Sand Valley is actually a depression hemmed by hills, but we ten citizens of the 100 square miles call it a valley within mountains to raise the spirits. It’s paradise during the six winter months when outside folks visit and talk of buying dream acres, as I did three years ago, and it’s a furnace at all other times when people pull stakes and move out. At any time of year, it’s located at the tri-junction of the California, Arizona and Mexico borders an hour’s drive from the nearest town of Blythe, Ca. down a sandy track through the Sonora Desert. Blythe is known to watchers weather as ‘The hottest spot in the nation today…’ where tourists fall on the sidewalk and cook,’ but really it’s 15 degrees cooler there than on that single track into the Valley along which I bump to our little corner skirting the Chocolate Mountain Bombing Range.
It’s a privilege to get acquainted with anything that lives and thrives in this Valley – plant, animal and human – as the product of long or personal evolution. The latter, ten inhabitants, haven’t relocated away from roads, water and electricity to hear the news; yet a war’s inferred by the bombing at targets three miles from my trailer doorstep that causes the rental car’s turning wheels to shudder along the last miles of white sands under blue skies.
I wheel into the long homemade driveway to my 28’ semi-truck trailer that’s converted to living quarters with a waterbed. I dragged the trailer out here four years ago, before the driveway was invented by tire repetitions, with a truck that got mired to the axles. That’s how I met my neighbors, the Quicks, who live three miles away on the basin lip. ‘We seen your dust!’ the family shouted from a customized dune-buggy, an’ they fetched my other nearest neighbor, T.J. to bring his 1946 ‘six-by’ military truck that boasts 13 universal joints to yank the semi-truck free and coax it back to Blythe. That was the beginning of Rancho Scorpion.
Desert dwellers read the sand like a story on paper – who did what with whom last night, laid over the night before… No biped has trod my ten acres since I left to travel five months ago. There’s no reason to enter Sand Valley unless you want to get away from it all, so I open the car door, step out, and step into freedom.
Rancho Scorpion offers the comforts of solar power, cable TV (if I yield), and a propane stove and fridge. I underline these as your anchor before plunging into day one. Coming to Sand Valley is like entering a foreign country because I usually get sick on day two, and glow during the rest of the stay.
It’s sunny, still and so quiet you can hear a darn mouse urinating on the sand between bomb drops. The Mouse Wars began the day I moved in four years ago, one man vs. the hoards he enjoys but that flog him. You recall an earlier ‘day one’ after returning when I foolishly drank the mouse cocktail -a dissolved mouse with only a tail and feet left – and fell ill for that day. The battle shows new fronts each year, and now a generation of mutant defecators has laid a carpet of raisins within the semi, and there’s Life cereal inside my spare boots that tastes funny.
Mouse dust, the usual cactus spines, sunburn, different food, stale water, alertness for scorpions and snakes, scrapes, dirt, and the 100+ temperature brings me to the knees at the end of the first day. Nevertheless, I go to sleep on the couch under the stars knowing it’s a passage to tomorrow’s better health.
I mosey south a mile to T.J. and Lori’s to trade my old gas for the news. Their encampment is copse of trailers encircled by snarling dogs on break-away strings, but this morning it’s strangely quiet. ‘The heat got the animals,’ pipes Lori, shriveled as a prune. ‘I lost 5 dogs, 4 cats, 2 doves, a turkey, 10 chickens and Godzilla the rooster.’ The remaining dozens of cats, dogs, birds and a horse presently lay panting next to each other in the trailers’ shade. T.J., the Viet Nam vet, describes the summer calamity, ‘Twas the worst in a decade. Everything came lookin’ for water, and we was runnin’ short. Four bee swarms big as houses came through, one of ‘em while I was drivin’ my ‘rail’ (homemade buggy). I downshifted and missed neutral to first, jumped out, and hit the dirt ‘till the swarm passed overhead, then caught up and jumped back in.’
Burrow Bo on his flatbed VW in Sand Valley. (Photo courtesy of Phil Garlington, author of Rancho Costa Nada: The Dirt Cheap Desert Homestead)
People should be nice to the man with the grader,’ shoots T.J. He’s called the ‘Ace of Spades’ because he holds the trump for anyone wanting to enter or leave the Valley. ‘Ironwood Road (the traditional lane through Sand Valley) don’t exist no more!’ He stopped scraping this summer after a short cloudburst washed out the track because so few folks chip in to fuel his 1942 grader. However, now he clears an alternate route that skirts the bombing range where ‘wetbacks’, ‘la Migra’ (immigration), and sometimes Marines sink into sand traps along that inferior track, and come a-knocking at T.J.’s door to get towed free for a fee, I guess.
The past summer steamed everyone, as citizens and their animals lounged in plastic wading pools while other creatures dropped in the sand. ‘Start at 115 degrees in the shade every day for a month’, snorts Lori. ‘Once up to 122.’ Metal tools couldn’t be touched, and vehicle repairs were done at night. Shaded water got hot enough for coffee. Lori sleeps outside on a cot where, ‘A kit fox crawled in bed with me, probably because I wet the sheets’, she observes.
The fauna change from the last severe months includes fewer snakes, like the three-foot rattler I nearly stepped on last night, thinking it a stick. T.J. concurs, ‘I thought there was something funny lookin’ about that old brake drum last month, and it was a sidewinder curled up. I left it in two-inch pieces with my gun smokin’ to bring in the buzzards. The only thing good about this summer is the snakes that weren’t.’ The heat took Godzilla, Lori’s gargantuan rooster with big feathered ‘shoes’, but he left a yard full of robust, like-shod youngsters. I see no rabbit at my own property, the lizard population is albino and reduced, the few birds are feathers on strings, but remarkably the air is full of pink-and-white grasshoppers that fly like bats, gaining loft with each flap for up to a mile.
Further along the road, Bomb Mary who you recollect nearly got hit by an errant thousand-pound missile from the range, had the worst summer yet. She has two bad knees, and last month got badly constipated. She called the rescue squad, who got lost on the other side of the Valley and knocked at Whit the Well-Digger’s, who showed the team and ambulance to Mary’s. She reclined for two days on cool county hospital sheets, admonished by nurses to drink water herself rather than throw it on her dozen dogs.
Griz, the three-hundred pounder with a head shaved on one side and pony-tailed on the other, was just released from prison for shootin’ his neighbor, Big Jake, for playing the radio too loud three years ago. Jake, slightly larger than Griz, was my homesteading mentor, but ain’t showed this summer since Griz started gunnin’ for him.
I toddle down to Phil Garlington’s Rancho where a big boat rests in the sand as if the Flood recently receded. Actually, it’s the main course of his next book on building a sailboat dirt cheap and living on it. It tickles how the Sand Valleyites who once seeped through society’s cracks into this barren basin, are now disclosed in pictures and text in Phil’s recent book Rancho Costa Nada: The Dirt-Cheap Desert Homestead.
The ‘Parson’ lives the farthest out, and reports the heist of his generator along with two exact thefts from nearby campers, which points the finger if you know desert ways. Skunk smells his own hole.
This is a land America has forgotten where nobody wears blue, except crazy Big Jake, because it’s reserved for the sky and hard on the eyes, and the rest of us wear little but dirt. There’s a hot spring an hour distant for the monthly big wash-up, but beside that this is a dry place. People haul water all the way from Blythe for drinking, cooking, and animals. Backyards have no gardens since they are miles of cactus, creosote bushes, and dry washes overflowing with Palo Verde, Ironwood, and Smoke Trees. These form nightmarish tangles any night you walk under the moonlight like Mordor.
The next afternoon, glancing over my shoulder at pink and peeling healthy skin, I suddenly want to be cool. I amble out to the new ‘burrow’ chuckling at the memory of digging the 9-foot deep hole, muscling a little trailer into it, covering it up, and waiting for a hot day like this. The submarine-type entry descends a narrow stair to a carpeted floor where it’s about 30 degrees colder than above. I shut my eyes and fall further into an unexpected nap. Perhaps an hour later, I emerge into the hot blue and peek around the property in amazement. Though the summer has passed without an upsetting zephyr, as I slept a strong dust devil drove through and tossed barrels like matchsticks.
Departure is a hardship but a project awaits. So, after a week I pack the rental car and swing out the driveway and onto the long sandy track out the Valley. The pulse quickens inside the outer world, and I point the hood ornament east. Hitchhikers think me daft because I roll up the car windows and crank up the heater to drive in training for the next visit to Rancho Scorpion.
If you liked this taste of Sand Valley, read the works at ‘The Desert News’