“Well crew-pees [a poorly thought out pun on groupies], at least it’s not in our contract to kill
things this hitch,” Brian, a 28-year-old bowl-cut D&D addict with a high-pitched Tallahassee
accent and a penchant for wordplay said.
He was right, and his optimism was much needed. The five of us had been sent into the
Mojave at the base of the sheer limestone cliffs and caves of the Vegas Mountains, our first
assignment together. We were to perform a much needed, but little performed aspect of
conservation. Trash pick-up, with a bit of road-decommissioning thrown in. Not quite what comes
to mind when one signs up for a job in the conservation industry.
We were a saw crew, so, for most of my nine months on the job, I’d been doling out arboreal
justice. Cutting down invasive trees: pinions and junipers that had encroached into sagebrush
meadows, willow stands that destroyed pupfish habitat, and that old demon that plagues the
desert southwest - tamarisk. In a way, it was a relief to be restoring habitat without killing part
of it. Cutting down trees isn’t quite what you think of when you sign up for a job in the industry,
While we went to work the first couple days, Matt, our foul-mouthed and bearded project
partner, sent me scrambling up a limestone cliff face to retrieve a rope that had been fixed by
locals to assist access to some high-up caves. He knew I was a committed, borderline obsessed
rock climber so he assumed I’d be okay.
When entering a cave in the desert, Matt said, it is custom to introduce yourself. At least, he
told us, that was the belief of the Indians who had inhabited this part of the desert long before we
did. I neglected to do so and, I guessed, so had the kids who’d had many a campfire in this cliff-
side cave. I found empty boxes of hookah tobacco, a tarp, soda cans, and a questionable towel. I
descended the limestone possibly cursed by the ancient cave-dwelling spirits.
These Mojave mountains have a very specific sort of beauty. They are not pretty or gorgeous.
In terms of American geology, they are neither tall nor particularly awe-inspiring. It is a beauty
of hard chiseled lines sand roughness and survival. The Sierras and the Rockies might scoff at
them, urbanite intellectuals looking down in contempt at the rednecks and the desert rats. But
from their heights they know nothing of life and of the desert and of what suffers and survives.
We spent hours upon hours decommissioning roads. We did our best to drive our pick-mattocks
deep into the soil to allow the desert crust to re-establish itself and dragging dead plants onto the
road to blend it into its surroundings.
“My parents always told me, ‘Go to college or you’ll end up digging ditches,‘” Ian said. “Well I
went to college and ended up digging holes.”
Picking up trash, my mind wanders.
There are beer bottles and rusty springs. Shotgun shells and hundred-year-old bean cans.
Burnt and shot-up old TVs. Skulls and anarchy symbols spray-painted on the rock. Hundreds of
years of life and stories in this canyon and this is what is left.
Wild nights with guns and beer. Teenagers escaping the city with spray cans and whip-its, 7-
Up and Mickey’s. A local that calls this place his own showing his new gal the sheer limestone
walls, the countless and mysterious caves, that high rocky platform where he saw a grizzled
old mountain lion all those years ago. A white-bearded miner and those lonely nights in a cave,
choking on the smoke of his own fire to stay out of the wind and the rain. Natives curled up close
to one another, listening for the whispers of the ancient spirits and gods whose rules govern this
land, hoping for sheep, for water, for warmth.
These stories are all here, all around me, and one by one, I pick them up. The ones that the
canyon hasn’t already swallowed, at least.
The night the can I just tossed in my big yellow trash bag was nonchalantly tossed over a
shoulder was the night a man met his love, his buddy got too drunk to speak, they all got lost and
cold and stranded on a foot-wide ledge fifty feet up over the sharp limestone floor. It was a story
he told his friends, his family, his children, his grandkids. A story about his wild days as a young
man in the desert.
And I bag up this story and toss it in the back of a truck.
I go back to thinking about my previous weekend at Joshua Tree. I throw a couple more cans
and some glass in my bag. I put on my sweater. It’s getting cold.