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Future's Edge

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The Mojave Desert endures, battling those who would carve out the heart of its mystery and beauty

By Christopher Weir

Springtime in the Mojave is subliminal. It should be warm, but there's a brittle wind screaming through Boron. Here's a season billed as the reawakening of nature, of life itself. But the ghost town of Calico is silent, and the infinite horizons are lifeless.

Sunday newspapers are making a fuss about the desert wildflowers. But where are they? Springtime in the Mojave is subtle.

Elsewhere, people are writing sonnets about songbirds and poppies, about love and longing. But amid the Mojave, poetry is found in the last aluminum-laced remnants of a Budweiser, in the arc of an F-117 stealth fighter overhead, in the crooning of Dwight Yoakam ("I'm a thousand miles from nowhere").

Somewhere else, springtime is flirtatious. In the Mojave, it's brutal, but no less beautiful.

Yes, even here the season stokes the coals of emergence, from suddenly restless reptiles to quivering cactus blooms. And for someone attuned to the region, its history and future, it all underscores a strange revelation: Springtime is this desert's inverse.

No, the Mojave is not necessarily dying. But it's being transformed, and not for the better. "We used to be a little area off in the desert," Joshua Tree National Park Superintendent Ernest Quintana says. "Now the Coachella Valley to the south has boomed, the Morongo basin to the north is developing and air pollution coming in from the urbanized inland empire is an increasing threat to the park. Hopefully, someday we'll realize that what we do in one region is directly tied to and will impact other regions."

Will we? And when?

The Victor and Antelope valleys are expected to see a nearly three-fold population increase to a total of 1.4 million people over the next 25 years. The Army is poised to grab 330,000 acres south of Death Valley for enhanced war games. Ward Valley is being heralded as the West's premier destination for low-level radioactive waste. A massive landfill project-- potentially the world's largest--is threatening to claim Eagle Mountain adjacent to Joshua Tree.

Meanwhile, enterprising Asian investors are angling to purchase 13,000 acres near Barstow. Their inspired vision? An instant community of 100,000 people, a desert dystopia studded with strip malls and bracketed by increasingly foul air.

Indeed, the Mojave is the only region in California that you can bomb, trash, pave and irradiate simultaneously. But in the aftermath of an April's shower, on a lonely stretch of Interstate 15, with a crystalline blue breaking in the east, it's too easy to imagine otherwise. Springtime in the Mojave is deceptive.

They say this desert can burn. We have disturbed the Mojave's desiccated topsoil so much over the past few decades that invasive grasses have been given an edge, an opportunity to blanket vast desert tracts with incendiary purpose. No firestorms here, however. Just slow burns. That is, burns that mimic the inexorable advance of suburban blacktop.

A certain angst has swept this desert over the past decade, an angst whose nerves are wired to the Los Angeles megalopolis and, to a lesser extent, the Las Vegas hypersprawl. The places from which one needs to escape are encroaching ever closer, unleashing their recreational demons into the heart of the desert.

Off-road vehicles tear up the hardpan, hordes of revelers storm isolated lake beds for parties advertised on the Internet. Hazardous waste is dumped illegally in the East Mojave National Preserve, the commerce of business people who'll gladly scorch habitats to turn a buck. Methamphetamine trailer labs bejewel the outer limits of the developed valleys and beyond, forging a legacy of toxicity and heartbreak.

And so the Mojave becomes, in essence, a battlefield of subversive development, crass entertainment, social dysfunction and desperate environmentalism. Caught in the crossfire are those who moved here long ago to be alone, to be left alone.

It's a Sunday morning on an eternal road trip. Elsewhere, families gather for outings or brunch, perhaps church. But you're in Baker, scouring a gas station mini-mart for bad coffee and even worse food. Departing, you pass by the famed Bun Boy restaurant, home of the "world's tallest thermometer." Springtime in the Mojave is bizarre.

For more than a century, the Mojave was a capitalistic afterthought. Today, it's an opportunity. Tomorrow? Well, imagine a mosaic of tract homes, national parks and exploitation.

But in the Mojave, tomorrow is always so far away. Especially now, as a brittle wind screams through Boron, as a lonely highway shimmers in the wake of an April's shower.

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From the May 7-13, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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