The Oasis of Mara
Our little hotel sets beneath the Queen and Pinto mountain ranges on the northern edge of Joshua Tree National Park at the Oasis of Mara. This fan palm oasis used to be known as Indian Gardens, after the beanfields laboriously tended by the Serrano Indians. Mara is the name the Serrano gave to the place, meaning “place of small springs and tall grasses.”
The Serranos were part of the “toloache” cult, whose rituals were brought to life by psychedelic trips induced through the smoking of that noted member of the datura family, jimson weed. The hallucinations were induced primarily for religious rites, but they also had more pragmatic applications, such as to assure luck in gambling.
By most accounts, the Serrano tribe proved to be masters of a complex desert agriculture, cultivating beans, melons, gourds and Devil’s claw, a plant domesticated for use in weaving the tribe’s extraordinarily beautiful baskets. They also gathered the fruit of the fan palm and the sugar-sweet seedpods of the honey mesquite.
The Serrano, and their neighbors the Cahuilla and Fernandeno tribes, were pacifists and not uncommonly led by a woman chief.
This rooted and nonconfrontational mode of existence suited life in the desert, but became problematic when the more aggressive Chemeheuvi band of Paiutes showed up at the Oasis in 1867, having been driven westward from their homelands along the Colorado by Mormons and miners.
Life for these tribes under the Spanish occupation was miserable, but it got even worse when California became a state, especially after the gold rush. In 1851, California’s second governor, John McDougal, laid out the state’s genocidal gameplan: “a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the races until the Indian race becomes extinct.” They were duly denied citizenship rights, voting rights and the right to testify in court.
California was admitted to the union as a free state. But this bit of enlightened thinking didn’t apply to Indians, who were routinely rounded up by ranchers, railroad companies and mining firms and made to work as slaves. This appalling situation was made official state policy with the passage of the Indenturement Act of 1850. Often slaughter accompanied enslavement. Indian parents were killed and the children kidnapped and sent off to work as slaves until the age of 30. The practice wasn’t outlawed until 1867, four years after the emancipation proclamation.
By 1902, the wars, disease, murders and kidnappings had taken their toll on the both Serrano and Chemeheuvi tribes. In that year’s census, only 37 Indians remained at the Mara Oasis. Today there’s little evidence of the Indians at all, except for a small cemetery of unmarked graves just west of the oasis.
From the Mind of Edgar Allen Poe
The Mojave isn’t easy to get a handle on. In general, it’s a high elevation landscape, relatively cool and wet, as far as deserts go-and surprisingly barren. The Sonoran desert, by contrast, is lower, searingly hot, parched and astonishingly diverse. In general. Because on the other hand, the Mojave also boasts the hottest spot in North America, the most sunken (Death Valley), and the driest (Baghdad, California).
The signature plant of the Mojave is the Joshua Tree, which an early desert ecologist described as springing full-grown from the mind of Edgar Allen Poe. Joshua Trees are monicots, grotesquely oversized lilies, with contorted limbs and trunks armored with spikes, which are used skillfully by the loggerhead shrike to impale its prey. They reminded me of the gruesome gibbets haunting the backgrounds of so many of Pieter Breugel’s paintings. Indeed, there is something deathlike about the Joshua tree. Rot is its signature feature, from the inside and out. Most mature Joshua Trees are hollow, the pithy core having flaked away.
These vegetable beasts (explorer John Fremont called them the most repulsive member of the plant kingdom) grow at an excruciatingly slow rate, something on the order of 1.5-2 centimeters per year. Even so, there are some gargantuan specimens in the park. One multi-headed titan in the Covington Flats is 40 feet tall and 14 feet in circumference, making it something on the order of 800-years old, about the age of the ancient Douglas-firs of the Oregon cascades.
Joshua Tree National Park contains a confluence of deserts, the meeting ground of the Mojave and the Sonoran, which in California, for obscure politico-etymological reasons, is referred to as the Coloradan.
Like most of the western parks, Joshua Tree was pretty well picked over by the mining companies before (and even after) it was set aside as a national monument and later a park. The fabled prospectors (and Joshua Tree had many) upon whom so much of the myth of western libertarianism has been constructed were in reality little more than hard rock sharecroppers for the big mining companies in San Francisco, New York and London. The most productive mine in Joshua Tree yielded little more than $2.5 million in ore, mainly gold. Certainly not worth all the bother and bloodshed.
On Tuesday morning, I went for a walk up Ryan Mountain, a relatively modest ascent of about 2,000 feet. Modest unless you are a flatlander, who spends 80 percent of his waking hours in front of a Macintosh at 200 feet above sea level. I huffed and puffed my way, being passed by a cadre of extreme runners who sprinted to the summit and back down before I had even made it half way. Trip on a cholla, I muttered, as they rumbled by.
They call it Ryan Mountain, after Jep and Tom Ryan, owners of the Lost Horse mine, who lived near its base in a house built by a nefarious character named Sam Temple. By most accounts, Temple was a sadist and unrepentant Indian killer, who served as the model for the murderer in Helen Hunt Jackson’s novel Ramona. I don’t know what the Serranos called this humpbacked peak. But it must have been a primo place to imbibe jimson weed.
The view from the top was worth the pain of the climb. Dust devils sprouted and zigzagged across the yucca plain below, which stretched for miles to the lavender-colored Little San Bernardino Mountains. The horizon was smudged by a dingy haze, bubbling up like steam from a witch’s cauldron, which signaled the presence of Palm Springs. I watched a ferruginous hawk lost in a lazy spiral beneath me, far too high to be searching for prey, apparently just joyriding on a thermal.
Lacking a stash of jimson weed or any other kind of hooch, I found a flat slab of rock, toasted by the sun, and fell asleep. But a few minutes later I was jolted awaked by a growl from the sky. A few hundred feet above me, six Apache attack helicopters cut northward across the turquoise sky. They were no doubt headed for the Marine Air Combat Training Center, a 596,000 acre bombing range located a few miles north of Twentynine Palms.
The Mojave is military land. During World War II, the Pentagon seized more than five million acres of the desert for military training grounds and bombing practice. The man in charge of running the show in the early days was none other than Gen. George S. Patton.
I can’t escape the sense that this place is haunted: so many thousands of practice invasions, carpet bombings, decimations of virtual armies and cities. This is where they practiced the bombings of Libya, Iraq, Serbia, Afghanistan and, now, Iraq once again.
And there have been many real deaths up there, too. Beyond the coyotes, antelope, lizards and desert tortoises wiped out by explosions or pulverized by roving columns of tanks, many young American soldiers have been lost. In training exercises during World War II, more than 1,100 men perished in the Mojave. Most died of dehydration. The brutal Patton limited the soldiers to one canteen of water per day as they were sent on forced marches across the sun-scorched terrain, apparently thinking it would toughen them up for the North African campaign. “If you can work successfully here, in this country,” Patton ranted to his troops, “it will be no difficulty at all to kill the assorted sons of bitches you meet in any other country.”
The man was sadistic and stupid. He graduated near the bottom of his class at West Point and it’s easy to see why. He apparently had no understanding of how intense heat and low humidity dry up the human body, conditions that would put even the best-conditioned athlete at risk of heat stroke. It’s a wonder more didn’t die.
But Patton remains an icon. Down the road at Chiriaco Summit, there is a museum honoring the general. It’s all hagiography and it must disgust many of the men who served under him. Most Americans know that Patton slapped two shell-shocked soldiers who’d sought refuge in an Army hospital bed during the Allies’ invasion of Sicily in August 1943. In the most famous incident, a sobbing Private Paul Bennett told Patton that his nerves had been “shot by the shelling”. Patton responded with a slap across the face and his infamous rebuke, “Your nerves, hell. You are just a goddamned coward, you yellow son-of-a-bitch. Shut up that Goddamned crying You’re going back to the front lines and you may get shot and killed, but you’re going to fight. If you don’t, I’ll stand you up against a wall and have a firing squad kill you on purpose. In fact, I ought to shoot you myself, you Goddamned whimpering coward.”
This quote is taken from the official report on the incident filed by Lt. Col. Perrin H. Long, head of the unit’s Medical Corps. Long’s report, which had been suppressed by Patton’s friend Gen. Omar Bradley, eventually reached Eisenhower, who was outraged enough to sideline Patton from his command for a few months.
The Patton cult persists in spite of this, a fact attested to by the thousands who pour into the Chiriaco Summit museum. Many even say the poor soldiers deserved the rough treatment. But one suspects that attitudes toward Patton would be different if it was more widely known that following a similar merciless logic the general had sent those 1,100 young men to their deaths in the desert–sacrificing them to the unforgiving Mojave sun and his own stupidity.
Disney Does Joshua Tree
I left Ryan Mountain and headed for Hidden Valley, a bewildering maze of rock south of the town of Joshua Tree. As I pulled into of the parking lot at the trailhead, I was accosted by a pair of coyotes standing in the middle of the road. They weren’t the hipster creatures portrayed in the poetry of Gary Snyder. These coyotes seemed straight out of a Dickens street gang. They had the scruffy look of expert pick-pockets and petty thieves.
I shouted at them that I wasn’t about to hand over my lunch and they should be ashamed of themselves for resorting to such undignified panhandling. They grunted and shuffled off, looking for a more sympathetic mark.
The place was a jumble of granite walls, strangely eroded slabs and domes of quartz monzonite, beaten soft by desert winds and almost fleshlike in color, glowing in the early evening sun with the hue of Bardot’s skin in that unforgettable opening shot of Contempt.
The narrow side canyons here created a moister microclimate that allowed for desert grasses to flourish. But its remoteness, sheltered conditions and forage also attracted the attention of a band of cattle rustlers known as the McHaney Gang. By all accounts, they ran a complex operation, involving rebranding, bribery, and a thriving interstate trade in both horses and cattle.
None of this did the idiosyncratic ecology of the valley much good. By the time the Park Service got its hands on the property the grasses were pretty much gone and, from photos taken in the 30s, so was nearly every other form of vegetation. Things have started to come back to life. I didn’t see many grasses, but the valley floor was crowded with yuccas, prickly pear, cholla, Joshua Trees, the strange two-headed nolina plant and, sunning herself on a boulder, a chuckawalla, the giant iguana-like lizard whose saggy skin looks three sizes too large for its body.
In a guide to the Hidden Valley nature trail, the Park Service pats itself on the back for having evicted the cows. But other parasites have taken their place, none so ubiquitous or annoying as the legions of rock climbers, in their insect-like gear, clinging from pastel-colored ropes to the sheer granite faces of the valley.
A couple of miles east of Hidden Valley is a small rockshelter with a panel of petroglyphs featuring fish and turtles on it. The Park Service calls them the Movie Petroglyphs. In October of 1961 some morons at the Disney Studios thought it would be good to feature the petroglyphs, originally pecked into the rock by Serranos and Paiutes, in a film called Chico: the Misunderstood Coyote. But the director didn’t think the images looked quite Indian enough, so he instructed the art department to paint over the glyphs and carve a batch of new figures. The Disneyfied images have all the verisimilitude of a Donald Duck cartoon. Even worse, the Park historian told me that the Park Service (50 years after the passage of the Antiquities Act, which made looting of Indian artifacts a felony) gave Disney the okay to paint over the rock art as long as they used “removable paint”.
The originals weren’t good enough. They stood in the way of something considered more cinematic and profitable. Now they are no more. Forget the tired theories of Frederick Jackson Turner: that’s the real metaphor for the history of the West in a nutshell.