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July 15, 2024

Desert Notes, December 27, 2020

By Gary Campanella

I am going to have to start at the other end by telling you this: there are no crows in the desert. What appear to be crows are ravens. You must examine the crow, however, before you can understand the raven. To forget the crow completely, as some have tried to do, would be like trying to understand the one who stayed without talking to the one who left. It is important to make note of who has left the desert.

-- Barry Holstun Lopez, Desert Notes

In 1982, out of college and on my own in Boston, I joined the Black Rose Collective. We were a small group of professors, organizers, writers, and kids like me. The poet Martin Espada was a visitor and he recommended I read Desert Notes by Barry Lopez. I bought a used first edition copy at the Avenue Victor Hugo Bookstore on Newbury Street for $7. I read from it today.

The book changed things for me, like books can do, especially when you're young. I was enchanted by the desert, though I had never been there, and with crows and ravens in particular. I watched crows scatter over marshes in the Fenway. I read Castaneda. I bought a print of Van Gogh's Wheatfield with Crows for my room.

A year later I went to the desert. I walked across the Mojave, channeling Castaneda and DH Lawrence and Lopez. I needed to see for myself.

One dusty afternoon, burnt from walking, I came to a sandy road with a hand-painted wooden sign that read Edgewater Inn. Other than the aqueduct I had been walking along, there was no water in sight. I followed the road for a mile and came to a two-story farmhouse, desert shabby, with a front porch and a few outbuildings. The inn was open and run by a couple named Randy and Betty. Randy was a retired air traffic controller. He wore jeans and cowboy boots and a threadbare flannel shirt, the favored uniform of the desert rat. Betty looked like a grandmother who loved making apple pie, but with a few hard lines from her desert life. There were no sounds at the inn but the persistent wind. The desert is like that.

Randy and Betty ran a makeshift restaurant in the big front room, and they served me a dinner of homemade burgers for a few dollars. I couldn't afford to pay for lodging, but they let me camp in their yard, behind the house.

I camped without a tent, out in the open, under stars and the wind blowing over. My desert solitaire was shattered late when Randy and Betty began a loud fight somewhere within the walls of the Edgewater Inn. Betty screeched and called Randy a fucking loser. Randy screamed that Betty was a fucking maniac. I heard stuff being thrown around, glass and furniture breaking. The fight subsided after a while, and I began to relax, but then it started again. Death threats hurled out the windows. There were more things being thrown. It went like that for hours. I stayed alert until dawn, waiting for a gunshot or a backyard spillover, or any event that would spring me into action.

In the morning a rooster crowed, and I woke up in the sun. Tiptoeing into the inn for a bathroom, I found a smiling Betty preparing breakfast for me in the café. She was the Betty of yesterday, like nothing had happened. I studied her face for a clue, like bruises, or tiredness in her eyes, but her voice crackled only warmth and concern for my sleep. She served the meal free of charge. Randy was not around. Truckers arrived, regulars, and Betty introduced me as a wandering traveler on a great adventure, like she discovered me.

After the truckers rumbled off and the silence of the desert afternoon remained, I got ready to leave. I went back to the café to thank Randy and Betty, but found Betty alone, crying. She told me that her sister had passed away the night before. I gave her the best words of comfort I had, knowing they were of little use. Betty returned to her work in the kitchen, soldiering on. I stayed put.

Betty worked all morning and through the lunch "rush" of about a half dozen regulars. Randy had still not appeared. The regulars lingered, drinking soda pop and telling jokes. Later Betty took me for a ride through the desert, showing me narrow box canyons and field after field of California poppies.

Back by mid-afternoon, I had plenty of time to get back on the trail, but lingered again, and decided to spend another night at the Edgewater. Randy came back from somewhere, parking his truck by the front door, facing out. I reached into the bottom of my pack, produced a ten-dollar bill, and gave it to him for another night of food and beer. We drank together on folding patio chairs he set up in front of the Inn, while Betty cooked, and the sun set. He told me yesterday was his birthday.

Near dark, the unmistakable silhouette of a long-distance backpacker appeared on the horizon to the south. His name was Pete Fountain. He was a kid like me, trying to backpack the length of California. Like me, he got bogged down by late spring snow in the southern mountains, and was troubled by the Sierra ahead. We decided to hike together, at least for a while.

That evening we toasted our new partnership with more of Betty's burgers. We drank beer and played pool with Randy, who told us stories about airline near misses. Betty also drank beer, and with no TV or radio, we partied like nothing existed beyond the darkness outside the four walls of the Edgewater Inn.

We had the kind of evening that wandering travelers have been having forever. We were strangers transformed by happenstance, seizing the odd opportunity. There was an uncomfortable moment when I thought Randy was trying to find out how much money I carried. I deflected the inquiry, but Pete did not, and he carried substantially more than me. I caught a quick glance between Betty and Randy during the exchange. I couldn't interpret it, and it made me uneasy, but it did not dampen my spirit. It was simply a thing to watch. They did not mention Betty's sister or Randy's birthday, but we talked of everything else. And after, the night in the backyard stayed starry and silent.

Pete and I got up at dawn. Randy was nowhere around, but we said goodbye to Betty. She wished us well but seemed a little distant as we left. After a few minutes of walking away, I turned around for a last look back at the Edgewater, but we must have turned a corner or crossed over a small bluff, for when I spun around, it wasn't there anymore. I stopped Pete. We both stood for several minutes, scratching our heads, wondering where it went. Time and distance are deceiving in the desert. Something that looks a mile away can be ten. It's all the open space, and it's the space and the heat and the wind that causes things like magic and mirage to happen. Somehow, in a few minutes, or in a few more minutes than we thought, the desert had swallowed the Edgewater Inn.

A few years later I returned to the Mojave and tried to retrace my steps. I drove miles of road looking for the Inn. I never found it, nor did I ever find any other reference to it, even after the internet came along.

This was the desert that Barry Lopez told me about, and I saw it myself.

Barry Lopez died yesterday. Prostate cancer. He wrote books that helped me know the wildernesses we inhabit, inside and out. And he brought me to the desert, where things are more than they seem.

Outside my window this morning the murder of crows that live on my street are louder than usual. Perhaps the owl that's been hanging around is threatening a nest. Perhaps it has something to do with the rain we expect tonight.

Article © Gary Campanella. All rights reserved.
Published on 2021-02-15
Image(s) are public domain.
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