Imperial Sand Dunes National Recreation AreaMarch 13, 1988
CALIFORNIA: Imperial County Imperial Sand Dunes National Recreation Area just off I-8, fifteen miles west of Yuma

For a long time the desert's face has expressed itself mostly in terms of widely spaced creosote-bushes mingling in apparent anarchy with other plants at home in a fractured, sun-scorched, unpredictable landscape.

But now outside Gila Bend agriculture appears. Straight canals, fields all laid out in rectangles, squares and a few triangles... each patch comprised of crystallized ranks and files of plants with their own textures and hues of green. Cabbage in some fields and alfalfa in others, and things I can't identify in others. One field of waist-high shrubs -- scrubby shrubs looking like they'd be happier growing in the desert -- has a sign beside it reading JOJOBA. So maybe this is where some of our shampoos begin.

Farther west, more canals, more fields, then Yuma all spread out, and finally we enter California. The inspection-station man doesn't seem at all certain he can let us in, but after walking around us twice while other less dusty, less interesting-looking cars slide by, finally he waves us on.

Just west of Yuma something looking like a long, gray-brown wall appears on the horizon. Up closer the wall looks more like a series of interconnecting fifty-foot high mounds of sand that a God-hand has just dumped in the middle of the desert's flat plain. And truly I am seeing sand dunes. I-8 passes right through these Imperial Sand Dunes.

Inside the dune area nearly all plants disappear. Taking their place are kids and grown-ups on off-road vehicles. Even from the interstate I hear the engines. Simply going wild, the people are -- chasing, being chased, throwing up sand fantails, even very small kids, one with a wagon behind it carrying a teddy bear. Vans, pickup trucks, motor homes all parked randomly among the dunes, everywhere, everywhere...

The All American Canal carrying green water and smelling of chemicals runs right through the dunes, straight as an arrow. Alongside the water's edge grows a giant reed, a crazy grass gone fifteen feet high. I stand there peeing into the giant reed, somehow dazed by the blue sky above, the impenetrable green wall, the wet, fertilizer-and-pesticide odor of canal-water flowing just beyond the reed, and the dazzling sand, the hard-to-get-a-foothold-in sand.

Back inside the cool darkness of Henry's cab I sit with the sunlight bouncing all around us, dust and wind coming through the windows, listening to waltzes on the radio and watching people with every color of helmet pop and growl their off-roaders, and the kid with the teddy bear runs into a creosote-bush and just laughs.

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