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Life out here by Bret Kofford: Seeing the desert lights

April 25, 2001

My mind and body kept telling me they were exhausted, that they didn't want to be out in the desert on this cold, windswept April morning.

Mother Nature, though, was telling me to give her a try. Her luminescent rain smudges filled the sky over the mountains across the border in Mexico. They weren't rainbows, because there was no bow to their bend. They were just shimmering, shapeless smudges in the sky, like I had never seen, starting on the left with a dark purple that merged into red and then orange and then gold and then green and finally a light blue-purple, almost blueberry color.

At least that is the way I recall it. I was driving to Ocotillo for a hike Saturday morning, so my hands weren't exactly free to take notes. And having stayed up late the night before to help put out a special 100th birthday edition of the Imperial Valley Press, my mind was not exactly fully engaged.

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As I continued west on Interstate 8, a group of seven, eight, maybe more undocumented immigrants could be seen piling into a vehicle parked on the shoulder of the eastbound lanes. Like me, they probably weren't happy about being in the desert elements on this morning, I thought as I saw the folks scurrying into the vehicle. While they were in the desert trying to survive, I would be in the desert trying to have fun. They probably would have more success than I would, I groused.

When I looked away from the immigrants and back to the sky, the rain smudges had disappeared from over the desert.

Desert or woods, lake or ocean, I am not the outdoor type. A vacation of roughing it for me is not having a pay-per-view movie channel in my hotel room. I would have preferred to spend Saturday morning wrapped in a blanket eating waffles and watching the NFL draft, but I had committed to be out with my San Diego State University-Imperial Valley campus students this day on a desert quest.

Actually, I had a pretty good time when I had gone on a desert walk to find some Indian archaeological sites the previous semester with a different group of students and their families. But that just involved walking for about an hour on a nice day and included none of the things I don't like about the outdoors — snakes, setting up camp, climbing things, using tools, Vienna sausages in a can, no can in which to rid yourself of your Vienna sausages, no showers and no "SportsCenter."

If it just involves walking, I'm fine. I usually stroll along deciding what the various rock formations resemble. On Saturday, which turned out to be a mostly pleasant day, I saw an Indian face, a gorilla head, a camel head, a whale head (OK, if whales do have heads, how does one tell where the neck ends and the head starts?) and several other rock images carved by wind, water and God. I pointed out each of these formations to my fellow walkers, who sometimes concurred with my visions and sometimes seemed to be wondering if I had forgotten to take my pills again that morning.

Along on this walk were three of my students, several of their children, nieces and nephews and local archaeologist Margaret Hangan, a fine guide indeed because she likes to talk, knows a lot about many subjects and will pick things off shrubs and eat them, much to the delight of her guests.

As we gathered, all participants seemed up for the walk, even the desert trekker in spiked high heels. (That wasn't me. I learned my lesson the last time.)

We trekked through Fossil Canyon, a paleontological treasure trove of fossil beds and sediment layers revealing different epochs. The canyon also has some human junk, some of it old human junk, which makes it cool, valuable junk in Margaret's archaeologist eyes. Being the season for desert flowers, the canyon was brimming with blue, green and purple desert flora in bloom.

The two elementary school-age girls on the hike were immediately captivated by the surroundings, scurrying about and finding everything from the beautiful (some multicolored rocks and vibrant flowers) to the ugly (spent and unspent bullets). The junior high-age girls, trying to appear indifferent early in the hike, were exploring caves and going up canyon sides like blue-jeaned bighorn sheep within a half hour. The high school-age boy, well, he trudged along alone and seemed ready to go home earlier than the rest of us, but he appeared to have his moments of enjoyment, too. The adults didn't always act like adults on the walk, a good thing. A continuing sense of wonder in adulthood is a wonderful thing.

It is easy for us to stay in our houses, our neighborhoods and our department stores. It is easy to not see the beauty in the world around us, particularly in the seemingly barren desert. For a long time I didn't see that beauty.

Gradually, thanks to rain smudges, desert blooms and camel heads and Margaret the Shrub Eater, I am seeing the light in the desert.

Now if they just could just project "SportsCenter" on desert canyon walls, I might be a full convert.

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