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Mama’s Gone to Dreamland on the Train

by Charles Bowden

The river goes to ice, blowing snow blurs the eye, the nights have no end, the days hardly say sun. During earlier storms, the buffalo stream off the plains and down to shelter in the groves along the river. Then, the men face the subzero temperatures, the air hanging like Jell-O, and for a few joyous days comes the killing, hot blood and raw liver knifing the endless shroud of winter. Now the breakup arrives, crossing buffalo are suddenly stranded on floes in the Missouri. Natives leap from ice cake to ice cake, hop-scotching until they reach a beast stranded on a bobbing slab in the river. The buffalo moves not at all, the black eyes stare and the bow or lance erases life. Captain William Clark scratches out a record of the spectacle, the quill held between numb fingers, the ink barely liquid, and he marvels at the nimbleness of the hunters, the silence of the frozen air, the stillness of the beasts as blood flows from their wounds. He’s not easily stunned – he’d once found the fresh bone of a man when he wandered the woods of Kentucky as a fourteen-year-old. The buffalo still as a statue in mid river on the ice, the hunter advancing with death in his eyes. Nothing can change this future. It is written in ice and blood.

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high desert journal

The wash went on bushes or barbed wire because Fly season was hell because no one June meant digging coal for the long winters. Every season meant work.

The temperature hangs at one above zero. The wind is down, only slight drifts whisper across the roads. The house sits as a small tomb of silver wood, two floors, small rooms, a few trees slowly dying in a grass land where they never belonged. Joe Njos homesteaded the land, built the house, then went back to Norway for a wife. She was very attractive, maybe the best-looking woman in the area. That was in ’15, or ’16. “They had one son, and one daughter,” Melvin Wisdahl remembers. He’s past 80 and still he can see the beauty of her face in the blank of the plains. “She kept it spotless. She always dressed like a queen. One of his nephews always claimed his uncle got her out of a whorehouse in Norway. They died after World War II. “Then the son lived there and he was a drunkard and he lost the land. I remember the day of the auction sale, he sat there drunk and cried. “He married some woman who came through – someone who was making the rounds. Then she took off. He died in the 50s from something. The house has been empty a long time.” Soon the house will not be part of memory. The roof will go and fall into the cellar. The walls will tilt. No one living will remember who once lived there, the woman who dressed like a queen in her tiny castle. Here, human lives get erased, here the past is not prologue, here the ground relentlessly takes back the living and devours them. The earth waits for the slow rot of this intrusion called settlement. Nearby is the Bone Trail, the track the settlers used to haul the skeletal remains of buffalo to the railroad for a few stray bucks to get them through the angry winters.

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The dry wind, something must be said about this wind that lashes hour after hour, a force of dust and dry eyes and yet scent fills the mind and beckons, the smell of soap and labor on the clean kitchen floor, the raw dirt of the garden and the scent coming off the leaves, the cakes baking, manure in the barns, the breath of life itself coming off the clothes on the line, the endless hope of each first day of spring, the tug at the heart as the geese honk overhead in V formation heading south in fall and people are trapped by the long nights until the earth tilts and warmth begins to slowly lick their faces. There is a photograph on my wall of my grandfather sitting in front of a shack, the building he threw up during the homestead boom to prove his claim. He’s on a bench, that old face with a gray moustache, he’s glaring out, the boards behind him warmed and splintered, a hat on his head, an overcoat encasing his body. My aunt went back with him that one time, just to see. She remembers the Sioux coming round in her childhood. But it all went to wrack and ruin, for my grandfather and tens of thousands of others. The land spoke, the skies went hard, the snows fell too deep and so many things died, and then the rains stayed away and nothing came up and all the work proved for naught. So the retreat scarred their dreams and the plains, that part of the plains to the west, past the tall grass prairie and the bluestem, past the simple savagery of the hail belt, out there where families built their hopes on buffalo bones, that place that was the promise and the failure of that promise. It is the lash at the back in the histories of the people.

I once had an uncle who struggled out there during the dry days of the 30s, the time when skies were black with dust and the land left and went all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. He finally walked off, left a woman and children, enlisted in the service and then a big war came and he was sealed inside a tin can for years, a tank man in General Patton’s army. Afterwards, he settled in Chicago, worked as a janitor, played the accordion at times, had himself a life. I don’t think he ever went back. I never heard him mention the place. The plains, that big grassland, so huge no mind could wrap around it, so hard some early folks called it the Great American Desert. The place Lewis and Clark penetrated and wrote about and said that it was good and true and would be the future of the people. It doesn’t really begin there, it is simply the place we are taught is the beginning. But it happened and it all began as a promise and a hope. They took me out there as a child, little more than a toddler, and then they’d gather in the kitchens over the weak coffee they drank morning, noon, and night and talk but the talk was soft, almost whispers, and I’d wander out in the yards and wonder where the trees went, those green towers that were everywhere further east, and I would stand by the windbreaks and stare into the endless roll of brown, a space too big for the word space. I bend over and pick up a book called Abiding Faith, and it is filled with handwriting listing the people that came to mourn, and what flowers they sent. Covered with bird shit this book, the handwriting wavering but careful, all noting a death almost fifty years before. Left on the floor of a house in the plains and now birds come in the broken windows and shit on the abiding faith that no one seems able to abide anymore. There is not much to say, it all seems so obvious. And of course, there is no cause for complaint. But the feeling lingers: something went wrong here. In 1836, Hai wah ze chuh rules a band of the Sioux. He is seen by whites as brave and sensible. He makes sure his people get along with the traders. Then his favorite wife takes sick and dies. That is when he goes out after the buffalo bull. He tells his people he wishes to die and leaves on foot, finds his prey, wounds it. And then closes knife in hand. The giant wooly head swings, the chief is gored and dies on the spot. The white tongue of the bridal train flows from a plastic bag hanging on the door of a second floor bedroom of the white frame house. The fabric is synthetic. The house is empty, the door secured by a wire, the floors beginning to sag from loneliness. The marriage of Steph and Kevin took place October 29, 1994. A plastic box holds champagne glasses, a garter belt, a spare veil, the top of the cake decoration, the serving utensils for cutting, and sharing the cake. Everything is preserved to hallow that day. Someone stepped out of the room, as if for just a moment, at least ten years ago. The children’s room has clothing, toys, and furniture for small folk. Outside the white picket fence has fallen down.


high desert journal

pa i n t i n g s | pat r i c i a f r e e m a n - m a r t i n

Red Barn with Black Bull Floating, 2008 Acrylic, collage, charcoal on plexiglass 24 x 48 inches

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Feeding the Circus Horses, 2008 Mixed media collage on hardboard 12 x 24 inches


San Joaquin Fever j o u r n a l

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by Aaron Gilbreath I lied to everyone, told them I was going to Yosemite and Big Sur, but here I am in the San Joaquin Valley, driving around dirt roads looking for kangaroo rats outside Lost Hills. I’m tired of explaining myself. ¶ When it comes to California’s Central Valley you always have to explain. The place is flat, dry, rural, smelly, a 430 mile long roadside bathroom break for interstate travelers, so it’s no surprise most of the beach- and green-seeking people I know and work with can’t understand why any person, especially an outdoorsman with 14 vacation days and limitless travel options, would come here willingly. Huntington Beach, Tahoe, Santa Cruz – those are places people get; when I try to describe my attraction to the San Joaquin, the conversation inevitably ends with, “You have to see it to believe it.” Fortunately, I’m used to having to explain myself. Besides being from Phoenix, Arizona, recipient of predictable complaints – too hot, too dry, too brown – I like to hike alone, off-trail, in places that scratch my shins bloody and are ruled by snakes. My home town and hobbies require intense defensive posturing. But after years of dedicated effort, I’ve come to accept that even the best defenses often fail to convince people of the sanity of my passions. And when it comes to explaining the San Joaquin Valley’s hidden beauty, there is no explaining. Only showing. Had I not seen this place with my own eyes, I wouldn’t have believed me either. The San Joaquin is the drier, scrappier southern half of California’s Central Valley, more akin to the Mojave than to its wetter, wooded northern counterpart, the Sacramento Valley. Termed the “other California” by author Gerald Haslam for its dissimilarity to the state’s image-defining coast, the Central Valley is scorching in summer, foggy in winter, flat as a board, and consistently ridiculed for being featureless, rural, boring – and understandably so. This is an alluvial land of pickups and truck-stops. Sandwiched between the Sierra Nevada and Coast Range, California’s great rural core stretches over 400 miles north and south and around 50 miles across, forming one of the world’s most productive agricultural regions. With nearly 300 commercial crops grown here, everything from almonds to olives, tomatoes to rice, the valley produces 25 percent of all table food in the United States. It sports agricultural output like a proud bowler’s trophies: world’s largest cotton farm; birthplace of the raisin; five of the country’s top ten agricultural counties. Which makes it as close to a hiker’s paradise as central Iowa. Mile after rural mile look so painfully similar that only locals and the most discerning travelers

can identify their location by visual cues. Lost Hills, near where I’m parked, is one of western San Joaquin’s larger communities, which is to say it has a McDonald’s and a Wendy’s and more residents than rattlesnakes. Alkaline and dusty, the west side is rusty pump jack and jackrabbit country, not farmland, the kind of place people stop only to refuel or spend the night en route to somewhere else. Like the kangaroo rats, I was born for this sort of barrenness, though whether from obsession or upbringing I don’t yet know. Bear with me. Have you ever seen something in the background of an old photograph – blurry writing on a sign, say, or the shadowy visage of a working cowboy – and wished you could get a better look? Watched a movie like American Graffiti and wanted to be in there, sitting at the Formica counter, sipping a lime Coke served by a soda jerk? Well, I once saw a black and white photo containing a background of shining, reedy miles, another featuring rows of ancient oaks sagging under the weight of enormous shaggy crowns so huge they seemed to belong to the Mississippi Delta. They blurred as they stretched further out into a vast, grassy plain. That was 10 years ago, and I’ve been trying to scratch my way into those photos ever since. I’ve always been a sucker for the nostalgic. My 20s can be measured as a series of passing fancies: the year I spent hundreds of dollars buying Star Wars action figures still sealed in their original packages; the year I only drank beverages from antique a&w root beer mugs that I chilled in my freezer; the year I spent weekends photographing old 1950s roadside motel signs, boomerang-shaped eaves and dilapidated bowling alleys. But these preoccupations passed. The valley is my one youthful obsession that remains.

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high desert journal

I once showed a buddy photos of the Semitropic Ridge Preserve, People of the desert know you have to look closely So mostly, on my visits, I drive around.

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My first exposure was a day-long drive down Interstate 5 from Oregon to la, and was as memorable for its bleakness as it was for the speed at which my friend and I drove to escape the greasy July heat. “This place is a dump,” we kept saying. Two summers later, after a few sips from a potent cocktail of nostalgic ecology – one part description, two parts obsession – that big ugly Valley had become my Yosemite. It started with John Muir’s passage, from The Mountains of California: “And close along the water’s edge there was a fine jungle of tropical luxuriance, composed of wild-rose and bramble bushes and a great variety of climbing vines, wreathing and interlacing the branches of willows and alders, and swinging across from summit to summit in heavy festoons.” It confounded me. Tropical luxuriance, I thought, in the place where I suffered six of the most painfully repetitious highway hours of my life? In a basin that stunk of cow manure and vegetable soup and whose edges were so hazy brown that, upon first seeing them, I actually worried that we’d taken a wrong turn and were driving east into Nevada instead of south toward Los Angeles? Couldn’t be true. I read on. “The Great Central Plain of California,” Muir wrote, “during the months of March, April, and May, was one smooth, continuous bed of honey-bloom so marvelously rich that, in walking from one end of it to the other, a distance of 400 miles, your foot would press about a hundred flowers at every step.” Maybe we had taken the wrong road that July day, I thought, the one that bisected the ugly parts and bypassed the beauty. And why hadn’t I ever heard the name ‘Great Central Plain’ before? I’d vacationed in California since childhood. So I laid out a map and there it was, sure as the Sierra, stretching over half the state’s length. San Joaquin, Sacramento, the Great Central Valley. And just like that, I sank into another obsession. Muir’s exaltations led me to the library where I discovered an anthology of Valley writing called Highway 99. Edited by writer Stan Yogi, the collection contained landscape descriptions by Spanish explorers Father Crespi and Captain Pedro Fages, accounts of early American exploration by Jebediah Smith and George H. Derby, as well as modern fiction and poetry. Many other discoveries followed (see sidebar). All of these books combined contents painted an intoxicating portrait of a varied landscape, a complex, seemingly contradictory, mixture of riverine jungles and semi-desert flats, dense marshes and foothill oaks. Originally, San Joaquin Valley grasslands supported Serengeti-sized herds of elk and pronghorn. Kangaroo rats, kit foxes, rattlesnakes, and tarantulas filled the salt scrub. Cougars and grizzlies prowled the plain, and in spring the parched soil bloomed. Traveling with his family in 1850, Thomas Jefferson Mayfield picked so many flowers that the family’s horses and packs were soon decorated as brightly as the land. “The two most beautiful remembrances I have,” he said, “are of the virgin San Joaquin and of my mother.” At 265 miles long and an average of 47 wide, the San Joaquin covers 8 million acres and, though you’d never guess it now, its southern section once housed the largest freshwater ecosystem west of the Mississippi: Tulare Lake. Fed by the Kings, Kaweah, Tule, and White Rivers’ numerous braiding channels, Tulare Lake and its associated marshes provided vital feeding grounds along the Pacific Flyway – enough wildfowl to nearly block the sun – as well as trouble for early explorers. Mud

swallowed horses and limited passage. In 1773, Captain Fages, one of the first Europeans to see the Valley, described the southern San Joaquin as “… all a labyrinth of lakes and tulares …” After I looked up the meaning of ‘tulare,’ the Spanish word for reed, I realized how much more Fages’ description sounded like Mississippi than the area off i-5. But u.s. army surveyor Lieutenant George H. Derby’s 1850 journal confirmed it. After cutting through two miles of tules to reach the open surface of the Lake, Derby only found more swamp: “[We] were unable to get close to the water, in consequence of the tule which environed it … With a glass I could distinguish … the tule at the south ends of the lake, the length of which I estimated at about 20 miles, but we could not distinctly make out the opposite or eastern shore.” Derby described the land at the southern bend of the San Joaquin River, now modern-day Mendota, as “a vast swamp everywhere intersected by sloughs, which are deep, miry, and dangerous …” That swamp stretched for forty miles, but the desert was just as wide. Entering the Valley from the dry western side, Derby’s party crossed “a perfect desert” with “no forage for the animals but wire grass … and no wood at all …” American geologist William Henry Brewer described the region around present day Bakersfield the same way: “In places there were patches of alkali grass or saline desert shrubs, in others it was entirely bare, the ground crusted with salt and alkali, like snow …” The land went from swamp to desert in as few paragraphs as it did natural miles. Life thrived in the muck. While his party got mired in reedy sloughs, John Woodhouse Audubon camped on the San Joaquin River in November 1848 and “secured a fine elk and an antelope, three geese, and two Sandhill cranes … [and] feasted luxuriously.” Haslam, Fremont, Brewer – their accounts were as seductively nostalgic as Happy Days to my eco-antique shop sensibility. But the most stirring was also the most human. As Mayfield’s family contemplated the wisdom of crossing the swollen San Joaquin River, a group of Yokut Indians, who’d been washing their hair on the opposite shore, swam across to offer assistance. “Finally a young girl about sixteen years of age offered to take me on her back and swim the river with me … So Mother took off my clothes … I clasped my hands around (the Indian girl’s) neck, and she took my feet under her arms and waded into the water … until we arrived at the south edge of the stream in shallow water … (The girl) was very proud of me and, holding my hand, kept the rest of the Indians at a distance of several feet. She would talk to me and laugh, but, of course, I understood nothing she said and remembered only the words …” ‘Chûlo-wè-chep,’ the girl called him, little white boy. That image was so tender, so touching, that it has attached itself to my brain with the tenacity of a cocklebur. My eyes still cloud every time I read it. Strangely, photos of the original ecosystems proved hard to come by. Most photos featured ranches and early farms from the 1880s in which you could glean a vague picture of the landscape in the background. I combed the library for months, yet no matter how many books I browsed or how hard I searched, I couldn’t find a single photo taken from inside the marshlands surrounding Tulare Lake or in the desert plains around Wasco. I was left with only descriptions, and if I squinted hard enough and blocked all hint of light, I could almost picture it: the scene, the textures, the primeval Valley’s colors. Sometimes, when I was reading, the image of the landscape would appear in the black back of my mind’s eye and, conjured by a particu-


Fork C print 24 x 24 inches

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Direction C print 24 x 24 inches

Profile for High Desert Journal

HIgh Desert Journal #8  

The best literature and visual arts of the interior West.

HIgh Desert Journal #8  

The best literature and visual arts of the interior West.

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