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.