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Thinking West: Mary Austin’s The Land of Little Rain

Yucca brevifolia in the Mojave Desert — southwestern Nevada (by Amateria1121, Wikimedia Commons, (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Yucca brevifolia in the Mojave Desert — southwestern Nevada (by Amateria1121, Wikimedia Commons, (CC BY-SA 3.0)

“East away from the Sierras, south from Panamint and Amargosa, east and south many an uncounted mile, is the Country of Lost Borders.

Ute, Paiute, Mojave, and Shoshone inhabit its frontiers, and as far into the heart of it as a man dare go. Not the law, but the land sets the limit. Desert is the name it wears upon the maps, but the Indian’s is the better word. Desert is a loose term to indicate land that supports no man; whether the land can be bitten and broken to that purpose is not proven. Void of life it never is, however dry the air and villainous the soil.

This is the nature of that country. There are hills, rounded, blunt, burned, squeezed up out of chaos, chrome and vermilion painted, aspiring to the snowline. Between the hills lie high level-looking plains full of intolerable sun glare, or narrow valleys drowned in a blue haze. The hill surface is streaked with ash drift and black, unweathered lava flows. After rains water accumulates in the hollows of small closed valleys, and, evaporating, leaves hard dry levels of pure desertness that get the local name of dry lakes. Where the mountains are steep and the rains heavy, the pool is never quite dry, but dark and bitter, rimmed about with the efflorescence of alkaline deposits. A thin crust of it lies along the marsh over the vegetating area, which has neither beauty nor freshness. In the broad wastes open to the wind the sand drifts in hummocks about the stubby shrubs, and between them the soil shows saline traces. The sculpture of the hills here is more wind than water work, though the quick storms do sometimes scar them past many a year’s redeeming. In all the Western desert edges there are essays in miniature at the famed, terrible Grand Canon, to which, if you keep on long enough in this country, you will come at last.

Since this is a hill country one expects to find springs, but not to depend upon them; for when found they are often brackish and unwholesome, or maddening, slow dribbles in a thirsty soil. Here you find the hot sink of Death Valley, or high rolling districts where the air has always a tang of frost. Here are the long heavy winds and breathless calms on the tilted mesas where dust devils dance, whirling up into a wide, pale sky. Here you have no rain when all the earth cries for it, or quick downpours called cloud-bursts for violence. A land of lost rivers, with little in it to love; yet a land that once visited must be come back to inevitably. If it were not so there would be little told of it.”

Read more here….

Thinking West: Route 66

Route 66 (NPS.GOV)
Route 66 ran 2,448 miles. The iconic highway stretched between Chicago to Los Angeles (NPS.GOV)

There are few highways that have the iconic, near mythic status that Route 66 holds in American culture. Route 66 stretched some 2,500 miles between Chicago, Illinois and Los Angeles, California. Route 66 became a symbol of the open road. It was America’s Pilgrims’ Road, where folks in the East or Middle-West could escape to the western reaches of the United States. In Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, Route 66 offered Okies a way out of a state ravaged by the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. Jack Kerouac mentions the iconic highway in On the Road. Large swaths of Route 66 have since been absorbed by five Interstate Highways (55, 44, 40, 15, and 10). Although Route 66 is no longer with us, its legacy still lingers in the West.

Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath (Chapter 12):

HIGHWAY 66 IS THE main migrant road. 66—the long concrete path across the country, waving gently up and down on the map, from the Mississippi to Bakersfield—over the red lands and the gray lands, twisting up into the mountains, crossing the Divide and down into the bright and terrible desert, and across the desert to the mountains again, and into the rich California valleys.

66 is the path of a people in flight, refugees from dust and shrinking land, from the thunder of tractors and shrinking ownership, from the desert’s slow northward invasion, from the twisting winds that howl up out of Texas, from the floods that bring no richness to the land and steal what little richness is there. From all of these the people are in flight, and they come into 66 from the tributary side roads, from the wagon tracks and the rutted country roads. 66 is the mother road, the road of flight.”

Thinking (or Going) West

10416639_245650108960724_2950671783786338079_n[To] go west: 1) If something goes west, it is lost, damaged, destroyed, or spoiled in some way; and 2) (British & Australian, old-fashioned) if someone goes west, they die.*

The West has become synonymous with ruggedness, adventure, desert climates, and shootouts amongst outlaws and lawmen. In American society, the West is where the nation must meet its foreordained destiny, amongst the plains, deserts, and great, snow-capped mountains. This same thinking believes the West is a place where prosperity is found with prospector’s gold pan or farmer’s plow. However, throughout history the West has often been synonymous with death. The ancient Egyptians buried their dead on the western banks of the great Nile River. The West is where the blazing sun sets at the end of the day. More specifically, the West is where the sun goes to die at night. It is renewed the next day by rising from the East. During World War One, British and Australian soldiers might say their dead comrades went West. Although the West has been appropriated by the sweet words of progress, hope, and life, it is death that is familiar with and even comfortable in the West.

*Sources: Cambridge Advanced Learners Dictionary & Thesaurus and Free Dictionary

Thinking West with Terry Pratchett

Night poured over the desert. It came suddenly, in purple. In the clear air, the stars drilled down out of the sky, reminding any thoughtful watcher that it is in the deserts and high places that religions are generated. When men see nothing but bottomless infinity over their heads they have always had a driving and desperate urge to find someone to put in the way.” — Jingo (Discworld series)

Thinking West with Edward Abbey

Finally, in this discussion of water in the desert, I should make note of a distinctive human contribution, one which has become part of the Southwestern landscape no less typical than the giant cactus, the juniper growing out of solid rock or the red walls of a Navajo canyon. I refer to the tiny oasis formed by the drilled well, its windmill and storage tank. The windmill with its skeleton tower and creaking vanes is an object of beauty as significant in its way as the cottonwood tree, and the open tank at its foot, big enough to swim in, is a thing of joy to man and beast, no less worthy of praise than the desert spring.

Water, water, water…. There is no shortage of water in the desert by exactly the right amount, a perfect ratio of water to rock, of water to sand, insuring that wide, free, open, generous spacing among plants and animals, homes and towns and cities, which makes the arid West so different from any other part of the nation. There is no lack of water here, unless you try to establish a city where no city should be. ” — Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire (p. 126)

Thinking West with Marc Reisner

In the West, it is said, water flows uphill toward money. And it literally does, as it leaps three thousand feet across the Tehachapi Mountains in gigantic siphons to slake the thirst of Los Angeles, as it is shoved a thousand feet out of Colorado River canyons to water Phoenix and Palm Springs and the irrigated lands around them. It goes 444 miles (the distance from Boston to Washington) by aqueduct from the Feather River to south of L.A. It goes in man-made rivers, in siphons, in tunnels. In a hundred years, actually less, God’s riverine handiwork in the West has been stood on its head. A number of rivers have been nearly dried up. One now flows backward. Some flow through mountains into other rivers’ beds. There are huge reservoirs where there was once desert; there is desert, or cropland, where there were once huge shallow swamps and lakes.” –Marc Reisner, Cadillac Desert (p. 12)

“Drifting” by Beth Thomas

WE WALKED TO THE FENCE and saw the birds there, pecking into the gourds that grew wild in that otherwise barren land of rock and shale and dusty bones. An arrowhead plucked up and held, a souvenir, a ghost. We did not stop to check it for blood. We did not speak, only walked, gathering memories, folding them and tucking them safe into back pockets.

“Dry Bones” by Manuel Trevizo (Excerpt)

A skull, of a bull

Perched on a rotting post of wood

The background, a blood red sunset

With hints of a lack of oxygen

Smeared across the panorama

Saguaro Cacti, erected across the

Barron waste land

Representing generations of life,

While the skull represents generations of death

 

Dry heat is what they said,

But so is fire

Build canals! Sow the seeds! Inhabit this

Illustrious land full of opportunity

 Read more here

“Uncomfortable Truths” by Kayleen Burdine (Excerpt)

THEY LEFT IN THE MORNING, before the stars had even begun to disappear. The sky that had been purple-blue-black when they first pulled away from the flickering streetlamp just outside Claire’s family’s apartment was now vibrant and alive with the fiery oranges and yellows of sunrise, its reflection settled smack-dab in the center of the rearview mirror like a miniature masterpiece. They had three hours behind them and no particular destination in mind, their duffle bags slung carelessly into the bed of Ethan’s run-down ’82 Ford pickup. The cab was chilly with the last dregs of winter and Claire shivered a little. The heater was busted.

“Alright, screw it,” she announced, propping her feet up on the dash and tossing her book down onto the weathered seat between them. “Uncomfortable truths. Go.”

Ethan turned his eyes from the road for a second, confusion apparent. “What?”

“Uncomfortable truths,” she reiterated, this time more slowly. “Tell me something unsettling about yourself that I don’t already know.”

“Like what?” he asked, still not seeming to understand. Claire sighed.

“Fine. I’ll start,” she fiddled with the radio’s volume until Led Zeppelin faded out to a low hum. “You know those novelty jelly beans people buy as gag-gifts? The really gross ones that taste like mud, earwax, vomit…?

“Yeah?”

“I like the soap-flavored ones.”

“What?” Ethan’s nose crinkled in disgust.

“Seriously?”

“Yup,” she replied proudly. “Your turn.”

Read more here….

El Portal Launch Party! (12 Sept.)

We’re happy to announce that the launch party for the Spring 2014 Edition of El Portal will be hosted on Friday, September 12th. The festivities begin at 5:00pm in Bernalillo Hall, so if you’re in the area we would love for you to attend!

ENMU students, we know you’ve been anxiously waiting to find out the winning entries. Come to the launch to hear the formal announcement, as well as to bask in the admiration of your peers.

Would you like to read an excerpt from your published submission? We love when contributors are willing to read from their work! If this is something you’re interested in, you will be allotted a maximum of five minutes to share your work. Photographers, if you would like to display your piece(s) please bring an enlarged version of your work.
****Please e-mail El Portal’s editor at el.portal@enmu.edu if you wish to present photographs or read your submission.****