As in all these blog posts, any pictures below are all linked to full-sized versions.
Summer on the Mojave Desert is a special time. The days are long and it gets hot, but hardly ever too hot. It gets too hot in places like Florida and Louisiana; 102º is a nice warm day on the Mojave where humidity percent-levels hover in the low-teens. Summer days on the Mojave seem to float on forever between dawn and sunset, as shadows rotate from west to east under the sun’s fiery, but somehow softly diffused roar. I think the atmosphere above the Mojave must have something to do with this diffusion. The wind regularly scours the air clean of debris, sometimes vigorously, and at other times more gently.
Throughout the winter the desert air is scathed by cold, icy blasts from the west that grate and tear and rip and rend the nerves and anything else not battened down. Winds in the summer are softer, almost timid. Tamed no doubt by the sun and the heat rising from the sand and rock. Summer winds usually only qualify as cooling breezes, and the most endearing of them are lightly tinged by the yellow smell of the creosote bush, ubiquitous across the entire region. Having absolutely no relation to the petroleum product obtained through the distillation of tar, creosote on the Mojave is Larrea tridentata, the Creosote bush. Likely named through someone’s maladroit association of the pungent smell released by the resinous oils of the bush, and the foul, tarry substance. I will forever associate the fresh smell of the Creosote bush with summer and clean, cold rain on the desert.
Not much rain falls on the Mojave. Even less falls in the summer. Unlike the lower deserts to the east, the Mojave does not experience a strong monsoon flow up from the Gulfs of California and Mexico. While summer rains are not rare in the Mojave, neither are they regular occurrences, and they add little to the annual rainfall total; just over 80% of the Mojave’s annual precipitation falls between October and April. Summer rains, when they do come however, tend toward the dramatic. I will never forget a summer evening spent with friends on a ridge in the San Gabriel Mountains, overlooking the Mojave as a thunderstorm grew and reached its crescendo over the desert far below. Total darkness and silence enveloped us on the ridge. We could see the lights of the two main cities below, and the various other hamlets on the desert where people make their homes and businesses. Above the desert towered columns of billowing thunderheads, reaching upward toward a full moon. Bolts of lightning jutted out from the base of these towering clouds like electric legs, marching the storms across the desert floor. After each flash, we would slowly count out loud, “one…two…three…” and before we reached 20, we would hear distant thunder echo off the desert floor and then rebound from the mountains behind us.
One particular August afternoon I was content to stay indoors and let the dog day blaze away outside without me. I had the day off, and no pressing matters to attend to. Around noon I walked to the kitchen on the east side of the house and glanced out the window. Billowing up on the eastern horizon was a line of thunderheads that stretched from the mountains on the south, to the north as far as I could see. I turned on the radio and searched around the dial for a weather report, and as I had hoped, thunderstorms were on tap for the afternoon.
Inspired, I made a lunch and put some ice and beer in a bucket. As I was getting everything in order, my dog came around the corner, sleep in his eyes, but tail wagging – he knew a plan was hatching. I was planning on climbing onto the roof to watch the storm’s approach and hadn’t considered the fact that Fremont would, of course, want to join me wherever I went. He considered it his lot in life to observe, from a distance and without comment, as I capered about in my foolish twenty-something adventures.
“Not this time, Fremont. I’ll just be up on the roof.”
Glancing out the window I made a calculated guess that the storms would probably arrive in about two hours – plenty of time to watch their approach, then get off the roof before it became dangerous. I opened the door, then looked at the dog. He stood by the door, his brown, golden retriever eyes wide with anticipation, ears alert. The silly red bandanna I had tied around his neck made him look quite rakish and ready. All these things, of course, were coldly calculated by the dog to make me bend; I’d actually done it to myself this time with the bandanna.
“OK, come on” I said as I opened the door.
He leaped outside, then paced around in his figure-eight that he performed when he didn’t quite know where to go. I had changed plans and was going to be content to sit in the yard with the lunch, beer and dog, rather than up on the roof.
That was when I noticed the ladder.
I looked at the dog.
I looked back at the ladder.
Fremont was well-trained, and I knew he could climb that ladder; I’d had him climb them before. Genius! I brought the lunch and the bucket up and set it on a flat part of the roof, then came back down.
“Hup Fremont” I said, motioning up the ladder.
Without hesitation he mounted the ladder and in less than an instant was on the roof, wagging his tail and looking down at me, bandanna fluttering and eyes a-gleam.
I climbed up and we walked over to the flat part of the roof above the kitchen. I shared my sandwich with the dog, and we peacefully watched the approach of the storm. After a while, the wind picked up, and shortly there was the unmistakable smell of rain-fired creosote resin on the wind. Soon the tops of the trees were bending and dust began to blow.
“We’d better head down now” I said, and collected the remains of lunch and the empties. I stuffed everything into the bucket and walked over and threw it down to the ground near the ladder. I climbed part way down, then called the dog over.
“OK Fremont, come on buddy,” I said and tapped a rung on the ladder.
He looked at me and didn’t make a move.
“Come on, we’ve got to get down now” I said in a more emphatic tone.
He looked at me and whined, and then backed up. It was at that instant that I realized the fatal flaw of the scenario I was now in the midst of: he’d only gone UP ladders, never down. I looked to the east – the storm was, of course, getting closer. I looked at Fremont. He was sitting on the slanted roof, brown eyes wide with anticipation, ears alert, rakish red bandanna fluttering in the wind. He was big for a golden, about 60 pounds of solid dog. No way to carry him down the ladder. No time to train him at this point.
“Shit…” I said out loud. What am I going to do now, I thought to myself.
“Stay…stay. Don’t move for chrissake. Stay” I told the dog in my most serious voice, holding my hand up, palm toward his face. I climbed down the ladder and went into the house
My grandmother was living with me at the time. Born in 1892, she was only 95 at the time. Unbeknownst to us, she still had another decade left with us to enjoy these types of adventures. I went in and found her – it wasn’t hard, the Tee Vee was blaring, volume cranked to 11 so she could read lips and make out what was going on. I walked over and turned the set off.
“I need you to help me, Nambo.” We called her Nambo, my sister having coined the name when she was too young to pronounce “grammaw” – no one ever asked or paid it much mind, but that was when grammaw became Nambo.
“What’s the matter?”
“I’ve got Fremont stuck up on the roof.”
“What?” She laughed a little.
“He’s stuck up on the roof, and I have to run down and get my dad’s pickup truck before the storm gets here.”
“Come on outside and I’ll show you what I need you to do” – getting anxious now.
We went outside, and I pointed to the east; it was black and ominous, the wind was beginning to howl.
“Storm” I said.
“I see” said Nambo.
“So, see Fremont up there?” I pointed up on the roof.
Nambo turned to look, then laughed out loud, “How in the world…?”
“You stay here with him - just watch him and don’t let him jump – keep telling him to stay.”
“Alright, what are you going to do with the pick-up truck?”
“I’ve got to go right now” I said as I ran to my little Toyota. I sped out the driveway and down the street to my father’s office, about a quarter-of-a-mile down the road.
“Hey dad” I said as I came through the office door.
He looked at me, narrowing his eyes as only a father can when his 20-something son walks in, a storm gathering ominously outside, and with the expression I must have worn on my face.
“What is it this time?”
“I need to borrow your truck for about five minutes”
“Fremont’s stuck on the roof.”
To his credit, the old man didn’t ask me how or why the dog was stuck on the roof, or what I was going to do with the truck. He simply dug out his keys and tossed them across the room at me, then went back to what he’d been doing. I saw him shake his head slowly and his lips were moving. I believe I know what he was muttering.
I jumped in the truck, backed out of the parking space slowly – I knew he would be watching – and drove out onto the road without so much as a squeak of rubber on pavement. Safely away from the old man’s eyes I floored the damned thing and blasted up the driveway toward the house.
As I drove near, I could hear frail, ninety-five-year-old Nambo through the open truck window: “Now now, you stay there Fremont…don’t jump…that’s a good boy, you stay there now.”
Fremont looked at me as I drove up, and I know that it was relief I saw in his eyes. I swung the truck around and backed up to the house. The shell on the back of the truck reached up to within a foot or so of the roof, an easy hop for the dog, who knew exactly what to do. Hop, onto the shell, slide down the windshield, jump from the hood and he was down. Raindrops speckled the windshield and thunder boomed across the desert.
I glanced over at Nambo. She was laughing and shaking her head. Fremont had a sheepish look and a dumb smile on his face as he trotted into the house. I returned my dad’s truck to him, with only the dog’s footprints sliding down the windshield as evidence of any folly on my part. I drove home through a downpour and watched as lightning struck the hills above the desert, the smell of rain-soaked creosote blew through the open window. I imagined Fremont’s footprints being washed away from dad’s windshield by the sweet-smelling rain.
1. Golden Hayley: An agile construction canine of a girl