There is such a thing, in the White Man, as a hunger for the desert. In the days of the British Empire it was said that if you penetrated any desert on earth, you would eventually find some lone pink Britisher sitting in a tent playing Patience and listening to the wind. When, that is, he was not dressing up in Saharan robes and leading an Arab revolution. T.E. Lawrence, Paul Bowles, Rider Haggard, Nathaneal West...there is a copious library of Anglo-Saxon desert literature. What is it in these menacing, seemingly sterile landscapes that brings the hyperborean into them? Why does the desert haunt the inhabitant of a land of cool mountains, deciduous forests, and incessant rain? Could it be that the most domestically inclined civilization in history produces in its garrulous adventurers an unquenchable thirst for everything that they are not: primitive inertia, mystical delirium, solitude...a wilderness where the Noble Savage, Bedouin, or Coyote reminds him of an Eden so ancient that even its fossils can be seen in every hillside?
The Mormons loved and love the desert. Unlike the beach, where Crusoe eventually saw the imprint of a human foot, the desert is inhuman, and even inanimate, and therefore — it has always been assumed — close to God. The eremites of Late Antiquity loved the desert as much as the followers of Joseph Smith, and where could that archetypal anchorite Simon the Stylite have had his column but the desert? The mystics wanted a place that was vegetative and mineral, that is, where all animal lust was mocked. Where they felt as small as insects.
The Grand Canyon produces in the spectator just this sense of panic. The dinosaurs are down there in the clefts; aeons are suddenly palpable, condensed into a single panorama; and the visitor feels crushed, terrified by his own microscopic status. Such is the narcotic effect of deserts. They are the ultimate reflection of masochistic self-loathing, and thus from the beginning they have been the natural habitat of Christianity and of Christians. The latter began in the desert, and to deserts they always gravitate.
The first European Americans saw in the desert, therefore, a place of miracles. Like the moralists of medieval Islam such as Ibn Khaldun, they saw it as a source of purgative purity. The people of the desert were purer. And their greater closeness to God could only be rewarded in the end with a correspondingly greater number of beatific visions. Visions and deserts go hand in hand, for — as in the Old Testament — God only reveals Himself in certain parched locations. Beyond and behind every Sodom and every Gomorrah lies the desert and its avenging God. And the latter, as every believer knows only too well, will eventually swallow everything up. For the desert, and not suburbia, is the true abode of Moses and the only source of God’s revenge. And why should the deserts of America, the greatest abode of sinners, be different from any other?
It comes as no surprise, therefore, that the American deserts should be so thickly covered with the nomenclature of the Book. Joshua, Zion, Carmel, Sinai, etc. (and, yes, there is even a Mecca for good measure and, more expressively, an Oh My God Hot Springs). There are whispers of visions: Oriflamme Mountain, Inspiration Point. And there are the memories of Sinai and the wastes of Syria and Mesopotamia in the tamarisks, desert willows, and the Washingtonia palms.
It was perhaps appropriate that the first wagon route of the southern road to California was created at Box Canyon in the Anza-Borrego desert by the Mormon Battalion of Lt. Col. Philip St. George Cooke during the Mexican War in 1847. The route later became the road for the Butterfield Express from 1858 to 1861, and it crossed one of the most desolate, unnerving, and delirium-inducing wastelands of the West. The Butterfield Overland Mail road, which once reached as far as San Francisco, has become S-2, or the Imperial Highway, and traverses the southern half of the Anza-Borrego between the dusty desert town of Ocotillo and the Buena Vista Creek near San Felipe. The Mormons are long forgotten there now, as are the Cahuilla and Kumeyaay Indians who once roamed the shores of what is now the Salton Sea but what was once, with utterly different shorelines, Lake Cahuilla.
But the road itself, lonely, flanked with strange and haunting landscapes, with dazzling arroyos or dry washes, with brilliant sand pastures of cholla and Smoke Tree, retains the dim imprint of ephemeral human life. Not in monuments or successful, teeming settlements, but in stubbed ruins, ghost towns like Little Borrego, their Main Streets and Broadways swept with tumbleweed, and a topography named for the dead. A race of dead people has given to the timeless canyons and creeks their names: Collins, Henderson, Butler, Pegleg Smith, Martinez. One wonders how many centuries those names will last.
Ocotillo, that eerie half-town of trailers, blooming gardens, and desert avenues named after the red-flowered spiny plant, sits on Interstate 8 a few miles east of Jacumba. On one side of the freeway are the four or five rectilinear streets that make up the town, all with names lovelier than their aspect — Opal, Sage Brush — and sanctified by serious Virgins in sky-blue niches. On the other is the Desert Kitchen diner, sitting silently under the rippled, ash-colored mountains, all glass globe lamps, potted cacti, and fly-speckled windows. Huge desert men with sloganed caps love to eat the Tomato Stuffed with Crab-Shrimp Salad here. And the air conditioning makes the ring of desert with its smattering of red ocotillo blooms momentarily distant. The soft, Ming-blue sky, suddenly more vast than any other, loses its venom. And the bare white hills, the eroded hummocks of rock, the rivulets of gentle white sand, and the blue shimmer of flowering sagebrush remind you not so much of the unforgiving fastnesses of Job as of the sunlit landscapes of Greek myth.