Death in the Desert

Along Black Eagle Mine Road, near the spot where two tourists died in August 2011 | Chris Clarke photo
Along Black Eagle Mine Road, near the spot where two tourists died in August 2011 | Chris Clarke photo

It's Saturday, December 10, 2011, at 3:30 pm. Search and Recovery teams spent the day scouring Quail Wash in Joshua Tree National Park, searching for any sign of a hiker who went missing in June 2010. The volunteers in Quail Wash will go home empty-handed. They've found a few bone fragments as they searched but will leave them behind, as the rules require. Forensics techs will go back and examine them, decide whether they were once part of William Ewasko of Marietta Georgia, or a coyote or a deer, or perhaps some other hiker long lost and forgotten.

I'm at the other end of the park, hiking near a road where two more park visitors died this past August. I'm watching the sun drop down behind the Hexie Mountains.

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The search and recovery team will be starting to pack up, most likely. There's not much to find in the dark, on a trail 18 months cold. I didn't have to worry much about macabre discoveries at my end of the park. Gus Van Hove and Helena Nuellet were found within hours of their deaths, their remains removed and their rented Dodge Charger hauled out of the sandpit in which it had gotten mired. Nuellet was found not far from where I sit right now; Van Hove made it another mile toward the pavement. Both of them passed this spot.

Despite myself, I find myself wondering what this piece of desert looked like to them.

I have a few advantages over Van Hove and Nuellet. I have a sturdy jeep. I have about six liters of water with me. Also, it's December: the air temperature is some 50 degrees cooler today than it was when that Dodge Charger rolled down this road. If they had had just one of those advantages, I would likely never have heard of either of them.

I received an invitation this week to a benefit cookout party in the Low Desert, and it was clear the invitation had been written with coastal urbanites in mind. "Remember," it said, "this is the desert, and the desert hates you. Everything here is designed by countless eons of geological malevolence to hurt you in some way." Colorful language in a context that surely calls for hyperbole, and yet I flinched.

When I first saw the desert I saw it through eyes that had spent 22 years looking at the deep, obsessive greens of the Great Lakes area. Then I moved West. Riding the Greyhound across Northern Nevada took what seemed a very long time, and the landscape of the Humboldt River Watershed seemed just unspeakably barren. I gazed at it the way a rat gazes at a snake. These days, that same great basin sagebrush country seems almost unbelievably verdant compared to the creosote flats of the Mojave and Colorado deserts. Sitting here in this wash off Black Eagle Mine road, just about everything in my field of view is horrendously spiny, or coated with unpalatable resins, or armed with pincers, stingers, or fangs.

But I can't bring myself to think the desert hates me. For one thing, it really isn't about me. And anyway I have my own defenses.

Fall color in the desert | Chris Clarke photo
Fall color in the desert | Chris Clarke photo

It's just that the desert doesn't hide death very well. No sod grows up from underneath to swallow the bones. In Upstate New York where I grew up, the vines will cover you if you take slightly too long a nap. If I fell asleep for a thousand years, the Mojave yucca next to me might grow to slightly less than double its current size by then. There's none of Walt Whitman's roiling of fevered soil to freshen the bodies of the sour dead here. The desert wears its bones on the surface, where the wind and rain abrade them grain by grain.

I have often hiked in the desert on days when it got significantly hotter than the temperatures Van Hove and Nuellet endured, and I have often run out of water on such days before my hike was over, and I cannot credit myself for the fact that I survived where they did not. At times I have walked out into the desert not exactly seeking an end, but not caring as much as I should have if one came. There are skeletons wherever you walk in the desert, the bleached braided dry stems of dead cholla and termite-hollowed yuccas, discarded elytra of beetles and shells of clams that died in the Pleistcene, all of them crumbling at their own pace into desert dust and I wanted that for me: not death as much as consummation. Union with the land I had come to love.

That feeling comes less often these days. That's a good thing, for the most part. For the most part.

It is beautiful here. When I first arrived a male Costa's hummingbird challenged me abruptly, flying up to the driver's side of the Jeep as I got out. Sage sparrows chip at each other as they fly back and forth among the creosote. Little mesquite seedlings have turned their leaves against the cold, as bright red as any Finger Lakes maple. The lowering sun warms the back of my neck, and the Pinto Mountains across the way turn bright. If this desert hates anyone, it is keeping it well hidden.

I imagine it is scant consolation for the dead's grieving families, but all three sought this place out for its beauty. That beauty was the last thing any of them saw. A long time from now, after I have measured my age in the triple digits for a few years, I hope there will come a time when those who love me can seek consolation in the same. You take enough water, and you make sure your tires are properly inflated, and you read your map carefully and let people know where you plan to be, and yet in the end the choice comes down to being in a place like this or in a hospital bed hooked into monitors and drips and television?

Even sitting in this spot where two people younger than me died needlessly not long ago, that seems to me not a difficult choice at all.

View of the Sheephole Mountains | Chris Clarke photo
View of the Sheephole Mountains | Chris Clarke photo

Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Author of Walking With Zeke, he writes regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues here every Wednesday. He lives in Palm Springs. Read his previous posts here.

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