Mojave Ode; or, Of Cyborgs, Grit, and Cholla

From the floor of the dry lake, sunrise began with the flaring upthrust of Lonely Mountain…. Silhouetted ramparts in deep shadow rang brightly with the fireball impact of the sun. Etched by early morning dust, sunlight stabbed through crevices as huge glowing shafts across the vast desert floor…. clumps of of scattered tumbleweed hid their brambled surfaces in the form of soft puffballs glowing along one side, casting long shadows behind the other. Along a nearby ridge, midget desert flowers shone in purple and yellow. Sagebrush seemed to glow, but above all there rose from the flat tableland the oldest denizens of this desert nowhere, the great cactus trees known as Joshua trees….

A stage set for a cowboy drifter to come loping through on his cayuse? Nope, the opening scene of Martin Caidin’s Cyborg, the 1973 novel that launched TV’s $6,000,000 man-machine Steve Austin into TVs across America. Foreshadowed by “flaring” and “fireball,” the Mojave desert is about to witness a fiery crash of an M3F5, an experimental orbital jet–and the near death of its pilot, Steve Austin.

palmsprings aerial

A jet’s-eye view above Palm Springs. (c) 2015 es

Austin the literary character isn’t so different from the cowboy heroes of pulp westerns; as a tough, smart, virile, looks-great-in-a-flying-suit fighter pilot and astronaut, even pre-cyborg Steve Austin could probably out-gimlet-eye Jack Palance in a showdown. (Not to mention that he survives an epic seven-page-long crash that takes his legs and an arm , his eye and half his body along with it and made me miss my subway stop it was so engrossing.)

Anyone who’s seen Lee Majors in a track suit fighting bad guys in slow motion knows the story: advanced (for the time) technology outfits the crash victim with sophisticated nuclear-powered prostheses to aid the U.S. in fighting terrorists. Caidin’s novel portrays more of the struggle the man overcomes to accept his cybernetic nature than the TV show did; the gist is that the human becomes more than a man (just ask his lovesick girlfriends) and kicks some butt, happily and cybernetically ever after.

Why Cyborg on a western blog? It’s not polite–or safe–to ask a drifter about his past, but suffice to say I have reasons. One of which is the desert dear to me, the Mojave. It’s not the photo-friendly landscape of the Sonoran desert, replete with photogenic saguaros and horned toads. The Mojave is stark and spare.

mojave landscapeIMG_9464

See? WhaddItellya. (c) 2015 es

Its palette is limited to gray, brown, and brownish gray. Its plants are limited to things with spikes that draw blood: Joshua trees, creosote, cats’ claw, and cholla. Its animals limit themselves to nighttime jaunts or appear in the daytime as bleached bones. The Mojave is the Jack Palance of deserts, people. Don’t mess with it. But get to know it, and it reveals transcendent–and sometimes scary–beauty.

night mojaveIMG_9663

Fine purple-prose novels usually begin with a description of the protagonist or a straight shot of landscape, as if the land is as much a character as the people. “If you get the landscape right,” says Annie Proulx, “the characters will step out of it, and they’ll be in the right place.” Caidin’s searing morning light of the Mojave desert sets the tone for his book, the space age landings of dry lake beds and primordial cliffs matching the epic scientific undertaking.

The Mojave desert is the driest of the North American deserts, with fewer than thirteen inches of rain per year. It has the hottest summer temps, above 120 degrees in Death Valley. It has been described as one big anthill (it is) but its crust is amazingly infinitely rich: packed with organisms, a fragile biological world that can be devastated by a footstep. This minute world is blown by winds, baked by the sun, frozen and thawed and frozen again. It accumulates in your socks, in the corners, in cuffs, bearing gifts like stinging ants and barbed cholla spines and minute mouse femurs.

anthill mojaveIMG_9668

Neighbors. (c) 2015 es

But that’s an up-close-and-personal perspective. The Mojave is actually quite the  TV and movie star. That commercial of cars speeding through a flat, dry landscape? That other one, with the Joshua trees? Those sci-fi alien films and more westerns than one can count? Just the image of the Mojave evokes Freedom, Escape, Strangeness, Danger, Heroism, Apocalypse. For an environment that seems so empty, it certain is filled with associations. For a place that is truly boring to drive through, it is as (sometimes horribly) fascinating as staring into a mirror.

But landscape, the desert particularly, and the Mojave specifically, are more adventurous and romantic than our reflections. These are the blank canvases or screens we project ourselves onto. Even a small action in the desert–a flare of a match or a sidelong look–can be like a calligraphic stroke on white paper: bold and big, unbearably tender or unspeakably violent.


Another neighbor. (c) 2015 es


Annie Proulx again: Walking on the land or digging in the fine soil I am intensely aware that time quivers slightly, changes occurring in imperceptibly and minute ways, accumulating so subtly that they seem not to exist. Yet the tiny shifts in everything–cell replication, the rain of dust mots, lengthening hair, wind-pushed rocks–press inexorably on.

This desert, star of commercials and films and novels, stays long after the credits roll. It quietly accumulates in your soul, gravel and spines and all, until it’s blown out by high winds and mind-dulling drives, blasted by cold nights and searing-hot days. Then the slow trickle of soil begins again.


2 comments to Mojave Ode; or, Of Cyborgs, Grit, and Cholla

  • Hey there Bucko.

    A brilliant return post. I doubt if I’ll ever get to the mojave but if I keep looking in the second hand bookshops I may, one day, get to finally read the cyborg books.

    Hope this is the first of many new posts.

  • bucko

    The Mojave’s pretty far from you! I hope to someday get to a windswept no-man’s land out your way. And keep looking–it’s a very odd book, from today’s protagonist standards! Thanks, as always, for your welcome presence here and in the blogosphere…

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