist rage; I agree with people who say that conservative and rural people are the victims of class-linked stereotyping. I believe that community and faith have been unfairly dismissed as irrelevant to the political process. But then I say something like “systemic racism,” trying to be agreeable, and now we’re having a fight about whether black people are pushing too hard, and we’re right back to the foxholes.

OK, this is my fantasy. I’m fighting with a straw man. But I’ve seen many straw men come to life and start laying waste to the landscape. Ted Cruz and Donald Trump started out as merely loathsome outliers useful for parody; now they’re the Republican party.

I want to be a nice Palestinian lad singing Kumbaya with a sweet Israeli girl. I want peace to come to this troubled kingdom. Take my hand! And now try to find the hand of a Mike Huckabee supporter. It’s for the good of the children.


I get to the movies early. Heck, I get most places early. That way I’m never late! The logic is unassailable, but some people disagree.

So I have a chance to observe seating patterns. People will always leave  open chairs between them and the people on either side, because it’s a known fact that touching the elbow of a stranger can bring about disastrous consequences, from convulsions to pregnancy. We must always be vigilant.

(The same dynamic happens in men’s rest rooms, where an open urinal is always left between peers. Or pee-ers. The next person in  the room fills in the space, but no one is happy about it).

More people enter the theater. Only seats at the sides and way down in front remain. And yet, there are many vacant seats left in the good seats. Single patrons fill in the blanks, with the longer-serving audience members grimacing and shuffling. But couples — what do they do? Do they ruefully separate and find seats in the hygiene gaps? Or are they so invested in hand-holding and cheek-nuzzling that they find two seats in the first row and tilt their heads back to view the film looming above them?

But then there are the bold couples, the take-n0-shit probably-from-New-York folks who say, “you know, if you’d just scootch down one, we could sit together.” And then there is much sighing and coat-flinging and mutterings about the rudeness of latecomers, and the elbows of strangers are inevitably touched.

And yet somehow, the magic of movies take over, and a flickering peace descends on the dark room.


Jon Carroll Prose will be taking a vacation with Mrs. Prose, so there won’t be any posts for 10 days or so. Probably the next post will be about wildflowers in Death Valley, because that’s where we’re going. In the meantime, go read Dahlia Lithwick.


Photography by Tracy Johnston

Marketing help by Michelle “Sunset Cruise” Mizera