Sunday, March 13, 2005

Water in the Desert

Melting, running, pouring, coursing, pooling on the sandy soil and reflecting prairie sunsets. The ground is still frozen, so the snow, melting under the onslaught of sunlight pouring from the overwhelming sky, is making a mess of my world. Small culverts under the lonely back highways I travel, in the company of eighteen wheelers and diesel DOT duallies, can't handle the runoff. Mobile oil rigs lit like scattered tiny cities in the night, man camps in rows and sheep camps on trailers, the old Fontonelle (locals say Fot-on-el) store up the cliff from Weeping Rock, which must be sobbing great springs of tears from its sandstone layers, and the drowned sagebrush stretching for miles. All this water has nowhere to go but down, tumbling into the spring-muddied Green River and on into Flaming Gorge.

Mom and I bravely forded a low point in the road in the Buick yesterday on the way home from visiting at Point of Rocks, eight-inch deep rushing water and a terrific churning wind, the asphalt still stable but the gravel-and-sand shoulder washed away. Hollering at her, hydroplaning closer to the edge of the gaping ravine in the chilly dusk, I was reminded of the gradeschool lessons regarding the Oregon Trail and horrific illustrations of disastrous river crossings: families in wagons washed away, wooden trunks capsizing, soggy canvas covers billowing, wild-eyed oxen drowning. We were mere miles from the hallowed ruts of the Oregon Trail, grim tracks I have often walked. How those poor Easterners, accustomed to the mild green damp, must have hated our arid flats, our miles of pungent, spiny brush, the red dust that forever sifted from everything they owned.

It snowed again last night, big bright flakes tossed on raucious Spring wind, swarming around streetlights like angry moths. It won't stay, is in fact already melting from sunny plateaus and flooding through high desert canyons, baring rocks that once saw the footfall of Sioux and Blackfoot, that shelter antelope and elk and smaller desert animals year-round. My way home won't be affected; I'll go over the top. Round Mountain and down into Kemmerer where I'll relate our adventures to Grandma, who spent her share of wet springs up here before Buicks with big, tough engines and radial tires. She could really tell you about things washing away, when Wyoming got more than twice the snow we do now.

It really is Spring. Leaving my sister's house at lunch the other day, I glanced down and saw the remnants of the ragged ten-foot evergreen garland that adorned her white door over the holidays. I joked that it looked like she had poached, skinned and hung the Grinch on her new pale butter-yellow vinyl siding. Poking out of the red-brown needles were several blades of astonishingly green grass, amazing at least to eyes accustomed to months of grey, brown, and dirty white. I stared, remembering childhood Christmas trips to San Diego and the shock of passing suddenly out of our black-and-white world into the brilliant palette of a southern coastal desert: green grass and palms, bright bouganvillia and poppies and daisies, empress lilies, blue-green sea, lovely gold-streaked sand. God, I miss that place. The tulip blades pushing up out of cedar chips in front of the local Post Office just don't do it for me.

It's Nascar time, the Las Vegas race that half the people I know are attending, and I promised to watch for Dave and Tony, Mike, Russ and Ronda in the crowd. I love a good race, even if all they do is turn left. And I really love a good wreck. We were watching the Figure-Eight Train Races in Salt Lake City last night and were sadly disappointed by the lack of collisions. Those races always take me back to thickly hot nights spent squirming on the splintery wooden tiers at the El Cajon Speedway in East San Diego, Dad laughing, pointing out the comic desperation of the brakemen swinging in the third car, me clinging to Dad's arm as people went up and down the rickety stairs splashing warm beer. And I am sorely ready for summer.


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