When the winds are strong in the Mojave, they can blow your whole damn kitchen away. The Santa Ana winds start midday and settle down toward evening. The winds originate from cool, dry high-pressure air masses in the Great Basin and blow southwesterly towards the coast. When they are mild, they blow sand into every nook and crevice on your body, as well as into the food being prepped for meals giving a slight crunch with every bite.
The popup shade tents are anchored with 12-inch spikes hammered into the desert floor with a sledge. When they take flight, snapping or bending tent frames they scatter anything in the kitchen left unsecured across the desert. The tents are an absolute necessity to keep the relentless sun at bay while working in the daylight hours, when even the ants hide beneath the ground. We scour the desert for the pieces of the kitchen and monkey wrench the tents back together with bamboo spoon splints and duct tape to bring back the blessed shade to the kitchen.
The primary challenge for desert cooking is water. There isn’t any. It all must be trucked in and when you are providing for the water needs for 40 plus people, we need about 100 gallons a day-conservation is crucial. We encourage volunteers to swish a bit of their drinking water onto their plate and drink the residue before placing their plate in the dish bin. Showers are a memory.
Disposing of the water also can present a problem. We dig a hole in the ground to pour the dirty dish water in filtering out any food particles, and if it is not covered properly, all manner of thirsty desert creatures will be drowned in it by morning, mocking our leave no trace camping ethic. Some water is broadcast over the road and almost immediately large white moths will flock to the wet earth to drink from the unexpected bounty. In drought years, when there are no kangaroo rats to eat, the kit foxes come out to feast on the moths darting their tongues in the dishwater-dampened dirt. Living close to nature during these weeks provides a tiny slice of reality about how much climate change is altering the lives of all the creatures who call the desert home, wiping out many of them. It’s been years since I have seen a kangaroo rat.
When snakes come through camp, I call to interested parties, ‘There’s a sidewinder in the kitchen if anyone wants to see it!’ Usually about ten volunteers come to satisfy their curiosity and alleviate some fear. Familiarity with these peaceful creatures helps humans to be better neighbors.
Snakes heighten my awareness while working in the desert just as bears do in Alaska and Montana. The Mojave Desert is home to 20 species of snakes, but only the Mojave rattlesnake, sidewinder, speckled rattlesnake and western diamondback are poisonous and their homes beneath the creosote and rabbitbrush are everywhere. The rattling of the tails, like the musky scent of creosote, are constant accompaniments to any evening stroll. We keep a respectful distance from them unless they decide to take up residence.
‘Steve, please come get this cold baby rattler from underneath the generator’ I call to the resident snake whisperer. More than once, volunteers have awoken to find a cold reptile curled up under their sleeping mat. My favorites are the sidewinders, who leave wave patterns through the sand. In all the years that I have camped in the desert, no one has ever been bitten.
When you grow up poor, or faux poor, as my family was, Not being poor is at the forefront of all decisions. Poor people buy the majority of lottery tickets, out of a deep longing to experience abundance.$10 in lottery tickets buys an hour of life where John can get that shoulder surgery and take 6 months off to recover, and your daughter can get some orthodontist work that can help alleviate the underbite caused by poor nutrition in utero and we can buy a house with a yard where the kids can run without fear of cars. Those $10 dollars buys temporary relief from the problems that money can solve.
When I was 12, my sister and I cleaned house for the daughter of a junk yard owner. This kind woman, a former pastry chef and current recycling coordinator of our town, could see value in everything and loved to cook. Her house was stuffed to the gills and every surface area was stacked with dirty dishes and spilt food. Her delightful librarian husband looked on housework like a foreign concept, the house suffered. A regular house cleaner would not take this job. It required a certain kind of understanding of deep clutter and dirt, something that my upbringing in a family of 9 with 10 inside pets had prepared me. The first day we spent 4 hours just in their 4-year-old daughter’s room, who had a clothes rack that spanned an entire wall and was so packed with clothes, that even if the hanger lost touch with the rod, the clothing held fast by tension. In the 12 worked hours of 3 people for four hours, for our employer worked along side us, we got one room of their house done, exposed and cleaned the floor, removed 4 boxes of toys and 2 trash bags of clothes and created a space that a child would like to play. We were paid $12 an hour to do this work, more than twice what I made babysitting two children. And the $48 dollars cash that we pocketed felt like a fortune.
We took ourselves out for lunch at the Dillion’s grocery store salad bar, vegetarian heaven. It was like going shopping and buying absolutely anything I wanted, in miniature. We both loved salad, and as we were raised vegetarians, a restaurant’s meat-based menu could not compare to the decadence of the salad bar. Mixed greens and baby spinach created the base, no iceberg blandness on this salad, please! We adored all manner of pickled briny things, but they only ever made an appearance on holidays at our house, being outside the budget of regular grocery shopping. Loading my aluminum clam shell with 4 or 5 quartered marinated artichokes was like ordering an expensive bottle of wine with dinner. A dusting of grated carrots, cucumbers with a decorative striped peel, mixed red and green bell peppers reminding us of Christmas, black olives, and even a couple of the Spanish green ones, just because I could, even though I didn’t like them as much. A small scoop of potato salad in the corner next to a sprinkle of cheese. Adding several anemic looking cherry tomatoes was a gamble, but I loved tomatoes almost as much as pickles, even though biting into one that exploded rotten juices into my mouth caused me deep feelings of betrayal. Ranch dressing topped the mass that was then sprinkled with sunflower seeds and tiny seasoned croutons. I would cringe when I laid my laden container on the scale- the salad would cost almost an hour’s worth of hard physical dirty work and felt like the richest meal we ever ate.