The Destruction of the Mojave Desert

The Mojave Desert is “the desert of definition for so many Americans,” according to Reyner Banham in his book Scenes in America Deserta (qtd. in Darlington iii). He continues, “It is the best-known, most visited, and most studied of American deserts; but it is also [âÂ?¦] studied, loved, quarreled over” (iii). The Mojave Desert is truly a special place. It seems to silently beckon people. Tourists come year-round to see this supposedly dead and inhospitable land for themselves. However, upon arrival, travelers realize that the Mojave Desert is not the wasteland that some make it out to be. In his book The Desert, published in 1901, John C. Van Dyke illustrates this fascination with the Mojave Desert:

The weird solitude, the great silence, the grim desolation, are the very things with which every desert wanderer eventually falls in love. You think that very strange, perhaps? Well, the beauty of the ugly was sometime a paradox, but today [sic] people admit its truth; and the grandeur of the desolate is just as paradoxal, yet the desert gives it proof. (qtd. in Darlington ii-iii)

The Mojave Desert has a sort of indefinable charm that draws people to it and causes many of them to stay. However, as more people realize that the Mojave Desert is not, in fact, an inhospitable wasteland, developers have begun to come and swallow the beautiful land through the indifferent evil of construction and of human expansion. As more development impinges upon the Mojave Desert, its untouched expanses, natural wonders, and manmade curios – the things that give the area its intrinsic charm – are being destroyed. This slow assimilation of the Mojave Desert has been happening since the 1700’s, but in today’s technological age it has become notably disturbing. If this development continues, the Mojave Desert will be swallowed until only a memory of its beautiful wilderness remains. The violation of the Mojave Desert must be stopped before this beautiful and unique land is permanently altered beyond recognition.

For thousands of years before the arrival of European explorers, Native Americans lived in the Mojave Desert. They enjoyed many advantageous natural aspects of the land. One of these advantageous aspects of the Mojave Desert is the Mojave River, which runs through much of the Mojave Desert. According to Robert Hillburn, president of the Mojave River Valley Historical Society, “the Mojave River is an upside down and backwards river” (personal interview). Another way to explain this is to say that the Mojave River is mostly underground and flows away from the sea. However, the Mojave River does break ground at several places along its length, and the Indians could obtain fresh, pure water where the river broke ground. Game was plentiful in the Mojave Desert. Indians could hunt birds, rabbits, and other wildlife for food and materials to make clothing and tools. In fact, according to Hillburn, the Indians had a trading corridor along the Mojave River. Several tribes would travel along the river to an area near what is now Lake Arrowhead. There, the tribes would trade with each other. According to research distributed by the Mojave River Valley Museum in Barstow, CA, Anglo explorers came through the area in the 1770’s. The Mojave Indians guided the first explorer, Spaniard Padre Francisco Garces (“Area” 1). American and Mexican pioneers and came to the area in 1847. The Anglos disturbed the Indians’ desert paradise. Some Indians even disappeared – the Vanyumes, a tribe that lived near what is now Barstow, CA, vanished after pioneers invaded their home territory (1). Anglos also disrupted the Indians’ trading routes, scattered wildlife the Indians had hunted as game, and contaminated some of the Mojave River. This violation of the Mojave Desert was bad enough, but worse was to come.

American pioneers discovered gold in Death Valley in 1850. When the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1883, mining began in earnest. It turns out gold wasn’t the only mineral wealth in the desert. Silver, copper, and borax were also located in the area. Silver and borax, especially, were extremely plentiful and very pure in the Mojave Desert. According to Steven Smith, vice-president of the Mojave River Valley Historical Society, when the first borax from the Mojave Desert was exported, its quantity and quality caused the world price of borax to fall by half (personal interview). Thus, miners dug into the Mojave Desert’s virgin landscape, boring holes into the ground like pockmarks. More of the Mojave Desert’s landscape was violated and destroyed. From 1860 to 1871, soldiers enforcing manifest destiny [a belief held by the people of the United States which dictated that God wanted them to spread to the Pacific Ocean] created military posts along the Mojave River – where Indians formerly lived – to subdue the Indians and promote trade (“Area” 1).

In the 1920’s, the Santa Fe railroad company bought the portion of railroad that stretched from the town of Mojave to the town of Needles, in California. Thus, Santa Fe gained influence over the area as the main employer and supplier of goods. Santa Fe began planning to lay down more railroad track, and then realized the city of Barstow was in the way. However, this did not stop the company’s plans. Santa Fe simply moved the town of Barstow to an area that would not impede their development. Thus, both the old location of the town of Barstow and the new were destroyed by human development.

However, since 1950 to today, human development has accelerated to an alarming rate. Entire species that are unique to the Mojave Desert, such as the kangaroo rat and desert tortoise, have been recognized as officially endangered. The aquifer that serves the Mojave Desert has sunken to dramatically low levels, and cookie-cutter housing tracts are swallowing beautiful expanses of previously untouched desert. Alarmed by the destruction of the wilderness, Wagenvord writes that California Senator Dianne Feinstein aided the passage of the California Desert Protection Act in 1994 (Wagenvord). This act established the Mojave National Preserve, one of the largest national parks in the continental United States. While the passage of this act and the creation of this national park will save some Mojave Desert-unique flora and fauna, it also goes against what makes the desert so attractive. One aspect of the Mojave Desert that is so compelling is that one can go wherever anyone wants, whenever anyone wants to. Now 1.6 million acres of the Mojave Desert is owned by the government and ingress and egress of the area is monitored and regulated. Thus another part of the Mojave Desert’s charm dies a slow, barely noticed death.

While American settlers did destroy the Indians’ desert utopia, they also created curios that made the desert more endearing. For example, the small town of Baker, CA, is home of the world’s largest thermometer. In Lucerne Valley, CA, a man selling firewood advertises it as “Firewood From Mars” and even put a statue of a Martian [which strangely resembles a brontosaurus] next to the advertising sign. In fact, real Martian meteorites have even been discovered in the Mojave Desert. According to Astronomy magazine, a desert denizen found two small Martian meteorites in his desert rock collection in Oct. 1999 (“Martian”).

Sadly, even manmade curios are not safe from human development. So many people have flocked to the Mojave Desert that cultural icons and endearing oddities of the area are rapidly disappearing.

The town of Amboy, CA, with a current population of 7, has always been notable. One reason it is so unusual is because of how it was named. According to Amboy resident Buster Burris, “The railroad crew was coming through and one guy said to the other, ‘Sure is hot.’ The other one said, ‘Sure am, boy'” (qtd. in Darlington, 53). The rest is history – the town has been known as Amboy ever since. Another reason this town is so notable is because the entire town – buildings, land, and all – has been available for purchase for over thirty years. However, none of the rare potential buyers have offered the $1.9 million that the owner of the town wants to sell it for. Through the years, advertising of Amboy has been relaxed – the town was offered to passersby and there was not much active advertising outside of the area. However, that changed in 2003. According to InformationWeek, the owner of Amboy put the town up for auction on the popular Internet site eBay. The town was up for auction for a month, and the top bid was $995,900. This bid did not meet the minimum reserve price of $1.9 million. Now the town’s buyers have enlisted the help of a real estate broker, and it seems that Amboy may be sold (“eBay”). It is sad that the town may actually be sold – for over thirty years, the fact that the entire town itself was for sale was one of the curios of the desert. However, the owner of Amboy has finally decided he wants to sell the town for good. The town will probably be bought by a housing developer and covered with more cookie-cutter houses. Thus, another curio of the Mojave Desert will vanish.

Beyond the small town of Baker, CA, in what many would consider the middle of nowhere, there was a telephone booth. There was no civilization for miles. The only other sign men had ever visited this area was a dirt road snaking from horizon to horizon. Why was this phone booth installed in such an obscure area? Hank Stuever writes in an online newspaper article, “It was originally installed for miners who dug volcanic cinder about 15 miles away. [âÂ?¦] The phone booth dated back to a telecommunications law that desired to put every American within a reasonable distance of a phone” (Stuever). Eventually the cinder mine was exhausted. The miners left, but the phone booth remained.

The phone booth became a sort of obscure cultural icon. When the Internet came into wide use, someone created a web site about the phone booth and posted its history, phone number, and location – including a map to the phone booth and a satellite photo of the area. Soon, curiosity-seekers were journeying to the site, singly or by the dozens. According to Stuever, “There was meaning out there. To believe in the phone booth took some faith” (Stuever). The website promoting the phone booth generated more traffic, and its webmaster left a plaster bust of Richard Wagner, an influential German composer, in the booth. “That was the beginning of the end,” writes Stuever. “That’s when people from Albania started calling the booth. That’s when morning deejays started calling and getting sojourners to describe the land around them. Even Tom Brokaw showed up, to do a story about the booth. Someone was always calling, someone was always answering” (Stuever). This constant pilgrimage of curiosity-seekers became the doom of the phone booth. The land containing the phone booth had become part of the Mojave National Preserve in the 1990’s, and the flow of people traveling to the phone booth, camping out overnight, and throwing parties began to damage the natural habitat of the area. The National Park Service and Pacific Bell removed the phone booth. Stuever laments the removal of the phone booth:

There was a lot to love about it, if you understood the strange juxtaposition of modern convenience set against a wondrous desolation. You could love it without having seen it, and instead love just the idea of its singularity. Now it’s gone because the world got too small, because everyone knew there was an insolated phone booth in the middle of nowhere. Everyone knew, or could easily know, that the number was 760-733-9969. (Stuever)

That is the tragedy of the Mojave Desert. The Mojave Desert used to be “the middle of nowhere.” Now, as Stuever says, “How can there be such a thing as a nowhere when everyone knows how to get there?” The Mojave Desert has been transformed in the public eye. Fifty or a hundred years ago, it was regarded as an empty wasteland, a place for people and things that no one wants. However, the Mojave Desert experienced a renaissance without doing anything to provoke it. People now realize that the Mojave Desert is a beautiful place, and as more people realize it, more people come. The isolation that the Mojave Desert formerly enjoyed is disappearing rapidly. People visit and decide to settle there – thus causing the sprouting of so many cookie-cutter housing tracts. Even those who have never been to the desert decide to move into the new, affordable houses. This proves the old adage: “If you build it, they will come.”

Far from civilization, the night can be beautiful. Far from a paved road, if you turn your car off, the only lights in sight are the stars. Out there, the stars seem infinitely many, not limited in number like they appear in the cities. A night without human civilization to tarnish it is beautiful anywhere, but even more so in the Mojave Desert. If you remain quiet, you may hear the sounds of nocturnal desert animals roaming about. Far from the dirt road, it can feel like you’re the only human alive. It can be a very vulnerable feeling, but also empowering – vulnerable that you’re so far from civilization, and empowering that you’ve made it this far by yourself. Jolene Bair writes, “When I killed the engine [of my truck], silence and darkness descended. I would step into the arms of night” (Bair, 154). However, these beautiful, solitary nights are becoming increasingly rare.

The biggest problem of the Mojave Desert today is what caused the removal of the phone booth: Too many people know about the glory and beauty of the Mojave Desert. Too many people have told too many friends, and the result of this real-life game of Telephone is that too many people have come to the area. Stuever chides the people who spread the word too far about the Mojave Desert:

Not every moment of elusive joy, not every small and beguilingly quirky thing, not every secret place, not every last bit of nything that’s kinda [sic] cool needs to be mentioned in public. If you love something, if you run into that singular miracle in the middle of a hopeless nowhere, you don’t go immediately to the global network and short it from Mount Internet. You don’t have to invite everyone. (Stuever)

Unfortunately, everyone is already invited. People aren’t going to forget the intriguing tales they’ve heard of the Mojave Desert. The Mojave Desert cannot return to what it was once: A refuge or a getaway from the fast-paced life of the city. The Mojave Desert itself has become too fast-paced, now that so many people live there and visit there. So what can be done?

While the Mojave Desert cannot return to what it was, what is left can be preserved. Housing developers need to stop covering desert wilderness with cookie-cutter housing developments. Yes, land is cheap in the Mojave Desert, but it’s also cheap elsewhere. Yes, people can commute to Los Angeles fairly easily from the Mojave Desert, but there are other places to live where the commute is easier. What it comes down to is that the Mojave Desert is one of the last truly beautiful areas of American wilderness left, and cheap houses and a relatively short commute are not worth sacrificing this unique land.

Works Cited

Bair, Julene. “Night in the Mojave.” Michigan Quarterly Winter 2001. Short Story
. WilsonWeb. Riverside Community Coll., Riverside, CA. 18 May 2005

“California Town Fails to Sell on Ebay.” InformationWeek 8 Apr. 2003. InfoTrac. Gale
Group. Riverside Community Coll. Digital Lib. 18 May 2005 .

Darlington, David. The Mojave: A Portrait of the Definitive American Desert. New York: Holt, 1996.

Hillburn, Robert F. [President, Mojave River Valley Historical Society]. Personal interview. Barstow, CA. 15 May 2005.

“New Martian Meteorite Found.” Astronomy May 2000. InfoTrac. Gale Group. Riverside Community Coll. Digital Lib. 18 May 2005 .

Mojave River Valley Museum. Area History. Barstow, CA: n.d.

Smith, Steven [Vice-President, Mojave River Valley Historical Society]. Personal
interview. Barstow, CA. 15 May 2005.

Stuever, Hank. “Phone Ringing in the Wilderness.” The Washington Post 25 May 2000, Final ed. ProQuest Newspapers. ProQuest Information and Learning. Riverside Community Coll. Digital Lib. 18 May 2005 .

Wagenvord, Helen. “Desert Protection: Reality or Mirage.” National Parks May 2003.
InfoTrac. Gale Group. Riverside Community Coll. Digital Lib. 18 May 2005 .

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