It isn’t hard to remember that Southern California is basically a desert. Much of the topography is chronically brown and dusty. The last ten years I lived there, the state was undergoing a massive drought, so the color palette of the geography was a rhapsody in beige- except for the fire-scarred black patches. Irrigation- water sucked from the Colorado River and the mountain snowpack in the northeastern part of the state and managed by manmade dams and reservoirs- creates a deceptively lush landscape in populated areas like Los Angeles and Orange County. It can be jarring when one drives through the Inland Empire and over the mountain into the Land That Water Forgot. The adjective that comes to mind is “scraggly.” Everything is dusty and bare. Anything that does actually grow does so in tired, uneven patches of angry-looking brush. The ground looks like a brown dog with a bad case of mange.
Yet, there are people who love the desert. They maintain that the desert is beautiful in its own harsh and primitive way. My own parents were desertphiles. I never really understood that perspective, I have to say. We often camped in various “desert parks” (an oxymoron in my book) when I was a little girl. Hallucinogenic heat by day, cold so chilling you avoided moving inside your sleeping bag by night, and tarantulas in the public restroom never inspired me to wax poetic about the delights of the Mojave Desert. The desert, in my mind, was always something you endured until you once again entered the world of water politics in an oasis like Las Vegas or Laughlin. Such places are still desert, but have the advantage of air conditioning, swimming pools, and frozen cocktails. I like my deserts properly cooled and hydrated, thank you very much.
During our recent trip to California, we included a road trip into said desert. We drove from Orange County to Laughlin, Nevada. Laughlin in a small resort/gambling/water sports mecca on the Colorado River. It is across the river from Bullhead City, Arizona, and a few miles north of Needles, California. I feel ridiculous attempting to explain where it is by referencing such thriving metropolises as Bullhead City and Needles. Suffice to say that there isn’t much of anything out there except the river and six or seven hotel casinos. We like it because it tries so hard to capture the kitschy glamour of Las Vegas in a location completely devoid of glamour. For as long as I can remember, there has been a hand-lettered sign on the side of the road as you enter a corner of Nevada that proudly proclaims: “BABY FERRETS FOR SALE.” You just have to admire the pluck of the place.
As we prepared to climb over the mountains on our way out of Orange County, there was a noticeable lack of brown all around us. The drought went on for so many years, I honestly forgot that there is a rumored “wildflower season” in the desert. Old wives tell tall tales of brightly-colored patches of blooms cropping up in undeveloped Southern California areas after a rainy season. I never put much stock in such yarns because I never truly believed there was such a thing as a rainy season.
During the past winter, though, Southern California did experience a rainy season that would have worried Noah. As I drove into the desert, I learned that the old wives did not lie about the wildflowers that bloom in the wake of the winter storms. It wasn’t just “patches of color,” either. It was whole hillsides draped in bright yellow mustard flowers. It was miles and miles of pink, purple, white, and orange ribbons of blossoms running alongside the desolate highway. The news called it the “spring superbloom.” I’ve never seen anything like it. The beauty was gob smacking. I think I drove the entire 280 miles from Laguna Woods, California to Laughlin, Nevada with my mouth hanging open. I couldn’t get enough of it.
I couldn’t get much in the way of pictures. I was driving on a basic two-lane highway through the middle of nowhere with no place to stop. There are no “scenic viewpoints” because, usually, there would be nothing remotely scenic to view. I did take a picture of a mustard flower covered hill from a Walmart parking lot. It isn’t great, but try to view it with the eyes of someone who has never seen that hill dressed in any color but brown.
You would think that so much beauty would make me happy. Initially, it did. Then, I started thinking about what comes next.
You see, that glorious beauty foretells a dirty little secret. The wildflowers, gorgeous though they may be, are still just weeds at the end of the day. In about six weeks, they will wilt and die. They will leave vast fields of dry detritus in their wake. The world will not long remember the wonder that was the spring superbloom, but its summer aftermath will lie in wait. The dead foliage will get drier and drier until it spontaneously combusts. All it will take is a heated argument or a smoldering look and the superbloom remnants will burst into flames. Wildfires need fuel and the wildflower superbloom is indeed super fuel. Fire season will harvest the dried, dead superbloom and scar the hillside.
Then, if the rains come again next winter, the newly barren hillsides will saturate and slide dangerously into oblivion. At first, they will ooze slowly out of their topographically boundaries, dissolving into a trail of goo covering roads and towns. Then, the volume and the speed will increase, causing a rushing river of muddy destruction.
All that beauty generating all that disaster… hard to believe, although I know it is true. Pray for the firefighters and first responders in Southern California over the coming months. They are the ones that will be dealing most intimately with the ugly side of pretty. They will need all the strength, skill, and luck they can get to stay safe. Yes, please pray for them. They will need all the super grace we can summon.
Do you have any experiences of “the ugly side of pretty?” What are some examples? What seems beautiful, but camouflages a more sinister side? Please share your perspective by leaving a comment. In the alternative, you can send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Have a completely pretty day!