left behind

The desert is a quiet place. The sun spreads its silence across the landscape, reaching its bright fingers across washes, mesas, and fields of boulders as far as the eye can see. The open space rolls on forever, speckled with whimsical Joshua Trees, flowering cacti, spiky yucca taller than me, and the bizarre Ocotillo that look like prickly hands praising the vast blue sky. As we scramble across the open stretches, the brush grasps at our clothes, sometimes so firmly that it takes some time and assistance to free yourself and continue. The spindly branches of Cat’s Claw are both aptly named and surprisingly sturdy. When we discover our first wash we are elated. It is so sandy and smooth, free of brush, and it had the reassuring look of a trail. We start down it, giddy to have such easy walking but it doesn’t take long for us to realize that washes crisscross the desert flats like veins. They are a mirage of safety, and like the cacti they only look harmless if you do not peer too closely. To keep the wash from luring us blindly into the labyrinth of the desert, we pause at junctions to leave behind markers in the sand. Spirals, rock cairns, and arrows made of lanky dried branches are the breadcrumbs that will keep the land from swallowing us. There is a cry above and we watch as a shadow passes over the sun; the widespread wings of a prairie falcon on the hunt. I feel her tense before she calls out, leaping into the air and jogging a few steps past me. A sleepy rattlesnake had slithered out of an innocuous-looking hole in the ground right beneath her feet; a frank reminder of the fact that the most beautiful parts of the desert can mask the danger. The snake pauses as if emphasizing this point, giving us time to creep closer to inspect her intricate diamond scales. This creature was made for this environment—she blends into her surroundings as if she is just a bit of dust and shadow. The snake slithers off into the sage brush, moving through the sand like water, leaving a shallow trench behind; something that we have seen before without realizing what it was. With a wary glance, and slightly more caution we ramble on, rounding the outside of a canyon that we scrambled up just yesterday in search of today’s quarry—Samuelson’s Rocks. We spent most of the day prior trekking all over this desert flat in wide, meandering, circles searching for John Samuelson’s elusive homestead site, where he carved his cowboy ramblings into stone. Today we will find it. The air is full of anticipatory energy as if the land itself is calling to us. Up ahead I see two black ravens circling a far off rocky knoll and I immediately stop to assess my surroundings. The washes traversing this desert flat make it apparent that when it comes, the rain here is a fearsome thing to behold. If I were to build a home, it would be on a hill. “That’s it,” I say to Jade, pointing. “Are you sure?” she says. “Yes,” I say and I am. The sun glints off the obsidian wings circling above the hill and I am certain. We hesitate for a moment and then leave the safety of the wash, charging into the brush. Twenty minutes of thorny, bushwhacking and we are standing in the shade of a Joshua Tree at the base of the hill; it is much larger than it looked from the wash and we peer back the way we came, hopeful that we will find the way home. There is a trail leading around the hill that feels familiar. It appears well worn even though we know it does not see many visitors these days. Is this the imprint we leave on a place 80 years later? John Samuelson’s weary footsteps have made him immortal in this land yet these are not the marks we are looking for. We peer up at the boulders stacked across the hillside as we pick our way along the trail. Soon we find a paddock filled with verdant grass. What did John Samuelson keep there in the desert so long ago? Jade points to a stone high above at the crest of the hill. Shielding my eyes from the sun, I can barely make out the etchings there and we look at each other with shining excitement before taking off up the trail leading to the top. As we near it, we begin to see evidence of the fire that burned his home to ash years after he left. Scattered across the ground are the remnants of his life here; opaque heaps of molten glass, rusted nails and cans, door hinges, metallic shards of pottery, and other debris. The wind rushes across the crest of the hill to greet us, whipping our hair, and carrying our excited voices away on the breeze. We eagerly rush from boulder to boulder reading the things John felt were so important that he immortalized them in stone. Some are funny and make it clear that he was no fan of the local government. Others pontificate on deep philosophical ideas about the passing of time and the ways that we choose to spend it. The wild legend of this man’s life shifts from fantasy to reality in his words. The wind flows over the hill in a steady and constant stream, a stark contrast from the peaceful calm of the desert flat. It swirls playfully, kicking up dust, as we take in the life he built here. Although he was Swedish, the story he left behind starts in Africa, where they say he was lost and left for dead but rescued by a local tribe. They nursed him back to health but for fear of him leading others to them, they gave him a hallucinogenic drug before dropping him at a military post. Dream and reality may be mixed here but if John were here they say he would tell a tale of saving the tribe’s princess from the jaws of wild beasts; his reasoning for why they bequeathed him with a sack full to the brim of gleaming gold. Although the military post took him in and provided medical care, he never really recovered from the ordeal. For his health, the doctors recommended he move to the U.S. where medicine was more advanced. With his pockets heavy with gold he had the freedom to go where he pleased, so he did and like many he was drawn West and ended up on this isolated desert mound in California. He didn’t stay though. He left in the late 1920s for the city of San Francisco, where he promptly got into a bar fight, killing two men. When he was taken in for his crimes, the authorities heard his story and determined that he was not fit to stand trial—his tale was too big for most to believe. Instead he was sent to an asylum where he spent one year before he made a daring escape. The only person with a record of contact with him after that was a local rancher back in the desert who says John Samuleson’s final resting place was a tiny lumber town in Washington state several decades later. His desert home is where we stand, on just one piece of this man’s incredible journey. We are quiet as we explore; the wind does our talking for us and it feels as if it is our wild emotions themselves whipping across every nook and cranny and swirling across the hills; our hearts beating with each gust. A lanky, brown, jackrabbit catches my eye; he is watching us with shocking amber eyes from a trail that descends the opposite side of the hill. I creep towards him, hoping for a closer look. His lengthy ears twitch but he does not falter as I slink closer and closer. When I am only a few feet away, I turn to look at Jade, hoping to share my delight at my close encounter. When I turn back, he is gone, nothing but a puff of dust to show that he was ever there. I turn back and shrug at her: We are already halfway down, we might as well go explore the ground some more. As we descend, the wind dies to an eerie calm as if we have just set foot back on earth after a trip amongst the clouds. This is where we find the stone that stops us in our tracks. It towers over all the others and we stand in its shade in silence mouthing the words over and over again, desperate for the way they flow off our tongues; their meaning sinks in slowly. The power of them hits me so hard that I lose my breath and fall to my knees in the dust. I don’t even feel the impact. When we at last turn to look at each other, our cheeks are damp. A handmade bench sits behind us and with reverence we realize that this was his temple, his holy place, his shrine. His words reached for us like sun rays, the land drew closer, and we knew we needed to reach back, to leave a piece of ourselves behind, to become a part of the fabric of the landscape. The silence of the desert extended around us as we patiently and reverently sculpted ourselves into the scenery; our own etchings to leave behind in the dust, to become a part of this moment, before continuing our stories elsewhere. As we left the hill, making our way back, I felt the tug of what we left behind, a string tied to my soul, catching the rays from the silent sun and racing with the wind over the hill.

“The Rock of Faith and Truth. Nature is God. The key to life is contact. Evolution is the mother and father of mankind. Without them we be nothing.” -John Samuelson, 1927

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