Monday, February 11, 2019

Lisa Mednick Powell - Pastures Of Plenty

In the fall of 2013, three months after moving to Twentynine Palms, I took an adjunct teaching job. Two classes, one at eight a.m. and the other at 3 p.m., twice a week at the College of the Desert's far-flung Mecca campus.

The southward rambling, mostly silent crossing between desert worlds did not enrich me monetarily but rather with revelations, beginning the first day when I started driving before sunrise and had to stop for a coyote rolling around in some puddle of putrefaction just at the entrance to Joshua Tree Park. Disturbed by my headlights, the coyote stood, ambled over to the shoulder, let me pass, then resumed wallowing.

photo by Rob Hannawacker
As I made my slow-winding way through the Park, the dawn was misty and cool. At the Cottonwood Springs junction the scenery began to reveal itself in charcoal shades, and I saw a desert tortoise enjoying the damp sand next to the road. I stopped, took a photo with my flip-phone, and moved on.

The third creature I encountered that morning was more mysterious. At about seven a.m., as I came around what I hoped was one of the final curves in the road to Cottonwood Springs, a tall, two-legged figure emerged from behind an ocotillo and held up a stop sign. You know, I had hoped to see maybe a hawk, a road-runner or two, at least a lizard. But no. What creature, exotic to these environs indeed, did I encounter deep in the wilderness of JTNP? A dude with a ponytail. Holding a lollypop stop sign. I stopped. The dude shuffled over. He leaned down and said, "pilot car will be here shortly to take you through the zone."

The zone…

photo by Bruce Tunget
Just then I had the sense— as I had often had in New Mexico, driving to and from EspaƱola, which was bordered by the Santa Clara and Okeh Owingeh pueblos, invisible borders which one routinely traversed while on the highway just going to work or Walmart—that I was preparing to cross one of those intangible, yet impossible-to-fully-permeate borders between cultures. For the moment, however, it came down to plastic: orange cones and caution tape. I had to wait. I was gonna be late. I got out and paced, trying to ignore the panic roaring through my skull, instead tuning in to the silence of the ages. The slumbering boulders and fuzzy chollas were surely not bothered with the passing time. I felt myself becoming a fossil…

photo by Marzena P.
After the time-warp in the Park and a roller-coaster ride over the Ten and through Box Canyon, I got lost in Mecca. The map I'd printed out made it look as if the campus would be waiting for me at the foot of Box Canyon Road. But Box Canyon Road, which wound through shadowy ravines and around various uptilted pink and brown strata—like evolution ham sandwiches—deposited me into a yawning plain of lush and sudden agriculture.

Here, with the doomed, glittering Salton Sea and its dank perfume as a backdrop, flourished grape vines, fig and citrus trees, cabbage rows--and date palms with paper bag ballerina skirts hiding their high, sweet secrets.

Only when I drove through a maze of lemon trees did I get a break from the ancient fish smell that permeated the area. Where was the college? Outside the Mecca Boys and Girls' club, I pulled over and called for help.

A student named Norma Flores was sent out to fetch me and lead me to campus. Another pilot to save the day. Arriving to class a half-hour late, toting a huge bag of books and papers, hair flying, make-up missing, and my sandals trailing high desert detritus, I whirled into room B6 like a dust devil from the outer limits. Maybe not the picture of credibility…and yet the students were there in rows, waiting for me to show up. They were dressed nicely too, and I made a note to mirror that. They laughed when I smiled and seemed to forgive me for being tardy. So I did my job: got their names down on day one, and became the part-time extrovert one must become in order to teach English 71. During the course of that long day the rain gushed down across the Coachella Valley, muddy rivulets spilling into the parking lot from the adjacent fields. By quitting time I learned that Box Canyon Road had washed out and I'd have to find another way home.

Box Canyon Rd. photo by P. Bachelot
Many of the Mecca students live in the towns that ring the Salton Sea. Many are native Spanish speakers and speakers of tongues indigenous to whatever regions they pilgrimed from to get to Mecca. With their families, they might harvest your fruit or work at the manicured resorts to the west. The two ends of the same valley are a world apart. Water is life. Water changes lives. And, when hitched to fortune, water divides lives. So when you check in to that bougainvillea-draped villa in Rancho Mirage, walk past the sparkling water feature, and toss your Lamborghini keys to the valet, you are the flip side of a dusty row of field hands, their faces wrapped in bandanas, working under a fierce sun in those Mecca grapes.

The stories of the students' journeys north flooded my folder when I assigned that first personal essay. "…we climbed out the hotel window into the cold morning..." "…they sent us back to TJ so the next day we tried again." "…my mother was pregnant and we didn't have food…" "my parents weren't going to let me go with them, but I cried so much they changed their minds and brought me here…" These were the Dreamers. Remember them?

And when I asked them to write about something they knew how to do that I did not know how to do, and a student wrote about "working in the strawberries" and how at the end of her first day she vowed through a fog of pain to never do it again but then went back to work the next day because everyone else did—I recalled times I went strawberry picking just for fun. When another student, in her essay response to the Cesar Chavez film, wrote: "Why do we pick the fruit? Oh, that's right, it's because white people can't!" I told her, "You know, there's another movie you might should see. It's called The Grapes of Wrath..."

Box Canyon and Cottonwood Springs remained impassable for a couple of weeks, so I took various long ways back and forth and often wandered off the highway, finding date ranches with Arabian Nights iconography, murals featuring Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta and the farmworkers' eagle flag, and produce stands selling fresh greens and Mexican cokes.

photo by S. Keeze
Once the Park route reopened, I commuted that way. The morning drive gave me time to wake up; the evening ride gave me time to think. No radio, no phone service or traffic, only a slow trip through sunset into dusk and moonrise with bats and nighthawks swooping through my headlight beams and, if I got lucky, a long-shadowed, high-heeled tarantula or two stalking across the warm asphalt.

This essay was presented at Desert Stories in Joshua Tree on January 26, 2019
Learn more about Lisa Mednick Powell at 

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