To focus stories back on ourselves, what else is more natural?

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threeDan Saucedo


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Arriving: Almost There

--- excerpted from Camping with Juanita

In the town of Joshua Tree, just past the First National Laundromat of Joshua Tree, Juanita says, “Turn here,” and we go right onto Park Boulevard. In a vacant lot, its ground granulated white, course like riverbed sand, microphones are being set up on a raised platform stage. The big banner reads: Wild West Coyote Festival: Music, Fine Arts, Crafts, Food. In front of the stage, bales of hay are set out in semi-circle arcs creating amphitheater seating. Headliners will include The Thrift Store All-Stars and Trampled By Turtles. They were among the listed on the Festival poster in the window at the market. The poster promised Mechanical Calf Roping, a Coyote Howling Contest, Fire Spinning (which remained undefined), and a Pet Parade: “All pets welcome. Must be Leashed or Reined!”

“They’re starting soon,” Juanita says.

“Wanna stop?” My foot pulls from the accelerator.

Already set-up are the petting zoo, the pony rides, and a seven-foot rocking horse. Along the far end of the lot wafting tri-tip smoke is Mesquite Pete’s Chuck Wagon Bar-B-Que, an all-wrangler, black-steel, deep-pit BBQ on wheels, its two grills raised and lowered by chains linked to large spinning wheels, one on each side of the overhead frame. You can breathe the scent from here: the racks of ribs, pork and beef, brushed with a sweet and spicy sauce. The booth next to it reads:

Kari’s Cobblers and Pies
---A-La-Mode---

Spun in her chair, tempted, Juanita, looking back, decides, “Maybe tomorrow. Let’s set up camp. It’s gonna get dark.”

My mouth is already transformed by the possibilities of The Quigg & Riggs Sausage Company. Maybe they cook-up a fat Sweet Italian like Jody Maroni: ground pork mixed with “fresh oranges, bell peppers, parmesan, and gruyere,” all with a hint of “red and white wine,” the sausage served on a soft bun with mustard and a tong full of sautéed onions and sweet red peppers.

How we do love a festival, nearly as much as a county fair.

We roll up the alluvial slope toward the mountains and the higher high-desert, the preparation bustle shrinking in the side-view mirror. Thinking of the Coyote Howling Contest, I ask, “Remember by the Goldmine last year at the County Fair?” to which she answers, “I do,” her feet, bare, back on the dash again.

What the Fair had last year was a Husband Calling Contest. There must have been nine, ten, eleven women lined up, each of them, how shall we say, sturdy, each one giving it her all. The winner, though, she just belted it out like an opera: “Hen-r-e-e-e, here henry-henry-henry. Hen-r-e-e-e!” She hollered so loud you could have heard her all the way across the hollar. A man hearing that would have no choice but to come, no matter where he was hiding.

The Husband Calling Contest. If County Fairs were an ethnic group, The Husband Calling Contest would be a stand-up comic poking fun at its heritage, for while the Twin Contest, the Redhead Contest, and Pie Eating hearken back like Norman Rockwell; the Pig Races, the Belching Contest, and Husband Calling hearken back with the deliberate charm of Mad Magazine.

Idling at the Park Entrance, I hand a few ducats to the Ranger in his Little-Hut-Of-Fees. He hands us The Joshua Tree Guide, a newspaper of history and up-coming events, and Exploring Joshua Tree, a full-color brochure-map detailing destinations and flora and fauna: the Wonderland of Rocks, the teddy bear cholla, the flat-tailed horned lizard.

Even before I’m given change, Juanita has Exploring Joshua Tree opened and flipped to the map side.

The two-lane desert road winds us into the park skirting boulder formations: residual granite piles, boulder upon boulder, perched and balanced, columns rising gigantic from the high-valley desert floor. The mountains on both sides are also boulder upon boulder, exposed granite settled onto collapsed granite; hot, dry, gray, --- left behind once the soil had eroded. On the valley floor, shooting east amidst the residual piles, we scoot through the Joshua Tree forest, the trees spaced in the low-lying chaparral, all in a vast lake of sand.

Pointing with the Sierra Club directions, she says, “Turn here,” and we go right onto a dirt road. At a thirty-foot granite column, the road widens into the Lost Horse Picnic Area, a twelve-car parking space scraped clean by a land grader.

It has picnic tables ringing the perimeter and plenty of no shade. We move through slowly. The white Corolla appears to belong to gone-off hikers, and beside the three-story stone is a 4x4 Jeep, black with a roll bar, no canvas top. Juanita leans forward, especially interested, and peers up through the windshield to a climber near summit who is belayed by one of three climbers at the base.

She, Juanita, is a mountaineer from way back, way back in her Roosevelt High days in Seattle, and whatever is the mountaineer's equivalent to a lifetime of “Semper Fi,” she has it, so as we pass she watches, drawn in, in the same way an old-time hardware man on vacation cannot walk past a hardware store without going in. She is phototropic in that way, a sunflower who always turns to face the sun.

Of her mountaineering stories, the one that still gives me the whim-whams is the crevasse story, the lowering into. “Safety First” was always first, which included knowing how to escape a crevasse, and how better to prepare for an emergency than with an emergency drill. So, there she was on Rainier’s Nisqually Glacier roped to her mountaineering comrades, her turn to crawl over the lip and lower herself down in, her turn to be enraptured by the cold beauty. When I recall her story, I imagine the temperature dropping suddenly from the walls’ close confinement, the deep blue disappearing in a curve below her, the crackling of deep ice moving. She has always said she felt safe, having lowered down maybe just five-feet, the mountaineers above fallen onto their ice axes, their blades plunged into the glacier, belaying her, breaking the simulated fall, the rope between them and her taut, an instructor looking over the edge as she made a rope ladder, looping stirrup-loops onto the rope and climbing out.

If she had gotten in trouble, someone would have come down to get her; besides, her older brother, who was on his way to becoming a world-class climber, was there, and so was his friend Jim, who would be the first American to ascend Everest. Still, what if she had slipped, and this is the whim-wham: I picture the long slide down, frozen to death before she wedges into her final resting place, deep and disappeared beyond all rescue or recovery.

It’s all our fates, really, to wind up deep and disappeared, and that’s where the willies come from, the fright that moves us back from the edge, for though it’s Juanita envisioned in the slippage, in the replay as her figure falls and falls again, she slowly transforms until, lo, I become the one on the unstoppable slide, the one isolated and slipping away, disappeared and wedged beyond rescue and recovery; it’s this switch that makes me shudder with the whim-wham-willies, makes me want to change thoughts away from the cold deep blue ice.

To focus stories back on ourselves, what else is more natural? In this case it’s preparation, for, even if only imagined, how can each death not evoke our own? We recognize ourselves in the incident, like driving slowly past an accident, and though we don’t want to see what we might see, we glance over, sometimes with a long and searching look. It is both empathy and insight.

Empathy and insight: it is to recognize your own --- and it imprints early. I remember once a mother in front of me in line at the grocery store holding her two year old. Two check stands over, in a hand-held bassinet, a six-month-old baby started to cry, and the two year old looked around concerned, protective as if something needed to be done, and said quietly, “B a b y.”

Juanita leans forward and forward some more, looking up until she can’t see him anymore, and then sits back in the chair; I feel her in there, see it in her solidness, her connection to the climber, a kind of archetypal groundedness. For her it’s like having just heard a Lark Sparrow, old and familiar, much loved, like the one that used to sing outside her bedroom window in her Roosevelt days.

Just past the last parking space at the Lost Horse Picnic Area, I stop. The sign on the post reads “SERVICE ROAD ONLY” and the sign below that “DO NOT ENTER.”

“The directions say to keep going,” she says, but I’ve been trained to pull to the right for sirens and to “Give ‘Em A Brake” when Cal-Trans is present, so I stay stopped. “Go,” she says, rattling the instructions like they’re a pass from the Queen to pass. That’s what it takes, the rattling, before I ease forward, like I’m tressing past “No Trespassing.”

It’s not that she’s a scofflaw, but she does have little hesitation to push a button just to see what-might maybe-might happen, while I tend toward the big, “Well, I don’t know . . .”

“Sometimes we’re so different,” she says, “I wonder how it ever works at all,” not in a tone of wishing we’d never married, but of wondering how a recipe can call for pumpkin pie spice and oregano in the same dessert.

“It’s ‘cause I know you,” I say, “really, really know you.”

“Yeah, right.”

“No, look,” I say, glancing in the rear view mirror at the belaying comrade standing on the ground, “it’s like you hate driving, you love to navigate, a good map in your hands; and me, I love driving, driving-driving-driving. We’re perfect.”

The washboards on the dirt road make the tires bounce like speed bags, keeping us, at twenty-five miles an hour, in our own dust. The road cuts down into a narrow wash, a miniature canyon not much wider than the car, a canyon that swoops across the desert floor, the grade of the alluvial fan sloping us upward toward the mountains a mile in the distance, the sparse ground cover flowering at eye level out the window.


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