Yesterday we went out to Joshua Tree. Heads full of U2 songs, we posed for album cover pictures. And snapped the last rays of the sun over the Cholla cacti that have found themselves just the right place in the sweeping bowl of the desert.
A national park, the place is managed with precision and your visit is guided and chaperoned by roadside exhibits, opportunities for learning. Much of the park is federally-sanctioned and mandated wilderness: a parcel of how we imagine the real. But the real is elsewhere.
To the north of the park, a huge swathe of desert is taken up by the Marine Corps Air Ground Center. Presumably that's one place where the military prepare themselves for desert combat in Iraq. The nearby town of Twenty-Nine Palms, home to the National Park Headquarters, proudly boasts its murals, more than a few of which are dedicated to celebrating the Marines' activities in those deserts to the east.
Wargames to the north and war to the east, but war also to the south.
South, the desert stretches towards the Mexican border. On the way back, we stopped in Palm Springs and I picked up some books and DVDs at the marvellous Latino Books y más. One of these was Bobby and Susannah Byrd's The Late Great Mexican Border, which has a couple of pieces about the desert, including Charles Bowden's "Blue." Here's Bowden on the border desert near Tacna, Arizona:
The sun comes up with unbelievable force. I shudder under the rays like a vampire caught far from my coffin. All around us are the unmarked spots where the last dramas of the dying take place. One man went down a mile south of the Interstate. He set fire to a tree in hopes that the smoke would bring help. They found his body.
The dying can be very quick. A few weeks before, a man left El Saguaro truckstop at 4pm on a Saturday. By 9pm Sunday he was in a body bag in Tacna. He was twenty-eight. Sometimes the Border Patrol finds people too far gone to risk the ride to the hospital in Yuma. They take them to a grocery in Tacna and put them in the beer cooler in hopes of lowering their body temperatures.
None of these tales stops the flow of people. There was an old man who crossed this desert with his son and nephew. The two boys died ten miles south of the Interstate. The old man was caught and shipped back to Mexico. A week later he was caught again crossing the same desert with a girl of eighteen. So far the Border Patrol in the Tacna sector has nabbed that old man fifteen times. (33-34)