Mustafa's Fine Night
Mustafa had gone to bed too early, these were the last days of summer after all and the sky
would be light for another hour at least, maybe longer. But parents don't remember how
hard it is to go to sleep, when all around the neighborhood kids can be heard playing and
laughing, yelling and crying, running and riding and climbing and falling. This was just such
an evening, and as Mustafa pulled down the finicky old window shade from the top of his window,
he took one last look out at the twilight sky through the tangled black silhouette of tree limbs and leaves, power lines and poles, the crisscrossing flights of Ravens and Crows. Finally Mustafa climbed up into the big broad bed with the bright red knobs at all four corners. He knew in his bones that he'd be lying on this bed, staring at the raggedy window shade with its round ring of a handle for a good long time. He knew he'd be wondering what was going on beyond those rattly old panes of glass that kept him away from the whole rest of the world. Just the thought of this made Mustafa kick the covers off of his legs and slam his head back into his pillow with such force that it blew a puff of tiny curled feathers into the air above him, which drifted, and stopped, and changed directions, and drifted, and stopped, and changed directions again, and continued like that until all the tiny feathers had come to rest back down on the pillow around his face. Then he turned back toward the window, and one of the tiny feathers curled its way into his nose, so he blew it out and slammed his head back into his pillow and the whole little world around his face came alive again, with the drifting, curling, stopping, changing, drifting, curling, tiny feathers. It went on this way over and over again, with the long, high, slowly fading, late summer sky at twilight lighting the raggedy window shade with it's round ring of a handle. Until finally, all the tiny feathers found their places to sleep,
far enough from Mustafa's nose, that he could fall to sleep as well.
Right beneath his window was a bed of soft black dirt with a long line of smooth river rocks
strung like a giant necklace around it. Mustafa's mother had dug the dirt soft and strung the rocks
around beneath his window in the spring, and then planted a spiral of tiny two leafed tomato
seedlings. She told him that when the summer came and the tomatoes had grown up to his
windowsill, he would be able to reach out first thing in the morning and pull off a great big
red tomato to eat for breakfast. But Clara had different ideas about the bed of soft black
dirt. She scratched and dug at that dirt until all that was left was a deep black cavern, with little flecks of furry, green tomato leaves scattered here and there. Then Mustafa and Clara would lie down on the dirt and stare into the deep black hole and pretend that they were flying through a Great Green Galaxy of furry stars and planets.
Clara was a black and white dog with a tail that curled into a perfect circle. She was a
deep thinker and a quiet collaborator who would go along with any idea that Mustafa might
dream up, but she also had ideas of her own when they were needed. She was Mustafa's best friend.
Earlier that summer, Clara got sick and had to go to the Vet. The first night that Mustafa
had to fall asleep without Clara on the floor next to his bed, he thought he would be awake
all night, the next night, he was so tired that he couldn't stay awake, even though he missed
Clara's snoring on the floor. The third night Mustafa's mom and dad came into his room after
he had put on his pajamas, and told him that Clara wasn't coming home from the Vet's. She had
become so sick that there was nothing the vet could do to make her better, so she fell to
sleep and didn't have enough strength to wake up again. She was gone and gone and couldn't
come home and wouldn't be back, not ever again. That night, Mustafa cried until no more tears
came out of his eyes and his throat was so sore that he could only make croaking sounds, finally
he fell to sleep.
It had been a few days more than two months since Clara died and even though Mustafa had figured out how to have fun again, every once in a while, usually when he was digging a hole, he would stop
and look around behind him to see if Clara was there. He knew that she was gone and couldn't
come back, but sometimes it felt like she was right there next to him. Then, when she wasn't,
he would feel sad again, remembering the fine times they'd had.
Now even though it seemed to Mustafa that he had only just fallen to sleep,
it was as dark as a dark night ever gets when he awoke to hear those familiar scratching noises in the garden outside his window. He swung out of bed and ran to the window, tugged at the bottom of the finicky window shade until it leapt from his hand and with a whirl and a hiss, shot to the top
of the window and flapped around itself four times before coming to a rest with its round ring
of a handle swinging back and forth over Mustafa's head. He looked down into the bed of soft
black dirt with the long line of smooth river rocks around it, and there in the middle was a
dog, or the shape of a dog, but it was made of bones as bright as the bright white light of
the moon fully lit in the fall when the bright white light of the fully lit moon is at its
bright whitest. And Mustafa could tell by the size and the shape and the way that the quiet
white boned dog was scratching and digging at the soft black dirt, that it must certainly, could only, had to be, Clara. So he whispered in the loudest whisper he could muster, “Clara, is that you?”
The dog stopped its digging and looked up at Mustafa in the window, then she opened her mouth to a great wide smile and wiggled the perfect circle of her tail bones in a short, quick, slightly rattly waggle and jumped up to put her front paw bones on the wall of the house. “That's Clara!”, Mustafa thought to himself. Then he grabbed his favorite boots with the red stars on the fronts and the sweatshirt from the back of his chair, pushed the chair over to the window and undid the latch, swung it open and jumped over the windowsill to land in the soft black dirt. Clara jumped up to meet him half way out the window and they both landed in a happy heap of little boy boots, clothes and slightly rattly bones on the soft black dirt.
Clara clacked up to her feet and lit off for the backyard gate running right through the
slats without even opening it. Mustafa pulled on his boots and ran right behind her, bounced off the gate and fell back onto the grass. Clara returned to see what was taking Mustafa so long and she passed right through the gate a second time, without even opening it. That's when Mustafa noticed something different about Clara. And it wasn't just her look that had changed, something about
her was altogether new. She was here with Mustafa, but she wasn't here with the gate. Or was
it that the gate wasn't there with her, but it was here with Mustafa? He didn't know what to
think about this new nighttime version of things. Perhaps that was it, at night when
everything changes from light to dark, animals change too. Whatever it was that caused things to be so different, it was more than Mustafa could think about right then. So he got up, opened the gate and followed Clara around the corner of the wall through the tangle of vines and bushes between the old car parts and the broken washing machines to the little dirt trail that wound back along the ditch.
He had been down this trail many times during the day. He and his dad would walk with Clara past the old cars and washing machines and on down the trail that ran between the ditch and the mile long fence. At the end of the mile long fence was the bridge across the ditch to the park of broken swings and Prairie Dog holes. It was their favorite place to go. While he and Dad would play on the swings, Clara would play hide and seek with the Prairie Dogs. In that game the Prairie Dogs were always it, and never got caught. Dad said that was the best way to play the game, but Mustafa wasn't sure that Clara would agree. But tonight was their time, so on down the trail they went, Clara in the lead and Mustafa close behind.
Just past where the sideways sidewalk sticks out through the dirt and into the ditch, Clara
stopped and waited for Mustafa to catch up. When Mustafa got up to Clara, he saw that she was
staring at something on the other side of the ditch. He looked across the ditch at the spot
she was focussed on, and there beneath the roots of a gnarled old Elmer tree, sat a Rabbit.
That is to say, it looked like a Rabbit in all respects except one, for it was also composed of bright
white bones just like Clara. And while Mustafa rubbed his eyes to make sure that he was
seeing this rabbit correctly, the Rabbit raised his head, lifted his long and pendulous front teeth
up off of his chin bone, and said, “Where are you two off to?”. Mustafa stood dumbfounded and motionless, except for a wiggling twitch in the back of his neck. Mustafa had never before known a Rabbit to talk, and he wasn't sure that this was a good thing. But before he had a chance to consider
this new situation, something even stranger happened, Clara answered back to the Rabbit,
“To the park.”. Now, Mustafa was willing to admit that his experience with Rabbits was limited and
that he didn't really know whether Rabbits could talk or not, but in all the time he'd known
Clara, she hadn't uttered a word. Indeed, it was a rare occasion that Clara even let out a
bark, or a sound of any kind that Mustafa could recall. Now he felt the wiggling twitch on
the back of his neck spread all the way down his back and a zazzilion tiny pine needles
stabbing their tiny tips into the back of his head between the hairs. This feeling had only
happened to Mustafa a few times before and each time it had come just as something bad was
about to happen. Then Clara looked straight at Mustafa and said, “Ready?”. And before he had
a chance to think about it, Mustafa replied, “Sure”, and they continued on, down the path
between the ditch and the mile long fence. And the strange feeling left the back of his head,
then it left his neck, and within twenty-three steps, it had left entirely.
About halfway to the park Mustafa needed a rest, this was the spot where the big flat rock
stuck out over the water when the ditch ran. His dad said that this was the softest rock
along the ditch. It had two scooped out seats on its edge, one was the right size for
Mustafa, and the other was the right size for Dad. They would rest there for five minutes
with their legs dangling over the water, listening to the gurgle voiced old man of the ditch
who talked to himself and anyone who'd listen, all day, every day, as long as the ditch was
running. So Mustafa sat down on his seat, and within a count of six, seven if you counted
faster, five if you counted slower, but this night a count of six was all that was needed
before Clara had backtracked to the soft rock where Mustafa was resting. At first they just
sat there listening to the gurgling of the gurgle voiced old man of the ditch talking to
himself and anyone who'd listen, but after a short time Mustafa noticed that Clara was also
talking, though this time not to Mustafa. She was not talking to a rabbit, or any other creature that
he could see. So he listened especially hard, and between Clara's utterances he heard a slow
marbly, warbly, response. It must be the gurgle voiced old man! He thought. Mustafa had spent hundreds of summer afternoons listening to the gurgling of the gurgle voiced old man before, but he'd never been able to make out the words. Now, with Clara asking the questions and the old man
answering them, Mustafa could hear the words clearly, or as clearly as a gurgle voiced old man
can ever be heard. After a short rest, they said goodbye to the gurgle voiced old man of the
ditch who talked to himself and anyone who'd listen, and got up to leave. Once Mustafa felt
they were far enough away from the ditch that the old man was out of earshot, he asked Clara
why he had never before heard the old mans words. To which she replied “I don't know, but
perhaps you didn't ask him the right questions.” As they continued down the path, Mustafa
rolled that around in his head, and it occurred to him that he had never asked the old man any
questions at all, he would have to remedy that.
Beyond the softest rock the little trail cut across a small grassy meadow before ducking into
a forest of willows and Cottonwood trees. This was Mustafa's favorite part of the path in the
summertime. Even when the heat was so hot that the mountains floated above the ground, down
here in the Cottonwoods it was always shady and cool, and there was always a little bit of a
breeze in the leaves that made it sound cool, even if it wasn't. Tonight in the dark of a
quite dark night the sounds of the breeze in the leaves was less pleasing to Mustafa, and with
every step through the dry crackly grass a new crackle or snap would shoot through the air
like a spark in the dark from the ground to his ears. It made Mustafa's ears get hot and
feel red. He looked around for Clara, but she was nowhere to be seen and Mustafa started to
feel those pine needles again. So he stopped, and listened, and coming through the trees he
heard a very thin, faint talking. It was drifting in and out, softer then louder, bigger then
smaller, depending on whether the breeze was blowing into his ears or away from them, but it
was enough that he could tell where it was and walk toward it. Mustafa poked his head behind
a shivering willow bush where the tiny talking was coming from, and there, conversing in quiet
tones was a young coyote and an ancient old Hawkmoth. Mustafa knew it must be a very old
moth, because he had seen many Hawkmoths early in the summer when they come out at twilight to collect nectar from deep down in the Datura flowers. They would announce their presence by
buzzing so close to his head that he would feel his hairs shift places with each other.
Hawkmoths have very fast wings, like Hummingbirds, and a long nose like that of an Elephant,
but curled into a spiral which they unwind to slurp the sweet nectar of the evening flowers.
This particular Hawkmoth was as big as a little brown finch, and his wings were moving quite a
bit slower than the others that Mustafa had seen, and his great curled nose no longer stayed
curled in its spiral, instead it hung down in front of him, lazily bobbing back and forth in
the wind of it's wingflaps. Mustafa thought to himself, “This must be the oldest Hawkmoth ever
to live along the ditch”. The Coyote, on the other hand was certainly a young Coyote, for even
with his heavy yellowy-gray coat, he didn't seem to Mustafa to be any bigger than Clara, and
Clara was not a very big dog. Just as he was thinking this, Mustafa heard a rattling from behind him. He knew by now that it was the sound Clara made when she ran, but it was not
the kind of sound that a young coyote is familiar with, and the Coyote leapt across the ditch
in one bound and scurried off through the willows on the opposite side. When Clara got up to
Mustafa, she asked “Who was that in such a hurry?”. Mustafa told Clara that it was a young
Coyote. Then Clara stood very still and looking straight ahead said, “And who is this?”, and
Mustafa turned around to see that the ancient Hawkmoth was doing its very best to hover above
the willow, just beyond the reach of either the little boy or the bony dog. Before Mustafa could answer, the old moth replied in a low, rasping, wheezing whisper, “I am Thomas.” “Thomas who?” responded Clara. “Who indeed, who are you?” returned the moth. “ I'm Clara and this is my young friend Mustafa.”. “Well, you and your young friend Mustafa, scared off my young friend Robin.” “So, you're a
Robin then?” Clara shot back. “No, don't be silly, I'm a Hawkmoth of course.” “Your young
friend then, you say he is a Robin?” “That's preposterous, A Hawkmoth and a Robin would never, could never even try, to be friends.” Clara, feeling a bit humbled said, “Oh, I see.” “Yes, I should
think you would.” rasped the old Hawkmoth. Just then a wild, bright yip yapping with the
piercing of a high pitched piccolo came down from the end of the field on the far side of the
ditch. “That's Robin.” said the old moth, “I know you two as well. That is to say, we've
passed each other along the ditch since away back in the beginning of summer. I recognize
that hair on top of your young friend, but you, you rattling bony one, you haven't been around for a
while.” “No, I haven't.” said Clara, not sure that she wanted to have this conversation with a
giant moth, whom she had never before met. “I had to go away for awhile.” “Oh, I see.” said the
old moth. With a little bit of sorrow in his voice, he continued, “How..a... was it, away, I
mean?” Clara thought about that for a second. “I don't have anything to compare it to, but
I'd have to say that it isn't bad.” “Then what brings you back?” asked Thomas. “I missed
my young friend,” replied Clara, “and it seemed to me to be a good night to come back for a
visit.” “Then you can come and go as you please?” “I guess so, I don't know,” Clara replied
“this is the first time I've tried it.” Just then the yip-yapping from across the field
started up again, and the old moth turned around towards it saying, “Oh, well that's all very
well, yes very well indeed, but I must go retrieve my young friend now, and you must have some
business to busy yourselves with, so I will bid you two adieu.” And with that, the old
Hawkmoth disappeared into the shuddering cloud of moonlit Cottonwood leaves. Mustafa looked
at Clara, and Clara looked at Mustafa and they both continued on down the path between the
ditch and the mile long fence.
The path exited the Cottonwood forest just before a small bridge crossed over to the
park of broken swings and prairie dog holes. In the middle of the bridge Mustafa stopped to
spit over the railing, and Clara stopped to watch. Mustafa had to stand on his tip-toes to
get his chin past the top of the railing, holding on tight to the bars he blew a gob of spit
out over the water and then dropped down to below the rail so that he could look out between
the bars at the little raft of tiny white bubbles drifting through sticks and bottles, sliding over rocks and between broken pieces of concrete to tumble down and disappear beyond them and then come bobbing back up to the surface and continue on its way. Just as it passed under the bridge, they crossed to the other side, but it was too dark on the downstream side to see it, so they continued across the bridge to the park.
On the park side of the bridge the landscape opened up into a broad field studded here and
there with old snags and wolf trees which, owing to a lack of care and water, had lost their
leaves and bark, and except for a few small suckers at the bases of their trunks, were all but
dead. Still the Ravens seemed to like them, even without their leaves, and every night they
would collect to argue about the best new findings found and to talk over the days events,
gradually pairing up on one branch or another and finally quieting off to sleep. Likewise,
the Prairie Dogs which also called this park home would chirp their final thoughts for the day
at sunset, then retire to their various holes not to be seen again until sunrise. Mustafa knew
this was so because his dad told him all about the Prairie Dogs and the way they built towns
of holes, and greeted each other every morning with polite greetings, and warned each other of
pending dangers with stern warnings which, like the greetings, were passed from one Prairie
Dog to the next and on and on in that way until every Prairie Dog had given a stern warning
and every Prairie Dog had been given a stern warning. So that all the Prairie Dogs were well
informed and needed no computers or phones. Tonight, however there were Prairie Dogs
running around all over the park, as though it were daytime. Mustafa knew that Prairie Dogs
never ran around at night. That was a very important rule for Prairie Dogs, so important in
fact, that they never even spoke about it. It simply wasn't done.
Clara took one look and sped off to play hide and seek. The Prairie Dogs scattered like the
million sparks of a midsummer firework, to every corner of the park, then back to the middle,
then again for the nooks and crooks and edges, dodging and peeling-off in front of Clara, then pouring back in behind her as she took chase after another exploding group, all of them shifting and
scattering then merging and reuniting only to start all over again. Mustafa climbed up onto a rickety old picnic table so that he might better be able to see this spectacular of nighttime sprites. That's when Mustafa noticed that these Prairie Dogs were different than the ones he was used to. These Prairie Dogs were made of bones, the same as Clara. Bright white bones as bright as the bright white light of the moon fully lit in the fall when the bright white light of the fully lit moon is at its bright whitest. And clattering their much lighter little bones with a tinkling like the sound of toothpicks and cotter pins spilled on the hard kitchen floor, or the highest few notes of an old Piano when played in no particular order. Mustafa was transfixed by the flashing display of their game in this new nighttime world. There was so much going on here that he had never seen during the day. He wondered whether these Prairie Dogs, here with Clara, had been here during the daytimes when Clara chased around from hole to hole, or if the daytime Prairie Dogs were different from these nighttimers, and he wondered, where in this nighttime world, did he fit in.
This whole night had been full of surprises for Mustafa and even though he could still feel the
world tingle with every step he took, it had been a long night and he could also feel his eyes pulling heavily down against the view. Mustafa was finally getting tired, and just as he realized this, Clara gave up her chase and trotted back to Mustafa with her rattling, clattery trot. When she arrived at where Mustafa was standing, she said nothing, but took a long, strong look straight into Mustafa's eyes, then continued trotting on past Mustafa over the little bridge. On the other side of the bridge she stopped and looked back at Mustafa, tilted her head to one side, then the other and waited for Mustafa to catch up with her. Mustafa ran across the bridge and as he reached the other side Clara took off up the little path between the ditch and the mile long fence. Together Clara and Mustafa ran and jumped, climbed and fell, laughed and whooped on through the Cottonwood forest and across the little meadow then on past the softest rock along the ditch with the gurgling of the gurgle voiced old man of the ditch talking to himself and anyone who'd listen, on beyond where the sideways sidewalk sticks out through the dirt and into the ditch, past the old Elmer Tree and it's long toothed rabbit. Clara in the lead and Mustafa close behind all the way back on the path between the ditch and the mile long fence, then through the tangles of vines and bushes between the old car parts and the broken washing machines, and around the corner of the wall. Until at last they arrived back at the back of the backyard gate.
Clara stopped. Mustafa ran through the opened gate and got seven steps and a little bit more
into the backyard before he realized that Clara wasn't next to him anymore. So he stopped,
turned around and looked back to the backyard gate where Clara sat just outside of it,
watching Mustafa silently in the dark. Mustafa walked back to the gate and kneeled down on
the grass next to Clara and put his hands on her forehead and slowly smoothed his hands over
her shiny white headbone. Clara sighed and layed her chin down on Mustafa's knee and they
stayed like that for a good long while. Then Clara lifted her head up off of Mustafa's knee,
stretched her rattly legs out in front of her, stood up straight and looked at Mustafa, who
looked back. Clara opened her mouth to a great wide smile and wiggled the perfect circle of
her tail bones in a short, quick, slightly rattly waggle, turned and trotted away, down toward
the ditch. Mustafa walked back to his bedroom window, and pulled himself up over the
windowsill. Once he got inside, he turned around to take one last look down at the empty bed of
soft black dirt in the garden below, closed the window and latched it, then reached up for the
round ring of a handle hanging down from the finicky window shade and pulled it down. Mustafa
walked over to his bed, sat down on the side, undid his sweatshirt and pulled off his favorite
boots with the red stars on the fronts then lied back into his bed. Lying there he recounted
the wonders of this nights fine time.
The last thing Mustafa thought before he drifted off was that he would see Clara again and that
he might be lying on his bed, when the long, high, slowly fading, late summer sky at twilight,
lights the raggedy window shade with it's round ring of a handle, on a night when all around
the neighborhood, kids could be heard playing and laughing, yelling and crying, running and
riding and climbing and falling, while he was in his bed waiting to fall to sleep.
Copyright 2018 By Scott Cadenasso
Driving out to southern California, something I find myself doing three or four times a year, no matter how early I get started, I never seem to make it all the way to my destination on the first day. The particular day I’m thinking about had taken me on and off the highway three or four times, ostensibly in search of the ever elusive Desert Lily, a plant which at the time I had never seen. It begins as a bulb who’s leaves rise above the sand of the Mojave’s washes only rarely in the springtime when the previous season has provided enough moisture that the lily might sacrifice some of its allotment for the possibility of propagation and so grows a stalk bearing as many as a dozen pure white trumpets a foot or more above it’s flowering neighbors. But that rare spectacle was to remain elusive for me that spring, and so I’d spent over twelve hours on the road and only managed to make it to a lonesome mountain pass at the southern end of the Mojave Desert.
Lonesome, and yet teaming with humans in their individualized efforts to transport themselves and the goods in their care to the many and varied destinations ahead, neither a team, nor a collective, not even opponents, rather a raft of loners cast on the endless interstate highway system. With no more involvement in, or recognition of one another than required by the task at hand. Each adrift in our own worlds, snapping-to every so often to acknowledge a turn signal or brake light, then drifting back to the memory, supposition, internal dialog, or whatever other singular occupation affords us the ability to sit still, enclosed in a space not larger than a double bed, for a duration usually reserved for unconscious pursuits. Terrestrial travel in the early twenty-first century is certainly as lonesome an activity as has ever been conjured. And so, about five miles past the Summit, with the incessant five o’clock sun flooding in through the windshield, I left the highway behind in search of a place to spend the night. In order to take these little trips as often as possible, I try to do it on the cheap. Which usually means sleeping in my vehicle, sometimes in a State or Regional park, but more often in the National Forest or on BLM land convenient to my route. On this particular trip the convenient spot was a strip of BLM land that adjoins the southern border of Joshua Tree National Park just west of Chiriaco Summit.
Chiriaco Summit is the high point on Interstate Ten between Blythe and Indio. There is an exit from the highway with a large parking lot, gas station, George Patton Museum, landing strip and a Dairy Queen. It might have been someones half baked dream for a destination in the desert, but you have to think that anyone who put down the shovel at this stage and proclaimed it done, probably didn’t dream very often. And while I have never pulled off there, I have to admit to some small amount of curiosity about the place. My destination that afternoon was at the next highway exit, some five miles beyond the summit, where the only infrastructure visible from the highway is a paved road running perpendicular to it and disappearing into a jumble of boulders a mile or so above. This is Cottonwood Springs Road, and serves as a kind of back door entrance to Joshua Tree National Park. My business was not at Joshua Tree either, as I said, the convenient spot was the strip of desert between the highway and the park.
From Cottonwood Springs Road I turned onto a pipeline service road running roughly parallel to the highway. It is well maintained and except for dipping down into sandy washes every several hundred feet, is otherwise flat as it traverses the mild grade between the mountains to the North and the highway to the south. Protruding from the uphill side of the road are one inch white PVC pipes spaced about two hundred feet apart and rising ten to twelve feet above the roadbed. These markers were put there to facilitate locating the natural gas pipeline in the event that it should ever need unearthing. Every quarter mile or so another dirt road crosses this one, heading up or down the slope and typically petering out into the desert sand before reaching another intersection. Between the roads the desert is peppered with Palo Verde trees and Creosote bushes, the former rarely larger than a bush and the latter frequently as tall as a small tree. I turned left up one of these side roads to a spot about thirty feet from the pipeline marker, where the arrangement of this couplet of arid land plants was just right to provide some shade from the late day sun. This spot offered enough cover that my little encampment wouldn’t be immediately noticeable on the broad, pitched plain. While it is perfectly legal to park and stay on the BLM land, it’s not patrolled and only rarely monitored by its overseer agency. In short, BLM land is the current manifestation of the wild west.
I had stayed here before and found it an interesting place to muck around among the Creosote bushes and thorny shrubs of the southern Mojave Desert. In the not so distant past this land had been used as a training camp for the military and as such was littered with makeshift organizational adornments like long straight lines of rocks, painted white and leading nowhere, but eventually ending nevertheless. There are rusting heaps of anonymous cans tucked into the corners of arroyos which see water so infrequently that after all these years the original deposits are still easily found and only slightly more distributed about the site. Occasionally by luck and the fickle actions of erosion, a more interesting piece of mid-twentieth century hardware will be conspicuously deposited along my path and provided that it is of a reasonably portable size, I will pick it up and let it ride along on the dashboard for a few thousand miles. Until inevitably someone notices it flaking away under the windshield and asks to have it or just takes it with them. The other thing which this site offers is a lovely view of the highway a few thousand feet away to the South, and as the traffic thins in the very late and early hours, I find it restful to sit in the still, chill desert darkness above the interstate and watch the endless line of trucks rolling down into Indio, ultimately bound for the Los Angeles Basin and points north or south. Some nights I have pulled out my guitar to sing to an oblivious audience of bleary eyed travelers, westbound and wondering what the mornings light may illuminate in their coming day.
After settling in, unpacking the folding chair and planting it next to the ice chest on the shady side of the van then breaking out a wide mouthed plastic jar of really salty mixed nuts and a gallon bottle of once cold “spring” water, I commenced to enjoying the sight and sounds of the almost distant interstate. The late afternoon sun glinting orange off the flat windshields of the semis forms a trance-like zoetrope of truck cabs in ever changing hues made more mysterious by being filtered through the rising waves of thin desert air, punctuated by flashing turn signals and the occasional short blast of a horn probably meant to convey a greeting or perhaps mild displeasure, something only the participants in their cryptic high speed discourse could know for certain. This was for me the perfect beginning to what must surely become a thoroughly enjoyable evening.
It being about the middle of springtime, neither the heat nor the duration of sunlight had become particularly oppressive, and as soon as the sun was out of sight behind San Jacinto Peak, the cool rush of evening air began it’s rippling, down-slope pour from the mountains to the North. Within a half an hour I was donning a fleece pullover, though my khaki clad legs remained uncomfortably cold, so it was only a matter of minutes before I retired to the interior of the little egg-shaped van where I could lie back on one elbow and read late into the night while sipping spring water to wash down salty snacks or just gaze out the window at the never ending line of taillights on the highway below.
My usual routine was to put up five or six rectangular nylon curtains for a little privacy and some protection from the rising sun, but this evening in such a remote setting, I decided to forgo all but those two on the east-facing windows to guard against an untimely dawn. I had rigged the van with a reading/task lamp powered from the dome light that I’d made from a strip of LEDs mated to the hook side of velcro tape which would attach anywhere on the headliner and with a four foot long lead so that I could move or remove it as required. It was a very convenient setup and one of the few of my “inventions” which had needed no reworking. However, convenience comes with a cost and it was almost always the case that the transition from reading to sleeping was seamless, and I often woke up the next day with the light having been left on all night. Thankfully the LEDs draw so little current that they never come close to depleting the capacity of the battery. That night was no exception, I awoke to the LED lighting my eyelids orange and instinctively reached for the dome light to switch it off, but the switch seemed to be already turned off, or stuck in the on position.
When I opened my eyes, I was startled to see that the light was in fact coming through the west facing windows of the van. Projecting through bouncing shadows of tiny oval leaves and twisted branches, stretching across the ceiling and down the curtains on the opposite side. Though I was not sure how long I’d been sleeping, it was clearly still quite dark outside. As soon as I turned around to see what was illuminating my nest, everything went black. I searched through the tangle of branches and leaves beyond the window of the van, but except for the dual line of red and white lights falling away and over the highway horizon to the Southwest, there was nothing. No moon was out and I could make out no shapes or movement in or beyond the bushes. Nothing bounded the highway as far as could be seen in either direction and except for the faint droning of the traffic below, I could hear nothing.
I sat up all the way and looked out the windshield that was facing the highway, but other than the intermittent streaking of amber lights in the distance, nothing seemed out of place. So I took a swig from the by now half empty water bottle and lied back down to go to sleep.
Lying there, semi vigilant, semi asleep, I waited to see whether I’d be jolted back to full alert or left to continue on my course through the dreamland. Then, as if on cue, it was back. The same bouncing light and shadow pattern as before, filling my tiny bedroom with a stretching, twitching onslaught of contorted branch and leaf shadows all swaying and looping in some distinct choreography which only they were privy to. This time I sprang-to and swung around immediately to catch the perpetrator in the act, and as I did. I saw in the distance, a light, or rather a pair of lights, shining directly into the window. Then just as quickly as before, they turned away, or more precisely, one turned away, while the other remained trained upon me. Then without any warning, the second one turned off entirely, whereupon the original light took over the duty and swung back in my direction. It wasn’t clear how close or far away these lights were, but they were certainly not right outside the window, and in fact were far enough away that my curiosity was beginning to win out. The longer I watched, the more distant they seemed to be. Finally the light which was trained on the van went off and the other light came back on. Then about a two-count later that light disappeared in the same way as the first. It was weird. I felt around for my fleece, it was much colder than when I’d first fallen to sleep, and I guessed from the difference in temperature that it must be at least midnight. Just as I finished getting the arms of the damn thing untangled and over me, the lights were back, maybe closer now, probably not a good thing.
As I struggled to straighten the twisted clothing around my middle, I couldn’t look away from the lights. Clearly there were two of them and they weren’t acting entirely in concert, or maybe they were, but from my uninformed perspective it was hard to tell. When one beam turned away the other would stay trained on me for a second or two and as the first scanned across the sky and desert to the east, the second would break away from me and follow suit as if prompted by the first, then the first light would resume its interest in me (or the van) and again, within a second or two the other light would train its beam back on me. It seemed from my point of view that the first of them was in charge and the second was just mimicking the actions of the first. It wasn’t clear what they were looking for, especially when they would turn their attention to the sky and the beams of light would drag around through the dusty air and across the tops of the rocks and bushes about my position with no obvious pattern or purpose, finally upon concluding their spastic scan they’d return their focus back to me. It continued this way for about a half an hour, every once in a while they would go away completely, sometimes for a few seconds, other times for a minute or more, but always returning their scan at first to the sky and more distant features of the slope behind the van, then and always, directly back on me.
I decided to get dressed. I wasn’t sure if I would get out of the van, but I wanted to keep my options open. I found my pants and some socks and instead of putting my “ruggedized” sandals back on I fumbled around for a pair of tattered sneakers that lived on the floor between the drivers seat and the unfinished plywood cabinet that served as a bed. Even though they were pretty ragged, I felt like the sneakers might provide a little more protection and warmth, and if I needed to run they would certainly be the better option. Eventually dressed, I had a decision to make, should I trade the supposed safety and relative comfort of the egg-shaped van for the cold but otherwise unknown features of the open desert. After some totally undeterminable amount of seconds or minutes, I decided that the only way to know if the lights were looking for me or had merely noticed a shiny thing behind a bush, was to “exit the vehicle”.
The first problem with my plan was that the rear door which I'd entered through had no interior handle, and the sliding door which provided the only other exit from this side of the front seats was facing west, directly toward the lights. Adding to the difficulty was that I had parked so close to the Palo Verde tree, that it would be hard to maneuver my way past it with the heavier clothing on. I bided my time, waiting to see if the lights would turn off again, if they didn’t I would have to hope that they were too far away to notice me getting out of there. Then, again as if on cue, the lights went out.
I hurriedly slid the door open and stepped down onto the sandy ground, sliding the door back behind me and being careful not to click it shut, since I hadn’t checked to see if the door latch was locked or if I had my keys. I wondered where Rattle Snakes might like to curl up in the desert night, then put that thought out of my head for the moment so as not to be caught out by the lights before I could get around to the back of the van. As I turned around I felt something grab at my arm, I gave it a yank but it wouldn’t let go so I took it along with me around the corner of the van and I could hear it scraping across the oxidized paint until finally the fleece tore and the Palo Verde branch whipped back into place. I no sooner made it around the end of the van than I saw the beams of light pull back down through the black sky to the highest tips of the branches further up the slope beyond me, then return to the sky for a moment, and with a determined snap, land right back on me and the van.
Now it was time for me to put my questions to rest, and a little distance between myself and the van might yield a few more answers, as well as to get a little better vantage point. I ran up the slope behind the van for about thirty feet where a small wash had pushed the sand up into a hump before changing course to the east. From just those few yards farther from the pipeline road it became obvious that the lights were coming from a vehicle driving east on the road, but it was still at least a mile away. Then the second light came into view. There were two vehicles, and it was becoming clear that I was looking at two lights per vehicle, but owing to the distance they had combined into one light each, and as the vehicles dipped down into the washes that crossed the road, their lights would seem to turn off. First one, then the other, would drop down into the wash and depending on the width and depth of the wash they would return some moments later. In the course of returning from the depth of the wash to the height of the plain their lights would scan across the sky before arriving back down on the desert shrubs (and vans).
I was glad to have a less mysterious mystery to deal with, but what would anyone be doing driving two trucks (probably) up a gas line service road at midnight across a mountain pass in the middle of the Mojave Desert? And as they became slowly closer, more questions continued to pile on. Now that they were within a mile or so, it was clear that I was looking at two vehicles, but I couldn’t figure out why they seemed to be stopping and starting so frequently. I could see even from this distance that the lead truck, which was the smaller of the two, would stop, then the following truck would stop. Then the following truck would go, but just for a moment, then stop again and a moment later both would continue on for a minute or so. Then the whole routine repeated itself, and on and on like this. I wondered if they were checking the gas line for some damage or other possible frailty. And if they had to do this in the middle of the night, mightn’t that be something worth concerning myself with? I sniffed the air for a whiff of the telltale sulfurous smell, at first thinking that maybe I did smell something, then after inhaling more deeply, realizing that I was fooling myself. All the while transfixed on the continuing stop and go saga of the slowly approaching convoy.
I remembered that on my way to my parking place (as in “no, I’m not camping, I just parked here. Isn’t that O K ?” When in doubt, play dumb), I had crossed the last wash about five or six hundred feet back and it was a pretty wide one, two fifty, maybe three hundred feet wide. That would give me enough time to run down the road to just this side of the wash and find a bush or rock or something to hide behind before they were back above the cut. So I waited for them to plod on through the night until finally the lights dipped below the horizon for the last time. I ran as fast as I could without blowing my shitty sneakers apart. As I got closer to the arroyo I could see the marker lights on the tops of the cabs bobbing across the near side of the wash, I knew I better find a spot now or risk being discovered. I wanted to stay on the uphill side of the road, so that if I had to make it back to the van in a hurry, I would at least not have to cross the road to do it. I picked a lone Creosote bush about four feet high and twenty feet off the road, it was neither as high nor as far away as I would have liked, but what the hell, it would have to do. I dashed down behind the bush trying my best not to stir up too much dust. Once behind it and feeling reasonably invisible, I watched as the first of the two trucks clambered over the edge of the arroyo. It was a pickup with no particular anything, light in color, no signage, four wheel drive, which was more common than not out here, and the wide spaced mirrors that suggest it was used for towing. It cleared the edge of the wash and sped up a little until it got just up to where I was hiding behind my bush.
The pickup stopped. Out got a guy about six foot three and skinny, wearing a CAT baseball cap, jeans with the prerequisite chrome chain from the side to the back pocket, and a saggy T-shirt. At first he just stood there looking directly at me, then reached around his back for something. It was a lighter, he raised his other hand which held a cigarette, lit it and blew a long stream of blue smoke right at me. Just when I was sure I was made, he turned around and started walking back the way he came, toward the other truck. He left the door of his truck opened and the light from inside the cab shone across the sand all the way to the bush that I was pretending to hide behind, I thought for a second that maybe I should find a spot a little farther back from the road, but I knew that I was more likely to be discovered if i tried to move than if I stayed put. The following truck was taller, but otherwise looked about the same. As the skinny guy got to about a foot from the tall truck, he stopped and without saying a word leaned backward, by a lot, without falling over! That’s when I realized that he was hanging by one arm from one of the PVC markers, and without any warning, the big truck lurched forward passing the guy on the pipe. And as it continued past, I noticed light glinting off of a long, flat, shiny piece of something sticking out from the side of the truck about ten feet behind the cab. The big truck pulled up to just behind the first truck and stopped. The skinny guy, having released the marker was on his way back to the front truck, again,with nothing to say to the guy in the back truck he continued to his truck, got in and pulled the door closed behind him. Without the competition from the cab light I could make out the shiny thing better, it was familiar, but it didn’t register immediately. Then a couple seconds later, they were back on the move and as the big truck made it’s characteristic lurch forward I recognized its payload. It was the wing of a high wing monoplane, like a Cessna or a Piper Cub. And as the truck rolled past I could make out the whole setup. The following truck was one of those flatbed style tow trucks with a plane strapped to the back, But the wings wouldn’t clear the gas line markers, so every couple hundred feet the guy in the lead truck would have to go back and pull the marker out of the way so that the rear truck could get ahead of it, and in this way they were able to make slow progress, up the little pipeline road in the middle of the night, with an airplane.
I stayed there behind my little creosote bush for the five or so minutes that it took them to get beyond my van, then went back to my folding chair and watched as they continued on their herky-jerky way out of site to the east. I wondered why they had chosen such a difficult method for transporting a small aircraft, an unwieldy thing to move with it’s wings attached, but as the cold drifted back into my legs, I became content that it was none of my business and went back into the little egg shaped van, turned on the light, got undressed, took out my book to read a little and that’s all I remember. I must’ve fallen asleep.
Copyright 2019 by Scott Cadenasso