Letter From the Desert: Nipton, California

I remember when I used to watch the mountains to the west. I would count the minutes as their shadow crept eastward along the valley floor. Nighthawks would swoop above the patch of fenced-in land behind my house. They would catch the handful of mosquitoes the desert could barely manage to summon after each monsoon.

I fed the feral cats for a while that year. I judged them no real threat to the scant few local birds, and I needed the company. There was a tortoise shell male, head-butting sweet until I tried to pick him up one day. He never quite forgave me. July came, and with it the emergence of palo verde root borers, one of North America’s largest beetles at four inches in length. The cats needed me less for a few weeks. The night air filled with the sound of crunching.

“That whole summer,” I told la mujer que amo this Saturday, “I don’t think I was outside for a single sunrise.” “We shall remedy that in the morning,” she said.

From my little house the shadow of Clark Mountain seemed to sweep across the floor of the valley each evening, slowly as it left the foot of the mountain in mid-afternoon and then gaining speed. I was twenty miles from the summit. At the midpoint of the shadow’s travels, the separation between dark and light seemed knife-edged. At a mile away, the edge had softened. When it reached me, it was nearly imperceptible: a slow shift from too-warm and blinding to breezy to twilight and a positively chilly 96 degrees F.

And then I would watch the silent traffic on distant I-15, trails of red and white lights against the growing blackness.

This weekend’s visit was prompted by a friend’s birthday, one of those nice round numbers that prompts celebration and reflection. In attendance? A dozen of his friends and family members, many of whom had never met before. All were engaging and I found not a single one of them annoying, a circumstance which usually means the annoying person there was yours truly.

We engaged in laughing, storytelling, political griping, talk about environment and books and plants and dogs and tortoises and snakes and art. There was a point where musical instruments were pulled out of hiding: a guitar and a banjo and a mandolin, a ukulele, drums and other drums and yet another guitar and a toy accordion. There was boisterous universal misremembering of lyrics by Bob Dylan.

And there was the view toward Cima, about twenty miles south just past a low pass.

I avoided this valley for years, due not to sad memories but ecstatic ones. When I moved here I left a splintered life five hundred miles west, across miles of creosote and dust and corporate cotton fields, and rousing myself in the mornings took effort, especially after nights of fitful, displaced dreams. But in the afternoon the light would change, and I would find myself returning to the valley from the east after an errand somewhere, and the beauty of the place would strike me like a hammer to the chest. “I live here now,” I would think, and the thought left me gasping at my good fortune.

And then came years fighting a 4,000-acre bird-killing monstrosity, and losing. As did the birds. I did not come back for years after it was built, though I did obsessively chronicle its rise and subsequent sort-of fall. At one point, there were seven such projects proposed in California. The serious problems with the technology, which I hammered on until the rest of the world started paying attention, were part of the reason only one was built. A collapse in the price of photovoltaic solar in 2011 was probably a bigger reason, but I like to think my work had something to do with stopping Brightsource Solar’s California portfolio at one.

Anyway, I didn’t go back for about five years. The project seemed profane in my imagining, an insult to the life-altering beauty I had found in the place. I could not bear to see it for myself. And then, in 2016, just before a former president created the Castle Mountains National Monument nearby, on my way to check out the potential new monument, I saw it for myself. I drove into the Ivanpah Valley. I pulled over at Nipton Road. I gazed out across the west side of the valley at the three hellfire-blazing units of the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System.

I took a long, leisurely, coffee-fueled piss in the ISEGS’s direction, aided by the prevailing wind. I felt a little better. I headed across the valley toward Crescent Peak.

It’s an eyesore. Literally. It hurts your eyes. It resulted in hundreds of displaced and possibly dead tortoises, and untold thousands of dead birds. It doesn’t work: right now it’s not so much an efficient solar power plant as a hugely inefficient sun-assisted natural gas plant. It blinds drivers and pilots. Its power costs about four times the current going rate for other solar. It was pointless and best avoided.

It’s also 4,000 acres out of more than 300,000 in the Ivanpah Valley. There are a lot of other things upon which to rest your dazzled eyes.

The skyline along the east side of the valley, for instance, in the hour just before sunrise, which la mujer que amo and I and perhaps the dog watched the next morning as we headed a few hundred yards up toward the state line. The sky lightened in discontinuous stages: gray, then pink, then indigo, then pink again and green and blue.

I turned back westward to see if the sun had lit up Clark Mountain. It had. And there before me were 4,000 acres of subtle, shimmering reflection, transmuted by distance and warm rising air into something better than what I knew those acres to be.

“This time of day,” I told la mujer que amo, “I can almost see why some people think that thing is pretty. Almost.”

The sun came up, and the plant’s heliostats started to turn, and the boilers at the tops of each tower began to build toward their hellish white blaze.


Hey, for those of you in the Morongo Basin this weekend, I am joining my friends Jacqueline Guevara and Kiim Stringfellow at 6 pm Saturday to give talks about desert stuff. It’s free, though donations to keep the venue alive will be accepted. It’s at the Beatnik Lounge in Joshua Tree, 61597 29 Palms Highway. See you there.