Along Interstate 8 water flowed swiftly across the Imperial Valley in the All American Canal delivering precious Colorado River water to thousands of square miles of agricultural fields. A fine curtain of water spewed from enormous sprinklers moving in circles like alien beings on metal legs.
My beach car began to heat up in the direct sunlight. I delivered my own spray of water to cool my face and neck. My son’s beach car had no air conditioner. San Diego was a place of mild weather and the blue Pacific Ocean. I had entered an inferno.
I stopped in El Centro where I slumped over the counter of a local Wendy’s, dehydrated and near faint. A waitress took me to a table and delivered a couple big cups of iced water. I stayed there for hours until I recovered enough to go on to Yuma, my destination.
Clearly, I was unprepared for the desert. This would not be the last of its hard lessons, surprises and mysteries. I was a true initiate in every sense of the word.
As I neared Yuma what can only be described as an Arabian desert appeared out of nowhere with high, white sand dunes stretching for miles along the highway and southwest toward Mexico, not far away. As suddenly as they had appeared, the dunes ended and I was back in flat scrubland.
Signs for Yuma, The Crossing, appeared along the roadside. At Yuma, I crossed over the Colorado River from California into Arizona centuries after the westward Gold Rush which put Yuma on the map. Of course, I was going against the flow.
At the time of the Gold Rush, the Colorado River flowed freely in a broad expanse toward the Sea of Cortez in Mexico. Dense forests of mesquite and sycamore trees that lined its shores were cut down to fuel the big steamboats carrying gold seekers to their fates. By the time I crossed over the Colorado, the forests were gone, the river narrow, and it no longer ran down to the sea.
Thus I began to learn about the ghosts of a time, a people, and a natural history that existed almost entirely in people’s memories but still there in the subtle contours of the landscape.