Thursday, January 1, 2009

The First Little Wilderness

I was something like 9 or 10 when I went to spend a couple of weeks of summer with my cousin Pam and her family in the desert out in Palmdale, California. Pam was a couple years older than me and she lived on the very edge of the desert the very last house before the desert began, the street stopped being asphalt and turned to sand right past her driveway, her backyard shared a chainlink fence with the wilderness. It was magical to me and her house was like a pillar right at the gate of all the unknown, but in reality wilderness what, a lot of it was dumping ground for tires, refrigerators and dead cars, and a place for desert rats to drink and go shooting. It was a good-sized piece of land and it was big enough for me to learn my first taste of that consuming desert silence, but to most everyone who lived there it was an inconvenient square in between highways and housing developments with not much use but to go off-roading, or a boring nothing to be driven past and ignored on the way to the nearest strip mall or high school.
I was still new to any part of the world beyond my block, and the desert was some beckoning land of death, terrible, a mystery, unforgiving and deadly and uncharted and paradise to me. I begged and bribed and goaded my cousin to take me as much as possible. It was nothing new to her and it held no romance or appeal over her as it desperately did me. Living there for years in the heat and the boredom, my cousin wanted to treat me to the pleasures of her air-conditioning and her swiming pool, the last thing she wanted to do was walk around in the heat and the sand, but she took me out anyways and put up with my dreaming, and we'd go hunting for quail stalking them for hours with a real bow and arrow, and we never once saw a single quail but it wouldn't have mattered anyway because every arrow I ever shot flew straight at some rock I wasn't aiming for or else fell by my feet. Or I'd get Pam to tramp up different "mountains" with me, nothing really but scrawny rock hills full of boulders and scree but I'd take an effort in finding and picking the hardest stupidest way to climb up, up and over every jagged thing trying to take advantage of every potential jump and ass-slide and I turned those hills into crumbling death ascents. We "mined" mica in ziplocs and ziplocs chipping it off with hammers we'd brought from the house and I dreamed of selling for a fortune what turned out to be worth nothing more than shiny dandruff. We looked for mountain lions in every shade and hollow, fearless out of ignorance on my part and fearless out of the awareness that there weren't any around on my cousin's part. Once Pam told me about some friend of hers who wasn't allowed to go hiking without taking a snakebite kit along then I dreamed of one of us being lucky enough to get bit and the other having to "suck out the poison" like in the movies.
That desert was like the sea to me. It couldn't have been more than a day's walk across, half a day even, but there were gullies and dunes were I could lose sight of all the houses and the road and I was good as dead for finding North, then, it would turn measureless and unmappable, and I could be a little boy's idea of a man. I remember myself like a very ambitious Lenny, overgrown, sloppy, excitable. I was also stubborn and I believed that I could smell my way back home or something like it, but all I could do was get my cousin and me lost and then I'd swear we were supposed to go "this way" and I would tap into my keen sense of direction I was so sure I had and would get to show off now and I would strike out over and over. My cousin would try to explain to me the obvious direction home and she was never lost, but I would explain to her how she was wrong and that I remembered because I took notice of this certain bush see and its just past this turn or just past these rocks or wait, just past this turn and these rocks, or wait, and eventually she just let me navigate an idiot's line of loops until it got close to dark and she would step in and steer us home.
I remember my aunt telling me about finding scorpions inside boots that had been left out on the back porch and I remember my cousin camping with me on the deck by her pool and I saw the stars big as baseballs for the first time in my life. No kid whose never left the city before ever forgets the first time he sees the stars as more than just some quiet pins on a muted blue night sky but sees them so bright he can hear them like loud suns thrombing out of a pitch, black, real night.