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Fall 2018 Part 4: Bittersweet Journey Home

Saturday, November 17th, 2018: Fall Trip 2018, Trips.

The Discoverer’s Duty

As I dove into the smog-choked Las Vegas basin, my trip entered its final phase. As usual, I’d used up much of the day checking out the last prehistoric site. My intention had been to drive through Vegas at mid-day, stock up on supplies for desert camping, and hit the road again at mid-afternoon with plenty of time to find a camp site in a familiar part of the Mojave. Instead, the sun was setting as I pulled into the Whole Foods parking lot in the upscale shopping mall and tucked my old, mud-splattered truck between the sparkling luxury SUVs and sports cars of the suburbanites.

I’d spent more than a week far from cities and industrial civilization, immersed in nature, walking through ancient campsites, surrounded by the art, the writings, and the ghosts of the Old Ones who’d lived lightly and sustainably on this beautiful desert land. Now I was suffering the usual shock of returning to civilization: the stressed-out crowds milling through a generic and completely artificial environment, competing against each other in their conspicuous consumption of the ravaged earth’s bounty. I tried to stay calm but failed.

It was dark by the time I emerged with my purchases. It’d been a long day, my crippled arm was sore from driving, and my only practical option at this point was to head for the cheap motel I knew in nearby Boulder City. My cooler still needed block ice, which is becoming increasingly harder to find, but I found it in the Boulder City Albertson’s, and as stressed as I was, while leaning over to rearrange my ice chest in the bed of the truck, I forgot to bend at the knees, and triggered my always-lurking lower back pain.

The whole trip so far had entailed a lonely struggle to keep my various sources of chronic pain at bay, while many of the routine chores of traveling – driving, reaching, turning, bending, lifting – threatened to cripple me. This is what I’d tried and failed to explain to my doctor before leaving: we never know when this kind of pain is going to be triggered by something, and when it is, if we don’t get immediate relief, we’re going to be crippled and our plans waylaid. Fortunately, I still had a dwindling stash of the emergency meds that are getting harder and harder to refill, as our Puritanical society wages war against doctors, pain sufferers, and legitimate pain relief.

Would I be able to continue with my trip, or would the pain sabotage my plans? I was really looking forward to finally camping out with friends in the familiar, welcoming environment of the Mojave Desert. But with the pain threatening me in the background, I had one more duty to fulfill before joining them.

In Part 3 I mentioned the ranching families who’d collected artifacts from their land and put them on display in the local museum. It was actually apparent from the displays that these collections were only on loan – the families still considered these relics of the people they’d displaced as their private property. Like all of my family and friends, I was raised in a society that is confident in its superiority over indigenous peoples and its right to virtually everything those natives once used or created.

As a child, I inherited a handful of arrowheads that my Dad discovered or was given by his elders back east. Everyone took for granted that anything you discovered was your property. Decades later, Katie and I went crazy when we started to find potsherds and stone tools around our desert cave. She was already beginning to collect historical artifacts and dead bushes to assemble into art back in the city. This was even better. We never gave a second thought to collecting parts of the landscape that others had left behind.

But now, more decades later, like most of my camper friends, I had a small collection of artifacts that I’d dragged around from home to home and that mostly spent their time hidden away in boxes. I had no one to leave them to, and I figured that when I died, some rushed, stressed-out acquaintance would probably end up tossing them in the trash without even looking at them. Unlike the Mormon families, I didn’t believe finding and collecting them made them my “property” – even if I’d found them on land I owned – because I don’t really believe in land ownership in our Eurocentric, legal, capitalistic sense.

There are a couple of sanctioned dispositions available for prehistoric relics in our society: transfer to science (archaeology), or repatriation to tribes. I’d kept pretty good track of where these – mostly potsherds – had come from, but after what I’d learned on this and previous trips, I’d lost faith in archaeologists, and I was really confused about what, if any, contemporary tribes had jurisdiction over the source of my collection.

My ultimate conclusion was that every generation needs the experience of discovery that I and my friends had had, the realization that people actually lived off the land and created things here that were both beautiful and functional, in this exotic place we initially treat only as a recreational playground. The best place for artifacts is where we find them, not in a private collection or even in a museum. My hope is that by returning these pieces where they came from, I can help launch someone else on the path I’ve followed, through the veil of civilized illusion to a clearer view of humans in nature.

Nuwuvi Desert

Returning those artifacts was one of the strangest experiences I’ve ever had. When we’d found them, more than 30 years ago, we were camping a quarter mile or so off a lonely dirt road, after parking our vehicle on a dirt trail under a telephone line alongside the road. Now, the road is paved, it’s the main highway through a National Preserve, and where we parked our vehicle is a big, paved parking lot with a sign proclaiming “Scenic Overlook.” Whereas we used to wait a half hour or more between passing vehicles on that road, there’s now continual high-speed traffic, and almost always tourists parked there.

A cold wind was blowing – there was a high wind advisory across the desert for the next 24 hours – and in order to pull on my jacket and load my backpack, I had to squeeze between the open doors of other vehicles and the bodies of milling tourists, in this place that had once been so remote and lonely. I could feel them staring at me as I dropped over the edge of the parking lot and headed down into the desert alone. They soon left, and others arrived, as I revisited our cave and the spots where we’d found these creations of the old Indians, always aware of the strangers’ curious eyes aimed at me from a distance. It was a bittersweet visit, but it also felt like a circle was beginning to close. Now, my only future duty here would be to remove the furnishings of our cave, and it would be ready for someone else.

Now that I was in the National Preserve, the revelations of my journey through Southern Paiute territory were constantly on my mind. Until now, I’d taken the name “Mojave Desert” for granted – I’d even defended it against the Anglicized version “Mohave” used in Arizona. But the name had taken a more sinister dimension after I discovered that my sometime friend, the Park Service archaeologist, had ensured that signage and kiosks in the National Preserve identified only the Mojave Indians as natives of this desert, completely erasing the Indians I knew to be its historical inhabitants, the Chemehuevi branch of the Southern Paiutes. He was following the archaeological consensus that the Southern Paiutes were a violent, invasive group that forced the Mojaves out of the desert a few hundred years ago. And maybe he’d made friends in the Colorado River-based Mojave tribe, and was also playing favorites. But my journeys, as well as my recent anthropological readings, had revealed a contradictory story. Now I was primed to reject the very name of my beloved desert.

The name Mojave is a Spanish corruption of “Aha Macav,” the Mojaves’ name for themselves. Nuwuvi is what the Southern Paiute call themselves, and I now feel we should call it the Nuwuvi Desert, for the peaceful people who tell us they’ve always lived there, the people whose entire prehistory reveals a consummate adaptation to challenging arid habitats.

With that in mind, I headed home to my land in the Nuwuvi Desert. As the Chemehuevi say, “kaiyani” – my mountains.

Bittersweet Homecoming

When I discovered this mountain range, it was the remote, hidden oases I was attracted to. Scattered all over the range, a few miles apart, were isolated spots where water seeped out of the rocks and filled small basins that I, my friends, and our wild animal companions could drink from. These springs and seeps were sacred places. And now, after years of severe drought, they were drying out, one by one. The fracture zones that stored rainwater within the mountains were empty, and who knew when they’d ever be replenished? Our vaunted science is brought to its knees by the Great Mysteries, but many scientists, in their ignorance of the broader context, continue to aid industry in its unsustainable capitalist exploitation of resources we’ll never fully understand. A prominent geologist, a friend of a friend, is one of the founders of the controversial water project which aims to privatize the aquifer below our land and sell it to the city of Los Angeles.

One accidental theme of this visit consisted of revisiting places within a few miles of camp that I hadn’t seen in decades. Nooks and crannies I’d explored more than 20 years ago after first acquiring this land, but had avoided since, for whatever reason. And in every place we visited, I was, as usual, awed by the resilience of life in an environment that seems so parched and challenging to us weak, enervated domestic creatures.

At one point, returning from a hike, a couple miles from camp, I stopped to get something out of my pack. I took it off, set it on the ground and got what I needed, but when I tried to lift it to put it back on, I felt the old stabbing pain again, the one that can break out a sweat, stop me in my tracks and make virtually everything painful for the next week or so. Fortunately I caught this one early enough, but I still had to be super-mindful and careful for the rest of the day. The new normal.

Outdoor Life

The high winds came and went, and returned four days later, in the cycle I remember from winters past. Wind so strong, in this landscape of mountains surrounded by vast basins, that you had to lean into it to remain standing. And everything in your campsite has to be weighted down, or it can be blown away and impaled on the nearest bush of thorns or spines.

In the still intervals we could hear the birds stationed about their wild territory, calling to each other. The moon was coming back from new, its thin crescent slice growing barely perceptibly each night, but it set early to leave the sky to the stars, the constellations, the galaxy, and the always-present meteorites and high-altitude jets. We even saw a satellite once rushing down its orbit from pole to pole.

One thing I’ve always loved is to listen to the wind moving across the basin below camp, from shrub to shrub, from miles off in the distance to yards away in the big arroyo. But my companion noted that it even sings a complex “chorus” across the boulder-strewn slope above camp.

Driving Into Winter

As I was leaving our desert mountains, a cold wave was clamping down on the Southwest. I was reluctantly returning to a New Mexico home where the nighttime temperatures were in the teens. And the time change was working against me, so I didn’t get very far the first day of driving. And all my warm clothes were dirty from camping, so I had to do laundry again, and got a late start the second day. It took three partial days to get home, wrapped in thermal layers even in the truck so that when I stepped out for gas or to take pictures, I wouldn’t freeze.

This trip of revelations had also been a sobering lesson in how challenging camping can be when you’re struggling to cope with pain and physical conditions that need to be treated daily. I’d slacked off because it wasn’t convenient or there just wasn’t time, and I needed to get back on the program and resume spending a couple hours a day at home treating my conditions, including my daily schedule of stretching and working out, that I pursue mainly as conditioning for these wilderness trips. It’s all a very lonely pursuit, now that my friends and I are scattered all over the place, and busy lives rarely allow us to meet up. We didn’t know how lucky we were when we were young, healthy, childless, and couldn’t care less about our jobs back in the city.

Tragic Legacy

What did I learn from those two-and-a-half weeks of exploring what most people assume is old familiar territory for me? Why do I keep going back to Southern Paiute territory, when my friends are flying off to Spain, Iceland, or Australia, and probably not spending any more money to visit those presumably more exotic places, when you consider my gas and lodging costs?

Something that was percolating, annoyingly, below the surface of my consciousness, is how I’ve spent my life. Yes, as an artist, a bohemian, and an outdoorsman, I’ve had an incredibly exciting life. No complaints there. But I’ve also had two separate professional careers, two separate phases of my working life, one throughout the 1980s, the other from the late 90s through the mid-teens, that chewed up huge amounts of time, energy, and natural resources, and didn’t necessarily make our world a better place. It’s high time for me to acknowledge and deal with that, in some way.

The mid-term election in the U.S., with its corresponding social media hysteria, is probably one thing that forces me to deal with my professional legacy. The software interfaces that I led the design of, not just as a worker bee, but as an acknowledged “guru,” have turned out to be a force of destruction. I long ago stopped believing that they were a force for good, as some of my colleagues hoped in the beginning. But now it’s obvious that, like virtually all of our technology, they’re alienating us from nature and each other. They’re making it easier for capitalists to exploit us, to track our behavior and steal our private information. They’re addicting us, deluding us, depressing us. They’re even driving people to rape and kill each other, as in the case of Facebook and Myanmar. So much of my precious life, misdirected and wasted on works that betray my deepest principles.

Actually, it’s more likely that my recent discovery of my old friend James’s death is what started me on this re-evaluation. James recognized that to the extent you pursue a career in the capitalist economy, you’re part of the problem, and he had the courage to resist it his entire life. People can say that’s what isolated him and made him unhappy. But there are alternatives, people I know who, while forced to work in the capitalist economy, put their hearts into building resilient local communities. I tried to do that with my Harvest Festival, but although it succeeded for the community, it was a community I wasn’t able to join. There are no guarantees, and most attempts will fail, because the destructive power of our society is almost irresistible.

In addition to the revelations about rock writing, the Nungwu, Southern Paiute culture, and the Nuwuvi Desert, one significant discovery was the hidden, gradual, pernicious conversion of our country’s wild lands for mechanized recreation. It hasn’t been publicized, even in conservation-oriented regional media like High Country News, which are usually more focused on urban-centric politics anyway. In remote rural places, trail networks have been widened and developed for the new quad ATVs or UTVs, and tent campsites have been razed and graded into parking lots for monster RVs. And of course, in southern Nevada and eastern California, vast areas of high-quality, productive natural habitat in the desert have been destroyed and replaced with huge industrial solar plants and wind farms. Gas-powered RVs now have fuel economy in the single digits. Imagine how much natural habitat would need to be permanently destroyed to power a big electric RV in the future! That’s the world we – and our engineers and tech billionaires – are destroying for our children. I wonder how many of those engineers and entrepreneurs will eventually wake up too late to their tragic legacy, like I did.

I’ll have to think much more about the paradigm shift from rock art to rock writing, and the ubiquity of rock writing in native habitat. I still don’t understand the relationship between artistic expression and symbolic communication in my own work. Maybe I don’t need or want to understand it, just to continue to experiment with it in my future work – and I do have specific work planned and waiting to be made, when I can find the space and time to make it.

Regarding the development of roadside prehistoric sites – along existing roads – I can often lament the fact that a road was made there in the first place, especially when sites have already been severely vandalized. But the development I saw on this trip was uniformly protective and enlightening. And the vast majority of sites are still out there, hidden away, only accessible by strenuous hiking, waiting for future generations to discover and learn from. So that much is good.

In all, another bittersweet journey. Wish you could’ve joined me – we’d have much to remember and savor together.

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