Cruising the low deserts of California conferred much pleasure in my youth. Flat stretches of landscape frighten some, but I thrilled to the sensation of expansive space; the purple hills hanging in the distance; the shimmering waves of heat hovering just above the asphalt. At times the yucca sprouted buttery blooms; other times the ocotillo waved red flags of flaming blossoms. I never tired of watching the miles roll by; the washes, the jutting striated rock formations, the places I knew desert dwellers concealed themselves, waiting for the indigo dusk of evening when the cool luster of starlight signaled relief from the heat of day.
Desert driving was not for the weak of heart in those days of rutted two-lane roads undulating across the landscape like roller-coasters, crisscrossed by train tracks every hundred miles or so. Signs warned of flash flooding, and one only had to experience a single rare deluge to understand for eternity where rainwater goes in places it rarely falls. Dips in roads became perilous ponds that could swallow tires and seep through doors and crack a car’s engine. Service stations were sparse as poplar trees, and we filled the gas tank at any opportunity.
Desert Center was a parched, dusty, windswept patch of earth containing a handful of wizened humans, mobile homes, a fuel stop and general store/cafe. I often wondered, even as a young child, who on earth would choose to live in such a formidable location. Without air conditioning, a person could die.
It was the newly air conditioned cream-colored Mercury with the wooden sides whose radiator regularly overheated in the most extreme conditions. Our urban-loving mother rarely accompanied us on these wilderness expeditions, but on one memorable occasion, she tagged along. Though Dad always carried jugs of water for emergencies, I still remember the rabbit fear in her dark eyes which did not diminish until we pulled into Blythe, steam billowing from the hood of the Merc. As we chugged into the first gas station that presented itself, both parents palpably relaxed. A curious child, I observed the tall dusty uniformed attendant as he raised the hood to carefully crack open the silver hued radiator cap with only a red cotton rag protecting his bare blackened hands.
Fifty years later, I can instantly conjure the smell of rain on creosote bushes; recall the mechanic’s grease-encrusted fingernails and the silver wedding band encircling his left ring finger. A warm desert wind wafts a unique mixture of odors to the nostrils, and Squirt soda never tasted so good as when, fresh out of the ice chest, we swilled it down like elixir of the gods alongside that isolated stretch of highway in the blistering scorch of afternoon.