Desert Stories, Desert Stones

Writing Prompt (Natural Abundance): Find five pretty or interesting rocks.

Last month we visited Ray at his home at Sun City in Palm Desert, CA. It was really nice to see him after a year of pandemic-mandated distance — and the last time I saw him was the day Mom passed away. So it was a relief to reacquaint under more normal circumstances, even though we social distanced responsibly with masks and an outside patio visit.

Last June, Paul and I were guests at our friend Scotty’s family cottage on the Isle of Springs — a perfect place to get away from the world’s craziness. We cooked, kayaked, walked through the island woodlands, sipped cocktails, scouted the beaches for sea glass and dug for littleneck clams, listened to music, played card games, put together jigsaw puzzles, and enjoyed fine sunset views over the Sheepscot river to the mainland.

Island life is something I’ve come to deeply appreciate about Maine over the years. Paul and I have long talked about getting a camp somewhere as a seasonal home in our beloved New England. And I still want to spend more time exploring the Maine coast and the Canadian Maritimes. During last summer’s visit I wanted to swing through Eastport and see Roosevelt’s summer home on Campobello Island but the international border was closed for all but essential travel.

When shuttered in our San Diego apartment during the height of the lockdown last spring, Paul and I dreamed of buying a beautiful home for sale with a large chunk of waterfront property on Johnsons Cove on Moose Island. City dwellers were buying Maine coastal properties site unseen during the mass exodus from large metropolitan areas, particularly New York since they were facing the brunt of the first coronavirus wave in the U.S. But in the end we just didn’t feel confident buying the property with so much uncertainty in our lives and the world (I just checked at the property sold for the asking price last October about 6 months after it was listed).

But back to the rocks… after Ray’s visit we went to the Thousand Palms oasis in the Coachella Valley Preserve, a desert preserve just to north of the Sun City in the Indio Hills. It sits right on top of the famed (and feared) San Andreas Fault, which is responsible for all the major earthquakes in California. It’s a dramatic setting — smack in the middle of the valley between the San Jacinto mountain range to the south and the Little San Bernardino Mountains to the north. Because the tectonic plates’ pressure forces the deep water to the surface cracks, there’s an assortment of fan palm oases peppered all along this massive fissure in the low Colorado Desert.

I’ve always especially loved the Thousand Palms oasis since it’s so close to Mom and Ray’s house so we went there with some regularity. And it very accessible, with a short hike through the thick oasis vegetation. A few years ago went for a memorable Christmas eve hike on the southern end of the Indio Hills where an oasis is strung thinly for about half a mile. At the end of the oasis we found the damp earth covered in a thin layer of white from all the minerals and sulphur in the water. Mom and I marveled at the desert snow and proclaimed a White Christmas for 2018!

A dusting of mineral “snow” along the Willis Palm Oasis in the Coachella Valley.

So this year the four of us walked through the main oasis near the Thousand Palms visitor center and continued up Squaw Hill to take in the views of the surrounding hills and the green strip of palm oasis below us. I did this same hike with Erik during his summer visit in 2019 — thankfully he made it to California to visit Mom since it was the last time they were together. It was hella hot that day, but Erik and I really don’t mind the heat so we sweat our way up the short ascent with no complaints.

Erik atop Squaw Hill overlooking the San Andreas Fault… let’s hope the big one doesn’t hit!

I’ve always collected rocks on my travels for as long as I can remember. Not for any passionate petrological reasons but to me a portable and intriguing stone that captures a place it’s a great memento. I’ve always picked up a stone or two on significant travels, especially if just the right specimen caught my eye:

  • My first trips to the West Coast and the magnificent Pacific beaches yielded wonderful shapes and colorful conglomerations of igneous rocks formed from cooled magma.
  • In the Western deserts I encountered geodes and sparkly mica.
  • In South America I brought home crystallized salt and black lava and ochre sandstone pebbles.
  • In Europe I collected level slate from the tops of mountains and smooth river stones from our long-distance rambles in the United Kingdom.
  • In Africa I acquired fossils and quartz and basalts.
  • Closer to home, in New England I’d regularly pick up “lucky” black granite with intersecting white stripes — talismans to keep me safe during a hike.

Sometimes these stones would be placed on my nightstand, window sills or a coffee table for a few months as a reminder of my geographical wanderings. Or sit forgotten in my backpack pocket until found when packing for my next trip. And eventually all would end up in a bowl somewhere tucked out of the way, the stones of many trips mixed together and their origins forgotten — a mini cairn, a collection of my geographical encounters.

These six stones from near my mother’s final home connect me to the good memories I have there, with her. Strewn together and seen from afar, these rocks compose the brown desert floor — scratchy and dull and uninviting.

But on closer inspection beauty emerges: one sparkles with gold, another shimmers like snowy ice, a third constitutes an exquisite embrace between the whitest salt and the blackest pepper, a final one glows translucent in the sun like frosted glass. The mineral richness, the geological diversity, the deep complexity in composition — each a unique marvel considering the accidental and precious chemistry involved in its formation.

Sacred stones. Everlasting and inanimate in ways we humans are not. An expression of earth’s awesome natural power and a token of her timelessness.

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